Getting sober

In 2007, even film musicals and some comedies had an underlying seriousness. Reminders of the Iraq war were inescapable.

It's hard to think of a grimmer, gorier year at the movies. And I'm not talking about the documentaries from Iraq, such as the profoundly unsettling No End in Sight.

Nor do I mean the earnest but flawed war-zone dramas A Mighty Heart, The Bubble, In the Valley of Elah, The Kite Runner, Redacted, Rendition, and The Situation.

And I'm certainly not talking about the over-hyped hack-'em-ups Grindhouse, Hostel 2 and Saw IV.

I'm talking about musicals (Tim Burton's operatic bloodbath, Sweeney Todd). About family melodrama (Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead). About celebrated pictures by the brightest lights of American film (the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, which opens Friday).

This year, even inspirational tales of the human spirit, of the indomitable powers of the imagination, ended in rigor mortis: Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Sean Penn's Into the Wild.

Are carnage and corpses signs of the times? Are art and pop culture holding a mirror to a populace rattled by mall murders, school murders, church murders, by hometowns rife with homicides and faraway lands strewn with suicide bombers and IEDs?

Or is it a fluky confluence, this spate of blood-soaked cinema, part-and-parcel of a tradition as old as Hollywood itself: action and violence as cathartic thrills?

It's probably a bit of both, with filmmakers consciously and unconsciously addressing our concerns about tumult and war. But it's also a bit of showbiz serendipity, with long-gestating literary adaptations coming out at the same time, and studios jockeying release dates to coincide with year-end awards campaigns.

Not to say that there haven't been any laugh-out-loud comedies this year. The Judd Apatow factory is responsible for three: Knocked Up, Superbad, and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, while Juno, the hip teen-pregnancy comedy with the amazing Ellen Page, brought goofy levity to a serious issue. And there was plenty of animated fun for the whole family, most notably Meet the Robinsons, Ratatouille, Shrek the Third, and The Simpsons Movie.

But here I am looking at my list of the 10 best of 2007, and I see just two - I'm Not There and Margot at the Wedding - in which the lead, or at least one of the principal characters, doesn't face a lethal end.

So, here are a few thoughts on these 10, and on a few honorable mentions too:

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman (See him in Charlie Wilson's War! See him in The Savages!) star as desperate brothers in the 83-year-old Sidney Lumet's roiling, rollicking noir. Some of the most vigorous acting and filmmaking of the year.

The Bourne Ultimatum With its breakneck action, exotic locales, and high-tech hugger-mugger, Paul Greengrass' second sequel in the spy series finds Matt Damon in search of his past, and Hollywood at the top of its game. Exhilarating.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly Painter-turned-director Julian Schnabel turns the true-life tale of a French fashion mag editor who suffered a massive stroke into a gorgeous reverie about the life of the mind, about creating art, about love and family and the beauty of the world.

Eastern Promises David Cronenberg goes to a London neighborhood of ex-pat Russian mobsters and gets Viggo Mortensen naked and tattooed as a gangland thug in this chilling meditation on power, greed, and a baby in need of a home. Naomi Watts shines as a London nurse who rides around on a big old Russian-made motorbike.

I'm Not There Todd Haynes' personal take on the myths and music of Bob Dylan features a 13-year-old African American (Marcus Carl Franklin) and a regal Australian (femme fabulous Cate Blanchett) among the band of pseudo-Bobs bobbing along in this surreal, stream-of-consciousness gem.

Into the Wild Sean Penn's adaptation of Jon Krakauer's book about an idealistic young American's cross-country trek is soulful stuff. The scenes with Emile Hirsch (as the real-life neo-hobo Christopher McCandless) and Hal Holbrook are heartbreaking.

Margot at the Wedding From The Squid and the Whale's Noah Baumbach comes this funny, discomfiting study of sibling rivalry, messed-up motherhood, teen angst, and adult neuroses. As Margot, Nicole Kidman gives the performance of her career as a fiction-writing nutjob, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, as her about-to-be-wed sis, likewise glows. And props to Baumbach for figuring out how to use Jack Black in a film. It's not Nacho Libre.

Michael Clayton From its opening Tom Wilkinson monologue to that scene with the horses on the hill, Tony Gilroy's legal thriller proves itself much, much more than just that. George Clooney, in the title role, is aces; there's not a false moment or wasted word to be found, and the story is not just suspenseful - it's brilliant. Gilroy, screenwriter behind all three Bournes, saved Michael Clayton for his directorial debut. He knows his stuff.

No Country for Old Men Ethan and Joel Coen turn Cormac McCarthy's modern-day western into a quietly riveting, drop-dead stunning film about, well, dropping dead. Javier Bardem, in a Prince Valiant haircut, is the Grim Reaper. And Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, and the lovely Kelly McDonald play the poor folks in pursuit of the foolish dream of a long, satisfying life.

La Vie en Rose Marion Cotillard should not be forgot come Oscar time: Her performance as the Gallic songbird Edith Piaf transcends acting altogether. She inhabits Piaf, from her start as a starving street singer to her triumphs as a concertizing chanteuse and national icon.

A parallel-universe 10

Speaking of music biopics (I'm Not There and La Vie en Rose), Anton Corbijn's Control - the haunting black-and-white study of the brief, fevered life of Joy Division front man Ian Curtis - almost made my list; another day it would have been on there. If Walk Hard makes mockery of the music biopic template, Corbijn, a still photographer in his directing debut, figured out how to work around that template, and through it, and capture an era, sublimely.

There are images, too, in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood - an epic about greed and God, based on the Upton Sinclair novel Oil! - that will stick with me forever. Daniel Day-Lewis, as an early-20th-century prospector rooting around in the dirt and discovering oil, channels John Huston and Humphrey Bogart and I don't know who else in a jaw-droppingly stupendous turn. Even when he goes over the top - and boy, does he ever - Day-Lewis is amazing.

Rounding out my parallel universe top 10:

Sarah Polley's Away From Her, Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, Pascale Ferran's Lady Chatterly, Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, Mira Nair's The Namesake, John Carney's Once, Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn, and Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's 28 Weeks Later. . ..

It's been a pretty good year, at that.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.