The best movie year since 1999, 2007 offered a staggering bounty of cinematic delights. I keep track of all the movies I see in a given year and give each a letter grade, "A" through "F". Usually my Top Ten list consists of all of the "A's" and a few "B's." This year, "A" pictures made up my top twenty. With so many great films, I won't wallow through a "Worst of the Year" list, I'll simply present you with a few that didn't fully satisfy:
The Biggest Disappointment: The Darjeeling Limited -- A Louis Vuitton commercial stretched to feature length. The Darjeeling Limited is a perfect title for the film because it makes plain what a limited filmmaker the once great Wes Anderson has become. Hey Wes, people running in slow-motion while a Kinks song plays is always going to look pretty neat. But if there's absolutely nothing else going on in the scene, then that's all it is -- people running in slow-motion while a Kinks song plays. We all think it's really cool that you like The Kinks. Hell, I love those guys! The Rolling Stones are awesome, too! But I wouldn't ask them to do my job for me.
The Biggest Question Mark: There Will Be Blood
Undoubtedly one of the year's most impressive technical achievements, There Will Be Blood is frequently stunning. It's so stunning, in fact, that it's easy to overlook how infuriatingly empty it all is. The film focuses on two main characters, and neither one changes a lick in thirty years and 158 minutes. How did Paul Thomas Anderson, creator of such deeply emotional rides as Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch Drunk Love come up with a movie completely devoid of human emotion? (I'm not counting greed.) Beautiful, brilliant, and boring in equal doses, I've seen Blood twice, and I still don't know if it's a masterpiece or a mess. I just know I felt...nothing watching it. It's as hollow, as frustrating, as difficult to know as its "hero," Daniel Plainview.
On to my list. First, ten that didn't quite make the cut. Here's #20 through #11: (#20) Breach, (#19) Once, (#18) The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, (#17) Sicko, (#16) Sweeney Todd, (#15) The Lives of Others, (#14) Eastern Promises, (#13) Zodiac, (#12) Atonement, (#11) Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
And my Top Ten is after the jump...
10) Michael Clayton
I loved Michael Clayton, but as the end credits rolled I wasn't yet in love. I found writer/director Tony Gilroy's tinkering with time and structure pointless and it kept me from fully embracing the film. Months later, that minor quibble is shaping up to be an extremely minor quibble, as I can't stop thinking about the damn thing. George Clooney, all tired eyes and graying hair, has never been better, but it's Tilda Swinton who stays with me. She gave the best female performance of the year, as far as I'm concerned. Stuffed into horrible dresses and panty hose, sweat stains on the armpits of her shirts, badly lit and greasy, she sacrifices all vanity here. She makes a pretty standard villainess role into something wholly sympathetic and remarkable. The scenes of her rehearsing speeches that might lead to continued death are jaw-dropping in their intimacy and complexity. She is a woman straining to convince herself that she's not a monster, despite all evidence to the contrary. It's brilliant work in a brilliant film.
9) The Mist
Remember when horror movies used to be -- y'know, scary? And remember when they used to have something to say? Stephen King and Frank Darabont do. First and foremost, The Mist is a massively entertaining horror flick, with a perfect blend of suspense and gross-out scares. That alone would have earned it serious consideration for this list. But it is also one of the year's slyest political commentaries. The film shows how vulnerable people can be when they're scared, how they'll believe anything -- especially when it's shrouded in religious fervor. When Marcia Gay Harden (underplaying for once) starts making "Christian" life altering/risking/taking decisions for everyone, based on her faith alone, whether they agree with her or not -- you realize we're living in The Mist right now. This is much more than a monster movie. Oh, and it's got the most deliciously noncommercial studio ending since Se7en.
8) The King of Kong
The best documentary of the year is also one of the sweetest and funniest movies of 2007. The doc focuses on down-on-his-luck hero Steve Wiebe's attempt to get his self-esteem back by becoming the world champion of Donkey Kong. His main competition is current record holder Billy Mitchell, one of the most magnificently hissable screen douchebags since Doyle Hargraves in Sling Blade. Kong starts like a Christopher Guest movie, and I laughed a lot at the ridiculousness of these video game obsessives. But then, ever-so-subtly, the laughter stopped and I found myself so caught up in Wiebe's struggle that I was pounding my fists and swearing at the screen. This is an incredibly inspirational ode to the value of being a good person in a world full of assholes.
7) The Lookout
The attention to character detail would have made this a fantastic drama even without the thriller aspects. The exhausting suspense would have made this a first-rate thriller even without the attention to character. The combination makes for a nearly perfect B-movie. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fast becoming one of our finest young actors ("I have the money! I have the power!"). Jeff Daniels gives one of the cinema's only non-obnoxious "Blind Man" performances. Scott Frank, near the top of Hollywood's best working screenwriters, proves himself just as skilled behind the camera in this mesmerizing lost gem.
6) In the Valley of Elah
Unfairly lumped in with this year's bumper crop of lame Iraq movies, In the Valley of Elah is an important film in the exploration of what war does to soldiers and families. Admirably, it doesn't shove its IMPORTANCE in your face, and it's all the more effective for that reason. Elah is a refreshingly quiet and subdued film, and that's downright shocking considering it came from Paul Haggis, writer/director of Crash. It's a pretty gripping little mystery -- admittedly not without its contrivances -- that gradually reveals itself to be something much deeper. Tommy Lee Jones acted almost entirely with his sad eyes and gave his all-time best performance (which is high praise indeed) and the finest male performance of the year. Yes Oscar voters -- outstanding acting can be whispered and not screamed. If you didn't see this in theaters (and judging by the box office, that goes for just about everyone) save it to your Netflix queue immediately. It's Elah good.
5) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
With that catchy little title that just rolls off the tongue, how did this exceptional film not snag a larger audience? It's a real shame it didn't -- movies don't come much more beautiful than this. It's like Terence Malick without the crushing boredom. As an intimate, alternative epic, this easily beats There Will Be Blood at its own game, as a western it easily trumps this year's terrific 3:10 to Yuma. And Casey Affleck had a stellar year, between this and...
4) Gone Baby Gone
One of the best movies of its kind, Gone Baby Gone goes far beyond standard "whodunit?" territory into much larger, messier questions like "whydunit?" and even, shockingly, "isitokaythattheydunit?" It is a film without any easy choices, and each new wrinkle leaves the film's characters and the viewer with two options: bad and worse. The ending of this film will inspire fierce moral debate, and it all builds to a queasy final shot that I can not get out of my mind. If I may let my inner Gene Shalit run wild here -- Gone Baby Gone is great baby, great.
3) Into the Wild
Stunningly photographed and at times almost unbearably emotional (guess that's why the critical backlash has begun), Into the Wild is chock full of little moments that sidewind up and punch you in the stomach. Wild is a rare combination -- a smart movie with a huge heart. It got to me, it choked me up, it shook me around. Movies simply didn't get more moving this year than the deeply sad, breathtaking scenes between Emile Hirsch and Hal Holbrook. The most frequent complaint leveled at the film is that Sean Penn didn't make Christopher McCandless appear more stupid for doing what he did. Ridiculous. Sometimes rebellion doesn't come with a carefully mapped out plan.
2) Knocked Up
With Knocked Up, writer/director Judd Apatow gave us believable characters who are presented with recognizable situations and who deal with them in understandable ways. That alone sets it apart from 99% of film comedy today. The friendships here feel like your own, and the romance doesn't hinge on ridiculous and forced complications or coincidences. It is not a funnier movie than The 40 Year-Old Virgin, but it is a far more adult and confident film. If Virgin was about "becoming a man," Knocked Up removes the quotes, and presents a strikingly perceptive look at transitioning into adulthood, at the personal sacrifices that are a crucial part of any relationship, at what specifically makes the whole male/female thing work or not work. The best, richest, most insightful comedy of the year, and by a huge margin.
1) No Country for Old Men
In my review of the film, I wrote: "No Country for Old Men features a trio of exceptional performances, is overflowing with memorable moments, and though it may not be the Coens' best, it is easily one of the finest films of 2007." A second viewing confirmed my thoughts, a third viewing removed the words 'one of.' This is easily the finest film of the year. For those who hated the ending, see it again. I was a bit lost the first time I saw it too, but for a really wonderful reason -- I spent the entire movie thinking about the scene that preceded the one I was watching. A moral masterpiece.