A day late, here's the results of my final week of scrambling to see all I could before making my year-end best-of list. A couple of late surges herein:

Saturday, December 8th

The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters (Academy screener):
At times while I was watching this wildly entertaining documentary about the arcane realm of retro-videogame champions, I was thinking about Cops, and that moment that comes in nearly every Cops episode when a shirtless, drunk witnesses to a crime tries to explain what happened, and the story starts in the middle, with years of backstory left off the table. Only in The King Of Kong, the backstory is there: the decades of rivalries and lore leading up to the moment when Steve Wiebe walks into an arcade to prove that he's as good at Donkey Kong as he says he is, and maybe even better than the reigning record-holder Billy Mitchell. But it's not just the backstory: the story is there too, because director Seth Gordon had his cameras where they needed to be, catching moments as they happened, rather than just having people describe them afterward. The characters reveal themselves as the action plays out. Wiebe seems a little weak and maybe even shady at the start, but by the end he looks like a stand-up guy. Mitchell, with his superhero poses and patriotic neckties, seems like a harmlessly colorful character at first, but by the end he looks like a vain, phony jerk. In the end, The King Of Kong is about the battles we all wage every day, in our own little tiny arenas. Like when people spar on the internet, adopting hero and villain roles, trying to prove their righteousness on matters that don't really matter. And yet, when Mitchell suddenly shows up in the same arcade as Wiebe, and refuses to acknowledge Wiebe's friendly greeting, I couldn't help feeling outraged, even as I knew that Wiebe had just shown the world–via this film–that he's the better man. Such is drama.

Grade: A-

On the list? Yep, somewhere in the lower half of the Top 10.

The TV Set (Screener DVD, sent for awards purposes): I'm not surprised this inside-baseball comedy about television's pilot season died on the vine, because as comedies go, The TV Set is rarely funny in any kind of reach-out-and-rib-tickle kind of way. Aside from a few lines like "Suicide is depressing to like 82% of everybody," and a slate of parodic TV show titles (which I'll list in full at the end of this capsule), The TV Set is more concerned with detailing the stark reality of creative compromise than it is with playing up the absurdity. But I believe that roughly every word of Jake Kasdan's film is true, because he's a veteran of the development process, and he grew up in the everyone's-on-your-side paradox that is Hollywood. Some of this material is familiar from movies like Christopher Guest's The Big Picture, but this is one of the most clear-eyed takes I've seen on the subject, and it unfurls at a perfect pace: relaxed, but not wasteful. (And now for that list of shows: Breakfront, Homeland, Pole Position, All For Nothing, Malibu D.A., Bart's Your Uncle, Vortex, Skrewed, Slut Wars, Jean Poole, Stat, Stinkin' Rich, World's Grossest Meals, Cheating Heart and Infidelity 101.)

Grade: B+

On the list? Just out of the top 20, but this is the kind of comedy I'd like to see more of: honest and personal and not begging to be liked.

Monday, December 10th

La Vie En Rose (Academy screener):
Sometimes the buzz on awards-bait movies runs in two directions at once. Early in the year, people who'd seen this Edith Piaf biopic at festivals and the like couldn't stop raving about writer-director Olivier Dahan's collage-like approach to the subject, or Marion Cotillard's era-spanning performance as the troubled French chanteuse. But when the movie opened in general release, the critics I respect–including our own Nathan Rabin–more or less shrugged it off as overbearing camp, though enough goodwill for Cotillard has survived that she's more or less swept the year-end critics' awards to date. So I watched this screener mainly for Cotillard, who's just fine, although her turn seemed a little stunty to me. (All buck teeth and stooped shoulders and vocal honk.) As for the movie, well, I've got a dilemma, because just about any charge I could level at La Vie En Rose–too muddled, too arcane, etc.–could be also directed at I'm Not There, a movie that I think is close to brilliant. The difference is that La Vie En Rose is more burnished and prestige-y, which makes its jumbled editing seem merely awkward, not artful. But there are some moving transitions between Piaf's painful upbringing and her leave-it-all-on-the-stage performances. Maybe it was the topsy-truvy effect of diminished expectations, but I ended thinking the movie's okay, but that Cotillard is overrated. Such is the perversity of the professional critic biz.

Grade: B-

On the list? Not quite, but neither as bad or as good as I'd been led to believe.

Tuesday, December 11th

Rescue Dawn (commercial DVD):
Though considered by many to be a minor Werner Herzog adventure film at best and a dire dud at worst, Rescue Dawn struck me as very much in keeping with the themes and modes Herzog's explored throughout his career. For one, he's back in the wilderness, following a Vietnam-era POW as he escapes from a Laos prison camp and tries to survive in the jungle. For another, Rescue Dawn fits into Herzog's ongoing concern with the divide between cinematic truth and actual truth. Early in the picture, Christian Bale's fighter pilot character watches a training film about how to survive in the wild if he's shot down, though the actor in the training film has access to supplies and clothing that Bale won't have once he's shot down for real. And outside of one CGI shot during the crash, nearly everything in Rescue Dawn is real–including the snakes and leeches that Bale handles with his bare hands. In the end, Rescue Dawn is little more than a survival tale, but it's told well, with lots of detail and intimate framing. (When Bale is tied up by his captors and tries to get them to understand that he needs to go to the bathroom, I knew Herzog was on his game.) It's well-acted, too, especially by Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies, who give distinctively disturbing spins on the "creepy burnout" archetype. (Bale is fine as well, but I tend to find his affected accents in movies like this to be distracting.) I suppose Rescue Dawn suffers some in comparison to Herzog's own documentary version, Little Dieter Needs To Fly, but I haven't seen the doc, so it worked for me.

Grade: B+

On the list? In the low 20s.

Thursday, December 13th

The Diving Bell & The Butterfly (Academy screener):
Every year the fatigue of watching so many powerhouse movies in a shortened time period ill-serves one or two of those movies. (This happens at actual film festivals too.) This year, one of the culprits may be this poetic, imaginatively staged version of Jean-Dominique Bauby's memoir, all about how the former jetsetting magazine editor coped with a stroke that left him completely paralyzed, and only able to blink one eye to communicate. Director Julian Schnabel stages more than half of the "action" in the movie from Bauby's perspective, as his thoughts race and his body lies completely still, his eyes seeing the world like a static motion picture frame. It's a neat conceit, though for me at least, it didn't add much to the emotional content of the film. I preferred Schnabel's occasional visualizations of what goes on inside Bauby's mind: a mix of memory and fantasy that demonstrates how easily one can blur into the other. Otherwise, the movie felt as inert as its lead character, in that any given 15 minutes of it was no different from any other 15 minutes of it.

Grade: B-

On the list? Not quite, but I have a feeling I might upgrade this one in years to come.

Friday, December 14th

There Will Be Blood (critics screening):
I want to be mindful of A.V. Club commenter "zxcvb"'s warning about over-hyping this movie–especially since its virtues are in some ways more subtle and simple than a "oh man you have to see this right now" recommendation–but I had the feeling while I was watching it much as I did while watching No Country For Old Men at the Toronto Film Festival. There Will Be Blood seemed pretty much flawless to me, and the kind of cinematic touchstone that people will be referring back to for as long as they study movies. Having said that, I hasten to add that for some people, "flawless" isn't necessarily a praiseworthy term, and I can respect that. Much like No Country For Old Men, I can imagine that some film buffs and critics will pick at There Will Be Blood for being merely a masterful technical achievement, and not especially deep. It's true that a lot of what There Will Be Blood is "about" is more primal than nuanced or contemporary. It's about human exploitation, and legacies, and the evolution of social institutions that we now take for granted. (Even organized religion had to be built plank by plank and dollar by dollar.) But even if those themes don't strike a chord with everyone as they do with me, it's still a pleasure to watch Daniel Day Lewis and Paul Dano play out a passive-aggressive chess match inside PTA's precisely controlled frame, as Jonny Greenwood's dissonant score heightens the tension. But that's enough for now…I'll say no more, and let people experience the movie for themselves.

Grade: A

On the list? So here's the thing. I turned in my A.V. Club best-of list this past Wednesday, so the version that's running in print has been locked-down. In theory, I could get the on-line list modified, but that'd involve moving every other movie on it around, and writing some new copy for the honorable mention list. Instead, those of you who read this and then read my final list next week should just mentally insert There Will Be Blood as #0 (or, more accurately, in a tie with No Country For Old Men). And if you happen to see a list by me in any other publication that looks different from the one The A.V. Club is publishing…well, now you know why.

The Golden Door (Academy screener): Somehow this movie was nowhere on my radar when it was released earlier this year, such that when the screener disc arrived, I had to look up the title on the IMDB to remind myself what it was. And when I saw that the movie was written and directed by Emanuele Crialese, the dude who made the dreary Respiro, I didn't exactly jump for joy. But The Golden Door has already made some Top 10 lists of critics I respect, so even though I was tempted to shut the door on this journal with There Will Be Blood, I decided to take an extra day to post and squeeze in one more movie. And I'm glad I did. The Golden Door wasn't one of the most amazing things I've seen all year, but its hushed, artful sketch of an Italian family emigrating to America in the early '20s is so assured and uncoventional that it made me think I'd underrated Respiro. I'm probably underrating The Golden Door, too, because at this late point in the listmaking process, I'm almost looking for reasons not to include a movie. (That's completely unfair, I know. It's also true of a lot of critics.) In this case, my main problem with The Golden Door was that its diminishment of narrative and dialogue in favor of pure imagery seems kind of affected, and at times dull. But Crialese does come up with some striking ways to capture the small changes of a stratified society as it moves collectively to a new nation's bottom rung. I'm still haunted by the shot of the ship drifting away from the dock, and a teeming mass of people gradually being cleaved in two, separated by a widening gulf.

Grade: B

On the list? In the 40s.

And now, with my Top 10 and 5 HMs due for unveiling next week, here's what would be the next 40 items on my list (if I were allowed to make a list that long). These are pretty much all my "B" and "B+" movies of 2007, minus a couple. (And the first three items on the list are "A-." That's the kind of year it's been, when the A-quality movies reach down to #18.)

16. Margot At The Wedding

17. The Savages

18. Black Book

19. 3:10 To Yuma

20. Beowulf

21. The Orphanage

22. Bug

23. Superbad

24. Knocked Up

25. Great World Of Sound

26. 12:08 East Of Bucharest

27. Michael Clayton

28. Rescue Dawn

29. The TV Set

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

31. Before The Devil Knows You're Dead

32. Musician

33. The Life Of Reilly

34. The Bothersome Man

35. Exiled

36. No End In Sight

37. Hot Fuzz

38. Mr. Brooks

39. Eastern Promises

40. Summer '04

41. Grindhouse

42. Ocean's 13

43. Time

44. Syndromes & A Century

45. The Golden Door

46. Breach

47. Away From Her

48. Sicko

49. The Host

50. 28 Weeks Later

51. In Between Days

52. Hairspray

53. The Page Turner

54. Paprika

55. The Bourne Ultimatum

Major Title Still Unseen: American Gangster, Charlie Wilson's War, The Darjeeling Limited, Deep Water, Youth Without Youth