Movie moments 

Our critics recall 2007’s best from the big screen

Rescue Dawn
Can you think of a stranger choice of director for a Vietnam-era POW escape story than Werner Herzog? Granted, the man does like jungles. And it’s familiar territory for Herzog, having rehearsed the true(ish) story of American pilot Dieter Dengler’s escape from a Laotian prison camp in documentary form in 1997’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Herzog wasn’t above embroidering the truth in his documentary—he has defended certain staged actions in his movies as representing the “ecstatic” truth rather than the literal one—but he doesn’t go at all overboard with Rescue Dawn, his first Hollywood action thriller. It might look a little tame next to, say, The Deer Hunter, but on its own it’s fascinating and pure Herzog, with great performances from Christian Bale, Steve Zahn and a very Charles Manson-looking Jeremy Davies. (AS)

This is a musical of sorts, only not in the way you probably tend to think of musicals. What’s remarkable about Once is that aside from the force of its soundtrack, it’s a surprisingly assured piece of filmmaking from a novice director, John Carney, and a couple of musicians moonlighting as actors. Carney shoots his protagonists’ first meeting by moving in tight on the Guy as he tears into a song with his eyes closed, pulling back only gradually to show that he has an audience of one. Playing characters who dance awkwardly around what they might ultimately mean to each other, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglová turn in naturalistic and utterly winning performances, their every conversation invested with an unspoken sense of the growing connection between them. (SR)

The Host
Man, I’ve missed a lot of talked-about movies this year. To wit: no Eastern Promises, No Country for Old Men, Sunshine, Flanders, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, This Is England, The Simpsons Movie, Into The Wild, Control—all at the top of my must-rent list for 2008, and the list goes on and on. On the other hand, I did get to see a few things that might not find their way into many other year-end canons that I really enjoyed. One of them was Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host, a Korean monster movie about a goofy-looking overgrown amphibian, which mixes action, suspense and some startlingly weird humor to real sleeper-hit effect. And hey, someone’s got to rep for this moody teenager of a movie monster. (AS)

Inland Empire
I can stand in front of a painting at the Missoula Art Museum for hours, unable to offer much more than a guess about what it “means,” and still be lovingly absorbed by it. Same goes for a modern dance concert or instrumental noise at the Badlander. I could list more examples, but I think you see where I’m going. David Lynch’s latest offers exactly what you hoped for and feared—a gorgeous mindfuck of eroto-surrealism that’s impossible to decipher and even harder to forget. (SB)

Into the Wild
Knowing that it was written and directed by Sean Penn, you might expect this to be the most self-serious film ever made. Yet it’s at times surprisingly emotional and unguarded, with a great central performance by Emile Hirsch as Christopher McCandless, the real-life 22-year-old who spent two years wandering the western United States before meeting his end in Alaska. Penn’s treatment is ambitious and respectable, but also overlong and occasionally overripe—a lyrical, poetic approach that serves the film well from a visual standpoint and not quite as well when it comes to the dialogue. But the nature photography is beautiful, Hirsch is a revelation, and Hal Holbrook shows up late in the game to give the film the emotional weight it needs to finally come together, the true embodiment of a great supporting performance. (SR)

The Simpsons Movie
Comedy writers (should their union ever go back to work) will certainly wish to refer to The Simpsons Movie for lessons in comedic technique. The feature-length adaptation of the long-running animated television series packs as much humor into 90 minutes as any human can hope to consume. While no more profound plot-wise than the weekly cartoon, the film is every bit as funny as the best episodes of the series. You might wonder if the movie was warranted going in, but you’ll be hard-pressed to finish it thinking anything but that the wait was worth it. (JW)

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
There are so many things for which we should thank Judd Apatow in this joyous time of year. But now, with the arrival of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story—co-written by Apatow and frequent collaborator Jake Kasdan—we may have the best reason yet to thank him: He has made it impossible for anyone ever again to pitch a musical biopic with a straight face. (SR)

My Winnipeg
If you’ve been reading movie reviews in this paper since 1999 or so, you might have gathered that the films of Guy Maddin have a very special place in my heart. This documentary—Maddin’s first—about his snowy Manitoban hometown would have shot straight into my top five for 2007 even if I hadn’t contributed animated sequences to it depicting, among other things, a catastrophic fire started by a squirrel in a transformer box and a buffalo stampede that levels an amusement park. It’s a wintry mix of history, civic mythology and re-enacted scenes from the director’s childhood, for which he hired look-a-like actors to play his brothers and sisters. I saw it at its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won Best Canadian Feature over David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises. You’ll get your chance when it comes to the states in 2008. (AS)

No Country for Old Men
Anton Chigurh is Evil itself. It’s not easy to pull off such a concept; most morality plays collapse under the weight of their abstraction. But in adapting Cormac McCarthy’s laconic, fatalistic novel, Joel and Ethan Coen combine their twisted parable with magnificent genre chops. They’ve crafted an intense heist-gone-wrong narrative that also meditates on all the darkness of the world—only not in the way everybody seems to think it does. (SR)

Le Vie En Rose
There are probably very few of us left, but I’m one of the hopeless morons who watch the Academy Awards like it’s a sporting event, rooting like a ninny for my personal favorites to win. This year, I’ll be dumbfounded and downright pissed if French actress Marion Cotillard isn’t recognized for her utterly captivating turn as original diva Edith Piaf. It’s a performance—and film—that puts recent American biopics like Ray and Walk the Line to shame, even if it does still follow many of the conventions ripped apart by Walk Hard. (SB)

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Maybe it’s too recent for the best-of composting process to do its job, but I think Sidney Lumet’s return to form (and he’s in his 80s now) was my favorite crime thriller of the year, maybe the last two or three years. I also liked Zodiac more than I thought I would considering it was three hours long, and I knew how the story ended. And since I’m tying up some loose ends, here: British cop-movie spoof Hot Fuzz was hilarious, with one of the all-time best movie shootouts ever. Knocked Up had its moments, and Little Children was a wonderful surprise on DVD. Waitress deserves special mention as the last testament of director Adrienne Shelly, former star of many a Hal Hartley movie who was murdered before the movie’s premiere at Sundance. Not a bad year for movies, and I barely made a dent. (AS)

Reviews by Andy Smetanka, Scott Renshaw, Jason Wiener and Skylar Browning
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