The Best Movies of 2007

2007 turned out to be a surprisingly good year for movies, though most of the best were packed into the last few months. There were a couple of sure-to-be-classics, and more than a handful of very strong films. What follows is a list of the films that aren’t necessarily greats, but those that I think I’ll come back to again, those I’ll keep watching and talking about, and those which left me with positive memories.

18) Breach — Director Billy Ray , whose previous film, Shattered Glass, remains an overlooked gem, delivers another fine, restrained story of Beltway betrayal.

17) Grindhouse — Yes, this double feature by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez is all manner of ridiculous, but it’s also all manner of knowing, genre-aficionado fun — a brainy, gut-soaked, madhouse riot from the Ain’t It Cool set’s cleverest filmmakers.

16) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford — A gorgeous, ponderous period piece, it’s a Western-as-waking-dream vision that never quite finds itself but is too stirring to ignore.

15) Once — Slightly overhyped but even more underseen, this pleasantly quirky little musical romance manages, in just 86 minutes, to capture the joys of making music and falling in love (in large part by making them out to be more or less the same thing).

14) Gone Baby Gone — Who knew? Ben Affleck, always an underwhelming presence in front of the camera, is a surprisingly solid one behind it. Gone, a Boston crime film based on a Dennis Lehane novel, is nearly as well crafted as Mystic River, and not half as pretentious.

13) Michael Clayton — Tony Gilroy, who co-scripted the Bourne series turns out to be nearly as smart a director as he is a writer, and Clooney proves himself the most magnetic and serious star working today.

12) and 11) Knocked Up and Superbad — Judd Apatow balances awesome vulgarity with male-id-centered sentimentality and ends up with two lovable, hysterically funny comedies with not a hint of nihilism between them.

10) The Bourne Ultimatum — Paul Greengrass’s thriller’s so sharp it could cut diamonds, and it boasts all of the year’s best live-action action sequences — a Waterloo station cat-and-mouse game, a rooftop foot pursuit through Tangier, and a slam-bang car chase in Manhattan — as well as the tightest, tensest pacing and plotting of any film this year. Bond may have made a triumphant return in ’06, but these days, he’s trailing in relevance. Bourne is an action hero custom-built for the era of terror, surveillance, and globalization.

9) Eastern Promises — David Cronenberg, the so-called “King of Venereal Horror,” isn’t for everyone, even when he’s making (relatively) more accessible films like this and History of Violence. But he’s got a powerful, piercing eye for human strength and frailty, both emotional and physical. No other filmmaker so consistently and effectively links psychic trauma with physical brutality.

8) Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead — It lacks the sprawling sociological frictions of Lumet’s previous heist film, Dog Day Afternoon (they’re a backdrop here, not the main event), but this is about as taut and effective a genre picture as you’re likely to see, and features grand performances from both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke.

7) Sweeney Todd — After a long slump, Tim Burton returns with possibly his finest film, and certainly his best since Ed Wood. For all his showy, artful direction, Burton has always been a fairly simplistic director, a gawky, darkly artistic non-conformist with daddy issues who blends tenderness with ghoulish, creepshow violence. He’s never been much of a storyteller, just a pop-occult painter putting his passions on screen. Todd, with its simple, direct story, its archetypal characters, and swirling aura of lovelorn vengefulness, provides the perfect template for Burton to exert his formidable directorial talents without the burdens of traditional cinematic narrative. The result is a marvelously macabre movie, and bloody beautiful.

6) The Lives of Others — Technically a 2006 film, I didn’t see it until late 2007, and it played in theaters throughout the year, so I’m including it here. It is, quite simply, a marvelous work, a riveting thriller, yes, but also a mournful, daringly personal look back at the psychological costs of totalitarianism.

5) There Will Be Blood — PT Anderson’s most penetrating, perplexing, and original film, with a towering, monstrous lead performance by Daniel Day Lewis and a radiant score by Johnny Greenwood that mixes horror movie overtones with harsh modernist influences of the likes of Bartok. It’s a scorching, even nightmarish movie about sin and selfishness, capitalism and progress, inhumanity and evil. Anderson’s traded whimsy for a violent, mysterious menace, and located it right in the heart (if he has one) of his film’s central performance. If Day Lewis claimed he based his performance on 65 hours of interviews with the Devil himself, I wouldn’t be surprised.

4) Ratatouille — Brad Bird (along with possibly the Wachowskis) has the best sense of motion in film today. His digital camera sweeps and swoops and pans and zooms over his lushly detailed frames with an amazingly confident, yet entirely free and fearless sense of fluidity. And although his story and characters aren’t as strong here as in The Incredibles, they’re still easy enough to warm up to, and plenty lovable, and his fantastic visual sense (which bears a remarkable sense of humor) more than makes up for the film’s very minor inadequacies. I have little doubt at this point that Bird will do more for feature-length animation in the U.S. than anyone since Walt Disney.

3) Zodiac — David Fincher’s most meticulous film, and his most maddening. Technically flawless, in Fincher’s usual way, it’s a slick, Hollywood masterpiece that turns the conventions of the crime story inside out, offering elusive clues at best and frustrating both its characters and viewers at every turn. A chaotic and slow-burning antidote to CSI’s cult of easy evidence, Fincher’s movie takes the framework of the detective tale and remakes it into a vast epistemological quandary.

Finally, there are my two favorite films of the year, two movies which might seem (and in many ways are) completely different, but which represent the two strains of filmmaking that I find most appealing. Last year, my favorite films were the odd combo of Marie Antoinette and Apocalypto; on one hand, a flighty, imperfect, and deeply personal coming of age film buoyed by the innocence and energy of youth, and on the other a chilling, masterfully directed chunk of confident, relentless big-screen craftsmanship. This year, my picks follow a similar pattern (though not intentionally).

My favorite films of 2007 were Juno and No Country for Old Men. Juno isn’t a perfect film by any means, but it’s a dashing, delightful one — smart, maybe too smart, and plenty precocious, but raw and genuine and bursting with the ruffled, honest energy of life and youth. It’s the movie Wes Anderson doesn’t have the balls to make, a revealing personal movie that’s actually revealing and personal. It’s an easy film to criticize, in some ways, but like a good friend, I’m not sure I’d really want it to be perfect; I love every one of its quirks and tics: its rampant, mouthy cleverness, its refusal to engage in condescension or easy smear-tactics, its forthright love for freewheeling oddballs and wackos but also for uptight yuppie conformists and blue-collar parents, and its recognition that all of those people are, to some extent, selfish and imperfect, never as wise as they think, but no less wonderful for it.

Meanwhile, I’ve already expressed my great admiration for No Country for Old Men, but it’s still worth noting the Coens’ accomplishment. They’ve succeeded in making that rare thing, a perfect movie. No frame, no word, no edit or facial expression could be improved upon. The Coens have always had an ear for dialog’s particular regional rhythms, but here, they transcend the nimble-but-forced quirkiness of their usual patter. The lines here, like everything in the film, are rich and layered with meaning. It’s a quiet film, often still and somber, but within those confines it manages to be grim and scary and wryly funny and eventually devastating. The Coen brothers have given us a fearlessly, flawlessly made film about the slow creep of fear, a rumination on the beguiling and terrifying nature of evil — and a great, gripping story to boot.

Special Award: Blade Runner: The Final Cut — One of the most amazing and memorable theatrical viewings I’ve ever enjoyed, and a stunning restoration of a classic film.

Films I also enjoyed: Transformers, Live Free or Die Hard, The Simpsons Movie, The Darjeeling Limited, You Kill Me

Movies I did not see that might have made the list: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Margot at the Wedding, Persepolis, The Savages, Lust, Caution