There are no words to describe the giddiness I’ve been feeling the last few months. For my money, 2007 has been one of the best years for film ever. The last year that was this good was 1999, the year of American Beauty, Dogma, Being John Malkovich, Three Kings, Fight Club, The Insider, The Blair Witch Project, and about a dozen other bold, ambitious, groundbreaking films. This year has been at least as good, maybe even better.
Of course, this makes it somewhat difficult to do a Ten Best list. In 2007, there were 17 films to which I awarded my highest rating of four stars. I think that’s some kind of record. Every year, I seriously contemplate doing away with the Ten Best idea and simply having an alphabetical listing of the year’s best films, with as many or as few entries as I feel are warranted. I’ll probably actually get around to doing that one of these years. For now, though, I stick with the traditional for a very simple reason: I was able to comprise a list that I felt comfortable with.
So how do I choose which films to put on the list and which ones to (sadly) exclude? My criteria is simple: I go for the movies that meant the most to me, the ones that really stuck with me, the ones I couldn’t stop thinking about. Yes, you could probably argue that some of the films that didn’t quite make the list are “better” than a few of them that did, but I’m following my heart. What you will soon read is a list of ten motion pictures I’m extremely passionate about and that remind me of why I love going to the movies.
But before we get to that, allow me a moment to honor some of the other fine films of 2007. Separated into categories, these all got 3 ½ stars from me and are worth your time to seek out:
Hilarious Comedies: Hairspray, Knocked Up, Ocean’s Thirteen, The Savages, The Simpsons Movie, Superbad, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
Gripping Dramas: Away From Her, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Gone Baby Gone, The Lookout, A Mighty Heart, Reign Over Me, Starting Out in the Evening, Talk to Me, There Will Be Blood, Zodiac
Fascinating Documentaries: The Devil Came on Horseback, Lake of Fire, No End in Sight
Quality Family Films: Bee Movie, Bridge to Terebithia, The Last Mimzy, Ratatouille
Exciting Adventure: Beowulf, The Bourne Ultimatum, 1408, I Am Legend, Shoot ‘Em Up, Spider-Man 3, Transformers
Foreign Gems: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Lust Caution, The Orphanage, The Kite Runner
Wow, what a list! And here are the remaining 4-star movies. They may not have made the final cut, but that in no way detracts from their high level of quality:
Great films, all. But now, it’s time for my picks for the Ten Best Films of 2007:
10. The Astronaut Farmer - I know, I know – this is the head-scratcher on my list. No one else seemed to love this movie as much as I did, but that’s all the more reason to include it here. (I hate predictable Ten Best lists.) I actually think this is a cult movie in search of a cult. I unsuccessfully tried to convince a lot of people to see the unapologetically optimistic story about a farmer who builds a rocket ship in his back yard. Anchored by a subtle Billy Bob Thornton performance, The Astronaut Farmer is all about how modern society has made it easier to ridicule the big dreamer than it is to admire him. Its casual dismissal by audiences is perhaps proof of what the film is trying to say. After seeing the picture a second time, I was struck by how perfect the screenplay by Mark and Michael Polish is. This is a modern fairy tale – a genuinely sweet and heartfelt tribute to anyone who refuses to let the naysayers stand in the way of a dream.
9. Eastern Promises - I’m completely surprised that this one is on my list because the vast majority of director David Cronenberg’s past films have seriously put me off. (His Crash was my worst film of 1996.) This time, he got everything right. Naomi Watts played a midwife trying to look after an orphaned baby. She brushes much closer to danger than she realizes since the infant has a secret tie to a Russian mafia kingpin. Viggo Mortensen was outstanding as the kingpin’s driver, who tries to work his way up the ladder while still looking out for Watts. Eastern Promises had a fascinating attention to detail in the way it portrayed the inner sanctum of the mafia, and it also featured the year’s best fight scene – an insanely violent 4-minute steam bath tussle in which a nude Mortensen takes on multiple assailants.
8. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters - You don’t even need to care about video games to get wrapped up in this amazing documentary about two guys locked into battle for the Donkey Kong championship of the world. Steve Wiebe was an ordinary guy who broke the record that was long held by self-styled video game rock star Billy Mitchell. Turned out that Mitchell wasn’t too keen on having his honor usurped and, with the help of a gaming organization that needed a saleable front man, bent a lot of rules to snatch back his claim to fame. The King of Kong isn’t really about video games so much as it’s about the nature of competition. The real-life twists and turns here are as compelling as anything in a fictional story, and you’re guaranteed to be hooting and hollering at the screen as Mitchell resorts to increasingly underhanded methods of preserving his delicate ego.
7. Once - This independently-made Irish musical is one of those little pictures that sneak up on you and make you fall in love with them. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova play two street musicians who, for a brief time, come together to make beautiful music. Once is not the kind of musical where people spontaneously break into song and dance; instead, it’s about two lonely souls who join through the power of playing music. The songs are great, and I really liked how Once shows that connecting through music can be just as powerful as any emotional connection. This is a really beautiful film.
6. Michael Clayton - Here’s a legal thriller so well-crafted that John Grisham would be green with envy. George Clooney scored again with this tale of the “fixer” at a powerful NYC law firm who has to prevent the company from losing a multi-million dollar class action lawsuit when the lead attorney suffers a mental breakdown. I hate the old critical cliché that a movie “crackles with tension” but that’s exactly what Michael Clayton does. The movie has so much exciting stuff going on that there’s not a dull second in it. Writer/director Tony Gilroy has put together a drama that explores issues of ethics and morality in the legal system, yet he’s done so in a way that is incredibly entertaining.
5. Grindhouse - I briefly considered creating a Special Achievement Award for this Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino collaboration – an audacious attempt to recapture the feel of an old-school exploitation double feature. My reason for considering this was because I discovered that watching Grindhouse at home is a distinctly different experience from watching it in a theater. Neither Death Proof nor Planet Terror is a 4-star movie, and the segments lose something when separated (they were intended to be complimentary). Take away the fake trailers and you lose even more of the experience. Also, all the simulated projection hiccups are less effective on DVD than they were in a theater, where there was an added layer of verisimilitude. After a lot of reflection, though, I decided that my job is to consider the theatrical versions of movies in making this list, not the botched DVD release. And honestly, the theatrical version of Grindhouse was one of the most enjoyable moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had. Grindhouse pictures themselves may not be entirely reputable, but this homage to them was groundbreaking, innovative, and (pardon the expression) admirably ballsy.
4. In the Valley of Elah - In 2007, audiences largely rejected any and all movies that even remotely touched on the Iraq War. What a shame, considering most of those films were top-tier. The best of them was Paul Haggis’ tale of a retired vet (Tommy Lee Jones) whose son disappears just days after returning home from Iraq. Charlize Theron co-starred as the small town cop who tries to help him put together the pieces. Haggis has fashioned a powerful and moving anti-war statement that tries to measure the cost of modern combat on soldiers who are barely out of their teens (if they are at all). Jones, in my opinion, has never been better than he is here, and the picture’s final image sent a little chill up my spine.
3. Into the Wild - Chris McCandless was a kid who seemed to have it all: well-to-do family, Ivy League education, bountiful trust fund, etc. So why did he chuck it all to go live in the Alaskan wilderness where he tragically met his end? Sean Penn stepped behind the camera to adapt Jon Krakauer’s best-seller, and he seems to understand the kind of wanderlust that drove McCandless. Into the Wild does the seemingly impossible: it makes you understand why this young man made the choices he made, even if you or I would never make them ourselves. We come away less inclined to write McCandless off as a wacko and more inclined to empathize with his journey. Despite a pre-ordained sad ending, the film isn’t depressing. Instead, it’s a haunting examination of the things that drive some people to live off the grid.
2. No Country For Old Men - To my mind, Joel and Ethan Coen have made three masterpieces. The first was Raising Arizona and the second was Fargo. Their latest – an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel – is the third. Tommy Lee Jones pops up again in this tense, spellbinding exploration of the changing face of law enforcement in an increasingly brutal world. Certain scenes in this movie are so perfect in the way they build suspense that No Country ought to be required viewing for all aspiring filmmakers. You also get a career-defining performance from Javier Bardem and the kind of inherent mysteriousness that makes you eager to see the picture again. Having seen it twice already, I can attest that the story’s themes deepen with multiple viewings.
And my choice for the Best Film of 2007 is:
So there you have my picks for the year’s ten best, along with a lot of other great films to make sure you see. I hope that 2008 is just as good a year at the movies.
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