It seems absurd to call Wes Anderson underrated, since his films have been routinely flagged for release by the Criterion Collection, and his fan following (particularly strong for people in their 20's) has extended to a viral Team Zissou MySpace account. And certainly Anderson doesn't seem to feel any pressure to make changes to his distinctive style: austere uses of the widescreen mise-en-scene, thematic color coding, familiar themes of dysfunctional families, a recurring company of players. Nevertheless, critics seem baffled by Anderson's films upon the first viewing, and only those critics who revisit his earlier films find them more rewarding. This is key: Anderson and his co-writers place a great deal of character detail in compact scenes, so that if you're not paying attention, or tracking certain clues dropped in each scene, the final payoff may not have the emotional impact intended. Attentive and receptive viewers have a different experience. The Darjeeling Limited is blessed with a gifted and game cast--Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman on a misguided and hysterical journey for enlightenment on a train travelling through India--but the real wonder of the film is the screenplay, which is bitingly satirical and subtly moving at the same time. If Preston Sturges were alive, this is the kind of film he'd be making.
2. Zodiac (David Fincher)
I was never a David Fincher acolyte, but the famously stylistic director showed such restraint in his crime epic, Zodiac, that I was instantly won over. The trick he pulls off is formidable: despite the fact that the murders take place early in the film, and much of its three-hour running time is given over to talking and thinking--questioning of suspects, digging through boxes of paperwork, and other believably mundane procedures--the viewer is nonetheless gripped with suspense and growing fascination for its entire length. Perhaps Fincher's biggest challenge of all was constructing a true crime mystery in which no answer can be provided. Going into this film, the only thing I knew about the Zodiac killer was that he was never caught. That doesn't ruin anything. The film's real subject is not crime but obsession, and the lengths to which a person will go searching for answers that may be impossible to acquire. Although there is a prime suspect, the fact that there remains as much convincing evidence in favor of his guilt as well as his innocence turns the film into a philosophical puzzle worthy of Borges.
3. No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen)
When reviews from the Toronto Film Festival began pouring in for No Country for Old Men, it was frequently observed that this was a Coen Brothers film like no other--a reserved, spare, cold-blooded, straightforward and devastating piece. Perhaps because my perception was colored by these early reviews, when I saw the film I was struck by all of its trademarks from the Coen canon: there's Stephen Root's "Man Who Hires Wells," a grinning, perversely bizarre businessman, and the beaming Wells himself (Woody Harrelson), cocksure, thinking himself smarter than the audience knows he is. There's the fact that the Coen Brothers have always been accused of being a little cold-blooded. And there are the elaborately conceived setpieces, focused on the details: how the assassin Chigurh (Javier Bardem) uses his pressurized air-gun to blast open the locks of doors; Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) watching his car on the horizon sink a few inches, realizing that the tires have been shot out and that he has no escape; the trail of blood left by a wounded dog in the desert; the desperate attempt to convince a teenager to surrender his jacket so Moss can cover his bloody shirt. In fact, one of the things that makes No Country for Old Men so wondrous is that every single scene would be suited to a Coen Brothers career highlight reel. But ultimately, like Zodiac, it's the sting of its no-resolution ending; life moves on, while evil remains on the loose.
4. Grindhouse (Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino)
The proper way to experience Death Proof and Planet Terror was in the theater, preferably a packed one on the Friday night it opened. With a scratched, beaten-up print (a sign posted next to the theater entrance warned moviegoers that the film was supposed to look this way), custom-made exploitation movie trailers directed by the likes of Rob Zombie, Eli Roth, and Edgar Wright, a restaurant ad, and missing reels, it managed to both recreate a night at a sleazy Bronx grindhouse circa 1972 and a raucous night at one of Quentin Tarantino's movie festivals in Austin. Much of the audience used the "intermission"--when the fake trailers were showing--to run to the bathroom or the snack bar, which only added to the simulation. But honestly, few grindhouse movies managed to be as funny and entertaining as Robert Rodriguez's sustained John Carpenter parody and Tarantino's genre-twisting, Cannes-pleasing slasher film. This was easily the most fun I had in a theater in 2007.
5. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton)
A grand, old-fashioned musical, adapted from Stephen Sondheim's grand guignol hit from decades ago; it just so happens that it's also one of the goriest films of the year. (Should I recommend it to my mother? The jury's still out on that one.) But Johnny Depp is spectacular as the title "demon barber," avenging the wrong done him years back by a corrupt judge (Alan Rickman, naturally)--when he can't mete out his justice, he takes out a misanthropic rage against the populace of London, assisted by Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who offers to bake the bodies into her infamous meat pies. The songs are memorable and strikingly beautiful, the violence is alternately comic and frighteningly savage (and often both at once), and it's all a tour de force for Tim Burton, in his finest form since 1994's Ed Wood. So much fun.
6. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik)
Andrew Dominik's spellbinding Western reverie calls to mind the work of Terrence Malick, as well as McCabe & Mrs. Miller and the best moments of Heaven's Gate. It's an exploration of the gap between legend and reality, the tall tale and the human, as Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) infiltrates the gang of Jesse James (Brad Pitt)--not to kill him, but to worship him, imitate him. The homoerotic undertone almost seems beside the point; it's present almost out of obligation, but it's the least interesting aspect of the story. What seems more important is the extended, tranquil moments that precede violence, the sacred space before a life meets its end. And so Dominik lingers on the ghostly light of a train passing through the woods, casting its beam across the faces of the hooded men about to rob it; or one outlaw's fateful ride on horseback with James at his back; or that last self-scrutiny in a mirror, as James catches the reflection of someone coming up behind him. The film also dwells critically on what follows violence, whether it be Ford's embracing of his own legend as re-enacted on a stage before a paying audience, or a hole in the ice, opened by James' gunshot, revealing fish swimming obliviously in a frozen lake.
7. Ratatouille (Brad Bird)
Next to Hayao Miyazaki, Brad Bird is the best of the modern animation directors, although being an American, he's been forced into abandoning cel animation and embracing CG. Not against his will, mind you, but out of necessity. Disney shut down their traditional animation studios, as former CEO Michael Eisner decided that CG was the wave of the future--in the most short-sighted of predictions. But Eisner's now gone, and Pixar, which once threatened to break their partnership with Disney, is now practically running the show. Their two star directors are John Lasseter (Toy Story, Toy Story 2) and Bird, former director of the short "Family Dog" as well as various episodes of The Simpsons, and whose first film was the critically lauded--and beautifully cel-animated--The Iron Giant (1999). When he made The Incredibles in 2004, it was obvious that he had found a way to work his charming designs into the CG format, while exploiting CG's potential for eye-popping effects. Better still, his storytelling was as precise--and as full of heart--as ever. Ratatouille is at least the equal of the former film, although it is notably scaled down. Remy the Rat (Patton Oswalt) pursues one goal--to become a great chef, despite his species--and to accomplish this, he befriends a human co-conspirator, Linguini (Lou Romano). That the great majority of the film takes place in a single location, the kitchen, almost passes one's notice. It is within this kitchen that great adventure and romance unfold, with the manic energy of a Chuck Jones short tempered by Brad's signature emotional sincerity. When I was a kid, the Disney offerings were The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron. These days children don't know how lucky they are.
8. The Host (Joon-Ho Bong)
This South Korean horror film is the best monster movie to come along in years. Chemical pollution causes a giant amphibian to grow beneath Seoul's Han River, arising one day to stampede through a public park, swallowing any men, women, or children who get in his path. Strikingly, this happens within the first minutes of the film, revealing the whole horrifying creature at once as it begins to gobble up people who are just as stunned and stock-still as you are; the sight is both horrifying and comically absurd. With the big reveal given right at the outset, you might wonder what's left for a monster film to do. Joon-Ho Bong's answer is to focus on hapless father Gang-Du as he and his family try to find his daughter, stolen by the monster; they battle the South Korean Army's bureaucracy and eventually the creature itself, hidden deep in the labyrinthine sewers of a quarantined zone. It's astonishing to find a monster film that is incapable of cliché, and there is not a moment of The Host which meets your expectations. It surpasses them.
9. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (Seth Gordon)
The most important documentary of the year might be No End in Sight, which details all the wrong-headed decisions which led to the disaster in Iraq. That's the most important documentary. But I'm not ashamed to say that my heart belongs to The King of Kong, chronicling the attempt of Steve Wiebe to break the Donkey Kong record held by arcade champion Billy Mitchell. While it's clear that director Gordon was hoping for a quirky take on "nerd sports" docs like Spellbound (2002) and Wordplay (2006), the subjects took his film in completely unexpected directions, with conspiracies, petty rivalries, cowardly decisions, brave decisions, and modest victories and failures. Better still, the players in the world of competitive arcade playing prove to be worthy of a Christopher Guest mockumentary--only truth proves to be more funny than fiction. That said, I love Wiebe, and he proves to be the perfect sympathetic underdog as he steps into this curious, bizarre world of middle-aged men who keep the 80's alive. See the original before the upcoming remake (directed by Gordon) has a chance to leave a bad taste in your mouth.
10. Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright)
British director Wright is quickly becoming a master of contemporary comedy, cutting his teeth on the wonderful sitcom Spaced before helming 2004's cult hit Shaun of the Dead. I loved Shaun, but Hot Fuzz is twice as good, as Wright has learned a thing or two about sustaining a 90-minute comedy. While Shaun spent its biggest laughs in its first half, Hot Fuzz builds slowly until it reaches a breathlessly funny fever pitch, and one of the most hysterical climaxes since the Coens raised Arizona. Hot Fuzz has a simple premise, a parody of Hollywood buddy-cop films which transplants a tough-as-nails officer (Simon Pegg) into a sleepy little town, where he uncovers a murder spree. At a certain point, running gags break into a sprint. Endlessly quotable and re-watchable, this might be the best British comedy since Life of Brian.
Other great enjoyments to be had in 2007:
There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson) - like all of PTA's movies, a thunderous work of intense passion, and another treatise on his favorite subject, the troubled relationship between fathers and sons
Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg) - better than A History of Violence, David Cronenberg's follow-up delivers more believably human characters and a less aloof and theoretical approach, but with a permeating, gripping unease
Once (John Carney) - a charming, anti-romance, anti-musical romantic musical
Juno (Jason Reitman) - great performances by Ellen Page and J.K. Simmons highlight the best pro-unexpected-pregnancy movie of the year
Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog) - Herzog at his most mainstream is still unique and compelling
Paprika (Satoshi Kon) - mature, intelligent science fiction from an acclaimed anime director
Brand Upon the Brain! (Guy Maddin) - a delirious cinematic poem to repressed sexuality, and a spirited revival of silent cinema
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (Sidney Lumet) - pitch-black neo-noir with a memorably cruel performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman
Red Road (Andrea Arnold) - a mysterious thriller in which the protagonist hides secrets from you, so that you're never quite sure what's at stake until very, very late...nevertheless, you're gripped by suspense
Son of Man (Mark Donford-May) - vivid and vital filmmaking retells the Christ story in a contemporary South African city
Tideland (Terry Gilliam) - misunderstood, morbidly comic fairy tale that keeps its heroine innocent amidst the most corrupt decay
Sunshine (Danny Boyle) - slightly marred science fiction epic with at least an hour of brilliant material, from the always-fascinating director of Trainspotting and Millions