Unlike critics at big-city papers, I have not seen every movie that came out in the last 12 months, or even all the ones I wanted to see. While looking over a list of critically acclaimed films I either missed or have not seen because they aren’t yet in wide release, I realized that I still have more than a dozen movies left to go. Six of these are already on DVD and I have no excuse for not seeing them, other than that I’ve been busy. These include “Rescue Dawn,” “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” “Away From Her,” “A Mighty Heart,” “La Vie en Rose,” and “The Bourne Ultimatum.”
Other movies I’m dying to see include “Juno,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” “Atonement,” “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” “The Savages,” “I’m Not There,” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “Persepolis,” and “There Will Be Blood.” I suppose I’ll eventually watch “The Kite Runner” too. I’ve taken the liberty of ranking my favorite 2007 films for you to read here, but even having not seen a dozen films that probably stand a shot on getting a revised version of this list in a few months, it was hard narrowing it down. Even so, this list is full of movies that as good as anything else you’re likely to have seen this year.
I didn’t catch “Once” in the theaters over the summer, back when I kept hearing and reading reviews declaring its greatness. But I finally watched it with my girlfriend when it came out on DVD recently, and I knew even before it was over that I would be ordering the soundtrack the next day and buying the DVD as soon as possible to watch with other people I care about, such as my sister and my musically inclined best friend back home.
“Once” tells the story of a vacuum cleaner repairman and struggling musician (Glen Hansard of the Irish band the Frames), who lives with his dad in Dublin, and the Czech immigrant he meets while playing in the street. After listening to him play, the girl (played by Marketa Irglova – both characters remain unnamed, even in the credits) starts asking the man about his deeply personal and heartbreaking songs, and he reluctantly tells her how being dumped by his ex-girlfriend inspired his music. After striking up a friendship, she tells him that she plays piano, but that she doesn’t own one. They walk to a music shop she frequents and collaborate on a song the man wrote. They spend the next week working on songs together, not to mention trying to ignore their romantic longing for one another. The man finally decides to head to London to pursue his musical dream, but tells her that he wants to book some time in a studio to record some songs before he leaves. The results are as magical as anything you would hope to see this side of a Harry Potter movie.
If you watch “Once,” do it because you want to see it and not simply because I told you that you must. It’s an unspeakably moving film, but in very subtle ways. The fireworks are not on the surface, but in small moments, gestures, expressions – and, of course, in the songs, which are often played live and in their entirety. When the two main characters sing their first song together, it gives you chills, and the movie takes off from there. The love story is heartfelt, but it is of the unrequited variety. This is the sort of film that is so modest that it would be easy for the casual observer to be unimpressed. You have to let it wash over you, but once you do, you’ll be all the better for it. This movie certainly fits the description of the trite phrase, “feel-good movie,” but that triteness doesn’t apply to the film itself whatsoever. It is completely unsentimental and also bittersweet. It does a great job of not only showing how chance encounters with others can deeply change us, but also why music is so important to us all.
2. “No Country For Old Men”
I’ve been a Coen Brothers fan since the 1996 classic “Fargo,” but “No Country For Old Men” just might be the most perfect movie of their careers. Maybe not, I don’t know. It’s sort of like putting the latest Bob Dylan masterpiece in a list of all his other classics. Either way this story of a man (Josh Brolin) who finds $2 million in cash at a crime scene while hunting for deer in the middle of nowhere and decides to keep it is one of the best thrillers of the last decade, albeit one with not many action scenes. Tommy Lee Jones is fantastic as the small-town Texas sheriff investigating the case and Javier Bardem is beyond great as the maniacally cold and efficient killer on the road hunting for Brolin. It’s an amazing film, and probably Joel and Ethan Coen’s best shot ever at winning Oscars for Best Picture or Best Director.
3. “Gone Baby Gone”
This story of a private detective trying to find a missing girl draws you in with its incredible gritty Boston atmosphere and mystery, but stays in your memory because of its great performances. Casey Affleck, Ed Harris, Michelle Mongahan, and Amy Ryan, as the missing girl’s unsavory mother, all create vivid and believable characters. Ben Affleck astounded everyone by proving that he isn’t just an actor who used to star in good movies. He just might be the next great American director. If his follow-ups prove this wasn’t a fluke, he will be.
Released back in March, the only people who could forget this haunting thriller are the ones who didn’t see it. Which to say, almost everyone. Never mind. Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey, Jr. all give great performances as men who can’t rest until they figure out who the notorious Zodiac killer. Guess what? They never do, but we already knew that. As directed by David Fincher, the movie is a wonderfully shot meditation on how there are just some things we can’t ever know, however hard we try to find out. Actually, there are several ways its themes could be interpreted, but one thing is for sure. “Zodiac” is a compelling movie told by a first-class storyteller.
Looking back at the review I wrote over the summer, I realized that even though I loved “Ratatouille” the first time I saw it, I failed to grasp just how beautiful it was. In its final 20 minutes, the monologue spoken by legendary actor Peter O’Toole, as the food critic Anton Ego, perfectly sums up why it’s worth getting wrapped up in anything you love, whether it is food, painting, movies, music or – well, almost anything can be considered an art when done to perfection. And while the animated movie is sure to appeal to children, it might be the most mature (not to mention the best) Pixar movie to date.
6. “Into the Wild”
This movie tells the true story of Christopher McCandles, who decided to rename himself Alexander Supertramp and leave his family and friends behind after graduating college. Along the way, he meets a colorful array of characters, but also finds true freedom on his own. It is only too late that he realizes that personal freedom, no matter how wonderful, is no match for being with the ones who care about you. The movie is full of beautiful images of all the diverse environments Chris travels to, and it’s amazing that director Sean Penn holds it all together as one coherent work, considering how scattered the narrative could have felt. The pacing of the events also works quite well. The movie is 2 ½ hours, but feels more like two.
Emile Hirsch is great in the lead role, but the supporting cast makes it one of the best films of the year, which is ironic considering that it’s about a guy who decides to isolate himself from humanity. There are great little performances from Vince Vaughn, as a farmer who hires Chris when he needs money; Catherine Keener as a woman who sees in Chris the son she hasn’t spoken with in years; Willliam Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden as Chris’s parents; and Kristen Stewart as a young girl with a crush who is heartbroken to watch Chris leave his friends behind once again. But the movie also contains one of the best and saddest performances of the year, and it manages to stand out among the rest. Hal Holbrooke plays a man that Chris meets late in his young life. After losing his wife and son in an accident many years before, he also withdrew from his family, and it took him a long time to find the courage to come back. Chris becomes like a grandson to the man who has no family left. The shot of his face as Chris leaves him behind is one of the most heartbreaking images in recent memory.
7. “Eastern Promises”
After 2005’s excellent “A History of Violence,” it was hard to imagine a follow-up teaming of director David Cronenberg and actor Viggo Mortensen that could possibly be as good. “Eastern Promises” works as a companion film to “Violence,” one that focuses on … well… violence and the darkness within the hearts of men. In the film a London midwife (Naomi Watts) delivers a baby to a young girl who dies and tries to find its family, only to discover the girl’s ties to Russian mobsters. As Nikolai, a driver on his way up in the ranks, Mortensen’s Aragorn of “Lord of the Rings” is nowhere to be found. He oozes menace, playing one of the most interesting characters of the year. Watts is great as usual, but French actor Vincent Cassel is possibly the film’s biggest surprise as Kirill, who feels like he is being passed up by his father (Armin Mueller-Stahl) for Nicolai. He, as well as Mueller-Stahl, give chilling performances. The movie is like a Russian version of “The Godfather,” except about half its length, less epic in scope and much bloodier. If you’re at all squeamish, you should probably avoid it.
8. “The Lives of Others”
I almost couldn’t believe it when I realized it, but “The Lives of Others” does qualify as a 2007 release. I didn’t realize it since it came out January at the same time many 2006 movies were coming out in wide release. The winner of last year’s foreign-language film Oscar, “Lives” tells the story of a Stasi officer (Ulrich Muhe) in East Germany in 1984 who is assigned to spy on a playwright and his girlfriend. Through many suspenseful scenes of the character listening to the couple on his headphones, he has a (subtle) change of heart. Sadly, Muhe died several months after the film’s release and will never again give such a great performance again.
9. “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”
OK, this movie, based on the 1979 Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical is not for everyone, but for those who are game, it is a funny, terrifying, beautiful film. Director Tim Burton brings Victorian London to life in ways so artful it quickens the pulse. Johnny Depp is perfectly creepy as the barber who comes back to London years after being sent to prison on a false charge. Sweeney’s goal is to kill Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) for sending him away and stealing his wife and daughter. After failing at first, he decides that everyone, not just Turpin, deserves to die. Again, it’s not for everyone. After all, what movie featuring multiple throat-slashings and cannibalism is? All the bloodletting is actually so exaggerated that that it isn’t quite meant to be believed, but my girlfriend still made faces. I thought that was strange, since she likes those awful and grisly “Saw” movies, which feature much more realistic-looking violence. Anyway, the music is great, even if Depp and the others don’t have opera-caliber voices. They make up for it with their emotional acting. Besides Depp, there is also great work from Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, Timothy Spall and newcomer Ed Sanders. Playing a the role of an orphan typically played by adults onstage, his singing voice and acting will give you chills.
Also not for everyone, but this double feature from Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, as well as some hilarious fake trailers, was maybe the most fun I had at the movies this year. The films, “Planet Terror” and “Death Proof” are now available separately on DVD.
And there’s my (current) list of the best movies for 2007. Alas, I did have to leave off many films that would have cracked the top 10 in any other year, and I few others that I also enjoyed very much. These Honorable Mentions include: “Michael Clayton,” “Enchanted,” “Waitress,” “Knocked Up,” “Hairspray,” “The Lookout,” “American Gangster,” “Superbad,” “Hot Fuzz,” “The Hoax,” “Talk to Me,” “3:10 to Yuma,” “28 Weeks Later,” and “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” and “Breach.”