Great movies should be able to come from any genre, any director, or any country. When film gets turned into a sum game – add the Oscar nomination total of the cast to the filmography of the crew to the popularity of the source material to the respectability of the subject matter – it becomes repetitive and dull. Think about all the wonderful experiences you’ve had in a movie theater. Nine out of ten times, you never saw it coming. Remember the way your favorite movie sparked your imagination? Lingered in your memory for days to follow? How you talked about it with your friends and quoted your favorite lines? That’s not a factor of anything predictable or anything that can be produced by a formula. It is, for lack of a better phrase, the magic of movies.
As someone who sees over 200 movies a year, you would think it would be hard to recapture that magic. Not this year. More often than most years in recent memory, the unpredictable power of film found its way beyond my critical faculties in 2007. And that’s what determined the list below. Quite simply, I asked myself – What films made me forget about the review that had to be written while watching them? What films transported me through laughter, drama, horror, or any other tricks it had up its sleeve? Films that I admired as technical exercises like There Will Be Blood and Zodiac, two of the most undeniably well-made films of the year, didn’t make the top ten simply because, while I respected them, I never felt that elusive, intangible, non-intellectual response as I sat there in the darkened theatre. Every film in the top ten hung with me for days, sometimes weeks and months, after I saw them, and that’s what we really go to the movies for. We all want movies that transcend language and haunt us like a melody or a beautiful passage from our favorite novel.
There were a shocking number of films this year that fit the criteria I’ve described above, and it was amazing to see the variety of genres they came from. If you were a moviegoer who only stuck with one genre or always opted for arthouse over blockbuster, you really missed out this year. It was the variety of product that was the most wonderful aspect of this year in film, with a few of the best comedies in recent memory, a pair of brilliant horror movies from overseas, some of the finest foreign language fare in years, and at least one animated masterpiece. It was a year that saw a wide mix of established directors, like the Coen brothers and Paul Verhoeven, deliver outstanding films alongside an amazing selection of new filmmaking talent. My personal top ten saw three directorial debuts and a number of films made by relatively new voices to the cinematic form. After thousands of movies, the medium shows no sign of failing in its ability to move me. And that’s why I love doing what I do. And these are the movies that I loved in 2007.
(Note: This was a great year for documentaries, but they have not been included on the list below. They will be mentioned in a separate feature. These are fictional films only.)
Honorable Mentions: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Eastern Promises, Exiled, Grindhouse, Hairspray, The Kite Runner, Ocean’s 13, Paprika, and There Will Be Blood.
20. Red Road
19. Gone Baby Gone
17. Lars and the Real Girl
16. Knocked Up
15. The Simpsons Movie
14. Hot Fuzz
13. Black Book
12. A Mighty Heart
10. The Host
Talk about a four-star film that came out of nowhere. The monster genre has been dead for years. Leave it to a Korean to bring it back to life kicking and screaming. Pulling from his own childhood imagination about what might live in Seoul’s Han River, writer/director Bong Joon-Ho (who made the equally great and criminally under-seen Memories of Murder) created one of the most purely enjoyable horror films in years with The Host. It’s one of those rare films that completely transcends its genre and becomes a great movie, period, regardless of categorization. The Host draws on all of our lazy-day imaginations, when we gazed out the window and hoped for something to come out of the boredom and create total chaos. And it does so with such amazing style, mixing horror, comedy, family drama, and political and social satire to create something wholly new. The Host is the kind of grin-inducing fun that we’ve rarely seen since the heydays of John Carpenter, Peter Jackson, or Sam Raimi. Being scared hasn’t been this enjoyable in years.
Director Joe Wright took what worked about his direction of Pride & Prejudice and what he loved about one of the best books of the last decade (the novel by Ian McEwan) and created visual poetry. Atonement the movie is not Atonement the book, but Wright wisely understands that it never could be. It’s an interpretation of the novel, and, as that, it’s nearly flawless. Featuring great performances by James McAvoy, Romola Garai, and Saoirse Ronan and some of the most lushly beautiful technical work of the year, Atonement never feels like a stuffy period piece. It easily could have been all window-gazing and chest-thumping, and regrettably it will probably be written off as such by moviegoers and critics unwilling to give it a chance. They’re missing out. The technical accomplishments of Atonement work together to create a film that can truly be called haunting. Dario Marianelli’s score; Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography; Joe Wright’s direction – they’re all different parts of the cinematic poem that is Atonement, and they combine to create one of the most memorable films of the year.
What has been called this year’s Little Miss Sunshine is actually a better film than the admittedly great Dayton/Faris comedy that took the world by storm last year. The story of a girl who gets unexpectedly pregnant (the unusual trend of the year in films on this list with Knocked Up and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days) and is forced to deal with adult issues she shouldn’t have to face is brilliant because of its consistently unexpected turns. Diablo Cody’s screenplay cleverly understands that age ain’t nothing but a number, and you never know who will be there for you and who won’t. What starts as a clever comedy about teenage pregnancy becomes significantly more in the final act when Juno becomes one of the most tear-jerking statements on what really makes the world go ’round – love. It doesn’t hurt that it also features the best actress performance of the year in Ellen Page, a young lady who quickly shoots to the short list of best actresses of her generation, and that it represents a gigantic leap forward in the directing ability of Jason Reitman.
7. Michael Clayton
Those folks who are always lamenting that “they don’t make movies like they used to” haven’t seen Michael Clayton, a film that would have felt right at home released in the era of The French Connection and The Conversation. It’s a thriller where the characters and their flaws and strengths drive the plot, not a ridiculous twist or shock ending. With career-best work by George Clooney and Oscar nomination-worthy turns by Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton, writer/director Tony Gilroy understands that the thrillers that really last are about people, not about twists. Last minute shocks may get audiences talking as they’re walking out the door, but people will be talking about Michael Clayton for years to come. Gilroy takes the elements of the standard legal thriller and spins them around a character study about a cleaner for a major law firm who faces his biggest challenge – cleaning up the mess around himself.
One of the few animated films truly made for adults, Brad Bird’s Ratatouille is as tasty as the incredible French food it immortalizes. In the film, Remy the rat goes on and on about combining flavors to create something new, and it’s not hard to draw the parallel between what Remy values in cuisine to what Bird does with cinema. A great chef can take ingredients you’ve tasted before and make them into something wholly original, which is precisely what Bird does as a filmmaker. He has taken the form of animation and used it to teach children (and adults) that we live in a world where you don’t have to be defined by others. A weapon can be turned into a superhero (The Iron Giant), a legend can be turned into a family man (The Incredibles), and a rat can be turned into a master chef (Ratatouille). It’s no exaggeration to say that Bird is at the top of the animation medium, but what often doesn’t get recognized is that he’s not only made some of the best animated films of the last decade but also three of the best movies of any kind. Ratatouille instantly takes its place with recent animated classics like Finding Nemo and The Incredibles as a film that children of all ages will return to for decades to come.
5. The Orphanage
When was the last time you were really, truly scared? I’m talking about that sensation when you don’t just get a slight tingle in the back of your neck, but you can actually feel your muscles tense up. As someone who has seen thousands of movies, it’s amazing that it can still happen to me, but I haven’t been as truly terrified as I was during Juan Antonio Bayona’s brilliant The Orphanage in almost a decade. But The Orphanage is a lot more than just an effective ghost story. It’s a brilliant character study about loss and destiny that combines so many of the best parts of other stories that you’ll almost feel like you’ve entered a dream state when you watch it. With elements of The Shining, Peter Pan, and even some of the best of Steven Spielberg’s work, The Orphanage is a masterly crafted ghost story that might not even feature any ghosts. It’s the kind of mind trick that recognizes that the most truly dangerous thing in the world isn’t external, it’s the fear that we create from deep within ourselves. As much as Pan’s Labyrinth was a masterpiece of fantasy last year, the Guillermo Del Toro-produced The Orphanage is a masterpiece of horror.
4. No Country For Old Men
The coldest, darkest, most vicious movie of the year also happens to be the most critically acclaimed. A grad student could write a thesis on what it says about the dark days we currently live in that The Departed won best picture last year, No Country For Old Men is favored to win this year, and both films feature an exorbitant amount of death. Joel and Ethan Coen’s best film in a decade starts out as a traditional but very well-made thriller but becomes much more than that in the final act. No Country For Old Men is a commentary on the increasing power of evil with every generation. There may be warmth in the afterlife but not in this life, and us good folks are lucky enough to survive it for any length of time. You may be lucky enough to wound evil, but you’ll never kill it. And evil has rarely been played better than it is by the Oscar-worthy Javier Bardem. Javier, Josh Brolin, Kelly MacDonald, Tommy Lee Jones, Roger Deakins’ cinematography, Cormac McCarthy’s ability as a master storyteller – it all comes together to create arguably the most haunting film of the year. No Country For Old Men is a hard movie to shake. Having seen dozens of movies since seeing No Country, it still lingers in my mind and is likely to do so for years to come.
3. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Another haunting masterpiece on this list, the divisive Jesse James is not only one of the most beautifully shot films in years, but is also an amazing study of how the power of legend can mix with the reality of human fallibility. Near the end of the film, a character asks Robert Ford why he committed the titular murder and the great Casey Affleck has a look on his face that perfectly sums up the film – there’s no easy answer. You could make a long, long list of the reasons why, and director Andrew Dominik takes those reasons and fashions them into a timeless cinematic legend. From the very first scenes to the last, The Assassination of Jesse James feels like nothing else we’ve seen in the genre for years, combining the pace of Malick’s films with a stronger storytelling urgency to create something completely new and totally unforgettable. The critics who dismissed Jesse James will deny they ever did so in just a few short years.
2. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
The true story of a man trapped in his own body by a horrible stroke that allowed him movement of only his eye would be a powerful one in almost anyone’s hands, but it’s the choices made by the team behind The Diving Bell and the Butterfly that make it one of the best films of the last few years. Diving Bell isn’t your average movie by any stretch of the imagination. Almost the entire first third is shot from the perspective of the lead character, a sensation unbelievably captured by master cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who turns his camera into a fluttering, immobile eyelid. From there, Julian Schnabel starts to pepper in shots from other character’s perspectives, and we can see how the rest of the world views a man we already feel like we know. And then Diving Bell truly takes off by inserting more and more memories, including unforgettably heartbreaking passages with Max Von Sydow and a trip to Lourdes that ranks with the best scenes in film of the year. Internal misery, external pain, the power of memory, and, eventually, the human will – The Diving Bell and the Butterfly isn’t as much of a film as it is an experience. You won’t be the same for hours, days, or weeks after you see it. You might never be the same again.
A lonely Irish guitarist who lives with his father sits down with a pretty pianist to play a song he wrote. The rest is movie history. Watching John Carney’s Once was a movie experience like no other this year. Once is the perfect combination of genuine realism – making us feel like we’re Irish flies on the wall – and the power of movies, music, and the creative mind. Carney, Glen Hansard, and Marketa Irglova have made a love song to the gorgeous twists of fate that make up our lives. If we’re lucky, we have a moment, a song, a friend, whatever, that can lift us up out of the valleys of our lives and place us back on a different path. Once is about the power of creativity to change our lives. Like a lot of films on this list, it transcends description and merely asks you to enjoy spending time with its characters and possibly look at your own life and what’s inspired it a little differently on the way out of the theater. In the final shot, as the music soars and the camera moves out of a second-floor window, it doesn’t fall to the Earth, it stays airborne and we go with it, leaving the theater a little higher off the ground than when we came in. That’s what movies are all about.