One of my biggest problems with most end-of-year best film awards is that we crown these films the “best” when we have at best had about six months since they first encountered it. In the case of the biggest prize of all, the Academy Awards, there is so much lobbying by film studios that it is no surprise that the best run Oscar campaign tends to win. In addition most voters tend to cram their film watching at the last minute that often the easiest digestible good film also ends up on top. What these awards don’t allow is any room for reflection. They also don’t take advantage of the benefit of hindsight, where away from any awards hype and with the passage of time it becomes easier to figure out which movies were actually great and which were merely good or worse.
Hence this list. I figure ten years is as good as any to give space for reflection and hindsight (plus it’s just a nice and neat number). It also at this juncture is a welcome trip down memory lane as I saw most of these movies when I was just beginning to take a serious interest in film in general and was branching out into the previously uncharted territories of foreign, indie, art, and classic films. But just to refresh our memories, I thought I’d give a quick rundown of the year 2007 in film:
BOX OFFICE WINNERS (North America Gross)
- Spider-Man 3
- Shrek the Third
- Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
- Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix
- I Am Legend
- The Bourne Ultimatum
- National Treasure: Book of Secrets
- Alvin & the Chipmunks
(Courtesy of Box Office Mojo)
Seeing the top 10 box-office grossers of 2007 is strangely comforting because for at least the last couple of years film critics and business reporters have preached relentlessly about the “death of original cinema” in the face of studios favouring established franchises and existing intellectual properties. But looking at 2007 it seems pretty conclusive that this is nothing new. In the top ten are two movies based on comic books, six sequels, two other movies that would eventually becomes mega franchises (Transformers and Alving and the Chipmunks), and one movie based on a book that had been made into a movie twice before (I Am Legend). Yet there is no doubting, as we shall soon see, that there was a lot of innovative, original, and excellent films being made that year even if the box office doesn’t reflect this. In fact I am convinced that for as long as blockbusters broke onto the scene, people have been complaining about the “death of original cinema” and that those reports of film’s demise have always been proven to be premature.
But before I move on, let’s just acknowledge that the top-grossing films were a dire slate of films from a quality standpoint. Only The Bourne Ultimatum and the Harry Potter sequel have stood the test of time as being generally still considered to be good (and The Order of the Phoenix probably benefits from the halo effect earned by superior Harry Potter instalments). Meanwhile the other sequels on this list were at the time considered the low point of their respective franchises and effectively killed any future Spider-Man and National Treasure sequels (while the other franchises would limp on into greater irrelevancy). The average Rotten Tomatoes rating for the top 10 stood at a rotten 56.9% (compared to 2017, which currently stands at 83.7% on Rotten Tomatoes). If ever there was a year to complain of the “death of movies” this was it. And yet quality abounded.
WINNER: No Country for Old Men
NOMINEES: Atonement, Juno, Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood
This is the rare year in which for the most part I can’t gripe about the Academy’s small-mindedness in the face of actual art (don’t worry, there will be plenty of opportunities in the future to do so). Arguably, this is one of the strongest slates ever put forward by the Academy with only the legal drama Michael Clayton not necessarily standing the test of time (despite being a solid, if not spectacular legal drama). Seeing as some of these movies will actually be showing up later in the list, we’ll leave it at that. Credit where credit’s due, the Academy did well this year.
With that, let’s move onto the list:
Honourable Mentions: 3:10 to Yuma, American Gangster, The Darjeeling Limited, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Gone Baby Gone, My Winnipeg, Lars and the Real Girl, Juno, The Savages, Sunshine.
I stopped myself at ten honourable mentions. The fact is that there were at least a half-dozen more that just missed out on my honourable mentions list. I have no doubt that had these movies come out in a different year they would have easily slotted into the top 10. It just goes to show that 2007 was an excellent year in movies with many great pictures falling by the wayside.
Also I would be in trouble if I didn’t mention that my wife did fight a spirited campaign for me to include Lars and the Real Girl which for me probably sits at the number 11 position right now. And yes, I know the perils of not listening to the advice of one’s wife and I fully accept the consequences. On to the list!
10. WAITRESS (dir. Adrienne Shelley)
I first caught this movie on a trans-pacific flight and maybe it was the sleep deprivation or homesickness that caused me to let down my guard, but the movie turned out to be a perfect warm and tender panacea for my then-current problems. The story centres on Jenna (Keri Russell) a small-town waitress of a diner trapped in a loveless marriage who finds out to her horror that she is pregnant with her abusive husbands child. While on the surface her outcome seems grim, in the hands of director Adrienne Shelley, it becomes a movie brimming with warmth, grace, and humour as Jenna tries to make the best of a bad situation through the help of her fellow diner waitresses who are her dearest friends and the forbidden love she has developed with her gynaecologist (Nathan Fillion). Toss in a great performance by Andy Griffith as the curmudgeonly owner of the diner and you have all the makings of a comedy that may not be the most ambitious, but is executed to pitch perfection. This is also unfortunately the last film made by Adrienne Shelley who was tragically killed before the film’s release, and so represents the bittersweet legacy of a promising directorial career cut too short.
9. THE ORPHANAGE (dir. J. A. Bayona)
J. A. Bayona’s spooky and tragic tale of The Orphanage is a perfectly Gothic fairy tale. It tells the story of the orphan Laura who as an adult comes back to her abandoned orphanage in an attempt to save it and reopen it as a home for disabled children. But her attempts at altruism are ruined when soon after the home opens her son Simon disappears leading Laura on a quest to find him that unearths ghosts of the past, both literal and metaphorical. Easily the scariest movie of the year, it’s power rests not in gore or CGI but in much more traditional things that go bump in the night. A late scene that involves the recreation of a childhood game is so creepy and haunting that even till this day I dare not play it. But what elevates the movie beyond mere ghost story is that it does not rely the cheap scares. Insead the human tragedy that precipitated these ghosts’ existence makes you question if the true horror lies with the living or the dead.
8. ONCE (dir. John Carney)
Often when movies about music and the artistic process are made, the tendency is to either portray a genius in the field whose talent is unmatched or to romanticize the process so that it looks effortless. John Carney’s debut film Once takes a completely different tack and is all the more glorious for it. Shot in a gritty cinema vérité style, it tells the story of a quiet and unassuming flower-seller (Marketa Irgolova) and a busker (Glen Hansard) who form a romantic bond on the Dublin streets through music. Besides being a bittersweet romantic musical, Once is perhaps the most accurate depiction of how music collaboration actually happens as the two build on their instant musical connection to start creating new music which in turns leads them to record their music. Having gone through this entire process of recording music myself eons ago, it is a joy to see the process of new music being born. It is Carney’s attention to the details of that process as well as the intimate way he tells this story that make this one of the great movies about music ever made. And of course it helps that the music is also fantastic.
7. HOT FUZZ (dir. Edgar Wright)
Edgar Wright’s follow-up to his hilarious zombie satire Shaun of the Dead is the arguably better buddy cop movie Hot Fuzz. Tightly wound Police Constable Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) finds himself reassigned from his London post to the sleepy but idyllic town of Sandford, Gloucestershire because he is so good at his job that he makes the department look bad. In the hands of Wright, this basic fish-out-of-water story becomes a fantastic spoof of the action comedy cop movie. There is such absurdist joy in watching a hard-boiled crime mystery play out in a picturesque and quiet village with action scenes that would rival the best of the genre, a buddy-cop pairing in Angel and Danny Butterman (Nick Frost) that is instantly one of the best of the genre, and the rapid-fire editing style of Wright which makes even the most mundane village task an intense interaction. It is as if Murder, She Wrote were directed by Michael Bay, but so much better.
6. PERSEPOLIS (dir. Vincent Parranaud and Marjane Satrapi)
Persepolis is the autobiographical story of director Marjane Satrapi who lived through the tumultuous years of transition in Iran during the 70s and 80s. At one level it is a fascinating insight into those events through the eyes of a child. But more importantly it is a coming-of-age story of a girl who finds herself both in Iran and in the West, finding herself belonging to neither world. Through the gorgeous animation and the stream-of-consciousness storytelling Persepolis becomes perhaps the best portrait of what it means to be an immigrant where every act of trying to fit in feels like a cop out to your values or to your heritage. The power of the movie is that Satrapi is highly vulnerable and personal in revealing her own coming-of-age story. She refuses to paint herself as a martyred saint whose existential crises are of others’ making. Neither does she shy away from the true horror of growing up under an oppressive and violent regime. But with humour and pluck she reveals what it is like to uniquely be a girl growing up in a unique place and age which as the cliche goes, makes it a story with universal appeal.
5. RATATOUILLE (dir. Brad Bird and Jan Pinkava)
Ratatouille was the first of a series of movies that would become Pixar’s golden age. At first glance the story of a mouse becoming a chef does not scream ambitious material. In fact, it seems more likely to be the set-up for a low concept slapstick children’s comedy that aims for the masses than to be anything close to Pixar’s quality. But it is testament to the strength of Pixar’s storytellers at its peak that it becomes so much more that its two-second pitch would initially seem. The story of Remy, a mouse who longs to become a gourmet chef, covers much of the ground that you would expect from a movie that appeals to children. But it also is one of the greatest portrayals of what it means to be an artist, even as it touches on issues of racism (or animal bigotry, if you like) and how the pursuits of conventional success can damage the soul. Against the backdrop of this weighty subjects is a movie with rich characters and gorgeous animation (I doubt Paris has ever been rendered more beautiful). And as with all great Pixar movies, there is an authentic and life-affirming warmth at its centre that dares both children and adults to live a kinder and more purposeful life.
4. SECRET SUNSHINE (dir. Lee Chang-Dong)
Lee Chang-Dong creates an absolute gut-punch of a movie with Secret Sunshine. The story takes place in a small Korean town of Miryang, where a widow Shin-Ae and her child move into after the recent death of her husband. Their arrival welcomed by the local townspeople, but they are kept at arms length. Many of her new neighbours are devout Christians who draw her into the church as a means to cure her melancholy and ails. But then tragedy strikes Shin-Ae’s life again and the cheap platitudes espoused by her religion are found to be painfully inadequate solutions to her pain. Her inability to accept those cheap platitudes also results in her increasing alienation from the community, as their theology apparently is not strong enough for her doubt. It is a tragic tale that pulls no punches and points the finger squarely at those of us in the faith. Grief, tragedy, and the eternal question of “why does God allow bad things to happen to good people” are issues that Christians typically are quick to answer with five-minute canned theology that does more to protect ourself than comfort the griever. Secret Sunshine is a powerful reminder that the better thing to do is to shut up and sit with the mourning on the mourners bench.
3. ZODIAC (dir. David Fincher)
Zodiac is in some ways a very frustrating film. It is an investigative procedural film without a solution. It is a serial killer film in which the killer is not found. It is a film in which a lot of smart and hardworking people use all their faculties, follow every lead, sacrifice their time and relationships with their family, and put their lives in the line of danger and ultimately come up with nothing more than a suspect. Rather than the catharsis that comes with solving a case, all we get are dead-ends and zero results. While this is indeed frustrating from anyone looking for a CSI-style procedural with neat resolutions and nabbed criminals, it is also a compellingly honest look at the cost of obsession and revenge on a soul. Any neat resolution of the infamously unsolved Zodiac-killer case would be falsely earned catharsis, but it is still surprising and refreshing to see just how much David Fincher eschews conventions to protect the integrity of this true crime mystery. And in the fruitless and obsessive search for a killer, one can’t help but draw parallels to a post-9/11 America that has racked up a lot of revenge but very little in terms of lasting resolution to her national tragedy. If anything the intervening years between the movie’s release and now have only made that all too clear.
2. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
At the centre of No Country For Old Men is the classic dynamic of good and evil. On the side of the good is Sheriff Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) who finds himself investigating a trail of murder, robbery, and drugs. On the side of evil is the chillingly efficient hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) who seemingly kills without remorse or motive, mowing down outlaws and agents of the law alike. But the strength of this movie is that the Coen brothers aren’t interested in drawing a biblical line of conflict between the two. Instead, these two titans are the only people whose moral compass is sure, and they occupy a world in which the lines of right and wrong are irreparably blurred. With precision and restraint, the Coen brothers weave their parable of the corrupting nature of evil and the bankruptcy at the heart of modern America. And they weave this dark tale in an absorbing and meditative way, forcing us to confront our own darkness and our seeming inability to veer away from our own destruction. In any other year, I would have wholeheartedly supported this as the rightful Academy Award winner. Unfortunately, though this is inarguably the best Coen brothers film, it also happened to come out in the same year as the best film of the 21st century so far:
1. THERE WILL BE BLOOD (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
The top three films of 2007 each in their own way examined the American soul. Zodiac explored the toll our pursuit of revenge and easy resolution slowly deteriorates our soul. No Country for Old Men meanwhile exposed that the beneath the facade of moral certitude that our country so often carries out its duties lies a much more corrupt and bankrupt moral compass. But There Will Be Blood is quite simply the definitive American epic of the myth of the American Dream. It exposes the rotten core of American capitalism, smirks at our insistence of making the rich our heroes, and dares to posit that those who try to gain the world but lose their soul will ultimately gain nothing. But this movie is not so inelegant as to preach these messages to us, but tells this story with visual aplomb, masterful performances, and through the assured and measured direction of Paul Thomas Anderson who with this movie cements his position as not merely a great modern director but one of the greatest of all time.