Well, we’re five months into 2008 and no top ten lists for 2007 have appeared on Golden Grouches. I could say I was making sure to catch up on all the films I missed but, while that was indeed my intention, that would be a lie. I’ve had the same three DVD’s from Blockbuster for over a month now. I think we were all sort of done with movies after seeing so many in such a short period and then we entered the dead zone of spring where there was very little of quality released (though I have seen several excellent 2008 films, some of which may appear in my top 10 of 2008 due to be released sometime in 2012). Jared’s been doing his thing but the Oscar part of this Oscar blog has been dormant, understandably.

But not writing a damn thing for this column has meant that it’s been brewing in my ol’ mind grapes for many months. 2007 was a pretty terrific year for film. For our little Oscar project I really only saw a couple movies that I truly disliked; even the underwhelming ones like Atonement were still fairly good. It was a bad year for blockbusters, but the movies that were meant to be good were indeed usually very, very good. That said, it was a year heavy on the “very good” but light on the “brilliant.” Top-heavy but not tip-top-heavy. I can’t help but compare to 2006, the era of this site’s genesis and the start of the lunchroom and barstool conversations between the four of us. Overall quality was much higher in 2007 than 2006, but I don’t think anything came close to touching the best of 2006. I’m going to note some really great films but none beat out my fave five from 2006 of The Departed, United 93, Children of Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, and The Prestige. Several of those films I could even attach the M-word to: I recently re-watched Children of Men and realized I was watching a masterpiece.

2006 found its stride with some weighty films, such as the string of anti-fascist successes (Pan’s Labyrinth, Children of Men, Catch a Fire, V For Vendetta) but 2007’s Iraq/terrorism dramas tended to flop and instead it was a year with great light-hearted fare.

As of this writing I have seen 91 movies released in 2007. The top 11%:

1. Knocked Up. I’m a little surprised that my favorite movie as of June was still my favorite movie 6 months later, but I choose to view that as a testament to Knocked Up’s quality. It’s hilarious, it’s touching, it’s gross, it’s heart-warming. You can read my tome of a post to see my full thoughts, but suffice it to say I found a lot of truth amongst the pot jokes and some sharp points on maturity, commitment, and marriage. I truly cared about the characters and their relationships and I really dug Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd as Katherine Heigl’s sister and brother-in-law. It made me laugh and it made me smile. (Also, the pot jokes are funny.)

2. Juno. What a special film. With the wrong director or actors this is a script that could easily stray into too-precious territory but the tone came out just right. Most of all, it came off sincere. I loved seeing the layers pulled back from Juno and the Lorings, helped along by some terrific acting by Ellen Page, Jennifer Garner (!), and Jason Bateman. Juno’s parents are caring and wise in a way that movie parents are rarely allowed to be. Juno is a film that gave me feel great as I left the theater (and on the Metro home, and as I was going to bed, and the next day…)

3. Superbad. Judd Apatow has a knack for capturing male relationships. They’re not always the most positive portrayals but I’ve always seen an element of truth behind all the sex jokes. I can’t say I ever had a high school experience anything like Seth and Evan’s in Superbad, but I identified with the insecurities, desires, bravado, heightened drama, and social politics the movie portrays. If I may go off on a tangent for a minute, realistic portrayals of high school and adolescence in media are few and far between. After Columbine (I was in 10th grade at the time) I remember a lot of talk in the media about what modern high school was like. A long Time magazine expose looked deep into lives of adolescents and just got it all wrong. For the most part all media did. So since then I’ve been on the lookout for anything that accurately captures that time of life. Now, I guess I’m getting to the age where I no longer have the authority to judge the authenticity of a movie about high school, but I’ll hold onto my slipping youth long enough to say I think Superbad did a bang up job. Forget the zany plot, the characters are pretty spot on. And it’s not even that I demand authenticity; 10 Things I Hate About You was good for what it was even though it existed in some strange movie fantasy land. But nailing an element of realism, I think, just heightens the other positives of the movie.

So that’s my intellectual dissertation on a sex comedy where a guy gets period blood all over his jeans. Also, um, this was hilarious and I was worried I would choke to death from laughing so hard. Michael Cera is brilliant and McLovin was the character of the year.

4. Hairspray. Probably the movie that hooked me the fastest. I was completely and utterly on board in about 90 seconds. I liked that it didn’t feel like a stage musical on film, I loved its infectious positive spirit, I enjoyed all the Baltimore references and John Travolta’s Bal’more accent, and I tapped my feet to the criminally catchy music. But Hairspray isn’t all sunshine and gumdrops and it does a good job selling its more serious messages: self-confidence, equality, all that good stuff. It keeps the story simple and to-the-point; indeed the only parts that drag are the ones involving an ill-advised love triangle plotline. It all ends with a terrific crescendo where everything is wrapped up in a convenient package. This is a movie that I watched one day then ended up watching again the next (and I liked it even better the second time). Its soundtrack is the only showtunes CD I own.

5. The Savages. Ah ha, finally something a bit more weighty on this list. The Savages, to me, is a comment on modern fractured families and a certain segment of the over-educated, medicated, self-absorbed, languid intellectual class. There’s sort of a lot going on here but it handles it all adroitly. Wendy and Jon struggle with their own distant relationship, their estrangement from their declining father, the care they provide to a man who was rarely a positive influence on their lives, and their professional disappointments. The acting is absolutely terrific while the dialogue, story, and characters completely clicked. It’s the small indie from 2007 that I hope doesn’t fall through the cracks of history.

6. No Country for Old Men. Our big Oscar winner. My hunch is that this will be considered a classic in decades to come. It’s a film that, I think, needs to be watched at least twice to fully take it all in. The first time through I appreciated it as a top-notch thriller. Chigurh is a classic, horrifying villain. The film is technically masterful, cranking up the tension with sound, silence, and shadow. The 1/3 of the movie that doesn’t play as a thriller sort of flew over my head the first time; the second I could appreciate the technique of the thriller parts while also fully diving into the film’s themes. The overarching motif of fate is fascinating and the ruminations on violence and impending evil are commanding and stirring. Ed Tom’s uncle’s monologue at the end is appropriately encapsulating without being too obvious. I think sometimes the disjointed storytelling style may detract a bit from the film’s point, but No Country is an all-around fascinating and engrossing experience.

7. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I can understand that this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It’s slow and long, but I found a lot to love in Casey Affleck’s portrayal of Bob Ford, a weaselly, naive admirer-turned-killer of Jesse James. Everything about this character is perfect and the way his adoration turns to dark obsession feels so right. The epilogue is disjointed but captivating, providig a perfect cap on the story. It’s also pretty darn terrific technically, beautifully filmed by Roger Deakins whose palettes and shots highlight the emptiness of the American plains.

8. Mr. Brooks. Golden Grouches may be the internet’s #1 supporter of Mr. Brooks; I had it on my top 5 list as late as December while Adam still had it on his in February. I love movies, but I’m pretty jaded so I like it when something gets to me. This creeped the hell out of me. Kevin Costner is an addict whose addiction is murder. The voice in his head that goads him on is personified by William Hurt. The result is several unsettling scenes where Costner’s Mr. Brooks interacts in the real world while discussing darker themes with his psyche. It’s a technique that I can totally respect not working for many viewers but it did for me. The somewhat insufferable Dane Cook is actually pretty good here as a man who wants to learn from Costner and he too is incredibly creepy. This movie got to me. I appreciate that it could and I enjoyed its dark ride.

9. No End in Sight. This documentary’s brilliance is that it doesn’t need any flash to make its powerful point. It’s simply grim point after grim point showing how the occupation of Iraq was mishandled on a massive scale. The incompetence involved is completely mind-boggling. Michael Moore can take his 9/11 workers to Cuba but all No End in Sight director Charles Ferguson has to do is stick former Bush appointees in front of the camera and let them speak. Yes, these vehement critics of the Bush administration’s policy are mostly not career bureaucrats but political appointees, charged with planning for a post-war Iraq, whose advice was ignored and who were completely disgusted by the occupation’s easily-avoidable failures. The absurd decision to disband the Iraqi army and the Ba’ath Party, causing power vacuums and mass unemployment, are covered in detail.

Some particularly alarming anecdotes: Looting got so bad at the beginning of the occupation that not only were Iraq’s museums drained of their priceless antiquities, but people were chipping away the concrete in government buildings to steal the rebar inside. (The only government building guarded by American troops was the Oil Ministry.) Looters would use heavy machinery to steal entire chunks of power plants. One professor notes running into a student, fresh out of Georgetown undergrad and politically-connected, in the Green Zone who is charged with designing the entire Baghdad traffic grid.

Ferguson keeps the scope narrowly focused and the film’s points are clear and well-supported because of it. The timeline only covers a small portion of the seemingly interminable Iraq occupation and the arguments don’t stray to topics other than proving the administration’s ineptitude (Abu Ghraib is left for another day). Powerful and damning.

10. My Kid Could Paint That. My top nine were fairly easy to choose but several films were vying for that final slot. I finally decided on another documentary that has hanged around in my head long after viewing. My Kid Could Paint That examines the saga of Marla Olmstead, an apparent four-year-old modern art prodigy. The story follows Marla’s rise to fame followed by the media backlash after a 60 Minutes report calls her a fraud. The plot is interesting enough on its own, but I was mostly impressed by how deftly the film explores a variety of fascinating subjects: what is art and modern art in particular, the media, parenting. Most interesting to me was documentarian Amir Bar-Lev’s own struggles to fairly portray the situation and his look at the nature of the documentary process. What is the duty of the documentarian? How does filming change the facts? One of the reasons why the authenticity of Marla’s creations was doubted was she would get self-conscious when filmed while painting. Bar-Lev enjoyed incredible access to the Olmsteads and his film is eminently engrossing and thought-provoking.

Others of Note

I want to note some of the other 2007 films that I thought did something special. These aren’t in any particular order.

Enchanted manages to be a simple, sweet kids’ movie without the cynicism so often found in today’s kiddie fare. But most impressively it’s very clever as fairytale Giselle is exposed to modern New York City … Fracture is a taut murder mystery that kept me on the line and consistently surprised me with its twists and turns … Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix takes the series in a delightfully dark direction. You can feel the situation spiraling out of Dumbledore and his side’s control … Michael Clayton is an engrossing character drama buried in a straightforward legal thriller. Some of the business’s greats act their socks off … Speaking of great acting, some incredible performances were to be found in foreign films. Carice van Houten is wonderful as a deceptive Dutch resistance agent in World War II in Black Book. Ulrich Muhe expresses so much while emoting so little for his role as a blank-slate Stasi agent in The Lives of Others.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters finds incredible human drama in the world of Donkey Kong. You couldn’t write a mockumentary this good and this absurd … A Mighty Heart shines as a surprising procedural in the search for Daniel Pearl. The filming style makes you feel like you’re inserted into the action … Meet the Robinsons is visually gorgeous and delightfully trippy. Whoever came up with the idea of a bowler hat named Doris as the villain – and got it greenlit – is a genius … Sicko‘s first 30 minutes are the scariest horror movie I’ve seen in years … 3:10 to Yuma is food for the brain and adrenaline for the heart. More westerns like this, please.

Ratatouille‘s stylish tackling of artistry and the creative process is sumptuous … Paris, je t’aime is a film buff’s dream, exploring Paris from 18 directors’ eyes. The bad shorts quickly give away to the great; for my favorite I choose the simple but devastatingly effective Loin du 16e from Walter Salles and Daniela Tomas … Finally, Once gives us a gorgeous modern musical romance with all of modern life’s obstacles.

Here’s hoping for a year anywhere near as good as 2007.