Despite the greedy, bickering, and seemingly unsolvable problems that have managed to suck much of the air out of the this year’s awards season, 2007 is beginning to feel like one of the strongest movie years of the decade: A happy split between genuinely mass audience popcorn epics, and smallish indie movies that focus on perfectly drawn characters moving through everyday life. As usual, ten films seem like an arbitrary number, so this list will include quite a few more … why not? In any event, most of these movies are already rentable, and the ones still in the theatres should be seen on a big screen without interruption or a pause button, if at all possible.
1. Once – Dir. John Carney (Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová)
“Once” is an instant classic, transforming the simple story of a scruffy Irish street singer and beautiful Czech immigrant into a kind of kindred musical and spiritual collaboration whose narrative is told largely through lyrics and whose tone is set by the natural chemistry between Hansard’s guitar and Irglova’s piano. It is that rare jewel of a film that not only dares to reinvent the genre but does so using novice actors (although Hansard did play one of the Commitments in the 80’s film and has been leading his own band, The Frames, for over a decade) and music that has disappointingly eluded the mainstream for years. Watching this film made me somewhat envious of the kind of language and relationship that only music can bring out between a man and woman who learn to love through an unspoken musical language- a kind of romantic groove. If there is any justice in this world, Hansard and Irglova, will win the Academy award for best song, vaulting The Frames into a much deserved wider audience, much like Elliott Smith did with “Good Will Hunting,” and “Once” will become 2007’s little indie that could, accumulating awards and a more visible place in the history of independent film. This film will choke you up repeatedly.
2. No Country For Old Men – Dir. Joel and Ethan Cohen (Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem)
It would be hard for any film fanatic to not largely worship the sacred celluloid of the Cohen brothers. Their films are almost always perfect in some way, and even their marginal efforts are always at least original and creative. But for the first time in over two decades of putting a slightly tilted mirror up against the world, in “No Country” they have decided to just play it straight. That is not to say that even in this extremely dark and dusty bounty hunt you don’t laugh a little or just kind of bathe in the quirky presence of multiple distinctive Cohen characters. This time the most obvious is Javier Bardem’s psychopath, but almost everyone who dots this dusty landscape is memorable. In the end this film is a thriller from the very first frame, the tension lingers in the air like the stagnant air where time often appears to stand still. This is the most suspenseful film they or anyone else have made in a very long time, and a wonderful one to watch slowly unfold.
3. There Will Be Blood – Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson (Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Ciaran Hinds)
This film is potentially so effective, that is actually stands a chance of losing its audience through its brutal relentlessness. But like so many of the robber barons or American self made icons of art and industry, the drive to succeed is always paved with greed and lust. In an age of philanthropically inclined entrepreneurs (Gates, Googlers, Buffet, Omidyar, etc.) we tend to forget that before them, the drive to squash all competition, and reap what you sow was largely based on the fear of somehow returning to the literal rags where many of them began. And as such, Daniel Day Lewis inhabits his character, loosely based on an early oil tycoon, seething with an almost animal determination to crush anything in his way, with such precision you very quickly forget he is only acting. Visually the film captures details down to the smallest rusty nail and the bleak and dusty existence in which those early settlers lived. The harshness of the landscape is further brought home with the potent score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. Shrill bursts of sound looming beneath the surfaces before erupting violently like the black gold they are mining. While hardly an easy movie watch, this is one that will stay with you long after the last snarling guitar note stops.
4. The Lives of Others – Dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Mühe, Sebastian Koch)
Many great films set in Germany have an almost tactile feel. From the dank dreariness of the surroundings, whether it is the graffiti that blankets the exteriors of East Berlin buildings, the war torn post WWI and WWII bombed out landscape, or the sterility of Germany’s modern big cities, the good ones call on more than just the visual senses. The country almost always seems like a place that one needs to escape from. “The Live of Others,” is no exception, but it is also the most riveting film to emerge from the country since “Run Lola Run.” Set in 1984, it is a tale about the communist “Stasi” East German government intelligence agency who spent quite a bit of time spying on the artistic community in the year before the wall fell. But like Coppola’s, “The Conversation”, much of the action takes place through the headphones of a lonely Stasi agent who listens from a dark attic a few floors above to the lives of a famous playwright and his beautiful girlfriend. First portrayed as an efficient loyal comrade intent on doing his job as thoroughly as possible, over the course of the film this solitary man falls for the people he set out to trap. Ultimately this is a story about love, longing and loneliness and the brutal constraints of a society trapped on the wrong side of a wall. In the end, the film hopes to prove the point that people can and do change, even when it seems the least likely.
5. Juno – Dir. Jason Reitman (Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Allison Janney)
This movie is such a perfect little gem it almost feels like a guilty pleasure. With a cast as uniformly excellent as any in the past handful of years, and a script as hip and cool as anything overheard on the streets of Williamsburg or Echo Park, “Juno” tells the story of a precocious teenager whose first sexual experience results in a pregnancy. But unlike most girls who choose the easy route and eliminate the problem quickly and anonymously, Juno decides to have the child and find a needy couple to love and care for it. There is nothing predictable about what unfolds. The characters that populate this suburban landscape are as colorful as most television suburban families are drab and uncreative. Hype aside, “Juno” further establishes the deft hand of the young director Jason Reitman as the new face of “smart” comedy and Ellen Page as perhaps the most gifted young actress in Hollywood.
6. Michael Clayton – Dir. Tony Gilroy (George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson)
This film is that rare big screen, mass marketed story that never reduces itself merely to an easy-to-follow-plot, with mouth-watering special effects, or star power. In fact, there is not a single noticeable piece of CGI in the film. The plot is straight forward but almost like an indie in terms of its largely down tempo sense of the inevitable, and Clooney’s performance is so convincing you do actually forget that it is him. Michael Clayton, the man, is a fixer at a big time law firm, whose own life could use a dose of his own professional acuity. More than any film this year, “Michael Clayton” is effortless to watch because of its combination of accomplished visual storytelling, impeccable acting, and even better character development. This is the kind of film that you hope will never end.
7. Sweeney Todd – Dir. Tim Burton (Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter)
I had spent very little time thinking about this movie before seeing it. I am predisposed to dislike traditional musicals, and I tend to be an admirer, but not really a fist pumping fan, of most of Burton/Depp collaborations. But like “Once”, this year’s other great musical, this is something entirely different. This is a serial killing gore feast, shot with the typical sumptuous visual stylings that we have come to expect from Burton. The richly saturated grays that decorate old London make the occasional colors (usually deep red bloody spurts) jump off of the screen like 3D. But this film belongs to Johnny Depp, who again proves he is unquestionably the most versatile actor in the business. His singing is not only serviceable, but extremely suited to the canvases that Burton is painting. The depth of his character’s mourning is so authentic that his serial killing actions make you feel sympathy rather than hatred. To try to describe a film like this is to do it a massive disservice. This is one to see for yourself.
8. Into the Wild – Dir. Sean Penn (Emile Hirsch, Vince Vaughn, Marcia Gay Harden)
I’m not sure why this film didn’t do a better job of finding a bigger audience. Sure it wasn’t the eerily beautiful book to the letter, but it was also quite a bit more. The movie has delicious footage of the epic Denali wilderness which is a place where getting lost could seem like the ultimate romantic daydream and a soundtrack that in some ways helps answer some of questions we’ll never know about the elusive free spirit of Chris McCandess. While Sean Penn does manage to hold pretty true to the known events described in the book, the film is littered with pitch perfect performances by Catherine Keener, Hal Holbrook, and Vince Vaughn as examples of the many kinds of people who live just off the beaten path of our everyday experience. All of these people, who in real life, were informed of his decision to make a run for Alaska, exemplify attempts to convey various shades of the consequences of freedom. This is big and brave film about a rare person who dared to dream differently.
9. The Lookout – Dir. Scott Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jeff Daniels)
No one saw this film. This is tragic. It is the third consecutive effort by “Third Rock” alum Gordon-Levitt that borders on brilliant (“Mysterious Skin” and “Brick” being the others). In “The Lookout”, a former high school hockey star suffers brain damage after driving the car that killed his friend, a few years before. He now mops the floors after hours in a small town, and lives with a blind friend played expertly by Jeff Daniels. Never able to fully recover from the accident and the ensuing guilt, he drifts sadly through life until one day an old high school acquaintance lures him into a dark criminal world with the intention of robbing the bank where he works. It all sounds straightforward enough and is shot crisply against a stark Midwestern winter, but add to the story elements a’ la’ “Memento” where are hero struggles to put the pieces together in time to save himself. This is nothing less than one of the cleverest thrillers of the year.
10. The Savages – Dir. Tamara Jenkins (Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman)
To watch Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman explore the limits of their character’s own professional disappointments while coming to terms with the unbreakable bonds of family, is to confront your own tiny place in the universe. Called away from their respective lives (Hoffman as a cynical professor in Buffalo and Linney as aspiring playwright in NYC) to move their estranged father from a retirement community into something that resembles an inevitable end of the line, the film stands a good distance away from sentimentality and is more closely in tune with reality. “The Savages” is so much more than yet another quirky dysfunctional family flick, but more a whimsically perfect combination of new beginnings and peaceful endings.
11. Zodiac – Dir. David Fincher (Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards)
To release a movie early in the year is to remove it from mass consciousness when it comes to remembering what was best. “Zodiac,” may suffer a bit from this fate, but Fincher’s perfect recreation of the unsolved Zodiac killings that haunted the Bay Area during the 70’s, is without doubt one of the most authentic feeling films of the year. From the dreary, but lively newsroom where most of the main characters spend their days, to the dive bars, old cars, and scraggly city streets of 70’s San Francisco, you can’t help but feel in a different era. This atmosphere helps build the tension and creepiness that the “Zodiac” infested the town with. Everybody in the film is outstanding (Downey, Gyllenhaal and Ruffalo) and tend to make the ambiguity of the case that much more real. If you haven’t seen the movie you should, if you don’t see it this time around eventually you will as this film is destined to grow in stature over time.
12. Lars and the Real Girl – Dir. Craig Gillespie (Ryan Gosling, Patricia Clarkson, Emily Mortimer)
A lot of people won’t like or more likely won’t ‘get’ this film. Another award winning performance from Ryan Gosling who plays a kind of emotional cripple, living in the garage or his family home somewhere in the cold winter of the northern Midwest. Despite the efforts of his brother, his brother’s wife, and even some of the women in the small town community, Lars seems fragile and broken, stuck looking inward for something we can’t understand. That is until he orders a rubber sex doll named Bianca off of the internet and then convinces himself that they are in love. At this point the film could have easily gotten either too weird or too obvious, but what happens is instead hugely satisfying. It becomes a story about people, specifically all of the people in Lars’ world, who realize how much they care for him. Ultimately things resolve themselves unpredictably, but the performances along the way which include Patricia Clarkson as his therapist, and Emily Mortimer as his pregnant sister-in-law, which transform this story into something totally unique. Remember to check your preconceptions at the door, and enjoy the oddest fairy tale of the year.
13. Starting Out In the Evening – Dir. Andrew Wagner (Frank Langella, Lauren Ambrose, Lili Taylor)
This movie is another in a series of serious little films that attempt to explain the life of the mind through the life of a person. In this case it is the story of a professor, and once powerhouse intellectual author (think Updike, Bellow, or Roth), who is forced to come to terms with the end of his own personal relevance. He is given one last chance to tell his story, this time to a young and seductive graduate student played perfectly by Lauren Ambrose (the daughter in “Six Feet Under”) who is writing a thesis based on his life and work. Frank Langella delivers one of the best individual performances of anyone this year, as a lonely private man working against time to finish one last work. He opens himself up, much against character, and almost inevitably pays the price, but perhaps it is a price worth paying. This film, like “The Savages,” examines the shortness of life and ultimately the small role that even seemingly important lives mean to the greater world. A slight, but affecting masterwork.
14. This Is England – Dir. Shane Meadows (Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham, Jo Hartley)
Perhaps the grittiest, least flashy great film of year, “This Is England” takes place in early 80’s England and tells the story of a young boy whom, having just lost his father in the Falklands war, finds a surrogate family in a gang of small time skinhead punks that take him in. All of this is set in an incredibly authentic feeling time and place, both in terms of the fashion and the politics of England during this period. Ultimately, like most movies of its kind, this a dark tale, filled with societal emptiness, and moments of redemptive highs not immune to the realities of a life in transition. This a jewel for those who like pop history and intimate filmmaking. Whether it is the sounds of the period, the Ben Sherman clothes, or the skin high Dr. Martens shoes, “This is England” holds every detail up to the light.
15. Gone Baby Gone – Dir. Ben Affleck (Casey Affleck, Morgan Freeman, Cathie Callanan)
This is a strange film – gritty and authentic, but also confusing and nuanced in surprising ways. Like its brethren “Mystic River,” also written by Dennis Lehane and also focused on a tragedy in South Boston, Ben Affleck’s directorial debut is wonderfully understated and anchored by fine work from his brother and an even more affecting performance from Amy Ryan as the drug abusing mother of a missing child. Although there is the typical cop and robber suspense, the film boils down to an exploration of ethics, and the sometimes unfortunate consequences of morality. The ending of this film is as unnerving as anything this year, and is yet another great example of the vastly different regional flavor that exists in North American cities.
16. The Bridge – Dir. Eric Steel
I live in San Francisco so the fact that I have driven over the Golden Gate Bridge hundreds of times, and can see it’s glorious red gates from my home across the city, helps to keep the images in this documentary very fresh. I suspect that even if that weren’t the case, this incredibly moving and beautifully shot documentary would still be tugging at me. Shot over the course of 2004, and inspired by a New Yorker article, “The Bridge” captures actual footage of jumpers hurling themselves over the shoulder high guardrail into the beautiful San Francisco Bay a quarter of mile below. This gripping footage is juxtaposed with breathtaking shots of the bridge captured throughout the year, bathed in fog and soaked in sun, its rusty red gates jutting into a deep blue sky, and sunk into the serene hillsides of Marin and SF’s Presidio. This physical beauty is critical and I think necessary as kind of an emotional breath as Steel diagnoses the bridge’s draw as the suicide capital of the country through a series of incredible moving and revealing conversations with friends and family members of many of the people who died during the year of the film’s shooting. I left the film not so much depressed, as fascinated and, in some ways, relieved for some of the victims. It is a rare documentary that combines both sophisticated cinematic beauty with poignant human drama. This film pays sad but worthy tribute to the magnificent bridge that has inspired so much passion over the years.
Once again, very much worth your while, but one most draw a line somewhere:
17. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – Dir. Julian Schnabel (Amalric, Seigner)
18. Waitress – Dir. Adrienne Shelly (Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion, Cheryl Hines)
19. American Gangster- Dir. Ridley Scott (Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe)
20. Control – Dir. Anton Corbijn (Sam Riley, Samantha Morton, Craig Parkinson)
21. Away From Her – Dir. Sarah Polley (Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent)
22. Grindhouse – Dir. R. Rodriguez /Q. Tarantino (Max Minghella, Sophia Myles)
23. Talk To Me – Dir. Kasi Lemmons (Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mike Epps)