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Saturday, Dec. 29, 2007

top films of 2007

TOP 10 FOR 2007

Judgment day: 10 films to say something nice about

Special to The Japan Times

Some days I've a feeling that when I die, I'll be standing at the gates of heaven, and Saint Peter will be fast-forwarding through a tape of my life. "Hmmm," he'll mutter, tugging his beard, "Poor character development, sloppy story line, cliched romance, goes on for too long, lacking in insight, clearly narcissistic leading man . . . "

Ouch! Who but the critic should truly know the poison sting of criticism: So easy to cast like biblical stones upon the heads of presumably coke-fueled, egomaniacal, crackberry-addicted Hollywood producers who wouldn't know a good movie from a hole in the ground (See, there I go again!); Yet so hard to take when it's your own foibles on display.

"Hey man, lighten up!" I implore the saint. "What did I do to deserve this?" And he turns to me and says, with a wink, "Judge not lest ye be judged."

Easy for him to say, I think. He never had to sit through "300" or "Stardust." Just to make the gods happy, though, here are 10 films about which I have nothing but nice things to say. Really.

1. "Pan's Labyrinth"

A fantasy/special-effects movie that isn't entirely predictable? Hard to believe, but director Guillermo del Toro delivers a dark pagan fable about freedom of imagination versus fascism, kind of like "The Wizard Of Oz" as imagined by the Spanish painter Francisco Goya. In it, a young girl named Ofelia journeys into a spirit realm to escape the terrors of Spain's civil war and her cruel stepfather. Fantastic performances by Sergi Lopez and newcomer Ivana Baquero, combined with wildly creative imagery, make this an unforgettable experience.

2. "Persepolis"

A perfect adaptation of Marjane Satrapi's graphic novels on growing up in post-revolution Tehran. The striking animation-style of the comics translates well onto the screen, as does Satrapi's narrative, which describes revolution with childhood innocence.

3. "Vacancy"

I could probably count on one hand the films that have really, truly, scared the living shizbit out of me. Most of them are movies I saw when I was young, stuff like "Dressed To Kill" or "Alien." Not much since than has had anything near the same impact, till I saw "Vacancy" and nearly had a heart attack. Front-row, big-screen, please. Unlike the "Hostel" and "Saw" series, this one doesn't rely on butchery for fright.

4. "The Bridge"

Director Eric Steel trained his camera on San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge for an entire year and captured a whole lot of people who jumped, or tried to. This could have been a tasteless documentary, but instead, through interviews with friends and family of those who leaped (and even one survivor), Steel fashions a sensitive, haunting look at suicide, and the scars it leaves on those left behind.

5. "White Light, Black Rain"

Another fantastic documentary, this one focusing on survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. Director Stephen Okazaki simply trains his camera on his subjects, and lets them tell their infinitely sad stories. Some days I think the world could use a few less films like "300" and a few more like this.

6. "Inland Empire"

David Lynch goes off the deep end — I mean more than usual — in a three-hour excursion into the subconscious that's like "Mulholland Drive" re-imagined as "Eraserhead." Parallel worlds, shifting identities, moves backward and forward in time, rabbit-people in television-land — about the only thing missing was a dwarf talking backward.

"The Prestige"

A wonderfully twisted film by Christopher Nolan that's full of surprises. Though he's now a Hollywood director ("Batman Begins"), Nolan's still willing to work in the mind-bending style of "Memento." Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman were suitably intense as two 19th-century illusionists whose professional rivalry turns deadly.

8. "Volver"

Penelope Cruz films I never miss, and here she again proves that she's a wonderful actress, provided she doesn't appear in American films. In "Volver," she plays a housewife trying to cover up her daughter's murder of her abusive husband, displaying her fierce and fragile sides to good effect. She also does a mean tango. And again, as director Pedro Almodovar (and Kaori Shoji) remind us, she has "the most spectacular cleavage in world cinema."

9. "2:37"

Made at age 19 by first-time director Murali K. Thalluri, this is a gripping depiction of how hellish high school can be, and the private pain that everyone holds tight. A dizzying story that spins through several separate lines — of which we know one will end badly. Transcendent ending.

10. "Grizzly Man"

Yes, this was released elsewhere in 2006, but after waiting and waiting for it to open in Japan — which it never did — I broke down and bought the DVD. Director Werner Herzog ("Aguirre (Wrath of God)") gives us a documentary on Timothy Treadwell, an obsessed and complicated New-Age naturalist who lived among grizzly bears in the wild for 13 years before being eaten by one. Insane and admirable, Treadwell is never less than fascinating.

More Top 10 films lists
Mark Schilling: Sterling indie gems among the commercial dreck
Kaori Shoji: 'It was different, delicious and wonderfully weird'

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