By John H. Foote
Through the years film critics and historians have written about individual years being the greatest in movie history. Those years celebrated yielded the greatest number of bonafide masterpieces, and one cannot deny it makes for an interesting debate.
The greatest enemy to film is time, and as time flashes furiously past it erodes the impact of a film, sometimes reducing it to something it was never meant to be, irrelevant. Historically, the greatest year usually cited is 1939 which indeed had a number of truly great films. But arguments can be made for 1956, 1968, 1974, 1976 and the year I am exploring 2007. Incredibly no less than eighteen masterpieces were released in 2007, an astonishing output of greatness in a single year, but more important is that there seemed to be something for everyone!
Moving through 2007 I found no less than seventeen bonafide great films and a couple near misses. Understand I chose to stick with English language films but if I were including foreign language work, La Vie En Rose would have made the list. Deciding what a great film is can be an arrogant exercise because, in the beginning, it is our choice. However, I scoured the internet to find other opinions, to find other writers who shared the opinions you will find in this piece. Am I correct? About my selections of the films representing 2007, yes, but of 2007 being the greatest year in history? That is up for debate. I will explore another year with 1974 coming soon, and might get to 1976 as well. Be sure to check out Alan’s exploration of 1939 and watch for more from our staff.
2007 is a great argument for the new millennium being comparable to the great American cinema of the seventies…no kidding. There are films that feel like seventies films, others that pay direct homage to the masterworks of the seventies. The new millennium has been a most exciting time to be a film critic, as the cinema is again pushing the boundaries. Sure we are worn down with comic book adaptations and superhero films, but like buried treasures, these glorious cinematic works are there waiting to be discovered.
In reverse order of greatness, here are the greatest films of 2007, the single greatest year in movies.
In my humble opinion…
17. IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH
You will not soon forget the anguish etched into the face of the father portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones, who goes to seek answers as to why his son, a marine is dead, killed on home soil under mysterious circumstances. A former marine himself he realizes very quickly something is being covered up and he plans to get to the bottom of it. With mounting disgust and horror he comes to realize who killed his son, but worse, there is no guilt for the death, the marines trains killers and the young man responsible feels nothing. Paul Haggis directed and wrote the film after his Oscar-winning success Crash (2005) and this is by the superior film, though hushed, quiet, its grief is internalized and deeply felt. Jones was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor, a pleasant surprise that reminded us the Academy on occasion gets it right.
16. 3:10 TO YUMA
This rock solid remake of the original improves on it with stellar performances from Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, and Ben Foster, and benefits from a tension brought to the film by director James Mangold. Bale volunteers, well for two hundred dollars, to take convicted killer Crowe to the train where he will be transported to his place of execution, but does not count on the intense loyalty of Crowe’s gang, who do everything to rescue him. Ben Foster is electrifying as psychotic killer Charlie, hellbent on releasing his friend, bringing to the film a sense of homoeroticism the original did not touch upon. With eyes blazing in clear-eyed hatred, Foster is searing in the role, bringing to the screen an absolute unmerciful psychopath. Bale and Crowe shine as bright in this fine, two men on the opposite sides of the law who forge a mutual respect for one another. A very successful western.
15. GONE BABY GONE
Who knew? Who could have predicted Ben Affleck, at this stage in his career as a failed actor would emerge a gifted director with a confidence and artistry rivaling that of Clint Eastwood? With his first directorial effort, in a film starring his younger brother Casey, the Afflecks shine, but it is Ben who drew most of the rave reviews for his deft handling of the complicated story and many fascinating characters. Nothing is as it seems, often a cliche but as handled here by Ben Affleck, it is to the great strength of the film that the statement rings true. Casey is superb as a private investigator hired to find out what happened to a child abducted from his South Boston neighbourhood, the deeper he digs the more corrupt and shocking it all becomes. You will never expect the ending, it is perfect and perfectly haunting. Sometimes doing the right thing, the proper thing does not benefit anyone. Casey Affleck, Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman, Amy Ryan, and Michelle Monaghan are all excellent in this fine ensemble film that announced Ben Affleck as one of the new emerging filmmakers.
14. SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET
Johnny Depp and Tim Burton teamed up yet again for this musical adaptation that seems out of the realm of both yet they flex their artistic muscles and deliver fine work, possibly their most daring film. Based on the popular dark musical that ran on Broadway for years, Burton brings to the film that dark look he has made famous, but it is Depp who sees to it the story comes to life with a frightening performance as a killer barber who murders men, their bodies then ground into sausage meat for his lady love to sell as filling for her meat pies. The film looks grand, like a Hammer horror film, and Depp is perfect, just slightly over the top when he needs to be. Equally good is Helena Bonham Carter as the pie cooking looney, and Alan Rickman as the evil man who saw to it Todd went to prison unjustly. Sasha Baron Cohen has a lovely supporting role as a rival barber but like hair cutting and shaves in the film, Depp owns the film. He does not so much sing the songs as he speaks them to the music, ala Rex Harrison, but it works because Depp is a truly great actor. A creepy entertaining work which merges horror and the musical.
Watch how she moves, watch how she reacts to everything around her. Amy Adams is a revelation as an animated character come to life in this curious, excellent film from Disney. Pushed down a well, the princess ends up in Times Square, now in the flesh, where she longs for her Prince to rescue her with true loves kiss. Adams moves like an animated figure, her exaggerated movements perfect, her dreamy voice utter perfection in everything she does in adjusting to this world. When she opens a window to call for the local wildlife to help her clean she is not the least bit bothered by the collection of rats, cockroaches, pigeons, and flies that invade the apartment, the wildlife of the city. The curtains are made short work of, into a lovely dress, and her smile is ever present, I am not kidding when I say she glows. Adams owns the film, dancing and singing through Central Park, her joy infectious. I dare you not to watch the film without a smile plastered across your face. It is an absolute delight. Though Adams won a Golden Globe she was not even nominated for an Academy Award to the shame of the Academy. This was a star-making performance.
12. AMERICAN GANGSTER
Ridley Scott directed this sprawling epic about drug dealer Frank Lucas, who was responsible for bringing into the United States millions of dollars worth of cocaine. Lucas brought the coke in the caskets of dead soldiers killed in Viet Nam, desecrating their bodies and their memory with the drugs that accompanied them. It took years for the police to figure out his methods, but when they did they closed in on him very quickly. Denzel Washington gives a warm, embracing performance as Lucas, a man who could hug you one minute and kill you coldly the next without a moment’s hesitation. It is among the actors’ best work, but oddly was ignored by the Academy, perhaps because there was such a wealth great work in 2007. Russell Crowe is superb as the dogged detective who pursues Lucas, knowing he is dirty, knowing he is doing wrong, that his millions come from drug money, but recognizing he is smart, perhaps too smart to be caught. It is the gift of a fur coat that sets off the police on his path, and once they have it they never look back. Like Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) this film is a truthful look behind the scenes into a criminal empire and the law that attempts to bring him down.
11. ACROSS THE UNIVERSE
Though it might be the first of the great jukebox musicals, I am not sure any of the others have been this deeply felt. Using the music of the Beatles to journey through the sixties, director Julie Taymor creates a magical mystery tour where we encounter surrogates of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and the hippy culture. Jude (Jim Sturgess) comes to America seeking to meet his father and is befriended by Max, and falls in love with his friend’s sister Lucy. The actors, using their own voices sing the songs of the Beatles, using the tunes to spin their narrative, slowing the songs down, speeding them up, giving new reads and sounds to the songs to tell their story. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” one of their catchiest pop tunes becomes a longing cry for love from a young lesbian trapped in a small town. “Hey Jude” becomes a long anthem between two men, best friends, as one longs for the other to return home, one not complete without the other. The sounds of the sixties are everywhere, the protests of the youth are ever present, the war in Viet Nam is raging and the young people lash out in vain. At the end of it all, we realize as do our characters, “All You Need is Love.” Breathtaking and powerful.
I am not sure I have ever been as pleasantly surprised by a film as I was this. A lovely tale of a famous chef in Paris, France who happens to be a rat, vermin, a rodent. Rising from his low status he ends up in a kitchen cooking for a young man, who puts the rats work off as his own, which is fine with the little rat, he just wants to cook. But gradually the secret is discovered to the horror of his diners. Yet when a venerable old critic loves the food and admits to it, everything changes. The last line of the film, spoken by the critic, who looks towards the kitchen when asked about dessert and says with a sly smile, “Surprise me” knowing he will love whatever concoction is prepared for him. Peter O’Toole voiced the critic and was wonderful, but then everything about this lovely film is such. Beautifully written, scored, acted and created, it is a masterpiece of animation art. The film won the Academy Award as Best Animated Feature film, deservedly so.
9. AWAY FROM HER
Actress Sarah Polley adapted the screenplay and directed this brilliant Canadian film that earned Julie Christie awards and nominations for Best Actress and earned Polley an Oscar nomination for her screenplay. She should have been a Best Director nominee as well. Fiona (Christie) is in the mid stages of Alzheimer’s and rather than become a burden to Grant (Gordon Pinsent) her much loved husband she checks herself into a long term care facility. Unable to visit for thirty days, Grant is stunned, and heartbroken when he returns she has forgotten who he is, and has in fact fallen in love with another man. The film is a love story and asks powerful questions about exactly what love is and how far one will go to show their devotion. Grant is understandably devastated to watch his wife care for another man but loves her enough to give her this small gift. In the end, they are drawn back together, as she realizes his devotion and the fact he never wanted to be away from her. Christie is luminous in the lead role, absolutely deserving of the Oscar she was nominated for. Pinsent the gifted Canadian actor is her equal throughout, bringing to his role an inner anguish we cannot possibly imagine. Delicate and gentle, Polley brings to the film an undeniable power.
8. EASTERN PROMISES
When a young prostitute dies in childbirth, leaving behind a child and diary. A pretty young midwife, Anna (Namoi Watts) digs far too deep into a Russian family’s ties to organized crime, placing herself and the child in peril. A mysterious driver, portrayed to perfection by the great Viggo Mortensen is the driver to the mob boss, but protector to the woman keeping her safe when the mob pushes back. His body decorated in the tattoo art of the Russian mob, he is a dangerous man, but there is something equally gentle about him. When we learn his terrible secret, we are both stunned yet not really surprised. The battle he fights naked in the bathhouse drew applause the first time I watched the film at TIFF, the audience stunned by the dark beauty of the scene. Mortensen was Oscar-nominated for his performance, beautifully guided by the great David Cronenberg in what might be his greatest film. A frightening look into the all-reaching power of the Russian mafia, who place little value on human life when it does not benefit them. Naomi Watts is superb, but this film belongs to the great Mortensen. A stunner.
Another TIFF premiere, I watched overnight as Ellen Page became a major star, Jason Reitman a major director and Diablo Cody all for their work on this exquisite film. Page is a revelation as Juno, a confident, odd teen who becomes pregnant by her best friend, geeky Paulie, and decides to have the child and give it away to a wealthy6 couple who cannot conceive. The trouble starts when she becomes good friends with the husband, a failed musician portrayed with sad charm by Jason Bateman, emerging as a major new talent. Juno awakens something in him that transports him back to his youth at a time when he needs to be an adult. In doing so she discovers so much about herself and when push comes to shove does the right thing. Speaking Cody’s language as though she had grown up doing it, she never sounds pretentious or precious. In the end, Juno is perfect. A wonderful ensemble including Page, Michael Cera, Alison Janney, Bateman, Jennifer Garner, and JK Simmons bring this lovely story to life. Beautifully acted, directed and written, Jason Reitman emerged as a major new directing talent with this profoundly original work.
6. MICHAEL CLAYTON
TIFF again, and not the last as it was a very good year. There are many in the business of criticism who consider this the finest film George Clooney has ever made, and it is a tough argument against. Personally, I feel his finest performance was in The Descendants (2012) but he is superb as a legal fixer in Michael Clayton, who figures out murder is happening to those around him. When his good friend goes off the rails and is killed, he digs deep and finds who is responsible, leaving them no choice to try and rub him out. She fails, leading to one of the screens’ greatest confrontations and double-crosses between Clooney and the always brilliant Tilda Swinton. The film feels like something Sydney Pollack might have directed, interesting because the director appears in the film as the head of the firm Clooney works for. Superb performances dominated the film, Clooney leading the way, Tony Gilroy’s gentle direction, and screenplay shine throughout as an homage to the work of Pollack and Alan J. Pakula. A knockout of a film.
5. THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD
A western for the ages. Brad Pitt was never better than he is here as the outlaw Jesse James, and Casey Affleck superb as his killer Bob Ford. As part of the James gang, Bob and his brother Charlie Ford (Sam Rockwell) are friends with Jesse, who calls on them when he needs things done, often menial tasks. Knowing how young Bob worships him, he keeps him close often wondering if the younger man wants to be like him, or be him. He gifts Bob with a revolver the night before Bob shoots him dead, in the back as Jesse dusts a picture off in his home. What became of Bob Ford you might wonder? He ended up on the New York stage where he enacted the murder of Jesse hundreds of times with his brother Charlie playing Jesse. Expecting applause, Bob is appalled when he finds people are actually disgusted by his actions. Despite being a cold-blooded killer, Jesse had his admirers, those who loved him, those who thought of him as a western Robin Hood. He was, of course, a dangerous psychopath who no doubt would have killed Bob and his brother had they not done him first. James and Ford are locked in a curious dance towards death from the moment they first meet, and the men seem to know it, seem to understand something is going to happen. Pitt is the greatest screen Jesse we have seen, and Affleck steals the film as the worshipful, though always thinking Bob who sees in killing Jesse a chance to advance himself. He could not have been more wrong. Andrew Dominick directs the film, the cinematography is often breathtaking as though we looking through dripping glass into the past. One of the greatest westerns ever made.
Despite rave reviews, despite being one of the greatest films about journalism ever made, Zodiac did not receive a single Academy Award nomination. Not one. It was easily among the years best five films, but perhaps the early release hurt the film’s chances for Oscar attention. Directed by wunderkind David Fincher, told with the intense detail of All the President’s Men (1976), Zodiac is based on the true story of a young cartoonist and his tireless search for a killer who had eluded the police for twenty years. The Zodiac killer taunted police who brutal murders and long, challenging letters, and though they thought they might have at least interviewed him, it was for a cartoonist to discover who he was, coming face to face with the killer in a hardware store years later. Robert Downey Jr. is superb as the first journalist assigned to the case, Mark Ruffalo perfect as the detective trying to find the killer before he strikes again and Jake Gyllenhaal carries the demanding film as the young cartoonist begging to be taken seriously as a writer who dedicates his life to finding the killer. After years of exhaustive research, he might have come face to face with the Zodiac killer in a hardware store in upstate California years after the murders. An absolute masterpiece on every level, twelve Oscar nominations would have been just.
3. INTO THE WILD
TIFF again. SItting in wonder, I watched a young man find his inner peace in Alaska, living off the land, learning, trying to do something he felt would help him live a good life. His eyes fill with tears at the majesty of seeing Caribou in the wild, yet his very arrogance is what brings about his doom. Based on a true story about a young college graduate who broke from society and dropped off the grid, terrifying his parents for more than a year as to where he was and what had happened to him, Chris (Emile Hirsch) longs for the purity of life written about by Jack London and Kerouac, his literary heroes. He wants nothing, not money, no possessions, only truth. He hits the road to find it; his plan to live in Alaska for a time. Directed, brilliantly by Sean Penn, the film is a great American film, and you can feel that as it unfolds. Some films just pull you into their greatness, you can sense it as the film flickers on the screen, this is such a film. The characters he meets along the way shape his life, and he theirs, though the greatest impact he makes is on his parents, his father left bewildered, falling to his knees in grief on a city street, not understanding it all. In many ways, Chris is very callous, his behaviour selfish and cold, but as his life is revealed we get it, or think we do. Would he have gone back to their world galvanized? Perhaps, but it was not to be. He dies alone in the wilderness, his body found two weeks later. Hirsch should have been an Oscar nominee, instead, settling for a Screen Actors Guild nomination and Penn too, though he did receive a much coveted DGA nomination.
2. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
And again one from TIFF, in their greatest year. The Coen Brothers bring this powerful book to the screen with an array of great performances though topping the list is Oscar-winner Javier Bardem as the ice cold killer Chigurgh. Deliberate, focused, never faltering from his plan, Chigurgh is the most dangerous killer I have experienced in a film, unfeeling, terrifying, and portrayed as such by the great Bardem. The film won four Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor in a year filled with brilliant films. There are five drop-dead brilliant performances in the film, with Bardem shining brightest in the darkest of roles. Josh Brolin is terrific as a young man who stumbles upon a crime scene in the desert and takes with him a case with two million dollars. Unfortunately for him he is seen and pursued by the dangerous Chigurgh. Woody Harrelson is the man who understands just how terrifying Chigurgh might be, how relentless this man truly is. The tremors of fear that run through his voice when discussing the man are enough to convince us Chigurgh is as dangerous as bubonic plague. Tommy Lee Jones is haunting as an old sheriff ready to retire who is stunned by the violence and realizes his country is not one for old men. A dark, powerful film.
1. THERE WILL BE BLOOD
A stunning study of capitalism and how money and power warp a man seems with the Trump presidency to be remarkably astute, yet was made twelve years ago! This thundering epic explores the soul of a man who holds all of humanity in contempt, who lives to compete, to win, to grind his enemies into the ground. Rising literally from a pit while digging for precious silver, he instead finds oil, but after breaking his legs he crawls back to life to attain his immense wealth. He is like a demon emerging from the depths of hell to wreak his havoc on the world. In a performance that might be the greatest ever given by an actor, Daniel Day-Lewis is darkly miraculous as Daniel Plainview who presents himself as a family man but who is, in fact, a greedy, money-obsessed businessman not inclined to lose. Adopting a voice, not unlike that of iconic director John Huston, the actor brings to mind a young Noah Cross, the evil man Huston portrayed in Chinatown (1974), and he moves as Huston did when he was a young man, lean, long-legged, lithe. Day-Lewis finds oil on the land of a group of poor farmers and exploits them with promises of riches to come, all the while draining their land of the precious oil, the money going into his pocket. Plainview becomes wealthy beyond his wildest dreams, but in doing so loses any semblance of humanity he might have ever had. He admits to having a hatred for humanity, a competition in him that brings him to beat his fellow man into the ground. To win, always to win. Director Paul Thomas Anderson pays homage to the work of George Stevens with his stark shots of the oil fields on flat dusty ground. His exploration of Plainview’s greed, his intense hatred for his fellow man is frightening to see, yet oddly electrifying that a man could be so consumed with hatred. We almost see James Dean measuring out his land with careful steps in the distance. Paul Dano is superb as the false preacher who attempts to bring Daniel down by humiliating him and pays with his life. The film was named Best Picture by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics and won two Academy Awards after being nominated for eight. Day-Lewis won his second Academy Award for Best Actor, and the film won for its breathtaking cinematography. In fifty years, THIS is the film they will be discussing. An absolute stunner and American masterpiece.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.