Mike’s Top Ten of 2007

2007 is in the running for strongest film of the 2000s. Even in the old days of the site when I put up rudimentary versions of these lists, this was the year that always had the most stuff contending at the top. This is a year that I could legitimately create two separate Top Ten lists that each hold up. Even going down into tier two, there’s stuff that would go much higher in other years. Every decade has that year or two where it seems that all the greatest stuff comes out, and this is definitely one of those for this decade.

Though I will say, despite the amazing stuff that’s come out this year, this list in particular is a healthy dose of ‘me’. I’d say about half of it is stuff that would appear on most people’s lists near the top. And the other half is decidedly stuff that only I would ever put on my top ten list among the other ones there. One movie for sure is one that I’m pretty sure I’m one of the only people in the world who truly loves it as much as I do. The other stuff is just stuff I really adore. It’s all really personal to my tastes, and that’s what I love about this year — that I could have a list that’s so specific to me and yet have the leeway to have like thirty other movies that are all incredible around it.

But also, let me reiterate — this year is so strong. Like half of my tier three would be tier two and even have an outside shot at 11-20 in other years. If you wanted to pick randomly from this decade for some hidden gems to see, this is the year you want to look at. It goes about 60 deep on great movies.

Mike’s Top Ten of 2007

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Atonement

Charlie Wilson’s War

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Michael Clayton

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium

No Country for Old Men

There Will Be Blood

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Zodiac

11-20: Across the Universe, The Bourne Ultimatum, Eastern Promises, Enchanted, Into the Wild, Juno, Once, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Sunshine, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Tier two: 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 3:10 to Yuma, American Gangster, Black Snake Moan, The Darjeeling Limited, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Grindhouse, Hot Fuzz, The Hunting Party, I Am Legend, I’m Not There, The Mist, Ocean’s Thirteen, Ratatouille, Rescue Dawn, Shoot ‘Em Up, Superbad, Transformers, La Vie en Rose, Waitress

Tier three: 2 Days in Paris, 300, Away from Her, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, Breach, The Game Plan, Gone Baby Gone, The Great Debaters, Hairspray, I’m Not There, Knocked Up, Lars and the Real Girl, Live Free or Die Hard, The Lookout, Music and Lyrics, [REC], The Savages, The Simpsons Movie, Spider-Man 3, Seraphim Falls

Tier four: Balls of Fury, Bee Movie, The Bucket List, Control, The Golden Compass, Grace Is Gone, In the Valley of Elah, The Kite Runner, Meet the Robinsons, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Next, Rocket Science, Sicko, Sleuth, Smokin’ Aces, Stardust, Surf’s Up, Talk to Me, The Ten, We Own the Night

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1. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

“Don’t that picture look dusty?”

For a long, long time, I’d have told you this was one of my ten favorite films of all time. Even now, I’m not sure I still won’t. I absolutely adore this movie beyond words, and it remains one of the many films that I have loved from the moment it came out that somehow not enough people truly appreciated (and yet are slowly starting to come around on over time).

The title pretty much tells you everything this film is about. But what it doesn’t tell you is the absolute sublime beauty this film provides while giving you that story. It’s a lyrical and poetic elegy to a time gone by. It’s not a shoot-em-up kind of western. It’s very contemplative. And it is one of the single most gorgeous movies ever filmed. I don’t think there’s a person alive who remotely respects the art of cinematography who wouldn’t tell you just how influential this film is on them. Hell, it’s only been out since 2007 and how many times have you seen the above shot recreated in some form in films, TV (or even video games!)?

Roger Deakins’ cinematography here is some of the best ever captured on the screen, and Andrew Dominik makes a western that is about something more than the conventions of the western. It delves into what makes these outlaws act the way they do. It’s absolutely beautiful. And the cast is so great. Brad Pitt gives a career-altering performance here as James. When you look at the arc of his career, you’ll see that this is the performance where he really leaned into stillness and silence in his performances (which you’d see him use a lot of after this, in Moneyball, Tree of Life, Fury, Ad Astra, etc). Casey Affleck is also just as incredible as Ford. It’s as much his movie as it is Pitt’s, probably even more so. Then you get Sam Rockwell, Sam Shepard, Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider and Garret Dillahunt as members of the gang, as well as cameos throughout, like Mary Louise Parker, Zooey Deschanel, Michael Parks, Ted Levine and even James Carville and Nick Cave.

I truly cannot recommend this movie highly enough. It came out to little fanfare. People saw the long title and didn’t know what to make of it. But I think as time goes on, people are starting to see this for what it is — one of the greatest films of this decade.

2. There Will Be Blood

“There’s a whole ocean of oil under our feet! No one can get at it except for me!”

This is the film of 2007. Even when the year was going on and No Country was winning all the awards, you just knew that this was gonna be the one that held up over time. It’s rare when you know immediately that something is that level of masterpiece. I saw this in theaters at least three times. I kept taking people to go see it because I just couldn’t get it out of my head and couldn’t stop talking about it. It’s that kind of movie.

This feels like the real turning point of Paul Thomas Anderson’s career. He was the wunderkind at first, with Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Then he made Punch-Drunk Love and not everyone understood it (which is a theme for him throughout his career. No one understood Inherent Vice either). And after that he went away for five years and came back with this film. I don’t think we really knew what to expect with it when we first saw it coming. I remember seeing a trailer and thinking, “I really wanna see this.” And then that moment when the film hits you in a theater is something that I truly cannot describe and something that I will remember for the rest of my life.

It’s just a masterwork of filmmaking. Daniel Day-Lewis gives… well, one of the performances of his career, because lord knows there are about eight of those. Everything about this movie is note perfect, and it also upholds the Paul Thomas Anderson tradition of his films being so much funnier each time you watch them.

Honestly, the only thing keeping this from #1 is just because I love Assassination of Jesse James so much. But if that’s a top ten all time film of mine, this is like, top 40. It’s not that far behind. This is an all-timer, this film.

3. Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium

“Your life is an occasion. Rise to it.”

One of the few good pieces of advice I feel like I give to people is — watch movies on their own terms. Don’t let outside opinion factor into how you feel. Watch movies in your own little vacuum and then afterward put the vacuum away when you bring them out in public. That’s how I got to this film.

I don’t remember how or when I watched this for the first time. I’m guessing it was part Dustin Hoffman and Natalie Portman, and part that it was written and directed by Zach Helm, who wrote Stranger Than Fiction. And I can’t imagine I had any particular expectations for it. But I came out of it thinking it was one of the most wonderful movies I had ever seen. I adored it with every fiber of my being. And then move forward about five years and I realized that this movie wasn’t just a failure, but people hated it. Someone mentioned that this was a joke in Breaking Bad. It’s just widely acknowledge that nobody likes this movie. Hence my vacuum comment.

I honestly don’t even care that people don’t like this movie (including, apparently, its director). I do. I’m aware that it’s not perfect, but I don’t look for movies to be perfect. I look for movies to appeal to me on some visual or emotional sense. And this one does.

It’s honestly a children’s book on screen. Dustin Hoffman plays a 200-plus-year-old magical toy store owner whose protege is Natalie Portman, a budding pianist whose life is sort of stuck. And one day, he announces that he’s “leaving” and he’s giving her the store. And of course she freaks out, wondering what’s wrong with him and whether or not she even wants the store. It sounds ridiculous, and it probably is ridiculous. But in between all this is a beautiful movie about death and loss and learning to enjoy the magic in every day life. And to me, that stuff shines so bright that I don’t even care that there are goofy scenes in between, and Kermit the Frog shows up for seemingly reason, and that people hate this movie with a passion.

I’ll say this — hate this movie all you want. It’s never going to change how I feel about it. But I will say… this is legitimately still one of my favorite films of all time, and I hope that eventually enough people will give it a shot that maybe it could become one of theirs too.

4. No Country for Old Men

“What’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss?”

I saw this for the first time over Thanksgiving break at my local theater back home. Around an audience who was not the proper audience for this movie. And when I saw the ending, I applauded. And I knew that everyone around me was going to hate it. Because it flies in the face of what people would expect. And to me, that was wonderful.

The Coens are filmmakers who tend to dabble in absurdist dark comedy and crime movies. This is of a piece with Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing and Fargo. It’s an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy, and it’s just a wonderful piece of filmmaking.

Josh Brolin plays a regular man who stumbles upon the scene of a drug deal gone wrong and makes out with a bag filled with $2 million. However, the people behind the money want it back. So they send Javier Bardem, one of the most cold-blooded hitmen you will ever see, to get it back. And then there’s Tommy Lee Jones, a veteran lawman, investigating the violence.

It’s one of those movies that is sparse, and ruthless in its straightforward dealing of the violence. It’s really, really good. And, like always, Roger Deakins lights the hell out of it. The sequence where Brolin goes back to the scene of the crime is stunning. Most people would list this as one of the best films of the decade, and it’s hard to argue. It’s generally hard to argue that for every Coen brothers film.

5. Michael Clayton

“I am not the enemy.”
“Then who are you?”

I remember them announcing that this was gonna be made, and my first thought was, “… like, the wide receiver for the Bucs?” That is a completely outdated joke, because no one remembers that wide receiver, but at the time, it was a really strange coincidence. Now, people hear that name, and they know it’s this movie. It’s weird how culturally significant this movie has become. You hear the words “Michael Clayton” and you pretty much already know the kind of character they’re talking about.

George Clooney plays a high-priced “fixer,” the kind of lawyer who makes problems go away. He tried to get out and start his own restaurant, but that didn’t work and now he’s in debt. Plus, his mentor, who had been representing a pesticide company in a class action lawsuit, seemingly went crazy and is a major liability to the company, who knows their product killed a lot of people but is trying to get out of the lawsuit.

It’s a great movie. Clooney’s performance is absolutely perfect, and I dare say the one time where everyone could look at his performance and go, “That’s really impressive.” Before, he was just a movie star. This was an “actor” performance, with the movie star persona to make it even better. Tilda Swinton is also fantastic here, as is Tom Wilkinson.

What I love most about this film is that it’s trying to be like one of those 70s thrillers. The way they shoot it. There’s an important scene that happens about an hour or so into the movie that would have been played so many other ways in the hands of other filmmakers, but here, the camera remains in a single wide shot, allowing the action to play out, and it’s just wonderful. Plus, the final scene of the film…

This is quietly (or maybe not so quietly) one of those films that is one of the best of the decade, though you might not immediately think of it as that over at least two other films on this list. But this one has that watchability factor that makes you realize as you watch it, “Man, this is amazing.”

6. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

“Get out of here, Dewey. You don’t want no part of this shit.”

Possibly the single most underrated comedy of this decade. This was another one that… okay, I’ll admit, I had very low expectations for this, not having been the biggest Apatow fan (he produced this). But I saw it and thought, “Oh wow, this is really funny” (as I felt about a lot of the films he produced during this time). And I found myself constantly rewatching this, and even still, I don’t think this caught on with anyone at the time.

It’s a parody of all the musical biopics that had been coming out at the time. Walk the Line is the obvious major influence, but there’s some Ray in there, as well as a few other things, a lot of which are just longstanding tropes within the genre, like the stars playing the character from an absurdly young age through an absurdly old age (“I’m Dewey’s fourteen year old girlfriend!”, the childhood trauma (“I’ve been halved!”) and the obstacle/disability they have to overcome (loss of sense of smell). But despite how ridiculous a lot of it is, they play it pretty much straight a lot of the time. It’s, of course, ridiculous. One of the lines I’ve always remembered is when there’s the big fight where the first wife is leaving him and is doing the whole “you never think about me” thing. And here, she goes, “What about my dreams?” And he responds, “I can’t build you a candy house. The sun would melt it!” It’s the most ridiculous line ever, but it’s played like drama, which is why it’s so funny.

Also, the most underrated part of this movie are the songs. They had a big oral history published where they talked about the process of the songs, which involved hundreds of songs being written and constantly striving to make them as realistic as possible, even though one of the songs is called “Let’s Duet” (which, by the way, contains some of the smartest lyrics you’ll ever hear). They truly leave no musical biopic stone unturned.

If you haven’t seen this movie, trust me, it’s one of the best comedies this side of the millennium. John C. Reilly is incredible as Dewey Cox, and there are cameos galore (which I won’t spoil, because that’s the joy of seeing the movie for the first time). But really, this is as good as all those other musical biopics, and arguably pulled off an even greater feat, because it’s making fun of them at the same time. Truly, this is one of my absolute favorite films.

7. Charlie Wilson’s War

“Why is Congress saying one thing and doing nothing?”
“Well, tradition mostly.”

If you put something written by Aaron Sorkin in front of me, chances are I’m going to love it. This movie blew me away when it came out, I loved it so much.

It’s a biopic of Charlie Wilson, a congressman from Texas, who almost single-handedly helped Afghanistan defeat the Soviets in the 80s by secretly getting Congress to fund proper military aid and send adequate weapons to them. But also, he’s a womanizing drunk and he’s played by Tom Hanks. It’s so goddamn good.

The best part about this movie is Philip Seymour Hoffman, as a CIA officer who is clearly great at his job but isn’t very good at the politic-ing side of things, so he’s pretty much left alone and disgruntled, making him a perfect fit for Hanks to get his help in the enterprise. Hoffman’s opening scene of this movie is so fucking good that you want to applaud when it’s over. It’s a tour-de-force of writing and performance. But mainly performance. He’s also got a great scene where he meets Hanks in his office for the first time. That scene is a masterpiece of comedy staging. It’s something out of His Girl Friday.

The keys to this movie are Hanks, Hoffman and Sorkin’s dialogue. It’s admittedly not perfect, and, much like its final title card says, it “fucked up the end game.” This is all historical, so I’m not spoiling anything. But basically the idea was to help them defeat the Soviets, make the Soviets look bad, help win the Cold War, and then, when it was all over, help fund rebuilding. Roads, schools, education, democracy. But of course Congress cut funding once they got what they wanted to out of it, and they just kind of gloss over what the long-term effects of that are, which the original script did not. The original ending you can read here (start from the bottom of page 142). So yeah, originally much more hard-hitting.

Still, I love this movie. I can watch Sorkin scenes all day. They’re so well-written. I know movies like A Few Good Men and The Social Network are better overall products, but there’s something about the scenes in this one that I keep going back to more than I do those. That man is truly one of the greatest writers we have.

8. Atonement

“Yes. I saw him. I saw him with my own eyes.”

Not having read the book, I can only imagine what that does to someone emotionally knowing what this movie does.

This movie introduced Joe Wright to the world as a filmmaking powerhouse. He had Pride & Prejudice before this, but it’s hard to get full credit for something like that as a director. Here, he stepped right into that spotlight. (That Dunkirk sequence alone…)

It’s a movie told in basically two parts (though there is a third acting as an epilogue). The first part takes place over a single day, as Briony Tallis (played incredibly by Saoirse Ronan) is trying to debut her new play that she’s written with the help of her visiting cousins during a family function. She happens upon a series of encounters between her older sister (played by Keira Knightley) and the family gardener (played by James McAvoy), which revolve around the pair’s constant sexual tension and (eventual) consummation of their feelings for one another. Briony, unsure of the context of what she sees, sets forth a series of events that will dictate the course of the rest of the three characters’ lives. The second part deals with the characters a few years later, during World War II. I’ll leave it at that.

It’s a really emotional piece of work. All the actors are fantastic, and it’s just a note-perfect piece of filmmaking. I promise, you’ll feel something after you watch this.

9. Zodiac

“I… I Need to know who he is. I… I need to stand there, I need to look him in the eye and I need to know that it’s him.”

David Fincher, man. To this point, not counting his first movie (Alien³), he’s directed five movies (Se7en, The Game, Fight Club, Panic Room and this). Four of them are in my top ten.

A lot of people will point to this as his best film. I wouldn’t necessarily argue that. It’s an incredible piece of work. It’s an in depth look at the Zodiac killer, specifically through the lens of Robert Graysmith, a newspaper cartoonist who becomes obsessed with the case and becomes his own detective, spending years hunting for clues to the killer’s identity.

The cast is crazy, and Fincher directs the hell out of it. It’s one of the most engrossing movies you’ll see, and over 2 1/2 hours long, you don’t even really feel it. It’s a tremendous piece of work, which, at this point, we’ve grown to become accustomed to when it comes to Fincher.

10. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

“When all this is over we’ll be a proper family. You’ll see.”

This was the first of the Potter films I saw in theaters. I went to a midnight showing for this, and it was so packed that they had to set up screenings every fifteen minutes, and were literally bringing reels from theater to theater as each one ended from the previous showing.

This one feels like the closest to the Cuaron film, which is why I think they stuck with David Yates for the remainder. He was a really good choice for this franchise, even though there is a ceiling on what he can accomplish (not quite being a filmmaker on the level of Cuaron). But through his shepherding, all the remaining films in the series are really good, and probably the best next to Azakaban in whatever order you want to put them.

This one always had a special place in my heart just because it was the biggest showcase for Gary Oldman, who was always my favorite part of this franchise, actor/character-wise (outside of the leads, of course).

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11-20:

Across the Universe — This is a musical directed by Julie Taymor and written around the songs of the Beatles. Couple of things that must be said about this one — Julie Taymor directing it is what makes it as great as it is. A musical based around Beatles songs is the realm of bad Broadway, and without the visual flourish to make it work, this would have been just another forgettable oddity. Second, this was, I believe, the first of the Hollywood film musicals of the time to do the singing live on set, so as to enhance the scenes and performances around them. I know Les Mis gets a lot of credit for doing that (and with good reason), but it is important to note that this film did do it well before that one did. The story itself… it’ll have some people rolling their eyes. The main character is Jude, and then the love interest is Lucy, one of the character’s is Prudence… you see where it’s all going. They find a way to have them sing all the big Beatles hits. And it’s got a lot of references to things in the 60s. Two of the characters are based clearly on Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. But if you’re okay with entry level Beatles references to lead us into their songs (which, honestly, is no different than any Broadway show would give you, so I really don’t see the issue there), it’s just a great jukebox musical with some incredible visuals to back it up. This is a movie that I could put on and watch any day of the week. And it’s because the songs are so well written that, if nothing else, you can just listen to the music and sing along and watch Julie Taymor put on a visual fireworks show at the same time. Win-win.

The Bourne Ultimatum — The third (and in most minds, final) Bourne film. This one is a direct followup to Supremacy, starting literally moments after the end of the finale of that film, and basically follows the same plot as the other three: intelligence agency goes, “Jason Bourne is back on the grid. What could he want?” So they of course try to bring him in, though some people straight up just want him dead, and he’s staying one step ahead of them all and trying to figure out what this all means and who he is and where he came from. This one finally gets to the heart of what Treadstone (the branch he was working for when he lost his memory) is and how he came to be who he is. It’s a culmination of the Bourne story. And it’s really great. This one has some of the best action in the franchise and is just a wall-to-wall thrill ride. It perfectly pays off all the different motifs and things they built up over the three films and ends on the most perfect note imaginable. Then of course they went and made a spinoff and an unnecessary sequel. But hey, at least we always have this one.

Eastern Promises — David Cronenberg’s followup to A History of Violence. He sticks with the crime genre, this time focusing on a story about the Russian mob. It’s about a young Russian girl who dies during childbirth. Her diary is found by her midwife (Naomi Watts), but she can’t translate it because it’s in Russian. She finds a card inside to a Russian restaurant and goes there to get it translated. Only, she slowly finds out that the owner of the restaurant actually knows a lot more about this diary than she thought, and she might be in a lot of trouble because of it. Viggo Mortensen also stars as a Russian mobster (and is great here. He was nominated for his performance, he’s so good), along with Armin Mueller-Stahl and Vincent Cassel. It’s so damn good. This holds up as well as History of Violence does. Arguably even better in some cases.

Enchanted — This is one of the most genius concepts I’ve ever heard, and they managed to make a film good enough to back it up. It starts as an animated Disney film with a Princess and and a Prince… and all that usual stuff. Only the Evil Queen, determined to get rid of the Princess, pushes her down a dark pit, which sends her… to the real world. So now the Princess comes up out of a manhole in New York City, and she’s Amy Adams. And so it becomes a fish out of water story, about this Princess who only knows how things work in the animated realm (allowing Disney to make fun of itself in really smart ways) dealing with how real people do real things. It’s like Splash or all those other comedies, but with Disney Princesses. She has her big scene of tidying up the apartment by calling the animals to help her, only because it’s New York, it’s all pigeons and rats and cockroaches. That sort of stuff. It’s incredible. And Amy Adams delivers an amazing performance. She was the perfect person to pull this off. This, while technically not an official Disney animated film (since it’s largely live-action), is one of the best Disney films ever made, because it so geniusly plays off all of their tropes in a way that doesn’t feel cheap and actually feels earned.

Into the Wild — Sean Penn’s adaptation of the Jon Krakauer book about Chris McCandless, the guy who decided to give away all his money and go travel to Alaska. Emile Hirsch plays McCandless, and is great in the film. The entire movie is great. There are a lot of good performances in it — Vince Vaughn, Hal Holbrook (who got nominated for it), Catherine Keener, Jena Malone, Kristen Stewart, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden. It’s generally considered one of the best movies of this year, and rightfully so. It’s terrific.

Juno — The runaway hit of 2007. An indie darling that managed to go so far as to get four Oscar nominations, winning for Screenplay for Diablo Cody. It’s about a wisecracking teenager who gets pregnant and decides to give birth to the child but give it up for adoption. And the film is about her throughout the pregnancy. It’s terrific. Ellen Page is great, the entire cast is great. It got a lot of notoriety (and backlash) for its dialogue. But at its heart it’s just a really sweet movie, wonderfully translated by Jason Reitman to the screen, and it remains a really terrific film that’s no longer burdened by having to be the ‘it’ film of a year.

Once — The little Irish musical that became a monster cult hit and ended up winning an Oscar for Best Original song. It’s a story about a a man and a woman who meet and fall in love and start a band. It stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (who were their own band at the time, called The Swell Season), and it’s just absolutely magical. The songs are amazing. That’s really the key to the film. The story is all well and good, but the music carries the day here. The entire soundtrack is still something I listen to regularly. John Carney wrote and directed it and has made a career out of making likable films based around music. This and Sing Street are really the two that are just glorious. This one though will always have a special place in my heart.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End — Our second trilogy-ender in this 11-20 section (unless you wanna count The Mist as part of an unofficial Stephen King trilogy from Frank Darabont). This third Pirates film, I remember seeing it in theaters. It was almost three hours long, the plot was overly complex, it felt indulgent as all hell, and yet… I loved every minute of it. Because it was trying to be The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. (I mean, have you seen this moment? When they cut to the sandbar, that’s pure Morricone, that score.) It’s trying to be the big, epic conclusion of a trilogy. And that’s something that only happens when you have the same director handling all three films. I think so much of this movie completely accomplishes everything it wants to accomplish, and its only mistake was in the initial handling of the Depp character. Because, the first film worked as well as it did by trying to focus on the Bloom/Knightley story while letting Depp completely own the film. Here, they try to give you as much Depp as possible, which means giving you literally more Depp. The scene of him in Davy Jones’ Locker having hallucinations with dozens of other Depps is too much. But, for that, there are other scenes that I love that are just fun as hell. So it all balances out. I think it’s a great end to the trilogy.

Sunshine — Danny Boyle’s forgotten near-masterpiece. If the third act doesn’t almost come apart at the seams, this movie is thought of as one of the best films of the decade. This movie is so goddamn good. It’s written by Alex Garland and is about a mission to try to save the world. The premise is: the sun is dying, and if nothing gets done, all life as we know it will be gone. They originally sent one ship to go send a neutron bomb into the sun in order to ‘kickstart it’ again, but that ship became lost. So now, the second one is on its way, and it’s Earth’s last hope. And the film is about the crew members on this voyage dealing with the reality of their situation, knowing that, quite literally, the fate of humanity rests on their shoulders. The film takes a bit of a turn when, en route, they find the original ship and decide to go check it out in case some of the crew are alive. And that’s when the movie loses a bit of steam and begins to unravel leading into that third act. The first bit of this movie, all the way to when they leave the first ship and come back to theirs to complete the mission, is absolutely perfect. After that it becomes a different kind of movie, which is fine, but it’s just not as incredible as that first half. I think, ultimately, that little bit at the end is what kept me from making this a top ten film (though it is #11. Make no mistake about that). But man, is this movie incredible. People generally don’t talk about this when they mention Danny Boyle’s best films, but to me, this is one of the best he’s ever made. I like this better than practically everything else he’s ever done.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street — Tim Burton’s adaptation of the musical. It’s one of the best that Sondheim’s ever written, and the key to a good movie musical (especially one based on a stage show) is to have good songs to work with. And this one’s got some of the best. Top to bottom, this one’s got incredible music (“A Little Priest” might be the finest song Sondheim’s ever written). It’s also a weird and dark and fucked up story, which also makes it kinda great. It’s about a London barber who gets supremely fucked over by a judge, who covets his wife and sends him to prison just so he can have his way with her. So now, years later, he’s out, his wife is long gone, and the judge is just there, doing his thing. So he comes back to his old stomping grounds, looking for revenge. He opens a barbershop above a failing pie shop and plots his revenge. Though, along the way, he’s gonna start murdering his customers and having the shop downstairs back their remains into pies. It’s so fucked up, but also so great. Because you know what… if the songs work, who cares how crazy the plot is! Johnny Depp is amazing as Todd, and Helena Bonham Carter is great as Mrs. Lovett. It’s the last great movie made by Tim Burton before he went and completely sold out with Disney movies (though I do really like Big Eyes), and it’s one of those movies I can just put on and watch any time.

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Tier two:

  • 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
  • 3:10 to Yuma
  • American Gangster
  • Black Snake Moan
  • The Darjeeling Limited
  • The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
  • Grindhouse
  • Hot Fuzz
  • The Hunting Party
  • I Am Legend
  • I’m Not There
  • The Mist
  • Ocean’s Thirteen
  • Ratatouille
  • Rescue Dawn
  • Shoot ‘Em Up
  • Superbad
  • Transformers
  • La Vie en Rose
  • Waitress

Waitress is such a wonderful film that has since become so much of a cult favorite that it spawned a hit musical based off of it. Of course, the film will always come with a tinge of bittersweet because of the unfortunate death of its director before its release, but that doesn’t change how wonderful it is. It stars Keri Russell as a small-town waitress in an unhappy marriage who has a knack for baking amazing pies at the diner where she works. She gets pregnant, which seems to be the nail in the coffin that seals her fate, only she then meets the new town doctor who may end up being her one chance at actually being happy. It’s wonderful. It really is. I cannot recommend this movie highly enough. It’s one of the true gems of this decade that everyone should see. It’s impossible not to be charmed by this movie. This would be an 11-20 in almost any other year. Transformers is the first one. I remember going to see it in theaters going, “Okay, let’s see what this shit is about.” Because they’re toys. I was born after the series and film in the 80s, so it was never really my thing growing up. But then I was sitting in the theater, ready to roll my eyes and groan, but I found myself going, “Wait… this is actually good?” And the reason it’s good is because Steven Spielberg came on as executive producer and boiled the film down a simple premise: “a boy and his car.” And that became the through line for all of it. It’s about a boy and his car… who happens to be Bumblebee. And that adds the requisite emotion you need to care about the characters throughout the story. And it’s something they lost in later movies, because by that point they knew they had a cash cow on their hands and were just milking it. Honestly, you couldn’t even tell me what the human character arcs were of the later movies. Because they’re not there. The only one that has anything resembling an arc is Bumblebee, because… “a girl and her car.” But regardless of what happened after this, this one is good. Even people who despise Bay and his films go, “That one actually was a pleasant surprise.”

Grindhouse is Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s genre exercise, trying to give viewers the kind of movie experience you’d have had if you walked into a sleazy grindhouse theater in the 70s. Both films shown back to back, with fake trailers both before and between the films. It’s a perfect theater experience. A lot of people would separate both halves, Planet Terror and Death Proof, and I did think about it, but honestly, to me, the films need to be taken as a single experience. Without the other and the trailers, you don’t really get to see the whole thing. If you just take Death Proof on its own, it feels like a weak Tarantino movie. But as part of this double bill, you can contextualize it and see exactly what they were going for, and it makes the whole experience so much better. So, Planet Terror is about a zombie outbreak and a group of survivors trying to survive it. Mostly it’s famous for Rose McGowan and her gun-for-a-leg. Death Proof is Quentin’s movie, which is kind of two movies in one. It stars Kurt Russell as a stuntman who likes to befriend young women at bars, get them in his car, and then deliberately crash it and kill them. So we watch him do it with one set, and then with another. And then, both before and after the film, we have fake trailers for other ‘films’, which as Machete (which actually ended up getting made by Rodriguez), ‘Werewolf Women of the SS’ (made by Rob Zombie), ‘Don’t’ (made by Eli Roth) and ‘Thanksgiving’ (made by Eli Roth). It’s just a wonderfully fun time at the movies. Both of these films. They should be seen together.

The Mist is Frank Darabont doing Stephen King, part three. He got closer and closer to horror/supernatural as he went on, and as such the films got less respected/well-received as time went on. Shawshank is a straight drama, Green Mile is a straight drama with a supernatural element, and this is a straight up horror movie. Though he does try to downplay the horror and focus on other aspects of the story, which is why I like the movie so much. It’s about a small northeast town that gets enveloped in, that’s right, you guessed it, a mist. And in it, all sort of monsters and things come and start killing the townsfolk. And the film takes place largely in the town supermarket, where a bunch of the residents hold up and try to survive together. That’s where the film starts to play. Because it spends a lot of time showing all the differing opinions and egos and things play out, and has Marcia Gay Harden as a super religious character who starts to gain her own followers as things get more tense and frantic as the film goes on. The monster stuff is fine (though the effects feel kinda cheap, and I think that’s why Darabont originally wanted the film to be released in black and white), and really, what makes this film work as well as it does is its ending. Without going into details, I feel like the ending is what takes a solid thriller and makes it a really solid thriller. I’m Not There is Todd Haynes’ movie about Bob Dylan. But it’s not exactly about Bob Dylan. Which is what makes it work as well as it does. Because Dylan is kind of a cypher. It’s like how David Bowie reinvented himself every couple of years (which Haynes sort of referenced in Velvet Goldmine). This movie has six different actors playing six different characters who are all aspects of Dylan at various points during his career. The six personas are referred to as: ‘poet’, ‘prophet’, ‘outlaw’, ‘fake’, ‘rock and roll martyr’ and ‘star of electricity’. The six actors who play Dylan are: Christian Bale (prophet, playing Dylan during his protest phase), Cate Blanchett (martyr, playing Dylan when he went electric), Marcus Carl Franklin (fake, playing off Dylan’s love of Woody Guthrie), Richard Gere (outlaw, playing him during the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid years), Heath Ledger (‘star of electricity’, playing an actor playing the Christian Bale version of Dylan in a movie, reflecting his tumultuous personal life in the mid-70s) and Ben Whishaw (poet, basically just spouting off Dylan quotes). The most famous version of Dylan in the movie is Cate Blanchett, who is astounding here, and honestly if you didn’t realize it was her, you’d just assume it was some dude doing a spot-on Dylan impersonation. She got nominated for her performance and almost won. Oh, and the rest of the cast of this film is amazing too: Michelle Williams, Charlotte Gainsbourg, David Cross (as Allen Ginsberg!), Bruce Greenwood, Julianne Moore and Kris Kristofferson. It’s an incredible movie. It better approximates Dylan than an actual biopic could have. Highly recommend this one.

Ratatouille is Pixar. It’s one of those that pretty much everyone’s seen, so there’s not much I need to do here. It’s about a rat who dreams of becoming a chef and finds his way into a Paris restaurant where he becomes friends with a young cook in the kitchen. It’s lovely. Everyone loves this movie and most people would have this somewhere in their top 30 movies of this year. The only reason this is so far down for me is because I just have a lot of other stuff I truly love more than this. But we all know this is one of Pixar’s best films and one of the absolute best films of this year. Black Snake Moan is one of the weirder movies you’ll see. But I love it. It’s Craig Brewer’s followup to Hustle & Flow. It’s another down and dirty southern story, though this one has a very different tone than Hustle & Flow. This one’s about Samuel L. Jackson as a man who chains up nymphomaniac Christina Ricci in his house. This movie got a lot of notoriety as it came out because it’s the ‘chained up white woman’ movie. But it’s actually quite good. It’s the story about two people who need something coming together. His marriage fell apart and she’s been a victim of abuse all her life. So he takes her in, helps her and becomes a sort of father-figure to her. It’s really well done. And I think most people can’t look past the initial setup when they think about this movie. But if you can do it, you’re in for a real treat. Ocean’s Thirteen is the third Ocean’s film. They basically go back and redo the plot of the first one, with some minor variations. But basically it’s the same plot. The entire cast is back together, trying to take down Al Pacino as a ruthless casino boss who fucked over Elliott Gould’s character and caused him to have a heart attack. So they get the band back together to pull off another job. And it’s just fun as hell. All the visual flair and fun of the first two films. This is one of those franchises that I’ll never get tired of, because you constantly feel like you’re in good hands all the way and that you’re just hanging out with these people who you like. It also features one of the lines I quote most often:

Animated GIF

The Darjeeling Limited is Wes Anderson. Most people would put this as one of their lower Anderson films (though I’m sure it has its hardcore fans). I would do the same. But a lesser Wes Anderson movie is still better than most stuff that comes out. I remember really disliking this movie the first time I saw it. And I couldn’t figure out why. Maybe because I was expecting magic from it like I got with Life Aquatic. I really liked Hotel Chevalier, the short he released beforehand, but the movie didn’t work for me. Then I saw it a year later as part of a film class and absolutely enjoyed the hell out of it. Don’t know what changed in the interim, but I don’t care. I’m just happy to have this film in my life. It stars Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman as three brothers who go to India to get closer to one another again after the death of their father. It’s a really good film. It’s got Anderson’s usual flourish and style, and it’s just a solid piece of work. Shoot ‘Em Up is basically a live-action Looney Tunes cartoon. Only, I guess, if it were a hard-R and featured necrophilia and lactating prostitutes. But the rest of it fits. Clive Owen is essentially Bugs Bunny. Literally, the first time we see him, he’s sitting at a bus stop, eating a giant carrot. And then a pregnant woman in labor runs past him, followed shortly thereafter by two gangsters trying to kill her. And that’s the film. Clive Owen finds himself in possession of this woman’s baby and decides he’s gonna protect it from these bad people. And there’s a lot of violence. It’s fun as hell. It’s funny that Crank became such a cult favorite when this basically did the same thing two years earlier. It’s fun as all hell and is one of those action movies everyone enjoys but everyone forgets is as good as it is. 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days won Cannes this year. It’s an incredible movie that’s about as realistic as you can get with a film of this type. It’s about a woman who helps her friend get an abortion in Romania in the 80s, where it is very illegal to do so. And that’s the movie. Them going about having this procedure done. It’s bleak as hell, but an incredibly powerful film.

I Am Legend is Will Smith remaking the Richard Matheson novel, which had been made previously as The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price and The Omega Man with Charlton Heston. It’s about a dystopian world after a virus has wiped out almost all the remaining population and turned the rest into nocturnal vampire-type creatures. Will Smith plays seemingly the only man left alive in New York, who lives in his old apartment with his dog, sending out messages in the hopes that there’s someone out there still alive. And the first half of the film is absolutely beautiful — it’s the life of a man who is truly alone. He goes up and down Manhattan, keeping to a sort of routine. He goes around, foraging for food, he goes to the local video store to rent a movie, he plays golf off the Intrepid, that sort of thing. He has dummies set up so he can pretend like he has someone to talk to. And he goes home as it starts to get dark so the vampires don’t get him. It’s tremendous, and Smith gives one of his absolute best performances. The movie turns into a sort of creature feature near its end, and the theatrical version makes an absolutely brutal choice for its ending. The Directors Cut has since restored the film to the way it should have ended. I won’t get too deep into it for those who haven’t seen it, but basically — one version is the straight action movie ended for people who expect a “Will Smith” movie, and the other is an ending that frames the movie as a drama and recontextualizes everything you’ve seen up to that point and leaves you with a beautifully sad and tragic result. My suggestion is you watch the Directors Cut version, but both are very good. Though that theatrical cut did really diminish the strength of the movie for me. Though I will say, if I’m able to sit down and watch that Directors Cut in full one of these days (which I’ve never actually done. I’ve only ever watched a clip of the new ending), this might end up back in the 11-20 area for me. It’s that good a movie.

3:10 to Yuma is a remake of the 1957 western that was based on an Elmore Leonard short story. Here, James Mangold directs (and what do I always say? James Mangold always makes worthwhile movies), and it stars Christian Bale and Russell Crowe. Bale plays a Civil War veteran turned farmer who must escort Russell Crowe, a notorious outlaw, to the train station so he can be put on trial. It’s basically a two-hander, where the two of them become friendly but are also constantly trying to one-up the other one. And it’s great. It’s really a terrific film. Another one of those that could have been in the 11-20 if there were only room for it. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is such an incredible film. It’s based on the autobiography of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a magazine editor who had a stroke that left every inch of his body paralyzed except for his left eye. He wrote the book this is based on using only his left eye. Which means he wrote the entire book in his head and then dictated it one letter at a time using one of those machines that ALS patients use to scan through letters so they can type out what they want to say. The real highlight of the film is the astounding direction of Julian Schnabel. It’s absolutely amazing. He was nominated for Best Director, and it was completely deserved. (Honestly, that’s one of the strongest Best Director categories of all time, and he was good enough to have won it.) This is one of those essential movies because it shows you how you can take something that is incredibly difficult to film and make interesting and turn it into something beautiful and transcendent.

Rescue Dawn is Werner Herzog’s film based off his own documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly. It’s about a fighter pilot who gets shot down in Laos during the Vietnam War and gets held as a prisoner of war. And the film is about his experiences as a POW and his eventual escape. It’s so goddamn good. This was back when people didn’t notice the amazing choices (and work) Christian Bale was making. He had done Batman, but this kind of stuff largely went unnoticed by the public at large. I think it was after Dark Knight that people started making sure they looked at everything he made. Which leaves stuff like this woefully underappreciated even though it’s great. Hot Fuzz is Edgar Wright’s followup to Shaun of the Dead and the second film in his ‘Cornetto’ trilogy. This is a cop movie with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Pegg is a hotshot London cop who gets transferred to a small town with some dark secrets hidden beneath the surface. It’s great. I love Shaun of the Dead more, but I also really love this one. The World’s End is very good, but I think it’s the weakest of the three. This one is still very funny, and I think by now we all know that you can’t go wrong with an Edgar Wright picture. The Hunting Party one of the hidden gems of the year and decade. It’s a very dark comedy directed by Richard Shepherd (who made The Matador, Dom Hemingway and The Perfection) that begins with a title card I will never forget: “only the most ridiculous parts of this story are true.” Richard Gere plays a war correspondent who has gone from war zone to war zone for years and ends up a drunk basically working for booze money. He teams up with his former cameraman Terrence Howard and newbie journalist (and son of a network boss) Jesse Eisenberg to go track down the most wanted war criminal in Bosnia. Just trust me on this that this movie is great.

La Vie en Rose is a biopic of Edith Piaf starring Marion Cotillard. It features one of the most stunning performances you’ll see. Marion Cotillard is so amazing as Piaf that she became only the sixth person ever to win an Oscar for a performance based entirely in another language (and only three of them are for purely foreign films, rather than performances in American movies that just happen to be spoken in another language). She is incredibly here, and it’s her performance that makes this movie as good as it is. Trust me on this, it is one of the greatest performances you’ll ever see. Superbad is Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s first big movie. They wrote the script based on their own friendship in high school, and it broke a bunch of careers. Namely Jonah Hill, Emma Stone and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (who, because of this film, will forever be known as McLovin’). It’s just an amazing comedy that still holds up. This movie is still funny and will continue to be funny. One of the comedies of the decade. It’s absolutely hilarious. American Gangster is Ridley Scott’s New York epic about Frank Lucas, who starts out as the right hand man to a beloved Harlem gangster who later goes to become the biggest heroin importer in the United States. It’s so goddamn good. Denzel plays Lucas and Russell Crowe plays the cop who took him down. And the film parallels their stories until eventually they cross paths, leading to an eventual showdown. It’s… okay, so I think the thing with this movie, aside from it being a bit excessive at times, is that the real story isn’t as exciting as what the movie version of this would have been. So you think you’re gonna get one thing at the end of the movie and it turns out to be something else. But outside of that, it’s just a really entertaining movie. The cast is insane. Aside from those two, there’s Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin, Armand Assante, Ted Levine, John Ortiz, John Hawkes, RZA, Ruby Dee (as Denzel’s mother, who was nominated for her performance), Idris Elba, Carla Gugino, Common, T.I. and other very recognizable faces (like Kevin Corrigan and John Polito). It’s awesome. And it has one of the best trailers I have ever seen:

Oh man, that moment the music cuts out at the end and then kicks back in… glorious.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tier three:

  • 2 Days in Paris
  • 300
  • Away from Her
  • Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
  • Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
  • Breach
  • The Game Plan
  • Gone Baby Gone
  • The Great Debaters
  • Hairspray
  • Knocked Up
  • Lars and the Real Girl
  • Live Free or Die Hard
  • The Lookout
  • Music and Lyrics
  • [REC]
  • The Savages
  • The Simpsons Movie
  • Spider-Man 3
  • Seraphim Falls

Away from Her. My god, this went tier three. Look at this year. This is Sarah Polley’s directorial debut and it’s an incredibly powerful drama. It stars Gordon Pinset and Julie Christie as a couple whose marriage undergoes a strain when the woman begins showing signs of dementia. Eventually it gets to the point where he has to put her into a home to be treated for it. And part of the deal is that he puts her there and he has to stay (insert title here) for thirty days so she can acclimate to the environment. Only, when he goes back after the 30 days, he finds out that she’s forgotten all about him and is ‘in love’ with another patient there at the facility. It’s an amazing movie. It’s about watching the love of your life, who you’ve spent almost half a century with, slowly forget who you are. It’s heart-wrenching. Julie Christie was nominated for her performance and almost won. I highly, highly recommend this one. The Game Plan is one of those movies that, when I saw it was coming out, you went, “Of course.” Because The Rock was trying to make his name as an actor. And he started in action movies and things, and then he started branching out into family stuff. It’s how you do it. You make your niche, and then branch out to everyone, and then you get to the point where he is now, where he’s one of the biggest movie stars in the world and could be in anything and have people go see it. Here, it fits that niche of the big sports star-turned actor/dude with muscles known for action. They all seem to end up in that movie where they have to take care of a child they didn’t know they had/don’t want. He plays an NFL quarterback whose 8-year-old daughter is thrust upon his lap and now has to adjust his bachelor lifestyle to incorporate this child. And, at the time, I completely dismissed this movie. But you know what? It’s lovely. The Rock is fantastic, and it’s just a very likable, watchable movie. This is the kind of movie most people would watch with a younger sibling or child and go, “You know, that’s not that bad.” Weirdly, I got into this because my parents of all people would have this on when it was on cable and whenever I was home, I’d catch bits and pieces of it here and there, eventually seeing the film as a whole and realizing, “Damn, this is really likable.” It’s going by a lot of the numbers, but it’s still entertaining.

Breach is one of the most underrated movies of this year. Possibly even the decade. It stars Ryan Phillippe and Chris Cooper (who is terrific here). Philippe is a young FBI agent who is sent to work (and spy) on Cooper and report back to his bosses. And pretty soon what seems like minor improprieties turn into some very serious underhanded dealings, and Phillippe finds himself very deep in the situation. It’s really good. Trust me on this. You wanna see this movie. [REC] is a foreign horror movie. And I generally don’t go in for horror movies like this, but I like this one. They remade it in the U.S. as Quarantine, but that’s not nearly as good as this one is. It’s found footage (one of the few times I am okay with that conceit) and it’s about a reporter who is doing a local puff piece on the fire department when they get a call. So she decides to take her cameraman and tag along. So they get there and she begins interviewing residents as part of the piece. Though pretty quickly they find out that the building has been sealed off and quarantined. So now everyone’s wondering what the hell is going on… and pretty soon they find out. This handles the horror element really well, slow-playing it and sort of baiting you into this trap of banality before springing it on you. And it works. It works really well. Live Free or Die Hard is the fourth Die Hard movie, and I’d have told you it was the worst Die Hard movie… but then they made that fifth one. That one’s the Rocky V, where we just kind of gloss over it and pretend it didn’t really happen. This one… it’s a fine action movie. It just doesn’t feel like a Die Hard movie. For some reason they turned McClane into a Terminator instead of keeping him as what his character has always been… a wisecracking guy in the wrong place at the wrong time who just doesn’t want to have to deal with this shit. But apparently Bruce Willis’s star persona won out, so instead of being John McClane, he was just Bruce Willis. And the result is a very strange movie. It’s fun, and it’s got its moments, but it’s not really Die Hard.

Gone Baby Gone is Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, based on a Dennis Lehane novel (he’s the guy who also wrote Mystic River, Shutter Island, Live by Night and the short story that gave us The Drop). It’s about a three-year-old girl who gets kidnapped from her home in Boston. The family hires two private detectives (Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan) to help find the girl, since they don’t trust the cops to be able to deal with the more… unsavory characters of the neighborhood. And as the two detectives investigate the case, they start getting deep into some stuff, starting with the fact that the girl’s mother (Amy Ryan, who was nominated for her performance here) is a crackhead and was involved with some not nice people. It’s a really solid and effective thriller with some great performances. It’s a really strong film, and would have gone higher for me in any other year. It’s a testament to how strong this year is that it wound up here. Seraphim Falls is an awesome western that, if you asked me back in 2007 which movies I was most excited for that year, this would have been on that list. I was all over this. I couldn’t wait to see this movie. It’s a revenge western starring Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson. And it’s pretty simple — Liam Neeson is hunting down Pierce Brosnan. That’s the film. You learn more about who they are and why along the way, but simply, it’s one man hunting down another man. The end. And it’s dope. I love westerns and I’ll always like a western more than the next person, but I really like this western quite a bit. It’s one of those hidden gems, which, for a genre that’s hard to get made nowadays, is a good thing to have. 300 is Zack Snyder’s adaptation of the Frank Miller graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae. Which of course, everyone knows about. (I’m joking, but also… people kinda know now because of this movie.) It’s shot in the Sin City style and is just a great, fun action movie. Gerard Butler made his career playing Leonidas, and this movie helped bring us Michael Fassbender (well, Hunger and then Inglourious Basterds really brought him to us, but this helped). It’s just an awesome action movie that everyone enjoys. It just makes you want to pull up a chair, make some popcorn and kick some Persians down into pits of death.

Lars and the Real Girl is one of the great performances of Ryan Gosling’s career. Directed by Craig Gillespie (who went on to do I, Tonya, for you people who need the little extra bit of motivation to see this), Gosling stars as a socially-awkward man who introduces his family to his new girlfriend… who just happens to be a sex doll. He treats the doll as a real, living person and demands everyone else do the same. At first everyone thinks he’s insane, but seeing how lonely he is and how badly he just wants to make a connection with another person, everyone starts going along with it. It’s a wonderful film. It really is. Gosling is amazing, and it’s just a beautiful, feel-good kind of movie, with the right amount of quirk to make it stand out. I highly recommend this one. 2 Days in Paris is a Julie Delpy film that’s just wonderful. She writes, directs and stars, and it’s about her and her boyfriend (played wonderfully by Adam Goldberg) who travel to Paris to try to rekindle their failing relationship. It’s great. Because basically he’s there, and he sees her insane family, and then she’s constantly running into all these dudes she used to date, and it starts driving him crazy… it’s really well-written. I definitely recommend this one.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is Sidney Lumet’s final film. And it’s fantastic. It stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as brothers who make a plan to rob their own parents’ jewelry store, which of course doesn’t go the way they expect and sets in motion a tragic series of events. It’s fantastic. It also stars Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, Michael Shannon, Amy Ryan and Rosemary Harris. Highly recommend this one. Another one that would have gone higher in any other year and speaks to just how strong from top to bottom this year is. Knocked Up is Judd Apatow’s second movie, which was an even bigger hit than 40 Year Old Virgin and made a movie star out of Seth Rogen. Rogen stars as a stoner who has a one night stand with Katherine Heigl and then finds out she got pregnant from it and is going to keep the baby. So now he’s gotta man up and grow up in order to become a proper father for this child. It’s very funny. I wasn’t the biggest fan of it when it came out, but I saw it late on and enjoyed it a lot more. It’s a very worthwhile movie. Behind the Mask is a documentary that owes a lot to Man Bites Dog, since it’s basically the same setup, though made for horror movie fans. It follows a documentary crew as they follow around the next great ‘horror killer’. It’s basically a guy who wants to be the next Michael Myers or Freddie Krueger. So they follow him as he trains to be that. It’s funny. We follow the guy as he makes his preparations to murder a bunch of teenagers before finally confronting the ‘final girl’. It plays off all the horror tropes and has cameos from famous horror movie actors. It’s just a lot of fun. Not groundbreaking, but amusing.

Hairspray is an adaptation of the stage musical that was based on the John Waters film. It’s very Disney-fied. It feels like a far cry from the kind of films Waters came up making. The story is about an overweight girl growing up in Baltimore in the 60s who dreams of dancing on an American Bandstand-like show, all while integration and Civil Rights were happening across the country. In keeping with the tradition of the original film and the stage show, the character of Tracy’s mother Edna is played by a man. In this case, it’s John Travolta. Not quite Harvey Fierstein or Divine, but he holds his own in the role. Christopher Walken as the father (in the Jerry Stiller role) is pretty awesome too. And then you’ve got Michelle Pfeiffer, Zac Efron, Amanda Bynes in there as well. It’s a fun movie. Mostly what makes it work are the songs. The musical has incredible songs working for it, and that’s what carries the day. It’s a bit too squeaky-clean for me and could have used a little more visual style and flair, but overall it’s a fun movie. The Savages is a Tamara Jenkins movie. She doesn’t make stuff often, but when she does, it’s wholly worthwhile. She makes adult dramas about real life circumstances. Often autobiographical. This is about a brother and sister (clearly based on her and her brother) dealing with the declining health of their father. They’ve got a rough history with him, and now he’s unable to care for himself due to his increasing dementia, so they now have to care for this man who they haven’t spoken to in years and hate because of what he put them through as children. Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman star, and both are fantastic here. This is a very, very solid movie. I actually ended up reading this script at one point and like that even better than I like the movie. But the movie is really solid.

The Simpsons Movie is the first (and to this point, only) feature film based on the show. Took them almost 20 years to do it. And honestly, worth the wait. It’s a terrific movie. It’s about Homer accidentally poisoning Springfield’s water supply and the government (via President Arnold Schwarzenegger) putting a giant dome around Springfield, planning to destroy the entire town. It’s fun. It’s The Simpsons. How can you not enjoy The Simpsons? Music and Lyrics is a Hugh Grant rom com. I will admit that I came late to the Hugh Grant party, never really seeing his rom coms until years later. And almost all of them are very good. Here, he plays a famous 80s singer who now makes money playing his hits for older crowds at state fairs. In order to stay relevant, he gets an offer to write a song for an American Idol-type star. Which is great… only he’s never written a lyric in his life. He’s only good at melodies. Then he meets Drew Barrymore in some convoluted rom com way… and of course she is good at writing lyrics. So of course the two of them have to pair up. And… you know how it goes. It’s actually a very charming movie. Kinda dated, but it hits more than it misses. And Grant has never met a rom com he couldn’t charm his way out of. It’s a fun one. The Great Debaters is Denzel’s sophomore directorial effort. His first film, Antwone Fisher, is solid but not well remembered. This at least got some traction. His third one, Fences, is the one people remember. But this one is very solid as well. He stars as a professor who starts the first debate team at his historically-black college in the deep South in the 30s. You can imagine a lot of the themes going on here. It’s really solid.

The Lookout is a really fun, twisty little neo noir. Written and directed by Scott Frank, who made his name as a writer on stuff like Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Minority Report and Logan, it stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a man with a brain injury suffered years earlier that prevents him from remembering things for long periods of time. Kind of like a Memento situation, but not as extreme. He works as an overnight janitor at a bank, and becomes a pawn to a group of people planning a heist of that bank. It’s great. It’s really good. It also stars Jeff Daniels, Isla Fisher, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino and Bruce McGill. Another hidden gem that’s just fantastic that ends up here because there’s so much good stuff this year. Spider-Man 3 is the third one, which basically killed the franchise. Okay, not really. They were planning to make a fourth one but never got around to it because I think Sam Raimi wanted too much money and was probably gonna do something too weird, so they just decided to go and reboot the whole damn thing. But this one critically killed the franchise. Because people fucking hated this. But that’s kind of Sam Raimi’s thing. By the time you get to the third one, you stop taking everything seriously and start having fun with it. Which is how you get emo Peter Parker dancing in what’s become one of the classic internet memes. This is also a kitchen sink kind of movie, with three villains. There’s Sandman, there’s Venom and there’s Green Goblin. They literally force the James Franco/Goblin arc here when they probably don’t need to. But also, that’s kind of what franchises were this decade. No one really knew how to do long form franchises and were based in a trilogy mindset. So I think the idea was “just go out with a bang.” I guess. I don’t know. I know this is the weakest of the Raimi Spider-Man films, but it’s also entertaining as hell, sometimes not in the best of ways. Though I will say, my favorite part of this movie has absolutely nothing to do with the film itself. I went to a midnight showing of this with friends during college and we got there like 30 minutes before the movie started (because this was a place and an era where you didn’t pick your seats and just hat to get there to sit where you wanted). So we had to sit through that revolving thing of ads and trivia questions that cycle through before the show. And one of them was a Spider-Man question using a particular still that was released for this movie. Only, the way the photo was cropped — well, let’s just say we’re all sitting there, and this picture shows up on screen, and my only thought (which of course I communicated very loudly in the middle of the theater was), “Oh my god, is she jerking him off?”

Sure looks that way, doesn’t it?

Honestly, if I were Spider-Man, I’d totally be doing the same thing.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tier four:

  • Balls of Fury
  • Bee Movie
  • The Bucket List
  • Control
  • The Golden Compass
  • Grace Is Gone
  • In the Valley of Elah
  • The Kite Runner
  • Meet the Robinsons
  • National Treasure: Book of Secrets
  • Next
  • Rocket Science
  • Sicko
  • Sleuth
  • Smokin’ Aces
  • Stardust
  • Surf’s Up
  • Talk to Me
  • The Ten
  • We Own the Night

Next is the beginning of the insane Nicolas Cage movies. The Wicker Man was patient zero, and pretty much from that point on, it’s like he started deliberately choosing weird movies that he could either go nuts in or that could be weird, campy little oddities. He’s not that insane in this (not unless you count his hairpiece), but the movie itself is nuts. He plays a Vegas magician who is actually part psychic (he can see about two minutes into the future, but keeps this fact hidden through his act). An FBI agent discovers this and plans to use him to help stop some terrorists. So yeah… that’s the movie. And you know what? Love it. Entertaining as all hell. Pure action movie entertainment, and the kind of movie that could only have been made between 1997 and 2007. Can’t say I recommend this highly, but as far as the Cage movies go, this one goes into the ‘it’s fun as hell’ pile. The Bucket List is a movie that so many people know about. I guess because it stars Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. I’m sure almost everyone’s forgotten that Rob Reiner directed it too. But I think this was a pretty big hit when it came out. Nicholson and Freeman play two dying men who decide to go off and do all the things they wanted to do before they die. It’s fun. The kind of movie everyone will look back fondly on because it has two big stars in a feel-good kinda movie. It’s also very solid, too, which will only help that happen. Sleuth is a remake of the 1972 film/adaptation of the stage play. The conceit of this one is that Michael Caine played the younger character in the original film, and here he plays the older character in the remake. Which is just a fantastic way to go about remaking something that didn’t necessarily need to be remade. (And something that’s really difficult to remake now, given some of the events of the story, which are really easy to figure out even if they’re done incredibly well.) Jude Law plays the young role and Kenneth Branagh directs. It’s not as good as the 1972 version, but it does enough of the trick to keep you entertained.

Smokin’ Aces is Joe Carnahan just making a gleefully anarchic action movie. This is pure Quentin ripoff 101, and you know what, in 2007, that feels kinda novel, so bring it on. It stars Jeremy Piven as Las Vegas magician Buddy “Aces” Israel (still haven’t forgotten that character name after all these years) who has decided to testify against the Vegas mob and is put into protective custody in the penthouse of a Vegas hotel. The dying head of the mob declares that he wants Israel’s heart cut out of his chest and puts a big price on his head. Which brings all sorts of devious characters out of the woodwork, looking to collect. The beauty of the film is that it allows for a big ensemble cast of stars doing cameos and bit parts and it’s one of those where a bunch of people are all looking to get the same thing, and there’s guns, so everyone’s just gonna be eventually shooting at each other and killing each other. It’s fun as shit. Here’s the cast: Ryan Reynolds, Ray Liotta, Alex Rocc (aka Moe Greene), Ben Affleck, Peter Berg, Common, Andy Garcia, Alicia Keys, Taraji P. Henson, Chris Pine, Joel Edgerton, Jason Bateman, Matthew Fox and (of course) Wayne Newton. It’s never gonna be mistaken for a masterpiece, but it’s fun as shit. The Kite Runner is an adaptation of the famous novel. It’s about two friends growing up in Afghanistan, one wealthy the other the son of a servant, who are inseparable. Though after an event happens and one of them fails to act to help the other, they are separated. Years later, after living abroad, the man returns back with a chance to help his friend the way he didn’t the first time. It’s a really solid film. Marc Forster directs, coming off Finding Neverland, and it’s just a really affecting drama. It’s better than tier four, but that just goes to show you how strong this year is. Control is a biopic of Ian Curtis, lead singer of Joy Division. It’s in the vein of a Sid and Nancy — biopic of a singer who died at a very young age. Anton Corbijn directs (his debut, coming off a career of music videos) and shoots it in very striking black and white. This is a really solid piece of work that most people will refer to as one of the better (if not best) music biopics out there and a very underrated film at that.

Talk to Me is a wonderful little gem of a biopic directed by Kasi Lemmons and starring Don Cheadle as an ex-con who became a popular talk show host in D.C. in the 70s. It’s also got Chiwetel Ejiofor, Taraji P. Henson, Mike Epps, Cedric the Entertainer and Martin Sheen in it. It’s really solid and is very much under the radar despite being a fantastic movie. Also another victim of this year being so strong, because in most years, this would be solidly in tier three. Balls of Fury is a ping pong comedy. The plot is insane. Really this movie is worth it for Christopher Walken as a criminal mastermind who hosts a black market ping pong tournament. The plot is so insane that you know nobody was taking this movie seriously. It’s a ping pong phenom who got out of the game and needs to return to his former glory when he is recruited by the FBI to join in the game and help take down Walken (who is also the man who had the guy’s father killed). It’s insane. But it’s one of those movies that’s so stupid it’s funny. It also stars Dan Fogler, George Lopez, Maggie Q, James Hong, Robert Patrick, Aisha Tyler, Thomas Lennon, Diedrich Bader, Patton Oswalt, David Koechner and Terry Crews. Turn your brain all the way down and just enjoy this one. Meet the Robinsons is Disney’s first film in the era of John Lasseter, aka “These past couple of years didn’t work, so let’s try to do what Pixar did, since that seemed to work.” This was gonna come out in 2006 and they held it back a year to try to make it better. And the result is that it’s not the second-worst movie they’ve ever made next to Chicken Little. Though admittedly it’s only like one or two spots above that. Sicko is Michael Moore’s documentary about healthcare. I say this every time… say what you will about him, the man makes entertaining documentaries that deal with very big issues that need to be addressed within the country, and, for better or worse, he shines a light on them that would otherwise not really get a light properly shined on them. So for that, I always like his stuff. And on a pure entertainment level, as someone who generally hates serious documentaries about topics like this, the way he presents them actually makes me want to watch them.

Rocket Science is a pure Sundance movie that broke Anna Kendrick. She’s the main reason to see this movie. Her performance in this made everyone sit up and go, “Who is that?” It’s only her second movie, and this helped get her both Twilight and Up in the Air (which is what really launched her career). It’s a coming of age movie about a kid with a stutter who is dealing with his parents divorcing who gets recruited to the high school debate team by Anna Kendrick, overachiever determined to win first place at the big tournament. He starts to gain confidence, overcome his stutter and even fall in love with her. It’s really solid. Definitely recommend seeking this one out. It’s got more complexity to it than the synopsis may suggest. Stardust is based on a Neil Gaiman novel and is Matthew Vaughn’s second film, after Layer Cake. A much different film than that, this is more of a fantasy adventure. The plot… doesn’t really matter. Young man goes on an adventure and meets all sorts of characters and has to take down bad people and meets a princess. You know how all these things work. Film stars Charlie Cox, Michelle Pfeiffer, Claire Danes, Robert De Niro, Ricky Gervais, Sienna Miller, Henry Cavill, Peter O’Toole, Mark Strong, Jason Flemyng and is narrated by Ian McKellen. It’s just fun. The Golden Compass, that is, Academy Award winner The Golden Compass, a movie based on the His Dark Materials series of books, which was apparently such a bomb that they never bothered to finish the series after this one movie. It’s about a fantasy world where all people have animal friends that are like Pokemon/walking Patronuses who accompany them everywhere. And there’s some sort of adventure with a girl’s missing father, and there are fighting bears… honestly I don’t remember a whole lot about the movie, but I do remember it being pretty decent and there being bear fights. And I’m always down for a good bear fight.

Grace Is Gone is a really solid little indie drama. It’s written and directed by Jim Strouse (who makes really solid little indies that not enough people see. His other movies, in case you’ve heard of them and like them, are The Winning Season, People Places Things and The Incredible Jessica James), and stars John Cusack as a man who finds out his wife was killed while serving in Afghanistan. Which is already a nice twist on the kind of movie we’d usually get out of this setup. But, after he finds out, he finds himself unable to break the news to his two daughters, so instead he takes them to Disney World. It’s a beautiful, understated film that is very poignant. A really nice little gem that is worth seeking out. Surf’s Up is a movie nominated for Best Animated Feature that I’d always dismissed because it was about surfing penguins. But really the fact that they nominated it should have been the sign that it was better than I expected. It’s about the world penguin surfing championships, but don’t let that fool you. It’s a really well made movie. There are a lot of fun narrative tricks they do that feel really inventive and make it more amusing than most other non-Disney/Pixar animated fare out there. Also — Shia LaBeouf and Jeff Bridges voice the two main penguins. Bridges’ character is basically Lebowski the Penguin. This is so much more amusing than it had any right to be. (Also, it was directed by a guy who co-directed Tarzan and Frozen, so there’s also that.) Bee Movie is Jerry Seinfeld’s movie about bees. I feel like the entire conception behind this movie was a giant joke that they decided to go all in on and actually make. It’s about a bee, named Barry B. Benson, who is dissatisfied by the idea that all he’s able to do in life is make honey for the hive. And then he finds out that humans actually eat honey, basically using the bees to do all the hard work and reaping the benefits. So he decides to sue the human race for this. I’m not joking. That’s the plot of this movie. And you know what? It’s wonderful. Because usually these animated movies are about animals getting lost or some shit. This is about a bee suing the human race for stealing honey from bees. Also, why wouldn’t you want to see a movie with that plot?

We Own the Night is James Gray’s cop drama starring Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg. They starred in The Yards back in 2000 and come back for the followup. Joaquin plays a club owner who is friends with the Russian mob, as they come hang out at his club all the time. His father, Robert Duvall, is the NYPD police chief and his brother, Mark Wahlberg, is also a cop. So of course they’re looking to take down the Russian mob and become targets, which puts Phoenix in the position of figuring out just where his loyalties lie. It’s a James Gray movie, so you know you’re in for the goods. It’s a really solid piece of work. In the Valley of Elah is a Paul Haggis drama that earned Tommy Lee Jones an Oscar nomination. Jones plays a retired military investigator whose son returns home from Iraq and, within a day, is found dead. He of course wants to find out what happen and it seems like both the army and local police don’t want him to find out. So of course, for the sake of his son, he’s determined to find out what happened. It’s a solid drama with a great central performance from Jones. Not the greatest movie ever made, but it’s a really solid adult drama (and also stars Charlize Theron, Jason Patric, Susan Sarandon, Josh Brolin and James Franco). National Treasure: Book of Secrets is the sequel. Instead of stealing the Declaration of Independence, Nicolas Cage kidnaps the President of the United States. Enough said.

The Ten is David Wain directing an anthology comedy based around the Ten Commandments. Paul Rudd plays the sort of narrator who shows up between the segments, but the film is centered around each of the commandments, and it’s… well, it’s kind of hit and miss, but when it hits, it really hits. The cast is also nuts: Jessica Alba, Winona Ryder, Jon Hamm, Adam Brody, Ken Marino, Famke Janssen, Gretchen Mol, Justin Theroux, Liev Schreiber, Oliver Platt, Thomas Lennon, Janeane Garofolo, Rob Corddry, Michael Ian Black, Rashida Jones, Michael Showalter, Jason Sudeikis, H. Jon Benjamin, Bobby Cannavale. It’s nuts. And it also features one of the funniest trailers I’ve ever seen. This trailer still makes me laugh every time I see it:

 

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