I’m not one of those people who thinks 2007 has been an exceptional year for movies – there were too many films that were either disappointing (In the Valley of Elah, Lust, Caution) or ones that were good but, considering their directors, could have been better (Eastern Promises, Rescue Dawn). Nevertheless, there were a lot of very good movies, if only one that I’d call an out-and-out masterpiece. Here, then, is my top 10 list for the year, along with my honorable mentions, my favorite performances of the year, and the five films that were the worst I saw in 2007:
There Will Be Blood: Whatever you think of him as a filmmaker, there’s no denying Paul Thomas Anderson is a director who wears his storytelling ambitions on his sleeve. While his previous epic tales (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) looked inward to his own feelings about the world and human relations, his latest film, loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil, looks outward to the familiar tale of a man (Daniel Day-Lewis, in another mesmerizing performance) who reaches the top of his profession but becomes isolated from himself. What Anderson does is combines the epic reach of his tale with the intimate details of his characters in a way few other directors have. The result is the one true masterpiece I saw this year.
Black Book: I know there are people who’d rather eat holiday fruitcake every day for a year than watch another WWII-related movie. But in his comeback movie, Paul Verhoeven destroys all of our preconceptions about the “last good war.” There were definitely good guys vs. bad guys, but as Verhoeven vividly demonstrates in this tale of Dutch Jews fighting against the Nazis, the lines between them weren’t always as clear as we’d like them to be.
Michael Clayton: Making his directorial debut, writer Tony Gilroy makes the rare thriller/drama that didn’t feel like it came of a machine marked Thriller 101, that gave its characters and dialogue space to breathe, and exuded intelligence from every frame without being heavy-handed about it. And while George Clooney and Tom Wilkinson have deservedly been getting credit for playing two corporate sharks that belatedly see the light, it’s Tilda Swinton who deserves the most kudos playing a corporate villain like we’ve never seen.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead: Sidney Lumet comes roaring back to prominence and relevance by taking one of his favorite movie genres – the New York City crime melodrama – and, despite the fractured narrative, making it simple, tough-minded, and heartbreaking, especially in the last 15 minutes. It helps he has great actors at the helm, particularly my nomination for this year’s acting MVP, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
No Country for Old Men: Part of the backlash against this latest effort from the Coen brothers is how this movie is all formalism. That may be true, but when the formalism in question – sharp writing, tight direction, nail-biting suspense even without a score to juice things up, and pitch-perfect performances from the cast, especially the chilling Javier Bardem – is so acutely done, it’s hard for me to complain.
(tie) Away From Her/The Savages: Both of these films are from women directors tackling issues normally dealt with in disease-of-the-week TV movies with an honesty normally not found in those efforts. Both of them feature strong performances not only by the afflicted – Julie Christie in the former, Philip Bosco in the latter – but also by those dealing with the affliction – Gordon Pinsent in the former, Laura Linney (in the lead performance of the year) and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the latter. And while they have different styles in telling their story – the former’s gentle lyricism contrasts with the latter’s brutal humor – they’re both damn good.
Once: Since Moulin Rouge kicked off the “musical revival,” most of the films in its wake – even the good ones like Chicago and Sweeney Todd – have merely copied the old stage-to-screen musicals of the 50’s and 60’s, being as concerned with the surface than the feeling below, if not more. John Carney’s film doesn’t resonate because of its smallness of scale compared to those other musicals, but because it produces more genuine feeling not just in its story, but also in the very music driving the story.
No End in Sight: What makes Charles Ferguson’s documentary about what went wrong in Iraq so compelling and heartbreaking isn’t just the calm outrage that fills every frame, but the idea that the people who were initially in charge and knew what they were doing were set aside for the people who got us in this mess today.
Zodiac: What made David Fincher’s docudrama about the infamous serial killer was not the level of detail he, writer Jim Vanderbilt, and a top-notch cast (especially Robert Downey Jr.) brought to the story, although that certainly helped. It was also the rare serial killer movie – hell, the rare movie – that dared to explore how our obsession with serial killers, from any perspective, has been less about understanding the monster beneath than fetishizing the details of their workings.
Into the Wild: In his acting, writing and directing, Sean Penn has usually hewed to the position of the outcast staying on the edge of society. What makes this movie, based on the true story of Chris McCandless, so appealing is not just that Penn’s work here is his clearest declaration of that position, but also because for the first time, he tempers that position with the mature outlook that maybe parts of that society may be more help than hindrance – and McCandless came to that outlook to late to save himself. And Emile Hirsch’s performance as McCandless clearly shows him as a talent to watch.
The Bourne Ultimatum: Paul Greengrass, Tony Gilroy, Matt Damon and company prove once again you can make a blockbuster into a good movie if you know how to do it right.
I’m Not There: Although it didn’t hit me on the emotional level I think it aspired to, Todd Haynes’ fractured biopic of Bob Dylan is still an impressive achievement.
Juno: I’ll leave the debate over how “indie” this comedy is to those who care about such things, and say simply this comedy both made me laugh and moved me, an increasingly difficult thing to do these days (and earns points for getting Jennifer Garner to act).
A Mighty Heart: Whatever you think of Angelina Jolie’s real-life activities, she didn’t grandstand here, but gave a quietly powerful performance in Michael Winterbottom’s first-rate docudrama.
The Namesake: Forget Atonement; this was the class literary adaptation of the year. And with this, A Mighty Heart, and his small role in The Darjeeling Limited, Irfan Khan proves he’s a talent to watch.
Best performances of the year:
Best Actor: Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah. As usual, this category is overflowing with contenders, including Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will be Blood), Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men), and Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild). But while I didn't like the movie he was in, Jones' performance haunted me from beginning to end.
Best Actress: Laura Linney, The Savages. In contrast - or was it reaction - to last year's abundance of great roles for women and great performances by them, there weren't as many lead actress performances to cheer about (though Julie Christie (Away From Her), Angelina Jolie (A Mighty Heart), Ellen Page (Juno), and Halle Berry (Things we Lost in the Fire), among others, shone through). But even in a better year for women, Linney, who also had an MVP year with great performances in Breach and Jindabyne, gave her character the most dimensions, and made us care about her even when we didn't like her all that much.
Best Supporting Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson’s War. It's almost unfair picking Hoffman's best performance from his work this year. But in this performance, Hoffman disappeared into his character completely, more so than in his other admittedly stellar work this year. And even though this was another good year for supporting males (including Josh Brolin in American Gangster, Ed Harris in Gone Baby Gone, Tom Wilkinson in Michael Clayton, and Irfan Khan in The Namesake and A Mighty Heart), Hoffman stood out.
Best Supporting Actress: Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton. Cate Blanchett got all the ink for her Bob Dylan impression in I'm Not There. Amy Ryan has been winning all the awards for her crack-addicted mom in Gone Baby Gone. Leslie Mann did the comedy with an edge like no one else in Knocked Up. And Shelan O'Keefe topped a strong year of child performances with her heartbreaking work in Grace is Gone. But all of these, and other great supporting actress performances, were giving archetypical, though very good, performances; Swinton took a familiar part - the corporate villain - and turned upside down all our conceptions about it.
And now, the five worst movies of the year:
Shoot ‘Em Up: The only movie I walked out of this year was this so-called tongue-in-cheek action comedy, which insisted it was clever and funny instead of being offensive and tiresome. And it’s sad Clive Owen, who was in my in my favorite movie of last year (Children of Men), was in my two least favorites of this year, this and:
Elizabeth: The Golden Age: Let' see: Shrek the Third? Live Free or Die Hard? Pirates of the Caribbean 3? No contest: this was by far the worst sequel of the year. Director Shekhar Kapur goes from the entertaining and artful potboiler of the first movie to an incoherent mess, dragging a talented cast (including returning members Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush) down with him.
Smokin’ Aces: Once you get past the novelty of R&B star Alicia Keyes playing a lesbian hitwoman, there’s really no point to this empty-headed action fest. Also, memo to Jeremy Piven – stop playing every part as a variation on Ari Gold.
Angel-A: Luc Besson’s incredibly annoying “romantic fable” puts you in the uncomfortable position of wondering if La Femme Nikita or The Professional were ever that good in the first place.
The Heartbreak Kid: Granted, I’m coming to this conclusion later than many other critics, but here goes; Ben Stiller has effectively killed off his career unless he drops his shtick and stops making painfully unfunny comedies like this woeful remake of Elaine May’s sharp comedy.