1. BEST PICTURE (BY A FLUTTERING EYELASH)
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
It’s funny that the most hopeful, great movie of 2007 (based on the memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby) centers on a man (played by Mathieu Amalric) whose massive stroke leaves everything paralyzed except one eye. But his mind is unfettered, and so is the palette of Julian Schnabel—who turns out (whatever you think of his paintings) to be a major filmmaker, an artist whose grasp of light and texture and camera movement is both visually inspired and fused with the characters’ emotions. Somehow, the hero’s plight becomes a metaphor for the human condition: It reminds us how submerged we all are, how distant from even the people we love.
2. ALMOST-BEST PICTURES (BLOODY)
Sweeney Todd and There Will Be Blood
Gouts of blood, in fact, in Tim Burton’s brilliantly intense adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s great musical. Burton wisely dispenses with the Brechtian aspect and creates a Grand Guignol–inflected chamber drama. And while Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter don’t have much in the way of pipes, their mixture of bloodthirstiness and melancholy is riveting, and Burton photographs them with such loving intimacy that their fever takes hold. So does the fever of Daniel Day-Lewis as a titanic and ruthless oilman in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. On an epic canvas, this turns out to be a chamber drama, too, in which rapacious capitalism makes for fathers who aren’t fathers and brothers who aren’t brothers. It’s freaky, it’s transfixing, it’s sublime.
3. ALMOST-BEST PICTURES (FAMILY)
Away From Her and The Savages
The loss of a loved one from vastly different angles. Director Sarah Polley makes the debut of the year. In Tamara Jenkins’s The Savages, a sister and brother (impish Laura Linney, harried Philip Seymour Hoffman) put their semi-demented father (Philip Bosco) into a home—his illness making it impossible for him to see, even if he wanted to, how much he screwed up their lives. The silliness gives the sadness wings, the sadness gives the silliness weight.
4. BEST DOCUMENTARY
No End in Sight
Charles Ferguson makes the case against the Bushies in Iraq—not from the vantage of a lefty tub-thumper like Michael Moore but from that of a policy wonk who can’t believe the nutty dissociation, cronyism, and incompetence from conception to execution.
5. BEST WHISTLE-BLOWER
There’s no mystery why it’s a good era for whistle-blower and paranoid-conspiracy movies, and Tony Gilroy serves up a beaut—with Tom Wilkinson, as a bipolar legal attack dog off his meds and now a veritable Cassandra of corporate malfeasance, and George Clooney, never better, as the anti-hero. I play his last scene with Tilda Swinton over and over in my mind: “Do I look like I’m negotiating?” And, most inspiring: “I am Shiva, the god of death.”
6. BEST NON-IRAQ IRAQ MOVIE
Grace Is Gone
James Strouse’s film creates a small frame and fills it to bursting. The title character doesn’t appear in the movie; she’s a sergeant in Iraq who dies in action. It falls to her husband (John Cusack) to tell their two daughters, ages 8 and 12. Anguished, scared, loving, he stalls … and stalls … and spontaneously drives them to a theme park in Florida. In the first few minutes, I felt like Captain Kirk at the approach of an enemy starship: “Shields up, Mr. Sulu.” The movie disarmed me, though, not with torpedoes but with so many revelatory moments that it was impossible to remain walled-off. Observe the wariness of Shélan O’Keefe as the daughter who knows but doesn’t want to know, the touching childishness of Gracie Bednarczyk as her younger sister, and Cusack’s affecting imbalance. Grace Is Gone suggests that denial can be an act of faith and love—although not a design for living. Alessandro Nivola as Cusack’s antiwar brother adds the perfect anti-grace note.
7. BEST SEX SCENES THAT POSE NO RISK TO YOUR HEALTH
I had to discount the sex in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, which was scissored by the Chinese government out of apparent safety concerns. In my review I noted “a kind of pretzel-y thing [the couple does] I’d like to see diagrammed.” So would others, apparently. In China’s Information Times, a gynecologist warns, “Most of the sexual manoeuvres in Lust, Caution are abnormal body positions. Only women with comparatively flexible bodies that have gymnastics or yoga experience are able to perform them. For average people to blindly copy them could lead to unnecessary physical harm.” There goes that then. The sex scenes in Pascale Ferran’s Lady Chatterley are thrilling and risk-free. Each is different—the lovemaking evolves as the lovers learn to communicate. It’s all so easy and natural that when the heroine (Marina Hands) regards her lover’s shriveled penis after sex and remarks how small it has become, you’re not even embarrassed for the character (or the actor). It’s up, it’s down, it’s big, it’s small. It’s au naturel.
8. BEST ACTOR
Frank Langella in Starting Out in the Evening
Why haven’t we prized this actor until now? As a neglected old white-male novelist, Langella uses his huge frame and heavy features—which are practically immobile—to achieve an astounding degree of vulnerability: The man lives so deep inside himself that you fear what will happen when a sexy, reckless graduate student (Lauren Ambrose) blasts into his life and coaxes him to the surface. After his Nixon in Frost/Nixon (soon to be a movie) and his William Paley in Good Night, and Good Luck, Langella is now the most exciting prospect in movies.
9. BEST EXCUSE TO CLIMB INTO BED AND PULL THE COVERS OVER YOUR HEAD
No Country for Old Men
It’s not a crowd-pleaser—the ending is a whimper of despair. But Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s bleak–even–for–Cormac McCarthy novel is a devastating portrait of a malignant universe presided over by an indifferent God. Its hood ornament is Javier Bardem, whose freaky stare puts him on par with the scariest psychos in cinema.
10. BEST UNREAL MOVIES THAT MADE YOU RETHINK REALITY
Ratatouille and Persepolis
In breaks from all the eye-popping chases in Ratatouille, director Brad Bird had you wondering if that Village KFC swarming with rats could have become, with proper marketing, the chain’s flagship restaurant. Bird has Ayn Rand–ian leanings: He makes the case for gifted individuals whose genius is being stifled, be they rodents who belong in kitchens or kids who are forced to conform by suppressing their superpowers. Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s Persepolis, based on Satrapi’s graphic novels, touches on similar themes in a radically different style. Here, the protagonist is a girl swept up in Iran’s Islamic Revolution, whose identity hovers between two worlds—making her the perfect (forlorn, acid) narrator for the ongoing story of a nation at war with itself. As you marvel at the expressionist black-and-white drawing, the chronological leaps both sudden and fluid, and the vast and penetrating view of the history, you realize how much animation can achieve that other forms can’t.
11. BEST METAPHOR FOR THE MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX’S MANHANDLING OF THE ECOSYSTEM
The Giant Marauding Catfish on Legs in Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host, a.k.a. Little Miss Sunshine Meets Godzilla
A distant but admirable second was the procession of giant horrors (squids, spiders, flies, mantises, and Marcia Gay Harden spouting Old Testament verses) in The Mist—sadly lost in the mist of the box office.
You’ll notice my ten-best list goes to eleven. It’s one louder, innit? It even overflows into my blog at nymag.com, “The Projectionist,” where I just can’t stop spreading the love—for runners-up and overlooked performers like Ashley Judd, Steve Buscemi, Sienna Miller, Joaquin Phoenix, and Fiona Gordon of L’Iceberg. Oh, and there’s a right proper ten-best movies list, which also goes to eleven.
Sarah Polley, Away From Her
As an actress, Sarah Polley can be dreamy yet grounded, and she brings that same blend of soft and hard to her first feature as a writer and director, Away From Her. It’s a twilight-of-love story that harshly demolishes our romantic notions, then replaces them with something deeper and, finally, more consoling. It’s the most loving and least sentimental film imaginable. As the woman who stares longingly out windows over icy lakes in search of lost memories, Julie Christie is transcendent, and Gordon Pinsent mixes yearning and resignation in perfect proportions. I only hope Polley doesn’t throw in the towel as an actress.
It seems too easy a choice, right? But this “prequel” wasn’t just awful in itself: It retroactively flattened one of the cinema’s great monsters. Hannibal Lecter has gone from being an inconceivably savage serial murderer who attracted and terrified us at the same time to just another boring vigilante. He even has a sort of eco-decency: He eats what he kills.
For more highlights of the year in film, check out David Edelstein’s expanded lists of the top movies, actors, and actresses of 2007.