#10: THE LIVES OF OTHERS (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, dir.)
Although it was released in 2006, this masterful film from Germany didn't receive an American audience outside of the Telluride Film Festival until February. It was well worth the wait. Far too many movies that pick up Best Foreign Film Oscars are the international doppelgangers of Best Picture winners -- overblown, overpraised, middlebrow 'prestige' pictures lacking in resonance, depth and any particular qualities that will result in their being remembered far down the line. But The Lives of Others -- best thought of as a brilliant reworking of The Conversation against the dreadful backdrop of Soviet East Germany -- deserved every bit of praise heaped on it by critics both here and abroad. It's a stunning, terrifying film, brilliantly illustrating Hannah Arendt's 'banality of evil' in the person of the astonishing Ulrich Mühe.
#9: SWEENEY TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (Tim Burton, dir.)
One of the few of a year-end spate of high-profile films that I actually got a chance to see, Sweeney Todd is Tim Burton's adaptation of the notoriously blood-soaked and difficult Stephen Sondheim musical. I've never been especially fond of Tim Burton as a director, but the qualities of his filmmaking that usually work against him -- the broad emotional strokes, the barely-held-together plots, the characters as caricatures, and the meticulous set design at the expense of believability -- are turned into such strengths that it's hard to believe no one ever had the idea of having him do a musical before this. The result is certainly the best film he's ever done and likely the best film he'll ever do, an absolutely gorgeous thing to look at, and with some surprisingly fine performances. One of the best musicals I've ever seen.
#8: EASTERN PROMISES (David Cronenberg, dir.)
Conversely, I've long been a staunch defender of David Cronenberg's, even with films like Crash and Spider, which met with widespread revulsion from a lot of my fellow critics. Unfortunately, I found his most celebrated film -- 2005's A History of Violence -- sadly lacking, a formulaic and uninspiring drama that bore so little of his unique imprint as a filmmaker that it could have been directed by almost anyone. If the Russian mob drama Eastern Promises isn't strong enough to stand alongside his greatest works, though, it's at least a return to form and a revisiting of some of the themes -- muddled self-identity, the grace and brutality of violence, and a simultaneous revulsion at and fascination with the human body -- that have made him one of the signature talents of the day. Plus, naked Viggo Mortensen, ladies!
#7: BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD (Sidney Lumet, dir.)
If you'd have told me last year -- hell, if you'd told me twenty years ago -- that one of the best film of 2007 would be by ancient journeyman Sidney Lumet, I'd likely have scoffed. But damned if the old trooper doesn't turn in a remarkably swift and sure-handed job behind the helm here, presenting a neo-noir thriller about a simple caper gone disastrously wrong that wouldn't be entirely out of place in the early 1960s and yet never loses a fresh sense of modernity. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead isn't a groundbreaking piece of cinema art; it's simply an assured, highly professional piece of moviemaking of the sort we rarely see anymore, and which Lumet is eminently qualified to give us. It's further bolstered by a dynamite performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has simply owned 2007 on screen.
#6: LUST, CAUTION (Ang Lee, dir.)
Ang Lee continues to be the most versatile moviemaker in the business with his best work since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; if he is absolute master of no genre, he at least never ceases to amaze with his ability to dive confidently into all genres. Bouyed by astonishing performances so tightly controlled and confidently directed that they seem drawn from lost Wong Kar-Wei footage, Lust, Caution maintains a killing pace throughout and doesn't fail to deliver on its near-constant sense of tension and frustration. The much-discussed sex scenes are indeed intense and scarily erotic, but they also accomplish something that's so rarely done that it's become an industry joke: they're not arbitrary, but essential, not only to the plot, but also to the slow but inexorable revelation of the nature of the characters.
#5: THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (Julian Schnabel, dir.)
I was never fond of Julian Schnabel, the visual artist, and while I thought that his debut film, Basquiat, showed promise, I tended to agree with the New York art critic Robert Hughes, who called it a movie about the worst painter of the 1980s made by the second worst. I'm not sure what Hughes has to say about The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but I think it's an amazing film by a director who's finally come into full posession of the tools of his craft. Schnabel has said that he still considers himself an artist first and a director second, but this visually rewarding, complex and beautiful movie is better than anything he ever put to canvas, and even without the tremendous lead performance by Mathieu Amalric, it would be a film worth watching for its mastery of internal landscapes far richer than Schabel's art ever suggested.
#4: MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES (Jennifer Baichwal, dir.)
In what is widely regarded as a banner year for documentaries, the finest one I saw had nothing to do with the war in Iraq, the peccadilloes of the president, or the politics of personality. Instead, it was a little-seen film about a little-known photographer named Edward Burtynsky. His photographs -- and the like-minded film by Jennifer Baichwal -- document the vastness and power of man-made constructs, and convey the awe and the terror one feels at observing objects, from China's Three Gorges Dam to American junkyards, that are made by the hand of humans but can dwarf or even overwhelm the natural surroundings in which they appear. A slow-paced, deliberate, and provocative film made as a collaboration between two artists who understand each other in an perfectly asynchronous way.
#3: ZODIAC (David Fincher, dir.)
Much has been made of the fact that David Fincher, best known for his visual pyrotechnics, allegedly made his most successful film without them. That's not entirely true; among other scenes, the opening drive-by tracking shot, the first murders, and the construction montage of the San Francisco skyline can stand next to some of the most stylish set-pieces in his other films. But it's undeniable that his best film to date, and one of the best films of the year, is at its best when he simply stands back and lets the audience become spellbound with the absorbing interplay of his characters. A fascinating treatment of the nature of obsession and a subtle treatise on the way we become ensnared in the grotesque and the perverse, Zodiac is revelatory in the way it defies expectations of what a serial-killer drama should be.
#2: BRAND UPON THE BRAIN! (Guy Maddin, dir.)
Guy Maddin has been quietly establishing himself as one of the finest, most idiosyncratic directors in the world for several years now, and Brand Upon the Brain! is both his most autobiographical film to date (the lead character in the film is, well, Guy Maddin, ably and amusingly played by young Sullivan Brown) and his best. There was some fear amongst critics who had a chance to see it in its 'touring edition' -- a live extravaganza featuring on-site music, celebrity voice-overs and sound effects composed right there in the theater -- that the film wouldn't hold up without all the show-stopping theatrical gimmicks, but they needn't have worried: this is the purest distillation of Maddin's unique sensibilities as a filmmaker: sexual obsession, throwback surrealism, fantastic dreamscapes, and madness as part of the everyday.
#1: NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (Joel & Ethan Coen, dirs.)
There are plenty of filmmakers who would trade their favorite limb for a track record like Joel and Ethan Coen -- from 1984 to 2001, they didn't make a bad film, and the 9 features they put in the can over those 17 years add up to the most robust corpus by any living American filmmaker you can name. Things started to go awry with Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers; many placed the blame on the fact that, for the first time, the Coens were filming material they didn't write. That's not a problem with No Country for Old Men, a triumphant masterpiece of genre filmmaking based on a minor Cormac McCarthy novel that once again places the brothers (credited, for the first time ever, as co-directors) where they belong: at the very pinnacle of American moviemaking. An astonishing comeback that will be discussed for decades.