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Enchanted, the mostly-live-action Disney fairy tale that added a twist to the royals-in-love cliché, was a surprise hit with critics, myself included. But in my favorite films of 2007, men weren’t exactly princes. Most remarkable was all the violence filmmakers threw down: Blood, buckets of it, was shed, whether graphically or suggestively, with caps being busted in all manner of asses, with the West especially proving wild whether it was the 1880s or 1980s. Police were corrupt. Gangsters were unabashed, and you didn’t even have to sell drugs to become one. Turn on a man’s family, and watch how fast that gentleman gets dirty.
The bad behavior wasn’t exclusive to testosterone-heavy movies, however. Some of the year’s most endearing heroines were knocked up, knocked around, or both. Affairs were had. Even Harry Potter copped a ’tude. And like Potter’s latest adventure, many of these stories came into the world as literature. A source that didn’t deliver so reliably was politics. With a few exceptions, most notably the excellent, eye-widening documentary No End in Sight, war- and terrorism-themed projects such as Rendition, Redacted, A Mighty Heart, and The Kingdom tanked. Some of them weren’t very good, but mostly, audiences just didn’t care.
In nearly all of my picks, the greater theme was moral ambiguity. White hats and black hats disappeared as characters shed one-note descriptions and trafficked in a lot of gray. It’s still not difficult to pinpoint the good guys of 2007, though. They’re the talent who made these 10 films, which I’ve listed in no particular order:
1. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Based on the novel by Ron Hansen, this adaptation by writer-director Andrew Dominik was lyrical, mesmerizing, and featured a stellar ensemble, with Casey Affleck in particular delivering an astonishing performance as the coward of the title. All the kid wanted to do was hang with his idol, Jesse (to whom Brad Pitt lends the requisite outlaw charm). But there was evil behind James’ grin, and a hint of condescension, too. And when his hero went truly unhinged, suddenly a life of crime didn’t seem so glamorous. Ford found out, though, that sometimes those “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters are merely decorative, and there’s a difference between taking down a thief and murdering a legend.
2. No Country for Old Men
The Joel and Ethan Coen interpretation of Cormac McCarthy’s book about a generally decent hunter who decides to make off with a haul of drug-deal-gone-wrong cash is jaw-dropping in its powerful simplicity. Uncomfortably quiet, the tension is palpable as Javier Bardem’s Dutch Boy-bobbed villain, who maintains his own warped set of standards, hunts Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss, who does what he has to do to protect the money and himself. The movie’s excellence is inarguable, though your idea of fun has to be gripping your armrest and wishing for Rolaids to label this “entertainment.”
3. Gone Baby Gone
Another novel, this one by Mystic River writer Dennis Lehane, brought to the screen by, of all people, Ben Affleck. Yes, it’s now apparent that the Oscar-winning co-screenwriter of Good Will Hunting wasn’t merely the contributor who typed. He directs his brother, Casey, to another solid performance as an investigator whose rigid ideas of right and wrong are challenged when a little girl is kidnapped. Taking place mainly in a seedy Boston underworld, the film is honest, shocking, and a hell of a conversation-starter.
Let’s interrupt the heinousness with a little uplift, albeit one with a side of sadness. Waitress was written and directed by Adrienne Shelly, who was murdered before the film was released. A lovely thing, then, that her final project is a beauty. Keri Russell gives her first fully formed, grown-up performance as Jenna, a diner waitress who’s thinking about leaving her abusive husband when she finds out she’s pregnant. Touches of surrealism, a sweet flirtation, and lots of pie mark Waitress as a confection, but an undercurrent of melancholy and Jenna’s difficult choices keep it from floating away once the credits roll.
5. 3:10 to Yuma
Elmore Leonard is better known for his snappy crime novels, but he sketched this Western as a short story. Like No Country for Old Men, the plot is simple: Trigger-happy outlaw (Russell Crowe) gets caught, and an upstanding fella (Christian Bale) helps escort him to a train outta Dodge for some much-needed cash. But the remake isn’t only similar to The Assassination of Jesse James because of its milieu. It also offers complex characters who can vacillate between righteousness and amorality even by the minute.
6. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Sidney Lumet treads A Simple Plan territory in this story about a seemingly easy money-grab gone bad. This time, the transgression is within an actual family, notably brothers played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, who plan to rob their parents’ jewelry store, reasoning that insurance will make this crime victimless. Albert Finney completes the trio of right-on portrayals of characters who do wrong.
7. La Vie en Rose
Marion Cotillard is the year’s best actress as Edith Piaf, the French singer who spent her childhood on the streets, was saved by her transporting voice, and died lonely, addicted, and cancer-ridden at 47. Piaf was quite the pillar of fortitude, often listening only to her gut. Still, she was a victim to her love of a married man and carried a double burden when she lost him in a plane crash, even though she already knew he would never truly be hers.
8. American Gangster
Russell Crowe is on the other side of the law here, and as far as he can get—his Richie Roberts, a real-life cop who ends up specializing in drug enforcement, becomes as well-known for turning in nearly a million dollars of unmarked bills as he does for his methodical nab of also very real Harlem kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington). Based on a New York magazine article by Mark Jacobson, Ridley Scott’s epic is a superior Scarface with unsurprisingly first-class performances by two of Hollywood’s aces.
9. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
10. Knocked Up
In terms of comedy, it was the Year of Apatow. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story was co-written by King Judd and offers a note-perfect parody of the troubled-musician biopic, mashing together elements of Ray and Walk the Line. John C. Reilly was a brilliant choice to play Cox, but the script’s the thing, and this one is full of half-ribald, all-goofy humor that’s unmistakenly Apatow. Superbad was only produced by Apatow but was perhaps 2007’s biggest gut-buster, unrelenting in its lightning-fast delivery of gags so hilariously filthy you sometimes couldn’t catch your breath. An honorable mention goes to Knocked Up, the surprisingly balanced comedy written solely by Apatow that took a simple premise—one-night stand between a schlub and a professional woman who knows better results in pregnancy—and turned it into something realistic and touching, The 40-Year-Old Virgin-style. With the onslaught of Oscar-baiters now drowning screens and bringing down audiences, keep these three in mind to reignite your harshed buzz.