2007: The Year in Reviews

From a National Catholic Register article

By Steven D. Greydanus

There were ultrasounds. Disturbing images of post-abortion fetuses. Mention of fetal heartbeat and ability to feel pain. One way or another, over half a dozen 2007 films found themselves reckoning with the reality of life in the womb. It’s fair to call 2007 the cinematic year of the unborn child.

Four of these films — the ultra-crude Hollywood comedy Knocked Up, the Catholic-produced indie drama Bella and the indie comedies Waitress and Juno — share a number of plot points. In each of the four films, an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy raises the subject of abortion, but the less-than-thrilled mother makes the decision to have her baby. In the end, the climactic appearance of the child is seen as a joyous and transforming experience, an absolute good.

In one case, Knocked Up, conception begins with a one-night stand, but eventually leads to the parents settling down together to raise the child. Not a very likely outcome, perhaps, but the three indie films have less idealized, more realistic endings, two involving adoption and all involving single parenthood — not the ideal, but still all positive outcomes given the circumstances. One of the most hopeful endings involves the most inauspicious beginning, the high-school pregnancy in Juno, also the only one of the four films in which the unborn child’s right to life is explicitly invoked. (Waitress came close, with the protagonist acknowledging her baby’s “right to thrive” as her reason for quitting smoking.)

A fifth film, the Romanian drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, takes a different trajectory: Set in the Communist Romania of the 1980s, the film centers on a college girl who has already decided to procure an illegal abortion. A loathsome back-alley abortionist, sexual victimization and threat of bleeding to death all emphasize the general repulsiveness of a situation that culminates in a devastating close‑up of a dead fetus lying on a hotel bathroom floor. While the illegality and conditions of the abortion are certainly emphasized, the film uncompromisingly gives the fetus itself its due in the wrenching, wretched proceedings. (In the U.S. 4 Months doesn’t open until January 25, so for year-end write‑up purposes I’m treating it as a 2008 film.)

Finally, two 2007 documentaries, Unborn in the USA and Lake of Fire, show the pro-life movement — particularly the more extreme end — in a generally unfavorable light, but still hear it out to an extent. Lake of Fire gives space to both sides of the abortion debate, and while its sympathies are clearly skewed in favor of abortion, it presents a range of views on the pro-life side, including Village Voice columnist and Jewish atheist Nat Hentoff, who opposes abortion on humanistic and moral grounds.

Family films, religious themes

Like 2006, 2007 was another weak year for family films. Coincidentally, France was the setting for two of the year’s few bright spots. After the previous year’s genial but less-than-brilliant Cars, Pixar was back in fine form with Brad Bird’s Ratatouille, about a culinarily gifted Parisian rat. There was also Mr. Bean’s Holiday, with Rowan Atkinson taking his sweet, good-natured slapstick comedy schtick on the road to France. Both films did much better overseas than in the U.S. — our loss.

Walden Media again released a trio of children’s book adaptations. Bridge to Terabithia and The Water Horse were both worth catching at least once; I may never get around to seeing Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.

What else was there? National Treasure: Book of Secrets, like its predecessor, was fair if disposable entertainment. Harry Potter had another decent outing. Lots of people liked Enchanted, but I go with Mrs. Decent Film’s minority report. The rest of the balance sheet is in the red: Shrek the Third, Happily N’Ever After, Bee Movie, The Last Mimzy, Underdog, Nancy Drew, Alvin and the Chipmunks. (Does The Simpsons Movie count as a family film?)

Walden also had a hand in the edifying historical drama Amazing Grace, not exactly a family film, but basically family-friendly — and a positive depiction of a devout Christian, English abolitionist William Wilberforce. Notable religious themes also cropped up in a few other films, some more interesting — Lars and the Real Girl, Bella — some less so — Bridge to Terabithia, Evan Almighty.

In this year of the New Atheism of Dawkins and Hitchens, a number of films struck a distinctly anti-God or anti-religion note: Danny Boyle’s sci‑fi thriller Sunshine, the Cate Blanchett sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and the Philip Pullman adaptation The Golden Compass. None did well with U.S. audiences.

The Year’s Best

Once again I reviewed fewer films this past year than in previous years — I seem to be cutting back — and a number of my top 10 films currently have full-length reviews. As with the last two years, the following films are unranked and in alphabetical order.

The Decent Films Guide Top 10 Films of 2007

After the Wedding
Danish director Susanne Bier made her English-language debut in 2007 with the moving Things We Lost in the Fire, but this Danish-language release is even better. An emotionally layered family melodrama, After the Wedding is a well-crafted, emotionally satisfying meditation on the sometimes tangled and sticky ties that bind, on loss and the possibility of redemption.
Some objectionable language; sexual references and a brief scene of sexuality with fleeting nudity; some heavy drinking. Mature viewing. Subtitles. Available on DVD.

The Devil Came on Horseback
“It is as if history is giving us a chance to redeem ourselves for our failure in Rwanda — and we’re failing again.” That devastating line sums up the impotent fury of Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s powerful documentary of the Darfur conflict, frankly acknowledged by the United States as genocide but still dithered over by the U.N. (calling it genocide would entail legal obligations to intervene) while nothing is done.
Grisly documentary footage of scenes of carnage. Might be okay for mature teens. Available on DVD.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
In some ways the antithesis of recent pro-euthanasia films (cf. The Sea Inside, Million Dollar Baby), Julian Schnabel’s mesmerizing film is a life-affirming exploration of one of the most crushingly debilitating conditions imaginable. Based on the memoir of Parisian jet-setter Jean-Dominique Bauby, who dictated the book literally by blinking his left eyelid after succumbing to “locked-in syndrome” as a result of a massive stroke, the film puts the viewer literally in Bauby’s head, allowing us to hear his thoughts and see what he sees.
Some sexual content and brief nudity; some crude language. Subtitles. Mature viewing.

In the Shadow of the Moon
A rare award-winning documentary of human achievement rather than human failure, David Sington’s uplifting film revisits the triumphs and tragedies of the United States’ Apollo program. Blending interviews with ten surviving astronauts with extraordinary never-seen archival footage, In the Shadow of the Moon is an eloquent testament to the grandeur of creation as well as man’s unique place in it.

Into Great Silence
Easily the film of the year for me, Philip Gröning’s contemplative record of life in the Carthusian Grande Chartreuse monastery is an exercise in rigor and discipline that becomes a euphoric experience of joy and inner peace. More than a documentary of monastic life, it is a spiritual voyage, a pilgrimage into the inner meaning and experience of monastic life, of the rigors and joys of contemplative life.

Juno
It’s way crass, yes, but it’s surprising just how much heart — and wit — Jason Reitman’s snappy hipster comedy has beneath its blasé Gen‑Y attitude. Sixteen-year-old Juno is old enough to know she isn’t ready to be a mom — but after an eye-opening encounter with a shy pro-lifer at an abortion clinic, she decides to give the child up for adoption, and sets out to find the perfect couple. What follows involves some very imperfect choices by imperfect people, yet the longings and needs of the human heart are heard with remarkable clarity.

The Lives of Others
The oppressive Realpolitik police state of 1984 East Germany is the setting for writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s astounding feature debut, which strikingly contrasts the banality of evil — itself a familiar subject — with something more difficult and ambitious, the vitality and winsomeness of humanism and goodness. With John Paul II, The Lives of Others attests the power of art over evil. Notwithstanding a few strong but non-prurient sexual encounters, this film offers some of the year’s most redemptive themes.
Two or three brief but somewhat graphic sexual encounters, one with brief partial nudity involving a prostitute; cohabitation; some drug abuse. Subtitled. Mature viewing; discernment required.

Once
John Carney’s personal, intimate art-house hit relates a short but memorable encounter between a bearded Dublin street musician and a pretty young Czech pianist. She is lovely; he is lonely. Both are wounded souls, and their connection is emotional as well as musical and creative, but she has an adamantine sense of responsibility and decency, and won’t let things go too far. Like a favorite song, it’s a film you would rather play for someone than try to describe.

Rescue Dawn
Werner Herzog’s second cinematic take on the real-life story of German-born Navy fighter pilot Dieter Dengler, who escaped from a Laotian POW camp during the Vietnam war, Rescue Dawn is one of the director’s most accessible films, and one of his best. Despite sometimes regrettable liberties with the story, including a falsely negative portrayal of another POW, it’s a powerful depiction of the resilience of the human spirit in the face of great psychological as well as physical cost.
Depictions of torture and abuse of prisoners; deadly battlefield violence; occasional profanity and much crass language; a few mild sexual references.

Ratatouille
In a dispiritingly off year for family films, Pixar’s latest triumph doesn’t disappoint. Directed by Brad Bird, the story about a culinarily gifted rat covers conventional ground — overcoming prejudices, following your heart, believing in yourself. But it’s also about pursuing excellence rather than settling for mediocrity, not compromising principles for a quick buck, and putting your heart and soul into something you believe in even if it’s a risk.
References to a character’s out-of-wedlock parentage; brief references to characters with dodgy histories; slapstick violence including gunplay; brief grisly images of dead rats in traps. Fine family viewing for most children.

Runners-Up

Amazing Grace: Michael Apted’s inspirational biopic of English abolitionist and devout Christian William Wilberforce (okay for older kids).

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford: Andrew Dominik’s faithful adaptation of Rob Hansen’s novel about fame, hero worship and the wages of sin.

Bella: Alejandro Gomez Monteverde’s lovely drama about wounded hearts, family, a crisis pregnancy, heroic love and understanding.

The Bourne Ultimatum: Paul Greengrass’s thrilling climax to the series of an amnesiac CIA operative trying to recover his moral self.

Lars and the Real Girl: Craig Gillespie’s deceptively sweet comedy about a severely socially maladjusted young man whose small-town community reaches out to him amid a disordered but chaste emotional attachment to a, um… just read the review.

Mr. Bean’s Holiday: Steve Bendelack’s sweet, good-hearted and genuinely clever slapstick comedy starring Rowan Atkinson.

No End in Sight: Charles Ferguson’s sober, well-crafted documentary on poor planning and ill-informed decisions in the occupation and rebuilding efforts in Iraq (teens and up).

Offside: Jafar Panahi’s winsome Irani comedy about Iranian female soccer fans disguising themselves as men to sneak into a World-Cup qualifying soccer match despite the law barring women (teens and up).

The Savages: Tamara Jenkins’s acerbic tragicomedy about two dysfunctional grown siblings brought together to care for their aged father toward the end of his life (mature viewing).

Spider-Man 3: Sam Raimi’s overstuffed but wildly entertaining climax to the best super-hero trilogy to date that still makes room for comic-book homilies and moral themes.

Things We Lost in the Fire: Susanne Bier’s heartfelt English-language debut film about loss, grief and recovery.

Honorable Mention

Atonement, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, The Kite Runner, Live Free or Die Hard, A Mighty Heart, The Namesake, Persepolis

Worth Noting

Arctic Tale, Away From Her, The Astronaut Farmer, Bridge to Terabithia, Enchanted, Evan Almighty, The Ten Commandments, Rush Hour 3, Sunshine, Waitress

Not Recommended

The Brave One, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Ghost Rider, The Golden Compass, Happily N’Ever After, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Shrek the Third, 3:10 to Yuma, Trade

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