In the history of film there have been a number of anni mirabili, years in which an enormous amount of quality movies were released. The great examples are 1939 (Gone With the Wind, the Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Ninotchka), 1960 (Psycho, L’Avventura, Breathless, La Dolce Vita), 1974 (Godfather 2, Chinatown, The Last Detail, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein), 1979 (Apocalypse Now, Manhattan, Alien, Breaking Away), 1994 (Schindler’s List, Short Cuts, Groundhog Day, Dazed and Confused) and 1999 (Magnolia, The Matrix, Being John Malkovich, All About My Mother).
Then there was 2007. For one glorious year, it was like the 1970’s all over again. Smart characters were using their brains as weapons. Movie stars were challenging themselves with tough roles. Punches were not pulled. Happy endings were not guaranteed. There was a parade of intelligent movies, seemingly made for adults to watch while the kids were watching Transformers. I’m not saying it was a perfect year. There is no such thing. 1974 gets The Towering Inferno, 2007 gets robots in disguise.
Yes, there was candy to be had but there were plenty of cinematic meals far heartier than expected. Tim Burton gave us a musical! A bloody bloody musical (Sweeney Todd). Harry Potter and his young audience took a large step towards maturity with the death of Cedric Diggory (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire).
Jason Bourne returned with his continued demonstration of what an intelligent action movie could be like (The Bourne Supremacy). Ang Lee got sexy (Lust, Caution). Danny Boyle tried his hand at sci-fi (Sunshine). And a couple of kings of the second golden age, Sidney Lumet and Mike Nichols, closed off their careers proving that they still had the touch (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and Charlie Wilson’s War).
The Spartans polished up their chests and thighs for battle (300). There was a stoner comedy about growing up (Knocked Up), a bio-pic about Edith Piaf (La Vie en Rose) and a bio-parody about Dewey Cox (Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox Story).
The Simpsons went to Alaska (The Simpsons Movie) and Wes Anderson went to India (The Darjeeling Limited), while Quentin Tarentino and Robert Rodriguez gave us some retro gore (Grindhouse). If real life is your thing, there was an unlikely sports documentary about competitive Donkey Kong (The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters).
These fifteen movies did not make the list. That’s how good the year was. Here are the ones that did.
20. Into The Wild
Into the Wild is the true story of Christopher McCandless, a young man who went to the woods to live deliberately and died trying. We follow him from his volatile childhood home to the mountains and arroyos of California, the forests of the northwest, the fields of South Dakota and finally the fate-sealing wilderness of Alaska.
Director Sean Penn and company follow the same route of McCandless’s journey, filming almost entirely on location. This makes for a particularly gorgeous film. The audience has no choice but to see the world as beautiful and inviting as our doomed hero did.
Is Christopher a self-glorifying middle class kid? Is he an iconoclast living as a latter day Henry Thoreau? Is he a bum? Is he an inspiration? Is he a warning? Penn allows the audience to make up its own mind about the hero. Likewise Emile Hirsch brings out McCandless’s obsessive personality which makes him alternately inspiring, charming, naïve and selfish.
Into the Wild is less emotionally brutal than his previous directorial efforts (and for that matter most of his acting efforts, too) but no less intense. Though the movie refuses to spell things out for us, it is a more bearable experience as it is balanced more heavily on the side of joy than despair.
19. Eastern Promises
A teenage girl dies while giving birth in a London hospital. A nurse (Naomi Watts) investigates her history which sparks the notice of the Russian mob. Viggo Mortensen is a mid-level gangster who must protect the nurse and child from his employer (Armin Mueller-Stahl).
The most notorious scene in the movie is a fight scene in a Turkish bath that makes men realize what women feel like when they watch the shower scene in Psycho. And like Psycho’s shower, this moment overshadows the rest of the movie despite the fact that it is just one great scene out of many in this somber crime drama.
18. My Winnipeg
Arguably the strangest movie on the list. Canadian director Guy Maddin made a documentary about his hometown of Winnipeg. Or maybe it’s not a documentary, but a silent film, or family melodrama, or ghost story, or soviet-style propaganda piece. Shot in blacks and whites as stark as a Manitoba January, My Winnipeg follows a dream narrative that combines history- both civic and personal- with legends and lies.
Are there truly warring cab companies who split their territories between streets and alleys? Was there really a spiritualist who communicated to the dead via dance? Was Maddin’s mother really that afraid of birds? And can horses really die that way? The movie leaves one with more questions than answers, but in the end one feels they know how Winnipeg feels: a city filled with sleepwalkers, a city with more past than history, a city that is “Always Winter, always sleeping.” And maybe most importantly to Maddin, a city without a pro hockey team.
17. Hot Fuzz
Hot Fuzz is a combination of The Wicker Man and Bad Boys that hits all the right movie nerd buttons. Actor-writer Simon Pegg and writer-director Edgar Wright drop every American buddy cop movie trope on a seemingly peaceful small town in England. Pegg plays a London cop exiled to Sandford, Gloucestershire, a supposedly crime-free village with an alarming number of “accidents.”
From this description one may think that Hot Fuzz is merely a modern parody of cop movies in the style of Blazing Saddles or Airplane! but Wright and Pegg repeat the trick they had previously performed in Shawn of the Dead by placing their farce into a firmly realistic setting filled with recognizable, fully-realized characters. The movie has an intensely dense plot and contains seemingly every British actor not involved with the Harry Potter franchise (plus a pre-Potter Jim Broadbent).
Pixar has made the world love insects in A Bug’s Life, and monsters in Monsters Inc., but could they do the same for humanity’s bane the rat? As unlikely as that may sound, add to that the challenge of it being a rat who lives in the kitchen of one of the top restaurants in Paris. This is the central challenge/joke of Ratatouille. Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) is unhappy with the low-quality food he and his pack dine on, so he runs away to Paris- perfectly recreated with it hazy skyline- where the food is said to be finer.
With its loving renderings of French cuisine, Ratatouille more than earns its place next to Babette’s Feast and Big Night in the small sub-genre of foodie pictures. And using the art of animation, it goes a step further by doing one more thing that’s seemingly impossible: they figured out how to visually depict the taste of food.
15. Lars and the Real Girl
The idea seems like something out of a sex farce: a socially awkward and likely delusional man begins dating a life-size anatomically correct doll. Craig Gillespie’s film, based off a script by Nancy Oliver, takes the premise into a different direction, giving us a warm human comedy about tolerance, the inherent goodness of man, and our need for connection. It plays like an analog precursor of Spike Jonze’s Her, but with the dystopian future, replaced by Norman Rockwell.
It would be very easy for this story to collapse under its own preciousness but it always catches itself right before it teeters over to un-believability. The film’s success rides almost entirely on Ryan Goslings’s shoulders. As Lars, he gives a finely calibrated performance that elicits the joyful sensation of watching a chick emerge from an egg.
The smallest amount of cynicism or perversion could have upended the whole venture but his passionate belief that his doll Bianca is real that is irresistible not only for the audience, but for his family and the population of his small town. Everyone starts out doubtfully pandering to Lars’s imaginary friend but end up seeing her as a member of the community. It may be a shared delusion, but it’s a delusion that makes them happy.