Claire Danes delivers her usual fine acting in the not-too-saccharine "Stardust."
Top 10 films of 2007
Ah, the arbitrary annual Top 10 list. You only begin to worry about these things come October, when you realize you've seen only one or two decent movies all year. But then Hollywood comes through in the final weeks of the year with the heavy hitters, at least with some massive hype for films that are simply OK, such as "Charlie Wilson's War" and "The Darjeeling Express," both of which are secret snoozers.
There are also perfectly competent, highly watchable films in which everybody does their job well, such as "American Gangster," "No Country for Old Men" and "3:10 to Yuma," but they really add nothing to the canon of cinema cool. And there are OK films that have a single fabulous performance -- think Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Charlie Wilson's War," or Will Smith in "I Am Legend" or Amy Adams in "Enchanted" or Saoirse Ronan in "Atonement" -- that make it all worthwhile.
But it all has to hang together. Making movies is a team sport. Does it work or doesn't it?
At any rate, here's my call:
>> "Michael Clayton": This brooding meditation on corporate soulessness works on every level possible, from George Clooney's tightly fisted ethical unravel to Tony Gilroy's sizzling script and directing, to James Newton Howard's astonishing soundtrack. If Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton don't get Oscar nods, there ain't no justice.
» "Ratatouille": A digitally animated cartoon from Pixar about a rat with a gifted nose, who aids a hapless human in becoming a master chef. Try imagining the pitch meeting for that. But digital animation has never seemed so alive, and Pixar's scripts are the best in the business. But it was writer-director Brad Bird -- who also helmed "The Incredibles" -- who has the magic touch that elevates animation into an adult art form. Just imagine the difficulty of expressing the sense of smell in a cartoon. ...
Pixar serves up another winner with "Ratatouille."
» "The Kite Runner":
Khaled Hosseini's moving novel is translated faithfully to the screen, and that's miracle enough. Director Marc Forster's passion for authenticity, however, leaps over in the magical and semiotic -- he makes 1970s Kabul, Afghanistan, a real place and a real time, and his deft touch with child actors draws us into a universal story, no matter what language it's in. (It's in Dari, by the way.)
» "Waitress": The back story to this unassuming and brilliant rural comedy nearly overshadowed the film itself: Writer, actress and director Adrienne Shelly was killed in a random murder just as it opened. Her legacy is a delightful ode to female emancipation, set in a country diner. And if you didn't crave some pie afterward, you weren't watching.
NIGHT AND DAY PICTURES
"Waitress," starring Keri Russell, center.
» "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford":
A western that blew cold like a chilly wind across the plains. Very 1970s in its evocation of the vanished 1870s, this troubling, meandering tale of misguided hero worship nonetheless keeps you on the edge of your seat, even though the climax is given away by the title. Brad Pitt is mesmerizing and eerily dangerous as James, but it's Casey Affleck's feckless loser Ford that gives the hoary legend a human dimension.
» "Stardust": A grandly imagined fantasy in the "Princess Bride" mold, it has the usual great acting, fabulous directing, incredible effects and superb craftsmanship that also went into "The Golden Compass" and the latest "Harry Potter," but it also had writer Neil Gaiman's sly wit and a wry appreciation of pompous self-delusion the others didn't. A spoonful of sugar might make the medicine go down, but we also crave a little vinegar at times.
Among Burl Burlingame's best film picks of last year is "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," starring Brad Pitt.
» "Across the Universe":
A completely mad film. Creative maniac-genius Julie Taymor creates a classic musical as defined by Beatles music and does so with enough energy to defibrillate Godzilla back to life. Only misstep -- depending on your capacity for stimulus overload -- was a psychedelic giant-puppet number that swirled dangerously close to parody.
» "300": Eye-boggling, sweaty, triumph of testosterone over rationality, which is pretty much the point of the story. Created on a soundstage with a dozen actors, backed up with terabytes of digital rendering power, director Zack Snyder's ode to mayhem also might change the way movies are made, and the way we see them.
» "La Vie en Rose": Technically a film from the previous year, "Rose" didn't play Honolulu until 2007. A harrowing biopic of legendary French chanteuse Edith Piaf, whose personal life makes Johnny Cash look like a wallflower. It's all held together by an extraordinary, brave arc of a performance by Marion Cotillard as Piaf.
» "Stephen King's The Mist": What? A Stephen King monster flick among these works of cinematic achievement? Well, yeah. "The Mist" absolutely works on every level, and even improves -- mightily! -- on King's story. Screenwriter-director Frank Darabont previously helmed King's "The Green Mile" and "The Shawshank Redemption," so he knows King's strengths and weaknesses. It also has an absolutely uncompromising ending that has audiences shouting at the screen.
And I can't let you go without picking -- or picking on -- the worst movie of the year. It's "Transformers." Made for chimps on Ritalin, this sledgehammer carny ride is all about noise and in-your-face effects that, alas, were never supported by the frankly incomprehensible, trite storytelling and vague, perfunctory characterizations. "Transformers" felt exactly like being mugged by an iced-out thug who can't resist pistol-whipping you after he's taken your money. Multiple sequels are planned.