Many films covered war, birth, death

Greetings, battle-scarred vets of the 2007 movie wars.

It was a year when matters of conception and mortality were the stuff of comedy. And a year when many American films reconsidered the 1960s - the politics, the music, and the social upheavals.

It was also a year of musicals, including the big, bouffant Hairspray, the small, hushed Once, and the experimental Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There.

This was a year when There Will Be Blood (opening Friday) might serve as a description for many movies, especially those about Iraq. In films such as In the Valley of Elah, The Kingdom, Lions to Lambs, and Redacted, Iraq the Movie played on and on.

It's not unusual to see movies critical of war, like the best of these films, Charles Ferguson's exceptional documentary No End in Sight (which, like other titles boldfaced here, made my 10 Best list). In lucid interviews with policymakers, it explained why we are in Iraq and why it's so hard to get out. What appears to be unprecedented is that this year's flood of Iraq pictures critical of the war came out while the war is still in progress.

The bloody impasse they depict looms over so many nonwar films that one might regard movies such as Sweeney Todd, Tim Burton's splatter operetta of vengeance, and There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson's circa-1900 account of the pitched battle between an oilman and a religious man, as displaced war movies.

The life cycle - with an emphasis on childbirth and parental death - likewise dominated American movies.

Where once the runaway bride provided romantic conflict in movies, the unplanned pregnancy did so in 2007.

In coming-to-term farces such as Knocked Up, Waitress and Juno, Jason Reitman's uproarious comedy starring fresh face Ellen Page, pregnancy is the situation that drives the plot to the delivery room. Once upon a time, unwed mothers were stigmatized in films; today accidental moms are celebrated.

At the other end of the life cycle, the demise of Dad was Topic A of many indie films.

The Darjeeling Limited, Wes Anderson's intriguing dramedy, features brothers literally and figuratively unpacking their emotional baggage. Mira Nair's vibrant The Namesake depicts an American child of immigrants rejecting, then embracing, his father's heritage. And Tamara Jenkins' The Savages is a darker-than-black comedy about siblings caring for the dementia-impaired father who never cared for them. Do these films about the passing of the elders suggest a generational changing of the guard?

Significantly, The Savages addresses another theme implicit in this year's films: How do we contemplate death?

With Julie's Christie's luminous performance as a long-married woman who drifts off into the land of Alzheimer's, Sarah Polley's Away From Her, like The Savages, suggests that dementia is a way station between life and what's after.

While those films are about loved ones who have mentally taken leave in advance of their bodies, Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and The Butterfly is about a man who, despite his near-complete paralysis, remains mentally engaged. Sean Penn's Into the Wild, with its marvelous turn by Emile Hirsch, likewise tells the true story of a man whose mental flame burned brightest as he wasted away.

All these movies about birth and death struggle implicitly with the ideas of when life actually begins and ends.

What is it about the 1960s that captured the imagination of so many American filmmakers in 2007? Was it the Vietnam era's social upheaval, exaggerated fashion and groovy music? These factors enlivened Julie Taymor's expressionistic Across the Universe, a pop history set to the Beatles songbook. Ditto Kasi Lemmons' Talk to Me and Adam Shankman's Hairspray, about how the civil rights movement marched to the rhythms of R&B.

Likewise American Gangster, Ridley Scott's character study of Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas (a lethally magnetic Denzel Washington), set to '60s and '70s soul music. (Given the Vietnam protests and war scenes, one can read these as displaced Iraq films as well.)

For a movie culture that, with the exceptions of Chicago and Dreamgirls, has not been hospitable to musicals, 2007 was a movie-musical hit parade.

After Across the Universe and Hairspray, we saw Bob Dylan deconstructed in I'm Not There; Edith Piaf self-destructing in La Vie en Rose; the musical biopic dissected in the satire in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story; and the New York musical reconsidered in Romance & Cigarettes. There was the Dublin romance Once, quiet and small, and the London bloodbath Sweeney Todd, dissonant and large.

Most affectionately, there was Kevin Lima's Enchanted, starring the supercalifragilistic Amy Adams, sending up the conventions of Disney animated musicals while also reaffirming just how life-affirming they are.

The Great Debaters, a portrait of how educators in the 1930s sowed the seeds for the civil rights movement, rounds out my 10-Best list. Denzel Washington's mostly true Depression inspirational is an intellectual action film celebrating charisma and guts. In a year of blood and guts, it offers much-needed cinematic balm.

Speaking of Washington, so terrific both as drug kingpin Lucas in American Gangster and poet/professor Melvin Tolson in Debaters: He might pull off the hat trick of three Oscar nominations - best actor (Gangster), director, and supporting actor (Debaters).

Only Philip Seymour Hoffman, superlative in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, The Savages, and Charlie Wilson's War, enjoyed a year as memorable as Washington's. But Tommy Lee Jones (In the Valley of Elah and No Country for Old Men), Josh Brolin (Gangster and No Country), and Jason Bateman (Juno and The Kingdom) came mighty close.

For best line of the year, my nomination comes from Juno: "Dad, I'm dealing with things way above my maturity level."


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl.