Best films of 2007 are anything but stellar

Al Alexander

I think 2007 may go down as The Year of Lowered Expectations in film. Movies that would have only passed for mundane in previous years were somehow elevated to “exceptional” this year. I couldn’t believe the praise that was heaped upon less-than-stellar works like “Michael Clayton,” “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Simpsons Movie” and the current flavor of the month, the gratingly dull “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”

In fact, I had a hard time coming up with 10 films. And as much as I love my choices, I have to be honest in saying that only three or four of them would have cracked last year’s list.

Still, these are some very original and highly entertaining pictures that were the best that 2007 had to offer. I begin with the best…

No Country for Old Men”: Joel and Ethan Coen’s brilliant adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s prize-winning novel about the borders between nations, eras and men’s souls offered everything from biblical themes of good vs. evil to ruminations on karma, fate and chance. But it was the way the brothers folded these esoteric musings into a standard chase film that reeked of genius. But the film will be most fondly remembered for Javier Bardem’s creepy but indelible portrayal of Anton Chigurh, a ruthless killer so evil he’d make Hannibal Lector shake in his body harness.

Knocked Up”: Writer-director Judd Apatow wed raunchiness and romance into an unholy union to love, honor and cherish with his story about a one-night stand between a rumpled stoner (Seth Rogen) and a gorgeous career woman (Katherine Heigl) that resulted in an unwanted pregnancy. It was conception that gave birth to one of the best — and funniest — romantic comedies since “When Harry Met Sally.” But what made it an instant classic was the way Apatow shored it up by going just below the surface to subtly explore issues of responsibility and family.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”: Amazing sets, a gorgeous Stephen Sondheim score and a killer cast featuring the sinfully talented Johnny Depp gave the film its cachet, but it was Tim Burton who infused it with soul. It was such a perfect match of director and material that you wonder why it took so long for it to come together. But, boy, did it. The master of heartfelt horror performed a stunning makeover by adapting Sondheim’s somewhat dated tale of love, revenge and the dangers of a close shave into a very intimate and moving experience that was bloody good.

Black Book”: There’s nothing like forbidden love, especially when it’s between a lapsed Nazi and a Jewish aristocrat — come Mara Hari — who has lost everything at the hands of her lover’s comrades. Dutch-born filmmaker Paul Verhoeven milked it for everything it was worth, providing thrills, titillation and unabridged violence — not to mention numerous excellently rendered plot twists — as he and his co-screenwriter Gerard Soeteman cleverly concocted a story equal parts James Bond, “Gone with the Wind” and “Debbie Does Dallas.” Most prominently exposed was Carice van Houten, the most mesmerizing new actress I’ve seen in some time — even with her clothes on, which was only about half the time. Forget “Atonement,” this is the wartime soap to see.

Zodiac”: I wasn’t bowled over on first viewing of David Fincher’s dark and stylish adaptation of Robert Graysmith’s best-seller about the hunt for perhaps the most prolific serial killer of the past 40 years. But repeat viewings on DVD have revealed it to be an exceptional procedural about journalists and cops — played superbly by Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo — futilely toiling to solve a series of crimes that shocked San Francisco Bay in the 1960s and ’70s. Families and careers were destroyed simply because the men involved were so dedicated (or were they obsessed) with bringing Zodiac — whoever he was — to justice.

I’m Not There”: Todd Haynes went electric with his masterful and imaginative interpretation of the life and times of Bob Dylan. A glorious collision of style and substance, the film delivered a buzz like no biopic before it, simply because there was no other like it. Haynes’ cleverest move was casting six different actors to play Dylan, each representing a piece of the enigmatic singer’s multi-faceted career. The standout, though, was Cate Blanchett, so good as the “Blonde on Blonde”-era Dylan that you completely forgot that it was a woman behind those dark shades.

The Hoax”: Richard Gere delivered one of his finest performances as master charlatan Clifford Irving, the middling author who some say helped bring down the Nixon White House when he schemed to write a fake autobiography about Howard Hughes. Playing such a bigger-than-life character, Gere deftly went beyond mere impersonation and created a crook so smart, so charismatic you would never think of him as a crook. Kudos also go to director Lasse Hallstrom for presenting the material with such a giddy, almost absurdist, air.

Hairspray”: If ever there was a movie to get your beehive in a twirl, this was it. It’s easily the most PG-rated fun I had at the movies all year. And one of the most inspiring, as a full-figured teen (Nikki Blonsky) found a way to chase her dream of becoming a dancer on “The Corny Collins Show,” while simultaneously spearheading a campaign to win blacks equal rights. Director Adam Shankman, aided by an all-star cast featuring John Travolta in drag, kept it all moving at a rapid pace. But it was his exuberant choreography that gave “Hairspray” that little goose of mousse that sent it over the top.

Juno”: Fluently mixing old-fashion values with raunchy comedy, director Jason Reitman and first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody (a former stripper) created an experience that was as gut-wrenching as it was gut-busting in telling the quirky story of a precocious 16-year-old (not Jamie Lynn Spears) with a bun in the oven. Playing the mother-to-be was exciting newcomer Ellen Page, a diminutive actor with big enough talent to elevate heroine Juno MacGruff beyond just another glib, hip-talking stereotype into something quite affecting. Praise, too, to Jennifer Garner, delivering the best work of her career as the childless woman Juno has promised her baby.

Lars and the Real Girl”: Mixing dark humor and pathos with romance and camp, this Capra-esque comedy from writer Nancy Oliver was sweet and poignant like sweet and poignant ought to be: unadorned and sugar free. It also was one of the most original stories of the year, telling the tale of a town hermit (Ryan Gosling) who found a soul mate in a life-size rubber sex doll named Bianca. Like all the great films of its ilk (“Harvey,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Big”), “Lars” mined its unending charm by keeping the fantasy rooted in reality, as it delivered a heartening treatise on love, community and the healing powers of silicone.

 As a postscript, let me plug a dozen other favorites that didn’t quite make the cut. They include in no particular order: “Waitress,” “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “The Savages,” “The Lookout,” “Persepolis,” “Control,” “Talk to Me,” “Ratatouille,” “3:10 to Yuma,” “Breach,” “Once” and “In the Valley of Elah.”