Yes, it's that time on the calendar when film critics, with great fanfare, unveil their list of the 10 best motion pictures of the year, followed by a checklist of the 10 movies that just missed making the cut. What the reviewers won't tell you, though, is that the runner-up list is in its own way as important as the Top 10, since it allows the critics to gauge the overall quality of the year at hand. Was it as easy as pie (make that, as easy as Waitress pie) to come up with 10 additional titles worthy of celebration, or was it a struggle to fill even half of the also-ran roster?
After analyzing my own selections, I came up with one inescapable conclusion: It was a damn good year for movies. I screened 165 new releases over the course of 2007, and in this instance, limiting myself to just 20 top pictures was painful, a Sophie's Choice procedure that left many fine films by the wayside. A Top 30 or maybe a Top 35 would have been easier on my bruised brain; then I wouldn't have had to leave off In the Valley of Elah, or The Host, or Paris, Je T'aime, or Michael Clayton, or The Savages (scheduled to open in Charlotte this month), or Persepolis (ditto), or ... well, you get the picture.
Not that I'm complaining about the abundance of quality cinema. Yet lest we get carried away and think that we're entering a new Golden Age of movies (possible, but not likely), let's not forget that the multiplexes were frequently cluttered with cinematic atrocities made by pimps and profiteers rather than artists and visionaries. Unfortunately, audiences all too often took the bait: Why watch a penetrating and perceptive documentary about the war in Iraq (yeah, it's still going on, for those who haven't checked lately) when it's much easier to simply stare at singing chipmunks eating their own turds?
But perhaps I digress. So without further ado, here's my 10 Best list for 2007, followed by those 10 stalwart runner-ups, other assorted superlatives, and -- just to scare the bejesus out of discerning moviegoers -- my 10 Worst list.
THE 10 BEST
1. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (Joel & Ethan Coen). The best picture of 2007. Four-star movies are such a rarity in my filmgoing diet that it's usually easy for the words of praise to pour out of me. This instant Coens classic, on the other hand, continues to leave me speechless (even my original review seems lacking), humbled by its ability to rock and shock me to my core. It's a pessimistic movie for our pessimistic times, yes, but to say it's devoid of humanity (as its critics contend) is to undervalue the efforts of its upstanding characters (Tommy Lee Jones' weathered sheriff, Kelly Macdonald's innocent wife) as they struggle to survive in a world which no longer makes sense. The ideal movie for our post-9/11 existence, it's a terror alert gone haywire, pondering not only whether our world can withstand the eternal struggle between fate and chance (to say nothing of good and evil) but whether this world is even worth saving. With Anton Chigurh, Javier Bardem creates the most memorable screen monster since Hannibal Lecter, and the movie is further bolstered by one of the most startling character bait-and-switch tactics since Janet Leigh went under the knife in Psycho.
2. GONE BABY GONE (Ben Affleck). Ben Affleck, A-list director -- who knew? In probably the only instance in recorded history where Affleck is able to upstage Clint Eastwood, the younger actor's directorial debut is a markedly superior film to the legend's Mystic River, an apt comparison since both are based on novels by Dennis Lehane. Oozing with the grit and sweat of its working-class Boston neighborhood setting, Gone Baby Gone finds private investigator Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck, surprisingly sensational) among those searching for a missing girl, an investigation that will plunge him into the dark underbelly of society before emerging onto a field of moral repercussions that will resonate through the years. The latter development arrives courtesy of a powerhouse ending that triggers the kind of post-screening debates rarely required by modern American movies.
3. JUNO (Jason Reitman). Director Jason Reitman's Thank You for Smoking landed in the #4 spot on my 10 Best list for 2006, so it's nice to see that he's continuing his winning ways. Yet while he deserves credit for his quirky contributions behind the camera, it's Ellen Page who really elevates this delightful indie effort into another realm. Deftly handling the snappy dialogue provided by screenwriter Diablo Cody (like Page, another "star is born" contender), she's nothing short of marvelous as the title character, a pregnant teen forced to make grown-up decisions regarding her lot in life. The supporting cast is flawless, and there's only one way to respond to the predictable backlash: Zzzzzzzz ...
4. 2 DAYS IN PARIS (Julie Delpy). No other film this past year -- not even Juno -- provided me with more laughs than Julie Delpy's sweet-and-sour romantic comedy about a 30-something couple, one French (Delpy) and the other American (Adam Goldberg), who spend a couple of testy days in the title city. Will they make it through the picture together, let alone remain in love for the rest of their lives? As we watch their romance get diluted by the sort of emotional outbursts, petty tirades and jealous rages that often define real-life relationships, we realize we're in the presence of a smart, tart movie that displays a generosity of spirit even as it's tempered with a pinch of melancholy.
5. NO END IN SIGHT (Charles Ferguson). The first of three documentaries in my Top 10, this excellent film methodically dissects the mind-numbing incompetence displayed by the war criminals in the White House in regard to the Iraq War, the history-repeating-itself quagmire that has emerged as the new Vietnam. Director Charles Ferguson wisely avoids charges of partisan politics by interviewing key personnel from within the Iraq campaign; the result is a no-nonsense analysis of the logistics behind this disaster-in-the-making, and a crucial picture that should be mandatory viewing for anyone planning to cast a vote in the next presidential election.
6. THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS (Seth Gordon). Could a documentary about the popular 1980s arcade game Donkey Kong really be that entertaining? Definitely; like 2003's Spellbound and its focus on children's spelling bees, this true-life tale about the self-absorbed defending champion Billy Mitchell and the challenge posed by affable family man Steve Wiebe proves to be as exciting (and twist-laden) as any action blockbuster. A study of both chronic adolescence and the need to win (and keep winning), as well as a compendium of memorable characters (wait until you get a load of the self-named "Mr. Awesome," who's anything but), here's a gem that successfully takes it to the next level.
7. RATATOUILLE (Brad Bird). Another year, another triumph from the Pixar dream factory. Yet in addition to serving as a love letter to Paris, a valentine to the fine art of cooking and a gift to moviegoers of all ages, this animated treat about a rat (voiced by Patton Oswalt) and his human buddy (Lou Romano) offers perhaps the most perceptive depiction of a critic on film (M. Night Shyamalan, take notes): Accused of hating food, culinary reviewer Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole) responds that it's because he loves food so much that he must frequently refuse to swallow that which he finds offensive and inferior. Same principle applies to film criticism, folks.
8. ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (Julie Taymor). About as critically divisive as any 2007 release, this audacious musical combines the song sampling technique of Moulin Rouge! with Forrest Gump's journey through the turbulent '60s, relying solely on covers of classic Beatles songs to hurdle it through time and space. It's a risky business, to be sure, yet Julie Taymor succeeds by creating a magical mystery tour that gets high on its own visual vigor, achieved through an eye-popping mix of computer graphics, oversized puppets and color-saturated set decorations. But while there's plenty of hallucinatory material, there's also plenty of heart and -- oh, yeah -- plenty of great music.
9. THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (Andrew Dominik). Emulating such icons as Robert Altman and Clint Eastwood with his deconstruction of the Western genre, writer-director Andrew Dominik has also fashioned a poetic motion picture that surpasses even Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood (opening here Jan. 18) in its evocation of the type of pensive, expansive cinema often attempted during the 1970s. Anchored by strong turns from Brad Pitt and especially Casey Affleck, this explores the allure of celebrity while also serving as a commentary on the manner in which Western fact and Western fiction morphed into Western myth even as the era was still playing out.
10. LAKE OF FIRE (Tony Kaye). So is director Tony Kaye pro-choice or anti-abortion? Based on the evidence of this film, it's impossible to say, and that's exactly how it should be when a documentary hopes to present all sides of an issue in a fair-handed manner. It's not Kaye's fault that the majority of anti-abortion advocates are misogynists, bigots, gun nuts and opportunists, and it's likewise not his fault that the footage showing actual abortions is unbearably gruesome and disturbing. Kaye lets everyone have their moment, and while we may not always like what we see or hear, there's no denying the movie's importance as a social document of our conflicted times. (Note: Lake of Fire has yet to play Charlotte; perhaps some brave art-house theater will book it?)
The Next 10 (Honorable Mentions, In Preferential Order):
Stardust; The Orphanage; The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; Black Book; Away From Her; Hairspray; Offside; Waitress; Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street; Sicko
Best Actor: Gordon Pinsent, Away From Her; Casey Affleck, Gone Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford; Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah; Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Savages and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead; Emile Hirsch, Into the Wild
Best Actress: Ellen Page, Juno; Marion Cotillard, La Vie En Rose; Laura Linney, The Savages; Carice Van Houten, Black Book; Belen Rueda, The Orphanage
Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men; Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton; Irfan Khan, The Namesake and A Mighty Heart; Armin Mueller-Stahl, Eastern Promises; Andy Griffith, Waitress
Best Supporting Actress: Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone; Jennifer Garner, Juno; Kelly Macdonald, No Country for Old Men; Cate Blanchett, I'm Not There; Emily Blunt, The Jane Austen Book Club
Overrated: Blades of Glory; "Death Proof" half of Grindhouse; The 11th Hour; The Kite Runner; 300
Underrated: Beowulf; Black Snake Moan; The Jane Austen Book Club; Reign Over Me; Shooter
Disappointments: Goya's Ghosts; The Invasion; Lions for Lambs; Rendition; Sleuth
THE 10 WORST
1. LICENSE TO WED Robin Williams (in full-on creepy mode) plays a sadistic reverend with a penchant for rancid wisecracks in the year's worst picture. This anything-for-a-buck actor has made so many one-star comedies that it's impossible to keep count at this point, but rest assured that there's a multiplex in hell that screens them on a perpetual loop.
2. BECAUSE I SAID SO A nasty piece of cinema posing as a romantic comedy, this humiliates Diane Keaton by casting her as a loathsome she-creature who's obsessed with her daughter's sex life to a disturbing degree. Mandy Moore, who plays the equally repugnant offspring, also co-stars in License to Wed; will someone please perform a Chigurh on her agent?
3. GOOD LUCK CHUCK More like Upchuck. Dane Cook performs cunnilingus on a stuffed penguin, and the notion of cinema as a noble art form slips another couple of notches thanks to this juvenile slop in which the inexplicably popular Cook co-stars opposite the eternally vapid Jessica Alba.
4. RUSH HOUR 3 The year's worst sequel adds yet another failed comedy to this list (with more to come), as a tired Jackie Chan and a tiresome Chris Tucker trade limp quips in a lazy follow-up most notable for wasting the talents of international treasure Max von Sydow (thankfully put to better use in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly).
5. NANCY DREW In this chintzy clunker that bizarrely plays like a Disney Channel version of Mulholland Drive, Emma Roberts (Julia Roberts' niece; hello, nepotism!) unwisely portrays the title sleuth as something of a pill. Yet she's easier to take than Josh Flitter, who, between this and License to Wed, emerges as the Least Promising Child Actor of 2007.
6. ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS Over the course of December, this earned an astounding $147 million, the reason being that parents needed to take their small fry to something. Yet considering the brain rot promoted by such witless trash (it's the anti-Ratatouille), I daresay tots would have been left less scarred for life by the R-rated No Country for Old Men.
7. YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH Francis Ford Coppola's first film in 10 years fails to recapture even an ounce of his 1970s glory, as this pretentious, impenetrable and deadly dull film, about a 70-year-old man (Tim Roth) who becomes 40 again after being struck by lightning, never resonates as anything more than an aging filmmaker's feeble grasp at his own lost youth.
8. REDACTED Like Youth Without Youth, here's another 2007 debacle yet to reach Charlotte, and one also helmed by a once-great director (Brian De Palma) now sputtering along on fumes. The worst of the year's glut of Iraq War films, this only has De Palma's moral outrage going for it; in all other respects, it's like watching a YouTube skit made by amateurish clods.
9. YEAR OF THE DOG Admittedly, I'm in the minority on this one when it comes to critical appraisal, thus earning it my vote as the year's most overrated film. Molly Shannon is fine as a zealous vegan and animal lover, but pretend her character's employing her firebrand methods for a right-wing cause and it's clear that this confused movie does more harm than good.
10. WILD HOGS The provocative drama Zodiac earned rave reviews yet opened with only a $13 million weekend on its way to a paltry $33 million haul. That same weekend in March, this moronic comedy, fueled equally by "gay panic" jokes and middle-age paunch, debuted with $39 million on its way to a $168 million take. Those are the sad facts; do with them what you will.