The top 25 underappreciated films of 2007

Our series of lists devoted to underappreciated films brings us to the year 2007, and another 25 overlooked gems...

For some reason, the number three was a common factor in several blockbuster movies of 2007. The third film in the Pirates Of The Caribbean series (At World’s End) dominated the box office, Spider-Man 3 marked Sam Raimi’s last entry as director in the series, while Mike Myers went for a hat trick of hits with Shrek The Third.

I Am Legend was the third and most financially successful attempt to bring Richard Matheson’s classic novel to the big screen, Rush Hour 3 marked Jackie Chan’s last action pairing with Chris Tucker, while Zack Snyder’s musky sword-swinger 300 was notable for having the number three in the title.

Iffy attempts at numerology aside, 2007 was also a superb for year for movies in general – particularly underappreciated ones, which is where we come in. As ever, the process of narrowing down the selection to just 25 has resulted in some heated debate, and it’s with heavy heart that, for reasons of relative box office success, we decided to leave out things like Zodiac (arguably one of the finest films of that year), Gone Baby Gone, Dan In Real Life and The Kite Runner.

Instead, we’ve tried to home in on some other films that you may have missed, or, if you haven’t seen them for the best part of six years, you may feel like tracking down and watching again. So with a bit of help from the great John C Reilly, let the list commence…

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25. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

At the time, Walk Hard was the Judd Apatow-produced comedy that failed to ignite, when pretty much everything else he was involved with was hitting big. Fortunately though, this witty, funny send-up of the biopic genre has gradually spread through word of mouth since.

John C Reilly takes the lead role, loosely based on Johnny Cash, and as his life story is played out, a mix of famous musicians – well, takes on famous musicians mainly – weave in and out of his life. Walk Hard continues to leave some people cold, yet it’s the kind of film that if you lock into its humour, you’re going to be rewatching lots and lots of times. It deserves a far better fate than being the forgotten Judd Apatow movie, certainly…

24. Sex And Death 101

Daniel Waters’ screenwriting career has taken in the likes of Heathers and Batman Returns, but he’s also directed two movies. 2001’s Happy Campers was the first, but it’s Sex And Death 101 that’s particularly worth seeking out. Starring Winona Ryder and Patton Oswalt, the setup sees a man receiving an e-mail that lists all the people he’s ever had sex with in his life, and also those who he is set to engage in some clothless cuddling in the future. There’s a further twist in the tale when Winona Ryder’s character turns up with motives of her own.

Sex And Death 101 may not get to the levels of wonderful darkness that Heathers set, but it’s a low-profile, surprising film, with some excellent performances. It’s certainly a shame that Waters hasn’t directed a motion picture since.

23. The Nines

From the early career of Ryan Reynolds comes The Nines, which sees him featuring alongside Melissa McCarthy and Hope Davis. Each of them take three roles, in a film where three different stories intertwine. We’ve seen that approach before, but here, they intertwine in interesting ways, with dashes of sci-fi and fantasy liberally thrown into the proverbial mix.

John August directed this one, his sole directorial feature effort to date. He has, however, penned screenplays for the likes of Titan A.E., Big Fish and Frankenweenie, and it’s perhaps unsurprising that his storytelling here is so interesting. The film made less than $100,000 at the US box office though, meaning The Nines has tended to be a chance discovery rather than anything more revered. It’s certainly worth scouring the bargain bins for.

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22. Mr Brooks

Ah, it’s the Costner slot. Our love of Kevin Costner movies is a barely-kept secret, although we’d hardly bang a drum and suggest Mr Brooks is one of his best. It is, however, one of his most interesting, and it’s also an excellent central role that he’s cast in. For Mr Brooks is family man on the one hand, and a serial killer on the other. And this was made at a time when Showtime’s Dexter TV series hadn’t yet taken hold.

The support doesn’t help Costner enormously here – Dane Cook and Demi Moore help flesh out the cast – but the unpredictable nature of the story, and Costner’s unnerving central performance are well worth spending a couple of hours in the company on.

21. Trick ‘r Treat

Had this horror anthology been given a proper theatrical release, we’d wager that it would have grown into a sleeper hit. Shown in only a few cinemas, it had to make do with a slowly-building fan following instead. Telling four interlocking stories all taking place on Halloween night, Trick ‘r Treat takes in werewolves, vampires, a fatal bus crash in a small town, and a creepy kid with a sack over his head menacing Brian Cox’s ornery old party pooper.

Inevitably, some sections are better than others – the Anna Paquin-starring Surprise Party is the best story, for our money – but it all adds up to a hugely entertaining whole, and it’s a more satisfying anthology outing than more recent attempts like V/H/S or The ABCs Of Death. Running at a brisk 90 minutes, Trick ‘r Treat is well worth hunting down for an evening of knowingly comic thrills and chills.

Here’s hoping that director Michael Dougherty’s planned Trick ‘r Treat 2 recaptures the same sense of macabre fun.

20. Shoot ‘Em Up

Like an over-excited puppy, Shoot ‘Em Up has more energy than sense, but it’s a thrilling ride precisely because of its relentless pace and barking-mad humour. Clive Owen plays the handsome action man who becomes the unwitting protector of a newborn baby, making this the movie equivalent of Yoshi’s Island on the Super Nintendo – with Monica Belucci in tow, Owen tries to keep one step ahead of Paul Giamatti’s ruthless assassin, Karl Hertz, who for some reason wants the infant dead.

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The explanation for Giamatti’s attempted infanticide is too ridiculous to contemplate for long, but director Michael Davis doesn’t allow us to. Channelling the action of John Woo while adding his own curious comic touches – there’s a running gag involving carrots, which may or may not be a homage to Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd – Shoot ‘Em Up adds up to a high-calorie, low-fibre head rush of action. Audiences didn’t turn up to see it in the numbers the film deserved; as a minor cult classic, it more than deserves a watch.

19. The Counterfeiters

The deal with the Best Foreign Language film Oscar is that, once won, the majority of the films go away again, rarely to be mentioned in polite society. That seems an unfair fate for the excellent The Counterfeiters, an Austrian movie that tells the story of the counterfeiting operation set up by the Nazis in the 1930s.

It proves to be a slice of history well explored, made better by being willing to go a little deeper, and ask serious questions of its characters. Director Stefan Ruzowitzky keeps his focus throughout (he was also responsible for the haunting Anatomy, and its sequel), and if you’re looking for a film to pair with Downfall in a double bill. this one’s a strong choice.

18. Persepolis

A film whose name is popping up on more than one occasion on Den Of Geek of late, Persepolis is proof that animation can be used to broach any topic with exceptional skill. An adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical comic strip, the film takes a look at life in revolutionary Iran, framed through the eyes of a young girl coming of age.

It’s a heartfelt, powerful piece of cinema too, wonderfully realised and capturing the look of the comic book that it’s based on. The Iranian government really wasn’t that keen on it, and Persepolis has caused no little controversy. Yet it’s a powerful piece of cinema, made all the better by being so accessible.

17. Waitress

There’s a sadness not far away from any viewing of the rich indie comedy-drama waitress. And that’s because the film was the work of Adrienne Shelly, who wrote, directed and took a supporting role. She was murdered not long after it completion.

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It’s a strong film she left behind. Keri Russell stars as the waitress of the film’s title, married to an unpleasant man, played by Jeremy Sisto. She sees, of all things, a pie contest as her ticket to a better life. There’s the small matter of her pregnancy too. The film also earns several extra bonus points for including Nathan Fillion in its cast.

It’s a really strong movie this, bursting with talent, life and authenticity. Shelly’s loss is still very much felt.

16. Eagle Vs Shark

A pair of fancy dress costumes provide the title’s inspiration for this off-beat comedy, which stars Flight of the Conchords‘ Jemaine Clement and Lily Horsley as a pair of awkward would-be lovers in small-town New Zealand. Although very much a romantic comedy, there’s a spikiness to writer and director Taika Waititi’s film that steers it well clear of sickly sweetness, and its often quite dark humour makes it all the more unusual. Clement’s character, for example, isn’t necessarily a likeable one – something that won’t endear Eagle Vs Shark to every viewer, but ultimately makes for a far more interesting, quirky film. And if the title sounds like a classic kung-fu film from the 1970s, rest assured that the concluding combat sequence is well worth sticking around for.

15. The Lookout

So far as we can work out, The Lookout was a thriller that got extremely good reviews but little to no distribution, at least in UK cinemas. We stumbled on the film on Netflix quite by accident, and discovered that The Lookout is truly deserving of the description ‘hidden gem’. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Chris, a young man left with brain damage and short-term memory loss after a near-fatal car accident. Having been lumbered with a somewhat thankless job as a cleaner in a bank, he hopes to one day get a job as a clerk in the same building.

In a bar one evening, Chris is approached by a sly-looking chap (Matthew Goode) who begins to manipulate him into helping out with a robbery at the bank, and thus a low-key yet engrossing thriller kicks into gear. Screenwriter and director Scott Frank previously wrote such films as Get Shorty and Out Of Sight, among other things, so it’s little surprise that those genre elements are all so effectively in place.

Where The Lookout really succeeds, though, is as a study of its central character. Gordon-Levitt is entirely convincing as a young man ridden with guilt over the car accident he caused, and struggling to overcome the mental scars that come with it, making for a truly sympathetic protagonist who’s easy to root for. Jeff Daniels is equally good as his blind, dishevelled and loveably self-confident roommate, and he’s another perfect reason to dig out this mystifyingly overlooked movie.

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14. 2 Days In Paris

You think of Julie Delpy walking through a European city having conversations, and inevitably your mind turns to the outstanding Before… trilogy of films that she’s made with Richard Linklater and Ethan Hawke. But she turned her hand to directing too, and 2 Days In Paris – subsequently followed by 2 Days In New York – is a very good film in its own right.

Delpy wrote, directed, edited, did the music and stars in the film, which sees her in a relationship with Adam Goldberg’s Jack. Jack isn’t the most active and positive of men though, and the film develops as Delpy’s character meets old flames, much to Jack’s chagrin.

Delpy goes for humour and wit over darkness though, and her film is really something of a delight. It’s an intelligent, smaller movie this, below the level of the Before… films perhaps, but with an identity of its own. The sequel’s really good too.

13. Into The Wild

Sean Penn is a really good film director. Our favourite of the movies he’s helmed remains The Pledge, but Into The Wild is hopefully the kind of film you read lists like these to find out about. It stars Emile Hirsch in an adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s book, telling the story story of Christopher McCandless. McCandless, played by Hirsch, graduated from university, gave away the contents of his hardly-empty savings account to charity, and hitchhiked his way to Alaska.

His journey brings him into contact with some life-changing characters, and Penn’s movie quite brilliantly puts all this across. In different hands, this would be a non-too-subtle lecture on materialism. But that’s not how it works. It makes its point, delivers handsomely as a film, and hopefully will encourage a few people to seek out some of Penn’s other directorial work.

12. In The Valley Of Elah

Tommy Lee Jones consistently comes across as the last person you’d want to invite around for dinner – well, you’d at least want to skip to the drinks at the very least – but as an actor and chooser of material, he’s one of his generation’s very best. Take In The Valley Of Elah as a case in point: starring alongside Charlize Theron, he plays a retired military investigator trying to get to the bottom of the disappearance of his son.

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Paul Haggis – in his first film since he won Oscar gold directing Crash – puts together arguably his best film here, an intelligent, thoughtful piece of cinema. A haunting performance from its leading man – Oscar nominated for his work, in a rare piece of recognition for the film – is its absolute highlight.

11. Sunshine

Danny Boyle’s not the first director to make a film about throwing bombs at the sun (see also 1990’s Solar Crisis, if you dare), but it’s undoubtedly the best. Cillian Murphy leads an eclectic cast, including Chris Evans, Rose Byrne and Michelle Yeoh, on a last-ditch mission to save the Earth from a fatally cold winter. The hope is that, by flinging a colossal incendiary device into it, the resulting explosion will jolt the sun back into life.

Boyle’s approach to the material recalls the atmosphere and slow build-up of genre touchstones like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, and Murphy’s restrained, cerebral performance adds to the scientific tone. If we’re being honest, we far prefer the more dramatic half of Sunshine to the second, where it takes an abrupt detour into Event Horizon-like outer space horror. Having said this, Boyle gets far more right than he gets wrong, and the film deserved to do better at the box office than it did.

After Sunshine‘s complex shoot, Boyle vowed never to approach a science fiction film like it again. We’re hoping that he’ll eventually find another genre script that coaxes him back.

10. The Mist

From a simple premise – shoppers in a supermarket are trapped by an evil-looking mist – Frank Darabont fashions a superb horror film with a razor-sharp edge. Thomas Jane plays a tough-looking poster designer (allowing Darabont to sneak in some gorgeous art by Drew Struzan) who’s among the trapped shoppers, while Toby Jones, William Sadler and Marcia Gay Harden round out the eclectic supporting cast.

They’re joined by some fabulously-designed monsters, which owe as much to HP Lovecraft as Stephen King (on whose short story The Mist is based), and some of them are genuinely vicious and menacing. Not more vicious, it has to be said, than Darabont, who diverges from the source story to craft a truly show-stopping conclusion. In his hands, The Mist becomes as much a story about survival in the wake of unfathomable disaster as a monster-filled B-picture.

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9. The Diving Bell And The Butterfly

This adaptation of a memoir by Jean-Domique Bauby received a brief flare of awards recognition in 2007, but The Diving Bell And The Butterfly wasn’t what you’d call a box-office hit. But while its subject matter – about a writer left a prisoner in his own body after a near-fatal stroke – makes it a difficult film to watch, Diving Bell rewards at every turn with its beautiful performances, unsentimental writing and inventive filmmaking.

Together with Steven Spielberg’s regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, director Julian Schnabel sweeps us up in Bauby’s interior world, from his private frustrations to his dreamy flights of fancy, and as the central character, Mathieu Amalric is captivating throughout. With support from Max von Sydow, Emmanuelle Seigner and Anne Consigny, The Diving Bell And The Butterfly takes Bauby’s unique and heartrending personal story and turns it into a broader meditation on isolation and mortality.

8. Son Of Rambow

There’s something truthful as well as nostalgic about this coming-of-age drama set in the 1980s, but then, that might be because it reflects our own childhood fascination with action movies and recreating scenes from them. Bill Milner and Will Poulter play two British schoolboys who bond over their mutual love of the 1983 action film, First Blood. Obsessed with its heroism and action, the boys set about making their own low-budget sequel, and before long the entire school’s playing their own parts in the pair’s ramshackle Son Of Rambow.

Writer and director Garth Jennings (previously of Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy movie fame) brings a real lightness of touch to the story without drifting into mawkishness, and he perfectly captures the illicit excitement of watching a film you’re much too young to see – a childhood rite of passage as special as hot summer holidays, collecting Panini stickers and eating crisps at dodgy school discos. A wonderful, heart warming film.

7. Stardust

Before Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn brought Kick-Ass to the screen, they collaborated on this flawed yet brilliant adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. Capturing the feel of the adventure movies of the 80s, and luring in Robert De Niro for a WTF cameo, Stardust is erratic, very British, funny and really well realised. 

With brilliant production values, a pure commitment to entertain and an underrated score, Stardust really is a treat. What’s more, it’s a treat with very broad appeal, that different ages can get lots of things out of, without isolating anyone along the way. Remember when there used to be lots of live action films like that?

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6. Control

In his feature film debut, Anton Corbijn brings his photographer’s eye for light and shade to this detailed and desperately sad drama about the life and death of Joy Division musician Ian Curtis. Sam Riley is uncanny as Curtis, an artist stuck between his love for music and the terrible toll each live performance takes on his psyche.

Shot in black-and-white, Control even looks like a Joy Division music video (Corbijn shot the video for the song Atmosphere in 1988), further adding to its grimy, late-70s atmosphere. Control’s writers are careful to bring some great moments of humour to this difficult story, but the overwhelming feeling as the final credits roll is of a unique talent who passed far too soon. Impeccably acted and directed, this is surely one of the best musical biopics of recent years.

5. Timecrimes

The first half an hour or so of Nacho Vigalondo’s one-of-a-kind Spanish science fiction film is, for this writer at least, utterly terrifying in its unpredictability and sheer febrile weirdness. The second half can’t quite match the allure of the first, but it’s an incredibly clever film, and a triumph of low-budget filmmaking.

Karra Elajalde plays Hector, the somewhat unseemly middle-aged man at the centre of the film, whose idle act of voyeurism leads him into a time loop from which he’s unable to escape. Stalked through the Spanish countryside surrounding his house by a bandaged, eerily silent killer, he attempts to use a time machine to alter the events of the past, only to be drawn further into a whirlpool of paradoxes and complexly-linked events.

Imagine the knottier time continuum aspects of Primer, but fused with the bewildering, paranoid pace of a horror thriller, and you’ll have some idea of Timecrimes‘ unsettling impact. We did a full look back at the film here.

4. Eastern Promises

Devotees of director David Cronenberg’s 70s and 80s body horror output would probably have laughed at the notion of Canada’s king of venereal nightmares turning his hand to the gangster genre. But just over 20 years after he made The Fly, along came Eastern Promises, a crime thriller that somehow seems grand and operatic even though it takes place in a small part of dreary London.

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Two years after appearing in the brilliant A History Of Violence, Viggo Mortensen pairs with Cronenberg again to play Nikolai, an enigmatic and hangdog driver for Russian Mafia boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Naomi Watts plays the British midwife (herself of Russian descent) who provides a means of entry into the vory v zakone’s incredibly grim underworld of sex trafficking and violence, while Vincent Cassel represents its dark, dangerously unstable heart.

As harsh and confrontational as you’d expect from a Cronenberg film, Eastern Promises is acted with real care and an almost forensic fascination for its subject – Mortensen’s Oscar nomination for Best Actor was richly deserved, even if he did deserve similar recognition for his work in A History Of Violence. Above all, Cronenberg’s control of pace and tone turns Eastern Promises from just another thriller into a truly unforgettable creation. That he couldn’t get the funding together for a sequel is a travesty.

3. The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

The meditative pace of Andrew Dominik’s western drama makes it feel like something from the New Hollywood era, and that’s meant as a huge compliment. In a nutshell, Assassination is about the relationship between the legendary outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), his friend and fellow criminal who would eventually turn against him. Roger Deakins invests every frame with loneliness and beauty, and one robbery scene, which takes place on a train at night, looks extraordinary.

Dominik resisted the studio’s intention to craft the film into something faster moving, and wisely so: what could have been a forgettable horse opera instead becomes a story about how once ordinary people acquire mythical status. James himself seems to be strangely aware of his place in history, and his subtle attempts to manipulate Ford into sealing his future legacy makes for one of the most unusual screen relationships of the 2000s. This is a sublime, must-see film.

2. Breach

Chris Cooper has put in some memorable screen performances across his career, but there’s a strong case for his lead turn in Billy Ray’s Breach being his best. Based on a true story, he plays Robert Hanssen here, an agent suspected of being a Russian mole.

Ray, who previously helmed the also-strong Shattered Glass, gets a strong performance too from Ryan Phillippe as Eric O’Neil, the young FBI agent who works for Hanssen (who may or may not have motives of his own). The taut exchanges between the pair offer an accurate flavour of the tense, claustrophobic spy thriller that Ray shapes out of the material.

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There’s a uniformly excellent support cast here, featuring the likes of Laura Linney, Gary Cole, Kathleen Quinlan and Dennis Haysbert. But it’s Cooper who’s the absolute standout, delivering a nuanced, uneasy, magnetic performance, that lifts Breach from being a very good movie to something really rather special.

Since Breach, director Billy Ray has worked on several screenplays, to the likes of The Hunger Games, State Of Play and Captain Phillips. But we’re keen to see him direct again. Not only does he focus on interesting stories, but he draws super performances from his cast, and in the form of Breach, makes criminally underrated pieces of cinema.

1. Elite Squad

Brazilian director Jose Padilha’s Elite Squad is like Judge Dredd without the sci-fi overtones. It presents late-90s Rio De Janeiro as a crime-ridden dystopia where the cops are so corrupt as to be indistinguishable from the criminals, where slums are cleared out to make the place more comfortable for a visiting pope John Paul II, and where an elite form of militarised Special Operations police (the BOPE, or Elite Squad of the title) act as state-sponsored judges and executioners.

Although a hit in Brazil, Elite Squad was heavily criticised by some reviewers for its violence and perceived fascism, yet we’d argue that Padilha doesn’t glorify what goes on in the film – rather, it presents the full horror and despair of the book Elita de Tropa (a fictionalised account of real events, written by a sociologist and two former BOPA members) and wonders aloud how the city can ever extricate itself from its cycle of death and corruption.

The cast, headed up by Wagner Moura as the merciless Captain Nascimento, is uniformly superb, while Padilha becomes a palpable presence in the film, bringing the verite-like immediacy of his first feature, the documenrary Bus 174, to this blistering drama thriller.

Angry, aggressive and intelligently made, Elite Squad is, for us, among the very best films of 2007. Incredibly, the sequel Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (2010) is even better.

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