Wednesday, January 02, 2008

25 Best Films of 2007 - in my opinion

I thought I'd take this opportunity to tell everyone what to think pull together some thoughts about the year in movies. I've limited myself to movies I actually saw in 2007, so while I enjoy 300 very much, I originally saw it in 2006, so it's a 2006 movie to me. Also, try as I might, I have not seen everything, and there are still quite a few notable movies that haven't opened in places I can see them. Hence the lack of There Will Be Blood and Persepolis and other tiered releases that have gotten a lot of critical attention.

And since I live in neither New York or Los Angeles and was not able to attend any festivals this year, I'm afraid I have no clue about movies such as Killer of Sheep and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days. But I'm guessing that those are examples of films that most audiences won't see either, because film distribution is a crummy business, but that's a rant for another time.

Okay, I've bored you with that long enough. :P On to the list.

25. Zodiac
Based on Robert Graysmith's non-fiction books about the infamous "Zodiac" serial killer who preyed on the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1960s. David Fincher went back to Seven territory here, but in a much more subdued, naturalistic way. Great performances by Gyllenhaal, Downey, and Ruffalo, and a great little time capsule of the 1970s and 1980s.

24. Waitress
What a magic little film. Keri Russell stars as Jenna, a waitress with a supernatural talent for concocting delicious pies. Jenna discovers she's going to have a baby, but this puts a kink in her plan to leave her no-count husband Earl. She embarks on an affair with her doctor (played by Nathan "Captain Tightpants" Fillion), and eventually gains an unlikely friend in her restaurant's crotchety owner, Joe. This is just a joy to watch.

23. Trick ‘R Treat
Next year's sure-to-be-smash-hit for Halloween (well, if it isn't, it OUGHT to be). A horror anthology of interconnected stories and a fresh take on a holiday that's been clich├ęd nearly to death. I love how this movie utilizes kids, both as victims and as predators. It's not really that gory, but it's plenty of good scary fun - just like Halloween ought to be.

22. Superbad
Seth Rogen and his friend Evan Goldberg began writing this script when they were 13, and it shows, but I mean that in the best possible sense. Scary is it might sound, this is how teenage boys talk. It hasn't been that long since I knew several of them and I can testify. But as raunchy and sometimes jaw-droppingly crude as it can be, at its heart it's a surprisingly innocent story. And I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that McLovin (far left in the pic above) is the most awesome screen presence of 2007.

21. The Lookout
This film was seemingly forgotten after it's pretty impressive March premiere. A directorial debut for screenwriter Scott Frank (who I've only just now learned has a pretty impressive writing resume), this was a very well-done thriller with plenty of good character work (not something you see all the time with these kinds of movies). Joseph Gordon-Levitt has become an honest-to-goodness, grown-up actor, and he's a treat to watch, especially in his scenes with Jeff Daniels. Oh, and for someone who might be interested, the movie also features Matthew Goode. :D

20. 2 Days in Paris
I love Julie Delpy. Really, I do. This movie reminds me a lot of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, and not just because she's in both of those films. There's a romantic frankness here that's almost unsettling. It's an unconventional romantic comedy that still manages to pay respect to the conventions. After all of the horrid things that happen between the two lovers, you still want to see them together.

19. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
I confess, as a rabid fan of both the books and the films, this is probably on my list for more sentimental reasons than quality reasons. After the dust has settled on a wild, Potter-filled summer, I think this still ranks just a hair below Chamber of Secrets as far as favorites go compared to the other HP films. But there's a lot to love here. This is one of only two films that feels more like a film and less like an expensive picture book.

18. Hot Fuzz
By the power of Grayskull! I actually liked this film better than Shaun of the Dead, personally. I felt like the characters were better drawn - at least the ones played by Pegg and Frost - and it was much, much funnier to me. Sadly, there is nothing to quite match Shaun's "Don't Stop Me Now" pool cue sequence for sheer hilarity. But the extended battle at the end is a thing of overblown beauty.

17. Eastern Promises
I found this vastly superior to Cronenberg's previous film, A History of Violence. Naomi Watts plays a midwife who becomes entangled with the Russian mafia by way of an infant she delivers to a young Russian girl who is essentially their property. Viggo Mortenson is a driver for the mobsters and is working his way up the chain of command, but he meets betrayal at seemingly every turn. Lots of great interplay between the cast, and a VERY memorable knife fight. In a sauna. With Viggo nakedness.

16. In the Valley of Elah
Interesting meditation on the lives of soldiers and how today's army ain't your daddy's army. Between this film and No Country For Old Men, we've seen some of the best work of Tommy Lee Jones' career. A much more restrained "think piece" from Paul Haggis that lets the emotions of the characters speak louder than the message he's trying to convey.

15. Hairspray
Near perfect summer fun. Great musical numbers, and a movie that absolutely adheres to the sensibilities of John Waters' original Hairspray film. All-star casts can be tricky things in movie musicals, but this film really hit the jackpot, I think. But the real finds are newcomers Nikki Blonsky and Elijah Kelley. Run and tell that!

14. In the Shadow of the Moon
An eye-opening documentary about the Apollo space program that covers nearly every mission, including extensive coverage of the Apollo 1 disaster, the Apollo 11 moon landing, and the Apollo 13 near-disaster. There are new interviews with astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Jim Lovell, Mike Collins, and several more. It's really amazing to hear them tell their stories. One of my favorite bits was hearing about the Apollo 8 crew reading from the book of Genesis as they watched a "moonrise" (and the flak they apparently drew for it). You can tell that Neil Armstrong bears a kind of laurel that he doesn't feel he deserves. Man, I miss the dreams and the magic that we used to have when the exploration of space was still a priority for this country.

13. Amazing Grace
This film's title is a bit misleading, but once you've seen the film, it's hard to deny the effect that this familiar hymn had on William Wilberforce's struggle to end the British slave trade. Ioan Gruffudd and Romola Garai are exquisite, but the real gem here is Albert Finney as the minister who wrote "Amazing Grace." It was his way of giving testimony that God could save even a wretch like he who had captained a slave-trading ship. Great storytelling and great acting. Not a movie about slavery, but about how one person, fighting for what's right, can make a huge difference.

12. Ratatouille
This is surprisingly thoughtful film, especially for one that stars a CG-animated mouse. The first two-thirds of the film are fairly standard animated film territory, but once we get to the third act and Peter O'Toole's food critic, it takes a rather profound turn. The visualization of Anton's sensory memory of ratatouille alone is a moment of absolute genius. I don't know what's in the water at Pixar, but I wish it would spread to other studios. They're one of the few teams in the business that care so genuinely about telling a good story.

11. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
A beautiful and understated western. Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck seem perfectly cast, and Affleck in particular is outstanding as the equally pitiable and loathsome Robert Ford. There's really not a weak link in the cast, and there are some interesting cameos, like James Carville. :D This movie runs at a slow simmer, but the story can't really be told another way. This is just a perfect film, and you can almost taste the tension between Pitt and Affleck.

10. Charlie Wilson’s War
There have been a lot of films this year that dealt in some way with the current foreign diplomacy struggles that the US is dealing with. I saw The Kite Runner this past weekend and almost put it on this list, but I think ultimately as a film Charlie Wilson's War works better. Aaron Sorkin's screenplay is much more emotionally subdued than much of his previous work, and the performances of Tom Hanks and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are out of this world. Their final scene together is the poison on the knife. They've achieved what seems like a great thing, but ... "we'll see." And did we ever.

9. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
I have a lot of love for all three of these films, but Black Pearl will probably always be my favorite. However, At World's End is a fitting and strong conclusion to the saga. And anyone who wants to call it crap it for being overblown or too convoluted can kiss a carefully selected portion of my posterior. This is how a good, blockbuster-type movie is done. Okay, maybe they dialed it way up, but if you can't go out with a bang, when can you?

8. Atonement
It takes guts to center your story around a character that is nigh unforgivable in her treachery. Briony is not very likable even before she tells the lie that sets the story in motion, but afterwards my dislike goes so far that it comes out the other end in something akin to but not exactly pity. This is a decidedly English film, and perhaps only an English person can appreciate it properly. But it does for me what good epics do. It puts me in a very real and specific time and place, and it makes me want to step into the frame and feel as passionately as the characters feel, speak as elegantly as they speak, and even experience a bit of their pain.

7. Stardust
Like the Pirates franchise, this is the kind of movie that some people just are stubbornly not going to get. They won't get the appeal, they won't get the funny, and they'll often do that thing where they forget simple facts and rules of logic. This is a wonderful and fresh fantasy story, and one that fits in well with the illustrious company of The Neverending Story and The Princess Bride. This will likely find a spot among my favorite movies of all time.

6. Mongol
I'm hoping this gets some serious US distribution love next year, because it's breathtaking. A film that finds a great balance between the epic and the personal, Mongol explores the early life of Genghis Khan - from his childhood to the era just before he assumes his title. And while this movie certainly shows us "the softer side of Genghis Khan," there are some extraordinary battle sequences as well.

5. I’m Not There
Not everyone gets this film, and maybe I don't get it like I'm supposed to either. But darnit if it's not the most brilliant character collage I've ever seen. Six actors play Bob Dylan, but not just at different ages of his life. These are literally six different characters - all of them aspects of Bob's eclectic personality. This, like many of Dylan's best songs, is a poem, a story, a work of art, and an acquired taste.

4. No Country for Old Men
The Coen brothers have a way of getting under the skin of a place and making it and its inhabitants feel disturbingly real. The second of two outstanding performances by Tommy Lee Jones this year. He's the film's conscience and the only thing that might stand between Josh Brolin's plucky thief and Javier Bardem's psycho oxygen-tank-wielding killer. This film has possibly the greatest edit ever. A confrontation that we've been waiting for the entire movie, and it's just ... not there. All we see is a body in the background. Way to kill your darlings, boys.

3. Juno
You know, there's nothing particularly flashy about Diablo Cody's script. It's wonderfully self-aware, and its characters make references that most people their age probably shouldn't. Dawson's Creek did that a bit, but either Kevin Williamson wasn't a sharp enough writer to make it flow well enough or the actors saying his lines couldn't make it sound believable. But something about the combination of Cody's script and Ellen Page's delightfully snarky performance makes some magic happen. Sure, Juno is too young to even be aware that there is a human being named Soupy Sales. But her fixation on Argento as the god of horror and Suspiria as his prophet is so dead on for her age. And her argument with Mark over what was the best year ever for music is awesome. And ... and she appreciates the raw sexual power of Michael Cera. And 70s furniture. She's perfect. I love this movie so much.

2. Grindhouse
Setting aside BNAT - because nothing can compare with BNAT, even in a year of pseudo-snuff vids from Poughkeepsie - this was the greatest moviegoing experience of 2007. It KILLS me that so many people did not get what this was about, but I'm grateful I got a chance to experience it as the filmmakers intended. Um, several times. I love how each director plays with the genre in his own way. Rodriguez's Planet Terror is more of a spoof, while Tarantino's Death Proof is more genuine grindhouse fare. And the trailers ... oh man, the trailers. This was so much fun, and I wish more people had gotten into it, because now the studios will never want to do something like that again.

1. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
I'll bet this didn't make many critics' number one spot, but I have to say that it's tops for me. I love, love, love this musical, not just because of the brilliant music and lyrics, but also because of its satire, which is charmingly reminiscent of Jonathan Swift. There could hardly have been a more suitable director to bring this to the screen than Tim Burton. People say he's not known for his musical flair, but I have to strenuously disagree. "Day-O" from Beetlejuice is one of my favorite music moments ever committed to celluloid (my childhood best friend and I wanted desperately to stage it ourselves). This is a film that knows exactly what it is at every moment, and never strays from the path. It cuts the grandiose chorus sections and focuses instead on its fascinating characters. It's a musical peopled with actors that sing, not singers that act, and it's all the stronger for it. It never tries to be a mere regurgitation of the stage play, which must be one of the chief struggles in a project like this. The stage play is essentially an opera, with a definite prologue and a big "TADA!" finish, but the film closes with a bone-chilling stillness and an impossibly vast pool of too-red blood. Perfection. Sondheim should be proud.