Last year, it was pretty easy to nail down a Top Ten list. I knew pretty much what was going to be in there after Toronto, and while there was a little shuffling, it didn't change all that much. This year was another story entirely ... so many good films from which to choose, so many films I loved for different reasons. Culling that down to ten films was hard this year, and I agonized over my endlessly shifting list, trying out different films in my top ten like a woman hunting for the perfect little black dress for New Year's Eve. I finally managed to get it molded into a Top Ten which, if I wasn't ever going to be completely satisfied with, I could at least live with. So, here they are, the ten films. There are some excellent films from the fest circuit that could have just as easily ended up there, had I been in a different mood or had one more (or one less) cup of coffee while I was writing this. I'll be talking about them in my last Film Clips column of the year.
The Top Ten
1. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly -- The top two films on my list shifted back and forth at least a dozen times before I finally settled on Julian Schnabel's moving piece about a vibrant man paralyzed by a stroke. The film is based on the true story of Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered a massive stroke at the age of 42 that left him completely incapacitated by "locked-in syndrome." Bauby dictated a book about his experience one letter at a time by blinking his left eyelid to assistants. There are no car chases or gunshots, no serial killers or abortions in this film, but it is so full of heart and the redemptive power of the human spirit, and so beautifully made, that it deserves to be in the top slot of my list.
2. Juno -- As far as comedies go, Juno was executed to almost perfection from its sharply written script by newcomer Diablo Cody to the tight direction by Jason Reitman. It's harder than most people realize to make smart comedy, and Reitman does comedy very, very well. From his earlier short films (especially Consent) to his first feature Thank You for Smoking, Reitman has set out to prove that good comedy can also be good filmmaking, and with Juno he exceeds his freshman effort and ups the ante for what comedic films should be. In a year heavy with serious dramas and an abundance of depressing Iraq war flicks, Juno was the leaven that lightened it all up a bit, and it's one of the few films this year that I can watch repeatedly and never tire of.
The rest of the Ten, after the jump ...
3. Zodiac -- David Fincher's film about the Zodiac killer was one of the most under-appreciated films of the year. This film is riveting and flawlessly put together, with a set that was an exact reproduction of the real San Francisco Chronicle during the time of the story and outstanding performances by a great cast including Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr., and I was deeply disappointed that it pretty much tanked at the box office. It was well-received critically, though, and perhaps its appearance on several end-of-year lists will compel folks to check it out on DVD.
4. No Country for Old Men -- What to do with the Coen brothers? They're brilliant directors (most of the time), but their vision in their crime films can be so damned bleak and depressing that I sometimes find it hard to just enjoy them. No Country for Old Men is the one film on my list that's there more because I appreciated the ruthless perfection with which the filmmaking is executed than because I particularly enjoyed the end result. Oh, I enjoyed the performances, yes. The pacing was taut, the cinematography was breathtaking, and I was on the edge of my seat throughout -- and yet, by the time it was over, I felt I'd been emotionally mowed down by a large truck. But that is the power of the Coens' filmmaking, and when it came down to it, I just couldn't leave it off my list, nor even out of the top five slots, because as a film it's so artfully executed that it deserves to be there. Maybe I'll give it another shot once I recover from the year-end glut of screeners, and see if it leaves me with a better feeling on a repeat viewing.
5. No End in Sight -- I saw so many films about or related to the Iraq war this year that I just wanted to go bury myself under a pile of warm quilts and stay there until it's all over. By far the best of the pack, though, was No End in Sight, which I saw way back at Sundance. First-time director Charles Ferguson, with a nice assist by producer Alex Gibney, whose filmmaking mark is all over this film, nails the crux of all the diatribe about this war with a compelling look at what -- if anything -- we can do to get the hell out of it. At Sundance, the film was paired with one of the best fest panels I've seen -- I wish someone had filmed the entire panel and then that they would show that panel as a double-feature with the film, because there's no way you could hear what these people have to say and not come out of it more aware -- and more angry -- about this war. No End in Sight is also my pick for best doc of the year, and I hope to see it win at the Oscars.
6. Persepolis -- Marjane Satrapi and her co-director and friend, Vincent Paronnaud, have crafted a completely unique and fascinating film in their adaptation of Satrapi's series of graphic novels about growing up in Iran during the revolution. When we turn on the news and hear about Middle Eastern terrorists and the Taliban and Al Qaeda, it's easy to forget that there was a time when Iran and Afghanistan were not under the control of religious extremists. Satrapi shows the Iranian revolution and its aftermath from the perspective of the young girl she was when it happened, watching helplessly as her world shifted and the net of oppression tightened. Persepolis is a bit of a cautionary tale as well -- we hear Satrapi's adult relatives first cheering the ousting of the Shah as a victory for the people, then share their horror as they see just how much worse things can and do get.
7. Sweeney Todd -- Tim Burton brings the dark tale of the "demon barber of Fleet Street" to glorious life with his screen adaptation of Sweeney Todd. Where Javier Bardem's sociopathic killer in No Country for Old Men goes about his murderous business with no emotion or mercy, Depp's Sweeney Todd practically boils over with murderous rage and desire for revenge. This is, above all, a tale about the ultimate emptiness of revenge. It's a deeply sad story, and Depp's dark portrayal of this character brings the tragedy to life. Helena Bonham Carter has a show-stealing scene with young Toby that's actually the best acting in the film, but both Depp and Bonham Carter make up for their lack of Broadway voices with their passionate performances, and the gloomy set design and cinematography set the dark mood to perfection.
8. Away from Her -- Sarah Polley's directorial debut showed a surprising depth and maturity that left many a critic wanting to see what she's going to do as she matures at the helm. Much as I like Polley as an actress, her direction in this film was so impressive that I'd rather see more of her behind the camera than in front. The tale about a couple facing early Alzheimer's disease could have easily been Lifetime Movie-of-the-week fodder, but Polley's script and direction, combined with the standout performances (especially by Julie Christie, as the long-suffering wife not fully appreciated by her husband until he starts to lose her) elevate Away from Her to the level of pure art. In a year with fewer spectacular films, it would have been in my top five, but as it is, I'm settling for keeping it in my top ten.
9. War/Dance -- Another excellent documentary, War/Dance takes us into Northern Uganda where we meet a group of children displaced by a 20-year-long war who are living at a refugee camp. Many of these kids have seen parents brutally murdered in front of them; some of them have themselves been forced to murder at gunpoint after being abducted by rebels; all of them have suffered loss and lived in a constant state of fear that those of us fortunate enough to live in more stable parts in the world cannot begin to fully appreciate. When the children of Patonga school in northern Uganda are invited to participate in the country's national dance competition, there's more than just tribal pride at stake.
10. For the Bible Tells Me So -- Although this doc has made the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary and was well-received by critics (it has a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the Cream of the Crop giving it a solid 100%), it wasn't widely seen by audiences. Filmmaker Daniel Karslake set out to make a film about religion and homosexuality -- specifically, about what the Bible really says about the issue, versus the way homosexuality has been interpreted by religious leaders. Pivotal to the film is Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay person to be elected bishop by the Episcopal Church. Karslake also profiles several other families whose faith in the doctrine of their church was shaken when a loved family member came out as gay. For the Bible Tells Me So got rather buried in the glut of docs about the war this year, but it's one of the most relevant films of 2007 and deserves to be seen.