It's December 23, it's mid-afternoon, and I'm spending the holidays at my parents' house in the Chicago suburb of Crystal Lake, Illinois.
Earlier that day, I'd been to Jason Reitman's Juno (see below), and now I was sitting in my folks' kitchen, wondering what movie to hit next. After all, I still had two new releases that I'd hoped to catch before Christmas Day, when three more would be opening.
I scanned the hometown newspaper and saw show times for the same movies you'll find listed in every hometown newspaper, and also saw a listing for one I'd already seen twice before.
It'd be a fun movie to see again, I thought, but work comes first. So, which should I choose ... P.S. I Love You, or National Treasure: Book of Secrets?
"Hey," I said to my parents, without really thinking about it, "do you want to go see No Country for Old Men?"
And that's when I determined that the Coen brothers' thriller was my favorite film of 2007.
Movies that you like become comfortable with repeat viewings. Movies that you love become fascinating.
Subsequently, within the hopelessly subjective and incomplete task of ranking my favorite films of the year, I've come to determine a particular film's "best" status by asking: Is this movie worth watching again? And again after that?
I was thrilled for the chance to see No Country for Old Men a third time. (In all honesty, it was actually worth going back just to enjoy the trailer for There Will Be Blood a third time. A friend said it reminded him of the legendary preview for Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, and I couldn't agree more; with that freaky Jonny Greenwood music underscoring those haunting images, it might be the most unsettling, enticing coming-attraction piece of the past 25 years.) But I could easily have made equal time for any of the movies on my Top 10 list, all of which will be - or already have been - deserving of multiple viewings at home.
Great movies - by which I mean movies we personally feel are great - are always worth watching more than once; that's how, collectively, we're able to acknowledge them as "great." (No one quotes The Wizard of Oz verbatim because they've seen it once.) And I'm firmly convinced that the 10 films I've chosen to elaborate on, and more than a few others beyond my 10 best, easily merit a second or third or 20th look; they don't require reviewing so much as re-viewing.
1) No Country for Old Men
On a first visit, I was absolutely floored by the visual dexterity and faultless formal design of Joel and Ethan Coen's neo-Western. On a second visit, I was in thrall to the exquisite silence punctuated by effects that produced a true rush; the vicious thu-u-ump! of Javier Bardem's air compressor is the stuff of giggly nightmares. It was on a third visit, though, that I was finally able to look beyond the virtuosity and latch onto the movie's troubled soul, which imagines a world where fate is dictated by chance, where good deeds go unrewarded, and where evil deeds are routinely unpunished. Without abandoning their sense of humor, the Coens, in No Country for Old Men, finally treat seriously the sort of material they goofed on in such works as Blood Simple and Fargo, and the result is their most extraordinary offering to date - funny, scary, and, when you dig beneath its technical perfection, almost staggeringly moving. Worth re-viewing ... for the scuffed marks on a police-station floor; for the image of two trucks on a hilltop where there was previously only one; for the gradually accelerating blip-blip-blip of a transponder outside a Texas motel; for the haunting sound of a faraway telephone ringing, and ringing, and ringing; for the unfazed expression on a clerk's face when Josh Brolin enters his store in a robe and cowboy boots; for Bardem leaving Kelly Macdonald's house and offhandedly checking the soles of his shoes; and for Tommy Lee Jones, with heartbreaking resignation, saying, "I always thought when I got older that God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn't."
2) Into the Wild
It's hard to remember the last time I left the cineplex so exhilarated. Sean Penn, writing and directing Jon Krakauer's much-loved nonfiction, appeared as fevered off-screen as he is in his greatest film roles; the result was an altogether glorious example of craftsmanship fused with deep love. You can feel Peen's empathy for the young Christopher McCandless (brilliantly enacted by Emile Hirsch) and his doomed trek to Alaska, but Into the Wild isn't the least bit interested in starry-eyed hero worship. Instead, it's a stunningly even-handed and nonjudgmental exploration of humans' relationship with nature, and with one another, and as honestly, purely emotional as anything seen on-screen this decade; the movie isn't manipulative, and it isn't sentimental, and you still might weep like a baby. Worth re-viewing ... for the sublime opening shot of Hirsch exiting a car on a deserted stretch of Alaska road, as he makes what we instinctively know is Christopher's final contact with humanity; for the beautiful flower-child empathy of Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener, both amazed by, and fearful of, Christopher's innocence; and for the aching loss in Hal Holbrook's eyes as he bids his new friend farewell, revealing the wizened heartbreak of someone who, after years spent alone, finally finds family ... only to promptly lose it again.
3) Knocked Up
Since purchasing the DVD, I've probably seen Judd Apatow's unexpected-pregnancy comedy more than a dozen times, and I'm not nearly done with it. After so many repeat viewings, I can't quite argue with the opinion that it's less a movie than a hugely extended sitcom - Apatow rarely displays much in the way of visual invention - but with the continually inspired Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl in the leads, it's a spectacularly sweet and bracingly hilarious sitcom, and a more insightful, open-minded work than plenty of more polished (and more acclaimed) entertainments. And I would have been happy to have the Apatow-produced Superbad - with its hysterical and touching byplay between Jonah Hill and Michael Cera - sharing Knocked Up's residency on this list, if only those amusing but annoying Keystone Cops (Rogen being one of them) didn't keep showing up to kill the comic momentum. Worth re-viewing ... for the nearly endless run of inspired cameos, especially Alan Tudyk's and Kristen Wiig's good-cop/crab-cop routine as Heigl's producers at E! (Wiig: "We don't want you to lose weight. We just want you to be healthy. You know, by ... by eating less."); for Rogen's and Paul Rudd's trippy, Vegas-on-'shrooms adventure, culminating in a rare burst of maturity for two unapologetic adolescents; and for damn near everything Rudd says. ("Uh-oh ... someone's getting home-schooled ... .")
4) Eastern Promises
I'd expected tension and dread from David Cronenberg's Russian-gangster saga, as tension and dread are what Cronenberg does. (Often to the detriment of his works, which I generally find to be maddeningly austere and soulless.) What I absolutely did not expect was that Eastern Promises would be the most grandly, lavishly enjoyable movie the Canadian auteur had yet delivered. Like The Godfathers I and II shrink-wrapped and squeezed into a pungent, satisfyingly nasty genre thriller (with a witty script by Steve Knight), the film is elegantly designed and almost ridiculously entertaining, and it allows Viggo Mortensen to give the star performance we were beginning to think he'd have to be on horseback to deliver. The film recently arrived on DVD, and might finally escape my DVD player in, oh, a week or two. Worth re-viewing ... for the magnificently open-ended finale, which makes you want Cronenberg and Knight to get cracking on Eastern Promises II; for the spirited, absolutely necessary familial comedy between Naomi Watts' Anna and her Russian-born uncle; for the scenes with Vincent Cassel's dangerously unstable Kirill, disguising pathetic weakness behind a veneer of bad-ass posturing; and, of course, for the notorious Turkish-bath battle, so miraculously staged and edited and shockingly brutal that Mortensen performing the sequence naked is almost beside the point. Almost.
5) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Writer/director Andrew Dominick crafted the most visually arresting, wholly lived-in, blazingly alive Western the genre has seen in well over a decade, and outside of a few film critics, no one seemed to care. But I'm itching to get reacquainted with this epic tale of greed and 19th Century fame, and to luxuriate in Dominick's stark and elegiac ambiance - the movie is deliberately paced, mostly plotless, and not boring for an instant. Casey Affleck (deservedly) received the lion's share of praise for his twitchy, unstable simpleton, but Assassination may have boasted more excellent performers than any other 2007 work; Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Garret Dillahunt (also spectacular as Deputy Wendell in No Country for Old Men), Paul Schneider, Sam Shepard, Mary-Louise Parker, and others all made sizable impressions, and Brad Pitt - employing his iconic stature flawlessly - hasn't been this strong in years. Worth re-viewing ... for the heartrending emotionalism of Dillahunt during his nighttime walk with Pitt, knowing it's the last walk he'll ever take; for the participants' prolonged shock following the titular assassination, the stunned silence eventually giving way to Parker's wailing grief; and for the gorgeous and consistently inventive cinematography of Roger Deakins - you could likely watch the entire 160-minute film with the sound turned off and still find it hypnotic.
About five years ago, I bought All the President's Men on DVD, and so far, I've watched it roughly 20 times. I'm guessing that's how many times I'm likely to have watched Zodiac by the year 2012. Why am I in such a minority on this? I can see why Assassination might have looked off-putting to mass audiences, and I suppose I can understand their hesitancy about Eastern Promises or Into the Wild, but how in heaven did David Fincher's gripping, frightening, and endlessly fascinating serial-killer drama not capture more interest? Not only is the movie great, but it's like a whole bunch of great movies rolled into one; Zodiac works as a thriller, a drama, a horror movie, a journalistic procedural, and oftentimes - particularly when Robert Downey Jr. launches into one of his wonderfully hyper-kinetic Robert Downey Jr. rants - a comedy. A new, two-disc DVD of this sterling entertainment hits stores on Tuesday, so with luck, the previously uninitiated will soon get wise to Fincher's achievement; it's easily his best, most enjoyable work to date. "Even better than Fight Club?" you ask. Yup. Even better than Fight Club. Worth re-viewing ... for the thrillingly unsettling and threatening image of the zodiac killer standing before his next victims in a grassy field in broad daylight; for the unanticipated humor of Brian Cox's egocentric and paranoid television psychologist; and for the stricken look on Jake Gyllenhaal's face when his character, shopping in a local drug store, finally - and meaninglessly - realizes the killer's true identity.
7) Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
While spending Thanksgiving Day in Chicagoland, I caught No Country for Old Men in the evening, and Sidney Lumet's twisty crime thriller - which never played on Quad Cities screens - in the afternoon. Not the cheeriest of holiday double-features, to be sure, but it'd be hard to imagine a more satisfying one. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke portray brothers who plan and execute the robbery of a mom-and-pop jewelry store - one owned by their actual Mom and Pop - and while the theft goes (expectedly) disastrously wrong, practically everything about Before the Devil Knows You're Dead goes jaw-droppingly right. From the deeply emotional, nearly operatic performances of the leads and a leonine Albert Finney to the brilliant structural flourishes in Kelly Masterson's script, the movie is a true dazzler, and helmed by Lumet with masterly precision. Nearly every critic who praised the film made mention of the director's age of 82, and not without reason - maybe you have to direct movies for more than a half-century to make one seem so effortless. Worth re-viewing ... for the film's intricate puzzle design, which leapfrogs between the past and present, and unfolds like an impending car crash you're powerless to prevent; for Hoffman's scuzzily patronizing older brother, who can't stop grinning at how easy it is to play his younger sibling for a sap; and for the brief, vibrantly pissed-off turn by Gone Baby Gone's astonishing Amy Ryan, who plays the dark subtext of lower-middle class mothers better, perhaps, than any actress ever has.
8) The Darjeeling Limited
Wes Anderson has a rare, rather remarkable talent: He makes movies about depression that can leave you feeling almost unaccountably happy. After the self-conscious eccentricity of 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the writer/director returned to both grace and good common sense with this tale of three brothers embarking on a soulful pilgrimage through India, and crafted a searching, observant comedy about malaise and inchoate longing - I can't believe crowds didn't form lines around the block! In a trio of generous performances, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwarzman lent vibrant life to spiritual emptiness, and their director orchestrates their repartée with lovely directness; if J.D. Salinger had opted for celluloid over paper, he might've turned out a lot like Wes Anderson. Worth re-viewing ... for the delicate strangeness of Anderson's short-film opener, Hotel Chevalier, and the cleverness with which it's referenced in the movie proper; for the subtle setup of opening jokes that only pay off in the film's final minutes; for the mood-altering tragedy of the unexpected drowning ("I couldn't save mine ... .") mere seconds after a huge belly laugh; and for the closing credits, with the comforting bumpiness of a new railroad sojourn underscored to Joe Dassin's joyfully smooth "Les Champs-Elysees."
9) Michael Clayton
The movie has a disappointing ending, which simplifies a lot of complexities and gives audience a stand-and-cheer climax that isn't really prepared for. And that's really the only negative thing I can say about it. As a screenwriter, Tony Gilroy provided the films in the Bourne franchise with spectacular slyness and intellect, qualities on display in every minute of this captivating legal thriller, which shows Gilroy as gifted with performers as he is with words and action; George Clooney delivered the most confident and forceful work of his film career, and Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, and Sydney Pollack, in unexpectedly three-dimensional roles, were a dream of a supporting cast. And I'm amazed that a bigger deal wasn't made of this movie being Gilroy's directorial debut; the twilit scene involving the deer and the explosion would be one Cronenberg, Fincher, or the Coens would be proud to have staged. Worth re-viewing ... for the opening torrent of manic-depressive voice-over and the climactic serenity of the cab ride to nowhere; for Swinton's opposing counsel staving off a nervous breakdown while practicing prepared remarks in the mirror; and for the terrifyingly systematic murder of Wilkinson's litigator - the year's most nightmarish movie execution for being so bloodless, and so plausible.
Just when it was beginning to look as though my Top 10 list might, for the first time ever, be composed entirely of R-rated fare, along came Jason Reitman's and Diablo Cody's small-scale yet big-hearted PG-13 gem. (Sorry, Grindhouse.) As the sardonic, pregnant 16-year-old title character who isn't nearly as world-weary as she pretends to be, Ellen Page delivers a triumphantly assured comedic performance that grows richer and more nuanced with each passing scene, and while screenwriter Cody's dialogue has been justifiably lauded, Reitman's pitch-perfect direction hasn't received its due; Juno's incessant (though hilarious) wisecracks work because Reitman, working with a marvelous acting ensemble, has created a wholly believable, recognizable universe for them to breathe in. Worth re-viewing ... for the lightning-quick wit of the conversation (by the time you've fully measured how funny a particular line is, two more equally funny ones have all but snuck by you); for J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney as the best parents an "in trouble" high-schooler could ever hope for; for the devastatingly sweet sadness of a never-better Jennifer Garner; and for the graceful final shot of two youths contentedly playing guitar - a faultless image of suburban summer bliss.
10 Best Runners-Up
Across the Universe, Blades of Glory, Gone Baby Gone, Grindhouse, Hairspray, No End in Sight, Once, Sicko, The Simpsons Movie, Superbad.
The Runners-Up to Those Runners-Up
Bee Movie, The Bourne Ultimatum, Bug, The Host, Hot Fuzz, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, A Mighty Heart, The Namesake, Stardust, La Vie en rose.
Oh, What the Hell ... 10 More
Amazing Grace, Bridge to Terabithia, Charlie Wilson's War, The Hoax, The Mist, Ocean's Thirteen, Sunshine, 3:10 to Yuma, Transformers, 28 Weeks Later.
Pretty Good Movies That Didn't Deserve Their Critical Spankings
Alvin & the Chipmunks, The Brothers Solomon, The Comebacks, Dragon Wars: D-War, Evan Almighty, The Invisible, The Messengers, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, Norbit, Resident Evil: Extinction.
Not-Bad Movies That Didn't Deserve Their Rave Reviews
American Gangster, Away from Her, Becoming Jane, Enchanted, I Am Legend, In the Valley of Elah, Ratatouille, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, The TV Set, Waitress.
Shrug-Worthy (at Best) Sequels
Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Hannibal Rising, Hostel: Part II, Live Free or Die Hard, Mr. Bean's Holiday, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Rush Hour 3, Shrek the Third, Spider-Man 3.
Movies I Skipped Because I Must Have Had Something Better to Do ...
Arthur & the Invisibles, Bratz, Code Name: The Cleaner, Daddy Day Care, Firehouse Dog, Nancy Drew, The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising, Underdog, War, Who's Your Caddy?.
Movies I'm Hoping to See Prior to the Oscars
Atonement, The Diving Bell & the Butterfly, I'm Not There, The Kite Runner, Lars & the Real Girl, Lust Caution, Persepolis, The Savages, Starting Out in the Evening, There Will Be Blood.
Most Fervent Hope for 2008
That those who book films at Showcase 53 and Great Escape Theatre continue to follow what are probably cash-unfriendly instincts, and secure such outside-the-mainstream titles as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Darjeeling Limited, and Into the Wild, even when they must know they're not gonna make a lot of money. A bunch of us really appreciate it. (See the above list for suggestions on how to continue our appreciation.)
Awful Movies That I Can't Believe Didn't Crack the Top (Bottom?) 10 of the Worst Movies of 2007
Dan in Real Life, Epic Movie, Ghost Rider, Happily N'Ever After, The Heartbreak Kid, The Invasion, Lucky You, Next, Saw IV, September Dawn.
And the Actual 10
10) Hitman: A bald Timothy Olyphant with a bar code on the back of his head. And just slightly less entertaining than watching a cashier scan it for 100 minutes.
9) Are We Done Yet?: Please?
8) Wild Hogs: More witless and offensive than Balls of Fury, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, and Delta Farce. Way more.
7) Halloween: Rob Zombie suggesting that everything his journalist detractors write about him is true. Damn it.
6) Primeval: Three words to get you excited: Serial-killing crocodile. Three words to quell that excitement: God-awful terrible.
5) August Rush: Audience members applauded at the end. The sound was chilling.
4) Good Luck Chuck: And Dane. Let's not forget about Dane.
3) The Hills Have Eyes II: Surprise! Hollywood turned a pretty great '70s horror flick into a really great '00s horror flick. No surprise! Hollywood nullified its accomplishment with a repellently inane sequel.
1) I Know Who Killed Me and License to Wed: For both the films' participants and their viewers, one's just a little less humiliating than the other. Flip a coin.