I’ll admit right up front that I’m a major movie fan. And not just one of those intellectual art-house types, but a true movie junkie who loves both indie and big-budget Hollywood films. I spent two days over Christmas trying to get my tickets to the Sundance Film Festival figured out and regularly patronize the small one-screen theaters still left in my city, but I also went to see the latest Harry Potter on the first day it came out—in full IMAX splendor. And while I’m confessing, I also saw the latest Pirates of the Caribbean on its first day out and thoroughly enjoyed myself (I have a weakness for Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow). I’m hoping my confessions will tempt those of you who might dismiss some of these films as either too popular or too “different” to take a risk and adjust the Netflix queue (to make this easier, I've linked all of the film titles to their Netflix page).
While researching this list, I was reminded why I love movies so much. Quite simply, this is our campfire, the place where we go to learn our stories. For two hours we sit in a dark room with cell phones turned off next to our neighbors, suspending disbelief as we enter into the reality of another and sometimes (perhaps most cathartically) The Other. We encounter our fears, hopes, and yearnings through the characters we meet on that screen. These two hours are power. And, like Uncle Ben says in Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility. The following 10 films represent two hours well spent in the hands of filmmakers who take that responsibility and don’t disappoint. (And yes, one or two are just two hours spent in harmless entertainment that can take us out of the stress of our lives for a wee bit of escapism.)
Daneen’s Top 10 Films of 2007 Note: A version of this article is published in the current issue of Spectrum Magazine. I’ve edited it to reflect the films I’ve seen since that article went to press.
1. Lars and the Real Girl—I’ve almost decided to stop trying to pitch this film with any plot details and just tell people to trust me—it’s very, very good. The plot sounds more than bizarre: a pathologically shy man who lives alone in the garage behind his brother’s house finally meets a girl on the Internet, much to the relief of his sister-in-law who worries about his isolation. Only problem? She turns out to be a life size silicon sex doll (don’t worry, the relationship is clearly asexual). He thinks she’s real and suddenly gets involved in life as he introduces her around town (she’s wheelchair bound). His family and community are faced with a difficult dilemma—do they play along? Do they send him to the funny farm? I know it sounds bizarre, but please trust me that it’s a poignant story of unconditional love and acceptance. And it’s also the most positive view of a Christian church community that you’ve seen in years. (Status: Still in indie-oriented theaters, DVD slated for April.)
2. Once – Walking out of the theater after seeing Once, my husband and I found ourselves unusually speechless. We just kept muttering profound insights like, “Wow,” and “Oh, wow that was amazing.” The reviewers seemed to have had the same experience as they universally fell in love with this little Irish gem. It’s technically a musical, but director John Carney reinvents the genre so completely that you wouldn’t necessarily realize that fact until you read a review. This is a film that sticks with you far longer than others. This staying power comes from the raw honesty and emotion between the two main characters (whose names we never know) who connect over their love of music and a similar brokenness in their lives—they are willing to befriend each other in a manner rarely seen in cinema. Oh, and did I mention that the music is dynamite? (Status: Avail on DVD. See Ryan Bell’s Spectrum review here.)
3. Into the Wild – As a huge fan of the Jon Krakauer book this film is based on, I didn’t have high expectations of the film (when is the film ever as good as the book?). But this film actually might just surpass the book, and that credit goes to Sean Penn’s directing—he clearly identifies with the fiercely independent idealist Chris McCandless who takes to the road after college, shunning the materialism, shallowness, and deceit he sees in his parents, and eventually dies on his final great adventure alone in an abandoned bus in the wilds of Alaska. Everything about this film from the superbly cast supporting characters to Penn’s directing style fits the character and his very American streak of idealism (think Thoreau and Muir) to live pure, unfettered, and in harmony with Nature. (Status: Avail on DVD on Feb. 12.)
4. For the Bible Tells Me So – Readers of the Spectrum blog or the Progressive Adventism website will know that I have a history with this film. My husband and I, along with a group of PUC students, waited for three hours to get into the midnight screening of this film at the Sundance Film Festival. Even though we ended up with the worst seats in the house on the very front row, we were all deeply moved by the power of this film, possibly the first mainstream film to try to reconcile homosexuality and the Bible. It does so through the stories of five conservative Christian families who discover that their son or daughter is gay (including the Rev. Gene Robinson’s family) and the scholarship of prominent theologians and ministers who offer Biblical exegesis and scriptural analysis that isn’t always taught during Sunday (or Sabbath) School. The film is meant to be a conversation starter for families and churches—and the evidence from the Spectrum blog (see here and here) is that it wildly succeeds in this endeavor. (Status: Still in theaters. DVD available for pre-order.)
5. Grace is Gone – The many possible meanings of its title haunts this film—and in the best way possible. This was the Audience Award winner for a narrative film at Sundance this year, and it’s already being talked about as John Cusack’s best performance to date (he’s actually almost unrecognizable, which worked quite well for Charlize Theron when Oscar season came around). The film follows a father who can’t figure out how to tell his two daughters that their mother has been killed in Iraq. As the Sundance program guide read, the fact that this film can actually be seen as pro-military is part of its power. The filmmakers don’t draw conclusions for us; rather, they leave us with a story we can’t shake. (Status: In theaters.)
6. Waitress – Keri Russell stars in this quirky and utterly charming little film about a waitress, Jenna, who discovers that she’s pregnant with her vile husband’s baby, a discovery that jeopardizes her plans to leave and start her life over. She vents her frustrations by creating pies (sometimes literally and sometimes just as a survival technique) with names like, “I-Don’t-Want-Earl’s-Baby-Pie” and “Baby-Screaming-in-the-Middle-of-the-Night-and-Ruining-My-Life-Pie.” As a woman more than a little scared of how having a baby might change, dare-I-admit, ruin my life, I found the ambiguousness of Jenna’s feelings towards her unborn child a rarity in film, and it made the climax all the more meaningful. (Status: Avail on DVD.)
7. Sicko – No matter your opinion of Michael Moore, Sicko—his best film by far—is worth your time. Moore unmasks the deep and troubling issues with American healthcare through his unique style of op-ed filmmaking which drives some mad, but is ultimately meant to start a conversation. He cleverly doesn’t even address the 50 million uninsured Americans, choosing to focus on those of us with “good” health insurance. The ensuing litany of migraine-inducing stories of Americans who had the misfortune to actually need to use their health insurance should get all of us to pay more attention to this issue (and not just in election years). Although this picture is often grim, it is actually a comedy, and his optimism that we can change and that America is ultimately a land of good people left me feeling hopeful, not discouraged. (Status: Avail on DVD. Read Heather Isaac’s Spectrum review here.)
8. In the Valley of Elah – The latest film from Paul Haggis (Crash) is an unflinching look at what war does to our children. Based on a true story, the film follows a father and former Army man (Tommy Lee Jones) looking for his son who has gone missing after returning from Iraq. The story that unfolds is never manipulated but is still about as raw as they come. The film gets its title from the valley where David fought Goliath, and the telling of the story of his namesake to “David,” the son of the investigating cop (Charlize Theron) by Jones is multi-layered and deep with possible readings. I left the theater wondering what my responsibility is as a citizen of a country that is sending our young men and women to witness and participate in atrocity. (Status: DVD slated for Feb.)
9. Evan Almighty – Okay, I know that half of you just wrote me off after seeing this title on my list. I’m apparently one of four people in the country who loved this movie—the other three being the rest of my party who spent almost two solid hours laughing those deep belly laughs at this modern-day Noah and the flood story. Steve Carell can always make me laugh, but that’s not all that was going on in this film—I actually like its theology too. If God is anything like Morgan Freeman plays him, then we’re going to be just fine.(Status: Avail on DVD.)
10. No End in Sight – I’d been wanting to see this documentary all year, and when I finally saw it, it didn’t disappoint. It was hailed as a balanced, inside perspective on how things went so wrong in Iraq. The film features major policy advisors and administration insiders reliving key moments and decisions (the filmmaker, Charles Ferguson, is actually a think tank Washington insider who hadn’t made a film before). It’s an insightful film that gave me many more answers about how Iraq became such a mired and muddy mess: seems like hubris ala Odysseus played a big role. (Status: Avail on DVD.)
1. Paris, Je T'aime – Most film-goers never get to see short films, and even the ones who do almost never get to see accomplished directors and actors make short films. This collection of 18 shorts, set in the 18 arrondissements of Paris, varies tremendously in style, but they all have heart, charm, and a healthy dose of that intangible Parisian joie de vrie. (Status: Avail on DVD.)
2. Ratatouille – Billboards proclaiming this film to be the “best reviewed film of the year” aren’t exaggerating (but that’s partially due the fact that it came out in the summer when movie fare is more Michael Bay and less Michael Clayton). Still though, the accolades are well deserved. This is a sweet, family-friendly film about a Parisian rat who longs to be a chef—it’s what you’ve come to expect from Pixar but with a lot of good French cooking thrown in. (Status: Avail on DVD.)
Two I Haven’t Seen Yet That Look Like Winners
- The Kite Runner – This book was one of our book club’s favorites with its themes of friendship and redemption.
- Juno - This is possibly the film I’m looking forward to seeing the most. A quirky little film about a pregnant teen girl from a small town that’s being talked about as this year’s Little Miss Sunshine. Ebert says nothing can dislodge it from its place at the top of his list for 2007.
Your Lists? Any thoughts on these films? Any that you loved that I didn’t list? (You’ll notice that I’m squeamish on violence, so this list lacks several films that have been much discussed as excellent examinations of violence, e.g. No Country for Old Men or Eastern Promises.)
What were your top film experiences in 2007?
Daneen Akers writes from San Francisco where she is in grad school studying English. She is the Spectrum online reviews editor and would love to hear from you if you have or book or movie review idea. Send a note to Daneen at daneenakers dot com.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/229