Film note: The top eleven of 2007

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2007 was a terrific year for film. After viewing almost a hundred films released this year, it was a difficult task to create a “best of” list that could showcase such a wide range of cinematic offerings.

While it’s easy to identify the lumps of coal (the talented A-list cast, including Meryl Streep and Claire Danes, couldn’t save the sleepy Evening; just printing the title I Know Who Killed Me gives Lindsay Lohan’s horrid psycho-thriller more attention than it deserves), there were a number of films that did what good movies are supposed to do: entertain and engage the viewer. If they’re really good, movies take viewers to a place and ask themselves questions they haven’t asked before.

So below, are what I consider to be the top eleven of 2007 (I always feel that the eleventh-place contender gets the shaft) as well as a few honorable mentions that should be deemed essential viewing. Of course, there are still other great films that didn’t make the list (Judd Apatow gave us two wonderful films that took comedy to a new emotional level—Superbad and Knocked Up), but the films listed are ones where the filmmakers completed their task with the utmost success. Whether the movie made me laugh, question my ideals, or produce tears, they are films that resonated long after viewing by connecting to something inside.

11. The Savages
Probably the toughest to watch, due to the subject matter. Two thespians (Laura Linney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman) effectively portray siblings forced to come together and deal with their aging, ailing, and estranged father.

10. Zodiac
Or as it should be called, The Film That Would Have Been an Oscar Contender Had It Not Been Released In March. A suspenseful telling of the still-unsolved real-life serial killings in the San Francisco Bay Area, the film also gave us some of director David Fincher’s best work yet (his previous work includes Fight Club and Seven).

9. Juno
Who says a comedy can’t run deep with emotions and compelling characters? Minnesota’s Diablo Cody wrote what is clearly one of the wittiest scripts of the year and introduced audiences to Juno, a teenager who finds herself “accidentally” pregnant while trying to find her place in the world. And I’ll repeat, yes, it’s a comedy. (It has a killer soundtrack, too.)

8. Michael Clayton
He already has an Oscar and has been on Hollywood’s A-list for some time, but this is the film that really marks George Clooney’s arrival. Through Michael Clayton’s eyes, we’re shown the down-and-dirty tricks of the high-end legal profession. Clooney embodies the everyman who tries to make the wrongs right.

7. No Country for Old Men
No film score or music, little dialogue, but loads of suspense and many nail-biting moments. The Coen brothers make what is probably their most affecting film, a tense cat-and mouse chase gorgeously set in the American southwest.

6. Once/Hairspray
Technically, yes, there are twelve movies on this list. The sixth slot goes to two musicals—Once and Hairspray—not only because they both deserve it, but because 2007 was the year of the musical. From innovative films such as Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe (where the characters sing Beatles tunes) to the unique Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There and Disney’s fairy tale Enchanted, it seems that more than ever, audiences are accepting the notion of someone breaking out in song to move a story along or explain a character’s actions. Once finds us in Dublin, where two struggling musicians find music (and oh, what incredible music it is!) and fall in love with one another. Hairspray is everything a big movie musical should be: colorful, fast-paced, and featuring choreography that fills the screen…not to mention danceable music and a killer cast that includes a convincing John Travolta as the heroine’s mother, newcomer Nikki Blonsky as the adorable Tracy Turnblad, and Michele Pfeiffer having a ball as a nasty television producer. Even Allison Janney made a memorable moment out of a minor role. Who could forget her “Devil Child! Devil Child!” moment?

5. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
It’s terrific to see a film that sends you off with the lesson that every day should be valued and treasured, and this one sounds that theme more effectively than any other this year. It tells the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the former French Elle editor who, while in the prime of his life, suffered a stroke and could only communicate while blinking one eyelid. A movie that truly needs to be seen in order to be believed.

4. Into the Wild
Sean Penn effectively and beautifully puts the popular novel on screen, telling the story of an Ivy League grad who flees his privileged life to live on the bare minimum in the wilderness. A wonderful case study in the following of bliss, the film boasts terrific performances by Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, Catherine Keener, and Hal Holbrook. Three months after its purchase, the moving score and soundtrack by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder is still on heavy rotation on my stereo.

3. Away From Her
Sarah Polly swung a successful one-two punch by writing and directing this intimate, moving story of a life-long couple’s new-found struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Julie Christie, in a terrific career-capping performance, plays a gentle woman who is slowly losing her memory, yet finds new love and hope in a fellow patient at the hospital. Her long-time lover has no choice but to patiently wait, watch, and hope. A truly powerful story about what love can endure.

2. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
A modern-day heist thriller that almost belongs in its own category. Sidney Lument’s splendid directing constantly shifts time and point of view, helping move the story along while giving it a deeper, more dramatic layer of suspense and drama. A great cast of actors at their best (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney), the film tells the story of two brothers who decide to knock off a “mom and pop” jewelry store for a quick buck…but in this case, the store is actually owned by their mom and pop. The story takes terrifically unexpected turns and, in the most gruesome and violent ways, teaches that what goes around definitely comes around.

1. Atonement
Instead of using my own words, I’ll repeat the statement my friend made as the credits rolled. After she wiped her eyes (mine were wet too), she said, “I think that’s the most affecting love story I’ve ever seen.” I agree wholeheartedly. Moreover, I can’t think of a single flaw in the film. Wonderfully acted. Beautifully shot and directed. A dramatic story spanning decades. But perhaps what’s most important is that this is a film that shows the power of what love, lies, and the truth can do to people.

Honorable mentions:

In the Valley of Elah
In a year where audiences stayed away from war-themed movies (Lions for Lambs, Rendition, etc.), they should not have skipped Paul Haggis’s drama featuring a terrific performance by Tommy Lee Jones as a soldier’s father looking for answers in his son’s mysterious death. Inexplicably, no one seems to be mentioning Charlize Theron’s terrific turn as the local law enforcement agent who helps him out.

Lars and the Real Girl
A small, heartwarming film that challenges one’s notion of what makes a relationship real. Ryan Gosling plays a lonely man who finds himself finally complete with a blow-up doll for a girlfriend. The film had to walk a very fine line to avoid coming off as a silly or offensive comedy; it came across as sweet, simple, and thoughtful.

Lust, Caution
Ang Lee’s gorgeous epic contains mystery, suspense, and lots of sex—but above all, a compelling, intriguing story.

Ratatouille
For those who have been dismissing animation as fluff: this will surely turn you around. A story about a rat who can cook? Perhaps one of the most clever and witty films of 2007—so much so, in fact, that one could argue Ratatouille was made more for grown-ups than kids.

Sunshine
Cilian Murphy stars in this small sci-fi film about the sun moving too close to the earth. The film creates an interesting dynamic between science and the acceptance of our human mortality, and if I were giving an award to the film with the most beautiful and captivating lighting, Sunshine would be the recipient.

Other notables in 2007 films:

• The costumes and sets in Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

• The ensemble casting (and acting!) in Hairspray, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, and Into the Wild.

• The big-budget Hollywood system producing great end-products—for example, American Gangster and The Bourne Ultimatum.

Stephen Sporer (sporer@macalester.edu) works at Macalester College in St. Paul and has reviewed films for KTFM, San Antonio’s most popular radio station. He recently moved to the Twin Cities from New York, where he studied theater at Sarah Lawrence College as well as acting and singing at a wide range of venues.

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