Rewinding 2007: The Performances

December 24, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

In recent years, I have taken to splitting my end-of-the-year comments into three sections. Before addressing the best ten performances of the year, however, I want to make a general comment about the overall quality of the 2007 product. This is the sixteenth year in which I have written more than 180 reviews, and it's hard to find a less inspiring twelvemonth. In the period of 1992-2007, there hasn't been a more lackluster, disappointing year for theatrical releases. Your mileage may vary, but that's the way I see it. There were no four-star movies or candidates for my all-time Top 100. I had trouble finding titles to fill the bottom two spots of my end-of-the-year Top 10. (The two I chose plus three honorable mentions seemed to be relatively weak choices.) Of entries into this year's Top 10, only three would have made it onto 2006's list (with all except one title falling into the 6-10 slots).

This doesn't mean there were no good movies in 2007. In fact, I handed out 22 three-and-one-half star ratings, which means I labeled 22 movies as being "highly recommended." Another 72 achieved "recommended" status (three stars). Statistically, those numbers are comparable or in some cases better than in recent years. But you know the saying: "lies, damn lies, and statistics." Numbers don't always tell the whole story and all ***1/2 films are not created equal. So why was 2007 weaker? I can offer a three-pronged hypothesis. First, the number of true independent productions continues to dwindle. Second, with mainstream Hollywood fare on the upsurge, foreign films are being squeezed out as well. Finally, Hollywood loves playing it safe so that's what they do - make movies that are targeted at specific audience demographics. Formulas rule the day and it's rare that a studio will take a chance. A few movies with this mentality have always been welcomed. We all enjoy a little "vanilla" entertainment from time-to-time. But it can become tiresome when nearly every movie fits this model.

In the normal course of things, I don't see any changes for 2008, although there could be a four-star film or two lurking out there. But, if the WGA strike continues for a long time and those picketers are joined by their brethren from the DGA and/or SAG, 2009 could turn out to be a very interesting year. For those who are looking for things to be shaken up, a long strike might be the best thing to happen... I'll give up my blockbusters for a year or two if it means an overall increase in quality.

As is my preference when it comes to performances I do not differentiate between supporting and leading roles nor do I separate actors from actresses. These are the ten I have selected as the best of 2007, presented alphabetically (to avoid me having to rank one above another).

Matthew Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly): One of the toughest parts for any actor to accept is one in which paralysis is involved. Admittedly, Amalric gets to move during the flashback sequences but, for the most part, his character is developed during those sequences in which only one eye can blink. This requires displaying emotion purely through the eyes – a difficult task for all but the most accomplished actors. It's an amazing film made all that more amazing by the central performance.

Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men): Bardem has had an odd year. His work in No Country for Old Men deserves recognition as one of the best performances - creepy, bizarre, single-minded - but he also provided two of 2007's worst portrayals (in Goya's Ghosts and Love in the Time of Cholera. For the purposes of this column, however, let's dwell on the good. Bardem took an off-kilter character in the Coen Brother's latest motion picture and transformed him into an unforgettable monster who is so fascinating that he commands the screen every moment when he's on it. Bardem may not play the movie's lead, but he's the one you won't forget after the credits have rolled.

Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose): A minority of critics have condemned Cotillard's interpretation of Edith Piaf as "mimicry." To me, such a label does her a major injustice. There's a lot more going on here than a mere impersonation. Cotillard is re-inventing the historical figure and, in doing so, she is paying homage to the real Piaf by matching her gestures and body language as closely as possible. However, this is also a full-fledged performance in the traditional sense, full of passion and anguish. It's great acting and the superior old-age makeup only enhances her work.

Philip Seymour Hoffman (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, The Savages, Charlie Wilson's War): In 2007, Philip Seymour Hoffman gave three tremendous performances and it's both difficult and unfair to single one out. If I had to pick one, I'd give a slight edge to The Savages, but that's only because he has more lines and screen time than in the other two. If Hoffman hadn't already established himself as one of his generation's premier actors, this year would have accomplished that.

Frank Langella (Starting out in the Evening): Every once in a while, an aging actor steps out of virtual obscurity and astounds with a performance of such depth and richness that it deserves to be recognized. Such is the case here for Langella. His acting in Starting out in the Evening causes one to take notice. The problem may be locating a print of the movie to watch. This is one of 2007's few genuine indies and it's not getting the distribution that is its due. Hopefully, Langella will be recognized with an Oscar nomination and that will encourage more viewers to see his work.

Laura Linney (The Savages): Linney more than holds her own against Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Savages and, if nothing else, that deserves notice. It's also the best work Linney has done in several years, and she rarely (if ever) makes bad choices. She's very good in her other 2007 film, Jindabyne, but The Savages is her crown jewel. Her scenes with Hoffman represent some of the best give-and-take of any picture this year.

Ulrich Mühe (The Lives of Others): Sadly, Mühe died in July of this year, depriving the world of more performances by an actor who had just left an international calling-card. At least he lived long enough to see his film win the Best Foreign Language Oscar. Since most of Mühe's career was spent in movies that didn't make it to the United States, I can't speak for his long body of work but, if his performance in The Lives of Others is an indication, he was a powerful and gifted thespian.

Ellen Page (Juno): Page is the only actor to make this list two years in a row. Last year, I singled her out for Hard Candy. In 2007, she's back as the smart, incisive title character of a movie that's building momentum at the right time. The supporting cast in Juno is good, but this is Page's movie and it will put her on the map in a way that Hard Candy didn't. She has a lot of projects in the can and in progress, so there will be more of her to see in the near future.

Christina Ricci (Black Snake Moan): There's a lot more to Ricci's performance than meets the eye (or involves disrobing), just as there's a lot more to Black Snake Moan than one might initially suppose. "Courage" is often an overused term when describing an actor in a certain performance, but I would argue that it applies here. Some have dismissed Black Snake Moan as a modern exploitation flick but that's too facile a description and, no matter how one views it, it's hard to deny that this is Ricci's most compelling and risky work to date.

Carice van Houten (Black Book): Van Houten is well known in the Netherlands, where she has done a great deal of screen, television, and stage work, but this was her first widely distributed film in the United States. Film critics often lament the lack of strong female characters; with Black Book, van Houten gives us reason to applaud. Put her alongside Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton and the Action Heroine Hall of Fame. In Black Book, her forceful, nuanced performance caused director Paul Verhoeven to state that she is the most talented actress he has ever worked with.