1. The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
2. Lars and the Real Girl
4. The Wind That Shakes The Barley
5. There Will Be Blood
6. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
8. Michael Clayton
11. The Host
12. This Is England
15. The Bourne Ultimatum
And here's why:
1. The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford -- Sure this western is beautiful and gauzy in a Terence Malick way. Sure you can tune it out as soon as t starts waxing poetic. But despite it's remarkable technical accomplishments and eye for detail (I still remember the shot of gravel starting to vibrate as a train comes down the tracks), what really sticks with me are the performances. Brad Pitt can be a fine actor and he's very good here as the wary Jesse. But Casey Affleck is just magnetic as Robert Ford, a weasely, whiny, heartbreakingly vulnerable kid who just wants to be accepted but may be too awkward and thin-skinned to ever feel like he really has been. One of the questions of the movie is what might have happened if everyone hadn't picked on Robert at one point or another. Just a remarkably assured, intelligent drama. And despite everyone making nice, I have to feel there's an even longer, even better version by director Andrew Dominik waiting to be released. Why else would the director of one of the best movies of the year be so invisible in the media and not even provide a commentary track for the DVD of a movie he spent seven years working on?
2. Lars and the Real Girl -- a guy starts dating a sex doll. No, it's not the premise for a gross-out Farrelly Brothers comedy. It's the beginning of a sweet, sad little gem. Ryan Gosling is a marvelous actor but unlike, say, his brilliant work in Half Nelson, I wasn't focused on his performance. I was just caught up in this odd, strange movie where an awkward, almost autistic guy uses a sex doll to give himself confidence. Once he's "dating," Lars finds the courage or at least the reason to go to his brother's house for dinner, to attend parties, to slowly get back into the world he retreated from after his father died. More Frank Capra than Preston Sturges, this movie also shows a small town simply accepting this strange situation and getting on with it. (Really, you just have to accept things in small, isolated towns -- there's nowhere else to go.) It strikes such a wonderful balance I found myself both caught up in the emotions when Lars and his "girlfriend" are having an admittedly one-sided fight and laughing at the idea that I could feel caught up in the moment. It's a doll, for goodness sake. But actually, it's Lars and the film also shows how wonderfully flexible people are. Lose a limb, lose your sight, bring home a date of another race or religion or the same sex, have a fascination with bugs-- you name it. It's amazing and beautiful how easily people can come to accept the unusual. Truly an original.
3. Zodiac -- a long, meandering, obsessive look at the reporters and cops who become entangled in a serial killing spree and just can't let go. This is leagues better than anything director David Fincher has done before, thanks to a terrific cast that is so over-populated with great actors that even the tiniest role is filled with someone sharp-eyed audience member will recognize from other movies. Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. are just the tip of the iceberg here. Some truly spooky moments, but the violence occurs mostly early on with most of the movie settling in with a feeling of dread and unease that you want to shake but just can't. Deeply unsatisfying, with numerous jumps forward in time that had audiences laughing and groaning when I saw it in the theater and an inconclusive finale that mirrors the true story it's based on. Deeply unsatisfying except in the only way that matters -- it's terrific.
4. The Wind That Shakes The Barley -- this drama about the troubles in Ireland is brilliant at showing how violence corrupts the noblest of causes. First, you're killing the British troops occupying your country. Then you're killing the Irish troops that collaborate with them. Then you're killing friends who were bullied or tortured into aiding the enemy. And then before you know it you're pointing the gun at your own flesh and blood. Marvelous Ken Loach with Cillian Murphy coming into his own as the would-be doctor who can't escape the blood.
5. There Will Be Blood -- Yes, the final little bit is a tad deflating. But at its best there was nothing better and few equal to this visionary, obsessive (there's that word again) drama about wildcatting for oil. Daniel Day Lewis doesn't act, he just disappears into the role of Daniel Plainview, a deeply suspicious and wary man who regrets the very few times he opens up his heart. In contrast, Paul Dano is acting up a storm (in the best possible sense) as a preacher who squares off against Plainview time and again. Was there a better scene all year than the one where the preacher forces Daniel to repeat over and over that he had abandoned his child? Was there a bolder score? No. Unshakeable.
6. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly -- a lovely movie that one-ups the pretty good, best-selling memoir of a French magazine editor who is suddenly paralyzed and spends the last year of his life unable to do anything but blink one eyelid. Happily, he is surrounded by beautiful women and uses that eye to "type out" his memoir. Bold camerawork and a wonderful cast led by the cruelly overlooked Mathieu Amalric (I really believed he would get an Oscar nomination). Fun, sexy and moving without a moment of sentimentality.
7. L’Iceberg -- here's a thoroughly unexpected gem. It's the story of a woman who is locked into a walk-in freezer overnight, gets angry that her husband and children failed to notice she was missing and becomes obsessed with traveling to a real iceberg. But the joy here is in how the story is told. Except for a few unnecessary lines of dialogue, this dlightful film is basically silent, a la Jacques Tati. Hilarious physical comedy, goofily fake set backdrops and a leading lady that could be Olive Oyl's sister add up to a real treat.
8. Michael Clayton -- this drama starring George Clooney feels as much of a throwback as Steven Soderbergh's The Good German, which was famously shot using only the techniques available in the Forties. Michael Clayton isn't an exercise or stunt -- it's just an intelligent drama centering around corruption and a down-on-his-luck attoryney (Clooney) caught up in it all. Clearly made for adults, which already makes it unusual, Michael Clayton revels in fine acting (from the hammy but fun Tom Wilinson to a memorable Tilda Swinton and above all Clooney) and a crackerjack story. Nothing revelatory except for the fact that they can in fact still make 'em like they used to.
9. Ratatouille -- a delightful film about a rat that yearns to be a gourmet chef. I could talk about the way this story celebrates artistic endeavor, its allusions to other films and works of art, the luxurious 110 minute running time (so unusual for an animated film). I could also talk about how it was a massive hit overseas compared to its mere blockbuster status here (where the film made $200 million). But all of that might distract from the story itself and how the film builds one absurd idea after another until you're gasping with laughter at the frightening, grotesque but perfectly reasonable scene where dozens of rats are caught whipping up a culinary treat. Yet another Pixar triumph.
10. Once -- I've been leery all year of over-praising this modest film. The story of a street musician who bumps into other artists, puts together a band and records an album, it couldn't be simpler. What sticks with you are the moments where musicians just jam together -- the scene where our hero and a female pianist slip into a music store and just start arranging a new tune is both lovely and the best depiction of artistic endeavors in a long time. Later, there's a priceless moment when a bored engineer hears them running through one number and slowly realizes this ragtag group is actually pretty damned good. It ends very well, too -- a lost art and one of the saving graces of many a film. Until Juno, this was clearly the word-of-mouth hit of the year and one that deserved it very much.
11. The Host -- a monster is on the loose in South Korea. Everything Cloverfield wants to be and isn't can be found in this terrifically entertaining flick. Just a tad long, perhaps but great characters and a great creature and, frankly, the sight of Asians fleeing in fear from a monster simply can't help but bring a smile of delight to the face of any movie buff.
12. This Is England -- a blistering drama about punks in Maggie Thatcher's England? Not quite. This Shane Meadows drama sidesteps expectations a bit by focusing on the lost, needy, genuinely touching relationships between skinheads that would normally be dismissed as racist little bastards. They can be that, too, of course. But humanizing them makes their bad acts all the more shocking and their good moments all the more despairing. Only a too pat nail-on-the-head finale keeps this from greatness.
13. Superbad -- yes, the goofy cops subplot is overplayed a bit and too long. But I didn't laugh harder all year. Like most successful teen comedies, the heart of Superbad is sweet and sincere. Yes, they keep talking about scoring with chicks, but what the semi-clueless kids really want (and fear) is a real relationship with a girl. Jonah Hill is a tad aggressively one-note (there are other words besides the F word, Jonah). But Christopher Mintz-Plasse is very good as Fogell and Michael Cera (who has a smaller role in Juno) remains winningly sweet. His friendship with Hill is a real one (complete with the annoying ways that only friends can piss you off) and Cera is just so darn appealing in a very particular, dorky, lovable way that every time he's on screen you're just...happy. Much better, to me, than Knocked Up.
14. Control -- yet another musical biopic and this one about a band I knew was important but didn't really care about: Joy Division. But Sam Riley's performance as Ian Curtis (especially in the concert scenes) was so magnetic and Samantha Morton so typically compelling as his put-upon girlfriend that I found myself thinking about this movie long after it was over. Pat in the way biopics usually are, but the music is compellingly gloomy in a teen angst way and yes, I bought their three albums and dove in happily. Beautifully shot as well.
15. The Bourne Ultimatum -- not the best of the trilogy. But the simple fact that they made a trilogy with each film solid and satisfying in their own way and Matt Damon (who deserves a payday as much as any movie star around thanks to his good taste and solid chops) is so unexpected. Usually, we spend our time hoping a bad series will get better (all the Batman movies) or a good series won't screw it up (the Christopher Reeve Superman flicks) and getting disappointed every single time. Not here.
Other notables: In Between Days was a Sundance discovery that satisfied, La Vie En Rose had the performance of the year thanks to Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf, The Lives Of Others had the other performance of the year thanks to the late Ulrich Muhe, Grindhouse was a lot of fun and the revival of The Other Side Of The Mirror: Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival was a revelation that captured Dylan at his most fluid when he grew from a folkie to a rock star to an icon in three short years.
For the complete list of all the movies I saw in 2007, go here.