The fear kicked in somewhere around mid-July. I was wandering listlessly through the Banana Republic men’s store at The Grove, shopping for slacks but willing to settle for trousers. Two hours later, I was ensconced in a changing room with neither. Occasionally, a sales clerk knocked from without, querying as to my mental state as well as the sleeve length on the barong I had no interest in buying. The whimpering, when audible, sent him quietly on his way. It was a pleasant surprise; generally, this Banana Republic is quick to set security on weepy troublemakers monopolizing their changing rooms. But it was a Tuesday afternoon in the middle of summer. And for all that clerk knew, I might’ve been distraught enough to shell out $85.00 for that ugly Filipino garment.
All this misery and discomfit because I’d suddenly realized that if the year’s dismal cinematic output persisted, I might be forced to find a place for Reno 911!: Miami in my Top Fifteen on the sole basis of Paul Rudd affecting an atrocious Cuban accent and going all Scarface on a hostage with a weed whacker. Like everyone in the known universe, I love Paul Rudd, but such a concession would be akin to retroactively dubbing Vampire in Brooklyn the Best Picture of 1995 just because John Witherspoon is awesome. And, yet, this was the reality of July 2007: a film of Vampire in Brooklyn‘s caliber was vying for my year-end short list. The good one.
Then the year got great. Too great. So great that one film seemingly destined for a top ten slot, Hot Fuzz, nearly got bumped. And this is a film that I watched (and adored) in the theater four freakin’ times. And this is a huge deal ‘cuz I don’t see nothin’ more than once unless it’s got lots o’ thematic layers and/or girls doing it to each other.
But we’ve been over the glory of 2007. Let’s get to rankin’!
15. Hot Fuzz/The TV Set (Jeremy’s Review for Hot Fuzz) (Buy the DVD: Hot Fuzz & The TV Set)
These films bear zero relation to one another, but I couldn’t countenance a Top 15 list sans either of them. The triumph of Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz is that it weathered over two years of fervent internet hype (largely generated by their rapidly expanding fan base), and still managed to subvert out-of-control expectations (who knew the giallo conventions would figure as crucially as the American buddy-cop cliches?). The fans were sated, the genius of Wright/Pegg/Frost was intact, and while it lacked the warmth of Shaun of the Dead, I was still enjoying the piss out of it on my fourth viewing.
Jake Kasdan’s The TV Set was barely released and barely promoted, an odd choice given Judd Apatow’s exec producer credit. Stranger still was the sight of David Duchovny doing a spot-on Apatow impersonation (replete with beard and protruding gut) as the beleaguered producer of a seriocomic television pilot doomed to be miscast and watered down by meddlesome network executives. Finished prior to Walk Hard, this marked Kasdan’s return to form as a feature filmmaker; it’s also an irresistible (if utterly depressing) glimpse into the creative process that destroyed Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared.
Current Rating (for both): 8.1 out of 10
Contributing Factors: "Narp?" and Sigourney Weaver’s acid reflux expression.
Performances to Savor: Timothy Dalton’s "Slasher" and M.C. Gainey’s contemptuous crew member.
P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: "Hot Fuzz: Better than Dom DeLuise’s Hot Stuff!" or "You haven’t lived until you’ve watched Judd Apatow’s dreams crumble before his very eyes!"
14. American Gangster (Jeremy’s Review)
Ridley Scott’s revisionist take on the gangster tropes that inspired and eventually overwhelmed hip-hop confounded those who were expecting Scarface ’07. Though the film isn’t a drastic departure from the gangster playbook, Scott does make a concerted effort to downplay the glamour of that world. As if he had any other choice; after Scarface, Goodfellas and something as excessive as The King of New York, "subdued" is really the only option. That said, this is big-canvas "subdued" sporting an embarrassment of great performances (most notably Josh Brolin as a crooked detective).
Current Rating: 8.2 out of 10
Contributing Factor: "Blot that shit!"
Performance to savor: Dog-killin’ Josh Brolin.
P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: "You’ll come for Denzel and Russell, but you’ll stay for Joe Morton’s facial hair."
13. Gone Baby Gone (Jeremy’s Review)
Or "The Day Everyone Stopped Making Fun of Ben Affleck". As someone who’s always kinda liked the guy (while lamenting many of his film choices), I’d like to say I knew Affleck had the chops to outdo Clint Eastwood in the Denis Lehane adaptation business. Granted, not everyone gets to work with cinematographer John Toll their first time out, but the Boston atmosphere of the piece belongs to Affleck as much as it does his DP. Affleck also coaxes one of the year’s best performances out of Amy Ryan (as the drugged-out mother of an abducted child), and gets a nicely modulated turn from his little brother, whom we’ll discuss further on down. And then there’s the little matter of those shattering last two scenes…
Current Rating: 8.3 out of 10
Contributing Factor: Omar Little.
Performance to Savor: Ryan’s fantastic, but I was just as thrilled to see John Ashton in a real movie again.
P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: "It’s the Big Papi to Mystic River‘s Bill Buckner."
In 2005, The 40-Year-Old Virgin was my number three movie of the year. Knocked Up is maybe one- or two-tenths of a point less sublime than that movie, yet here it is all the way down at number twelve. I’ve seen three different permutations of Knocked Up, and I’m still not sure which I prefer – okay, I’m pretty certain the two-and-a-half hour cut screened at Butt-Numb-a-Thon ’06 is the weakest of the lot (if only due to its highly unfinished state; seriously, I don’t think there were many music cues in that version). Apatow is always bashing his facility with the camera (particularly on the commentary track for Superbad), but how would either of his films be improved by moving the camera or flash cuts or whip pans? (Actually, I think I’d like to see that as a DVD extra.) Apatow is observational, generous and committed to the emotional truth, and if it takes twenty or thirty references to the male member to get there, then so be it. Worked for Cassavetes.
Current Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Contributing Factor: The heroic, unremitting abuse of Martin Starr.
Performance to Savor: Leslie Mann.
P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: "If you liked For Keeps, you’re a piece of shit."
11. Superbad (Buy the DVD)
The return of Greg Mottola (director of the underrated and underseen The Daytrippers), the debut of Christopher Mintz-Plasse (the Anthony Michael Hall of his generation if he’s unlucky, which I don’t think he’ll be) and more fucking Apatow. Everyone jokes that there’s going to be a backlash at some point (maybe the box office failure of Walk Hard is an indication of this), but why? As long as the company keeps expanding, and the leads keep changing (though Seth Rogen is a bona fide superstar, and could do with a movie a year), what’s there to resent besides success? In a way, I think Superbad points the way forward: it’s the Apatow aesthetic in the hands of a filmmaker with a completely different skill set. It’s also (in its theatrical incarnation) the tightest of the Apatow flicks thus far (though next year’s The Pineapple Express could ultimately claim that honor).
Current Rating: 8.6 out of 10
Contributing Factor: "These Eyes" by Michael Cera.
Performance to Savor: Joe Nunez. "Fuck my life."
P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: "The funniest film of 2007. Period."
10. Zodiac (Buy the DVD)
During the writing of Zodiac, David Fincher told James Vanderbilt that he intended to make the last serial killer film. He failed. He made the last police procedural. And a tribute to the paranoid filmmaking aesthetic of Alan J. Pakula. The narrative of Fincher’s film is fueled by the obsession that consumes the lives of three men – Inspector David Toschi, reporter Paul Avery and editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith – as they hunt the elusive Zodiac Killer, who terrorized the Bay Area throughout the 1970s. Since Zodiac was never caught, we know from the outset that these men are plunging into an unrewarding black hole of minutiae. And yet we get caught up in the chase as it starts, dead ends, re-starts, dead-ends, and re-starts again. It’s a meticulously crafted film, and very close to a masterpiece, but Fincher falls just a little short with the tidy denouement.
Current Rating: 8.8 out of 10
Contributing Factor: "Hurdy Gurdy Man"
Performance to Savor: Robert Downey, Jr.
P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: "The ultimate in verisimilitude!"
9. Ratatouille (Buy the DVD)
Only Pixar (and, specifically, Brad Bird) could make a film championing the wonders of French cuisine and somehow pull in $200 million at the U.S. box office. That it would also be one of the year’s best films is less of a surprise. This was not a project that originated with Bird (the genius behind The Iron Giant and The Incredibles), but his advocacy of the exceptional in a world where average is nothing to be ashamed of sets the film apart from typical family fare. I don’t know if it’s possible (or even accurate), but the animation in Ratatouille appears to be the most sophisticated and audacious we’ve yet seen from Pixar. And any children’s film that features Patton Oswalt as the lead voice deserves its place in the pantheon.
Current Rating: 8.9 out of 10
Contributing Factor: The Critic’s comeuppance.
Performance to Savor: Peter O’Toole
P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: "You’ll like it more than your kids, but they’re morons anyway."
8. I’m Not There
Todd Haynes’s portrait of the artist, Bob Dylan, as a chameleon may sound daunting (what with its six different actors of various race, gender and age playing the main character), but it’s shockingly accessible and captivating – i.e. provided you dig the music. Haynes cuts freely, but instinctively from one era of Dylan to another, and the effect is hardly disorienting; in fact, it’s makes perfect sense both thematically and emotionally. I went into I’m Not There expecting to do some intellectual heavy lifting (Dylanologists are a notoriously detail-obsessed lot), but almost immediately found myself caught up in an astonishingly straightforward (in every manner other than temporal) study of an iconoclast. I’m Not There isn’t strictly for converts; it’s for anyone who gives a shit about one man’s transformation of an entire culture – and himself.
Current Rating: 9.0 out of 10
Contributing Factor: "Ballad of a Thin Man"
Performance to Savor: Cate Blanchett’s Jude.
P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: "Motherfuck Walk the Line! This is how you do a biopic!"
7. Lake of Fire (Buy the DVD)
I knew where I came down on the abortion issue before I saw Tony Kaye’s Lake of Fire; afterwards… I was a lot less certain. An objective and exhaustive documentary examining both sides of this roiling, often violent debate, Kaye challenges our preconceived notions by juxtaposing the tired, talking-point spiel regurgitated by the rank-and-file with thoughtful analysis from journalists like Nat Hentoff (who skillfully, if not entirely persuasively, argues the inconsistency of being anti-death penalty and pro-choice). But don’t mistake this for a talking heads affair; Kaye reminds us, with his brilliant black-and-white cinematography, that he’s one of the most visually gifted filmmakers working today. He’s also unflinching in his depiction of the actual process of abortion, the aftermath of which will surely be too much for most viewers. Sensationalism aside, Kaye’s still made the most thorough and even-handed documentary on this deeply divisive subject.
Current Rating: 9.0 out of 10
Contributing Factor: A haunting early 90s interview with pro-life zealot Paul Hill, who, a year or so later, would murder Dr. John Britton and his clinic security guard, James Barrett.
P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: "The feel-indicisive hit of the year!"
Though the trailers and advance word prepared me for another Little Miss Sunshine (i.e. a surface-level collection of character quirks and zany incidents swiped from other, better movies), I walked out of Juno deeply in love. Okay, to be completely honest (‘cuz Devin could totally bust me on this), I did have a solitary caveat regarding the fate of Jason Bateman’s overly accommodating husband. But then I realized that denying his character closure was as original as it was justified given his actions. And then I fell even more madly in love with Diablo Cody’s smart, stylized, but never cloying (in a Napoleon Dynamite sense) screenplay. I often wonder if I would’ve embraced Cody’s uber-pithy dialogue had Reitman not cast the film so perfectly (everyone’s justifiably gaga over Ellen Page, but I’m just as enamored of Allison Janney and J.K. Simmons as her brusquely understanding parents), but that’s a conundrum to consider with Cody’s next project. For now, let me love.
Current Rating: 9.1 out of 10
Contributing Factor: H.G. Lewis as a conversation starter.
Performance to Savor: Ellen Page is the goods, but Jennifer Garner as the anxious mother-to-be is right there with her.
P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: "Juno bloody delivers!"
5. Grindhouse (Jeremy’s Review) (Buy the DVDs: Planet Terror and Death Proof)
I’m probably grading Grindhouse on the experience of watching it at the New Beverly opening night, but this is my list, and I’ll curve how I want to. Though I would never hail either Planet Terror or Death Proof as masterpieces in their own right (not even Tarantino’s extended cut of the latter, which inexplicably spoils Stuntman Mike’s exquisite over-the-shoulder reveal), mashed together with three lovingly crafted faux-trailers (and one disappointing display of onanism), they were pure moviegoing bliss. Did it help that I was knocking back smuggled-in Stone IPA’s throughout the three-hour running time? Absolutely. Is that part of the grindhouse experience? Well, the boozing is; the relatively high-end taste for beer… not so much. But Grindhouse qualifies as epicurean trash, so why not wallow extravagantly?
Current Rating: 9.2 out of 10
Contributing Factor: Jamaa Fanaka was in attendance.
Performance to Savor: Zoe "The Cat" Bell, who showed up at the New Beverly for some of The Wright Stuff.
P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: "It would be awesome if the New Beverly had in-seat urinals."
4. Into the Wild
Sean Penn always seemed on the verge of being a great filmmaker; it was just a matter of wedding his penchant for emotionally unsettled characters to material that wasn’t too downbeat. So leave it to Penn to find the inspirational side to trekking off into the Alaskan wilderness and starving to death. This is, of course, a flippant way of saying that Penn personalized Jon Krakauer’s fascinating tome about Christopher McCandless’s ill-fated quest for a transformative rite of passage. Whereas Krakauer emphasized the cautionary (while trying to defend McCandless’s folly), Penn celebrates the brave, kinda-crazy, off-the-grid romance McCandless indulged as a means of rejecting the prescribed path to professionalism set down by his no-nonsense father. It was a selfish journey to be sure, but Penn portrays it as a sacrifice for all those who would never stray from the expected and venture off into the unknown.
Current Rating: 9.4 out of 10
Contributing Factor: Eddie Vedder’s score.
Performance to Savor: It’s impossible to overlook an eighty-seven-year-old Hal Holbrook stomping up the side of a mountain. That said, Catherine Keener’s awfully heartbreaking in this.
P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: "Let’s get lost and enlightened."
3. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Who the hell is Andrew Dominik to think he can follow up the modest, independently produced Chopper with a 160-minute western epic? A genius, I guess. Two viewings later, I still can’t quantify Dominik’s film other than to say that it seems like the work of a artist in complete command of his craft ala Paul Thomas Anderson and Boogie Nights. And this is an apt comparison because I’m still not convinced that Anderson’s sophomore effort is a masterpiece. That said, it’s pure cinema, which is absolutely true of Dominik’s film. Roger Deakins cinematography is revelatory, while the Nick Cave & Warren Ellis score is easily the year’s best (i.e. it hasn’t a chance with the Academy). And then there’s the performances. Well, the performance: Casey Affleck. Adjectives fail.
Current Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Contributing Factor: Jesse’s long, contentious dinner with the Fords.
Performance to Savor: It’s a shame that Brad Pitt had to go and give the best performance of his career alongside Affleck’s iconic turn, but he’s Brad Pitt. Pity’s in short supply.
P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: "Barry Lyndon goes West."
2. There Will Be Blood
Undeniable. Up until There Will Be Blood, it was still possible to downgrade Paul Thomas Anderson as a master technician hampered by a dearth of life experience. Now, he is a giant – which is appropriate in that he’s reconfigured George Stevens’s big-hearted Giant as a misanthropic commentary on the attainment of the American Dream. Clearly, Anderson’s toned down his referential aesthetic, but he’s still paying homage to the classic westerns by subverting certain iconic images (e.g. the gusher from Giant, Henry Fonda’s chair-lean from My Darling Clementine and the boom up over the station house from Once Upon a Time in the West – though Anderson, ever seeking to burrow, takes us through the structure). What he’s saying about the capitalistic, gettin’ over mentality that’s made America the most powerful country in the world is far more straightforward than you might think (even with the bugfuck Kubrick-ian final chapter), but it’s refreshing to find Anderson pouncing on a theme and driving it home until he strikes the mother lode. This would probably be my choice as the best film of the decade thus far were it not for the number one movie on this list.
Current Rating: 9.8 out of 10
Contributing Factor: "I’m finished!"
Performance to Savor: Daniel Day-Lewis is a god in this, but let’s give a little dap to Dillon Freasier as the bastard H.W. Plainview. His traumatized, struck-deaf wonderment as the oil burns the dark night sky is the shot of the year.
P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: "The scabrous epic America deserves."
1. No Country for Old Men
Nothing man-made is perfect, which is why I’ll be re-watching No Country for Old Men several times over the next few months just to confirm what I’ve always kinda believed: Joel & Ethan Coen are not "men". Though they appeared mortal over the last few years with Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, that was obviously just a feint; these fuckers are operating on an elevated plane that isn’t simply isn’t accessible to the strictly flesh-and-blood. Scenes and motifs from previous films (most notably Raising Arizona and Fargo) are revisited in this pitch black comedy adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy, but the echoes are hardly reassuring. What kind of world is this to live in? Is there purpose in moving through it morally? And who’s to say we haven’t all been visited by Anton Chigurh already, metaphorically speaking? Everything adds up in the Coens’ finest work to date, and, spiritually, the sum is nothing worth celebrating.
Current Rating: 10 out of 10
Contributing Factor: Ed Tom Bell’s two dreams.
Performance to Savor: Bardem.
P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: "No movie for dull literalists."