The Best Movies of 2007, One of the Best Years for Movies Ever
I have a remarkably clear memory from the summer of 2007 of a group of us walking out of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, shaking our heads, and collectively bemoaning that year's state of cinema. We fretted for Hollywood's tired franchises (Spider-Man 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Shrek 3) that all limped to what seemed like their finish lines. We falsely predicted that the comic book movie had run its course. (Iron Man and The Dark Knight would come out the following summer.) But the way in which we were most wrong was in our negative take on 2007 itself. For once we hit the back half of the year, it became one of the most stellar years in cinema history, and just so happens to have a few of my favorite films of all time. With that, let's look back with the top 11 films of 2007.
11. Michael Clayton
No matter how many spots are allowed on a 2007 best-of list, Michael Clayton would probably start my list every time. Why? Because even though it's practically a cliché at this point, it is the quiet adult thriller that Hollywood has forgotten how to make. Better yet, it also happens to have a lot on its mind regarding the shape of modern morality. The film strikes at the heart of rampant capitalism, unravelling the ugliest truth that inside big business, having a conscience is akin to madness and mental illness is akin to death. It also has the best of Clooney's internal, stone-faced performances (for which he often doesn't get enough credit), but it's hard to talk about the film without talking about Tilda Swinton's Oscar. At the time, many credited it as representing a catch-all honor for her entire career to that point, but that diminishes the power of what she does here. For me, it's all in the way her pained face spasms in her final scene as she reaches the bottom of the proverbial well; they're the contortions of a woman who has spent her entire life contorting herself to fit in an ugly world that will ultimately put its boot heel on her without a second thought. It's a powerful moment in a surprisingly powerful film. One about the ways we follow evil all the way down… until the day we don't.
10. Gone Baby Gone
While Argo and The Town are both likable, pulpy affairs, I still consider Affleck's first film to be his best. Going in I expected a lot of affection for Boston and maybe some solid performances from a group of heavyweight actors, but I can sure as hell tell you that I never expected a haunting meditation on class in America. The film brings us right into the center of the debate by piling blurred line of morality upon blurred line, which in the end only leaves us with a heartbreaking sense of futility (good god, the doll's name…). The emotional endings of other films may have had more of an impact on me in the moment, but few have lingered on with me more than Gone Baby Gone's final scenes.
Pixar has always been aces at mixing heart, classical storytelling, and a great sense of humor, but few of their films have been this outright romantic. But what else could it have been? It's about Paris. Food. Creativity. The integrity of soulfulness. And it all happens to build to one of the best explorations of the function of both the artist and the critic, because, in part, it understands that at the heart of both is appreciation and understanding for the other. Ratatouille is a film that understands so many things about being an artist, but perhaps the best is that it understands that a dropped pen can be five thousand times more impactful than saving the world for the dozenth time.
We'll get to the controversial ending in a second -- there's so much to laud in the first 90% of Danny Boyle's hypnotic and devastating sci-fi masterpiece. It has a brilliant way of dramatizing the terrifying practicalities of space travel, showing us how even the most advanced technology rests in a delicate system. It captures so many of the conflicting emotions that a crew would have on a mission like this -- loneliness, claustrophobia, anger, fear -- and brings them to life with validation and insight. And it even got people to notice the real depth that Chris Evans could offer.
Yes, there is that ending, where the tense and deliberate character study suddenly shifts into pulpy horror delirium as a sunburnt madman tries to unhinge the crew's final mission, but I'd argue it only really fails due to a bizarre aesthetic shift. Sometimes big tonal jumps are too much for audiences, but underneath the artifice of Boyle's decision, the ending's themes regarding cynicism and death wishes ring so true. Some may still never forgive the finale, letting it taint the whole movie, but I'll never understand callously throwing the baby out with bathwater just because it makes you feel weird: It not only undermines everything amazing about filmmaking, but the ultimate point of the film.
7. There Will Be Blood
I understand many would argue this film probably deserves to be higher on the list: My placement just means that I happen to like the other films more, but that is not, nor could ever be, a knock on the miracle that is There Will Be Blood. Like many on this list, it is a film that is many things at once. It is a radical departure that signaled Paul Thomas Anderson shifting away from the formalism of his early films in favor of something more exploratory. It is one of the most compelling and visceral "art films" of the modern era. It features one of the most mesmerizing performances of all time from Daniel Day-Lewis, who captivates as much as he repulses. But what's most miraculous about There Will Be Blood is the way this odd, sprawling, esoteric film somehow struck a chord with popular audiences. It was so damn weird and yet fascinating enough to become a staple of the pop culture lexicon. (One word: milkshakes.)
6. Knocked Up/Superbad (Tie)
It's probably unfair to Superbad director Greg Mottola to lump these two films into some kind of uniform Apatow/Rogen branding, but… uh… [proceeds to do exactly that]. I can't accurately explain how refreshing these two films felt after decades of tired star-driven comedies. It's not like they were all that revolutionary or inventive, and they even now feel dated in their own small ways (in 10 years, our language has changed, and thankfully gay panic is much less accepted). But the movies are elevated by a simple commitment to baseline reality and empathy that had been missing from film comedies (especially dirty ones). For underneath all the filthy lines and hoopla of these movies' plotting is the earnest truth of young boys, girls, men, and women being scared out of their minds about adulthood, and all the honest and puerile ways that fear spills out of us. It was beyond welcome, and to this day, any time they pop up on TV, I can't help but find myself watching to the credits.
Few of David Fincher's films have synced up quite so well with his sensibility. Sure, The Social Network exhibits his sense of kinetic propulsion and intelligence, Gone Girl captures his cackling misanthropy, and Fight Club captures his… well, also his cackling misanthropy? But really, Zodiac is the masterpiece that's themes double right along with his entire approach to cinematic language: detailed, fixated, inquisitive, and the film's central unsolvable murder mystery is really about obsession itself. I could talk about a lot of things from this movie, especially the deeply unnerving murder sequences, but it's the off-kilter humanity of the film that really sticks with me. Outside of the forced romanticism of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, I'd argue Zodiac is actually his most humane film. Not just in the unrestrained, coincidental, and horrifying way he displays random victimhood, but in his genuine empathy for those who get so caught up in injustice that they lose sight of the world passing them by.
4. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
The languid film initially plays out like a rambling, poetic, strange mess that pulls you from moment to moment with evocative imagery. And yet, as it progresses, the surprisingly powerful western draws you into its deeply expressive portrait of the brutal robber and family man James (Brad Pitt, with aloof, troubled posture) and the fanatically loyal James Gang recruit (Casey Affleck, giving a performance that remains his career's best) who would ultimately be driven to shoot his idol. The film powerfully unpacks storytelling itself, with its unflinching honesty about what we know and don't know about the story, and in the ways Ricky Jay's narration comes in and out, reminding us how much we're truly in the middle of a tragic murder ballad. It's also one of the most honest movies ever made about fame itself. I'm hard pressed to think of anything quite like it: It feels like a weird love child of All About Eve and McCabe & Mrs. Miller, yet that description falls dramatically short. In the end, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is, like its elongated title, singular, powerful, undeniable, and true.
3. Hot Fuzz
Few films have hit me right in my sweet spot quite like Edgar Wright's second feature. Like the director, as a kid I was similarly obsessed with action films, visual comedy, and Agatha Christie whodunnits, and Hot Fuzz takes their languages and crams them into one of the most sprawlingly weird and ingenious films I've ever seen. The devil is constantly in the details: the way the mystery itself unfolds and refolds; the way it hides its most popular actress under an anonymizing germ mask; how it was lovingly filmed near Edgar's hometown (a spot where he would imagine having epic movie gunfights as a kid). The film constantly piles up gags while riding a line of earnest sincerity… I love it completely.
I haven't seen the film again since it came out. I can't. Sometimes it's hard to go back and revisit something that is so etched in your mind as an experience, for it is so connected to the events of your life. Like many people who saw Once, I immediately bought the soundtrack and I can still (hopefully) pick up a guitar and play them. The movie feels like all of our own memories not by accident or coincidence, but because it's as beautifully and lovingly constructed as a film can get. The performances are as organic and nuanced as you can imagine, and the film quietly captures lost nights, moments kept forever, and everything in between.
1. No Country for Old Men
In order to talk about why the Coens' Best Picture winner resonates with me so much, I really do have to spoil major plot points (so if you haven't seen it before, now's always the time). There's a moment that comes right near the end of the film that I think about constantly. By this point, we've already witnessed the impassively homicidal Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) play his deadly game of heads or tails to terrifying results. But when he faces Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) with his stun gun and coin and asks her to pick a side, she stares him straight in the eye and says, plainly: "There is no coin. There's only you." This moment gives way to the entire meaning of the movie: The coin is a simple metaphor for the ways we divorce ourselves from morality, the way we make our actions the result of some system or something we have to do, when in reality there's only us and the impact of choices we make. Carla Jean brings this to light and for the first time, we see Anton crack. This violent, horrific man who embodies the angel of death (and derives his sense of power from doing so), can't handle the simple observation that he is to blame for what he does. Anton sits in the chair, wincing, showing real emotion for the first time. We cut outside, fearing the worst that has been done (and it has), and as he gets into his car, still shaken, he looks in the rear view mirror and… SMASH! He's instantly hit by a car -- immediate punishment for briefly taking his eyes off the prize and thinking about his past actions.
Hating himself for this moment of weakness, he recovers quickly and moves forward. Anton has to stay the shark. He has to be inhuman. He can never crack. That's the terrifying truth of how to win in the world of man, an idea crystallized in the end as Tommy Lee Jones' sheriff recounts his two dreams, revealing the sad, unjust world that's passed him by. It's true: There is no country for old men… Not in this world.
I have never seen as acute a dramatization of movie violence and its human cost. It has arguably the best gun fight of all time but tears apart the trope, eschewing empowerment in favor of terrifying drama, highlighting "action" in a way we rarely see. (Usually, action films make shooting and getting shot at cool, but here it's as real and scary as it would be in life.) And so No Country unpacks the entirety of action films and their relative meaninglessness, all en route to becoming a movie about our larger fight for morality within a broken world -- and sadly, the ways we simply have to let it go. It's as heartbreaking, scary, and honest a film as I can think of.