The Hottest, Ass-kickin'est Movies of 2007

A look back at the year's best, worst, and most interesting films

Manufactured Landscapes — Despite the endorsement of Al Gore, Jennifer Baichwal's visually stunning documentary was snubbed by the same environmental groups that rallied around An Inconvenient Truth — in part because the inconvenient truth of Baichwal's film is that the industrial ravaging of the planet, as shown in Edward Burtynsky's macroscopic photographs, has an undeniable if horrifying grandeur. Can the environment's loss be cinema's gain? Following Burtynsky through China, from one hypnotic science-fiction rubblescape to another, Baichwal challenges us to say no — or at least not to succumb to our sense of awe.

Music and Lyrics — Maybe the year's pleasantest surprise: an intelligent, genuinely amusing romantic comedy, scaled to match the modest ambitions of its hero, "happy has-been" Hugh Grant. Paired with Drew Barrymore, whose tremulous vulnerability has never been more appealing, Grant gave his least shticky and most winning performance in years as a Reagan-era pop idol who gets a shot at a mild artistic triumph after years on the berry-farm circuit. But he has no shame about his limited success, and the same can be said for writer/director Marc Lawrence, who kids '80s nostalgia without meanness or condescension. The cherry on the sundae: delicious pop-novelty pastiches by Andrew Blakemore, Adam Schlesinger, and others, including the deathless "Pop! Goes My Heart."

PaprikaDirector Satoshi Kon's anime fantasy — a mind-blower on a Videodrome/2001 scale of sensory and intellectual bombardment — exemplifies more than any digital-animation feature this year the freedom of working in a medium with no physical restraints. With his sleep-troubled film-noir cop prowling the subconscious of a near-future Tokyo, Kon explores the relationship of dream logic to the visual grammar of movies and plays eye-boggling tricks with perspective, distending bodies and boundaries, and looping his nightmare scenarios. And yet, at the movie's heart is a wistful, romantic affirmation of the need for inviolate space where our inner selves can soar.

Private Fears in Public Places (Coeurs) — A fake movie snowfall out of Josef von Sternberg's dreams blankets this gorgeous ensemble comedy/drama about the difficulty of forging new loves late in life. Directed by Alain Resnais with a formal rigor and brisk elegance that should shame filmmakers five decades younger, its combination of golden-age gloss and transparently theatrical design makes it more accessible than Resnais' form-breaking early films of the nouvelle vague era. Even so, it failed to reach the audiences that have eagerly embraced, say, Patrice Leconte's diverting trifles. Too bad: On TV, the beauty of Eric Gautier's cinematography will be diminished though not extinguished.

Urim and Thummim — This memorably odd doc by Dub Cornett and Dancing Outlaw director Jacob Young — the story of three men who claim to have found an Old Testament portal on the 99-cent sale rack at a Madison, Tennessee, Goodwill superstore — made its debut at the 38-year-old Nashville Film Festival last April, wedged between movies as diverse as Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth and David Alford and Robert Archer Lynn's accomplished one-take thriller Adrenaline. Last month, it played the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, where no less an admirer than Werner Herzog reportedly dismissed its critics as "retarded." Will you ever see it? The movie itself provides an answer: Stranger things have happened.

COUNTER-STRIKE

Steel Yourself for 2008 With a Look Back at the Year's Best Scripts

BY JIM RIDLEY

The year: 2505. Your viewing choices tonight: an oldie but a goodie — a picture called Ass, a feature-length screensaver of butt cheeks punctuated by the occasional fart — or the hit TV show Ow! My Balls, a connoisseur's compendium of nutsack whacks. Thanks to Mike Judge's Idiocracy, we have seen the future of entertainment 500 years from now, when the world is run by genetically shortchanged knuckle-draggers. And it's, it's... well, it may look uncannily like next year's network-TV slate and major-studio lineup if the WGA writers' strike continues.

This time next year, we may be sitting in front of the tube glued to CBS' What's in Katie Couric's Colon? or watching Celebrity Poker Showdown: The Movie on 2,512 screens. So start stockpiling some of the many films in 2007 that were distinguished by strong, distinctive writing.

The movie of the moment, Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men, is a model of careful adaptation: It honors the twangy palaver as well as the taut silences of Cormac McCarthy's novel, finding the tough, cold heart of a book that sometimes reads like a classroom assignment in hard-boiled lit. Screenwriting isn't just filling space with words: One of the movie's strengths is its ability to convey the inner workings of taciturn people in mere scraps of dialogue.

By contrast, the garrulous characters in Juno practically gesture offscreen to first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody every time they open their mouths. The movie's early scenes contain an emptied notebook's worth of hoarded quirks, slang, and catch phrases, as if a touring company of Heathers had moved into the 7-Eleven. More impressive is the way Cody flips the script on the adoptive yuppie couple played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, reversing our sympathies for the chilly Garner and catching the juvenile self-absorption behind Bateman's Joe Cool affability.

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