I’ve already told you my Top Ten criteria and shared my thoughts as I worked through the selection process. I’ve even let you know that I look for variety in quality work when selecting my Top Ten, rather than say that this drama is better than that comedy. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, start here.)
So I’ll cut to the chase and tell you about the films. The titles all link to my full (or in some cases, just fuller) reviews.
10: Ten Canoes. Set in pre-European discovery Australia, Ten Canoes comes as close as cinema can to the feel of pre-literate oral tradition. The off-screen narrator recounts one tale, most of which involves an old man telling another. That story within a story, built around jealousy, fear of other tribes (often justified), and human nature, drives this sad, poignant, yet often wryly funny movie. Few motion pictures put you into another world (one of cinema’s primary functions as an art) so completely.
9: Death at a Funeral. 2007 was a great year for comedies; six of them qualified as Top Ten finalists. But when all is said and done, this very British farce (directed by an American) earns more laughs than anything to hit the big screen in years. There’s nothing like blackmail and hallucinogens to put the fun in funeral. You get very few chances to not laugh in this Dean Craig/Frank Oz collaboration.
8: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. A lot of reviewers prefer the similarly-themed but more stylish No Country for Old Men, but I’ll take substance over style. When two brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) set out to rob their parents’ jewelry store in what they tell themselves will be a victimless crime, the best-laid plans of amateur crooks go lethally wrong. Writer Kelly Masterson and director Sidney Lumet make you experience what it’s like to have your entire world fall apart bit by bit, while knowing that it’s all your fault.
7: I Am Legend. This third film version of Richard Matheson’s novel is not a fun ride. As the only living, non-zombified human in Manhattan and perhaps the world, Will Smith spends most of the film fighting off a deep, soul-killing loneliness. Not what you’d expect in a big-budget sci-fi special effects extravaganza with a major star who’s saved the world in several past profit-making ventures. But it’s so much better than the expected.
6: No End in Sight. In a year short on truly first-rate documentaries, Charles Ferguson’s exposé of the Iraq occupation stands out. You may think you know how badly the administration bungled the war in Iraq, but No End in Sight tells the story so carefully, so dispassionately, and so authoritatively that you’re awed by the enormity of these people’s incompetence and the tragedy of its results
5: The Savages. Laura Linney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman both turn in brilliant performances (what else do you expect) as siblings coping with a father sinking into dementia. Not that they feel much love towards Dad (Philip Bosco), but they do feel responsibility. Writer/director Tamara Jenkins, in her first feature since 1998′s Slums of Beverly Hills, avoids sentimentality, tragedy, and easy lessons. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait nine years for her third feature.
4: Ratatouille. Brad Bird keeps proving himself the most original, talented, and interesting animator since Chuck Jones. While there’s nothing really original about building a cartoon around sympathetic, anthropomorphic rodents, only Bird would make our skin crawl with realistic images of rats in the kitchen, and still have us rooting for the rats. A celebration of the creative, a critique of those who profit from others’ art, and a wonderful piece of family entertainment.
3: Lust, Caution. Like Brad Bird, Ang Lee consistently puts out one excellent film after another. So it’s no surprise that Lee’s NC-17-rated thriller appears on my list adjacent to Bird’s G-rated cartoon. Using the conventions of the Hitchcockian thriller and the historical drama, Lee has fashioned an anti-Fascist character study, examining an idealistic young woman (newcomer Wei Tang) who must become a different person in order to seduce a man and set him up for assassination.
2: The Lives of Others. Yes, it won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for 2006, but it didn’t come to the Bay Area until this year, so this intimate, human story about the horrors of Communism qualifies. An up-and-coming officer in the East German secret police (Ulrich MÃ¼he) must gather dirt on a respected playwright (Sebastian Koch) for reasons more personal than political. Slowly, bit by bit, the secret policeman comes to identify with his prey and lose faith in the Socialist ideal.
1: Juno. The last thing I expected before the year ended was a comedy about unintentional pregnancy that was more truthful, more insightful, and just plain funnier than Knocked Up, but writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman pull it off. And they do so without ever moving into parody or farce, and never straining for laughs. They get a lot of help from star Ellen Page as the titular “cautionary whale.”