Though on-screen violence, like sexuality, can often be gratuitous, 2007 saw a surfeit of major films in which it played a strong -- but dramatically essential -- part. Each of them was artistically outstanding and has already been widely honored by many of the awards competitions and in top-10 lists.
These blood-tinged titles include "No Country for Old Men" (A-III, R), "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" (L, R), "Eastern Promises" (L, R), "Gone Baby Gone" (L, R), "3:10 to Yuma" (A-III, R), "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (A-III, R), "Michael Clayton" (A-III, R), "There Will Be Blood" (L, R) and "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (L, R).
All of these sometimes difficult-to-watch films were well received by the Office for Film & Broadcasting, as they were morally grounded beyond their aesthetic excellence.
But in selecting a 10-best list, we endeavored to find movies that would perhaps more directly reflect Catholic and/or strongly humane values. Thus, while we acknowledge the qualities of those aforementioned films -- along with others such as "Atonement," "Into the Wild" and "Charlie Wilson's War" -- our final list breaks down as follows, in alphabetical order, followed in parentheses by their USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification and Motion Picture Association of America rating:
2007’s Top 10
- “Amazing Grace”: Compelling historical biography about William Wilberforce, the great 18th-century British abolitionist who, with the help of the young British Prime Minister William Pitt and other like-minded friends in Parliament and elsewhere, managed -- after tireless and courageous struggle -- to pass an anti-slave-trade bill in Parliament. With its solid performances, accessible script and handsome production design, the film recalls some of the best historical dramas from Hollywood's golden age, and is all the more admirable for its unabashed portrait of a passionate man of God (A-II, (PG).
- "Bella"/"Juno": Two films that take different approaches to the same theme vie for this slot, with each beautifully affirming the value of human life. "Bella" is the sweetly sentimental story about an unmarried New York waitress who loses her job after becoming pregnant, and her restaurant's empathetic chef -- an ex-soccer star whose career ended after his car fatally struck a child. He gives the young woman emotional support, takes her to visit his loving family and gently tries to persuade her to keep the baby. The sensitive performances, positive depiction of the chef's warm Latino family, and most of all, its affirmative pro-life message -- along with themes of self-forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption -- should resonate with Catholic viewers (A-II, PG-13).
"Juno" is a smart, funny and ultimately moving comedy-drama with an equally strong pro-life message about an unwed teen who decides not to have an abortion, and promises the coming baby to a childless couple who long to adopt. The narrative has just the right moral wrap-up; performances and direction are tops, unfortunately marred by the high expletive level of its appealing but sassy heroine. (A-III, PG-13).
- "Beyond the Gates": Gripping dramatization about the 1994 siege of a Rwandan secondary school at the height of the genocide, as a dedicated Catholic priest and an idealistic young British teacher attempt to protect some 2,500 Tutsi citizens from the machete-wielding Hutus hovering just outside the school gates. Filmed at the actual locations of the horrific events with survivors among the cast and crew (A-III, R).
- "Into Great Silence": Poetically filmed documentary about a Carthusian monastery in the French Alps, which follows the cloistered monks in their daily -- mostly silent and solitary -- routines. The respectful no-frills approach utilizes no narration or background music, but by combining alternately a painterly formality and a verite intimacy, skillfully captures the textures and rhythms of their highly structured existence (A-I, no rating).
- "The Kite Runner": Fine adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's best-seller about an Afghan writer now living in the U.S. who recalls how as a boy in his native homeland, he failed to help and subsequently betrayed his best friend, and now finds he has a chance to atone for that misdeed. Sensitive direction and beautiful performances add up to a fascinating portrait of pre- and post-Taliban Afghanistan with fine human values, strong affirmation of friendship and family, and redemptive ending that should move even the most stone-hearted (A-III, PG-13).
- "Lars and the Real Girl": Poignant story of emotionally fragile delusional man who -- unable to make human connection -- buys a life-size doll whom he presents as his girlfriend, and how his brother and sister-in-law, his office mates, fellow churchgoers and townspeople accept "her" as human out of love and compassion for him. Suspension of disbelief is essential, but this improbable tale becomes believable, with themes of family, community, religion, forgiveness, redemption and a strong affirmation of human decency (A-II, PG-13).
- "The Lives of Others": Gripping German political thriller set in the East Berlin of 1984 -- five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall -- in which a hard-bitten interrogator for the secret police wiretaps the apartment of a celebrated playwright and his actress companion, and discovers his own humanity in the process. A suspenseful and profoundly moving story that besides bringing to life the ambience of pre-glasnost Germany, vividly demonstrates the transformative power of art while elucidating the conflict between ideology and conscience (A-III, R).
- "The Namesake": Superb, beautifully acted over-the-years saga about Indian newlyweds who emigrate to New York to start their life, and the joys and vicissitudes which follow, including the son who grows away from them. This adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri's acclaimed novel holds your interest right up to its two-hankie conclusion, and has a poignant affirmation of family, respect for one's parents, and embracing one's heritage with pride (A-III, PG-13).
- "The Rape of Europa": Absorbing documentary about Adolf Hitler's plunder and destruction of thousands of Europe's most famous artworks during World War II, and the subsequent efforts to find those which survived and restore them. Based on the book by Lynn H. Nicholas, this fascinating story is as compelling as any dramatic film, and poignantly demonstrates the dangerous lengths to which ordinary people were willing to go for the sake of preserving these precious masterworks (A-II, no rating).
- "Ratatouille": Delectable animated tale of a cute rat who, inspired by the spirit of a famous late chef, develops his improbable passion for cooking by becoming the secret adviser to an esteemed Paris restaurant's hapless garbage boy, turning the latter into a star chef, while the eatery's jealous head chef contrives to uncover the secret of the boy's success. The gorgeously animated production has a rare sophistication that should entertain adults as much as their children, while the messages of teamwork, honesty and following one's dreams are strongly conveyed. (A-I, G).
2007’s Top for Families:
Not all of the above titles would be appropriate for youngsters, and some (like "The Lives of Others") are strictly for mature audiences, so we have followed our long-standing tradition of compiling 10 children-friendly movies for worry-free family viewing.
- "Arctic Tale": An involving story charting the parallel journeys of a polar bear cub and a walrus pup in the Arctic Circle from birth to maturity and showing how they manage to survive a changing environment with ever-decreasing ice seriously impeding both their natural habitat and their ability to obtain food. This impressively photographed documentary "fable" vividly dramatizes the challenges facing these creatures in light of global warming, rendering the film a vivid animal counterpart to Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth." (A-I, G).
- "Bee Movie": Generally engaging animated feature about a scrappy bee who decides to sue the human race for stealing the honey manufactured by his hard-working bee brethren and brings the case to court, with the help of a sympathetic florist. An often very funny script, terrific voice work, and ultimately, a valuable ecological lesson. (A-I, PG).
- "Bridge to Terabithia": Coming-of-age fantasy based on Katherine Paterson's children's novel about a young loner who befriends a new girl in town, also an outcast, and together they create a magical world -- Terabithia -- where they can escape their real-life troubles. The young leads are charming and the sweet story gently imparts worthy messages about friendship, family and the power of imagination. A-II (PG)
- "Enchanted": Clever musical romance follows a maiden from the world of animated fairy tales into contemporary, live-action Manhattan where she falls in love with a lawyer, despite the entreaties of her princely suitor and the meddling of an evil queen. With affection and wit, the film gently spoofs the cartoon fairy-tale genre on which Disney built its reputation, never losing sight of its traditional values and perennial charms. (A-I, PG).
- "Evan Almighty": Surprisingly felicitous contemporary spin on the Noah story, as a TV anchorman turned congressman is instructed by God to build an ark in light of an impending flood, much to the skeptical consternation of his colleagues on Capitol Hill, his wife and three young sons. Imparting an overall message about how one act of random kindness can change the world. Slapstick, sentiment and surprising reverence are skillfully combined (A-II, PG).
- "Fred Claus": Generally funny yet bittersweet tale of a sad-sack Chicago repo man who travels to the North Pole to help his younger, more popular brother, St. Nicholas, at Christmas, while a devious efficiency expert threatens to shut down the elves' toy factory. Underneath the laughs, this is a surprisingly resonant take on sibling rivalry, with lots of heart-tugging sentiment, and solid messages about family, self-esteem, forgiveness and, ultimately, redemption (A-II, PG).
- "Mr. Bean's Holiday": The perennially pleasing Mr. Bean wins a trip to the French Riviera, but before reaching the beach he manages to complicate the lives of a Russian film critic, the critic's young son, a self-obsessed movie director and a charming French actress. The film is an unmitigated delight: gentle, ingenious and equally appealing to children and adults. (A-I, G).
- "Martian Child": Delicate, highly unusual story about widowed science fiction writer who adopts a strange little boy who insists he's come from Mars. Director Menno Meyjes sustains a slightly surreal tone throughout which keeps you guessing whether the child is simply delusional or actually an extraterrestrial being, as the poignant script underscores themes of nonconformity, loss, and the power of love (A-II, PG).
- "Shrek the Third": The saga of the lovable ogre continues in the same high quality vein of the first two films, as Shrek -- aided by a potential heir to Far Far Away's throne -- must rescue his wife, Fiona, and the kingdom's other residents who have been captured by the evil Prince Charming and an assortment of fairy-tale villains. The script's careful emphasis on good values such as believing in yourself, sacrificing for others, eschewing violence, and trusting in mankind's innate goodness override the occasional crude and mildly suggestive gags (A-II, PG).
- "Underdog": An ordinary dog is given extraordinary powers in this charming film adaptation of the classic 1960s television cartoon series. Director Frederik Du Chau's updated, live-action adventure combines the best of 21st-century special effects with a genuinely engaging story line, some wry humor and unimpeachable family values. Occasional crass language, some mild innuendo, and scatological humor and cartoon violence perhaps preclude the film for very young children. A-I (PG)
In such an unusually plentiful year for quality films, there were far more than we could include on these two lists. Besides the ones mentioned at the beginning of this article, the following titles also deserve honorable mention nods:
- "Away From Her," A-III (PG-13).
- "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," A-III (R).
- "December Boys," A-III (PG-13).
- "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," A-III (PG-13).
- "The Great Debaters," A-III (PG-13).
- "Once," A-III (R).
- "Rescue Dawn," A-II (PG-13).
- "Reservation Road," A-III (R).
- "Resurrecting the Champ," A-III (PG-13).
- "Things We Lost in the Fire," A-III (R).
The Office for Film & Broadcasting classifications for the films listed above: A-I -- general patronage; A-II -- adults and adolescents; A-III -- adults; L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. Motion Picture Association of America ratings for the films listed above: G -- general audiences. All ages admitted; PG -- parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children; PG-13 -- parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13; R -- restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.