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Big Shoulders

In a year when shirking responsibility was the rule, movies about accepting it stood out.

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I would never assemble a year-end list to support some kind of thesis. But looking over my ten favorite movies of 2007—Atonement, Away From Her, Gone Baby Gone, In the Valley of Elah, Into Great Silence, Lake of Fire, My Kid Could Paint That, Reservation Road, Strange Culture, and Things We Lost in the Fire—I'm struck by how many of them turn on the question of responsibility. In some cases they're about people weighing their responsibility to others; in some cases they highlight our responsibility to larger ideals. That may sound unbearably heavy, yet all these movies lifted me up, which is a revelation in itself: maybe the things we choose to shoulder are what make life worth living.

You wouldn't need a psychologist to figure out why I'm preoccupied with the subject. At the Reader, 2007 will be remembered as the Year of the Ax: budget cuts have reduced the editorial department alone by almost a third. Yet the issue you're holding in your hands (or clicking through on your computer) carries just as much editorial content as the one you might have been reading a year ago. Many of my coworkers who haven't been axed have seen their workloads increase dramatically over the past year. When something like this happens, everyone is forced to weigh his responsibilities in the workplace against his responsibilities to his family, his community, and ultimately himself.

On the national stage, of course, 2007 was a year in which no one wanted to take the rap for anything. Convicted of lying under oath in the CIA leak case, Scooter Libby got his sentence commuted by President Bush, who effectively said that Libby was guilty but shouldn't do time. Bill Clinton tried to rewrite history by claiming he'd been against the Iraq war all along, and Barack Obama, hammering Hillary Clinton for her Senate vote that labeled Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group, conveniently omitted the fact that he'd blown off the vote himself. But the sorriest spectacle of the year may have been captured in Charles Ferguson's excellent documentary No End in Sight, when Paul Hughes and Walt Slocombe, U.S. officials in the Coalition Provisional Authority, pass the buck back and forth over who decided to disband the Iraqi army.

With this sort of malarkey going on, even a fictional character wrestling with his own culpability can be hugely compelling; Ben Affleck's grimy Gone Baby Gone has the most haunting conclusion of any commercial drama I saw all year. Patrick Kenzie, a two-bit private detective played by Casey Affleck, spends much of the movie tracking a kidnapped preschooler even as it becomes obvious that the girl's blowsy single mother is an unfit parent. When he finally locates the child, she's being better loved and cared for than she ever was by her mom, and Kenzie must decide whether to leave well enough alone or return the little girl to her awful home. The consequences to the child will be enormous, and his dilemma is no less agonizing just because he won't be around to witness them.

The same sense of guilt propels Joe Wright's polished period drama Atonement, though in this case a child's actions have momentous repercussions for an adult. The main character is an overimaginative 13-year-old who falsely accuses her older sister's lover of rape; he spends the next five years in prison, and the balance of the movie follows his accuser into adulthood and then old age as she longs, but never quite manages, to make things right. Atonement has collected so many rapturous reviews and award nominations that a backlash can't be far off, but it's too layered to be dismissed as tony Oscar bait; its historical sweep, nuanced characterization, and literary intelligence are almost perfectly aligned. None of that would matter, though, if the protagonist didn't feel such a desperate need to make amends.

These are the kinds of stories that inspire great actors, and the four other dramas on my list are all anchored by vivid, piercing performances. Mark Ruffalo, who excels at playing inarticulate men, suffers in silence all through Terry George's Reservation Road as a divorced father who's killed another man's son in a hit-and-run accident. With his sorrowful stare, Benicio del Toro always gives the impression he's seen things too terrible to relate, and I sure believed in him as a heroin addict shocked into sobriety by a friend's murder in Susanne Bier's Things We Lost in the Fire. Tommy Lee Jones may win an Oscar for playing the weary sheriff in No Country for Old Men, but Paul Haggis's In the Valley of Elah gave him a far more complex character, a retired military man who's forced to confront the dehumanization of his soldier son in Iraq. And Away From Her may have been heralded as a comeback for Julie Christie, who plays a woman being slowly erased by Alzheimer's, but its emotional center was Gordon Pinsent as her devoted husband, whose memories become ever more precious as hers disappear.

I must confess, however, that I've begun to lose interest in fiction movies; with the world such a mess, they don't seem to matter much anymore. And as I've gotten older, I've grown much less tolerant of movies that waste my time, a development I call the Finding Forrester effect. By most accounts Gus Van Sant's 2000 drama about a reclusive literary icon is a listless hack job; I've never been able to watch it myself because it was the last movie my father saw before he took ill, went into the hospital, and died. When I'm sitting in a press preview I sometimes think, "If I had only a few days left, would I want to spend two hours watching this?" That may seem like an absurdly high bar for a filmmaker to clear, but whoever said a filmmaker is entitled to two hours of your life? Anyone who wants those two hours has a responsibility to make the movie meaningful in some way; if more producers and directors took it seriously, I might be counting off the top 100 films of 2007, not the top 10.

The documentaries on my list had no trouble clearing that bar, but the one that sailed the highest over it was Philip Gröning's Into Great Silence, a lengthy pictorial study of the Carthusian monks who inhabit the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps. Following close behind was Tony Kaye's Lake of Fire, a sustained and remarkably evenhanded inquiry into the morality of abortion. Both films advance radical notions of responsibility, the first implicitly arguing that we owe a debt to the Almighty, the second asking whether our commitment to human life includes the unborn. My Kid Could Paint That, an absorbing profile of a preschooler who's been hailed as a brilliant abstract painter, becomes even more fascinating when her family comes under attack by the media and director Amir Bar-Lev has to balance his friendly relationship with the parents against his role as a journalist.

Last but not least, Lynn Hershman Leeson's Strange Culture tells the jaw-dropping story of a man held responsible for a crime that never occurred. Steve Kurtz, an art professor at SUNY Buffalo, woke one morning to find that his wife had died in her sleep of heart failure; when paramedics arrived on the scene, they spotted bacterial cultures the Kurtzes had ordered for a performance-art piece, and the FBI went after Kurtz as a bioterrorist. That case quickly fell apart, but overzealous prosecutors have now indicted him and the scientist who sold him the cultures for mail and wire fraud, charges that carry a possible 20-year prison sentence. Unlike most of the movies I saw this year, Strange Culture really does matter, and if Steve Kurtz winds up going to jail as a scapegoat in the war on terror, the responsibility will be all ours. v

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