In this history if cinema, certain years are punctuated by a particularly great number of provocative and artful films brought to life by visionary filmmakers. Obviously, every year contains a certain number of great films, but it seems that like some of the best years in film history, 2007 seemed to possess an extra flair when it came to delivering true masterworks. Any genre, any form and any style all seemed to flourish as talented artists were given complete and total control of their projects, with all the necessary resources to fulfil them. It also helps that a good number of these filmmakers seemed particularly on form this year, as if their projects in 2007 seemed to be the fulfilment and culmination of everything they had been building towards for their careers.
Before the main top ten though I have plenty of honourable mentions. Ben Affleck made a surprisingly great directorial debut with the effectively thrilling and haunting ‘Gone Baby Gone’. Frank Darabont’s ‘The Mist’ was the perfect homage to 1950s monster movies while being a chilling vision of the apocalypse all on its own. But as tragic as that ending was, there’s a deeper thematic tragedy at the heart of ‘Atonement’ which managed to turn a single shot into one of the most breath taking sequences of the year, and that’s without taking into account the huge emotional context the rest of the movie adds to it.
But for all this doom and gloom there were no shortage of uplifting movies either. ‘Once’ was an infectiously wonderful musical drama, as was ‘Waitress’. Let’s not forget the fantastic comedies we were treated to this year such as ‘Superbad’ and ‘Knocked Up’. We were also treated to the usual brand of Pixar magic in ‘Ratatouille’ in which Brad Bird brought the same mix of emotional maturity and animated whimsy as he did to ‘The Incredibles’. Also, though it might not necessarily fit into the “uplifting” notion I started this section with, if you were looking for blockbuster entertainment you couldn’t do much better than Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon in ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’.
Then there were the highly affecting personal dramas that were made to feel powerful for the obvious care the filmmakers had for their subjects. Sean Penn brought the story of Chris McCandless to life with ‘Into the Wild’ to brilliant and profoundly moving results. But most of all I have to praise ‘Persepolis’ for its nuanced and complex take on identity and heritage. It really does say a lot about the quality of 2007 as a year, since one of my favourite animated films of all time didn’t make the final ten. But regardless, Marjane Satrapi’s adaptation of her own graphic novel is a phenomenal filmic translation that was utterly unique. But of course we couldn’t talk about uniqueness this year without also mentioning ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’, a film that is truly unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.
There were also plenty of strong genre movies. ‘The Orphanage’ was a chilling horror film and a strong debut for J.A Bayona. ‘Michael Clayton’ was a highly engaging legal drama. ‘Stardust’ was an utterly whimsical and wonderfully sincere fantasy, given great energy under the direction of Matthew Vaughn, and quite frankly any movie that stars Robert De Niro as am eccentric cross dressing pirate deserves recognition for that alone. ‘American Gangster’ showed that Ridley Scott can translate his talents to the crime genre very well and ‘Sunshine’ saw Danny Boyle turn to science fiction with fantastic results. We also got a great remake of a western of all things with ‘3:10 to Yuma’. Finally, a bold experiment in genre filmmaking that for its flaws I still kind of loved, the ‘Grindhouse’ project which combined Robert Rodriguez’s ‘Planet Terror’ with Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Death Proof’ to form a weird but wonderful oddity.
10: Eastern Promises
David Cronenberg may have mastered the genre of body horror, but this crime drama feels just as affecting and visceral as any of his previous efforts. Under Cronenberg’s direction ‘Eastern Promises’ is brutal and uncompromising in a way that few films are, being handled with such intelligence and raw power that it is sure to take your breath away as its highly intricate plot unfolds piece by piece. It feels brutal not through violence but through restraint. Nothing is drawn out or exaggerated, it all feels painfully real. The film is highly atmospheric, masterfully tense and features a fight scene that will go down in history as a revelation due to Cronenberg’s direction and the sheer commitment of actor Viggo Mortensen, undergoing ordeals that few actors would in the process. But as tempting as it is to focus solely on Mortensen’s powerhouse performance, it’s Naomi Watts who gives the movie a sense of genuine emotion with a deeply humane performance. It’s a tightly wound thriller in which every piece fits perfectly.
9: The Darjeeling Limited
While I would hesitate to make the case of ‘The Darjeeling Limited’ being Wes Anderson’s best movie, I do think it’s his most humane and emotionally affecting. It places its focus squarely on its three main characters, diving into their own personalities, their history with one another and deconstructing their ongoing dynamic. Anderson frames each of the three brothers grieving for the loss of their father in a different light but constantly places them together, making them feel strong as a unit but also shine individually. It also helps that the three brothers in question are played wonderfully by Owen Wilson, Adrian Brody and Jason Schwartzman. As one would expect from an Anderson film, the visual palette is absolutely stunning, with perfect composition and an exquisite colour contrast to the design. But within that design lies a profound story of communication and reconciliation, anchored by the usual quirky anachronisms that make Anderson’s work so distinctive.
8: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
In a career that spanned half a century and delivered some of the greatest films in the history of cinema, Sidney Lumet bowed out with his last ever film, and what a gripping rollercoaster ride it was. A tightly plotted crime drama that unfolds non-linearly but never loses sight of its main driving force. Much like a lot of 2007’s best movies, ‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead’ uses the intricacies of its plot to stage an intimate character study that is just as involving as its story of bank robbers and failed heists. The entire cast is fantastic across the board, from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke’s temperamental partnership, to the excellent supporting turns by Marisa Tomei and Albert Finney. Lumet directs with a subdued efficiency that is versatile enough to handle any and all tonal changes that the movie takes on its twisting descent. It’s the kind of movie that keeps you hooked from the first frame to the last.
7: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Some films leave an impact through the cultural discussion that they bring to light just as much as the mastery of their craft, and that is exactly the case with Cristian Mungiu’s artistic drama. A deeply important film that raised the issue of abortion laws in its native country and around the world, but more than its message ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’ is simply an emotionally resonant film that places its characters within a difficult moral position. Its setting is minimal, taking place almost exclusively within a few rundown apartments, but through that limited setting it proceeds to tell a gripping story. It’s uncompromising and relentless in its realism, depicting a struggle that many people would wish to avoid with such raw authenticity that you can’t help but be affected by the surface level details alone. But a closer inspection reveals just how much work the film puts into endearing the audience to its characters which makes their ordeal all the more harrowing.
6: Hot Fuzz
Fact: there is no director working within the realm of comedy that even comes close to the brilliance of Edgar Wright, and ‘Hot Fuzz’ is definitive proof of that. It’s satirical, parodic and simply hilarious in every possible realm. Wright finds humour in places other directors so often overlook, from his editing to his composition and even something as simple as the frame of his shot. There seems to be no shortage in the methods he employs to garner a laugh from his audience. The fact that the movie is underpinned by the brilliant comedic chemistry of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost makes the proceedings even funnier, with each actor bringing such great value to their role that you can’t imagine anyone else playing the two policemen officers. Wright and his cast are now so phenomenal at their craft that by the time this farcical comedy reaches its third act involving an escaped goose, a model village and a gunfight in a supermarket, I felt more invested in the action here than I did for any serious genre movie this year.
5: I’m Not There
Ambitious doesn’t even begin to describe Todd Haynes’ mesmerising musical biopic which sees him cast six different actors of the part of Bob Dylan. Well, to be more accurate the film features six actors in roles that represent a different aspect of the artist’s life. They include the poet (Ben Wishaw), the prophet (Christian Bale), the imitation (Marcus Carl Franklin), the outlaw (Richard Gere), the celebrity (Heath Ledger) and the martyr (Cate Blanchett). All of the embodiments of Dylan are terrific, with Blanchett being the standout, but it’s Haynes’ direction that really cements the film as a unique piece of art. The cinematography is hauntingly beautiful and varied from one persona to the other, whilst the editing finds utterly unique ways of stringing these stories together. It’s dreamlike atmosphere and calming visuals have an almost lyrical feel to them, as if the movie itself were unfolding like one of Dylan’s songs.
4: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
The term “revisionist western” applies directly to Andrew Dominik’s morally ambiguous tale on the genre that stands alongside the work of Robert Altman and Sam Peckinpahin. Though the story itself is littered with violence and vengeance, Dominik is clearly more content to use the long sweeping landscapes of his film to stage a backdrop for a meditative character study. It takes two figures of American lore and deconstructs them in a way that is as bold as it is beautiful. The film itself almost seems like a contradiction, somehow being hypnotically gorgeous but also stunningly bleak at the same time. It boasts two outstanding performances from Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck as its two titular characters. But beyond just the characters, the movie reaches out to examine an entire culture of fame and idolisation, there is a great mythic weight to the movie that only makes its intimate beauty all the more noticeable. It’s a movie filled with empathy, poetry and stunning honesty.
Leave it to David Fincher to create a murder mystery in which the killer is never caught or even definitively seen. All of Fincher’s thrillers have been more concerned with the characters than the corpses and ‘Zodiac’ epitomises that most of all. It is not a movie about a serial killer, it is a movie about the obsession surrounding that killer. The way each of these characters are infected with this unyielding fascination to uncover the truth is inevitable but highly involving. As an audience we years to know more about the titular Zodiac, but as the film unfolds we become all the more aware of the cost. Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr and Mark Ruffalo perfectly embody the themes of the film through their performances, with Fincher himself pondering over every solitary detail of the film. He draws palpable suspense from every single sequence, with the unspoken air of dread hanging over even the quietest of scenes as we come to realise that most of the questions raised in the movie will never be answered.
2: No Country for Old Men
You will struggle to find two hours of cinema, from this or any year, that are more absorbing, suspenseful and involving than Joel and Ethan Coen’s utter masterpiece of a movie. To say it’s thematically rich would be an understatement and then some, but it’s deeper themes of violence, morality and age are not what make ‘No Country for Old Men’ a great movie. What cements it as a masterwork is the way the Coen’s expertly weave these themes into the central narrative, tone and characters of the film. The world they draw is inhumane, morally ambiguous and utterly unrelenting, a world that’s stunningly photographed by cinematographer Roger Deakins. The Coen’s also have such empathy for the characters that populate this world, both for what they represent as well as their individual identities. None of those characters are more memorable than antagonist Anthon Chigurgh, chillingly portrayed by Javier Bardem. The imagery is always striking, the dialogue is crisp and involving, the suspense is palpable within every scene. There’s no shortage of praise that I can shower on this movie. ‘No Country for Old Men’ is simply a perfect movie.
1: There Will Be BloodThe final shot of PT Anderson’s mesmerising epic, sees Daniel Plainview announcing “I’m finished” and in doing so cements the rise and fall of the Plainview as one of the greatest works ever committed to film. Powerful seems to mild a word to describe it, as the film engulfs the viewer in a hypnotic trance that makes its three hour running time go by in an instant. Like all of PTA’s films the plot is deceptively simple and yet his rendering of it opens the narrative up to endless thematic analysis. The film tackles subjects of greed, faith, blood relations, industry and morality, yet none of these weighty themes feel overbearing, because of what lies at the heart of the film. Lewis’ performance is breathtakingly towering, chewing the scenery and showing the dark and temperamental side of raw ambition in the process. Despite being a period piece, the score and ominous atmosphere of the film seem more akin to that of a horror movie, fitting perfectly with Plainview’s inhumanity. It’s a film that never loses its impact and if anything only seems to become more gripping every time I revisit it. Truly one of the greatest cinematic achievements of all time.