2007 was the best movie-going year of my life. I can't remember a year (with the possible exception of 1999) that delivered so many great films, let alone so many flat-out masterpieces. Here is a run down of my top 10 from 2007, with some brief comments about each film. My full reviews are accessible in the 2007 archives. I have also re-posted the links to my reviews of the five films up for best picture at this weekend's Academy Awards in a blog entry from yesterday.
1. THE DIVING BELL & THE BUTTERFLY
No film moved me more than this one in 2007. A tough film to watch at times, THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY could have been overly sentimental and emotionally cloying in the hands of lesser filmmakers. Thankfully, the team of director Julian Schnabel, screenwriter Ronald Harwood, cinematographer JAnusz Kaminski, and editor Juliette Welfling never dipped into maudlin, TV-movie-of-the-week tendencies with this story of a paralyzed man and his efforts at some sort of normal life. Being a true story, Schnabel and Harwood were bound to the facts of the matter. But through their amazing creative decisions, especially to make the subjective camerawork almost exclusive throughout the first 30 minutes of the film, they are able to immediately draw the viewer in and never let them out of their grasp. I couldn't move when this film was over; I sat in the theater, wiping away a few honest tears, trying to form words. This is the sort of movie that makes you thankful for everything you have in life and reminds you that for as bad as you think you have it, there is someone else out there who is a lot more worse off than you are. THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY is a truly life-affirming piece of work and is a totally unforgetable experience to behold.
2. THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD
Simply put, the most beautiful film of the year, and one of the most beautiful films ever committed to celluloid. Writer/director Andrew Dominik stepped up in a massive way with this film; I never would have thought that the director of CHOPPER (which was a great little movie in its own right) would bust out and get his Terrence Malick on. But he did. Poetic, haunting, and stunningly photographed from the very first frame, this film is as entrancing to watch as it is to listen too (Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' funereal score is impossible to forget). The script is funny in a very deceptive way and the acting from a deep ensemble cast is top notch. However, the revelation of the film is Casey Affleck, who's turn as the titular Robert Ford is mesmerizing and creepy in equal measure. Brad Pitt also does some of the best work of his career as Jesse James, a fallen idol to Affleck's envious Ford; the two of them are positively electric when sharing the screen together. I love this film but I will agree that it's not for everyone; if you don't like the work of Malick or can't get into leisurely paced films that are more about character than plot than I'd suggest watching something else. But for more challenging viewers, make no mistake -- this is a film of tremendous power.
3. THERE WILL BE BLOOD
Paul Thomas Anderson's big, beefy, all-American epic of greed, corruption, and oil is a tour de force for it's lead star (Daniel Day Lewis) and for Anderson himself. Moving away from dysfunctional stories set in the San Fernando Valley, Anderson has crafted a dense, exquisitely photographed (by long time collaborator Robert Elswit) film that reminds one of CITIZEN KANE, GIANT, and DAYS OF HEAVEN. Lewis, who is probably the most intense actor working today, towers over this film from first frame to last. The film's climax is one of the strangest, most go-for-broke sequences I've ever seen in my life. And the musical score, by Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood, evokes Kubrick by way of psychadelic electronics; it's incredible. A bizarre film to be sure, but one filled with jet-black humor, emotional suspense, and arresting visuals.
4. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (warning: spoilers below)
The Coen brothers shatter the routine conventions of the typical Hollywood thriller with their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel. A trio of grizzled, manly performances ( Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones) anchor this thrilling cat-and-mouse thriller. But it's the existential angst displayed by Jones that lends the film a special quality. This is a sad, dark film about violence and how violence breaks people down to the point where they can't continue on in a certain path. When I first saw this film and it's now controversial last act started to unfold, my head started to buzz; did they just kill one of the main characters off screen I wondered? When I saw that they did, I felt cinematic exhiliration that I haven't felt in a long time. The genre-busting elements at play during the last 30 minutes of the film, along with the evil-gets-away finale, have cemented this film as an immediate classic. Oh yeah, Roger Deakins' cinematography is beyond astonishing; he had a banner year with this film, JESSE JAMES, and the little seen but excellent IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH. Watch for the shot of Brolin running away from some bad guys in the early-morning light with a solo bolt of lightning accenting the sky; its disgustingly beautiful.
Harkening back to Alan J. Pakula's masterpiece ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, director David Fincher (SEVEN, FIGHT CLUB) delivered his most accomplished film to date with ZODIAC. Clocking in at two-and-a-half-hours and packing in over 50 speaking parts and spanning over a decade, this is a nuts-and-bolts true-crime epic and a thrilling mystery rolled into one. It's also a wonderful evocation of 70's San Francisco with typically amazing production values that one would associate with a Fincher film. However, rather than resting on style as he did in PANIC ROOM (which I enjoy for what it is -- a tight, Hitchcockian throw-away thriller), Fincher melds his lighting-quick visual sophistication with JAmes Vanderbilt's sprawling yet coherent screenplay into an obsessive film that's more about details, facts, and ideas than about a serial killer and his atrocities. Yes, Fincher does depict some of the zodiac's murders, but rather than stage them for enertainment, he chillingly depicts the murders for what they truly are: scary, sad, and desperate. I have watched this film at least 10 times now and it continues to fascinate me each time I watch it.
6. INTO THE WILD
Sean Penn's adaptation of Jon Krakauer's novel is a beautiful love letter to America and the open road in our country. Some people complained that the kid at the center of the film, Christopher McCandless, wasn't sympathetic enough to truly feel sorry for by the end of the film. I'd disagree. He was a naive kid with dreams of an America that didn't really exsist; he was a hippie who missed the hippie generation. Granted, he could have picked up the phone once to let his parents know that he was alive and breathing; it certainly would have been the honorable thing to do. But he didn't, and what we're left with is a thrilling personal story about discovering yourself against the backdrop of the American landscape. Penn and his gifted cinematographer Eric Gautier shot the hell out of this movie, resulting in some of the most beautiful vistas I've ever encountered on the big screen. Eddie Vedder's passionate musical score brought all of the elements together while the incredible cast (Emilie Hirsch, Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker, Hal Holbrook, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden) never misses a beat. But it's Hirsch's film and he brings honest gravitas to a role that could have been easily annoying or flippant. Penn really stepped up behind the camera with this film; I wasn't expecting him to knock me out the way he did with this one.
7. AMERICAN GANGSTER
Ridley Scott, at this point, could make a film about the phone book and it'd be interesting. Giving the gangster film genre a try, he made one of the most entertaining films of his amazing career. His attention to detail, as always, is second to none, and the movie-star performances by Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe explode on screen with life, vitality, and urgency. Steven Zaillian's complex script deftly cuts back and forth between the two men, who are on opposite sides of the law, but makes it clear that both men have more in common than they probably would care to admit. This is another long film (2 hours 30 mins and longer in its recently released director's cut version) that breezes by thanks to smart writing, terrific performances, and exciting set pieces. The drug raid/shoot out towards the end of the film crackles with intensity and fireworks; leave it to Scott to show all the young action filmmakers how it's done. Stylish yet never garish, long yet never boring, and big yet never out of control, it's another excellent piece of filmmaking from Scott, who is long overdue for an Oscar.
8. EASTERN PROMISES
David Cronenberg has long been fascinated by sex and violence and his latest film, EASTERN PROMISES, has both of those qualities in abundance. A tricky film with the best narrative twist of the year (which TOTALLY blew me away the first time I saw the film), EASTERN PROMISES is a top-notch genre entry and an even better film than the first collaboration between Cronenberg and actor Viggo Mortensen (A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE). The film is nominally about a Russian crime syndicate that trades in sex slaves but it's more a multi-layered character study about two men (Mortensen and the terrific French actor Vincent Cassell) who are consumed by a life of crime but yearn for something bigger. Cronenberg sets a sinister tone immediately with a graphic throat slicing and progresses to probably the single best movie fight I have ever seen. A naked Mortensen (he's enjoying a steam bath) is jumped by two hoodlums and proceeds to fight to the death with both of them. Eschewing the quick-cut style of movies like THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM, Cronenberg makes the viewer feel every punch, slash, and lunge during this virtuoso sequence of cinema violence. Visceral almost to the point of suffocation, I really do think it's the best movie fight I have ever encountered. And again--that final twist; you'll never see it coming and it will hit you like a ton of bricks. This is the best thriller in years.
9. SWEENEY TODD
I don't really like musicals. And horror films aren't typically my bag. So I was totally surprised when I fell in love with Tim Burton's elegantly macabre SWEENEY TOOD, which is very musical, and very horrifying. Johnny Depp cuts his way through this meticulously designed film with menacing glee while Helena Bonham Carter reminds us that she should be making more movies. Depp sings with gusto and exhibits tortured rage that weren't necessarily expected; he's been off with Captain Jack Sparrow for so long that it was a relief just to see him do something new. But returning to a Tim Burton film was just what the doctor ordered for Depp; this may be their best collaboration. Funny, smart, sexy, and nasty, SWEENEY TODD is awesome, bloody fun for the whole family. Well...maybe not for the whole family.
10. THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE
Unquestionably the most underrated and underappreciated film of 2007. Allan Loeb's sensitive and honest script is a gem and Benicio Del Toro's magisterial performance is second only to Daniel Day Lewis' work in THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier could have descened into Lifetime movie-of-the-week territory with this film about love, loss, and reconcilliation; intead, it's a profoundly moving piece of cinema with a performance from Del Toro that radiates class and integrity. The film revolves around two central characters (Del Toro and Halle Berry); Berry's husband has been randomly murdered and was best friends with Del Toro. Del Toro is a recovering heroin addict with no real support system. So, Del Toro and Berry form a unique bond that while never turning sexual, becomes deeply emotional and to a certain extent, spiritual. I loved this film. It made me cry all throughout but it earned my tears in an honest, non-exploitive way. I hope people find this wonderful movie when it hits dvd in two weeks.
So, all in all, 2007 was a sensational year for movie going. And that was just my top 10. When you have other, phenomenal films like MICHAEL CLAYTON, BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD, THE KINGDOM, THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM, RESCUE DAWN, ONCE, 300, 3:10 TO YUMA, RATATOUILLE, AWAY FROM HER, GONE BABY GONE, KNOCKED UP, I'M NOT THERE and countless others that don't make your top 10, well, you know it's been a tremendous year of movies. I hope that 2008 continues in this direction.