Rewinding 2007: The Top 10

December 28, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

I have previously mentioned that I believe this to be a weak Top 10. Let me clarify: every movie on the list deserves to be there. They are, in my view, the ten best movies of 2007. However, the list as a whole does not stand up favorably to past Top 10's. That doesn't mean this year's candidates are unworthy; all are excellent movies. But every Top 10 is a function of the year in which it is compiled and 2007's crop of movies impressed me less than that of any recent year. That's all I meant by stating that this is a weak Top 10. As usual with my lists, the best is last.

Runners Up: Bridge to Terabithia, The Kite Runner, Lust, Caution.

#10: Charlie Wilson's War: After posting my initial review of Charlie Wilson's War, I was informed by a reader that Aaron Sorkin's original screenplay had been considerably softened to increase mainstream appeal and to appease the actual Charlie Wilson, who was unhappy about how he was being portrayed. Irrespective of how historically accurate the movie may be (never let the facts get in the way of a good story) or how much of Sorkin's script was neutered, the result is still an excellent character study/cautionary tale. The central events happened pretty much as portrayed, the politics of the situation are as murky as ever, and the movie is filled with delightfully comedic moments and brilliant one-liners. There's also a surprising amount of insight here, especially for those who read between the lines (and it's not at all difficult to do so).

#9: Namesake, The: Mira Nair's ambitious adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's novel condenses 25 years and two generations into two hours. A lot of movies try to do this; few have the success that Nair achieves. The Namesake tells a single, coherent story that involves many characters and illustrates the inherent conflicts of meshing old cultures with new ones. It's a battle that every immigrant must confront at one time or another - how much to assimilate and how much to preserve the "old ways." It's rare for a motion picture to present such a clear and effective view of the situation from all sides. However, while The Namesake impresses with its approach to issues, this is first and foremost a character study, and an excellent one at that. It stars Kal Penn who is quickly evolving far beyond the Kumar role that first brought him to the public's attention.

#8: Atonement: Perhaps the most impressive thing about Atonement is that director Joe Wright succeeded in doing what many thought to be impossible: creating a faithful adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel. The movie is essentially divided into two "books," the first of which takes place on an English estate and the second of which occurs during World War II. The first act is better than the second but both have their emotional and visual high points. The epilogue pulls everything together while simultaneously delivering a harsh emotional punch. Atonement is not a happy movie, but it provides an experience the likes of which was difficult to find in any other theater during the 2007 calendar year.

#7: Gone Baby Gone: The majority of movies in my Top 10 are adaptations of well respected novels, and Gone Baby Gone is no exception. For a while, this seems to be a well-constructed but straightforward thriller but then the story introduces a moral quandary for which both sides are effectively argued. The film's conclusion leaves questions and issues wide open and invites the viewer to play along with the characters. This is the kind of movie that will have audience members arguing over coffee following the screening. It's a rare thing for any movie to provoke a discussion these days so when something accomplishes this, it's worth singling out.

#6: Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The: Maybe I'm a sucker for films about severely disabled individuals because I like seeing how a brilliant mind, limited by physical handicaps, can function undiminished. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly has two amazing facets: the development of powerful lead character, played brilliantly by Matthew Almaric, and a detailed view of how he became able to write an entire book when his only means of communication was by blinking one eye. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, from painter-turned-director Julian Schnabel, offers fodder for the mind and the emotions.

#5: Black Book: Fed up with the limitations of the Hollywood system, Paul Verhoeven went home and the result is one of the best movies of his career. Filled with emotional ambiguities and stereotype contradictions, Black Book is a rousing World War II adventure with one of the strongest female leads to grace movie screens in a long time. Its willingness to concede that some Nazis may not have been evil and some resistance workers may have been self-centered and avaricious has provoked negative reactions to the film in some areas, but it's precisely Verhoeven's willingness to venture into those gray areas that makes this motion picture more than a standard-order black-and-white action/adventure film.

#4: Juno: She's not named after the city in Alaska; she's named after the wife of Jupiter. When Jason Reitman, Diablo Cody, and Ellen Page embarked upon the making of this wonderful, smart, funny comedy, the concept of taking the movie to the Oscars might have seemed an Olympian task. Now, it's a virtual certainty that the production will be represented in multiple categories. It deserves nominations for Lead Actress, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actor, Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay. This is one of 2007's most delightful gems and, because it's not playing in every multiplex across the country, it still feels like a "find." The dialogue is witty and clever and stands up to multiple viewing. Most of the time, when I see a film four times, I'm a little tired of it (even if I like it a lot). I could easily sit through Juno a fifth time with no difficulty.

#3: Into the Wild: Had Sean Penn elected to make this little more than a condemnation of modern living, it wouldn't have worked for me. Instead, Into the Wild illustrates that while there are problems with the way the world works today, those who haughtily think they can walk into the wilderness and reject society will eventually learn to their detriment that it's the sharing of life's little pleasures that make them worth experiencing. Into the Wild is a road picture that is essentially a group of vignettes strung together. Some are little more than character pieces. Others illustrate one truth or another. In the end, the feeling is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Lead actor Emile Hirsch is powerful, but the acting show is stolen by Hal Holbrook, whose brief turn as a lonely old man brings tears to the eyes.

#2: No Country for Old Men: Leave it to the Coen Brothers to burn an imprint deeply on an adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel. Hypnotizing, tense, weirdly funny, tragic, and never predictable, this story unwinds at its own pace over a two-hour span. The ending, which concludes the story but not the lives of the characters, resolutely refuses to offer a catharsis and finishes with a moment so ambiguous that some members of the audience may feel cheated. For me, it's the perfect final note to such a varied and unusual symphony. For Coen fans looking to classify this, it's more Fargo than Raising Arizona, but no matter how you categorize it, No Country for Old Men, like Javier Bardem's scene-stealing supporting performance, is brilliant. It's the best American film of 2007.

#1: Lives of Others, The: Some may argue for The Lives of Others being a 2006 film, but I have already written extensively about why I don't buy that. With its powerfully delineated themes of control and redemption, this is 2007's most compelling motion pictures. There's nothing in it that doesn't work superbly. It satisfies in every way - emotionally, intellectually, and thematically. It is made by an adept filmmaker featuring actors (including the late Ulrich Mühe) at the tops of their game. It's one of the best-ever internationally released films made about the Cold War era in East Germany. I knew when I saw this movie in January that it would be in the Top 10 in December. Watching it after its mid-year DVD release confirmed my belief that it was going to take an amazing example of cinema to knock this from its perch at the top of my 2007 movie list. The Lives of Others was the seventh film I saw in 2007. Two-hundred movies later, nothing has topped it.