It would be a shame to remember 2007 as the year of Hannibal Rising or Norbit because, all things considered, this was a pretty good year film wise. As usual, bad movies grabbed much of our attention, but for every Lions for Lambs or August Rush there was also a Michael Clayton or a Superbad waiting in the wings.
The sheer number of movies that narrowly missed making our Top 10 list this year was higher than almost ever before, and we're not just talking about the usual suspects. Classy stuff like Atonement, La Vie en Rose and The Namesake almost made the cut, but so did several considerably wackier offerings, guilty pleasures like Knocked Up, Hot Fuzz and The Simpsons Movie. There were lots of even odder items, too: artful dodgers such as I'm Not There, Paprika, The Darjeeling Limited, Juno and Bug. And for the first time in memory, just to show you what a difference a year can make, a Michael Moore movie — Sicko — very nearly appeared on our Top 10.
Here are the films that made the cut:
1 No Country for Old Men. Applying the no-nonsense noir of Blood Simple to Cormac McCarthy's tale of Texas good ol' boys dancing with the devil, the Coen brothers came up with their best film in ages. The movie builds suspense beautifully, using sound and its absence to devastating effect, while translating McCarthy's novel in purely cinematic terms. At the heart of the film is its most heartless character — Javier Bardem as an unforgettable hit man — but even with the periodic outbursts of brutality, No Country for Old Men shows uncommon restraint, far from the flamboyant tricks and absurdities typically associated with the Coens.
2 The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. There's subtext for miles here — in fact, the action is so minimal in this languorous, two-hour-and-45-minute art-western that some might say the movie is all subtext. Gunplay is the last thing on director Andrew Dominik's mind as he roots around in the Jesse James (played by Brad Pitt) legend, presenting the famous outlaw alternately as American's first bona fide celebrity and as a curious perversion of a Christ figure (brought low by a Judas even more troubled than himself). A hugely ambitious film that practically dares us to call it pretentious, The Assassination of Jesse James lets its elliptical narrative drift though time, its beautifully composed shots of endless plains and snowy fields recalling the iconic images of McCabe and Mrs. Miller and any number of Terrence Malick films. In a perfect world, there'd be a new movie like this in the multiplexes every week.
3 Inland Empire. As tantalizing as it is open-ended, David Lynch's three-hour exploration of cosmic role-playing and talking bunnies has divided audiences and critics more than any of the director's previous projects. Shot quickly and passionately on digital video, personally promoted by Lynch himself (by parading up and down Hollywood Boulevard with a cow on a leash), Inland Empire is certain to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people — but after three separate viewings, it's looking a lot like a masterpiece to me.
4 Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Stephen Sondheim's musical parable of revenge, madness and tasty meat pies turns out to be a perfect vehicle for Tim Burton, resulting in an eminently satisfying fusion of the filmmaker's eccentric sensibilities and pure, sustained storytelling. Burton and principal actors Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter strike just the right balance between theatrical exaggeration and gloomy naturalism, simultaneously prompting our laughter, sympathy and horror. The darkness threatens to swallow up the production but never does, and that's half the fun of Sweeney Todd's bloody brilliance.
5 Eastern Promises. A sort of companion piece to A History of Violence (also featuring Viggo Mortensen), David Cronenberg's elegantly creepy Eastern Promises prowls the mean streets of London connecting the dots between a dead girl's diary and the Russian mafia. Cronenberg lets his tale unfold in a meticulously minimalist and often oblique manner, with violence mostly implied — although when it does occasionally rise to the surface in all its ugly-as-sin glory, be prepared.
6 Ratatouille. The latest creation of whiz kid director Brad Bird (The Incredibles), Ratatouille is as clever as it is entertaining, although this may be the first Pixar film to connect more powerfully with grownups than with their kids (notwithstanding that rare 8-year-old who yearns to hear talking animals wax poetic on the glories of wild mushrooms). The movie misses the emotional resonance of Toy Story by a hair, but it makes up for it in wit, style and an almost balletic grace to the animation.
7 There Will Be Blood. From the wordless poetry of its first half-hour (depicting early American profiteers wrenching gold and oil from the earth) to its insanely over-the-top finale in a gore-drenched bowling alley, this is easily the strangest Hollywood movie in many years. There are moments of staggering brilliance and plenty of painfully silly sequences, too, making Paul Thomas Anderson's film very tough to digest, but one that begs to be returned to again and again. Opens locally Jan 18.
8 Zodiac. A surprisingly frill-less outing for stylist supreme David Fincher, Zodiac is a tightly wound police procedural distilled to its cold, bureaucratic essence. The director subverts our expectations in the most intriguing ways, giving us a serial killer movie that immerses us in a process more nuts-and-bolts and blind allies than car chases and cackling madmen.
9 The Host. A giant amphibious monster crawls out of the river to terrorize Seoul in this instant cult classic from director Bong Joon-ho (Barking Dogs Never Bite). The smartly written script seamlessly blends social commentary, incisive character study (of a dysfunctional Korean family that might be the new poster folk of Sundance), comedy both sly and slapstick, and, at the root of it all, good ol' B-movie thrills and chills generated by an insatiable, mutated beastie.
10 Ten Canoes. A collaboration between Australian director Rolf de Heer (Tracker) and a community of Aborigine villagers, Ten Canoes offers a unique tapestry of stories within stories. Call it an Aboriginal Thousand and One Nights, recounting a tale of sorcery, sibling rivalry, creation myths, tribal war and lots of sitting around and talking. The film weaves back and forth through the millennium, creating a fluid approximation of Aboriginal Dream Time that lingers in the mind long after we've forgotten whatever was playing in the multiplex last month.