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Three was not a magic number, and handheld shaky-cams induced motion sickness.

Gifted filmmaker Julie Taymor “lets the numbers speak their own language” in Across the Universe.

THE YEAR began and ended WITH AUDIENCE disinterest. In April, the anticipated-on-the-internet Grindhouse opened and quickly reminded everyone that people who spend their days online are not the real world. In November, Beowulf couldn't reach the audience an epic of its size depends on.

The response to both these movies was made worse because, as flawed as they are, they absolutely had to be seen in the theatre. Grindhouse's two halves and were released as separate movies on DVD, the original continuity of the film is unavailable. Beowulf on IMAX 3D is a movie-going experience more than it is a great movie. Although not among the year's best films, on the big screen, these were the most indispensable movie outings.

Because studios save so much valued product for the end of December, it's premature to authoritatively declare the year's highlights. That '07 was an overall weak movie year is because it's part of the cycle where Hollywood gets deathly scared of taking risks and makes sure most of its tent-pole releases are part threes.

The third in a series is rarely exciting Ocean's Thirteen was the best of its franchise. So was Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. But neither film was especially good, as they arrived when both of those series were exhausted. Shrek the Third, Rush Hour 3 and Spider-Man 3 were likewise hits that didn't inspire much enthusiasm.

The threequel summer was a drag reflecting a lack of creative inspiration. It was surprising that a filmmaker of Sam Raimi's esteem didn't even visually distinguish Spidey 3 from part two. Soderbergh's lower estimation, Ocean's Thirteen, was the only third chapter to reimagine itself in visual terms. The one threequel that was embraced by critics was The Bourne Ultimatum, a good movie nearly destroyed by its visual style.

Barf-cam for dummiesThe Bourne Ultimatum may be celebrated as an adult thriller, but its attitude is patronizing. It's part of an increasingly common approach in genre filmmaking where handheld shakey-cam is supposed to constitute realism. This is a problem for a number of reasons. For one, action movies like The Bourne Ultimatum by Paul Greengrass and The Kingdom by Peter Berg (who sells this same barf-cam "realism" on TV's Friday Night Lights) assume their viewers are too cynical for the manipulation of classical filmmaking.

So they make movies where shot composition doesn't have to mean anything. It's just spastic edits, random close-ups, whip pans, meaningless zoom-ins and shaking. (The funniest audience comment of the year happened in The Bourne Ultimatum, when someone interjected during a fight scene, "I think that was a fist.") I'm not sure how people equate barf-cam with realism anyway. The world simply isn't that shaky. It's a gimmicky approach to realism of which 2007's less remarked upon achievements in realistic drama—Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Preston Whitmore II's This Christmas—don't succumb. Holding a camera steady just isn't that hard.

The hits are alrightApart from the respectable box office of No Country for Old Men, the two instances of hugely popular movies ranked among the year's best were and Ratatouille and Hairspray. As for the event-films, the best in a usually soulless enterprise were Transformers, Michael Bay's sundrenched Americana about boys and their machines; and Francis Lawrence's I Am Legend. Lawrence isn't as distinguished, skilled or (in some ways) frustrating an artist as Bay, but his version of the Richard Matheson sci-fi yarn makes up for its familiarity with emotion and social interest. The whole movie lives on the strength of Will Smith's underestimated performance as the last man on Earth. Ideal and likeable a movie star as he is, for all the bank it makes, the film may prove too slow and downbeat in the public mind. Still, it's exciting to see a blockbuster with stretches of inspiration.

Worst throwawayWarner Bros.' efforts to not let anyone see its best release all year, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, involved quickly yanking the movie from theatres after pleading ignorance about how to market a Brad Pitt film.

Watch that c-wordThis year might be the momentary end to torture-based horror films. Dwindling interest in this year's titles The Hills Have Eyes II, Captivity, Hostel: Part II and Saw IV (most of which were no worse than years past) indicates that viewers were beginning to question their own taste in porn. Yet there was a weird connection between the horror genre and Oscar prestige.

Both the horror movies Hostel: Part II and P2 (about a woman terrorized in a parking lot on Christmas Eve), as well as the Ian McEwan adaptation Atonement, feature a violent dramatic shift around a female character reacting to a male using the c-word.

Xenophobia reignsI often suggest that people watch movies that aren't aimed at their demographic. The reasoning is that one of the basic values of movies is their ability to show how people are the same—the ways in which people whose lifestyles seem different than your own are in other ways a lot like you.

This connection brings insights into humanity, and then to ourselves. But it's an ideal that gets buried when studios assume viewers are ignorant and then sell them movies about themselves. The male bashing in Waitress only reaffirms stereotypes of southern men as abusive and uneducated. It's an annoying but familiar prejudice that's somewhat forgiven by the film's goodwill toward female uplift. The light comedy in Waitress has distinct attitude. As a movie, it's good TV. That's far preferable to Shoot 'Em Up, the most blatantly misogynistic movie this year. The 15-years-out-of-date action spoof has Paul Giamatti fondling a female corpse, not just to establish him as a villain, but because somebody thought it was cool. You can almost picture a bitter movie exec doing lines of coke while watching it.

Superbad actually got adults to see a movie about teenagers—an amazing feat. Teens are the one group most people think it's dignified to complain about, as though they were never 17 and as though adolescents don't have a more powerful foothold in cultural trends than they do. I think about it every time I hear people in their late 20s bash emo kids. But because Judd Apatow and Seth Rogan want to believe there are no Hispanic or black people in southern California, and that the hottest girls in school will inevitably fall for the dorkiest guys simply because the guys want it, Superbad's achievements aren't worth too much.

If you're a 40-year-old white male who likes Velvet Revolver, you should go to a crowded Friday night showing of This Christmas. If your whole idea of action-adventure is Heroes and Live Free or Die Hard, rent Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn. If you like bashing Tyler Perry or Amanda Bynes, try watching one of their movies first (neither Daddy's Little Girls or Sydney White is completely without interest). Twenty-eight-year-old Sarah Polley directing Away From Her, a movie about senior citizens, indicates she's probably rather strange. But she's reaching beyond herself.

Musicals were better this yearThis connective value of movies had been lost in recent bloated movie musicals. The award-winning Chicago celebrated petty narcissism, Rent faked edginess and Dreamgirls fumbled music history. In 2007, they got their mojo back. Hairspray adapted the stage musical of John Waters' cult film without many theatrical bearings. Adam Shankman's version moves like a movie, carrying its tunes through levels of nostalgic comedy, teen empowerment and social drama.

The stripped-down DV look of Once complimented its realist folk music love story. If only its director, John Carney, had studied the cutting rhythms and visual expression of real music videos beforehand (and not just conservative indie rock ones), its quaint approach would have left a deeper impression. This lack of music video directing experience conversely helps Julie Taymor's Across the Universe—she's such a gifted visual filmmaker, she lets the numbers speak their own language.

Absolute masterpieces: December's not over yet.... But so far, two films come close. Five stupidest movies that act smart: Into the Wild, A Mighty Heart, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, The Mist, Smokin' Aces. Five smartest movies that act stupid: Hot Rod, Stuck, Bug, Captivity, Freedom Writers. Five stupidest movies that act accordingly: Epic Movie, Dead Silence, Bratz: The Movie, License to Wed, Balls of Fury.

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