Looking Closer’s 25 Favorite Films of 2007 (With an Introduction About List-Making)

Once upon a time, I was naive enough, and arrogant enough, to post lists of “the year’s best films.”

But now, I’m reluctant to even offer a list of recommendations. It would probably be better if I posted my Favorite Movies of 2007 in 2009 or 2015.

And speaking of lists, here are a few reasons why…

  • The more I read about what is seen by each year film critics who have the time and resources to attend international film festivals, the more I feel like my list will just be a show of how many world-renowned movies I *haven’t* seen.
  • The more I understand about art, the more I realize that it takes many years of looking, looking closer, and looking again before I really begin to understand the significance of a particular work. Take The Station Agent, for instance. I saw it in 2003 and rated it at about #20 on my year-end favorites list. Now it’s among the movies that I recommend to people most often, and would probably be in the top 3 or 4 for that 2003.
  • Art affects people differently based on their experiences. There is a difference between assessing a film’s artistic excellence and assessing how it affects you personally. There are many excellent films that I admire, for this reason or that, but that have not inspired any particular passion within me. Similarly, there are many not-so-brilliant movies that have, nevertheless, given me a glimpse of something life-changing. My experience, my faith, my questions, my age… all of these things affect how I see a film.

Thus, over the last few years, I’ve given up making lists as any kind of declaration of what is “greatest.”

Instead, I write lists as a way of sharing and recording what is meaningful and memorable at a particular time, and then I revise that list as I grow and understand more. It’s far too early for me to have a strong sense of a film’s true greatness. No critic in their right mind can come to such conclusions within a few weeks of seeing a movie, or having only seen it once.

You’ve got to take movies out of the showroom and test drive them in various conditions. You have to see how they perform over time to learn what they’re really made of.

So, having said that…

These 25 movies are on the list because they:

  • challenged me with mysteries and questions and provocative metaphors,
  • taught me to consider how the world looks to my neighbors,
  • expanded my understanding of the power of art,
  • caused me to reflect on my own life and how much I have to learn,
  • brought me joy,
  • awakened my conscience, and
  • sometimes broke my heart.

A brief word about 2007′s list

2007 was an exciting year at the movies, one of the best years I can remember. My #1-#4 picks… those were easy. No contest. Beyond that, it was tough to choose from the long list of memorable, inspiring films.

This list was updated in July of 2008 to include several more titles that I saw too late to include in the initial draft. The list that is likely to change again as I discover other ’07 releases. Feel free to try and persuade me that certain films should be rated higher or lower!

I haven’t found the time to write up notes on every film, alas. If you have questions about any of them, don’t hesitate to ask.

You’ll also find a list of films I still need to see and consider adding to this list.

25 FAVORITE FILMS OF 2007

 

1. Into Great Silence

A film about great faith, great discipline, and great silence.

I need much more of all three of these. And so does the world. So this film is essential.

I’ve seen Philip Gr√∂ning’s documentary Into Great Silence three times, once on Easter Sunday afternoon in a theater with a few quiet moviegoers (and a few who walked out after an hour when they realized that this did not exist to entertain them). The film demands patience… three hours of it. If it were any shorter, it would not achieve what it achieves. It is meant to test us, to cause us to ponder what kind of sacrifice, restraint, and stillness is required to find true silence, and to truly listen for that “still small voice” of God.

I find that every few weeks I have a craving to return to that beautiful Carthusian monastery, set amidst the grandeur of the French Alps. Viewing it becomes, for me, an act of soul-searching, and a service of worship. And I suspect it will touch many lives and bring light and sustenance to many minds and hearts. It will last, just as the monastery lasts.

Here’s my review, which only scratches the surface of why I love… and need… this film.

Required reading on “Into Great Silence”:
A review by Steven D. Greydanus,
Greydanus’s interview with the filmmaker,
and a review by Annie Frisbie

2. There Will Be Blood

A film about ambition, greed, competition, brothers, fathers, sons, integrity, hypocrisy, honesty, lies, innocence, America … and oil. It’s as deep as you care to drill.

Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis become one of the great director/actor combinations — worthy of comparison to the best work from Scorsese and DeNiro, or Coppola and Pacino. Their collaboration is a troubling tale clearly inspired by other works of art — both cinematic and literary (Think Coppola, Kubrick, Malick, Weir, and Altman, but also think Flannery O’Connor, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner). Anderson’s compelling and wonderfully exaggerated story portrays a riveting wrestling match between an abuser of religious power and an abuser of capitalist ambition. They’re larger than life, representing two powerful and corrupt forces in American history, and yet the more I think about its twists and turns, the more even the most implausible moments remind me of actual events in history and classic American storytelling.

I find it curious that one of 2007′s most riveting rock records, The Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible, explores the same theme as my favorite drama of the year.

Here’s my review.

Required reading:
Matt Zoller Seitz

3. [ADDED IN 2008!] My Kid Could Paint That

This little documentary was a tale that grew in the telling. As Amir Bar-Lev filmed 4-year-old Marla Olmstead and her parents, documenting the child’s rise to fame and fortune in the art world, he stumbled into an intriguing mystery. But he also found a story that frames some important questions: “What is art?” “What gives art its meaning?” “How do you put a price on beauty?” “Should we bother asking questions about the artist when we look at a work of art?” “What should parents do when they have a child of extraordinary talent?” “What does fame do to human beings?” “What does the presence of a camera do to human beings?” “As viewers, how much information do we need in order to know the truth of a matter?” “How can we tell storeis without manipulating the truth?” And on and on and on. This documentary is one of the best discussion-starters on human nature, truth, and creative expression that I’ve ever seen. I highly recommend, not just for students of art, but for everyone.

4. Lars and the Real Girl

The other movie that made me cry was Craig Gillespie’s big-hearted, delicate comedy Lars and the Real Girl.

But these were different tears. These were tears flowing in response to a story beautifully told. This is a tender-hearted film about compassion and love, beautifully acted, and directed with a delicate hand. It also features a rare, respectful illustration of a local church community. This is going to be a great film for discussion groups.

Required reading:
Steven D. Greydanus’s review at Decent Films

5. Ratatouille

Pixar’s perfect record of excellent films continues.

And one again, Brad Bird has delivered a feast of pure joy. And this movie’s as much (or more) for grownups as for the kids. Pixar’s animation wizards have raised the bar… again! And Peter O’Toole caps the movie with a speech about the role of criticism in society… a speech that every critic should memorize like a creed. Once again, it will not suffice to praise director Brad Bird. We should thank him. And beg him to make more like as good as this one.

Here’s my full review.

6. Syndromes and a Century

I posted comments on Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s extraordinary film here

7. The Devil Came on Horseback

I don’t know that I’ve been so burdened and broken-hearted after a film.

This documentary follows ex-Marine Brian Steidle as he takes a job as a patrolman and photographer in the Darfur region of Sudan.

We go along with him as he documents the atrocities being carried out against the native African farming communities by the Arab-dominated government. He follows the Janjaweed barbarians hired by the government of Sudan to carry out this genocide. And he gathers crucial evidence that should inspire any nation, any government, to get involved and stop this injustice.

I shook Steidle’s hand after attending a special screening at the City of the Angels Film Festival. I can’t remember what I said. I just remember the lump in my throat, the tears in my eyes, and the compelling desire to lift some of the burden that he must be carrying… not to mention the burdens of the orphans, widows, and victims of the slaughter in Darfur.

This is a movie no one should have to see. And yet, to honor Brian’s work, and to open our eyes and ears to a call to action, we should all see it anyway. And then respond accordingly, praying first, and then acting as we are led, above and beyond the call of duty. Like Steidle.

By the way, it’s out on DVD.

8. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Remember that breathtaking scene in James Cameron’s The Abyss when Ed Harris sinks to the bottom of the sea in his diving suit? For me, that’s one of those moments at the movies that has become a part of me. It gives a sensation of overpowering helplessness.

I had that same feeling watching The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. And it’s not a coincidence that we see a very similar image, employed as a powerful poetic device, at intervals throughout the film.

This is the true (somewhat) account of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of the fashion magazine Elle who suffered a stroke and awoke trapped in a nightmare called “locked-in syndrome.” In that damaged state, he could only move his left eye. It’s hard to believe, but he learned to communicate by blinking, and he went on to write a book about the experience. This film is based on the book, although it does play fast and loose with some of the facts for reasons I’m finding it hard to fathom. Still, in spite of those editorial changes, the film has a poetic truth that makes the film a must-see… even though I wish the film had been more faithful to the facts.

I know, this sounds like it’s going to become just another movie about a disabled person overcoming the odds. But it’s not. By letting the audience see through the eyes of Bauby, director Julian Schnabel (who directed the underrated Basquiat) and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Spielberg’s faithful cinematographer) help us rediscover some of the more delicate joys of living. They provoke us to reflect on the gravity of our own decisions. And they carry us through an exhilarating montage of Bauby’s memories.

Few films have paid more passionate attention to detail and beauty since Krzysztof Kieslowski was around. (I suspect that Schnabel and Kaminski were inspired by Kieslowski’s Trois Coleurs trilogy, as Blue includes some remarkably similar techniques in portraying the sufferings of an accident victim.)

And speaking of Kieslowski, this film is more in love with beautiful women (respectfully and artfully) than anything I’ve seen since Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046. I don’t mean “beautiful women” in the fashion-plate sense. But by giving us intimate, close-up moments in conversation with the women in this film, we’re allowed to see a deeper beauty rarely captured at the movies. The women in Jean-Dominique Bauby’s life become his personal madonnas ‚Äî his grieving, gracious, and graceful guardians.

Let’s single out two of them: Emmanuelle Seigner’s having a good year ‚Äî she’s fantastic here, just as she was in La Vie en Rose. And it’s great to see Marie-Jos√©e Croze again, after her fine work in Munich and The Barbarian Invasions. Her subtle expressions in this film are worth the price of admission.

But Mathieu Amalric also deserves honors for what must have been an excruciating performance. As Bauby, both free and healthy, and then in the severely confined state, he wins our hearts and minds. Has any actor ever done so much by merely moving one eye around? His efforts were worth all of the effort. While Bauby is, in some ways, trapped in a nightmare, his sufferings enable him to develop a patient, passionate attention to detail that we fail to apprehend in our freedom and haste. And that results in a memorable experience.

The soundtrack is a well-chosen collection of songs and instrumental pieces, and I’d like to point out the exceptional use of Tom Waits’ “All the World is Green.”

In short, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly has something in common with Into Great Silence. It reminds us of the piercing joy, the profound revelations that can come when we train ourselves to concentate so intently that our powers of observation are transformed. Both the monks of the documentary, and Bauby in this drama, begin to read the world around us the way it was mean to be apprehended — as poetry. And we, as moviegoers, are blessed as a result.

Required reading: Stephanie Zacharek

9. Zodiac

There were a lot of movies about the elusive nature of evil this year. Where Brian Steidle made the best non-fiction film about evil (The Devil Came on Horseback), David Fincher made the best fiction film about it.

Both Zodiac and No Country for Old Men are extraordinary variations on this theme, but I think Zodiac is the better movie: It’s more detailed, more thoughtful, more interested in raising questions than it is in entertaining.

Here’s my full review.

paprika-poster.jpg

10. Paprika

The most ambitious animated film of the year was also my favorite work of science fiction. Paprika is not just a circus for the eyes. It’s a challenge to the mind and heart, asking us to consider how civilisation is making it easier and easier for us to lose ourselves in fabricated worlds, and to behave as if we are gods.

Paprika is about the consequences of creating worlds in our own image, instead of understanding and serving the world into which we were born.

Required reading: Paul Jackson’s review at Midnight Eye.

imnotthereposter.jpg

11. I’m Not There

It’s about 20 minutes too long, but I’m not going to complain about having too much of a very, very good thing. I can’t imagine a more powerful approach to exploring the life and artistic vision of Bob Dylan. And I have a feeling this film is going to reveal its riches more and more as the years go by.

Here’s my full review.

assassinationofjessejamesposter_thumbnail.jpg

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

Here’s my full review.

13. No End in Sight

A documentary that should be required viewing for every American who watches the news, or who cares about U.S. troops, or who will be voting for our next president.

Here’s my full review.

14. Once

[Comments on this film will be posted here soon.]

15. This is England

This capsule review was previously published in SPU’s Response magazine.

In a coastal English town in 1983, 12-year-old Shaun and his mother are heartsick at the loss of Shaun’s father, killed while fighting in the Falklands. Despondent and poor, Shaun suffers daily humiliations at school. But no one steps in to fill the void in his heart.

That is, until he happens upon some skinheads, who show him unexpected kindness and the comfort of fatherlike affection. When the group is recruited by an aggressive nationalist movement to fight and “take back” England from the influx of immigrants, Shaun is easily persuaded. The poisons of racism go to work, leading to devastating consequences.

While the skinheads’ relentless profanity, violence, and sexually explicit talk will shock (and likely offend) many viewers, This Is England is a compelling and realistic depiction of young people seduced into lives of violent crime. Director Shane Meadows does not glorify hatred or violence, but he breaks our hearts open into compassion. There’s no escaping the irony when Shaun walks past the Church of Christ, which stands as empty as a tomb. Who will reach out to these children? Who will notice them?

16. Juno

An honest, meaningful, moving comedy about high school and family.

Like Knocked Up, it takes questions about growing up, sex, parenthood, true love, and commitment very seriously. But unlike Knocked Up, Juno refrains from gratuitous nudity, obscenity, and sophomoric punchlines… the kind of humor that compromised Knocked Up and ensured it would be a hit with the frathouse crowd.

The film’s only weakness is its overdependence on the lead character’s personality as entertainment. Sure, she’s hilarious! But the cleverness gets to be a bit much. My favorite moments in the film come when she gets quiet, or thoughtful, or stands back and lets another character bloom (for example: the moment when Jennifer Garner, in what I think is the year’s most overlooked performance by an actress, enjoys a moment of awe and wonder at the sensation of feeling a baby kick).

Here’s my full review.

17. No Country for Old Men

The Coen Brothers have finally made a film on par with those movies they made before O Brother, Where Art Thou?

No Country for Old Men is one of the best literary adaptations I’ve ever seen. It challenges the conventions of commercial thrillers. It asks us to consider how the Western conception of justice is falling short in a world of heightening violence. And it brings Cormac McCarthy’s details and dialogue to vivid life with fantastic performances, especially from Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, and Javier Bardem.

Here’s my full review.

18. The Savages

[Comments on this film will be posted here soon.]

away_from_her_ver3.jpg

19. Away from Her

[Comments on this film will be posted here soon.]

20. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

[Comments on this film will be posted here soon.]

21. The Wind That Shakes the Barley

[Comments on this film will be posted here soon.]

into-the-wild-poster.jpg

22. Into the Wild

[Comments on this film will be posted here soon.]

23. La Vie en Rose

[Comments on this film will be posted here soon.]

24. God Grew Tired of Us

[Comments on this film will be posted here soon.]

manufactured-landscapes.jpg

25. Manufactured Landscapes

Kenneth R. Morefield has written a fine review here at Cary News. I’ll let him tell you about it.

Notable Revisions or Restorations

Blade Runner: The Final Cut

Ridley Scott has finally repaired the errors, polished up a few flawed shots, and fine-tuned his masterpiece so that this classic science fiction adventure is better than it’s ever been. I think this is the best Blade Runner yet. And the new DVD release is glorious.

Killer of Sheep

I want to recognize, and recommend, a film that was made in 1977. It has played at American film festivals since then, and it has become something of a legend amongst movie buffs. But only this year did it become accessible to general audiences to U.S. moviegoers. It doesn’t seem right to rate it among my favorite films “of 2007.” And yet, it was every bit as memorable as the best films I saw this year. And I hope you’ll take the time to discover it…

Imagine the angels from Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire drifting down into the Watts neighborhood in 1977.

Imagine them becoming fascinated by the children in their rowdy play, the teenagers caught between confusing societal pressures, and the adults who either struggle to live with dignity in their poverty, or who give in to the attraction of crime.

The African Americans portrayed in Killer of Sheep live in the veritable wasteland of an L.A. ghetto, with barely enough money to buy food. Every day presents them with opportunities to compromise in order to get by. It’s a battlefield of temptations and dangers. And the noblest fellow on the block is despondent, feeling powerless to change his predicament. Unlike the people of Wenders’ Berlin, these beautiful, troubled characters are unlikely to have any angels whispering comfort in their ears.

We drift down the alleys, through the walls, and into the private moments of many memorable characters. They have a common challenge — seemingly inescapable poverty, the pain of which is enhanced by a constant awareness of America’s promises.

It’s hard to believe Charles Burnett’s film has gone unreleased for American audiences for thirty years. But thank goodness it did, at last, become accessible to moviegoers through IFC. It’s as rich in poetry as anything released this year.

Watching Killer of Sheep the first time, I realized that I was more afected by this film than by anything in Spike Lee’s catalogue.

Why bother comparing this to Spike Lee? Perhaps it’s unfair, as Lee has so many different resources, and lives in such a different time. But then again, he is the most popular American filmmaker who focuses on the stories of African Americans and how they respond to the afflictions of racism and classism. Lee is a powerful filmmaker, that’s almost inarguable. But he’s as interested in style as he is in substance. I find Burnett’s work in Killer of Sheep much more absorbing because Burnett doesn’t make us aware of his effort to compel an audience. He just observes. And he observes so closely that wherever he turns the camera, he finds poetic compositions and situations. It seems effortless. It isn’t until you step back and start asking questions about how he evokes such powerful emotions, and how he raises such provocative questions, that his bold decisions about editing and composition become apparent. I end up finding similarities between his homemade approach and the style of artists like Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismaki.

Burnett observes with such clear vision that we forget about him altogether, caught up in the world he’s moving through. The characters and environments in Killer of Sheep are so vivid, interesting, detailed, and believable, that they overpower anything we might notice about his particular style (whereas Lee’s films tend to draw attention to his rather showy method).

This film also serves as an example of how to make a movie that observes problems of class and race without becoming preoccupied with them. Burnett could easily have let this film become an agenda-driven Statement Movie. But he’s not grinding axes here. He’s interested in human behavior, in environments, in letting scenes play out with natural rhythms and a lot of silence. He lets us find our own way through this world. He’s interested in timeless questions about what we pursue and why we pursue it.

Burnett’s clever use of soundtrack becomes more than just accompaniment; it’s an active, meaningful part of the poetry. And the constant juxtapositions of scenes about adult misbehavior, children’s rough-housing, and sheep panic-stricken in their pens, raises interesting questions about what it means to “be a man” in the face of life-threatening pressures.

While the acting is sometimes amateurish — Burnett was working with the resources at hand, rather than drawing from a host of accomplished actors — these weaker moments are forgivable in view of extraordinary scenes involving children (some of the best I’ve ever seen), and images that are as detailed and deep as those you’ll find in the works of masters like Ozu or Tarkovsky. Killer of Sheep is the kind of meditation that will reveal new glimmers of truth every time you revisit it.

While Burnett has directed many other films, and apparently quite a range from forgettable to fantastic, I am only just discovering him here. And I am glad I did. I’d like to thank two critics — Christian Hamaker and Doug Cummings — for their enthusiasm, which convinced me to make time to watch Killer of Sheep instead of spending my time watching one of this season’s more celebrated new releases. I’m confident I made the right choice.

Required reading: Andrew O’Heihr, and reviews linked at the film’s official site.

Other Notable Favorites from 2007

(in no particular order):

  • Adam’s Apples
  • Angel-A
  • Private Fears in Public Places
  • The Orphanage
  • Climates
  • Longford (Here’s my review.)
  • Jindabyne (Here’s my review at Christianity Today Movies.)
  • Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
  • Waitress
  • Eastern Promises
  • The Darjeeling Limited
  • The Namesake
  • Offside
  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
  • The Lookout
  • Bridge to Terabithia
  • The Simpsons Movie
  • The Bourne Ultimatum
  • The Host
  • Bella
  • Amazing Grace
  • Hot Fuzz
  • Gone Baby Gone
  • Rescue Dawn
  • Knocked Up

I still need to see these celebrated films:

(… and many more besides, I’m sure…)

  • Ten Canoes
  • Great World of Sound
  • Ghosts of Cit√© Soleil
  • Persepolis
  • Talk to Me
  • Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
  • Rocket Science
  • American Gangster
  • The Great Debaters
  • Facebook
  • facesunveiled

    A suggestion for your “still need to see” section: Chop Shop. It feels like a Latino Dardennes movie.

  • http://phillipjohnston.wordpress.com Phillip

    I’ve only seen 9 out of those 25. Yikes!

    I always get mad when I read lists like this because I’ll never be able to see the top films on the big screen because of proximity. I would have loved to see Into Great Silence in a quiet theater with interested people, but will only get to experience it on DVD (coming from Amazon in a few days!).

    Very glad to see Perfume in your runners-up list, although wasn’t it released in 2006? In any case, I love that story so much. Tykwer did such an excellent job with that book.

  • nathanshorb

    Hi Jeffrey…I’ve been enjoying your blog lately and finally decided to comment…

    A very gutsy move putting Into Great Silence at #1. I was really excited for this one when I first heard about it, as I’m usually up for anything most would consider excruciatingly boring. But I must admit I was very disappointed. There was plenty I could appreciate about it, but I was surprised at what I thought was rather poor and uninteresting cinematography. I guess I was expecting it to be much more visually beautiful, especially because I wasn’t expecting much else from it (surely nothing in the way of dialogue!) Of course it makes its point well, putting you very much into the shoes of someone experienced in solitude, stillness, discipline. Point well taken, and even appreciated. But I didn’t feel like that was enough to make it a good film.

    As for Lars and the Real Girl, I sure wish my church was showing that to the congregation instead of Facing the Giants. There is so much value in that film. Beautifully done.

    I think your critique of Juno, about her character being overdone, is spot-on. A great movie. I think I got caught up in the hype, though, and now I’m hearing a lot of criticism about it after the fact that I’m really agreeing with.

    And, mostly because of your brief comment in this post, I went to my library and rented The Station Agent, determined to give it another try. I didn’t like it the first time I saw it, and you’re not the only one who continues to rave about it. I’m sad to say, I think I’m still missing something.

    Thanks for the list. I, too, am stocking up my queue, where they will vie for the upper slots against all the list-toppers from other years!

  • http://conversantlife.com/blogs/nate+bell natebell

    Your #1 and my #1 are the same!

    This is a good, eclectic list, Jeffrey. I’m already bulking up my Netflix queue with The Devil Came on Horseback, God Grew Tired of Us, and Manufactured Landscapes.

    I fear No Country for Old Men has been slightly overrated by critics, leading to unreasonably high expectations. Even so, it’s my favorite American film of 2007, and I’d defend it in a heartbeat. On the other hand, There Will Be Blood, though certainly one of the year’s must-sees, isn’t being criticized enough. Reading some of the reviews, you’d think they were hailing the Second Coming.

  • aslanfrodo

    For those wanting to see Killer of Sheep, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is airing it at the following times:

    Monday, January 21, 2008 @ 8:00 PM
    Monday, January 21, 2008 @ 12:30 AM

  • jacqo

    Cool list Jeffrey thnks for all the effort,,,especially too on this new format (blog) the pics are as spendid as the reviews and the required reading tabs very cool feature — in two words Rockin Good =).

    And ur mention of the Station Agent yes a real gem. I saw it years ago and last week once again on IFM , resonating all the more now that i have a son who has a little something extra with DownSyndrome, i saw it with some refreshed eyes…talk about looking closer… the film threw me to the mat, the gaze of Finbar Macbride haunts me still… consoling in a sense and making the film another great lesson.

    and now on to read ur and the FULL review of There will be Blood!

    have a great day,
    Jacques of the Arts and Faith boards..


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X