The Halftime Top 10

July 29, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

Slightly belated, but better late than never (as they say), this year's "halftime" Top 10 will represent January through July, rather than January through June, as has been the case in the past. Historically, about the top two or three titles on this list make it onto the year-end edition. It could be more or less depending on the strength of the October through December releases. (Typically, August and September represent the dregs.)

As is my custom, I present these in reverse order, saving the best for last.

10. Once: For some critics, this will be a likely candidate for a spot on the end-of-the-year Top 10, but I'm not quite as fond of this indie musical romance as others. For me, it's a pleasant diversion, but not much more. Maybe that opinion would change if I was a big fan of The Frames, but I'm not. Nevertheless, the film is emotionally honest and touches the heart, so it gets points for that. And the music, while not memorable, works effectively within the context of the story. The movie won't be on my list in December, but I felt it deserved some kind of mid-year recognition.

9. 300: The year's first genuine jolt of adrenaline and testosterone, 300 remains the best pure action feature of the year, even in the wake of the summer season. This relentless, visually stunning motion picture puts to shame many of the higher profile sequels that have dotted the cinematic landscape over the past three months. It gave us a reason to go to theaters in the late winter and will give us reason to go to the DVD store in a few days.

8. Namesake, The: In adapting Jhumpa Lahiri's novel, Mira Nair has provided a rich and affecting perspective of immigration across two generations. Eschewing manipulation in favor of carefully modulated drama, The Namesake is an involving story that shows both sides of the assimilation issue - children who want to be just like all their friends and parents who want their children to respect cultural traditions. The Namesake did not find a wide audience during its theatrical release. Hopefully, more viewers will take a chance on it when it reaches DVD.

7. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: The best and the darkest Harry Potter film to date is the fifth installment. Now far removed from the lighthearted fare that started the series, the story is beginning down the path that will lead to the conclusion recently revealed in The Deathly Hallows. The storytelling, like the characters, is maturing, and The Order of the Phoenix gives us a glimpse into the grand possibilities offered by the final two cinematic chapters in the epic fantasy tale.

6. Time: South Korean director Kim Ki-duk is a controversial figure - he is beloved and despised by equal numbers of people. His latest film questions the nature and meaning of identity. Like many of Kim's films, this one isn't easily digestible but it is endlessly fascinating and features its share of memorable images. The recursive conclusion is the film's most talked-about element and needs to be viewed from a symbolic perspective for it to have meaning. I have seen the film three times since my first viewing of it at last year's Toronto Film Festival and it continues to intrigue me.

5. Bridge to Terabithia: Marketing hurt this wonderful family film. Disney, in its infinite wisdom, elected to compare the movie to The Chronicles of Narnia - an inaccurate and unfair representation. The film explores how the power of imagination can be used to relieve the distress of a difficult childhood but it is not about literally traveling to the magical land of Terabithia. The movie is well assembled with a real emotional punch and an eye opening performance by AnnaSophia Robb.

4. Black Snake Moan: This film probably received more attention for its treatment of star Christina Ricci (naked in several scenes, nearly naked in most others, lugging around a chain for half the movie) than for anything else. But Craig Brewer's concoction has something genuine to say and its approach to the female lead was part of the overall message of redemption. The movie is a little twisted but not without a purpose. Its warped approach is one of the things that makes the film so enjoyable. It bombed at the box office but is available on DVD.

3. Knocked Up: I have always claimed to like romantic comedies, and maybe that's why I appreciate Knocked Up as much as I do. It's equal parts sweetness and raunchiness and, like Judd Apatow's previous feature, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, that mix proves to be nearly perfect. The four-letter words and bouts with gross-out humor are icing for a movie that's about two people falling in love and growing up. In developing the film, Apatow never lost sight of the human condition, and that's what makes this movie so appealing.

2. Black Book: Paul Verhoeven's film melds Hollywood spectacle with European substance. It's one of the best paced and most exhilarating World War II adventure movies to come along in decades. With a complex script that doesn't comply with the expected clich├ęs of the era, Black Book follows its lead character as she does whatever is necessary to accomplish her goals. Carice van Houten gives a striking performance as Rachel. The movie takes some chances - a Gestapo officer, for example, is presented as an honorable man - but nearly all of them work.

1. Lives of Others, The: There was no difficulty picking an occupant for the penthouse of the mid-year Top 10: The Lives of Others stands considerably above its other ***1/2 competition. This is the only movie on this list that I feel confident will appear on the end-of-the-year one as well. It deservedly won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and provides all one could want from a great motion picture: drama, character development, emotional heft, and suspense. The film works on nearly every level and has a perfectly modulated ending. One minor side note: actor Sebastian Koch has roles in both this and the #2 film, Black Book. If nothing else, this confirms that Koch is a man of exceptional taste.