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WONDERS BLUNDERS

The Baltimore Sun

No one puts more burdens on movie artists than Americans do. We coerce them into an increasingly pressurized system that rewards only commercial success - and determines that success on a film's box-office take in a single weekend.

Critics urge them to be topical, yet not at the expense of art, and want directors to be "experimental," even if that limits popular support.

The Holy Grail for American moviemakers - producing a movie that unites every portion of the audience, such as The Godfather or The Right Stuff - seems to recede into the mist as viewership grows more fragmented and "niche-oriented" with every passing season.

But should our directors give up the fight?

Not if you take the long view of this eclectic and erratic year.

Pundits used the onslaught of dark dramatic duds, including a slew of Middle East-themed protest films and docudramas, to suggest that audiences just want pictures to entertain them - and won't show up if they doubt that a serious or topical subject can be treated with humor and suspense.

The real problem with these movies was that few were any good. A Mighty Heart was woefully unrevealing and misshapen, a rendering of the Daniel Pearl kidnapping and execution that was mostly about the heroism of his wife, Mariane. The head-on attacks against U.S. policy in Rendition, Lions for Lambs and In the Valley of Elah paralyzed writers and directors (and most of the actors, too) with their gravity. Only Brian De Palma's Redacted matched political rage with cinematic fury, though in a way that cut off emotional involvement with his characters.

It's no accident that the most entertaining of this year's Middle East movies, the underrated action film The Kingdom and the sprightly, self-destructive Charlie Wilson's War, were based on events from a decade or two past: the former on the 1996 bombings of Khobar Towers near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia; the latter on a Texas congressman's unexpectedly potent support of the Afghan revolt against the Soviet invasion in the 1980s. Moviemakers often need distance from their material in order to see the underlying irony and tension in it.

Indeed, several outright period pieces proved more contemporary in their revelations of life during hot wars and the Cold War than any of the Iraq films, even though they took place during civil strife in Ireland in the 1920s (The Wind That Shakes the Barley), the communist tyranny in East Germany (The Lives of Others) and Franco's final conquest of the remnants of Spain's left-wing Popular Front (Pan's Labyrinth).

To bring us full circle, several of my 10 best (including The Lives of Others) explored both the heady independence and the weight of an artist's life - and made it emblematic of anyone's desire for purpose, freedom and satisfaction. And none did so with more grace, charm and robust emotion than the animated feature Ratatouille, which grossed more than $200 million in the U.S. and more than $400 million outside of it.

It proves that making great art that's also popular art is still a possible dream.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

THE YEAR'S 10 BEST

1. Ratatouille. "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry," said Emily Dickinson. When critic Anton Ego experiences the title dish as cooked by a rat of genius, Remy, in Brad Bird's Ratatouille, he says "both the meal and its maker ... have rocked me to my core." With its vital, earthy views of Paris, and of a young rat from the provinces stumbling into sumptuous corners of the City of Light, as well as slapstick that recalls Steve Martin at his best in All of Me, this movie captures both the healing power and explosiveness of art. It takes off the top of your head and pours a cornucopia of delights straight down to your core. 2. The Lives of Others. This political thriller accumulates in thought and emotion the same tension and excitement that The Bourne Ultimatum injects into our viscera. Ulrich Muhe (who died of stomach cancer in July) creates a heartbreaking portrait of a surveillance expert in East Germany's secret police who unexpectedly discovers his humanity. Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck match him as his targets, a playwright and his lover (and leading lady). They all find the ultimate meaning of their public lives in private sacrifice. Writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's international hit is one of the best debut films ever.

3. Killer of Sheep

American independent cinema at its finest: Charles Burnett made this movie in 1977, but it received its theatrical premiere this year. In the years since, no chronicler of urban life has topped Burnett for rough-hewn lyricism as he depicts L.A.'s Watts ghetto with a child's sensitivity and an adult's absurdity.

4. In the Shadow of the Moon

With elating space-age imagery and profiles in courage, this documentary about NASA's missions to the moon hurtles back to a time when even the French thought the United States could pull off any national endeavor. The movie is hopeful, not depressing. It reminds you that a country as diverse and creative as ours could wage a disastrous war in Vietnam and achieve milestones in scientific exploration - which here becomes spiritual and aesthetic exploration, too.

5. The Wind that Shakes the Barley

Ken Loach's tale of two brothers who battle the British in 1920, then fight each other in a civil war, brings home the perils of occupation and sectarianism with immediacy and maturity. The final horror: Amid the din of political turmoil, even two brothers can't hear each other think.

6. No End in Sight

Documentary tyro Charles Ferguson keeps the tragedies of Iraq fresh and provocative - he focuses on the all-too-human regrets of American fighters and diplomats who feel they could have settled the conflict and won the peace had they received support from the White House. Essential, harrowing and infuriating.

7. Pan's Labyrinth

A brilliant horror movie that's also a portrait of an artist as a young girl: the heartbreaking, fantasy-loving Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) who travels with her mother in 1944 Spain to a remote military outpost where her wicked stepfather has transformed an abandoned mill into something like Gestapo headquarters. Ofelia escapes into a supernatural alternate world that allows her to test her instincts and strength with a freedom denied her in the real world. It's a stirring testament to the power of escapism: the subtitle could be, "In Dreams Begin Responsibility."

8. Starting Out in the Evening

The May-December liaison between a graduate student in literature (Lauren Ambrose) and an aging novelist (Frank Langella) allows filmmaker Andrew Wagner to explore the life of the mind and of the flesh - and how the two interact - with extraordinary wit and sensitivity. He pays equal tribute to culture and energy, and in Langella's mentally tough, physically ailing literary lion summons the performance of the year.

9. No Country for Old Men

The Coen brothers, at their pinnacle, pinpoint when moral emptiness became part of the American atmosphere in the years after Vietnam. The movie works as a hair-trigger thriller for most of its running time, then dares to end as a dialectic between opposites: Tommy Lee Jones, the old-school sheriff who deplores the vacuum, and Javier Bardem the cold killer who exploits it with an evil integrity. (Both are splendid.)

10. Atonement

Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton transform Ian McEwan's acclaimed novel about the power of a lie into three movements of superb romantic drama in England and one traumatic flight of World War II poetry at Dunkirk. If you succumb to that unusual blend, you'll experience both war and lies as tears in the human spirit - and by the end reap the rewards of an art that is compassionate and sensually alive.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

THE YEAR'S 10 WORST

So many choices, so few slots. Where to fit Kevin Bacon channeling Charles Bronson as if via a faulty short-wave radio in Death Sentence?

Or the movie that won't make "Stone Cold" Steve Austin a rock star or a Rock star, the snuff-TV "satire," The Condemned?

The Ex is easy to leave off since it started life several years ago as Fast Track and probably was on the shelf since 2006.

Here are 10 more films that should have stayed there (in no meaningful order).

1. Good Luck Chuck. This breast-obsessed comedy about a not-so-lucky guy who becomes a lucky charm for women - they're sure to marry someone else after they go to bed with him -- is one of the few movies that I found embarrassing to sit through in the company of female colleagues. It made me feel ashamed, not just as a critic, but as a man. Is there any clearer indication that a film will stink than the presence of Dane Cook?

2. The Invasion

Nicole Kidman has never looked better than as dressed (or undressed) by costume designer Jacqueline West, but this Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake (heavily reshot by James McTeigue) plays like a shambles of a shambles.

3. Wild Hogs

My worst and most befuddling film-going experience of 2007: arriving at a megaplex for a Saturday-night sneak preview, being forced to sit in the front row where the casts' jowls flapped off the screen, hearing nary a laugh from the tired slapstick and old-guy-on-motorcycle jokes -- only to see the film turn into a surprise springtime hit.

4. Perfume

The year was filled with evocative portraits of the creative life, but this was not one of them. The tale of an 18th-century genius perfumer who becomes a serial killer wanted to be an epic metaphor for the artist as murderer but was strictly eau de crud. Are pretentious art house disasters even harder to take than megaplex bores? At least at the art house there's usually espresso. Then again ...

5. Margot at the Wedding

Repeated jaunts to the coffee bar only added to the jitter-quotient of this unwatchable art film about incompetent, overwrought personalities, but also provided excuses for several trips out of the theater.

6. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Is there anything sadder than franchise moviemakers assembling a captive audience and not taking them anywhere they haven't gone before? Audiences loyal to Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow still turned out for this jumble, but Superbad has been beating the culottes off it on DVD. The screenwriters, hurt by bad reviews, suggested their critics study Brecht; Philip Seymour Hoffman teaching Brecht in The Savages was by far a funnier and more enlightening experience.

7. Fred Claus

If you're going to do a Christmas movie, make it Christmassy; don't make a film that could have been called Freud Claus, so hung up is it on sibling and parent relationships determining adult behavior. And the North Pole hasn't looked so glitzy since Santa Claus -- the Movie (1985).

8. The Number 23

This unintentionally alienating thriller reduced Jim Carrey to playing catch-up with a plot revolving around the mystical ubiquity of the number 23; Carrey has made many deliberately silly films, but this "serious" effort was his dumbest.

9. Evan Almighty

When he was playing "Produce Pete" on The Daily Show, Steve Carell would have thrown tomatoes at this one.

10. Pathfinder

All those who missed the subtlety and humanity of Apocalypto this year can rent this tale of Vikings clashing with North American Indians. It may be 2007's worst action film. As director Marcus Nispel mixes quick cuts with slow motion, and shoots in an ugly blue-gray and white palette, by the end you feel you've spent 90 minutes in a dryer with a pair of stone-washed jeans.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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