Even in a movie-rich year like this one, I find Top 10 lists a trial to put together. I’m constitutionally averse to hierarchical systems, grading, ranking, and rows of tiny stars. I’d rather just heap all the films that mattered to me into a great squirming pile, like puppies, and shower them with love.
The very concept of “10 best” brings up that thorny, irresolvable question at the heart of the critical enterprise: When it comes to cultural products like books or movies, is there any meaningful distinction between “best” and “favorite”? We can get into that when next week’s Movie Club kicks into gear; for our purposes, let’s just say that these were the movies I staggered out of, those that have taken up permanent residence somewhere in my brain. In alphabetical order (it was hard enough to pick just 10, let alone rank them):
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days:The headline Slate gave to my review of this movie’s New York Film Festival screening—”the Cannes-winning film you’ll probably never see”—has turned out, thankfully, to be inaccurate. Cristian Mungiu’s vérité-style story of two Romanian women seeking an illegal abortion during the Ceausescu regime has found a U.S. distributor and will be in limited release beginning in late January. See it by any means necessary: It’s searingly intelligent and achingly sad, shot with a technical virtuosity that sneaks up on you.
Away From Her:One regret of 2007 is that I didn’t catch this quiet stunner in time to review it when it opened. Sarah Polley’s directorial debut, based on an Alice Munro story about a marriage torn apart by one partner’s descent into Alzheimer’s, is a love story of tender ruthlessness, with a trio of perfect performances from Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent, and Olympia Dukakis. This should reappear on the big screen when Christie gets the Oscar nomination she richly deserves; if you missed it the first time around, see it then.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: There’s not a frame I’d change in Julian Schnabel’s big-hearted, lyrical adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s devastating memoir. Mathieu Amalric, my marriage proposal remains on the table for your consideration.
The Host: This cheerfully whacked-out Korean monster flick squirmed its way onto my list through sheer originality. What other movie this year provided social satire, eco-paranoia, a noodle-slurping ghost, a forced lobotomy, and a man-eating river beast in one suspenseful, funny package?
Killer of Sheep re-release: OK, technically this belongs on the 10 best list for 1977, next to Network and Annie Hall. But surely the 30-years-too-late theatrical debut of Charles Burnett’s first and greatest film, a chronicle of love and survival in the Watts ghetto, has to count as one of the major cinematic events of the year. It’s now available on a DVD with fabulous extras, including a director’s cut of Burnett’s 1983 film My Brother’s Wedding and three of his prizewinning shorts.
No End in Sight:If you can stand to sit through one more documentary about the Iraq war, make it the debut film of Brookings-scholar-turned-director Charles Ferguson. No lefty hand-wringing here, just a laser focus on the Bush administration’s jaw-dropping mismanagement of the “reconstruction” period just after the 2003 invasion, when the “Mission Accomplished” banner was hoisted and Iraq’s standing army disastrously dismantled. No End in Sight exchanges liberal complacency for a wonkishly objective rigor, only to arrive at a familiarly grim conclusion: We’ve fucked it up, but good.
Once:It took the better part of the year to convince me that the glowing word-of-mouth about this movie was worth heeding. An Irish musical about the romantic tribulations of a red-bearded busker? It had to be insufferably twee. But no—this offbeat romance created its own musical idiom, using terrific songs written by the two principals (Frames frontman Glen Hansard and Czech pianist Markéta Irglová) as the medium through which their unnamed characters fell awkwardly, haltingly, hopefully in love. The indeterminate grace note of an ending is up there with the last few seconds of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset.
Persepolis: Marjane Satrapi, the Iranian-born graphic novelist who co-directed this animated adaptation of her memoirs, is a self-described workaholic perfectionist who insisted on hand-drawing the prototypes for each of the movie’s 600-plus characters. It shows— Persepolis is a thing of beauty, as finely assembled as a filigreed jewel box. But it’s also a passionate protest against fundamentalism and a raucous, funny female bildungsroman.
Ratatouille: In the above-mentioned semantic battle between the “best” movies of the year and those that are simply beloved, Brad Bird’s animated rodent chef has almost certainly clinched the latter spot (if not both). Twice in the space of a week, I watched this with a facial expression that must have resembled that of Anton Ego, the smug restaurant critic voiced by Peter O’Toole, when he tastes the title dish: a stunned gratitude that something so warm, so delicious, so exquisitely crafted could possibly exist, much less be sitting right there on my plate.
There Will Be Blood: I think I said it all earlier this week: Nutty. Unprecedented. Transcendent.
Elbowing mightily for a spot were David Cronenberg’s flawed but monumental Eastern Promises; Tony Gilroy’s trenchant Michael Clayton; Sidney Lumet’s steel-tempered melodrama Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead;Todd Haynes’ mercurial anti-biopic I’m Not There; Ang Lee’s glittering spy romance Lust, Caution; and Into Great Silence, a meditative three-hour documentary about daily life in a French monastery. And in the “my own private cult classic” department, there’s Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, whose January release on DVD after a long and troubled distribution history arguably qualifies it for the 2007 list. See you next week in the Movie Club, where we’ll rage about the year’s disappointments (damn you, Spiderman 3!) and confess our secret passions (get out of my head already, Music & Lyrics!).