Atonement - Striking beauty meets haunting betrayal in this period piece that is a tour de force for cinematic skill. James McAvoy and Keira Knightley play lovers where are forced to separate when a young girl played by a young Saoirse Ronan makes false accusations against them. We watch as their lives unfold and how stark and hopeless they become. The film is filled with some of the most beautiful cinematography I have ever seen, but constantly juxtaposes that beauty with haunting imagery. James McAvoy and Keira Knightley deliver some of their strongest work in this picture, but it is young Ronan who captures the most recognition for giving such a soulful and nuanced performance at such a young age. This film is one of my go-to movies when I need to experience 'the feels' and is simply an exceptional drama in a wartime setting.
Away from Her - This might be one of the hardest to watch movies I have ever had to sit through. It hits very close to home. The film is a character study on a husband and wife who are dealing with the wife's battle with Alzheimer's. The film treats the characters with 100% authenticity and Julie Christie gives the best performance of the year. It feels inescapably real. Gordon Pinsent also gives a strong performance as her husband that is worthy of note. The film was written and directed by actress Sarah Polly and makes for one of the best actor-turned-director debuts from a filmmaker.
Cashback - An elongation of his 2004 Oscar nominated short film, Sean Ellis directs this uniquely artful examination of a man's breakup and subsequent insomnia as he tries to find new love. Harry Potter alum Sean Biggerstaff (who played Oliver Wood) breaths life into the main character of the film. He is really quite a talent and I am kind of surprised his career didn't go farther, especially after this film. His character deals with his insomnia by working the night shift at a local supermarket and it is there that his imagination runs wild. The film contains a fair amount of nudity, but it is artfully shot. Finding new love becomes the key to overcoming his insomnia (or so he thinks) but love just further complicates matters. Emilia Fox also gives a rather strong performance as the new object of his affection. What I admire about the film is that these characters are portrayed with a strong level of humanity which helps to ground the film. It may fall to certain genre tropes, but it puts those tropes to good and somewhat inventive use and makes for one compelling drama.
Hot Fuzz - Edgar Wright (my personal favorite active director) wrote and directed this send up of buddy cop movies in the second installment of the Cornetto Trilogy. This film is dripping with creative energy and perfectly captured the tone and style of Lethal Weapon style buddy cop films. The best bits stem from incredible usages of editing. The scenes where cops are filling out paper work are shot and cut like big action battles in a Michael Bay film, and it is hilarious every time. Simon Pegg and Nick Front rekindle that chemistry established in Shaun of the Dead (or Spaced before that) and make for the perfect duo. The whole of the cast is pitch perfect, and the screenplay is the strongest thing either Wright or Pegg have ever written. The comedy soars. The action dazzles. This is one of my favorite films of the decade, possibly making my Top 5. And, time has been really kind to this film. It made a small amount of waves when it first came out, but most felt that it was inferior to Shaun. However, after the completion of the trilogy, it seems the tides have turned and most recognize this film as the strongest act of the trilogy, and I certainly would not disagree. It was my favorite movie of 2007 until I saw....
Juno - Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody knocked it out of the park with this charming coming of age yarn that feels wonderfully quirky and nonetheless heartfelt. Cody's screenplay is exceptionally well written and captures that select voice of youth that only the off beat had at the time. It felt achingly real and occasionally cringy, but that is the life of a teenager. The film leans into genre traditions but than deflects them to arrange for situations that feel unexpected and emotionally earned. Ellen Page is spectacular. She really gives one hell of a performance. It isn't quite as good as her stunning performance in Hard Candy, but she well deserved her Oscar nomination. Michael Cera is incredibly charming as the unlikely romantic lead. Jason Bateman gives my favorite performance of his that isn't Michael Bleuth. Jennifer Garner doesn't get the recognition she deserves. She is really an exceptional actress and here, she really gets to showcase her ability to connect with an audience. J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney round out the cast as Juno's parents and they each are highlights of the film. There is not a dull moment in this film. It is easily my favorite film of 2007 and one of my personal favorite films in general.
Best Picture : No Country for Old Men - The Coen Brothers finally attain their long overdue Oscar for this gritty modern Western that showcases a magnetic villain and stellar performances from the whole cast. It is not my favorite film of theirs, but undeniably good.
Biggest Box Office : Spider-Man 3 - Spidy's third outting follows the long tradition of the underwhelming threequel. That said, I think it gets some undue hate. Two thirds of this movie are really quite good. It is the forced third act addition of Venom (forced by the studio to an unwilling Raimi) that brings the movie down. The juxtaposing tone is not as well balanced here, but most of the movie is good and has some earned drama. The plot threads continued from Spidy 2 gel well. I really like the Goblin plot and the Peter/MJ stuff really works well and ties thematically with the dark side of being a hero. The Sandman stuff is fantastic. I even like the dopey dance that Peter does in black suit. It is cringy, but supposed to be. The humor works in the film really well. Bruce Campbell has his best cameo between the three films here. But it is uniting the action, comedy and drama that doesn't always work this time around and the climax with Venom is weak sauce. I would argue that this is a better Venom movie than the actual one we got in 2018. Topher Grace may not be as good in the role, but he is keeping in line with his comic counterpart far more than the recent Venom and offers a small amount of dramatic heft that the new one never attained. I think that if people revisit Spidy 3, they may come away thinking it was better than they remember.