by HELEN GEIB
1. I’m Not There
Six of 2007’s best films drew inspiration from true stories, including three biopics. Each of the biopics was unconventional to a degree and none more so than the year’s best film, Todd Haynes’s description defying masterpiece, I’m Not There. The movie is an impressionistic portrait of “Bob Dylan” – person, artist, cultural touchstone, enduring inspiration – that casts Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, Marcus Carl Franklin, and Richard Gere as Dylanesque characters to a soundtrack of Dylan originals and covers. I’m Not There is a film of breathtaking artistry, imagination, and intelligence, with a subtle wit and stealthy emotional impact.
2. Into Great Silence
Into Great Silence is a documentary filmed over the course of a year at the Grand Chartreuse monastery of the millennium-old Carthusian order. The typical fodder of a documentary – names, dates, facts, figures – is entirely absent from a film that is, like its subjects, nearly silent and profoundly focused on the spiritual. Into Great Silence is a stunning artistic achievement that creates an empathetic and experiential record of a way of life dedicated to the contemplation and worship of God.
3. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a biopic Western of lyrical, near-terrible beauty in its depiction of Ford, James, the James gang, and its victims. The nuanced and sympathetic characterization of the immature and self-aggrandizing killer Robert Ford and the photography of the Missouri landscape invite favorable comparison with In Cold Blood, and Casey Affleck gives one of the year’s best performances as Ford.
4. No Country for Old Men
It was a fine year for Westerns as well, with Assassination joined in the list by No Country for Old Men and 3:10 to Yuma. The Coen Brothers’ No Country stands out for its unconventionality even in a year of great films distinguished by unconventional storytelling. The narrative continually subverts audience expectations with an aesthetic of the unexpected that extends beyond what happens to how and even whether an event is depicted. It is an intentionally disquieting film, not for its violent plot points, but in the way every aspect of the filmmaking acts in concert to deliver the film’s underlying message that evil and chance conspire to make life essentially uncontrollable.
A true crime story, David Fincher’s Zodiac consistently defies genre conventions as it narrates the decades-long search for a serial murderer dubbed the “Zodiac killer.” It is an accomplished, intelligent, well-acted, determinedly anti-sensationalistic, and surprisingly humorous film that deserved a greater box office return than it received.
6. This Is England
Inspired by childhood experiences of writer-director Shane Meadows, This Is England is a coming of age story of a boy, fatherless in depressed industrial England in the early 1980s, who has a summer flirtation with the English neo-fascist movement. It is a film of great subtlety and conviction, and a character portrait of lingering poignancy.
7. 3:10 to Yuma
In a year notable for maverick personal projects, 3:10 to Yuma strikes a strong blow for traditional Hollywood collaborative filmmaking. An engrossing and exciting story, resonant character drama, fine performances in the starring roles and distinctive character turns by the supporting cast, and the always-reliable genre pleasures of real Western landscapes and Old West myth make this the best kind of studio film.
8. Rescue Dawn
Christian Bale gives another of the year’s great performances as Dieter Dengler, the subject of Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn. More traditional in style and structure than the year’s other biopics, it is distinguished by its fine performances, direction, and score and the tremendous emotional power of its story.
9. Eastern Promises
Following on his superb performance in A History of Violence, Viggo Mortenson impresses again with his incredible star turn in Eastern Promises, David Cronenberg’s intense and exceptionally well crafted gangster drama set in the terrifying world of Russian organized crime. Mortenson’s inscrutable foot soldier is the powerful heart of a movie that confronts the criminal underworld to inexorably strip away its veneer of glamorous lifestyles and “family” loyalty.
10. (Tie) Day Watch and Paprika
Two tremendously enjoyable science fiction films round out the list. Day Watch from Russia and the animated feature Paprika from Japan play around the mental edges of contemporary urban life as their characters move between this world and chaotic fantasy otherworlds that threaten to devour the real one. Both movies offer engaging characters, fast pacing, sly wit, and imaginative imagery as they prove a genre film doesn’t have to ask the viewer to check her brain at the theater door to be a really fun time at the movies.