Sunday, January 20, 2008

My top 10 films of 2007

1. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

A very tough choice this year. The next two films on my list are excellent but bleak in tone. Normally, that doesn't bother me, but for some reason I had a hard time crowning either of them king. Diving Bell turned a terrible situation -- a man's near-total paralysis -- into an inspiring story without an ounce of sap. Julian Schnabel's directorial conceit -- to show the vast majority of the movie's action from the monocular viewpoint of paralyzed Jean-Dominique Bauby -- is daring, and the payoff is tremendous. Filled with honesty and beauty and poignant moments that feel true to life, not manipulative, this is -- just barely -- my #1 film of 2007.

2. No Country for Old Men

I didn't find it bloodless or soulless, the way some critics did. Tommy Lee Jones and Kelly Macdonald give the film more emotional life than dozens of other 2007 films put together, and Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem both deserve the many accolades they've gotten. The cinematography is some of the best I saw in 2007, and the use of sound is ingenious and Oscar-worthy. And the pacing and humor are both just right.

3. There Will Be Blood

Say what you will about the Milkshake Moment, the vast majority of Paul Thomas Anderson's oil saga is, as my friend Angela put it, remarkable. From the exquisite cinematography to Daniel Day-Lewis' Oscar shoo-in performance, to the writing (which I feel is a step above Anderson's previous work -- clipped, commanding, and period-authentic without feeling slavishly so), Blood is riveting until it goes apeshit, at which point it's just riveting in a different way. And you know what? After a couple hours of well-paced, subtle narrative, a little on-the-nose symbolism never killed anyone. (Okay, bad choice of words.)

4. Ratatouille

The most purely delightful film of the year. Maybe not up to the lofty level of The Incredibles, Brad Bird's previous Pixar film, but damn close, and that's a hell of a place to be. Extra kudos to Janeane Garofalo's French accent and the rightly beloved ratatouille scene -- and subsequent Peter O'Toole monologue about being a critic. Delicious.

5. Away From Her

I loved Sarah Polley already as an actress, and this movie made me love her as a director, too. Julie Christie is heartbreaking and just generally superb, Gordon Pinsent deserves about as much praise for his work in the role of Christie's quietly suffering husband, and the film's painful, delicate themes unfold honestly and unflinchingly, but also sensitively and humorously. Easily the best Canadian film of the year, I'd wager, and an example of the kind of film that both enriches a national cinema and transcends it.

6. Zodiac

Rarely have killings been depicted both as startlingly and as sympathetically (toward the victims) as David Fincher portrays them in Zodiac. The director goes against the serial-killer grain -- he's out to trouble us, not titillate us, with the maniac's violence, and somehow he manages to generate a shocked, upset response based on the murders of characters we barely know. As Angela observed, this thoughtful film casts a mood that's more than gloomy -- it's haunting, and it takes days to shake off. One thing's for sure: Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" will never sound the same to me again.

7. Lake of Fire

Tony Kaye's abortion documentary may not have changed my mind about the issue, but it made me think. A sequence that follows a Twin Cities woman and her partner as she prepares for the procedure is a miniature documentary masterpiece on its own. The black-and-white cinematography, which makes the more graphic scenes just barely bearable, is outstanding. The inclusion of talking heads who refuse to issue absolutist statements -- they state their opinions but acknowledge that intelligent people may disagree -- is utterly refreshing, and it makes this an aptly thorny film about a subject that's grown no less thorny since Roe v. Wade.

8. Margot at the Wedding

The Squid and the Whale was my #1 film of 2005, and Noah Baumbach's follow-up isn't quite as good. But it's still really good. Nicole Kidman has never, ever been better, and Jennifer Jason Leigh hits the right notes, quiet and subtle, to support Kidman's Oscar-caliber performance. Jack Black is shrewdly cast (slightly) against type, and Zane Pais is terrific as Claude, Margot's unfortunate son. Some of the best dialogue of the year.

9.The King of Kong

Preening, egotistical video-game champion Billy Mitchell, Kong's anti-hero, is a slow-moving target. Yet director Seth Gordon has the wisdom and grace to let Mitchell hoist himself by his own petard, and he proves more than up to the task. Steve Wiebe, his main challenger for the Donkey Kong world record, is also his perfect foil: Wiebe is awkward, humble, self-effacing, and sweet as pie. No wonder a fictionalized adaptation of Kong is in the works, though I doubt it could equal the jaw-dropping original. Toss in Walter Day, the hilariously, endearingly earnest video-game referee, and you have a documentary that's the stuff of legend -- and whose human drama is capable of captivating people who have no love at all for video games.

10. Into the Wild

Were the Eddie Vedder songs annoying? Yes. Did Sean Penn choose to move the camera around the mountaintops like a car-commercial director, as David Denby alleged? Maybe. I didn't notice. Making a young man's picaresque journey from stifling mainstream society to the outer reaches of the wilderness seem fresh is nearly impossible, but Penn's film brings something vital to a very old story. Emile Hirsch is splendid as Christopher, and Catherine Keener, as the pragmatic half of a hippie couple he meets along the way, infuses her role with something it desperately needs: unsentimental world-weariness. All told, it's the rare adventure film that actually feels like an adventure. The whole thing should have been mawkish and irritating, but it isn't. Vince Vaughn and Hal Holbrook do great work in smallish roles, and Christopher's decision to chuck a conventional life, donate tens of thousands of dollars to charity, and hit the road in search of something, anything, to believe in is almost painfully relatable. Denby complains that Hirsch's character rejects society without accumulating enough life experience to know what he's doing, but I think he knows plenty. It's the Obama argument: He may not have a lot of experience under his belt, but he has enough to know that things need to change.

Honorable mentions (in no particular order):

Sunshine -- Visually thrilling and well paced. A great example of high-concept sci-fi done right.
Superbad -- Never a dull moment. A breezy, enjoyable balancing act of vulgarity and sweetness.
Once -- One of the year's most touching and realistic love stories, with great music in the bargain.
Sicko -- Michael Moore's most accessible film, politically speaking, is also one of his most compelling.
In the Valley of Elah -- Before Old Men opened, Tommy Lee Jones brought great humanity to the role of a soldier's father.
Michael Clayton -- George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, and Tom Wilkinson are all at the top of their game.
Lars and the Real Girl -- Ryan Gosling can do no wrong, but neither can Nancy Oliver's warm, funny script.
Juno -- Ellen Page is finally breaking out, and it's about time. Her scenes with Jason Bateman and Michael Cera made the movie.

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