A lot of critics seem to think that 2007 was a pretty good year for movies. Maybe there wasn’t a lot to get excited about, but there were some solid films from reliable directors like the Coen Brothers, Wes Anderson, David Cronenberg, and Brad Bird. There were a lot of powerful documentaries, too.
Movie Habit’s writers diverged widely over what deserved to be on the list. Several of us voted for films that most critics’ organizations wouldn’t count as 2007 releases. (In fact our top recommendation is, by some counts, a two-year-old movie.) No movie was shared by more than three of our contributors.
Six writers contributed to the list. We weighted their votes by the number of stories written for Movie Habit, the “currentness” of those stories, and by the ranking of titles on individual lists.
So without further ado, here are our top ten.
1. Our Daily Bread
Shot in Europe on high definition video over the course of several years, Our Daily Bread (AKA Unser täglich Brot) is a visually poetic documentary about the production of food. The film has no narrator, no specific story to tell, and no political axe to grind. There is only the ambient sound and the stunning photography of the story behind our groceries.
There are those who might mistake Our Daily Bread as an excuse to gross out the squeamish. Indeed, the film was sold at our local film series, in part, with a quote about saving the killing floor for last. But such a view of this movie is very shallow; there is so much more going on than simply a morbid curiosity about meat.
Add a superb sense of pacing from editor Wolfgang Widerhofer (I’m sure writer/producer/director/photographer Nikolaus Geyrhalter had much to do with it as well), who does an almost perfect job shaping the arc of the movie. The result is a haunting, gorgeous, informative, and unforgettable movie. It’s still not available on DVD, but if you bug Netflix, Blockbuster, Amazon, and the movie’s producers, perhaps it’ll finally get the wider audience it deserves.
2. Brand Upon the Brain!
Hailing from Winnipeg, Guy Maddin can be very artsy (Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary) and quite funny (The Saddest Music in the World). He often shoots on super 8 film, fitting his style to the medium, emulating silent films and home movies.
The movie is about a character named Guy Maddin. At the request of his aging mother, Guy returns to the island where he grew up to give the old lighthouse two coats of paint. Setting foot on the island, Guy remembers a particular summer that had all the makings of a golden, nostalgic tale worthy of Stand By Me or The Wonder Years. Celebrities came to visit the island. Young Guy (Sullivan Brown) got his first crush. He learned about boys and girls through his sister’s summer fling. He wants that magical summer as a child, and he wants it as an adult poring over his memories. But Guy is too honest to have the fantasy, and his psychotic mother ruins everything, both at time and in his memory.
It’s too bad for Guy that his mother is such an archetypally Freudian, anal-retentive, domineering, youth-obsessed bundle of neuroses. But she makes Brand Upon the Brain! a damned interesting movie. What might have been a naive, joyous, titillating summer of sexual awakening instead just seems awkward and dirty.Brand Upon the Brain! is unsatisfying but emotionally true. Hopefully that won’t turn you off, because Brand Upon the Brain! is an interesting, rich, and fertile movie. It can’t be boiled down to a simple message. It a movie whose imagery, language, and emotion can be pulled apart, put back together, and formed into your own custom shapes. It is not escapism, but art.
Ratatouille centers on Rémy, a fastidious and selective creature in a rotten world who finds himself with an opportunity to assist in the very kitchen of the Paris chef who has inspired his love of food. The problem: Rémy’s a rat, and rats and restaurants haven’t gotten along well, historically speaking.
Dedicated foodies will love the care that has clearly gone into the fictional world of Ratatouille: real-life star chef Thomas Keller of Napa’s celebrated restaurant The French Laundry consulted with the animators at Pixar on the menus and kitchen designs, and the filmmakers lavished equal care on other details, as well.
People who aren’t so enthralled by chefs and food might find the story overlong (twenty minutes before the end of the film, my six-year-old was asking me if it was over), and there are some unpleasant (some might even say horrifying) images of vast numbers of rats flowing in and out of kitchens. If you are a foodie, however, this film is for you — just don’t see it hungry, or make a reservation at a nice French bistro for after the movie is over.
4. The Darjeeling Limited
The Darjeeling Limited is one of Wes Anderson’s better films. Starring Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Adrien Brody as three reuniting brothers, it has all the visual and emotional trademarks of an Anderson film. Luckily, it all comes together well, and it doesn’t seem as “forced” as some of his earlier films.
The brothers catch a train in India, hoping to have a spiritual awakening. Obviously, you can simply force a spiritual awakening just by choosing the right location, and the movie plays a long by presenting India as very down-to-earth.
Nevertheless, The Darjeeling Limited is still a visual treat. As only one example, there are scenes where the camera takes the perspective of a human being turning our head to look at the different characters. It would be easy to do that style badly (let’s hope the film festival submissions next year don’t all feature copycat panning-from-face-to-face camera work that will just look cheesy), but photographer Robert D. Yeoman and Anderson pull it off.
5. The Lives of Others
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film (and rightfully so), The Lives of Others was on some top ten lists last year. But a technicality made it eligible for OFCS voters this year, and many of us seized the opportunity to include it (also, it didn’t open in Colorado until 2007).
Ulrich Mühe, (who, sadly, died this past summer) plays a domestic spy in East Germany. A quiet, observant man, he gets caught up in the lives of the people he’s assigned to spy on. He even begins to sympathize. As interesting as his story is, the film carries it beyond the fall of Communism and gives us a moving coda that adds another layer of depth.
6. In the Shadow of the Moon
It’s so easy to boil down the moon missions to that one moment when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon. But In the Shadow of the Moon reminds us that the space program was fraught with uncertainty and risk. The story is told with a combination of interviews and unbelievably good-looking archival footage from NASA. Directors David Sington and Christopher Riley create a genuine sense of tension despite the well-known outcome.
What stands out most is the interviews with former astronauts. Their stories are interesting, and their sense of wonder and amazement at what they accomplished is inspiring.
7. Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten
Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten is a fantastic tribute to a rock icon who was taken off the stage far too early. In the grander scheme of things, it’s also one of rock ‘n’ roll’s best documentaries.
The boy born John Graham Mellor would eventually make it big as the punk rocker Joe Strummer in the seminal punk band The Clash. Unfortunately, Joe died of a heart attack in 2002 at the slight age of 50. In 2004, The Clash were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Director Julien Temple (Absolute Beginners) was a friend of Joe’s and he has managed to assemble not only a tremendous collection of Joe’s friends for on-camera interviews, he’s also presented the creative energy of the man in his own hand. Given access to volumes of Joe’s home movies, recordings, notes, drawings, and Post-Its, via the magic of animation and clever film work, Joe’s sketches and comics are brought to life in an artsy, punky way that perfectly meshes with the rest of the movie and the spirit of punk.
There are many great things about this documentary: the candid, warts-and-all presentation; the contradictions; and the underlying sense of community and humanity. But the coolest thing of all is watching Joe’s former bandmates, friends, and collaborators talk about him while sitting around campfires. They all gather in an intercontinental spirit, their backdrops include London, New York, and the vast expanse of the ocean. Among them are Johnny Depp, Matt Dillon, and John Cusack. Even Martin Scorsese chimes in (he’s the only one wearing a tie).
8. 3:10 to Yuma
Christian Bale and Russell Crowe embroiled in a battle of wits. Oh yeah. That’s worth the price of admission. One’s a no-good, not-to-be-trusted smooth-talker by the name of Ben Wade (Crowe). The other’s a good, trustworthy, soft-spoken man named Dan Evans (Bale).
As fate would have it, Dan stumbles onto Ben’s trail in the aftermath of a stagecoach robbery. With Ben unwittingly at the wrong end of Dan’s rifle, Ben is arrested and a posse is assembled to lead Ben to the train station so he can catch the 3:10 train to Yuma’s prison. If Dan succeeds in accompanying Ben to the station, he’ll be rewarded with $200, which will go a long way to restoring his financial situation and his self-image.
It’s a pleasure to watch these guys play off each other. They’re so good, it’s easy to imagine the gears moving behind their eyes as they consider their options. While the battle of wits keeps the movie humming along, the strong characters build a rooting interest in the good man’s success and the bad guy’s downfall. Then, when all is said and done, it’s the themes of loyalty, integrity, and values that keep the movie replaying in the mind’s eye after the end credits roll.
9. A Mighty Heart
In A Mighty Heart, Angelina Jolie finally proves her Oscar win wasn’t a fluke. This is her best performance. Oscar voters, keep this one at the top of your stack.
Through his travels, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl hoped to gain a better understanding of this world. Back in January 2002, he traveled to Karachi, Pakistan, with his pregnant wife, Mariane, while in pursuit of one more interview for a story about the shoe bomber. Daniel failed to return to his wife that evening. An incredible search began, routing terrorists and their accomplices. Unfortunately, after tracking down his captors and attempting to bring the hostage situation to a peaceful conclusion, Daniel’s body was found one month later. In 10 pieces.
The story is told strictly through the eyes of Daniel’s wife (and the movie is based on her book of the same title). Angelina Jolie’s performance as Mariane Pearl is a tremendous accomplishment; the power of that role alone makes A Mighty Heart an easy recommendation. Mariane presented herself as the epitome of grace under pressure, a woman who maintained her composure in the face of life-altering adversity and a woman who chose to take a diplomatic and global perspective of her situation.
Persepolis uses old-fashioned hand-drawn animation. It’s 2-D, mostly black-and-white, and in French. Its message is universal and the movie draws its power both from what it shows and what it doesn’t show. As author Marjane Satrapi points out, Persepolis isn’t a straightfoward autobiography. Instead, it’s her view of growing up in Iran during the revolution of the late ’70s.