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A look back at 2007 films

Year was unpredictable for stars, political pics

It’s likely 2007 will be remembered as a watershed year marked by a Writers Guild strike that underlined the industry’s shift toward an Internet future. Pixel-packed event movies prevailed at the box office, while a spate of smaller films, many backed by outside financing, failed to give audiences reasons to venture out to theaters. Some stars who experimented with challenging movies outside their comfort zone prevailed. Others did not.

Stars in the zone

Every star seems to get a stretch of time when everything seems to go right in connecting with audiences. Named Hollywood’s No. 1 star by Newsweek earlier this year, Will Smith confirmed that status with the $76 million opening for the sci-fi actioner “I Am Legend” after delivering an Oscar-nominated perf in last year’s “Happyness.”

No longer in the zone is Tom Cruise, who after the unceremonious ousting from his 14-year Paramount deal by Viacom chief Sumner Redstone, is in mid-career transition as head of the new United Artists studio. His first film out of the starting gate, Robert Redford’s $35 million political diatribe “Lions for Lambs,” which co-starred Meryl Streep, was lambasted by critics and grossed $14.9 million. His next, Bryan Singer’s “Valkyrie,” in which he stars as an eye-patched Nazi, is not a surefire tentpole. UA recently pushed the film back to fall 2008 release.

Another star who stumbled at the 2007 box office was Nicole Kidman, who starred in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” remake “Invasion,” New Line’s disappointing “The Golden Compass” and Noah Baumbach’s limited arthouse release “Margot at the Wedding.” Kidman has more promising pics in 2008: Baz Luhrmann’s epic “Australia,” co-starring fellow Aussie Hugh Jackman, and Stephen Daldry’s “The Reader.”

Johnny Depp, an untrained singer, balanced his third go-round as Jack Sparrow in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series with fellow musical neophyte Tim Burton’s daring adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” It remains to be seen how auds will embrace this latest Burton/Depp adventure.

Politics were dicey

George Clooney, who had hits this year with “Oceans Thirteen” and “Michael Clayton,” can take some credit, along with Participant Prods., for the spate of political films that followed “Good Night and Good Luck” and “Syriana.” But this year’s batch met a harsher fate. Universal’s $70 million “The Kingdom” was the most expensive disappointment among 2007’s raft of underperforming pics about the Middle East, earning $44 million domestically.

Audiences also shied away from “Lions for Lambs,” Michael Winterbottom’s Angelina Jolie starrer “A Mighty Heart,” CIA thriller and Reese Witherspoon starrer “Rendition” and Paul Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah.”

After last year’s Oscar-winning “An Inconvenient Truth,” Participant found less audience enthusiasm for the films it backed in 2007, including the Jonathan Demme doc “Jimmy Carter Man from Plains” and Ted Braun’s “Darfur Now.”

Marc Forster and David Benioff’s screen version of Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” met with muted critical and audience response. Participant also supported a more comedic film set in Afghanistan, Mike Nichols’ “Charlie Wilson’s War,” which despite stars Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, was not tracking well in advance of its Dec. 21 opening.

Never one to shy away from politics, with “Sicko” (domestic gross: $24 million) message meister Michael Moore showed yet again that he can reach a wide swath of moviegoers.

Kings of comedy

Comedy scored at the 2007 box office, especially if the prolific Judd Apatow was involved. He wrote and directed “Knocked Up” (domestic gross: $148 million), produced “Superbad” ($121 million) and co-wrote and produced “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” starring John C. Reilly. The Apatow factory has about 10 pics in the pipeline for 2008 and 2009 with various directors. Seth Rogen, Katherine Heigl, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera and Steve Carell are among the actors who can thank Apatow for super-charging their careers.

Rookie screenwriter Diablo Cody and sophomore director Jason Reitman proved to be a magic combo with the year’s second pregnancy comedy, “Juno,” which also broke out diminutive Ellen Page as an awards contender. Reitman is producing Cody’s next pic, femme horror pic “Jennifer’s Body.”

Studio producers go indie

Some of the year’s best films were pushed through by studio producers playing on the lower-budget, indie side of the fence: Scott Rudin backed “No Country for Old Men,” “There Will be Blood” and “Margot at the Wedding.” Kathleen Kennedy produced two French-language films, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and “Persepolis.” Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald put together “The Kite Runner” with William Horberg and Rebecca Yeldham. Working Title is an old hand at playing the big studio/little studio game, this year with Universal (“Elizabeth: The Golden Age”) and Focus Features (“Atonement”).

Music movies rocked

Audiences were humming to music movies, from Julie Taymor’s “Across the Universe” to “I’m Not There,” Todd Hayne’s avant-garde homage to Bob Dylan. The Frames’ Glen Hansard wooed Margeta Irglova in John Carney’s romantic musical “Once.” Sam Riley channeled Joy Division’s Ian Curtis in the biopic “Control.” Marion Cotillard is heading toward awards contention as French chanteuse Edith Piaf in “La Vie en rose.” Zac Efron and Elijah Kelley popped in Adam Shankman’s ebullient “Hairspray.” James Marsden looked and sounded fab in both “Hairspray” and “Enchanted,” which also solidified the ascension of Amy Adams.

Three film versions of Broadway hits are in the offing in 2008 and 2009: ABBA musical “Mamma Mia!” starring Meryl Streep, “Nine,” from “Chicago” helmer Rob Marshall and “Sunset Boulevard.”

Femme helmers on the rise

After decades of slim pickings from female directors, 2007 saw a batch of strong movies directed by women.

Julie Taymor fought Revolution Studios’ Joe Roth over her final cut and won, as her Beatles musical “Across the Universe” proved a hit with teen girls (domestic gross to date, $24 million). Mira Nair’s “The Namesake” played across generations and grossed $13.5 million during its spring release.

While they didn’t deliver sizzling B.O. returns, other femme directors scored with critics and arthouse audiences.

Actress Sarah Polley and screenwriter Robin Swicord made impressive directing debuts with “Away From Her,” starring awards-season contender Julie Christie, and the ensemble comedy “The Jane Austen Book Club,” respectively.

Writer-director Tamara Jenkins’ “The Savages” earned strong notices for thesps Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney, while Halle Berry and Benicio del Toro won praise for Danish director Susanne Bier’s first English-language effort, “Things We Lost in the Fire.” Kasi Lemmons’ “Talk to Me” starred Don Cheadle as a fast-talking ’70s DJ married to the incandescent Taraji P. Henson.

Sadly, the murder of actress-writer-director Adrienne Shelly abruptly stopped her career, which took off this year with surprise hit “Waitress.”

Actors score as directors

Denzel Washington followed his 2002 directing debut “Antwone Fisher” with another inspirational story, “The Great Debaters.” Ben Affleck added directing to his writing and acting talents with his screen adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s “Gone Baby Gone.” Like Clooney, Affleck plans to adopt the Clint Eastwood model of balancing acting and directing.

Another actor who will direct more is Sean Penn, who waited for more than a decade to win the go-ahead to make the screen version of the Jon Krakauer survival story “Into the Wild.”

The Paramount story

The roiling studio continued to be fascinating to watch, as DreamWorks principals David Geffen and Steven Spielberg and Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone and his Paramount chief, Brad Grey continued to make public power moves. After DreamWorks’ extraordinary $1 billion box office hot streak, which will spawn a litter of “Transformers” sequels and was capped by year-end
awards contender “Sweeney Todd,” you’d think Paramount and DreamWorks would be one big happy family.

Au contraire.

As DreamWorks suffered seller’s remorse for letting Viacom buy the 12-year-old studio for a mere $1.53 billion, Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Spielberg made no secret of their unhappiness with Redstone’s less-than-friendly approach to talent relations.

Alternative deals at Universal and 20th Century Fox may beckon. But, no matter how miserable Spielberg and Geffen are (Katzenberg’s animation division has a Paramount distribution deal through 2013), it makes little sense for them to walk away from DreamWorks at the height of their success, leaving all their development behind, to try to start over. It took them 12 years to get where they are today.

Since Grey took over Par, importing many DreamWorks execs, a whirring revolving door has moved the likes of Donald DeLine, Gail Berman and Ally Shearmur out of the studio. More change is in the offing: In the new year, execs Rob Moore, John Lesher, Scott Aversano, Brad Weston and Nick Meyer will be transitioning into new roles.

The Year Ahead

We can expect more sequels and remakes, of course, from reinventions of the “Mummy” and “Indiana Jones” to J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek.” If the indies don’t turn more of their releases into mini-events, no one will come to see them. And if MGM doesn’t figure out a better distribution and marketing plan, no one will bring them any more films.

To Sundance, and beyond.

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