At the movies, a year of comebacks and throwbacks

The Monitor's film critic, Peter Rainer, compiles his Top 10 favorite films of 2007.

If a movie year is measured by its quotient of highly watchable films, then 2007 was a very good year. With one or two exceptions (see Top 10 list below), I didn't detect any masterpieces, but I would have no trouble recommending several dozen movies that, while not for the ages, are perfectly fine for right now.

If, on the other hand, a movie year is judged by the new directions it lays down, 2007 was, at best, a work in progress. The good movies were like happy accidents that fell off the factory assembly line.

For those of us who revere the Western genre and bemoan its long-term near-obsolescence, two such occasions for happiness were "3:10 to Yuma" and, especially, "No Country for Old Men," which, like all good Westerns, transcends the genre in the process of fulfilling it.

The comeback of the Western this year was the positive offshoot of an otherwise dubious movie trend: the rise in macho posturing.

I'm thinking not only of steroid-pumped bicep-burners like "300" and "Beowulf," but also "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," an overcooked dysfunctional family rumble that seems designed to ease people through "Sopranos" withdrawal, or self-important male-bonding epics such as "American Gangster" and "Michael Clayton," where Russell Crowe and George Clooney spend quality time between shoot-outs playing downbeat deadbeat dads basking in their own somnolence. Isn't there a better way to utilize these romantic icons?

Another genre that got a boost this year was the musical (see story). "Hairspray" was a marvelous surprise, "Enchanted," probably the best family film of the year, was enchanting, and "Once," while I'm not nearly as gaga about it as most people are, conveyed, in the way its performers expressed themselves in song, the essence of why we love musicals in the first place. And "Sweeney Todd," while too Tim Burtonish – i.e. grody to the max – for my taste, nevertheless amazes with the singularity of its dark vision.

Darkness was also the watchword for the slew of Iraq-themed films this year – "Rendition," "In the Valley of Elah," "Redacted," "Grace Is Gone, "Lions for Lambs."

Their lack of commercial success says nothing, I think, about our views of the war and everything to do with our desire – now more than ever – to be entertained, to be gripped, by moviemakers who are more interested in rousing our spirits than saving our souls. The big casualty here was "A Mighty Heart," a quicksilver political horror story that, despite one of Angelina Jolie's best performances, was snubbed by audiences.

At times, the movies this year seemed to require the assessments of a sociologist rather than a film critic. What to make of the fact that two big hits, "Knocked Up" and "Juno," are out-of-wedlock pregnancy comedies in which abortion is never a serious option?

A few regrets: I wish Francis Ford Coppola's comeback film "Youth Without Youth" was better, I wish the second half of "Atonement" was as good as its first, I wish Cate Blanchett's astonishing turn in "I'm Not There" wasn't the only thing to admire about that misbegotten art mess. I bemoan the fact that so many marvelous foreign-language films I saw on the festival circuit did not make it into our theaters. But there is much to applaud as well – as in the following Top 10 list (in alphabetical order):

'Breach'

This first-rate thriller about the undoing of FBI operative Robert Hanssen came out early in the year but who can forget Chris Cooper's performance? He accomplishes the near impossible – he gets inside the skin of a man for whom facade is all.

'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly'

Director Julien Schnabel and screenwriter Ronald Harwood's slashingly original movie dramatizes the locked-in life of a paralyzed man, Mathieu Amalric's Jean-Dominique Bauby, whose only method of communicating with the outside world is the blinking of his left eye.

'4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days'

This is the masterpiece I warned you about in my little preamble to this list. It may seem perverse to cheer a Romanian movie about the horrible intricacies of obtaining an abortion in the waning days of Communism, but make no mistake: Director Cristian Mungiu and his extraordinary cast have made the film of the year. (See story on Romanian cinema.) Or next year, to be precise, but who's counting? It had a December Oscar-qualifying run in Los Angeles and will be released nationwide beginning in late January.

'Hairspray'

Your smile muscles will get a good workout just sitting through this blissfully good-natured spectacular directed by Adam Shankman and starring peppy newcomer Nikki Blonsky and John Travolta in the most convincing fat suit I've ever seen.

'Into Great Silence'

Documentarian Philip Gröning lived for six months with the monks of the Grand Chartreuse in the French Alps who live and worship in near silence. His record of their rituals is a transcendent and trancelike experience.

'The Namesake'

Mira Nair's uneven but extraordinarily affecting movie about the relocation of an Indian family from Calcutta to New York is based on the Jhumpa Lahiri novel and has a marvelous cast led by Irrfan Khan and Kal Penn, who will make you forget all about him (almost) in "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle."

'No Country For Old Men'

This Coen Brothers' instant classic, derived from Cormac McCarthy's novel, is the best and most chilling American movie of the year – an Old School meets Old Testament western.

'No End in Sight'

Charles Ferguson's rigorously fair documentary exposes step by step the disastrous planning that brought us into Iraq. This cautionary tale is required viewing regardless of your political stance.

'Offside'

Jafar Panahi's movie is ostensibly about Iranian girls attempting to overturn a ban to watch a live soccer match but in reality it lays bare an entire society for us.

'Persepolis'

Marjane Satrapi codirected this one-of-a-kind animated movie inspired by her graphic novel about growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution of the 1970s. Proof again – if proof were needed – that animation can be just as personal an arena for filmmakers as live action.

A few other films, among many, that also gave me lots to like: "There Will Be Blood," "Zodiac," "Paris je t'aime," "In the Shadow of the Moon," "Waitress," "Superbad," and "Starting Out in the Evening."

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