The 10 Best Films of 2007

Article by Mark Dujsik

It has been a very good year. Evaluating my inventory of 2007 releases, I could not help but notice that my list of honorable mentions is the longest it's been in five years. Compared to last year's desert, 2007 seems like a cinematic oasis. It's been a year of great stories, told with clarity and brimming with complexity underneath. It's also been a year for a mild rejuvenation of comedies, whether they avoid farce and focus on the human elements for humor or, in a few cases, incisively satirize a genre while still paying respect (Only two of them are on my list proper, so I've isolated the others apart from the honorable mentions—not to say they're better than those below them but to give them their due). There are some genuinely great films here, some that were bypassed by audiences and neglected by critics, and one of them is a bona fide masterpiece. Now, my list of the ten best films of 2007:

10. Black Book
This is the kind of film I think only Paul Verhoeven could get away with making. Black Book borders on exploitation its whole way through, and it's iffy subject matter to exploit. The film tells the story of a Jewish singer who joins with the Dutch resistance to spy on the Nazis. The plot is a labyrinth of sexual power games, twists and turns, and characters whose motives change seemingly on whim. It could be a disposable, exploitative entertainment, but Verhoeven is at the top of game here, taking the joyfully intricate script by himself and Gerard Soeteman and infusing it with a deadly significance. Carice van Houten gives a fierce performance as Rachel, who becomes a tool of the resistance and the mistress of a top Gestapo man (Sebastian Koch). She's a strong, female hero in a day and age when such a concept appears to have never had its time, and the film is a rich, tense thriller about corruption, manipulation, and identity. The bookend prologue and epilogue set a decade later add even more weight, subtly displaying that the end of one occasion of violence and turmoil is only the beginning of a new wave of the same.

9. Lars and the Real Girl
This film could have gone wrong on so many different levels, but instead Lars and the Real Girl elevates its strange concept into a genuine delight of heart. Intensely compassionate and erupting with humanity, it's a comedy about a grown man who falls in love with an anatomically correct "love doll." There could be plenty of chances for cheap jokes at the expense of the central character, but Nancy Oliver's script treats the material for exactly what it is: a sad, lonely mediation on the pains of the past and the way a strong, supporting group of people can help one move past them. Don't get me wrong, though; the film is incredibly funny, too. Director Craig Gillespie's sense of comic timing and focus on character help to elevate the material beyond its weird concept and actually dig deeper into the characters. Ryan Gosling plays the titular young man with a terminal awkwardness that shows a deep-rooted pain even he cannot understand. Emily Mortimer radiates a truly loving personality as his sister-in-law, and Patricia Clarkson plays the psychologist who helps Lars understand his fears with empathy and intelligence. The real find is Kelli Garner, utterly adorable as Lars' not-so-secret admirer.

8. Spider-Man 3
I'll catch flak for this, and I could not care less (I've already caught enough since it came out). This is one of the best superhero films ever made. I know Spider-Man 3 has a lot of characters, multiple subplots, three villains, and a strange shift in tone smack-dab in the middle, but while some people say that like it's a bad thing, the whole affair is entirely focused on actually fleshing out Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), the man behind the red-and-blue—and, in this installment, occasionally black—suit. Each of the villains represents something Pete has to work out within himself, whether it's the Sandman's (Thomas Haden Church) past involvement with Pete's uncle's murder and Pete's desire for revenge, Pete's friend Harry's own quest for revenge and the strain his friend puts on his already-rocky relationship with Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), or the oozy symbiote from a meteorite that brings out Pete's demons and finds a new host in Pete's Doppelgänger Eddie Brock (Topher Grace). The first sequel played out like soap opera, but Sam Raimi's third web-slinging adventure has the series approaching opera. The action sequences are spectacularly realized, and the film is jubilant but wise in its own way.

7. Sicko
Michael Moore returns, and his iconoclast tendencies this time around seem more for the benefit of others than his own image. Sicko shows Moore once again as a man of the people, the baseball-capped avenger of corporate misdeeds against regular, working class folks, instead of a public spokesperson for his own views. Sure, his views are here in his dissection of the lousy state of health care in the United States and his call for socialized medicine, but his first priority is the human toll of those problems. He interviews people who have HMO horror stories—people who have lost a loved one because the insurance company refused service for whatever reason, people who are forced to sell their house to pay for a necessary operation, and people who once worked for a health insurance provider and can't take the guilt anymore. He visits other countries with socialized health programs and tries to scratch away at prejudices against health care reform. And, in one really insane publicity stunt, he takes some 9/11 rescue workers to Cuba to get them treatment for medical problems that arose after trying to save lives. This is Moore in fine, muckraking form, instilling humor and, above all, a genuine sense of humanity to his investigation.

6. Lust, Caution
The basic theme of Ang Lee's meditative, melancholy account of wartime espionage is that of innocence lost. There's a rub to it, though, that makes the simple concept of Lust, Caution much more complex, richer, and ultimately tragic than it first sounds. Innocence is lost, but what other choice is there? Set in occupied Shanghai and Hong Kong during the Second Sino-Japanese War, it's the tale of a group of young, patriotic students who start off producing a pro-China play and end up committing one murder and intricately planning another. Wei Tang, in a stunning, fearless debut, plays Wong Chia Chi, the young woman who sacrifices everything by becoming the willing but uniformed tool of men with weaker hearts but stronger wills and eventually begins an affair with the traitorous Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai). Pre-release hype was all about the sex scenes (the MPAA determined them "explicit" enough to earn an NC-17 rating), and they are graphic in content but also in uncovering the power struggle between Chia Chi and Yee. This is a beautiful but gloomy, intricate but lucid film with Lee in top form. He delves into the psychological drives of the characters and presents a specific examination of the trials of war and deception on the individual. It's depressing, yes, but it's also wisely retrospective: Dreams that never could have been of an infancy of adulthood that never was.

5. Breach
It's unfortunate that the large majority of people have forgotten (or not seen) Chris Cooper's performance as Robert Hanssen, who spent at least 15 years of a 25-year career at the FBI selling secrets to the Soviet Union and later Russia, in Breach. Billy Ray's story of Hanssen's downfall disregards the conventions of the espionage thriller and succeeds brilliantly as a morality tale and an absolutely engrossing character study. Ray doesn’t judge or condemn Hanssen, but he does approach his subject with a surprising sympathy. As written by Adam Mazer, William Rotko, and Ray, Hanssen is a character so complex that the fact he is responsible for the most sweeping security breach in the history of the United States might be the least intriguing thing about him. Ryan Phillippe plays the agent given the assignment to uncover Hanssen's misdeeds, and their relationship is an important facet to understanding the man. Ray is an intelligent director and makes no attempts to explain Hanssen, instead scattering pieces for us to pick up and assemble as fully but still incompletely as possible. At the center is Cooper's performance, wholly nuanced and full of routine, uncertain motives, and immeasurable pain. The strength of the film and Cooper's performance is that they tell us everything about Hanssen yet don't presume to know the great unknowable: Who he is.

4. Juno
I love Juno, and I love Juno. The other comedy on my list has a compassion for humanity and a batch of sympathetic characters. The miracle of Diablo Cody's first screenplay—beyond the quotable, pop-culture-and-colloquialism-laden dialogue, the development of a full-blooded central character in a relatively short amount of time, and the ability to touch the heart without succumbing to sentimentality—is that she has genuine empathy for all of her characters. She intrinsically understands them and allows them to be flawed human beings, and we embrace them because of it. The story of a 16-year-old girl who gets pregnant could easily be the jumping point for broad social satire, but Cody respects her characters too much to mistreat them so. Ellen Page is the title character, a smart, sarcastic, immature, vulnerable teenager, and it's a perfect marriage of actress and character. Page is a firecracker in the role. The rest of the cast is spot-on as well. J.K. Simmons is her understanding father. Allison Janney is her tough but caring stepmother. Michael Cera is her hopelessly nerdy quasi-non-boyfriend. Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner are the potential future parents of her child, with Garner giving an especially moving performance. Director Jason Reitman understands and trusts Cody's intentions, tone, and characters completely. A lot of people have focused on the dialogue, crying foul for a hipster mentality, but Cody takes a great deal of care in choosing the words for her characters. This is a real and really lovely gem.

3. Once
I also adore this film. Shot on digital in 17 days, Once is the essence of cinematic simplicity. The film is about a guy and a girl who meet and make beautiful music together. Written and directed by musician John Carney, it's enamored with the processes of creating, performing, and reacting to music, and that simplicity of plot allows an almost poetic form. The film does not dramatize or analyze; it's simply a reflection on its themes, which run as simple as the uniting power of music to the deeper implications of love—lost and never realized. Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová play the guy and girl in performances as natural and easy as the way they approach music. Their first performance together is like a happy secret revealed between two people. The digital cinematography by Tim Fleming is intimate, and Carney lets the performance of the music take the focus. These are complicated people, but the film never weighs them down in their baggage. They use it to compose music, write lyrics, and perform songs that illuminate their despair and confusion and give us hope that this new connection will help ease that pain. By the time all is done and little is said in this story of unrequited love, these characters have won us over completely. This is a genuinely loving film, brimming with tender humanity, a resonant emotional depth, and fantastic, elegant, passionate, and indispensable music (I still listen to the soundtrack regularly). It's joyful filmmaking, the kind we experience so rarely these days that, when we do, we're stunned at how effortless it seems and how rewarding it is. We do not fall in love nearly enough at the movies, but this is one of the few for which we can go head-over-heels.

2. Bridge to Terabithia
The last thirty minutes of this wonderful, sorrowful film are a genuine, heartbreaking study of grief, and the other hour is really magic. Based on the 1977 book by Katherine Paterson, Bridge to Terabithia follows two young children who share a feeling of being outsiders, who live in their own imagination, and who discover a friendship that lasts a lifetime. A lot of people didn't see it, because the ad campaign made it look like a generic fantasy adventure. It has elements of fantasy, but only because the kids make up a world to which they can escape the reality of bullies, family financial troubles, and parents who don't understand the desire to create. It is actually about discovery—discovering what your innate abilities are and sticking to them, discovering a kindred spirit with whom to share those talents, and discovering that even the harshest of people might be in need as much as or more than yourself. The friendship between the two is the heart of the film, and Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb are natural in the roles and embody an unbreakable friendship. Director Gabor Csupo's feature film debut is a simple story that turns into a complex one; the children talk openly about their fears and their hopes.

Csupo immerses us in this friendship so much that, when it is torn asunder in tragedy, the emotional impact is devastating. This is a sad film, and the final act is educated by the lessons of its earlier sections. It deals candidly with tough issues (In one scene, the kids actually discuss religion). It understands the burden of memory and the way grief engulfs every part of life, and the film is brave in portraying it honestly. The film's ultimate lesson seems to be about family—honoring the one we're born into and the one we choose in our association with others. It's simple, profound, and wonderful, and it makes the film one of the seminal family films to be passed on generation to generation.

1. No Country for Old Men
Undoubtedly the best film of Joel and Ethan Coen's career to date, No Country for Old Men is a masterpiece. I cannot say that enough. One review wasn't enough for this film; I wrote two. And I don't think this will be my last say on the film, either. When I first saw it, I wanted the projectionist to start it up again right away, just to make sure I wasn't dreaming and to breathe it all in again. I've seen it four times, and I could watch it again now. Ok, enough empty praise. The Coens have taken Cormac McCarthy's sparse, nihilistic study of greed and pure evil and turned it into a sparse, nihilistic cinematic study of greed and pure evil with a masterful sense of tension, pacing, location, and character. It's a genre film about a man played by Josh Brolin, in solid performance reaction-based performance, who discovers $2 million in the desert and runs from a psychopath played by a frightening Javier Bardem. They are both resourceful men, and the cat-and-mouse chase that ensues is as intelligent and intense as any that has been filmed in years upon years. The plotting is airtight, and the Coens take as much time to establish the setup for thriller sequences as they do the actual execution. The attention to detail here is astonishing. To watch Bardem's personification of evil Anton Chigurh enter an empty motel room just to examine every detail for and imagine every step in a standoff that is to come is to see a kind of patience that is lost on the large majority of filmmakers working today.

Is he evil incarnate, though? Is he, as Tommy Lee Jones' spot-on world-weary sheriff wonders, a ghost? Or is he, as Brolin's character jokes, the ultimate badass? These are questions that haunt us in the same way they haunt Jones' character, a fundamentally good and decent man who cannot fathom the kind of senseless crimes and the horrific motivation behind them that he reads in the papers daily and is now witnessing first-hand. A lot of folks don't like the ending, but it ties up all the loose ends (certainly not in a way we hope for and expect) and solidifies everything that has come before it as one man's fruitless search for meaning and decency in a world that seems to deny us sense and civility on a daily basis.


Special Mention:

Blade Runner: The Final Cut

It has been a long time since I saw Blade Runner, and watching it anew in Ridley Scott's new, preferred "final cut" is to be reminded just how many cinematic science-fiction visions of the future have been influenced by it. The story of Harrison Ford's replicant (android) hunter (blade runner) seems even more relevant today, and while its narrative is still occasionally troublesome, this remains an intelligent, visually astonishing look at the future. With the new DVD release, we can go back and compare this version to Scott's 1992 director's cut and the original 1982 theatrical release, a task I'm looking forward to thanks to Scott's much appreciated belief in purism.

Killer of Sheep

Milestone Films did us all a great service by bringing to theaters and DVD for the first time Charles Burnett's 1977 debut film Killer of Sheep. It's a methodical, gorgeously shot slice-of-life of an African-American neighborhood of Los Angeles. Juxtaposing the play of children and the fruitless attempts of adult counterparts for the same, the film is about barely scratching a living, finding pleasure in the smallest of things, and watching as the irony of the world works in conjunction with socioeconomic hardships to ensure that it's best to get the most out of those little things because life isn't going to get much better. It's life in the ghetto without the filter of exploitation, told with bittersweet honesty.


Other Worthy Comedies (in no particular order):

For an immature (and hence honest) look at high school, Superbad gives us a great script by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg that is equally sincere about the dirty-mindedness of teenage boys and their fears of and hopes for genuine intimacy.

Wes Anderson was back to form with The Darjeeling Limited, a quirky story of three estranged brothers who travel to India to find themselves and rediscover their lost relationship, and they learn that the journey means more than the destination.

Scott Glosserman's debut film Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is an intelligent, perceptive skewering and analysis of slasher movies that genre fans and skeptics can appreciate, and it actually becomes an involving horror film in its last reel.

Writer/star Simon Pegg and writer/director Edgar Wright take on the overblown Hollywood actioner with Hot Fuzz, which is filled to the brim with clichés and homages and is spot-on in its critical yet loving breakdown of a genre.

We've seen a lot of fantasy films recently, but Stardust is genuinely enchanting for its old-school fairy tale values and its tongue-in-cheek presentation.


Honorable Mention:

The Astronaut Farmer, Away from Her, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Lake of Fire, The Lives of Others, The Mist, 300, La Vie en Rose, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Zodiac

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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