The Year In Film 2007

Someone should do something about the way films get released. We at The A.V. Club spent much of the spring and summer suspecting that 2007 would offer only a modest helping of great films. Then, almost as soon as the leaves started to turn, 2007 transformed from an okay film year to a pretty good film year to the best film year in recent memory. If you didn't see anything great this year, you either weren't trying, or you gave up around the time of Transformers. Below, you'll find a list collectively voted on by The A.V. Club's five film writers. Subsequent pages feature each writer's individual picks for the best of 2007.

The Master List

1. No Country For Old Men (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

The Coen brothers are back to noir of a sort, but it's an arid southwestern brand of noir, one in which all the moisture has been sucked out of the air along with most of the big emotional displays that mark most Oscar contenders. The Coens' adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel is indisputably quirky in a way that recalls their comedies, but the humor is all buried under somber tension that keeps the action grim and utterly shocking. It's rare to see a thriller this perfectly paced, perfectly performed, and perfectly unusual.

2. Once (dir. John Carney)

It was a good year for firsts, but few made a more memorable splash than first-time leading man Glen Hansard (of The Frames) and his singing partner and first-time film actor Markéta Irglová in Once. As their characters fumble through a tender relationship that never gels enough to become clichéd, they reach a point where they're only really at peace with each other when they're performing together, though they themselves may not realize that. But their dynamic makes this movie's frequent songs all the more raw and winsome, and it puts a nervous edge on their every interaction, until the whole film vibrates beautifully with unmet needs and unrequited love.

3. There Will Be Blood (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

There's no more American a story than a man making it big through hard work and shrewd business skills, and no uglier version of that story than Anderson's adaptation of Upton Sinclair's early-days-of-industry novel Oil! Daniel Day Lewis plays an enterprising turn-of-the-century oilman who gains the world at the price of his humanity while joining his interests to those of a charismatic young preacher (Paul Dano). It's a horrific portrait of how empires get forged and the prices they exact.

4. Zodiac (dir. David Fincher)

Fincher's hypnotic masterpiece is an almost perversely straightforward police procedural that meticulously tracks the endless hunt for the Bay Area's Zodiac killer, a spotlight-hungry sicko who taunted the police and shamelessly manipulated a compliant press. It's an obsessive film about obsession that sucks audiences into its tortured anti-heroes' quest by evoking a rich aura of dread and paranoia. Zodiac's greatness lies in illustrating how a rash of irrational murders can get under the skin and infect the collective psyche of an entire city, seemingly altering its molecular structure and creating an atmosphere heavy with the threat of violence.

5. The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (dir. Andrew Dominik)

As if doing penance for every romanticized portrait of the outlaw life ever put to film, director Dominik's recounting of Jesse James' final days finds the famous gunslinger (Brad Pitt) living an unsettled life surrounded by men he can't trust. Foremost among them: Casey Affleck's Robert Ford, his biggest fan and eventual killer. Dominik's austere, contemplative approach requires patience, but those willing to give themselves over to his slow-motion storytelling saw a vision of modern America being formed out of violence, greed, nascent celebrity culture, and the desire for a quiet, normal life.

6. Atonement (dir. Joe Wright)

Director Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton adapt Ian McEwan's acclaimed novel of WWII-era class conflict and literary analysis by focusing on the author's fascination with misinterpreted gestures, moments that go wrong, and how the mood of a room affects everyone in it. In form, Atonement is a sweeping romantic melodrama, at times acted at a fever pitch by co-leads James McAvoy and Keira Knightley. But the real star of the movie is Wright, who works in the tradition of Michael Powell and David Lean to turn a prestige film into a showcase for his cohesive integration of editing, score, lighting, set design, and performance. When Atonement reaches for literal meaning, it recedes like the tide. Instead, the film's beauty is mainly in its bravura.

7. Sweeney Todd (dir. Tim Burton)

In a year dominated by darkness, murder, and perversity at the movies, it seems oddly fitting and fittingly perverse that the film with arguably the highest body count and blackest sensibility was a musical. After an uneven decade, Tim Burton came roaring back to form in this uncompromising adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's classic about a demonic barber who gets revenge on the sum of humanity by slashing his customers' throats so his proprietor can transform them into tasty meat-pies. Todd takes Burton's pop-Goth sensibility into thrillingly dark places, supporting Sondheim's tuneful nihilism and eviscerating wit. This cult-ready musical makes The Rocky Horror Picture Show look about as dangerous as The A-Teens by comparison.

8. Into The Wild (dir. Sean Penn)

Since Jon Krakauer first published his amazing story in Outside magazine, Chris McCandless has been a polarizing figure: Some admire his daring, if ultimately tragic, attempt to reject the trapping of modern society and explore America's untamed corners. Others view him as self-absorbed and willfully naïve, courting death by heading off half-cocked into nature at its most extreme and unforgiving. Much like Krakauer, writer-director Penn winds up treating McCandless with more sympathy than scorn, but his perfectly balanced adaptation doesn't gloss over the emotional wreckage McCandless left in his trailblazing wake. He also offers a gorgeous travelogue of American landscapes where few soles have tread.

9. Offside (dir. Jafar Panahi)

Offside takes place at Tehran's biggest soccer stadium during a 2006 World Cup qualifying match, but because the movie is about a group of women who try—and fail—to disguise their gender and sneak into the game, it rarely shows any soccer action, or any part of the stadium outside of the small holding pen where these women wait to be bussed off to jail. Director Jafar Panahi moves the camera between the women and their jailers, as though following a series of scoring rallies, while the women rage against the absurd situation and the men try in vain to silence them. Offside is funny, angry, passionate, and surprisingly patriotic, and it builds to an ending that feels hopeful but not phony, demonstrating how the higher callings of sports and nationalism can still unite us.

10. Gone Baby Gone (dir. Ben Affleck)

Shaking off a recent past riddled with bad choices and bad press, first-time director Affleck found the ideal material for a comeback in Dennis Lehane's book, which allowed him to evoke his Boston roots with a level of intimacy and authenticity that only a native could achieve. Affleck navigates Lehane's thorny child-abduction procedural with solid, workmanlike storytelling, but he excels at capturing the gritty texture of Boston's Dorchester neighborhood, and he gets wonderful performances out his actors, especially Amy Ryan as a hard-living young mother who may be unfit for the role. The final shot, coming after a gut-wrenching decision, is one of the more devastating in recent memory.

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NOEL MURRAY

Top 10

1. No Country For Old Men

2. Offside

3. Ratatouille

4. Sweeney Todd

5. Once

6. The King Of Kong

7. Into The Wild

8. Gone Baby Gone

9. Zodiac

10. Atonement

The Next Five

This was the kind of year where the great movies were undeniable, which may make most critics' lists kind of uniform. So in the years to come, everyone's honorable-mention lists may be more revelatory than their Top 10s. For example: a fair number of indie filmmakers could make a low-key comedy-drama about sibling rivalry and elder-care, but few could make one as witty and multi-layered as Tamara Jenkins' The Savages, which turns a darkly funny slice-of-life into an experiment in drama theory. And in a year of varied and entertaining animated features, Ratatouille's closest rival is Persepolis, a lively and sensitive adaptation of Marjane Satrapi's comic book memoir about growing up secular in an increasingly religious Iran. One of 2007's other great coming-of-age stories was This Is England, Shane Meadows' semi-autobiographical film about the early-'80s skinhead movement and the UK's graceless but necessary exit from the superpower stage. And finally, 2007 featured two thorny-but-brilliant movies about the artistic process: the documentary My Kid Could Paint That, which covers the up-and-down treatment of a 5-year-old abstract painter (and how it reflects our gut feelings about creativity and child-rearing), and Todd Haynes' bold essay-film I'm Not There, which expresses the filmmaker's varied appreciation of the music and career of Bob Dylan. That's just five movies, but this list could be 40 titles longer without running dry.

Performance

Glen Hansard

Once

It was a great year for musical impersonations, starting with Marion Cotillard's acclaimed (if overly broad) take on Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose, and extending through Sam Riley's electrifying embodiment of Ian Curtis in Control and the sublime pop thrills provided by the casts of Hairspray, Sweeney Todd, and I'm Not There. But it would be a mistake to underrate what Glen Hansard did in Once, singing his own dramatic rock songs live, and then backing the strong musical performances up with subtle, likable acting. The movie is muted, but Hansard had a high bar to clear, and he did so with ease.

Overrated

Juno

Picking on a funny, moving little indie film that everyone loves isn't much fun, especially when the movie in question shows the flashes of wit and heart that Juno so often does. But the relentless quippiness and quirkiness of Diablo Cody's script only seems to be as smart about teen life and class differences as many have declared. Nearly every character in the movie—and especially the pregnant high-school heroine well-played by Ellen Page—is at least 20 degrees removed from any reality that a normal human being would be familiar with. Which would be fine for a broad farce. But Juno presents itself more as a sentimental satire, and as such, its commitment to comedy over truth is hollow at best, insulting at worst.

Underrated

Beowulf

Director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary gave detractors plenty of reason to gripe about their 3D version of a lit-class staple, between the still-controversial "motion capture" method of computer animation and Gaiman and Avary's narrative embellishments. But technology and infidelity aside, on its own terms, Beowulf is a crackerjack piece of cinematic storytelling, pinning its spectacular action sequences to a study of how legends get corrupted and how every hero discovers his weakness. This Beowulf is funny and kitschy—intentionally so, no matter what its critics think—but also surprisingly touching and intellectually engaging.

Most Pleasant Surprise

Hairspray

There was every reason to expect that this big-screen adaptation of the hit Broadway show (which itself adapted John Waters' perfectly fine movie musical) would be an embarrassment to all concerned, especially once it was announced that John Travolta would be playing the middle-aged Baltimore housewife role previously assayed by Divine and Harvey Fierstein. But while Travolta's turn is pretty weird, the movie as a whole retains a lot of Waters' subversive kick, and adds some big production numbers that much more invigorating than what Waters could do on his small budget. The remake shouldn't erase the original, but on its own merits, it's a lot of fun.

Guilty Pleasure

Mr. Brooks

There's no denying that much of Mr. Brooks is straight-up idiotic, starting with a scenario that has a serial-killin' family man (Kevin Costner!), his blackmailing apprentice (Dane Cook!), the voice in his head (William Hurt!), and a millionaire cop (Demi Moore!) all sharing screen space. And that isn't even taking into account one of the most ludicrous twist endings imaginable. But while writer-director Bruce Evans could've justifiably camped this movie up, or added some Brian De Palma-esque ironic heat, there's something admirable about how straight he plays it. Mr. Brooks is enormously entertaining, not really in a "so bad it's good" way but in a "hold on…what the hell?" way. All these impossible pulp characters co-exist in the same high-boil world, yet there's nothing especially "meta" going on. As ridiculous as they all are, the thriller they're enacting is actually well-made, and completely guileless.

Future Film That Time Forgot

Slipstream

Anthony Hopkins wrote, directed, and stars in this self-indulgent folly, playing an actor-writer who may be trapped inside one of his own screenplays, or may just be serving as our guide to the contents of Hopkins' head—wherein dwell vivid memories of Richard Nixon and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. Because he appears in so many classy movies, Hopkins has a reputation as something of an intellectual, but Slipstream reveals him to be scatterbrained and hilariously literal. This is the kind of movie where a character mentions Russia, and Hopkins briefly superimposes some footage of Stalin. Ah, Russia! Now we get it.

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KEITH PHIPPS

Top 10

1. There Will Be Blood

2. No Country For Old Men

3. Sweeney Todd

4. Once

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

6. Before The Devil Knows You're Dead

7. Zodiac

8. Atonement

9. Gone Baby Gone

10. I'm Not There

The Next Five

From the cradle to the grave, 2007 had you covered. Ellen Page delivered a star-making performance in Juno; the way she let fear and vulnerability show behind her cynical demeanor jibed perfectly with a film that was as much about shedding a protective layer of irony as about being pregnant at 16. It would nicely fill out a birth-and-death double feature with The Savages, in which the brother-and-sister act of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney set about the business of living in the face of death and disappointment. It's a theme shared by The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, Julian Schnabel's visually stunning film about a man expressing himself using nothing more than a single eyelid, and This Is England, Shane Meadows' coming-of-age-in-Thatcher's-Britain story of a boy who falls in with a bad element after losing his father in the Falklands War. Meanwhile, in the real world, the documentary The King Of Kong spun a story of would-be video-game champs into a miniature portrait of what it takes to make it in America.

Performance

Philip Seymour Hoffman

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead

Hoffman owned the back half of the year. He delivered stellar performances as a constricted theater professor in The Savages and as a disheveled CIA mastermind in Charlie Wilson's War. But the best Hoffman performance of the year—his best ever, really—can be found in Sidney Lumet's Before The Devil Knows You're Dead. Hoffman plays a drug-addicted part-time criminal whose plan for one last score drags him and everyone around him to depths they never thought they'd see. It's as unnervingly raw piece of acting as you'll ever see.

Overrated

1408

Somehow, this Stephen King adaptation scored decent reviews and attracted a scare-hungry audience. But why? Star John Cusack overacts wildly as a paranormal investigator who loses his shit in a haunted New York hotel room, and the Repulsion-for-the-multiplex plot rolls out against a stylistic background that can best be called direct-to-DVD-esque.

Underrated

The Darjeeling Limited

The lukewarm response to Anderson's latest owed a lot to its familiarity. The setting was India, but it really took place deep in Wes Anderson territory, where melancholy emotions duke it out with hard-won hopefulness as different generations come to understand each other. Maybe a little predictability isn't such a bad thing when it insures an emotionally affecting feast for the eyes every few years.

Most Pleasant Surprise

Dan In Real Life

This lightweight comedy had all the elements of a dreadful romantic farce, but only the tacky happy ending lived up to the low expectations. The rest of Peter Hedges' film, anchored by Steve Carell's soulful performance, emphasized subtlety and lived-in characters in the service of a story about a family get-together that takes an unexpectedly life-changing turn. Any film that makes Dane Cook seem tolerable has some powerful magic on its side.

Guilty Pleasure

Hot Rod

The starring debut of Andy Samberg and the Lonely Island crew that's helped liven up Saturday Night Live via their SNL Digital Shorts series, this unapologetically dumb comedy has a few long laughless stretches. But the good bits—the training montages and Chris Parnell's obsessive AM radio station owner—and a disarming sweetness suggest a cult following might await it someday.

Future Film That Time Forgot

Blood And Chocolate

An acclaimed young-adult novel about werewolves got turned into this dumb horror movie about werewolves, memorable for its waste of a good lead (Agnes Bruckner, why?), budget-friendly Romanian location shooting, and the use of real wolves in place of special effects. Anyone unlucky enough to get stuck seeing it couldn't be blamed for worrying more about the animals' safety than any sort of tension the plot was supposed to create.

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NATHAN RABIN

Top 10

1. Once

2. There Will Be Blood

3. Zodiac

4. No Country For Old Men

5. Ratatouille

6. Sweeney Todd

7. Atonement 

8. The Savages

9. An Unreasonable Man

10. The TV Set

The Next Five

As seen in their ideal form, Grindhouse and Brand Upon The Brain weren't just films, they were rich, ambitious, deliriously fun experiences worth savoring. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's marathon homage to '70s exploitation cheapies—complete with scratched-up prints, missing reels, and hilarious fake trailers—disappeared when the Weinstein Brothers nervously split their respective entries into two separate DVDs. Guy Maddin turned his perverse silent comedy Brand Upon The Brain into a multimedia extravaganza with celebrity narrators, an orchestra, and live sound effects. Shaun of The Dead funsters Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg delivered another loving genre homage/spoof in the hilarious popcorn delight Hot Fuzz, while King Of Kong delved deep into the bizarre world of hardcore competitive video-game players for a crowd-pleaser with heart. That description also applies to Knocked Up, Judd Apatow's lovingly profane exploration of unplanned pregnancy and the tricky business of growing up.

Performance

Daniel Day Lewis, There Will Be Blood

"Larger than life" doesn't begin to do justice to Day Lewis' performance in There Will Be Blood. As in Gangs Of New York, Lewis plays a man so forceful and towering that he could probably wrestle a full-grown grizzly bear onscreen and have audiences worried primarily about the bear's safety. Playing a singularly nasty oilman who allows absolute power to corrupt absolutely, Lewis creates a devastating, unforgettable portrait of capitalism at its most transcendently evil.

Overrated

Transformers

Nobody expects great art from Michael Bay (Michael Bay included), but with $150 million to play with, Steven Spielberg as executive producer, and a premise involving an epic war between shape-shifting robots from outer space, it didn't seem irrational to expect his big-screen adaptation of Transformers to be, at the very least, dumb fun. Alas, the film is plenty dumb, but not much fun. True to form, Bay delivers another headache-inducing two-and-a-half hour contraption that artlessly fuses incoherent, frenetically edited action setpieces with humor that aims for the lowest common denominator. Yet audiences flocked to it, critics inexplicably gave it a pass, and after bombing big-time with The Island, cinematic antichrist Bay was frustratingly back on top again, proving that Hollywood is largely a reverse-meritocracy.

Underrated

The TV Set

What if red-hot success-magnet Judd Apatow (executive-) produced a great movie no one saw? Such was the case with Jake Kasdan's modest, pleasing satire of the groupthink and homogenization that makes television such a vast wasteland. A wry David Duchovny channels Apatow's slouchy smartass persona as a struggling television producer who watches his smart, heartfelt labor of love devolve into a shrill, impersonal schlockfest. What follows is a scathing take on the poisonous necessity of compromise, with a bitterly ironic ending that illustrates how sometimes a television show's pick-up can double as a profound spiritual and creative defeat for its creator. 

Most Pleasant Surprise

The Year Of The Dog

There's a fine line separating "quirky" from "insufferable," and writer-director and character actor Mike White regularly transgressed it in his scripts for The Good Girl and Nacho Libre. The casting of Molly Shannon, the woman behind some of the most grating and obnoxious characters in Saturday Night Live history, in a rare lead role did little to raise expectations for his directorial debut. Yet The Year Of The Dog is a real sleeper, a minor-key character study that oozes sympathy for its misfit characters and imbues Shannon's quest for companionship, canine and otherwise, with humor and pathos. Peter Sarsgaard and John C. Reilly lend expert support as an androgynous animal lover and oblivious hunter respectively, but the film belongs to Shannon, who uncovers the melancholy heart of a character that easily could have come off as a human version of comic-strip fixture Cathy.

Guilty Pleasure

Bratz: The Movie

An infamous line of skanky dolls makes the jump to the big screen in a delirious camp oddity that already feels like a dated relic of a ridiculous bygone era. From producer/world-class schlockmeister Steven Paul, the man who behind such apexes of the cinematic art as Slapstick and Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2 comes the most unintentionally hilarious empowerment-through-slutty-clothing epic since Coyote Ugly, complete with shopping scenes up the ying-yang and an act-long plug for MTV's My Super Sweet Sixteen.

Future Film That Time Forgot

I Know Who Killed Me

Lindsay Lohan slalomed headlong into irrelevance this year with the one-two punch of Georgia Rule and this sordid little potboiler, which miscasts her as both a true-blue good girl and her sinister doppelgänger, a hard-luck stripper with a raging libido and a mouth like a sailor with Tourette's. The result plays like a lost Roger Corman cheapie from the late '60s, from its wooden dialogue and bare-bones production values to a loopy closing twist. Wrestling with clumsy prosthetics and a floridly melodramatic script, the once-respected Lohan sinks to the level of her material. Can a VH1 Celebreality show be far behind?

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TASHA ROBINSON

Top 10

1. No Country For Old Men

2. Into The Wild

3. Once

4. Atonement

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

6. Deep Water

7. The Lives Of Others

8. The Orphanage

9. Offside

10. I'm Not There

The Next Five

Paul Thomas Anderson takes his career in a new direction with the heady Upton Sinclair adaptation There Will Be Blood, which is so broad, so beautiful, and so accomplished that it suggests he should permanently leave behind modern quirk in favor of gothic historicals. Wes Anderson, by contrast, sticks to modern quirk with the distinctly odd but almost unbearably pretty The Darjeeling Limited. It could be more focused, but it's still gorgeously crafted. David Cronenberg is back on form with the impressively tight, capable Eastern Promises, starring Viggo Mortensen as a Russian mobster wannabe in London, and Naomi Watts as a woman upsetting his plans. And it was a good year for big debut features: Ben Affleck does an impressive job of directing his brother Casey in the Dennis Lehane adaptation Gone Baby Gone, while Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi bring her autobiographical graphic novels to vivid animated life in Persepolis.

Performance

Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men

No Country For Old Men is a performance paradise; all the significant roles work together, in a buttoned-down, straight-faced-smile sort of way, to build the film's unbearable wry country tension. If only Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, and Woody Harrelson could be awarded a single prize for best collective, unified performance of the year. But in the end, Bardem, with his purring, insinuating performance as a psychopath on a spree, edges them all out. Together, they make the movie, but he gives it all its darkness.

Overrated

Knocked Up

All the fans slavering over this standard-issue comedy from writer-director Judd Apatow seemed to miss how essentially mean-spirited and ugly it is. From Leslie Mann dismissing her babysitter as a "prissy little high-school cunt" (apparently because she doesn't like sitting after midnight while Mann is out getting drunk?) to the endless low-blow nastiness between protagonists Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl, it's significantly more hateful and less funny than Apatow's 40-Year-Old Virgin, and it does a lot less to earn its abrupt happy ending. That is, if the reconciliation of two generally unpleasant people who never should have been together in the first place counts as a happy ending.

Underrated

Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer

Technically, Tom Tykwer's adaptation of Patrick Süskind's supposedly unfilmable novel came out in 2006, but only by two days, which means it snuck in too late for inclusion on any of last years' lists. Critics were mixed to negative, and the box-office take was pathetic, but that's to be expected for a movie this ambitious and unusual. Tykwer tackles a difficult story about a boy with no scent and an acute sense of smell by turning it into a soaring, surreal fairy tale, and embracing the dark, creepy, and off-color twists that follow. It's a gorgeous, deeply felt, unpredictable film, marred only by a weirdly off-key performance by Dustin Hoffman, who's frankly starting to rival Robin Williams as a warning sign of a problem film.

Most Pleasant Surprise

Enchanted

It isn't exactly timeless, classic cinema, but after a decade of increasingly creepy Disney princess fetishization, Enchanted is a surprisingly enjoyable spoof on the Disney-princess phenomenon. It's lively, funny, and even sweet, in spite of the knowing tongue-in-cheek humor, and the catchy musical numbers and traditional-cel-animation intro are a bonus that will remind older Disney fans of their childhoods, and let them share the magic with their kids without worrying about crotch-slam humor and off-color gags. Besides, James Marsden as the lunkheaded handsome prince is hilarious, and Amy Adams in the princess role is just adorable. And unlike her princess predecessors, Adams isn't afraid to grab a sword and defend her beloved instead of standing around squealing when villains get villainous.

Guilty Pleasure

Across The Universe

Julie Taymor's Beatles musical is uneven, sloppy, overlong, and intermittently simple-minded, especially in its generic central love story and its oh-so-literal narrative interpretation of many Beatles standards. And yet the cinematography beats just about anything that hit theaters this year, and the surreal, gorgeous production design turns familiar songs into haunting, inspired music videos. Some bits (hello, Eddie Izzard) remain skippable, but the rest turns out to be one of the year's most guiltily rewatchable films.

Future Film That Time Forgot

Perfect Stranger

This thoroughly mediocre thriller has all the good ingredients of a future FTTF: A surprisingly big-name cast (Halle Berry, poorly emoting her head off; Bruce Willis, half-asleep and smirking it in as usual; Giovanni Ribisi, awkwardly caught between the two), plus hilariously terrible dialogue, a bafflingly clumsy plot, and an idiotic Big Twist to top it all off. The twist sort of helps explain the many, many things throughout the plot that initially make no sense, but by the time the secret is revealed, it's impossible to care.

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SCOTT TOBIAS

Top 10

1. No Country For Old Men

2. There Will Be Blood

3. Zodiac

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

5. Knocked Up

6. Lake Of Fire

7. Once

8. Joshua

9. Black Book

10. Syndromes And A Century

The Next Five

Though it's tempting to imagine what Terrence Malick or Werner Herzog might have done with Chris McCandless' misadventures in untamed America, director Sean Penn's Into The Wild finds a sensible middle ground between triumph and tragedy. Nothing in Ben Affleck's career could have anticipated the mature sensibility behind his powerful adaptation of Dennis Lehane's Gone Baby Gone, which captures the grit and language of working-class Boston with far more authenticity than the overpraised Mystic River. Atonement may look like a prestige Merchant-Ivory gloss on Ian McEwan's novel, but the frilly period trappings never obscure a story that deals with uglier human impulses like jealousy, self-interest, and lies that are possibly unforgivable. As with the other movies in the Bourne trilogy, The Bourne Ultimatum provided a welcome late-summer antidote to CGI-driven blockbusters, all while upping the ante with unforgettable sequences at the Waterloo train station and across the rooftops of Algiers. With an assist from co-director Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi has turned her autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis into an utterly winning portrait of growing up as a willful young woman in patriarchal Iran.

Performance

Carice van Houten, Black Book.

Director Paul Verhoeven has a thing for iconic blondes who gain leverage through brazen sexuality, from Renée Soutendijk in The Fourth Man to Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. For his triumphant return to Dutch filmmaking after two decades in Hollywood, Verhoeven played starmaker again by discovering the ravishing Carice van Houten, whose brassy turn as a member of the Dutch Resistance powers Verhoeven's subversive take on the WWII adventure film. Whether seducing the Nazis through song and sass or absorbing the cruelty of a Dutch mob hellbent on punishing collaborators, Van Houten has a movie-star magnetism that's irrepressible.

Overrated

Away From Her

In many ways, Sarah Polley's adaptation of Alice Munro's short story "The Bear Came Over The Mountain" is unimpeachable: Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent are both superb as a long-married couple shaken by the onset of Alzheimer's, and it's rare to see such a clear-eyed look at the ravages of age. But just because Polley is making a movie about senior citizens, does she have to direct like one, too? Many critics praised the 27-year-old actress-turned-director for her "maturity," but her restraint at times seems like an absence of imagination, replaced by an austerity that often dulls the volatile emotions at play.

Underrated

Hostel, Part II

The backlash against the so-called "torture porn" movement doomed Eli Roth's Hostel sequel from the start, but all those self-righteous sky-is-falling condemnations missed the sly, knowing sensibility behind all that ritualistic bloodletting. Roth could have returned to the well by simply feeding more bodies through his Slovak grinder, but by focusing as much on the torturers as the tortured, he considers the petty cost of human life and the power of money to afford experiences that are supposed to be priceless. In this world, death is made to order: Customers are even provided with beepers, as if they were waiting for a table at The Cheesecake Factory.

Most Pleasant Surprise

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead

Director Sidney Lumet has made many great films over the last half-century, but to say his career has tapered off over past two decades is putting it mildly: Few would argue that movies such as A Stranger Among Us, Guilty As Sin, Critical Care, Gloria, and Find Me Guilty are on par with the likes of 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Verdict. But the revitalized 83-year-old director officially got off the mat with Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, a crackerjack thriller that benefits from his fine touch with actors and his lifelong fascination with ordinary men who get in over their heads.

Guilty Pleasure

Music & Lyrics

Yes, it's a by-the-numbers romantic comedy, featuring the groaningly inevitable pairing of old hands Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore. But sometimes the formula satisfies, and film's focus on a long-in-the-tooth songwriter (Grant) who's too accustomed to selling out has real poignancy and truth to it. When he and his flower-girl lyricist (Barrymore) create a song that actually means something, he's so used to picking up whatever paychecks that come his way that he isn't prepared to fight for his vision. In spite of the film's synthetic moments, it's more genuine than expected, and the fake-'80s original soundtrack (especially the Wham!-inspired "Pop! Goes My Heart") is a fizzy delight.

Future Film That Time Forgot

Primeval

A cheap, sub-Lake Placid Jaws knock-off set in war-ravaged Burundi. An unexpected and thoroughly tasteless subplot involving African genocide. Orlando Jones. It all adds up to the Blood Diamond of 25-foot killer-crocodile movies, certainly the only horror film of 2007 to evoke ongoing modern tragedies like Darfur in the name of B-movie fun. No one can say it isn't a movie of its time, but between the hilariously third-rate CGI and a C-list cast led by a formerly ubiquitous 7-Up pitchman hanging onto the bottom rung, Primeval seems destined to go from the cutout bins of today to the dustbins of tomorrow.

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