More than 700 movies were released in this country in 2007. I saw some, you saw some; nobody saw them all. Who would want to? The law of averages suggests that most of them weren't very good, a probability reinforced by long, melancholy experience.
But an unusually high number of excellent films passed through theatres this year, pictures of stirring artistry. Picking the best of so many is a dart-tossing exercise, but let's have a go.
Best Picture: "Michael Clayton"
Tony Gilroy's elegant script, a big-business thriller with ancillary emotional resonance, and his assured direction (it was his first time at the helm) gave us a perfectly formed noir. The tart cast — Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack — and James Newton Howard's rich score created an ideal setting for George Clooney's torn, soulful performance in the title role, which quietly raised the movie to another level.
I don't think there was a better film than "Michael Clayton" this year. Had my dart landed elsewhere, though, any one of the following pictures might arguably deserve top honors. I wouldn't call any of them a "runner-up."
"No Country for Old Men"
The Coen brothers' screen translation of Cormac McCarthy's stark, probing novel is a devotional exercise of the sort any writer might pray for — they paint his world on the screen in all its parched, merciless beauty, and they clearly prize his dialogue. Woody Harrelson has one of his finest innings as the overmatched fixer, Carson Wells; and of course nobody does Tommy Lee Jones better than Tommy Lee Jones (who was also exceptional this year in the otherwise dreary "In the Valley of Elah"). And Javier Bardem, as bleakly interrogatory killer Chigurh, is the most disturbing bad guy of the year. The movie's vaporous ending left a lot of people feeling tremendously let-down; but it's true to the book, which contemplated the implacable nature of human fate, and the possibility of small salvations.
David Fincher's inquiry into a spate of serial killings in Northern California at the end of the 1960s (the Summer of Love was definitely over) exhibits a master filmmaker's control of complex data within a highly evolved thriller narrative. The Zodiac case was never solved, but the movie offers persuasive closure with the chilling performance of John Carroll Lynch. And Robert Downey Jr. gives one of his most pungently hilarious performances as the sour, hell-bound reporter, Paul Avery. (Fincher says he just got out of the way and let Downey do what he does — it feels like the actor is pulling his acidulous lines out of the ether.) A lot of people were put off by the picture's 158-minute running time. Personally, I recommend the slightly more expansive "director's cut" DVD — the rare post-theatrical artifact that wholly justifies the restoration of excised material. Special mention: the spookiest use of a Donovan song ever.
"Gone Baby Gone"
Ben Affleck's directorial debut is a stylish descent into the lower depths of his native Boston, as mapped out by local-boy novelist Dennis Lehane. The director's brother and star, Casey Affleck, whispery and inward, grips the movie in his fist without breaking a sweat. The picture is violent and sometimes bloody, the way it has to be. Mark Margolis and Trudi Goodman, as a pair of pathetic, middle-aged cokeheads, give the picture a jolt of weirdo energy in one of the year's creepiest sequences. And Ed Harris, as a too-long-time detective, gives possibly his most feral performance ever. Special shout-out to Boston rapper Slaine, who plays neighborhood drug kingpin Bubba Rogowski — the kind of strapped ass-kicker you'd want on your side should you ever have the misfortune to be in his neighborhood. This was another film with a deflating conclusion (the approximate message is that no good deed goes unpunished). But as was the case with "No Country for Old Men," the unresolved story continued to scratch around in your mind after you'd left the theatre.
"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"
Brad Pitt, who's very good, tamps down his star radiation and lets Casey Affleck — again — take the movie in hand. As the wheedling, skeezy Robert Ford, Affleck circles around the nominal star like a malevolent terrier. Paul Schneider is preposterously funny as one of Jesse's several traitorous accomplices, and Garret Dillahunt, as another, has an anticipation of doom etched in his eyes from the moment we first see him. This is another movie that's in no rush (160 minutes), but many a shorter film this year felt (believe me) a lot longer.
"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"
True, it's a musical (not my favorite genre), but it's a bloody good one. Director Tim Burton ladles on the gore with irresistible merriment, and the cadaverous makeup and sepulchral lighting and set design make this one of the year's classiest horror pictures. There are no musical "interludes," really — the characters simply begin singing Stephen Sondheim's celebrated songs before you quite register that they've begun to do so. And having the actors handle their own vocalizing was definitely the way to go — ex-rocker Johnny Depp and pie-making Helena Bonham Carter, especially, can take deep bows. Favorite moment: Alan Rickman, as the odious Judge Turpin, fixing his baleful gaze on Depp's homicidal Sweeney and muttering a very Snape-like "Mr. ... Todd."
Best Director: Joel and Ethan Coen, "No Country for Old Men"
For topping themselves — it seems so impossible every time they do it.
Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, "There Will Be Blood"
This is a tough one, because I think the movie's a little nuts, and it runs off the rails completely in the end (with Day-Lewis at the wheel). But until then, this superb English actor leans into his character — the sociopathic oil mogul Daniel Plainview — like a demented sailor in a gale. Plainview is a virtuoso creation, an unctuous "family man" with a heart of shale and a towering contempt for everyone around him. (Even his bushy mustache is overbearing.) And until the picture collapses into delirium, he holds you hypnotized.
Had "There Will Be Blood" not arrived at the very end of the year to qualify for Oscar noms (and a likely win for Day-Lewis), my Best Actor vote might have gone to George Clooney, who gave one of his most moving performances in "Michael Clayton"; or maybe the rehabilitated Russell Crowe in either "3:10 to Yuma" or "American Gangster" (a movie that left surprisingly little aftertaste). More likely, though, I'd have gone with Casey Affleck. In both "Jesse James" and "Gone Baby Gone," Affleck quietly sidled up to stardom and — when no one was looking, it almost seemed — slipped right into it. He's the unflashiest of actors, but he holds the screen in a new way. And especially in "Gone Baby Gone," he let slip little sparks of banked fury that suggested there were hidden crannies of his character that you'd like to know more about. Or maybe not.
Best Actress: Marion Cotillard, "La Vie en Rose"
Some of the most memorable performances by women came from abroad this year — the startling Tang Wei in Ang Lee's otherwise static "Lust, Caution"; the fearless Carice van Houten in Paul Verhoeven's World War II spy thriller, "Black Book." No one anywhere outdid Cotillard, though, playing the French songbird and national treasure Edith Piaf from boozy youth to desolate middle age (she died at 47). The movie itself was an awkwardly concocted melodrama, but this 32-year-old actress invested it with unforgettable emotional fire. To pass over Cate Blanchett ("I'm Not There"), Sienna Miller ("Interview"), Laura Linney ("The Savages"), and, yes, the superlative Ellen Page ("Juno") in an attempt to pick a winner among such dissimilarly gifted performers demonstrates the pointlessness of the enterprise. It can be argued that no one was better than Cotillard, though, so that'll have to do.
Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem, "No Country for Old Men"
Ed Harris' attack-dog performance in "Gone Baby Gone" and Tom Wilkinson's brain-fried ululating in "Michael Clayton" both deserve Oscar nominations; and there are enthusiastic things to be said for Ben Foster's loose-cannon gunslinger in "3:10 to Yuma" and Paul Dano's creepy teen evangelist in "There Will Be Blood." But Bardem, the Spanish actor probably best-known in this country for "The Sea Inside" and "Goya's Ghosts," presented us with a new kind of monster — a sort of thinking-man's Jason. His Anton Chigurh — the remorseless, stalking fate of several characters in the film, and nobody's friend-o — is a flamboyant creation played with unwavering control (with a now-iconic hairdo). Given the movie's unresolved ending, I wondered where the man was limping off to next. A franchise of his own, perhaps? Stranger things have happened, and I've paid to see them.
Best Supporting Actress: Amy Ryan, "Gone Baby Gone"
Ryan's Helene McCready — a coke hag so depraved she carts her little daughter along on drug runs — was pure trash, and the actress nailed her cheap, flirty egotism and abrasive Beantown bray indelibly. Also in strong contention in this category were Kelly Macdonald, the touchingly true-blue wife in "No Country for Old Men"; Marisa Tomei, the deeply deceptive wife in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"; and Samantha Morton, the discarded wife who brought explosions of feeling to the otherwise muted "Control."
Best Screenplay: Tony Gilroy, "Michael Clayton"
There's a lot to be said for Paul Thomas Anderson's wild riff on an Upton Sinclair novel in "There Will Be Blood" — it's certainly a distinctive thing. And Brook Busey-Hunt, who does business under the name Diablo Cody, gets bear hugs for writing the year's most lovable movie, "Juno." But Gilroy, who's had a decisive hand in scripting all three "Bourne" films, took a major step up with his "Clayton" screenplay, creating dialogue that never stops guiding the story into new emotional areas. Then he went ahead and directed the picture, too.
Best Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Deakins shot three of the year's best-looking movies: "No Country for Old Men," "The Assassination of Jesse James ..." and "In the Valley of Elah." And this is a man whose resume already includes such gorgeous pictures as "A Beautiful Mind," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "Kundun." Can it really be that he's never won an Oscar (after five nominations)? Can this not be his year?
Best Score: Howard Shore, "Eastern Promises"
The spectacular tidal swell of Shore's compositions has been an important component of numerous great movies, from "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Se7en" to the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. This latest collaboration with fellow Canadian David Cronenberg (Shore also scored "A History of Violence" and "Naked Lunch") is up there close to his best — a dark harmonic swoon nestling in the shadows of Cronenberg's stygian émigré mob tale.
Best Documentary: "American Cannibal: The Road to Reality"
This was an exceptional year for music docs, actually. "You're Gonna Miss Me," the ultra-harrowing tale of great lost rock god Roky Erickson, took us farther behind the music than any TV show would ever dream; and the impressionistic "Kurt Cobain About a Son" enlarged the genre's pictorial possibilities in striking new ways. But no true story was more deeply strange than the one told in this mesmerizing indie. It's about a pair of earnest TV scribes driven by financial desperation into the jungles of reality television — and into the arms of a flamboyantly unsavory pornographer-financier (the evocatively named Kevin Blatt). The film makes you feel like taking a shower afterward, as long as this guy doesn't try to hop in with you.
Worst Movies of 2007
As noted at the top, there are lots of movies every year that aren't very good. But the people who make them may go on to make better ones. Some movies are so definitively bad, though, that the people responsible for them should have their cameras confiscated (or in Quentin Tarantino's case, at least be administered a stern rap on the knuckles). The following flicks were very difficult to sit through.
"Grindhouse": Robert Rodriguez's half of this pretentious mess was an unassuming genre amusement; and the fake trailers were funnier than anything else in the movie. But Tarantino's meandering, talk-choked "Death Proof" was a shocking misstep by such a gifted filmmaker. I'm told that his expanded, stand-alone cut of the picture is a huge improvement. Possibly. It's low on my list of must-see priorities, though.
"Ghost Rider": An even worse comic-book movie than "Daredevil." Mark Steven Johnson, who directed them both, is clearly on some kind of awful roll.
"Hannibal Rising": Staunchly faithful to the book, which was also terrible.
"The Invasion": Don Siegel's 1956 "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" cried out not to be remade a third time. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel ignored its pleas. Moviegoers responded to his tedious film in identical fashion.
"The Hitcher": Yet another entry on God's long list of questions for producer Michael Bay.
"The Number 23": From the director who put nipples on Batman, a boob job for Jim Carrey.
"Joshua": Bad "Omen."
"I Know Who Killed Me": A Lindsay low point, which, this year, was really saying something.
Check out everything we've got on "Michael Clayton," "No Country for Old Men," "Zodiac," "Gone Baby Gone," "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" and "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street."
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