2007's Top Ten Films

Usually when I compile my ten best list, I look for a common thread that ties my picks together. Sometimes it’s a shared theme, other times it’s a common strength. My search failed this time around. Yes, my selections were all intelligent films, but that’s hardly noteworthy. It’s like saying that my favorite restaurants all serve good food. Some films relied on a gripping narrative, while others let the characters do much of the work. Many on my list had great dialogue, others had a distinct visual flair.

The more I thought about the list, the more I went back to the American refrain that diversity is a strength, not a weakness. 2007 truly offered quality for everyone, whether you were looking for a family film or a thriller, whether you wanted a musical, comedy or a documentary. Dynamic and interesting films could be found at the local multiplex, not just the arthouse theater. Another sign of 2007's high caliber is my Honorable Mention list, which would be a viable Top 10 in its own right (in alphabetical order):
  • Atonement
  • Away From Her
  • The Bourne Ultimatum
  • The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
  • Eastern Promises
  • A Mighty Heart
  • The Namesake
  • The Simpsons Movie
  • Superbad
  • Talk to Me
And now, my picks for the best of the year:

10. Charlie Wilson’s War (dir. Mike Nichols) – The other day I heard a man complain that Charlie Wilson’s War wasn’t long enough. Any film that leaves you wanting more is doing something right. Mike Nichols displays the same touch with political comedy he did with Primary Colors. This effort is even better thanks to a crisp, witty script by Aaron Sorkin. As he did on “The West Wing,” Sorkin imparts complex ideas in a way that’s understandable but not dumbed down. He also scores points with funny barbs at the absurdities of DC political culture. Nichols keeps the film moving briskly thanks to a stellar cast led by Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. Hanks has an effortless charm in the title role, but it’s Philip Seymour Hoffman who steals the movie as a disgruntled but effective CIA operative.

9. Across the Universe (dir. Julie Taymor) – Need to admit that I was a little skeptical when I heard that Taymor was going to make a musical with Beatles tunes. After all, one could just play the songs for a couple of hours with a black screen and it would still be entertaining. But Taymor hardly coasts with the music. Across the Universe takes songs that have been around for over 35 years and makes them seem fresh and new. Taymor gets to the heart of each song in staging the musical pieces. She even surpasses the visual creativity she demonstrated in Titus and Frida. The story uses the songs to explore 60s -era issues and themes that still have relevance today. While Across the Universe is not a character-centered film, the cast acquits itself well and shows off capable singing voices. You’d think that if the Beatles had ever decided to make a “Tommy”-style rock opera it would have been something very close to Across the Universe.

8. Juno (dir. Jason Reitman) – Everything seemed to come together for Juno. First-time screenwriter Diablo Cody wrote a script, that while very funny, does not make light of teenage pregnancy or the other serious issues facing the film’s title character. Cody gave great depth not just to the lead roles, but to the others that become cliches in so many other films (such as Juno’s parents). Reitman, who debuted two years ago with the underrated Thank You for Smoking, exceeds that effort here. He evokes wonderful performances from Ellen Page in the lead role and a stellar supporting cast including Michael Cera, J.K. Simmons, Allison Janney and Jason Bateman. Though the laughs keep coming, Juno grows tender and touching while still keeping its edge. As the cynical Juno gradually gives in to her emotions, so does the audience give into the film’s heart.

7. No End in Sight (dir. Charles Ferguson) – Yes, we all know that the Iraq War failed miserably, but No End in Sight answers “Why?” Ferguson painstakingly and carefully lays out the critical errors and bad decisions that created and then exacerbated this mess. This is no Fahrenheit 9/11. No End in Sight comes across as an objective analysis, not a polemic. Ferguson does not appear on camera and does not have an ax to grind. He sticks to the facts, and interviews many of those involved intimately with the key decisions. This style makes the film that much more powerful because it can’t be dismissed.

6. No Country for Old Men (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen) – The Coen brothers show remarkable restraint and precision with what may be their finest film. They take their time, relying more on composition and less on quick editing. They use the vast landscapes to create a bleak, foreboding atmosphere. On one level No Country for Old Men works as a crime thriller, but it moves beyond that to ask questions on the very nature of violence. Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh is violence incarnate. Bardem’s understated, chilling performance is the most memorable, but there is terrific acting all around from Josh Brolin, Kelly Macdonald and Woody Harrelson. Of course then there’s Tommy Lee Jones in the role he was born to play, the veteran small town sheriff who has seen it all, or at least thinks he has. Jones makes it look easy and its his gravitas that’s so critical to this haunting film.

5. Ratatouille (dir. Brad Bird) – The Pixar crew has set such a ridiculously high standard that you expect a masterpiece with every one of their films. When they released Cars, a solidly entertaining movie in 2006, many labeled it a disappointment. With Ratatouille, Pixar rebounds from its “slump” to deliver another dazzling and hilarious film. Like Finding Nemo and Bird’s last film, The Incredibles, Ratatouille works on one level for kids and another for adults. It does not lack for laughs and hijinks but also tackles deeper themes: what it means to be an artist and the need to create no matter what your surroundings. As always, the computer animation is flawless and so is the story. Yes, the Pixar standard may be too high, but as long as they keep meeting it I’m not complaining.

4. Lars and the Real Girl (dir. Craig Gillespie) – The plot: A lonely man thinks a life-size sex doll is his girlfriend. Sounds like a direct-to-video or late night cable skin flick. It’s Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Lars that gets you beyond that. Gosling gives one of the most true portraits of extreme, painful shyness that’s ever appeared on film. He’s so convincing as the sweet, earnest, and delusional Lars that we go along for the ride. Then when Lars’s family and friends, in an effort to help him, accept his “girlfriend” as real, we are willing to do so too. In a strange way, Lars and the Real Girl celebrates small town American values. The townspeople come together to help Lars in a way that would make Frank Capra proud. Nancy Oliver’s script has plenty of humor, but it’s the more subtle kind, and she resists the many opportunities for cheap laughs. Craig Gillespie has just the right touch to turn a weird premise into a moving, genuinely emotional film.

3. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (dir. Sidney Lumet) – Sometimes you need to take a step back and appreciate the breadth of Lumet’s career. His first film, 12 Angry Men, came out in 1957. Only one actor from that film, Jack Klugman, still survives. Well into his 80s, at a time when he could sit back and collect lifetime achievement awards, Lumet still works. Not only is he directing, but he still delivers quality films. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead stands right up with some of Lumet’s signature films. As he did with Dog Day Afternoon, Lumet explores a crime gone horribly wrong. Once again, Lumet is as interested in the criminal’s psychology as in the crime itself. With both 12 Angry Men and Dog Day Afternoon Lumet made great dramatic use out of confined physical space. In Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, it’s the characters’ personal space that shrinks as their world unravels around them. Lumet coaxes terrific performances, primarily from Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke and Marisa Tomei. Kelly Masterson’s clever screenplay explores every aspect of the crime, before and after, from multiple angles and viewpoints. The screenplay helps Lumet stay at the top of his game and add another worthy addition to his canon.

2. The Savages (dir. Tamara Jenkins) – In some ways, this is the simplest story on my list, but it is no less compelling. A sister and brother try to take care of their elderly father. It would have been so easy for Jenkins (who also wrote the film) to make it overly sentimental or maudlin. Instead, she makes it smart and funny. While her story is simple, Jenkins’s characters are complex and very flawed. Jenkins relies on her actors as she shows how the sister and brother integrate their new responsibilities into their already messed up lives. Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman (yes, him again – he had one hell of a year) complement each other perfectly in the title roles. Linney shines as the frenetic, neurotic aspiring playwright, while Hoffman is equally impressive as her inert brother. Then, every so often, Jenkins puts in a wonderful shot, framed in just the right way, that visually captures the essence of the story. Jenkins’s last feature was The Slums of Beverly Hills in 1998. Here’s hoping that its not another nine years until her next effort.

1. Breach (dir. Billy Ray) – Breach was released at exactly the wrong time, mid-February, and did little box office. That’s too bad because Breach succeeds as both a gripping espionage thriller and a character study. The story manages to build tension and suspense even though you already know the end result. As the traitor Robert Hanssen, Chris Cooper draws you in by not giving away too much. His nuanced, understated performance is the best of his career. Like some of the great Hitchcock villains, Hanssen is sympathetic without being any less diabolical. As he did with his last film, Shattered Glass, Billy Ray deftly illustrates the effect of betrayal not just on the perpetrator but also those around him. He also shows how a person can get so deep in lies that he deceives himself as much as anyone else. Ray surrounds Cooper with a top-notch supporting cast including Laura Linney, Ryan Phllippe and Dennis Haysbert, all of whom turn in fine work. Breach should not have been overlooked, and deserves a rediscovery on DVD.

Adam Spector
February 14, 2008

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