Top 10 movie lists are both amusing and agonizing endeavors — worthy fare inevitably gets excised due to the constraints of the conceit. It´s even more problematic in a year such as 2007, which yielded a bounty of cinematic pleasures.
No fewer than a dozen other films could have found their way onto my list, everything from the retro-powered, B-movie homage Grindhouse to Ken Loach´s The Wind That Shakes the Barley, a small, politically charged period piece about the Irish Republican Army that never even made it to local movie houses.
Then there´s the equally traumatic job of ranking them in order of preference — a task I wussed out on this year (alphabetical, baby) — as well as the whole game of what constitutes a 2007 release (I decided to forgo Killer of Sheep, which was made 30 years ago yet not released theatrically until 2007; but I included Paranoid Park, which I saw at the Toronto Film Festival but which will not get a theatrical release until 2008).
But enough of the qualifiers — here´s our lists.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days The harrowing tale of a college girl (the fine Anamaria Marinca) who helps her roommate procure a black-market abortion in 1980s Romania, Christian Mungiu´s powerful, hyperrealist (several seemingly uninterrupted shots last more than four minutes) film puts a human face on an issue that often includes anything but.
I´m Not There Todd Haynes´ dense, experimental Bob Dylan biopic/essay is as inscrutable as its subject. It´s also a meta-licious fantasia that doesn´t bother to explain its motives or narrative gymnastics, a willfully complex distillation of our fractured, fleeting-truth age.
King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters This lovingly nostalgic documentary is essentially a showdown between two polar-opposite, fortysomething Donkey Kong freaks: world record-holder Billy Mitchell, an unintentionally hilarious egomaniac with a mullet who considers himself the ¨Gamer of the Century,¨ and Steve Wiebe, a soft-spoken family man who threatens to surpass Mitchell´s 25-year-old mark. Director Seth Gordon wrings unexpected tension and pathos from their rivalry — as well as the rabid gaming culture they inhabit.
Michael Clayton Screenwriter Tony Gilroy´s directorial debut is the best film Alan J. Pakula never made, a 1970s-cinema-inspired tale of a flawed man (George Clooney) trying to do the right thing in the face of powerful forces. Clooney continues to surprise as one of the savviest guys in Hollywood.
No Country for Old Men This taut, well-acted thriller, the Coen brothers best effort since Miller´s Crossing, is propelled by what Hitchcock called ¨pure cinema¨ — several engrossing scenes play out sans dialogue or even a musical score via cinematographer Roger Deakins´ expressive, noir-informed visuals. And it´s often surreally funny.
No End in Sight Craig Gillespie´s documentary is a clear-headed examination of the many reasons why the post-Saddam U.S. invasion of Iraq has been a debacle: the rampant cronyism, the massive miscalculations, the lack of proper planning, the disaster that is Donald Rumsfeld. In fact, the ineptitude of the Bush cabal goes beyond our already lowered expectations. No End in Sight is a haunting, often infuriating eye-opener.
Paranoid Park Gus Van Sant infuses this spare murder mystery with a hypnotic array of technical flourishes — the use of ambient noises, Elliott Smith songs and other immersive audio choices; a non-linear, overlapping narrative structure; and cinematographer Christopher Doyle´s striking visuals — in another impressionistic vision that sits well alongside his recent avant efforts Elephant and Last Days.
Starting Out in the Evening Andrew Wagner´s elegant drama about an acclaimed but out-of-print novelist (Frank Langella) and an ambitious graduate student (Lauren Ambrose) who´s looking to revive his career is literate, emotionally rich and often incisive about the influence of life on art and vice versa. Much of the credit goes to Langella and Ambrose, whose scenes together feel deeply authentic.
There Will Be Blood Paul Thomas Anderson´s flawed yet fascinating There Will Be Blood is an epic, supremely strange period piece that evokes a host of current cultural issues: our obsession with oil, the role of religion in society, the perils of unchecked capitalism, family values. And it features a ferocious, tour-de-force performance from Daniel Day-Lewis as an early-20th-century oil prospector who seethes with ambiguously sourced, barely contained intensity.
Zodiac In many ways, David Fincher´s slow-burning Zodiac can be seen as the beginning of contemporary culture´s elusive grip on absolute truth. Like Fight Club, this latest meticulously crafted effort captures the mood of our uncertain times with eerie accuracy.
1. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly Julian Schnabel, a painter who has made just three feature films to date, uses the language of avant-garde cinema in terms of camera angles, editing and focus to call attention to the story rather than to his own technical experimentation. The film, with a screenplay by Ronald Harwood, is based on the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a French magazine editor whose sudden stroke leaves him only able to blink one eye. Yet his mind is fully active and he was able to ¨write¨ a memoir through blinking — and this film is about that, often told from Bauby´s point-of-view.
2. Starting Out in the Evening The best dramatic film at 2007´s Sundance Film Festival, this features my pick as the year´s best performance by an actor. Frank Langella plays an aging, physically frail, forgotten novelist — a purist with no countenance for youth culture — being championed by a graduate student (Lauren Ambrose) who also shows a romantic interest in him. The screenplay by director Andrew Wagner and Fred Parnes (from a Brian Morton novel) is literate, intelligent and never sentimental.
3. The Savages Tamara Jenkins´ masterfully acted comedy about the adult children (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) of a gruff, distant father facing dementia (Philip Bosco) is both black-pitched and also ruefully sweet about life. Not a cheap joke in it.
4. Before the Devil Knows You´re Dead The 83-year-old Sidney Lumet makes a ferociously fatalistic thriller out of Kelly Masterson´s screenplay about two brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) who rob their parents´ jewelry store and then watch things go disastrously wrong.
5. Juno This super-clever script by Diablo Cody, both funny and empathetic in its tale of a teenage girl (Ellen Page) who gets pregnant and decides to keep the baby, is elevated by the complex, nuanced depiction of the would-be adoptive parents, played superbly by Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner.
6. Ratatouille I´ve grown weary of most animated films and their formulaic cutesiness, but this latest from Brad Bird and Pixar Studios has a story (about a rat who wants to be top French chef) that has layers of depth. In fact, it seems influenced by Proust. And it´s fun for the kids and looks artful. Top that, Shrek.
7. Sweeney Todd Stephen Sondheim´s musical about the ¨demon barber of Fleet Street¨ comes to the screen, courtesy of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, with a brooding set design and bold bloodiness that bring out a scary, gloomy vision of mankind. Yet the music is gorgeous and Depp´s Bowie-esque singing voice is seductive.
8. I´m Not There I´ll admit, after three viewings, that not everything here works in this folkloric, surrealistic interpretation of Bob Dylan´s life. But what a daring, adventurous film! And what great use of music! Cate Blanchett, as a Don´t Look Back-era Dylan, is memorable.
9. No Country for Old Men Adapting Cormac McCarthy´s novel about the drug trade in Texas, the Coen brothers make every scene unnervingly riveting while also rendering the Texas landscape as transcendently beautiful. And as the ruthless killer Anton Chigurh, Javier Bardem gives us the most frightening villain since the first Terminator.
10. Breach A little film that got away, this taut, ruminating thriller features a performance by Chris Cooper, as crooked (real-life) FBI agent Robert Hanssen, that´s so good you don´t want it to end. Cooper is one of our best (although underappreciated) actors.
1. No Country for Old Men Pairing collective sensibilities of the Coen Brothers with that of Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy empowered and inspired them to reach once more for the best they had to offer (think Blood Simple and Miller´s Crossing) in terms of darkest humanity. And with a trio of stellar performances from Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem, this truly was a Country like no other.
2. There Will Be Blood None of Paul Thomas Anderson´s previous efforts (from Hard Eight, which I loathed the first time I saw it, to Punch Drunk Love, which I continue to love unconditionally) can quite prepare you for the wonders of his adaptation of Upton Sinclair´s Oil. The soul-stirring performances of Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano bubble up from the black gold of Anderson´s vision. Bloody good.
3. Into the Wild Sean Penn and his crew followed the same reckless path as Chris McCandless, using the actual locations of his journey in the film, but Into The Wild (based on Jon Krauker´s memoir) does more than follow the road map he left behind. In the memorable lead performance of Emile Hirsch and a wildly talented cast (including a heartbreaking turn by Hal Holbrook), Penn found the means of taking us into a brave and naive heart as it stared at the darkness all around it and sought the light of truth.
4. I´m Not There Todd Haynes´ daring and experimental biopic completely bypasses our conceptions of what a life like Bob Dylan´s is supposed to look like on film by casting six different (very different) actors in six unique moments during his early days. And it would be a shame for the strong work of Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw and Marcus Carl Franklin to end up as a footnote, but that will likely happen because Blanchett is there.
5. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly After suffering a massive stroke, Jean-Dominique Bauby, the urbane editor of Elle France, is locked inside his own body with control of only his left eye. Rather than succumbing to this nightmare, he wrote this memoir, which artist and director Julian Schnabel used to lock audiences inside Bauby´s perspective. With minds as free and flirty as monarch butterflies, Schnabel and Mathieu Amalric, as Bauby, soar to new heights.
6. Atonement This adaptation of Ian McEwan´s novel about a pair of doomed lovers (James McAvoy and Keira Knightley) separated by a tragic misunderstanding is a progressive and evolutionary advancement in filmmaking for Joe Wright, who startled audiences with his sure-handed approach to Sense and Sensibility. There is no atonement here for the faint of heart, nor should there be.
7. Michael Clayton Screenwriter Tony Gilroy (the Bourne trilogy) teamed up with George Clooney to helm an investigation into the dark recesses of corporate lawyers and a fixer in need of some fixing. And, no surprise, Gilroy proved to be the smartest guy in the room as the man behind the dialogue-heavy premise of Michael Clayton that never talks down to us. Don´t ask how he did it, just be thankful he´s that good.
8. Away From Her Sarah Polley´s mature and graceful treatment of Away From Her, an adaptation of Alice Munro´s short story ¨The Bear Came Over the Mountain,¨ should have come as no surprise. She simply trusted her actors to winnow away the expected and the obvious as they settled upon the reality of life and love when memory fades.
9. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford Andrew Dominik neatly pares Robert Hansen´s novel down to Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) and the cautionary tale of the dark side of the media. It´s a lesson we still struggle with today; one that continues to create heroes, cowards and sometimes a revelation (Affleck).
10. Youth Without Youth This is Francis Ford Coppola´s dream of freedom and independence as a filmmaker. It is not a fevered or feverish one; more like a fading memory that slips through your perceptive fingertips no matter how many times you return to it.