Longtime MM contributor and “Short Takes” blog author Rus Thompson shares his picks for the 10 best films of 2007—and a few misses.
1. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (on DVD in 2008)
This magnificent surprise from Sidney Lumet, the 83-year-old maestro of the New York City crime film, demonstrated that all you really still need to make a great movie is a no-fat script, an ensemble of actors going for broke and the inventiveness to stage a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare within the lean boundaries of a genre thriller.
2. Michael Clayton (on DVD Feb.19th, 2008)
Another sharp, taut, topical film fronted by a haunted performance from George Clooney. An astonishingly controlled picture from first-time director (but veteran screenwriter) Tony Gilroy, this intricate tale of legal intrigue featured the moody cinematography of Robert Elswit, a fine cast that included Tilda Swinton and Sidney Pollack and a title character (Clooney) who only wanted to make things right.
3. Across the Universe (on DVD Feb. 5th, 2008)
One of the most joyous and originally conceived films I’ve seen in years. Veteran Broadway director Julie Taymor re-works several classic Beatles songs into an energetic, stylized musical epic spanning the 1960s and early ‘70s, with fresh young actors singing and dancing to original versions of the songs, staged within eye-popping, brilliantly realized set pieces and expressed through a rapturous, personal and quite moving narrative structure. It is a brave and ecstatic work of art.
4. The Wind That Shakes the Barley (available now on DVD)
The British die-hard anarchist Ken Loach has made the saddest and most beautiful film of the year; a tragic story of the nascent days of the Irish Civil War in which politicians, villages, friends and brothers are driven to executions, murders and bloody skirmishes, all of which takes place in an achingly poignant Irish light. Because this picture depicts both the birth of a revolution and the death of innocence, it is as difficult to watch as it is essential to see!
5. Perfume: The Story of A Murderer (available now on DVD)
I agree with critic Roger Ebert who said of this film, “It took imagination to tell it, courage to film it, thought to act it, and from the audience it requires a brave curiosity about the peculiarity of obsession.” I rented this film only knowing that Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), one of the few sensualists working in cinema today, had directed it. It remains my most exciting personal discovery of the year and the most criminally underrated by the critical intelligentsia.
6. Deep Water (available now on DVD)
This British documentary tells the story of Donald Crowhurst, an amateur sailor who entered a round-the-world race in 1969, soon found himself over his head on a leaking boat and facing humiliation and bankruptcy if he dropped out. What happens next not only forms the most engrossing single tale told in any movie last year, but also the most profound. Impeccably made, exhaustingly researched, exquisitely written, narrated and structured, Deep Water might very well leave you gasping for breath.
7. No End In Sight (available now on DVD)
Charles Ferguson, a software millionaire and political scientist with a bee in his bonnet about the bungled invasion and occupation of Iraq, put his money where his heart was with this first-class documentary. A top notch collection of on-the-ground experts deliver candid testimony about the myriad ways in which Bush and his neo-con dunderheads made a complete mess of the first few months of their illegal war on Iraq by hiring know-nothing cronies who then ignored all experienced advice. This is an intelligent critique that should be required viewing for judge and jury in the impeachment hearings that will never happen.
8. In The Valley of Elah (on DVD Feb.19th, 2008)
For his performance in this quietly devastating film, Tommy Lee Jones can now be certified as one of the greatest actors working today. The movie conflates one of the Iraq War’s uglier legacies, post-traumatic stress disorder, with a detective story set in the abysmal, dead-end world of a U.S. military town. Audiences stayed away from the grim realities on display here, but this movie, and Jones’ sad-eyed portrayal, will go down as a realistic rendering of the hidden human cost of Bush’s Iraq folly.
9. Zodiac (available now on DVD)
With a tenacity that is admirable, and a skill with story detail and narrative logic that never wavers, director David Fincher reinvents the serial killer movie, turning our attention away from the sensational to the mundane, describing the obsessions taunting killers can cultivate in those who hunt them. By subtly shedding the gorier aspects of this story and by developing deeper, longer and further the minutia of standard cop fare—fingerprints, handwriting, ballistics—Fincher has created a movie that, in story and in its making, is all about one thing: Getting it right. Watching this film is an exhausting but riveting experience.
10. Into Great Silence (available now on DVD)
This is without a doubt one of the most beautiful documentaries ever filmed. Set in France, the film follows the daily rituals of a group of ascetic monks as they pray, read, eat, sing, garden, get their hair cut and sled down a nearby hill. There is no real dialogue, no music other than the monks’ chanting and only the occasional on-screen religious quotation obliquely commenting on the scenes that follow. Shot entirely with natural light and augmented by the natural sounds of life in and around the monastery, Into Great Silence is a meditative, enthralling and quite gorgeous viewing experience.
Give These a Miss:
I tend to not bother with the reeking mass of populist garbage Hollywood shovels into multiplexes like a crackpot child psychiatrist pushing Ritalin on distracted parents, so the following short list will not include sequels, films directed by Michael Bay or movies starring Will Ferrell. But I found plenty of dramatically challenged indies, odious pretenders and scurrilous documentaries at small urban theaters, repertory houses and video stores, proving that there are enough bad movies for every taste. Here are my least enjoyable viewing experiences of 2007: I’m Not There, Once, Old Joy, Rocket Science, I Am Legend, The Devil Came on Horseback, Zoo, Blood Diamond, Halloween, The Prestige, The History Boys, Pan’s Labyrinth.