Movies of 2007: Playing catch-up

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Someone once said that December is for film critics what April is for accountants. That is,

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crunch time. In addition to watching the usual movie selections that open in a given week, we enter Best-of-the-Year awards season, catching up on titles we missed earlier in the year while seeing early screenings for films that may not open locally until well into 2008 but have token New York/Los Angeles releases for Oscar and other award consideration. Recently I saw a few I missed the first time:

Breach and The Hoax. I suspect that neither of these spring releases got their due, but they’re underrated, solid entertainments with common themes of deception in Ame

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rican institutions, and possibly the American dream itself. Breach offers a terse, unglamorous espionage drama about the pursuit of FBI agent – and Russian spy – Robert Hansson (Chris Cooper), while The Hoax spins satirical comedy about novelist Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) and his record-breaking sale of Howard Hughes’ autobiography – although the book is an elaborate con predicated on the belief that Hughes, a nutty billionaire hermit, would never emerge from seclusion to contest it.

Both films feature taut, suspenseful sequences when the main characters seem about to be caught in lies. In Breach, Ryan Phillippe’s character (an undercover FBI agent assigned to sting Hansson) couches his cover stories in half-truths to throw off Hansson’s skill at spotting untruths. In The Hoax, Irving counters (accurate) accusations of fraud with even more outlandish claims, which inevitably carry the day. Thematically, the films strike me as having more kick than this fall’s grim lineup of films about the Iraq war or U.S. foreign policy (although Breach includes a fiery speech about the lack of inter-agency cooperation that helped make the 9/11 hijackings go undetected until too late). Movies that make their criticism more metaphorical, while relying on taut storytelling, have shown more snap this year. (Paul Thomas Anderson’s upcoming There Will Be Blood takes place in the early 20th century, but its portrait of the mutual hostility and exploitation between the oil business and organized religion seems rife with implications about the Bush administration, if you care to look for them.)

Once. This spring release slipped under our radar, only to become a sleeper hit. Director John Carney presents a winning, sort-of love story between an Irish busker (Glen Hansard) and a Czech pianist (Marketa Irglova) in a film that’s not so much a musical as the story of two people who happen to be musicians. Hansard’s lovelorn ballads aren’t necessarily the tracks I’d put on my iPod (if I owned an iPod), but as an artist, his passion and musicianship are undeniable. Like the less successful Colma: The Musical, Once suggests that indie musicals may become the most creative, rewarding genre to watch of this generation.

La Vie en Rose. I approached the biopic of Edith Piaf more out of a sense of obligation than enthusiasm: Rumors that it presented an unsparing, downbeat portrayal of Piaf’s life, if anything, underestimated the amount of suffering in the film. By the end, I was expecting her to be a severed head kept on life support, singing, “I Regret Nothing,” as the credits rolled. I imagine the filmmakers saying on the set, "What, Edith hasn't been tearfully separated from a loved one in the past 30 minutes? We'd better get on that."

Still, La Vie en Rose is an undeniably intelligent film, and Marion Cotillard’s performance lives up to the hype: She simply goes beyond the work of any other actor I’ve seen this year, male or female. An Americanized take on the material would probably cast an efficient beauty like Jennifer Connelly and make the role tragic but conventionally pretty with a U.S.-friendly sound. Cotillard’s Piaf doesn’t look or sing like a contemporary celebrity, but proves wholly persuasive as a boisterous, boozing chanteuse who came up in France’s dive bars and cabarets between the wars. As much as I love, say, Ellen Page in Juno or Laura Linney in The Savages, they’re not in the same league. It’s like comparing someone who set a record in the Peachtree Road Race with someone who won your neighborhood's annual Fun Run.

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