I've traditionally made a top ten movies list. This goes back about 14 years when I was working at a movie theatre and my friends and I would compare lists. There have been years when I've only seen a handful of the current year's films and but this year I saw 45 new release films. It's the first time I've felt like I might actually have seen enough to have a valid opinion. I've ditched the idea of a top ten because it seems kind of arbitrary. These are the films of 2007 that knocked my socks off in one way or another.
I'll say this before I begin: It was quite a year for North American films. I usually the first bemoan the state of film in this country, but this year saw new releases from auteurs like David Lynch, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, The Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, and David Cronenberg. The summer blockbuster season was quite a letdown. Everything was either a sequel, a remake or a rehash - none of which were as good as the originals.
These are in no particular order with the exception of the first three being my three-way tie for my favorite 2007 film.
There Will Be Blood - Paul Thomas Anderson
There's not much in Anderson's previous films that suggests he was ready to make something like this. While others like Lynch, Tarantino and the Coens were busy repeating themselves with mixed results, PTA really took his art to another level. While it has seen a lot of comparisons to "Citizen Kane", this film is a wholly original great American movie. Daniel Day Lewis' portrayal of Daniel Plainview is without a doubt the most amazing performance of the year, maybe even the decade. What struck me most about this film was the soundtrack. Everything from Johnny Greenwood's eerie and intense score, to the cadence of Day-Lewis' voice to the sound effects themselves. It's simply a masterpiece.
No Country for Old Men - Coen Brothers
This is the Coen Brothers doing what they do best. It's a film that's entertaining, exciting and thought-provoking at the same time. I didn't realize how much I loved this film until I had a couple weeks to think about it and discuss it with others who had seen it. It really sticks with you long after you leave the theatre. And like 'There Will Be Blood' the main character (not necessarily the protagonist) is a very bad man. Javier Bardem is perfectly monstrous in this role. I saw this one in a packed theatre, and was surprised at people's reactions to the ending. They came out of the theatre complaining and feeling cheated. That's how well the Coen brothers defy expectations. They set up the film to be a conventional Hollywood thriller and then turn the genre upside down by the end of the film. It's a case of "you have to know the rules to break the rules" and the Coens wrote the book on it. I should also mention that this is Tommy Lee Jones' best role in years.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - Julian Schabel
I went into this film knowing nothing about it and came out amazed at its beauty. I never would have though the story of a paralyzed man could make an interesting film, but that's quite a credit to Schabel, who takes us inside the head of a man with "locked in" syndrome. His only means of communication is blinking his left eye. It's emotional and inspiring, but not in a cheap "tug-at-your-heartstrings" kind of way.
Death Proof - Quentin Tarantino
This was certainly the most fun I had in a movie theatre this year. It was more exciting than Transformers, Pirates of the Carribbean and Spider-Man 3 combines. And the reason for that is because the action scenes are real. Zoe Bell is quite a discovery in this film. She's a real life stuntwoman and she really puts herself in danger in the car chase scenes in a way that has to be seen to be believed. It's also the best car chase sequence in recent memory. Tarantino uses a very simple formula for this film: make you care about the characters and then make you believe they're actually in danger. This film is a lot easier to appreciate on DVD where you don't have to sit through Robert Rodriguez's "Plant Terror" to get to it, but I'm not sure all the added scenes of the director's cut are necessary. But still, I usually enjoy Tarantino's self indulgences.
Juno - Dir. Jason Reitman, Writer: Diablo Cody
Every year one little indie comedy floats to the top and receives critical and commerical success. Juno is very much in the tradition of "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Napolean Dynamite". It borders on being a little too clever and sweet and you have to remember that it's a 30 year old writer putting words into the mouth of a 16 year old girl. It's the fantasy of a lot of people to imagine that you could have been that witty and smart as a teenager, instead of the awkward and naieve kid that most of us were. This movie would not work if it's wasn't for the performance of Ellen Page. She actually makes you believe she's that clever, but she also shows how human she is with moments of vulnerability and weakness. What really got me about this movie was the Jason Bateman character, who on the outside appears to have a perfect life with a beautiful wife in a beautiful house in the suburbs. And to quote David Byrne: "Oh my god! What have I done?" He's really a prisoner in his own home. He's not ready to grow up and do what society expects of him. And it takes a sixteen year old girl to show him this. Some people have commented that his scenes with Ellen Page are creepy in a pedophilia sort of way, but I don't think that's the point. He just relates to someone half his age better than his Martha Stewart-like wife.
Sunshine - Danny Boyle
It must be hard to make a good science fiction film these days. Everything has been done to death, and with advances in visual effects there are few frontiers left to conquer. But Boyle manages to do it with a realistic and personal story. This isn't epic sci-fi, but it is intense when it needs to be. The visuals blew me away with their simplicity. These people are traveling directly into the sun in a ship that is mostly comprised of a sun shield. Even a little bit of sunshine peeking around the corners of the shield spell instant death for our heroes. It manages to take on the feel of 2001: A Space Odyssesy without being so trippy or cerebral. You do end up feeling like something is at stake here and the film only falters at the end when it becomes a conventional sci-fi action sequence.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters - Seth Gordon
I'm not a big fan of documentaries, but this one is sort of an epic story on a small scale. It has a hero, a villain, a quest and a satisfying ending where the good guy wins. And it's about two guys competing to be the world Donkey Kong champion. What's interesting is how it takes you inside a world that most people would never care anything about. But you can tell that the subjects of the film care about it deeply, and that's where the hook is. This might have been the most purely entertaining film I saw this year.
Superbad / Knocked Up - Greg Mottola / Judd Apatow
These two combined were probably the most crowd pleasing films of the year. Yeah, it's lowbrow crude comedy, but it has heart and sincerity and that' something most comedies lack. I put them together because they're just two side of the same coin. They' both feature a lot of the same actors and were both produced byJudd Apatow, seems to have figured out the formula for sucessful comedies. I was amazed at the word of mouth these two films got. I talked to people I would not have expected to have seen these films and everyone who has seen them seems to love them. Apatow is very hot right now, but it will be interesting to see how long his reign lasts. At the very least, I hope this will inspire Hollywood to make better comedies because it's recent track record is abysmal.
I'm Not There - Todd Haynes
I'm a huge Bob Dylan fan so I can only approach this film from that perspective. As a fan, I can tell you that this is the only way a Dylan biopic could have been done. It's an art film masquerading as a biopic, presenting you with the spirit of Dylan's work, not a chronological rundown of it. Cate Blanchett is the only one Haynes allows to give an accurate performace, and it crosses over from impersonation to art in itself. It's so perfectly Dylan and not Dylan at the same time. This film is really the best gift a Dylan fan could receive.
Ratatouille - Brad Bird
I don't feel that Pixar films are always must sees, and I really prefer the artistry of traditional cell animation to 3D animation, but this time that turned in a classic. When I heard Brad Bird was involved I knew it was going to be great. Bird is the genius behind "The Iron Giant" and "The Incredibles" - the only two animated films that I loved since I became an adult. The concept behind this one must have been a tough sell - it's sort of the Cyrano story but with a rat and a restaurant. And it's French. Not exactly something that sound like a hit. But I admire Pixar for taking a chance on something unique. And it obviously paid off.
3:10 to Yuma - James Mangold
It's been a long time since we've had a solid American western. The most recent high water mark is probably Unforgiven and that film is 15 years old. This one really rests on the performances of Christian Bale and Russel Crowe and they both do a fine job. I really loved the moral ambiguity of both of their characters. I hope this signals the return of the western genre.
Eastern Promises - David Cronenberg
I'm really liking this toned down Cronenberg we're getting in the last three of his films. It seems like he's turned in his bizarre sensibilities for some commericial success, but I think he's a stronger filmmaker for it. He still brings the same intensity to his films, just not the crazy organic flesh guns and nightmare visions. This is another strong story that benefits from his unique artistic vision. There's just enough of the old Cronenberg to make this thriller stand out. Viggo Mortensen is great in his role as a Russian bodyguard/driver. Even the genre cliches that Cronenberg employs sem fresh in his hands.
The Brand Upon the Brain - Guy Maddin
This is surely the most memorable and unique cinematic experience I've had in a long time. I had the opportunity to see this "silent" films with a live narrator (Crispin Glover), foley artists and a castrato. This is probably the most frenetic and expressive of Maddin's films, and his most personal. It's supposedly autobiographical, but it's obviously not a literal representation of his life. Part of the fun is trying to determine the real events in his life that could have been the inspiration for this film.
* I did not have the opportunity to see Persepolis, which I have a feeling would have ended up on this list.