The year in film

Kenneth Turan: The great late films

It happens every fall. The studios and the independents, having hidden away their strongest films like squirrels hoarding nuts, release them all in a rush in the last months of the year. This fall, however, that rush has become a torrent. Though critics lament that movies are worse than ever, there hasn't been a fall this strong in memory. In fact, more than half the spots on this 10 best list go to films that are still in theaters, which has to be some kind of a personal record.

In tribute to that group strength, this year's list will not be ranked but listed alphabetically. Another break from personal tradition is that, except for the impossible-to-contain areas of documentary and foreign films, each slot will contain only one film.

The list is slim for another reason. Because there's been so much to choose from, many of the listed films have failed to perform up to expectations. If you care about quality cinema, don't wait for the DVD but go directly to the theater. If you prevaricate, don't be surprised if next fall is considerably more barren. The list:

"Atonement" Assured and deeply moving, it gives a superb novel the film it deserves.

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly": Simultaneously uplifting and melancholy, graced with an unexpected sense of possibility. (Pictured above: Mathieu Amalric as French editor French editor Jean-Dominique Bauby in "The Diving Bell.")

"Into Great Silence" and "Terror's Advocate": Two exceptional documentaries, one sacred, the other profane. Just as good are "No End in Sight," which despairs of America, and "In the Shadow of the Moon," which celebrates it.

"Lady Chatterley" and "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days": A French version of a British novel and a multi-prize-winning Romanian effort are the best of the under-the-radar foreign films. Also deserving are the Danish "After the Wedding" and the Bosnian "Grbavica."

"Lars and the Real Girl": A Frank Capra-style tribute to the joys of community constructed around one of contemporary culture's most salacious items.

"Lust, Caution": A psychologically intricate and sexually explicit film that's further proof of director Ang Lee's skills.

"Michael Clayton": This smart and suspenseful legal thriller pulls you through its story, no stragglers allowed. Hollywood should be making this movie all the time instead of once a year.

"No Country for Old Men": Something this violent shouldn't be on the list, but the Coen brothers' impeccable filmmaking and despairing point of view made the difference.

"Once": An unpretentious slice of musical and romantic charm that mixes music and story the way the much-faster-paced Beatles classics did.

"Ratatouille": A tale of an upwardly mobile rat shows once again that we're in a golden age of animation.

If there were another slot on the list, I would give it to either Paul Thomas Anderson/Daniel Day Lewis' one-of-a-kind epic "There Will Be Blood," or another film with a superb male performance, "Breach," starring Chris Cooper.

The worst

As to the most lamentable event of the year, no film, no matter how feeble, was as depressing or as catastrophic as the bitter standoff between the Writers Guild and the studios. Not even close.

Carina Chocano: The beauty of this year's films lies in the unexpected

This is a list of my favorite movies of the year, rather than the year's best, acknowledging that this is a subjective endeavor undertaken with sketchy methodology. (You know where to send the hate mail.) If there's one thing all of the following films share, it's their excellent use of the element of surprise. I'm not just talking about unexpected plot twists, though there were those, but performances that made me think, "Oh, right, that's what an actor does," or seemingly grim, bawdy or depressing subjects that yielded genuine uplift and perspicuity, or stories with uncommon insights into commonplace situations, unexpected takes on extraordinary situations -- that sort of thing.

A word about the order: The films are listed in a loose hierarchy based on their sock-knocking impact on me, but numbering them felt too arbitrary in a list that includes a rat chef, a busker and a prisoner of war.

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." There's no way to describe Julian Schnabel's lyrical adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby's memoir without making it sound almost comically grim and no way to walk out of the theater not feeling elated. The story of a man paralyzed except for his left eyelid, it's the most unlikely life-affirmer (in a good way, not the way that makes you want to kill yourself) of the year.

And: "The Savages" (tied). Tamara Jenkins has wrung more humor and pathos from this drama about two immature adult siblings putting their emotionally abusive father into a nursing home than seemed possible, then added a thematic layer about the function of drama in life. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney deliver some of the year's best performances.

"Ratatouille." Brad Bird's sui generis animated story about a rat who overcomes his limitations to become a famous chef is beautifully written and animated and bravely returns animation to the pre-ironic age.

"4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days." Cristian Mungiu's remarkable film about two friends in communist Romania trying to procure an illegal abortion. Hollywood spends millions per thriller to put its protagonists in situations half as hazardous.

"Sicko." Anarchic, hilarious, infuriating and engaged, "Sicko" might be Michael Moore's most underrated and important film.

"There Will Be Blood." Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano are riveting in Paul Thomas Anderson's brutal epic about a reptilian oil man and a religious snake-oil salesman.

"Rescue Dawn." Werner Herzog's astonishingly original take on the story of an escaped prisoner of war. Christian Bale is remarkable as a man doomed and rescued by his obsessions.

"Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." Sidney Lumet's tense, tight thriller about a New York family that finds itself playing out a Greek drama. Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei and Ethan Hawke are excellent, Philip Seymour Hoffman is sublime.

"Juno." What at first seems like a glib companion to "Knocked Up" ends up as a smart, funny, insightful and surprisingly moving rejoinder to it and others like it.

Low-key love stories: "Once" and "Waitress": John Carney's deceptively casual musical is an emotional stealth bomb, and the late Adrienne Shelly's tender fantasy about a pregnant pie-making waitress is a sweet surprise.

"The Hoax." Richard Gere, Alfred Molina, Hope Davis and Marcia Gay Harden give some of the year's best performances in Lasse Hallstrom's account of one of the biggest literary frauds of the 20th century.

And: "Control" (tied). Anton Corbijn's haunting biopic of Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division. Riveting performances by Sam Riley and Samantha Morton humanize an icon.

"My Kid Could Paint That." Amir Bar-Lev's startling documentary about the media buildup and tear-down of 4-year-old celebrity painter Marla Olmstead becomes an accidental exposé of the way celebrity and media culture make serious discussion impossible.

The worst

Four-way tie: The endlessly annoying (and annoyingly endless) marketing campaign for "Captivity," without which the movie wouldn't have registered on anyone's radar; the bizarro macho revisionism and blow to literature of "300" and "Beowulf"; the unbearable proliferation of threequels; and, of course, the writers strike.

Kevin Crust: The movies that mattered

It's unclear to me whether it's a commentary on the movies of 2007 or the state of my life that throughout the year I found the best of them burrowing their way into my core in ways I never imagined. Through both literal and lyrical conveyance, the stories and characters onscreen aligned with my own experiences in manners profound and unsettling. And everywhere I turned, Philip Seymour Hoffman seemed to be staring me in the face. He was actually in only three films, but they were the performances that most got under my skin this year. Whether it was the assertive, controlling Phil in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," the pragmatic, compartmentalizing Phil of "The Savages," or the brashly coarse, comically resourceful Phil as Gust Avrakotos in "Charlie Wilson's War," there appeared to be a Phil for all occasions.

My top 10, in descending order:

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." With the blink of an eye, Jean-Dominique Bauby's beautiful, bittersweet memoir springs to cinematic life via the discerning hand of director Julian Schnabel. And dig those vintage X-rays under the opening credits.

"Once." Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová are the year's most charming couple in this Irish/Czech romance that puts music at the fore. Filmmaker John Carney's deceptively spare and simple storytelling allows the performers and their songs the freedom to express the often inexpressible.

"Into the Wild." Sean Penn's adaptation of the Jon Krakauer book dares to ask if the tragically short life lived on one's own terms -- be they naively idealistic or even foolish -- is preferable to a long life of compromise. Emile Hirsch's performance, Eric Gautier's images and Eddie Vedder's songs make it an indelible question to ponder.

"No Country for Old Men." A formal wonder, this brisk and brutal trek through the no man's land of Cormac McCarthy reestablishes the Coen brothers as masters of sight and sound. As powerful and offbeat as the weapon of choice deployed by Javier Bardem's droll, malevolent Anton Chigurh and as philosophically folksy as Tommy Lee Jones' Sheriff Ed Tom Bell.

"4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days." A riveting odyssey that stars a haunting Anamaria Marinca as a Romanian student trying to help her friend procure an illegal abortion in 1987 Romania. Director Cristian Mungiu navigates the bleak passages of the late Communist era with skillful camera work and stark characterizations.

"I'm Not There." Todd Haynes wields a kaleidoscope and six brave actors to exfoliate the legend of Bob Dylan.

"Away From Her." The wistful ironies of aging are not lost on young Canadian actress Sarah Polley in her feature directing debut, an adaptation of an Alice Munro short story.

"Michael Clayton." Star George Clooney and writer-director Tony Gilroy are perfectly matched in this film that won't make you think any better of corporate America or lawyers.

"This Is England." Margaret Thatcher's 1980s get a personal and political head-butt from "Once Upon a Time in the Midlands" stalwart Shane Meadows.

Anything with Philip Seymour Hoffman. The films did not always match up to his prodigious presence, but that ultimately didn't seem to matter.

The worst

It's deeply lamentable that the sheer volume of films makes it so difficult for audiences to find the great ones. Whether they're drowned out by the sound and fury of the summer spectacles or jockeying with one another for attention during the overcrowded fall and holiday seasons, quality films and the marketing and publicity people behind them increasingly face an uphill battle.