January 11, 2008

2007 at the Movies, Part I: The Best of the Year

2008 is here. That means we are deep into the "Best Of" list season. Be it music, movies, books, or something entirely different, everyone is putting out lists of what they think was the best for the recently concluded year. I love checking out these lists, it's always interesting to get a glimpse into others thoughts of the year's releases, and see how my favorites match up. However, as entertaining as these lists can be, there is something very important to remember.

As much as some of these writers would like to boast that they have chosen the best of the year, it is pretty unlikely that they truly have done so. Besides the fact that everyone has different, and valid, tastes, it is pretty unlikely that they have seen every possible film to be able to make that "best of" judgment. This applies to myself as well. Despite having a title boasting "Best of the Year," this is more of what I felt were the ten best based on my viewing sample, as well as being limited to theatrically screened films.

But you already know this. You are here to read about my experiences and choices for the year. You are in luck, as I have some thoughts on the year in movies that you will hopefully enjoy reading. As a side note, this is part one, be on the lookout for further recap lists covering the worst of the year, on-screen performances, and behind the scenes performances.

2007 was a very good year for movies. There were a lot of good to very good offerings, and even a few excellent films, that will be remembered for years to come. That said, putting together this list of top films was not an easy task.

First, unlike recent years, 2007 did not have that one killer flick that shot to the top. The past few years have each delivered films that I knew almost immediately were going right to the top, films like Children of Men (with competition from Pan's Labyrinth), Sin City, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Kill Bill Vol. 1. At this point I can see many of you shaking your heads in one of two ways, disgust or agreement. This year became a three-way race to the finish, and on any given day those three could change their placements, but at this very moment the order below is the correct one.

As for the rest of the top ten list, it was a juggling act trying to find places for all of the films I wanted to get in there. Just like the top three spots, these could all change on a moment's notice, but are all accurate as of this writing. Just for good measure, and to give some attention to those that missed the cut, there will be another list below the top ten containing alternates. That should about cover the excellent films I had the chance to see.

There are a couple of more discussion points to hit before getting to the lists. They center around the strength of genre films. There are a few genres that had above average an above average year in 2007.

Horror. This was a surprisingly good year for horror movies. In recent years, this genre has been plagued with numerous sub-par remakes and riddled with sanitized PG-13 fare. Now, I am not looking for extreme, over-the-top flicks; what I want are quality horror films that deliver creepy tales, bloody ballets, or essentially anything that felt fresh. This year delivered a host of horror films worth your time. Without getting into too much detail, here are a sample of movies, big and small, to spend a dark night with: The Abandoned, Dead Silence, Grindhouse (Planet Terror), Vacancy, 28 Weeks Later, Bug, Hostel Part II, Captivity, Halloween, P2, Mulberry Street, Tooth and Nail, and The Mist. Yes, I liked all of these films and felt they had something to add to the genre. I even found a couple of fun ones on DVD in Hatchet and Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. What are you waiting for? Go check some of them out (after you finish here, of course)!

Comedy. Yes, the year did start with such lowlights as Epic Movie and Norbit, but they were definitely not a sign of things to come. There is definitely something to be said about what would come later in the year. Judd Apatow proved his success in recent years was no fluke, delivering the fantastic Knocked Up, producing the equally excellent Superbad, and writing the (at the moment) underrated Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. While this may have been the year of the Apatow, he was not the only person on the block delivering genuine laughs. The minds behind Reno 911! brought the troop to the big screen in very funny fashion, as well as the table tennis spoof Balls of Fury (not great, but still quite funny). Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg proved that Shawn of the Dead was not a fluke, delivering the brilliant ode to action Hot Fuzz. The late Adrienne Shelly brought the fun and smile-inducing Waitress, while The Simpsons made their long-awaited big screen debut. The last title I am going to mention is the probably the biggest surprise in the fact that I really liked it, the Andy Samberg vehicle, Hot Rod. Yes, you read that right.

Those two genres really stepped up and delivered plenty of good films this year. At the lower end of the scale, action and science fiction had some strong entries, but we were not overloaded with great entries. There are a few titles to note before moving on include Shooter, Grindhouse (Death Proof), Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Live Free or Die Hard, even Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer delivered the goods. Overall, I was a bit disappointed by the lack of science fiction in the big picture, although the excellence of Sunshine helps dampen the pangs of loss.

I think we have had enough cursory discussion; you probably want me to get on with the list. Well, the time has come. Be warned that this will likely change as I catch up on the January stragglers.

Top Ten Movies for 2007: Version I

1. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Tim Burton has put his stamp on a tragic love story for the ages. It is steeped in darkness, spiced with humor, and told through glorious song. It is a film that is at once personal, intimate, and grandiose, a wonderful example of the Grand Guignol aesthetic. Johnny Depp delivers a strong, subtle performance portraying the inner turmoil of lost love and vengeful desires; he barely contains the rage boiling inside There is something to the artistic arterial spray, the purely cinematic translation of the theatrical experience that won me over. It is absolutely gorgeous to look at, a sense of darkly comic dread reaching into the shadows as it plays with your emotions, drawing you to itself, ever closer to its ultimate climax, and all the while you hope for the best while expecting the worst. It plays out the only way it can and it is brilliant.
2. No Country for Old Men. This is, quite frankly, a brilliant film (even with the ending). It is one of those movies that grabs hold and digs into your brain, daring you not to watch. I haven't quite worked out all of the details, but there is no denying the film's greatness. With their latest outing, the Coen brothers may just have crafted the finest film of their career. You have to watch closely to unearth the truth and discover all the nuance. It may play it straight for most of the time, but that surface simplicity belies the complexity that lurks beneath the surface. This is especially true when the end rolls around. It is a nebulous conclusion that will leave you wondering what exactly happened. This is one brutal ride that will leave wanting to dive back into the deep end.
3. Juno. The dialogue in this film has a wonderful flow; everything said is worth listening to. Every line works towards revealing something about the character delivering it. All of the main characters go through some sort of change and growth over the course of the tale. It all feels natural, all believable, and there is so much depth as the story deals with those issues above her maturity level. Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody have crafted a film that subverts the conventions of the teen comedy. There are no villains, there are no heroes, there are only people faced with difficult choices that they must wrestle with. The characters, all of them, are, in a way, coming of age as they try to make the right decision as they discover new facets of themselves.
4. There Will Be Blood. This is an electrifying, captivating tale that held my attention for its entire running time. The fantastic score, searing performances, breathtaking cinematography, and the intriguing tale held me in its thrall. It is a masterful film that has plenty to offer and will take multiple viewings to uncover all of its facets. It is a film that does not affect emotionally, but still delivers an incredibly involving experience.Paul Thomas Anderson has crafted a tale that is simultaneously epic and personal. It is a powerful work that allows the actors to shine as they dig into their roles with reckless abandon. The film gives a striking portrait of a man determined to make his mark at all costs delivering a protagonist who is a cluster of contradictions buried behind a facade of charm; however, there is always an air of menace hiding just below the surface.
5. Ratatouille. The movie is so much more than a "rat that can cook" story that you may gather from the plot outline. There is a moment early on when Remy the rat's brother, Emile asks him why he goes into the house of the humans. Remy responds saying: "Look at what they can do, what they can create." This simple line had an effect on the rest of the film. The scene gives this wonderfully optimistic outlook that pervades the rest of the film. It is only strengthened later on with a scene between Remy and his father where Remy says that it only takes one person to begin change. Combine that with Chef Gusteau's quote, "Anyone can cook," and you have the core of this movie. You can do what you put your mind to. It is a great story of friendship that has gravity and a sense of the real world it.
6. 300. This is the next step in cinema style, the gorgeous union of live action and computer generated surroundings. Zack Snyder has delivered a film that will grab you by the eye sockets and demand your full attention. Beyond the technique, there is a story that is what myth and legend is made of. This is how legends are born. The stories of heroes are told, passed down, and used as a point of inspiration for the people. It could be seen as a form of propaganda — that's what these passed down tales of heroism boil down to, don't they? This story is no different, it's an actual event that is blown up to gigantic proportions, exaggerated to the point of the grand effect of inspiration. It is in that where everything falls into place. Or, you could watch it as a an explosive example of how exhilarating pure action can be.
7. Across the Universe. This film takes you on a journey through the 1960s, the era of free love and living with no rules, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War through the use of Beatles songs, sung by the cast. The story is timeless and could just as easily have been set today, it is so relevant it is scary. However, it is so much more about the characters and the journey that they take as they navigate the choppy waters of the real world as they grow and mature as individuals than about making a political statement about the current world situation. Beyond all else, it is an incredible experience, it is a musical travelogue of the '60s, a romance, an adventure, a war film, a comment on the war effort, the list goes on. It is one of the most imaginative films in some time. From the story, to the dance numbers, puppets, computer and practical effects add up to a film that seeks to stretch what can be done with the visual medium. Simply beautiful.
8. Knocked Up. Here is a movie that is very funny, very touching, and hits all the right marks. It is laced with raunchy comedy, and heart-warming moments with a screenplay that is a thing of beauty, taking a trite plot and giving it something special. It is more than the crass comedy or the one-night stand plot; it is about characters encountering that life-changing event and the ways that they deal and cope and grow. Yes, it is a comedy, and a hilarious one at that, but the drama is equal to the comedy. This movie has a sense of reality to it. You may know people like those in the movie, the pieces are there to draw you in. It is truth grounded in the real world, delivered in a believable fashion, just a slight step removed from the real.
9. Black Snake Moan. This is a daring, audacious example of exploitive filmmaking that seeks to transcend the element of exploitation and deliver something deeper. Director Craig Brewer has written and directed this feature which centers on a pair of fractured individuals who find the path to salvation in each other. It is a film which has much to say, yet never falls into the pit of self-importance; rather it delivers characters who take themselves to the edge of parody, playing on the edge with daring dramatics and humor. It is the humor that carries the film through moments of relief and moments of incredulity at the turns the story takes.
10. Sunshine. How to describe Sunshine? Well, it's a blend of 2001, Event Horizon, Solaris, and even a dash of Jason X for balance. An odd mix to be certain, but even with all of those flavors, it still feels fresh. It explores the effects of long-term space travel on the crew, as well as the super-serious ramifications of the success of their Earth-saving mission. It is a movie that travels in the realms of hard science and the metaphysical aspects of communing with God. There is no denying that this is an engrossing visionary science fiction film that has much to offer in the way of repeat viewings. Danny Boyle has succeeded in delivering a fascinating genre film that is unlike anything he has done previously. If you are looking for something new and different, this is one you will want on your list.

Still with me? Good. I told you this was a good year and good years always provide a lot of discussion material.

This list of alternates will be a bit quicker than the above. They are not listed in any particular order and they all had a shot at the above list.

The Alternates

  • Zodiac. David Fincher crafted a superb thriller that stays away from genre conventions and completely engrosses the viewer.
  • Hot Fuzz. A brilliant parody/homage of/to the action genre. This slice of excellence comes from the same team as Shawn of the Dead.
  • Bridge to Terabithia. Here is a film that caught me completely offguard. It is a wonderful coming of age story that packs an emotional punch.
  • Reign Over Me. Don Cheadle and Adam Sandler put me through an emotional wringer in this post-9/11 drama. Easily one of, if not the, best performances of Sandler's career.
  • The Lookout. Joseph Gordon Levitt continues to impress with this noirish thriller. He was in the top ten last year with Brick.
  • Waitress. Guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Kerri Russell stars as a pregnant waitress who loves making pies. Sounds simple enough, but there is much more to it.
  • Bug. Surprisingly intense character study led by a pair of brave performances from Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon.
  • The Bourne Ultimatum. Fitting close to the electrifying trilogy. Intelligent action films are few and far between, here is one of the best.
  • Stardust. Magical fantasy adventure that is firing on all cylinders. I went in with no expectations and promptly fell in love.
  • 3:10 to Yuma. An action and drama filled western that captivates from start to finish. Superb performances from Christian Bale and Russell Crowe don't hurt.
  • The Mist. An impactful horror film that has fascinating characters and genuine chills. Frank Darabont and Stephen King strike again!
  • Gone Baby Gone. Ben Affleck shows he may be better suited to be behind the camera. A strong and focused thriller that delivers.
  • Lars and the Real Girl. How do you follow up playing opposite Anthony Hopkins? Play opposite a love doll, and make it work.
  • Superbad. Very funny coming of age story from producer Judd Apatow and co-written by Knocked Up star Seth Rogen.
  • Enchanted. Complete surprise this one was. A wonderful fairy tale send up of genre conventions featuring a star-making turn from Amy Adams.
  • 28 Weeks Later. Genuinely chilling, truly horrifying, and completely captivating. It equals the original while standing on its own as an excellent film.
  • Rescue Dawn. Werner Herzog creates a great film documenting the will to survive. It also has another great performance from Christian Bale.
  • Eastern Promises. David Cronenberg takes us inside the Russian Mafia in London. It is a dark and chilling world. Plus there is an incredible, no-holds-barred fight with Viggo Mortensen in a bath house.
  • August Rush. I am one of the few to love this film. It is a fairy tale that transcends realism and shows how something as nebulous as music can bring people together.
  • Once. I never actually saw this on the big screen, but having recently experienced it on DVD, I had to include it. It is a wonderfully romantic, intimate tale with great music.

Phew. It's over. Are you still awake? I promise that my next recap entries won't be quite as long as this one was. Well, I haven't started them yet so I may fail in that regard, but I will see what I can do.


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