Well, it’s that time of year again and as usual, I’m behind the pack on sharing my list of top movies of the year. The first thing one must set aside is the thinking that this is a list of the “best movies of 2007” since that would be far too subjective. There are plenty of movies on here that technically might not be considered the best filmmaking, but these movies are the ones that had the most impact and effect on me, so look at it more as my list of “favorite movies of the year.”
This has been an especially tough year getting this list down to 25 choices because out of the over 300 movies I’ve seen, many of them twice or even three times, so many of them were considered worthy of a 9/10 or higher, with only one exception, that I had to weigh them all against each other and take more factors into account than usual. Surprisingly, I wound up with far more comedies and genre films in my list than ever, mostly thanks to filmmakers like Judd Apatow, Edgar Wright and Bong Joon-ho. It probably isn’t too big a coincident that many of my favorite movies came out earlier in the year or played at festivals, allowing me to see them two or three times by year’s end, although a couple of them I’ve seen even more times than that.
25. Stardust (Paramount) – Matthew Vaughn’s version of Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess’ illustrated fantasy novel took me by surprise because I was not expecting much from it, but it ended up being a truly wonderful tale that falls somewhere between a Terry Gilliam movie and, of all things, “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Charming newcomer Charlie Cox was great as Tristan and his rapport with Claire Danes as a fallen star drives this fun epic as they met all sorts of odd characters including two played by Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer that won’t soon be forgotten. Funny, exciting and quirkier than normal studio fare, this was the kind of original summer movie that should have made a lot more money than it ended up making.
24. Eagle vs. Shark (Miramax) – The first of many quirky indie love stories that you’ll find on this list, Taika Waititi’s debut as a director introduced the Western world to one Jemaine Clement, who would become better known over the course of the year as one half of HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords.” He’s just as funny as Jarrod, an arrogant video game nerd hell-bent on getting revenge on the high school bully that made his life hell, and Loren Horsley as the lonely outcast who falls in love with him. This is the kind of strange indie comedy that a lot more people might have loved if they knew about it, and there’s definitely a thread you can follow from this through some of the other movies that made my year-end list.
23. Triad Election (Tartan) Known in director Johnny To’s hometown of Hong Kong as “Election 2,” this sequel to the Asian hit was given a low-key release, but the lucky moviegoers who got to see this back to back with the first movie were in for a huge treat, as the prolific Mr. To created a crime drama on par with “The Godfather” but very much set in the world of the Hong Kong Triad. Unlike the equally brilliant “Infernal Affairs Trilogy,” it was told completely from the perspective of different levels within the criminal world, but it’s the performance by Chinese pop star Louis Koo as Jimmy, the businessman dragged into the family business and has to get his hands dirty to win his role as the new head of his family, that would have done Pacino and De Niro proud.
22. The Kite Runner (Paramount Vantage) I had heard a lot of great things about Khaled Hosseini’s novel for years, but it wasn’t until I saw the movie version written by David Benioff and directed by Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland”) before I finally understood why the novel has such a devoted fanbase. Probably one of the bigger crimes of the current holiday and awards season is that this wonderful movie isn’t finding the same loyal following since the filmmakers have brought Hosseini’s words to life as a beautiful epic film that starts as a story about childhood friendship and betrayal in ’70s Kabul, turns into a movie about the one man’s escape and attempt to start a new life in America with his father, and then concludes with an exciting and sometimes shocking return to Afghanistan under the Taliban. In my opinion, this was very much what Mira Nair tried to do with her adaptation of The Namesake but failed, and it has a level of emotion that really sticks with you a long time. (After seeing the movie, I picked up Hosseini’s novel and loved it just as much.)
21. Knocked Up (Universal) The first of two Judd Apatow movies on this list, this one being the one he wrote and directed which took a hilarious look at sex, pregnancy and relationships. The unusually strong chemistry between the odd couple of Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl built upon the “Geek Will Inherit the Earth” promise of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” that even a slacker loser can hook up with a hottie like Heigl and father her baby. Of course, in the real world this would never happen, but that’s the escapism of movies that made this one so much fun, but if that wasn’t enough, watching Apatow’s real-life family mix it up with Paul Rudd as a surrogate for Apatow made the film that much funnier. The success the movie found proved that once in a while American moviegoers get something right.
20. Michael Clayton (Warner Bros.) This directorial debut by Tony Gilroy, most famous for co-writing the “Bourne” trilogy, took a different angle on the normal suspense thriller, taking place in the backroom of the large corporate law firms in the form of George Clooney’s corporate cleaner who has to fix things when his friend and mentor (played by Tom Wilkinson) goes a bit nuts on a billion dollar class action lawsuit case, leading to incredible circumstances that will leave a chill to one’s core. The only real sticking point about the movie was the slow pace and the confusing first half, but there’s real genius at work here and Tony Gilroy’s amazing writing and the three performances made this a movie that couldn’t be ignored.
19. Resurrecting the Champ (Yari Film Group) I caught Rod Lurie’s third feature film when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and while I’ve always been skeptical of Josh Hartnett as an actor, he really proved himself, knocking one of out of the park as a sports journalist trying to live up to his father’s reputation while also teaching his son about right and wrong. At first, the film mostly revolves around Hartnett’s relationship with a homeless man called “The Champ” played by Samuel L. Jackson, but halfway through, the film turns into something completely different, which is where it really hits home. Another movie that was completely overlooked by moviegoers and that should hopefully find its audience on DVD.
18. The Wind That Shakes the Barley (IFC) Surprisingly, this was my first experience with British filmmaker Ken Loach, who has been making independent films in the British isles for decades, but this one really impressed me with its no frills fly-on-the-wall look at the Irish revolution against the invading British troops in 1920. Cillian Murphy gave a killer performance as a revolutionary who started the Irish Republican Army, whose brother ended up on the opposite side of the war. There is no question that this movie’s Palm D’Or at Cannes was well-deserved, and I’ll be very curious to see Loach’s next film “It’s a Free World ,” which sadly I missed at Toronto.
17. Ratatouille (Disney/Pixar) While I haven’t been as madly in love with Pixar’s string of animated movies as some people–my favorite up until this point was Monsters, Inc. in 2001–this movie really hit all of the high points as one of the best animated films of the year. I really liked Brad Bird’s previous Pixar film The Incredibles, which should be a given due to its superhero subject matter, but this movie about a gourmet rat named Remy trying to make his way in a French kitchen was just so wonderful across the board, though what really makes this the perfect meal is Peter O’Toole’s delightful performance as Anton Ego, the food critic who inadvertently discovers Remy’s talents.
16. La Vie en Rose (Picturehouse) An amazing film, not just for the much-ballyhooed performance by Marion Cotillard as French songstress Edith Piaf, but also for the intricate filmmaking techniques used by director Olivier Dahan to jump backwards and forwards in time as it explored her troubled life. Even though there are similarities between Piaf’s life and other musicians, this isn’t your typical biopic, and it’s a great primer to her amazing catalogue of song standards. And yes, Marion Cotillard is amazing, almost unrecognizable at times as she plays the singer from her early ’20s until the end of her life.
15. The Orphanage (Picturehouse) Juan Antonio Bayona’s filmmaking debut was shepherded by Guillermo del Toro, and frankly–I’m sure I’ll get flack for this–I thought it was a better movie than del Toro’s own Pan’s Labyrinth last year. On the surface, this was a ghost story along the lines of del Toro’s previous Spanish effort Devil’s Backbone, but with an unforgettable performance by Spain’s most beautiful export, Belén Rueda, it turned into an intricate layered tale of a missing child and the mother who would do anything to find him. And yes, the movie is unbelievably scary at times even for those who go in prepared to be frightened.
14. Things We Lost in the Fire (DreamWorks) Susanne Bier’s English language debut followed up the release of the equally excellent Danish film After the Wedding (see Honorable Mentions below). It was one of the most striking films about dying and grief, family and friend and addiction, driven by two amazing performances, Benicio Del Toro as Jerry Sunborn, the childhood friend-turned-junkie of a man whose death brings him closer to the man’s widow, played by Halle Berry, and their two young kids. It was clearly one of Del Toro’s best performances but even moreso for Berry, who finally proved that her earlier Oscar was warranted, and it’s a gorgeous film, slow and subdued, but moving in its intricate look at human emotions. One of these days, people will realize what a great filmmaker Bier is, and it’s sad that her first opportunity to shine in the States was overlooked and ignored both by moviegoers and awards groups, and it’s a tragedy that more people didn’t discover this beautiful movie. Hopefully, people will discover this movie on cable and DVD and be amazed how so many people missed the boat the first time around.
13. Zodiac – David Fincher’s first film since 2002’s Panic Room was quite a departure, because it wasn’t the in-your-face movie with all sorts of wild camerawork we’ve seen from him in the past. Instead, this deliberately slow film that was long in the works dissects one of the longest unsolved spree murder crimes and turns it into one-part detailed police procedural and one-part Hitchcock thriller. Even though it runs almost three hours long, you never feel it because you’re so riveted to the screen as you watch the various players, including Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. as two men obsessed with solving the case, as they examine every new piece of the puzzle. Even so, it’s Jake Gyllenhaal as Robert Graysmith, writer of the novel on which the movie is based, who gets some of the amazing scenes including a tense moment in a basement between him and, of all people, comedian Charles Fleischer. It’s a moment and a movie that’s not easily forgotten.
12. No Country for Old Men (Miramax) – A lot has already been said about the Coen Brothers’ return to greatness with their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s gritty crime novel set in the American desert, but I’ll add some more here, because I was equally blown away by the movie due to the performances by Josh Brolin, as a man living in the wilderness who finds a large sum of money, and Javier Bardem, as the ruthless assassin sent to get the money back. It’s probably the latter’s portrayal of one Anton Chigurh that will leave the most lasting impression as he cuts a swath through anyone who gets in his way, but gorgeous starkness of the entire film–there’s no accompanying music for instance–that really makes this a film to be watched and remembered for a long time.
11. Away From Her (Lionsgate) – Sarah Polley’s debut as a filmmaker was another one that I saw early in the year just before the Sundance Film Festival, and I couldn’t believe that this was the directorial debut of this talented young Canadian actress, because it an incredibly strong character piece about how a elderly couple, played by Julie Christie and little-known Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent, deal with her showing signs of Alzheimer’s, and while the lovely Ms. Christie is getting a lot of accolades, I was more impressed with Pinsent’s wonderful performance as the man who finds himself losing the love of his life and not being able to do anything about it. A perfectly lovely film regardless of your age. (I’m quite shocked that I never got a chance to write a full review for this movie despite loving it enough to see it a second time before its low-key May release.)
10. I’m Not There (The Weinstein Company) Todd Haynes’ first movie since 2002’s Far From Heaven finally turned me into a Bob Dylan fan after years of scratching my head not understanding why so many people are so devoted to the marble-mouthed singer/songwriter. Here, it takes six actors to portray the different sides of Dylan, and while Cate Blanchett’s take on the “Blonde on Blonde” clearly drives the film for 40 minutes of unadulterated fun, I was just as impressed with Charlotte Gainsbourg and Heath Ledger during the scenes dealing with Dylan’s shaky marriage, and Christian Bale’s take on Dylan, the folk singer and religious Dylan. Another movie that takes multiple viewings to really appreciate, but it’s hard not to walk away and be more curious about the enigmatic musician and man.
9. 3:10 to Yuma (Lionsgate) I’m not a fan of Westerns either, and yet this remake of a ’50s classic by James (“Walk the Line”) Mangold totally blew me away. Although there were a lot artier Westerns that came out in the months after I saw this, there was just something so pure and perfect about this unapologetic shoot ’em up Western about a posse set to take Russell Crowe’s criminal to jail. It featured some amazing scenes between Crowe and Christian Bale, but just as impressive was the manic performance by one of my favorite actors of ’07, Ben Foster as Crowe’s right hand man who is obsessed with saving his boss from jail. Clearly this confirms Mangold as one of the most impressive and still very underrated filmmakers.
8. Lars and the Real Girl (MGM) This might be one of the more controversial movies in my Top 10 because there are some critics who not only hated this but included it in their year’s worst lists. Those critics are bloomin’ I-D-I-O-T-S. While up at the Toronto Film Festival, I went into this movie penned by Nancy Oliver of “Six Feet Under” with no expectations and I was blown away, not only by the subdued performance by Ryan Gosling, who is rightfully getting more awards cred for a performance that can be compared to Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy, but by the entire cast, including the sex doll Bianca who becomes the catalyst for this poignant story about finding one’s way around loneliness. This is a great second feature from Craig Gillespie, whose debut, the high concept studio comedy Mr. Woodcock was released a few weeks before, but maybe it’s better that I never saw it.
7. Superbad (Sony) – If Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up set them up, then Seth Rogen and high school buddy Evan Goldberg’s coming-of-age high school comedy knocked them down as Jonah Hill, Michael Cera and the hilarious newcomer Christopher Mintz-Plasse took a premise that might be compared to the ’80s raunch comedy “Porky’s” and turned it into a near-genius 24-hour tale of three teenagers trying to get alcohol and get laid. The chemistry between Hill and Cera was so great that they could win “cutest couple” on many year’s end lists, but it was just the familiar situations that generated so many laughs in one of the year’s funniest comedies.
6. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (THINKFilm) Who knows whether in 93 years this will be considered the comeback of the century but the way he’s going, 83-year-old filmmaker Sidney Lumet will still be making movies then. Most of the people who saw this amazing crime thriller will remember it for the way Lumet brought out such brilliant performances from the most impressive ensemble casts of the year, and how characters played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney and Marisa Tomei were weaved into an intricate web of intrigue and deception centering around a jewelry store robbery gone wrong. With its interesting non-linear method of storytelling, this is a movie to be watched, rewatched and studied for many years to come.
5. Hot Fuzz (Rogue Pictures) I honestly can’t say if I was a fan of half the police action movies that were spoofed in the second feature from the makers of “Shaun of the Dead,” Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and yet I got every single one of the jokes, which ran the gamut of humor from straight satire to wordplay to subtle jokes that took most of the movie before they delivered their hilarious punchlines. This movie confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that “Shaun” was no fluke and that these comedic geniuses from across the pond were masters of comedy that would be unmatched by their American peers for many years to come.
4. The Host (Magnolia Pictures) – Very close to being my favorite film of the year and one of the few films that received a rare 10/10 from me, because let’s face it, when it comes to Korean monster movies, this film sets a new standard (Maybe because it’s the only Korean monster movie I’ve seen.) It reminded me of all those great Godzilla movies I loved as a kid, but this had a wonderful sense of humor and a touching family story amidst all of the scenes with the cool CG creature created by Weta FX. This was the year that I became an avid fan of Bong Joon-ho, having also seen his previous movie Memories of Murder another film that shows that he’s become one of Korea’s finest filmmakers.
3. Vitus (Sony Classics) – The great lost film of 2007 and one that practically no one, not even my fellow critics, saw. Maybe it was the name that put people off, because they thought it was some dark religious thriller or something, but in fact, this Swiss film is the story of a child prodigy, a genius kid who was also a piano virtuoso, who tried to get back his childhood and family back by forsaking the talents he was given. This is just a wonderful movie by Fredi Muhrer that I probably will be buying multiple copies of to give to my loved ones, because I can’t imagine any one of them not loving this movie as much as I did.
2. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Miramax) Technically, this is easily one of the best films of the year in all respects from the fluid writing of Ron (“The Pianist”) Harwood, the gorgeous visuals from painter-filmmaker Julian Schnabel, to the performances by the entire cast: Matthieu Amalric as French fashion editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, Emmanuelle Seigner as his estranged wife and Max von Sydow as his aging father, all of whom are deeply affected by Bauby’s full-body paralysis when he suffers a sudden stroke. Adapted from Bauby’s own memoir, dictated to assistants via a complex series of eye blinking to communicate his thoughts, this moving film really drives home our own mortality and how something like this can hit you suddenly and it’s up to you to find a way to make the most of it while you can. This is a movie that on paper shouldn’t work and yet, Schnabel has found a way to tell Bauby’s story in such a unique way that it’s hard not to be impressed.
1. Once (Fox Searchlight) – Oddly, one of the first movies I saw in 2007 and the second movie I saw at this year’s Sundance Film Festival ended up being the movie that left the most lasting impact on me throughout the year. Maybe it was the simplicity of the storytelling in Irish filmmaker John Carney’s boy-meets-girl musical or maybe it was the beautiful music made by musicians Glenn Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who as their alter ego The Swell Season created a record I listened to non-stop throughout the year, but I also loved this movie enough to see it five times over the course of the year without tiring of a single line or moment. And if it weren’t enough of a fairy tale story already with it being picked up by Fox Searchlight and making nearly $10 million–it cost around $700k U.S.–in a bizarre case of life imitating art, the film’s two stars who had known each other and collaborated musically for years, finally stopped fighting the inevitable and became a couple themselves while touring in support of the movie proving that love does conquer all.
Honorable Mentions: (Or, Why only 25!?!)
The movies below are all very good that just missed the mark of the Top 25. Some of these you may have read about in my weekly “The Weekend Warrior” column and some may even have my reviews at the linked titles:
After the Wedding (IFC Films)
Top Docs of the Year
This list is even tougher because this was another great year for docs, which is why I once again have pulled the docs out of the Top 25 race, because if I included docs, they’d probably take up 5 to 6 places in my Top 10, taking further away from the dramatic films. Hopefully, fans of non-fiction will give some of these a look.
1. In the Shadow of the Moon (THINKFilm) David Sington’s look at the nine moon launches and the 12 men who walked on the moon was one of the most stunning films I saw this year bar none, mostly due to the amount of footage that no one has ever seen while hearing from the astronauts in their own words what it was like to be some of the first men in space. Watching this movie you realize why so many people were obsessed with space travel and the moon launches back in the ’60s and ’70s.
2. War/Dance (THINKFIlm) This has been one of my favorite movies of the year since I saw it before Sundance this year, as Sean and Andrea Nix Fine follow the journey of Ugandan school children living in a refugee camp in the country’s dangerous Northern sector on their journey to the country’s annual musical competition. It’s amazing what Sean Fine’s camera was able to capture as we learn the moving stories of three of these kids and see how much joy they find in music despite all the tragedies they’ve suffered.
3. Kurt Cobain: About a Son (Balcony Releasing) – Another doc that blew me away, although in this case, I already was enough of a fan of Cobain and his band Nirvana to be the perfect audience for AJ Schnack’s innovative way of telling Cobain’s story. What’s amazing about the film is that it contains absolutely no Nirvana songs nor does it even show almost any pictures or footage, instead telling Cobain’s story in his own words using a haunting taped interview with the singer talking about his life, cut together with images of his hometown and the music that influenced him. Every Nirvana fan should own this movie whenever it becomes available.
4. Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (The Weinstein Co.) – Part of my inability to get into Bob Dylan can be traced back to my general disinterest in folk music, and there isn’t a bigger name in that musical style than Pete Seeger. Before I saw this movie I never realized quite what Seeger had done not only during the Civil Rights movement but also in terms of teaching kids to sing and play instruments via folk music, but Jim Brown does a terrific job paying tribute to this underrated musical pioneer.
5. SiCKO (The Weinstein Co.) – Michael Moore’s first movie in three years took an in-depth look at the American health care system and as someone who has gone most of his life without health insurance, it made me feel a lot better about that decision. Over the course of Moore’s powerful and entertaining film, we see how the government in cahoots with the insurance companies have screwed so many people out of their livelihoods simply because they believed in the health care system as it stands in this country.
6. No End in Sight (Magnolia) – There have been a lot of great Iraq docs in the last few years but Charles Ferguson went back to the beginning, looking at how things were screwed up after the U.S. invasion in 2003 and how that turned into the chaos that now exists, which might make it impossible for us to ever pull the troops completely out of the country. A very intelligent and informative film that might take a few viewings to truly absorb the impact of Ferguson’s research.
7. Nanking (THINKFilm) Another Sundance favorite, this film takes a look at the little-known Japanese invasion of Nanking, China during WW II and the atrocities that took place, which might have been even worse if not for a small group of Westerners who stayed behind to help. A powerful film that you’d have to be fairly cold-hearted not to be moved to tears by.
8. The King of Kong (Picturehouse) – First seen at the Tribeca Film Festival, this competitive doc by Seth Gordon looks at the bitter rivalry between two arcade game masters as they vie to hold the record for Donkey Kong. Amusing, entertaining and featuring one of the funniest bad guys of the year in Billy Mitchell. (Maybe Javier Bardem will play him in the dramatic feature film that Gordon is developing.)
9. Jimmy Carter: Man of Plains (Sony Classics) – This amazing documentary by Jonathan Demme follows former President Jimmy Carter on his 2005 American tour to promote his controversial book “Palestine: Peace not Apartheid”, and we see this underrated world leader dealing with being attacked by the people praised his efforts during the 1978 Camp David Peace Talks. An amazing film about an amazing man.
10. An Unreasonable Man (IFC Films) – Another political doc, this one looking at the life and career of the controversial third party candidate Ralph Nader and how he went from being a consumers’ rights advocate to being a serious Presidential candidate and then lost man of his supporters when he ran in the 2000 elections, taking much-needed votes away from the Democrats. A fascinating look into the mind of a politician who few people, even his supporters, really know.
Now that you’ve read about the best, you can check out the worst sometime next week with my annual Terrible 25 of 2007 (Also, feel free to use the Comments section below to let us know what you think of his choices).