Wonders Blunders

2007 Saw some great art, some colossal goofs

December 28, 2007|By Michael Sragow

No one puts more burdens on movie artists than Americans do. We coerce them into an increasingly pressurized system that rewards only commercial success - and determines that success on a film's box-office take in a single weekend.

Critics urge them to be topical, yet not at the expense of art, and want directors to be "experimental," even if that limits popular support.

The Holy Grail for American moviemakers - producing a movie that unites every portion of the audience, such as The Godfather or The Right Stuff - seems to recede into the mist as viewership grows more fragmented and "niche-oriented" with every passing season.

But should our directors give up the fight?

Not if you take the long view of this eclectic and erratic year.

Pundits used the onslaught of dark dramatic duds, including a slew of Middle East-themed protest films and docudramas, to suggest that audiences just want pictures to entertain them - and won't show up if they doubt that a serious or topical subject can be treated with humor and suspense.

The real problem with these movies was that few were any good. A Mighty Heart was woefully unrevealing and misshapen, a rendering of the Daniel Pearl kidnapping and execution that was mostly about the heroism of his wife, Mariane. The head-on attacks against U.S. policy in Rendition, Lions for Lambs and In the Valley of Elah paralyzed writers and directors (and most of the actors, too) with their gravity. Only Brian De Palma's Redacted matched political rage with cinematic fury, though in a way that cut off emotional involvement with his characters.

It's no accident that the most entertaining of this year's Middle East movies, the underrated action film The Kingdom and the sprightly, self-destructive Charlie Wilson's War, were based on events from a decade or two past: the former on the 1996 bombings of Khobar Towers near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia; the latter on a Texas congressman's unexpectedly potent support of the Afghan revolt against the Soviet invasion in the 1980s. Moviemakers often need distance from their material in order to see the underlying irony and tension in it.

Indeed, several outright period pieces proved more contemporary in their revelations of life during hot wars and the Cold War than any of the Iraq films, even though they took place during civil strife in Ireland in the 1920s (The Wind That Shakes the Barley), the communist tyranny in East Germany (The Lives of Others) and Franco's final conquest of the remnants of Spain's left-wing Popular Front (Pan's Labyrinth).

To bring us full circle, several of my 10 best (including The Lives of Others) explored both the heady independence and the weight of an artist's life - and made it emblematic of anyone's desire for purpose, freedom and satisfaction. And none did so with more grace, charm and robust emotion than the animated feature Ratatouille, which grossed more than $200 million in the U.S. and more than $400 million outside of it.

It proves that making great art that's also popular art is still a possible dream.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

THE YEAR'S 10 BEST

1. Ratatouille. "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry," said Emily Dickinson. When critic Anton Ego experiences the title dish as cooked by a rat of genius, Remy, in Brad Bird's Ratatouille, he says "both the meal and its maker ... have rocked me to my core." With its vital, earthy views of Paris, and of a young rat from the provinces stumbling into sumptuous corners of the City of Light, as well as slapstick that recalls Steve Martin at his best in All of Me, this movie captures both the healing power and explosiveness of art. It takes off the top of your head and pours a cornucopia of delights straight down to your core. 2. The Lives of Others. This political thriller accumulates in thought and emotion the same tension and excitement that The Bourne Ultimatum injects into our viscera. Ulrich Muhe (who died of stomach cancer in July) creates a heartbreaking portrait of a surveillance expert in East Germany's secret police who unexpectedly discovers his humanity. Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck match him as his targets, a playwright and his lover (and leading lady). They all find the ultimate meaning of their public lives in private sacrifice. Writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's international hit is one of the best debut films ever.

3. Killer of Sheep

American independent cinema at its finest: Charles Burnett made this movie in 1977, but it received its theatrical premiere this year. In the years since, no chronicler of urban life has topped Burnett for rough-hewn lyricism as he depicts L.A.'s Watts ghetto with a child's sensitivity and an adult's absurdity.

4. In the Shadow of the Moon

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