Best. Year. Ever.

It’s a requirement of every blog. At the end of each year/decade/millennium, every cineaste, film fan, movie maven, what-have-you, is obliged to recap his or her favorite flicks of that timespan. Well, I missed the millennium and have no real interest in revisiting 2009, one of the worst movie annums in memory, so I will simply recap what I believe to be the best year for movies of the past decade.

Never mind the drumroll, let’s just get on with it:

2007!

The Lives of Others

Yes, folks. 2007 was by far the greatest year of the first decade of the new millennium. It wasn’t just the sheer number of quality films that were released that year, it was the daring that seemed to persist in Hollywood for films that were well-crafted, intelligent works of art. Even the crowd-pleasers were above-par.

This list is much longer than it should be so just skip to the capsules that interest you if you’re feeling daunted.

  • The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)
  • This German window into its own soul in the Cold War 80s offered a glimpse into the humanity of a Stasi officer and reminded us all that cardboard cutout villains to whom my generation was exposed were just people doing a job. It also offered a fascinating glimpse into the voyeuristic nature of totalitarian government that echoes the gossip-hungry, “reality” TV driven society we have become.

  • Breach
  • This nicely understated little movie from directory Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) offers some fine performances from Chris Cooper and Laura Linney (“I don’t even have a cat”) and again upends expectations on the spy genre to show us the lives of people as they go about their secret deeds. In the end, we never really know what motivates Cooper’s Robert Hanssen to betray his country. In the end, it doesn’t really matter.

  • Zodiac
  • Debated including this one on the list as it does suffer from certain problems: a mid-movie montage that nearly brings the film to a screeching halt; an uneven storyline that shifts focus way too often; an ending that’s more of a dwindle. But one can’t deny David Fincher’s deft hand at portraying a San Francisco with frayed nerves that finds some of its inhabitants driven to obsession.

  • Black Book (Zwartboek)
  • Few people can make the ugliness and vulgarity of human behavior look glamorous and actually pull it off like director Paul Verhoeven. Using The Lives of Others‘ Sebastian Koch (a dead ringer for a younger Jeroen KrabbĂ©) to similar expectation-bending effect, Black Book was one of several spy movies of 2007 that examined the characters, both friend and foe, with more depth than the intrigues with which they were involved.

  • Grindhouse
  • Polarizing the audience into Camp Rodriguez and Camp Tarantino and setting them against each other, the one thing on which both factions could agree was that this experiment in low budget, low taste, movie-making nostalgia was dead-on in recreating the genre over which it so lovingly fawned.

  • Vacancy
  • Horror movies are difficult to pull off even when the filmmakers aren’t trying to cater to the lowest common denominator. I’d read little but unflattering reviews about Vacancy, so when I caught it on a late-night cable run, imagine my surprise at what a genuinely smart, unnerving and unpredictable film I saw. Rarely have I found myself watching a horror movie where the characters were actually cleverer than I, analyzing their situation and making the best, shrewdest decisions they could to stay alive. SPOILER! And I especially love the relative guts it took to skip the Hollywood happy ending and sacrifice one of the leads.

  • 28 Weeks Later
  • Far superior to its predecessor, the movie never loses focus of its built-in reality the way Danny Boyle’s original unravels into sheer ridiculousness. The heroes and villains are not as clearly defined as they generally are in this sort of film, and the opening with Robert Carlisle is unnerving, terrifying, and sad all at once.

  • Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
  • The kind of movie for which the term “crowd-pleaser” was invented. Though it loses points for emasculating Orlando Bloom to propel the insufferable Keira Knightley’s rising star, the welcome reunion of Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush make this a giddy conclusion to a gleeful trilogy.

  • Ocean’s Thirteen
  • A notch more enjoyable than the underrated Ocean’s Twelve, this third installment of the adventures of Clooney’s clowns is everything you’d expect from a bunch of guys having a good time… while still making it fun for the audience.

  • Ratatouille
  • Pixar must sweat themselves into a puddle with each new opening. I cannot recall a studio with expectations so high that unfailingly delivers. This absurd little rat tale is no exception. Featuring fine vocal work by Peter O’Toole and some of that old Pixar charm. Not their best effort but Pixar’s worst is often superior to other filmmakers’ best.

  • Transformers
  • Highly debated including this one because it’s nothing more than giant robots beating each other up. But I decided to include it because… c’mon… it’s giant robots beating each other up!

  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
  • Demonstrating an energy and, yes, brevity the other Potter films haven’t dared to attempt, this brisk and bountiful entry into the adventures of the boy who lived offers the meatiest plot, the strongest characters, and a deliciously wicked performance by Imelda Staunton.

  • In the Valley of Elah
  • Even liberals have been staying away from anti-war themed movies in the last six years (yes, six years). However, this is less about the Iraq war in particular as it is about the fallout of war itself. While the final shot is disingenuous, Tommy Lee Jones’ hauntingly mature performance drives the movie all the way through. With much help from the always phenomenal Susan Sarandon and Charlize Theron.

  • Into the Wild
  • Masterpiece is not a word I like to use generously. They are in short supply in cinema history much less recent times. However, Sean Penn’s study of a young man’s examination into the meaning of life is one of the most genuinely philosophical and contemplative films I have seen in a while. Love Christopher McCandless or hate him, but at least try to watch him through the eyes of a young twenty-something looking for what it means to be man.

  • Michael Clayton
  • Hell yes. This movie kicks holy ass in so many ways. It’s smart, sharp, clever, intense, and unpredictable even when you know how it’s going to end. Featuring George Clooney in one of his best performances. Yet as good as he is, he is overshadowed by the incredible Tilda Swinton and a scorching turn by Sydney Pollack.

  • Gone, Baby, Gone
  • By this point in his career, Ben Affleck’s celebrity train had gone so far off the rails that stepping behind the camera was seen as a) a smart move that could allow him to transition quietly back into filmmaking, or b) an ego trip that would have audiences laughing him out of the theatre. Fortunately for him, and us, the former was the case. Directing his baby brother, Casey, to one of three outstanding performances that year, Big Brother Ben demonstrated he had the chops to deliver tension and human drama. I’d go so far as to put him in the same category as Clint Eastwood, if not the same league… not yet.

    Anton Chigurh

  • No Country For Old Men
  • A true rarity in Hollywood. A smart, philosophical, well crafted, beautifully photographed, exquisitely sound-designed, excellently acted, superbly written adaptation that bridged the gap between art house high brow and movie house entertainment. Had audiences scratching their heads in curiosity rather than confusion. All this and it still managed to take home a Best Picture Oscar.

  • Enchanted
  • Disney finally wised up and poked fun at its own ridiculous reputation. Amy Adams was born to play the role of every Disney princess ever invented. The musical numbers are top-notch and James Marsden makes much of a miniscule role. With Enchanted, Disney managed the awesome feat of reinventing itself without actually changing.

  • Juno
  • Another one I was reluctant to add. Certainly an overrated picture undeserving of its Oscar-status. Yet its strengths are the very things its detractors revile, whip-smart dialogue and a confidently cocky performance by Ellen Page, proving she has the chops to hold her own and carry a movie.

  • I Am Legend
  • This movie is all about two things: Will Smith’s amazing performance and Sam the dog. Forget the rest.

  • Charlie Wilson’s War
  • Aaron Sorkin, Mike Nichols, Tom Hanks, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. On paper it sounds great. However, such collaborations can, as often as not, prove a recipe for cinematic catastrophe. Not in this case. Hanks has never looked more comfortable in the role of a Texas congressman and Hoffman (that’s two Hoffmans for Nichols now) is nearly unrecognizable as the CIA operative who keeps him in reality check. Historically clever in examining the current war through the lens of a previous one and demonstrating how money, politics and power are all a matter of charm, guile and will.

  • National Treasure: Book of Secrets
  • While a step down from its forerunner, it’s still a fun and pleasant winter frolic that highlights Nicolas Cage’s quirks in a way that works to his advantage. Never hurts to have Helen Mirren in the cast, either.

  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
  • A bloody good film in every sense. Tim Burton has never done and will likely never do better than this grand guignol musical horror show featuring another fine performance (if not vocal talent) by Johnny Depp. But it’s Helena Bonham Carter who quietly walks away with the whole movie. Literal geysers of blood amidst heart-wrenching ballads will have you cringing and laughing simultaneously.

  • Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
  • While rising star Seth Rogen and fading star Will Ferrell were getting all the press around this time, personal favorite John C. Reilly finally got his starring role and it’s one of the most hilarious films of the year. Forgetting Sarah Marshall was receiving knee-jerk reactions for its penis over-exposure the following spring, but an unforgettable scene in Jake Kasdan’s superior comedy puts that one to shame.

  • There Will Be Blood
  • I struggled with whether or not to include this one. I’m a huge fan of P.T. Anderson (magnolia is another masterpiece) and there’s much directorial skill in this film. The wordless prologue is amazing and Daniel Day Lewis disappears into his role. But the much-beloved “I drink your milkshake!” scene is embarrassingly ridiculous and the entire third act nearly brings the whole film down upon itself. But there’s no denying P.T. Anderson’s talent and most of the film is beautifully rendered. Some movies succeed or fail in spite of or because of their third acts. This movie succeeds… but barely.

  • Persepolis
  • While Pixar continued to dominate the CG animation market, this low-tech biographical and political cartoon elevated the medium above its common restraints and provided stronger, more fully developed characters than its live-action counterparts.

  • The Orphanage (El orfanato)
  • Rounding out the year was this superbly atmospheric little horror movie from Spain that highlights everything that’s wrong with American horror cinema. It’s unsettling and sad and compelling and fantastic.

Nice try anyway. Three films I wanted and expected to love but just couldn’t deliver the goods. I credit them for their ambition though they fail at their execution.

  • The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
  • Blame the preview for amping up my anticipation. After an amazing opening, the movie’s beautiful photography, stellar performances and fascinating story are soon upended by dreadful fisheye transitions, a wincing plink-plink score, voice-over narration that’s so dry it’s dying of thirst, and a story that ends where it should have begun. However, Casey Affleck steals the movie. If only the film had focused more on his character and less on getting its money’s worth from casting Brad Pitt.

  • Across the Universe
  • Call it Julie Taymor and the Kitchen Sink. A victim of her own ambition, The Frida director is so slavishly devoted to the Fab Four’s music that she fails to integrate them seamlessly into a coherent narrative. Sometimes it works (“I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”), but more often it’s just embarrassingly forced (“Dear Prudence”). I love you anyway, Julie. Titus will always hold a special place in my heart.

  • American Gangster
  • Ridley Scott is my favorite contemporary directory. One of the few whose movies I will see by sheer virture of his directorial involvement. Yet even the best directors have their downturns and this was one of Mr. Scott’s lesser achievements. Still, Ridley Scott at his worst is often better than most other directors at their best. However, without Denzel Washington’s total command of the screen, this film would be a diluted, tepid bath. Like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, it stops where it ought to start.

Rounding out the field, here is a brief list of other just plain good movies from 2007:

Hairspray
The Simpsons Movie
Things We Lost in the Fire
Hot Fuzz
Death at a Funeral
Blades of Glory
The Hoax
Fracture
Knocked Up
Mr. Brooks
3:10 to Yuma
Reservation Road

Disagree? That’s fine by me. What’s your favorite year for film of the last ten years?

  • John Dacapias

    Love the love you have for Gone, Baby Gone (Affleck if he remains a director has a great touch for action sequences – the shootout in the middle is up there with the fantastic shootouts of the past ten years). Plus it made me reconsider Casey as a fairly good actor.

    Also for Breach and Enchanted (though I can and will follow Amy Adams anywhere!)

  • Andrew

    Did you seriously put 28 Weeks Later on your list, or was that a joke? I understand not liking Days, as it’s not the usual zombie flick, but Weeks is just laughably bad. It did have a great opening (funny you note that, since Boyle directed that scene,) but it just devolved into stupidity. I don’t see how you could speak reality and 28 Weeks Later in the same paragraph. I was outright laughing when that woman put those kids, who couldn’t see a thing, in front of her while she used the nightvision, when they went down that deep dark tunnel. Contrived as fuck.

    • I’ll admit that 28 Weeks Later is not a work of art, but it works as a solid zombie flick. Honestly, I think I was just so surprised at how superior it was to its predecessor.

      If Danny Boyle directed the opening, it’s a shame he can’t bring that level of energy and pathos to his other films.