Robert Levin’s top 10 films of 2007

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Hagen Keller/Sony Pictures Classics

Over the years, there’s been a lot of debate in the critical community over the validity and importance of a standard film critic’s exercise: the annual assemblage of a list of the best films of the year. The pro argument holds that they’re a useful, last-ditch attempt to remind the public of movies they might have missed, while those opposed to the practice regard them as little more than hype machines. Personally, it’s something I’ve always regarded as the best gauge of both the yearly critical consensus and the particulars of individual personal tastes.

In 2007, at least based on other introductions to these lists, most critics had a better time at the movies than I. It’s not that there weren’t a lot of very good movies: There may well, in fact, have been more than usual. It’s just that very few of them stood out as the sort of work destined to be remembered and beloved for generations. It should be noted, then, that The Lives of Others, this list’s headliner and the one film I saw in theaters during the past year that did affect me in the sort of visceral, immediate fashion one associates with a future classic, stands far above the pack.

1. The Lives of Others [Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck]
First-time feature filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck powerfully evokes the all-encompassing grip the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, held over the former German Democratic Republic and provides a deeply moving redemptive message in this story of an officer moved to reconsider his allegiance to the organization and his values in life.

2. Rocket Science [Jeffrey Blitz]
The year’s most underrated movie, writer-director Jeffrey Blitz’s depiction of a stuttering student’s experiences on his high school debate team has a lot to say about life’s moral victories and the strong feelings that encompass the coming-of-age process, all revealed amidst an amusingly heightened suburban New Jersey milieu. It’s far more emotionally resonant than one might think, and a lot less cynical.

3. The Savages [Tamara Jenkins]
An uncommonly wise depiction of the perils of senior care, childhood’s lingering wounds and life’s inability to provide us fairy tale endings. Siblings played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney become reacquainted with their estranged father (Philip Bosco) as he succumbs to the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease and takes up residence in a nursing home. Linney gives her best, most human performance and writer-director Tamara Jenkins convincingly explores the characters’ gamut of complicated emotions.

4. Hairspray [Adam Shankman]
From top to bottom, the best of the year’s high profile Broadway musical adaptations proved an explosion of pure, unadulterated filmmaking joy. Director Adam Shankman keeps things moving at a brisk pace, the cast enthusiastically delves into the spirit of the early 1960s cultural pastiche and only the staunchest of cynics could leave the movie on less than a total high.

5. The Band’s Visit [Eran Kolirin]
A significant departure in Israeli cinematic history, writer-director Eran Kolirin forsakes the frequent, reductive focus on the volatile political situation to produce a movie every bit as removed from the norm as its desert village setting. Owing a great debt to Chaplin and Keaton, the director tells a story of cross-cultural understanding that neglects grand soliloquies in favor of small moments of recognition, often relayed by a simple glance or expression.

6. There Will Be Blood [Paul Thomas Anderson]
From its nearly silent opening, through its impressively negotiated moments of suffocating intimacy, sprawling scope and righteous fury, this study of an early 20th century oilman’s steady surrendering of his tenuous grip on sanity boasts some of the year’s most impressive filmmaking, courtesy of Paul Thomas Anderson.

7. Persepolis [Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud]
Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, the writers-directors behind this adaptation of Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel series about her childhood in Iran, have produced a uniquely stylized work of black and white animation that transcends the usual discrepancies between Eastern and Western storytelling motifs in favor of a universal humanist aesthetic.

8. The Namesake [Mira Nair]
Mira Nair’s adaptation of the Jhumpa Lahiri novel tells the story of a family of Indian immigrants to the United States, exploring the acculturation challenges faced by the parents and the formation of the conflicted identities of the American born children. It’s an evocative portrait both of specific experiences and the larger formation of a 20th century Indian-American collective memory.

9. Superbad [Greg Mottola]
In the funniest movie of the year, and the best ever from the Judd Apatow film factory, director Greg Mottola and screenwriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg create a heartfelt, heightened satire that boasts an unparalleled understanding of the all-consuming horniness and misguided notions of sexuality that very often define the teenage years.

10. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
[Julian Schnabel]
Following a man as he awakens to the beauty of the world and the artist within after suffering near total paralysis, Julian Schnabel’s adaptation of Jean Dominique-Bauby’s memoir tells an inspiring story through a painterly lens. It boasts some meticulously assembled visual compositions, a brave lead performance by Mathieu Amalric and considerable insight into the process of artistic creation.

Runners Up: Away From Her, Lake of Fire, Paris, je t’aime, Ratatouille, Rescue Dawn (and plenty more)

© 2008 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.

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