HUMANITY AT 24 FRAMES PER SECOND:
THE BEST FILMS OF 2007
By Esteemed Blogger and Perennial Film Student
All of us—even film critics—are human. Filmmakers often forget that simple fact. But something happened in 2007, and I am at a loss to explain how. Maybe it is eight years of George Bush taking its toll and breeding newfound perspective in our artists. Maybe it is the hope of a changing of the guard in the 12 months to come. Or maybe it just happened to be one of those blessed, fated, or whatever other sort of metaphysically-crafted years—a great year for films…especially films that spoke to our hearts and minds, and tapped into the beating heart of humanity.
Humanism was not a specific criterion for this list at year’s beginning, nor was it a criterion fifteen minutes ago. It is just something that happened…something I did not realize until my list was finalized and I began writing this document. The films I have listed as the Year’s Best—the top ten to be sure, but also nearly every other film down the line—find the humanity in their stories and their characters, and remind us—at least, remind me—that we aren’t all that different from one another. From gender to gender, race to race, religion to religion, nationality to nationality, political persuasion to political persuasion (okay, maybe that one is stretching it, but bear with me), we are all human. And as humans, we all have hopes, dreams, fears, desires, flaws, and virtues. How we weather the terrain of our humanity determines our lives and our ultimate happiness. The same could be said for any character on the lists that follow…the same could be said for their creators, as well.
Here are 2007’s purveyors of cinematic humanity, starting with the year’s very best.
THE TOP TEN FILMS OF 2007
Humanity at its best…
10. SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET
People say Johnny Depp sounds like a rock star. They’re wrong; he is a rock star. So is Helena Bonham Carter. So is Tim Burton. And the grandest rock star of them all is Stephen Sondheim, that singular maestro of Broadway’s lyrical bleakness.
Indeed, Sweeney Todd is the year’s bleakest, saddest, most vengeful and hopeless film. But it is also simultaneously one of its most viscerally and powerfully energetic, invigorating, and even, in its way, fun experiences.
Broadway-to-Hollywood adaptations have become quite popular in recent years, yet even the best of their ilk—Chicago, Dreamgirls, and even this year’s sublime Hairspray—fall prey to the trapping of their original incarnations—the stage. What Tim Burton brings so effortlessly to Sweeney Todd—what makes him so perfect for this genre so seemingly antithetical to his usual work—is his inherent cinematic ability. Nothing in Sweeney Todd feels staged, not a moment feels like a “production.” Burton has created the first purely cinematic musical since Moulin Rouge!, and the result is perfection that strikes me as unexpected kismet—Burton and Sondheim, together at last.
9. INTO THE WILD
Nature is beautiful. Humankind can be, too. But can humankind successfully become one with nature? Chris McCandless believed he could—and he did, until it killed him. Sean Penn’s beautifully rendered film captures visually and emotionally the truly sensory, viscerally organic experience of the cultured human merging with the raw natural world. Penn has essentially made the very first example of “organic film”: Into the Wild seems like it is living breathing, vibrating, and emoting right before our very eyes.
Such is the method to Penn’s madness. Is he overly-artsy? Sure. Is it merely for art’s sake? No. Into the Wild is that rare film experience that can only be “felt,” not simply “viewed.” There is nothing passive about it—the audience feels the rhythms of nature right along with Emile Hirsch’s brilliant embodiment of McCandless. And with McCandless, we are invited to revel in a shared awe of nature, but also to stand back in question, wondering what truly drove this kid—who didn’t really have it that bad—to drop out of the human world and join the natural world. The answers are as nebulous and unreachable as nature itself, and McCandless’ innate contradictions are as infuriating—and as unfortunately predictable—as something we call “humanity.”
8. MICHAEL CLAYTON
Most of us go about our lives with the same goal: simply to be happy, and little more. Some people are not afforded the luxury of being “happy” or even being blissfully ignorant. Michael Clayton is finally fed up with a life that has robbed him of his simple human goal. He just wants to be free and clear for the first time in years.
People throw around the term “70s style” when discussing Tony Gilroy’s second brilliant script of 2007 (we’ll get to the first later on), but without reason, “70s style” means nothing. Michael Clayton is so very 70s because it is bold enough to question the status quo, mature enough to realize that what qualifies as victory in this inhuman world would be more accurately described as “sacrifice,” and conscious enough to know what moral values truly are, as well as to know that even those we may consider “immoral” were not born that way…they had it thrust upon them.
7. THE SAVAGES
The year’s best tone poem is a film set to ‘leaden’ and spiked with quirky, unexpected, but firmly grounded humor. Quite unconventional in terms of ‘tone poems’—a film whose offbeat, dark comedy is sublime, and whose dreary melancholy casts a wholly consuming spell.
There is nothing zany or cute about Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages. It speaks through its beautifully sad heroine and hero, Wendy and John Savage (played with perfect pitch by Laura Linney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman), whose development has been arrested for a long time, and who must find a way to set their own selfishness aside deal with adult issues they were never prepared for.
The Savages also speaks through its music. Stephen Trask’s haunting, dreamlike score—the year’s best—evokes the seemingly eternal state of the film’s characters. Walking around with wit and intelligence, with honors and degrees bestowed upon them but with dreams still unrealized, the Savage family is one that has betrayed itself: wounds inflicted by the parents onto the children have left the children stunted in a state of perpetual stasis. The music of the film is indicative of the gray pall cast over Wendy and John’s lives, one they must actively move out from under in order to fulfill their dreams. How beautiful their sadness, how captivating their escape.
6. LARS AND THE REAL GIRL
Love is the most complex and indefinable of human emotions, yet it is the one that can bring us together in greatest harmony. Sure, we can be joined in hatred or in strife, and we can certainly be united in smugness and bigotry, passing judgment before looking deep enough to find one’s true nature. Lars and the Real Girl encourages us to love…very simply, very truly.
No man is an island, no matter how hard he may try. For Lars, his is a self-inflicted island, and lucky for him, the poachers come in peace, hoping to foster communication and find truth. The community of loving people in Lars and the Real Girl is just as intangible and unreal as the loving, accepting family of Juno, and just as wonderful and hopeful a dramatic creation. But while many have dismissed this film with the ultimate faint praise—“Capra-esque”—the beautiful achievement of Nancy Oliver’s flawless, non-judgmental script and Craig Gillespie’s gentle, engaging direction is the acceptance exhibited by the film’s characters. This film chooses to see the truth behind the seemingly absurd, to search for meaning where most would chuckle and turn away.
Would that if we would all act the same way. The world just might become a better place…a place similar to Lars’ world.
5. AWAY FROM HER
The best films are the ones that remind us what’s important. No film reminded me as powerfully as Sarah Polley’s wrenching directorial debut, a film that had me crying for nearly its entire running time. But the tears were not tortuous, and the film not an act of sadism. While certainly difficult to bear, Away from Her is a painfully gorgeous love poem, like Poe’s “Annabelle Lee” filtered through ee cummings by way of Emily Dickenson. Even when tragedy rips the tangible person away from us, the intangible love helps us survive. And even when 99% of the moments we share may be tainted, it is those small moments of clarity—the touches on the arm, the kisses on the cheek, the moments of recognition that seem so insignificant in the grand scheme of things—that can make our entire lives complete. Loved ones can slip away, but all is not lost. The impact of true love lives on far past our muscles, our memories, and our minds.
Such harsh reality makes Away from Her 2007’s most heartbreakingly mature film experience. Unlike many others on the list, it is not made for repeat viewings…but after all, the memory of a single viewing is enough to linger in this viewer’s mind forever.
By the way, I love you, Kristie Lee McKiernan.
4. THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM
The wait is over—I told you we’d get to Tony Gilroy’s first brilliant script of the year. And simply put, that brilliant script merged with Paul Greengrass’ boundary-busting, rule-breaking direction makes The Bourne Ultimatum the greatest action thriller ever made. I said it five months ago and I will say it again today. This film takes everything audiences have come to know about standard action filmmaking and shoves it through a coffee grinder. The result is a pulse-pounding, camera-shaking cinema palooza that takes hold in the first frame and never lets up—not even through the flawlessly designed end credit sequence.
It is certainly true that there is a brilliance employed in this script that can only be fully realized if you have a clear memory of the earlier two pictures in the Bourne series. But accessibility has never been something this filmmaking team has concerned themselves with. The Bourne Ultimatum is more rewarding than any third film in any film trilogy ever made, and like all great films for intelligent adults, it requires that you think actively in order to fully grasp all its puzzle pieces. It is the ultimate fusion of high-octane action, groundbreaking filmmaking, and upper echelon storytelling. And there is never a false step.
A couple of the films higher on my list will surely rack up countless Oscar nominations, all of them entirely deserved. But The Bourne Ultimatum deserves to be right up there with them. That it won’t be come Oscar nomination morning shows that maybe Greengrass, Gilroy, Damon and company have been working on a level even higher than most Academy members can grasp.
Did that sound elitist?
3. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
Tick-tock, tick-tock. The clock keeps moving into infinity, and ticks away for each and every one of us…but that doesn’t necessarily mean we should be relieved when our time is finally up. Ethan and Joel Coen have constructed a film that seems totally indicative of their signature style and totally indicative of something entirely new. In the same way, the film—adapted from a Cormac McCarthy novel—feels precisely literary and entirely cinematic all at once. No Country for Old Men is taut, sad, hopeless, funny, suspenseful, amusing, and ultimately profound, a pitch-perfect symbol of wheezing, tortured life and the supposition of what comes afterward.
The Coens have, as they did with Fargo, given birth to one of THE movies—a singular, unmatched American classic. In it, we find one of the iconic cinematic villains in Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, one of the most dogged antiheroes in Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss, and one of the great, worn-down, been-around-the-block-one-too-many-times old-fashioned heroes in Tommy Lee Jones’ Ed Tom Bell, who breaks up the cat-and-mouse game of Chigurh and Moss to provide levity and commentary on the insanity, inanity, and inevitability of life. Ed Tom knows the score, and sees the black at the end of the tunnel where Moss thinks there is light, and where Chigurh refuses to acknowledge there is even a tunnel.
2. I’M NOT THERE
Todd Haynes has always been a filmmaker looking to push the envelope and bust clichéd genres wide open, but for me the effect, while often effective on a surface level, felt forced at its core. It is not surprising to me that for Haynes’ goal to be fully realized, he had to subvert the typical filmmaking frame-of-mind altogether.
I’m Not There is a blindsiding work of genius, though its success cannot really be measured in any tangible way, since even the typically subjective nature of usual film viewing is made all the more so by Haynes and co-writer Oren Moverman, who have either written one of the year’s most vividly brilliant screenplays, or threw six separate short stories into a hat and picked the pieces at random. Here is a film that is not meant to be followed as a story, and I’m not even sure subsequent viewings will fill in the gaps. This is a film to be felt and experienced, with each successive viewing becoming something entirely different than the last.
With I’m Not There, Haynes takes the painfully familiar genre of the rock star biopic and subverts not only the genre, but filmmaking itself. Sure, it’s obvious the six characters represented in the film are variations on Bob Dylan, but none of them are named “Bob Dylan.” And so the film becomes not only a pastiche of the different ‘versions’ of Dylan, but a pondering of the tenuous, ever-changing nature of personhood itself. We all have six different versions of ourselves—sometimes even more than that. But each version ties together to makes us who we are, just as I’m Not There tells a fractured, fever-pitch story that somehow—musically, lyrically, humanely—seems sublimely whole.
So many wonderful films occupy place on this list, but at the end of the day—at the end of the year—2007 undeniably began and ended with a chair. There are so many ways to describe the special power of Juno—so many, in fact, that I wonder if I am truly able to ponder it in the same way I have pondered the films leading up to it. Perhaps I should merely start listing its wonders…
Ellen Page—She is the most incredible breakout talent of hers or any other generation. And she is so incredible that she could paint herself into a corner, forever being judged on the basis of this star-making role. Fear not, however: looking back on her brilliance in last year’s Hard Candy was just as difficult to match, and Page followed it up with this. She will be the most lauded and envied actress in Hollywood for years to come.
Diablo Cody’s screenplay—Talk about “star-making.” For all the brilliant scripts to come out of Hollywood in 2007 (and, as evidenced by several films on this list and many more, there were a myriad—eat your heart out, AMPTP), there was not such a business-altering breakout voice as Diablo Cody’s. Her words are able to balance good-natured sweetness with fierce attitude, and find a meeting point between how-it-should-be fantasy and hardcore reality. Here is another case where the artist is so uncommonly blessed that she could paint—or write—herself into a corner. But if Juno proved anything, it proved that Cody has countless surprises up her sleeve. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Jason Reitman’s direction—How surprising. Thank You for Smoking was fine, but Reitman’s work in this film was like a match made in heaven. The Cody-Reitman pairing is the single-most astonishing writer-director combination since Sam Mendes directed Alan Ball’s script for a little film called American Beauty.
The Actors—Michael Cera. Jennifer Garner. Jason Bateman. J.K. Simmons. Allison Janney. Olivia Thirlby. Nuff said.
MAGNUM D’OR (THE GOLDEN MAGNUM AWARD presented by Tom Selleck)
11. SMOKIN’ ACES
SPECIAL JURY PRIZE (FILMS 12-20)
13. THE BEST AND MOST IMPORTANT DOCUMENTARIES OF THE YEAR:
SICKO & MY KID COULD PAINT THAT
18. BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD
19. THE DARJEELING LIMITED
20. I AM LEGEND
As if the top ten’s humanity wasn’t enough, here are six more 2007 films—all beautiful in greatly diverse ways—that tackle a wide spectrum of issues which we as human beings grapple with on a daily basis. From moral consequence to sexism and bigotry to the foreign relations and the war in Iraq, these films did what few others were able to do: speak to the human spirit in a clear, direct way. In alphabetical order…
THE BRAVE ONE
GONE BABY GONE
IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH
HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX
Awarded to great or near-great 2007 films that did were, for the most part, ignored by mainstream audiences. It was mainstream audiences’ loss. In alphabetical order…
ACROSS THE UNIVERSE
TALK TO ME
THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE
YEAR OF THE GRINDHOUSE
2007 was The Year of the Grindhouse Film. To be sure, I am using a loose, greatly altered definition of ‘Grindhouse.’ My definition very plainly states that 2007’s Grindhouse Film immerses itself joyously in a long-dormant genre and entertains with wit, intelligence, and filmmaking gusto. Obviously, 2007’s Grindhouse films were led with a blaze of glory by Joe Carnahan’s SMOKIN’ ACES, which embodied the cheerful anarchy of genre filmmaking better than any other film this year. Here are the rest…
(For simultaneously mocking and embracing the conventions of high-octane action filmmaking)
(For milking the white-knuckle thriller for all it’s worth, and then placing the Grindhouse cherry on top: the woman saves the day)
BLACK SNAKE MOAN
(For telling a Tennessee Williams-style melodramatic down-south tale, only also addressing the demons within the typical Williams heroine head-on, rather than burying them in subtext and/or pretending they didn’t exist at all)
2007’S FAMILY FILMS
2007 was also a good year for family-oriented films. Headed by default by RATATOUILLE, which isn’t really even a family film but was billed as one anyway, here is a list of films that, like The Rat, were able to connect with every member of the family in different, powerful ways. In numerical order…
2. MEET THE ROBINSONS
3. THE LAST MIMZY
4. BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA
5. MR. MAGORIUM’S WONDER EMPORIUM