1. No Country for Old Men: No guts, no glory. That’s my standard for giving pride of place to the year’s best movies. I’m not looking for formal perfection, just the passion and exhilaration of personal filmmaking that walks the high wire and dares to fall on its ass. For me, no 2007 film experience had more creative juice than No Country for Old Men, a transfixing meditation on good and evil that enabled writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen to forge a blood connection with Cormac McCarthy’s novel. Javier Bardem gives a career performance as the villain, and Tommy Lee Jones as a sheriff and Josh Brolin as a thief match him repping law and moral disorder. Screw the whining about the gore (grow up, we’re a violent country) and an ending that no one gets except those who pay attention. I challenge you to name a better, more blistering movie this year. Call it, Friendo.
2. Atonement: Raw emotions roil under the Masterpiece Theater trappings of this tale of love and war. Christopher Hampton brings Ian McEwan’s 2002 novel to the screen with all of its fierce challenges intact. Director Joe Wright finds just the right pair of besieged lovers in Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, and he elicits a jaw-dropping turn from Saoirse Ronan, 13, as a keeper of secrets and lies.
3. Into the Wild: Emile Hirsch invests himself totally in the role of Chris McCandless, the Emory College grad who walked into the Alaskan wilderness without a map in 1992 to test himself against his own limitations. But it’s director Sean Penn, adapting the book by Jon Krakauer, who tells this remarkable true story as if it were part of his own DNA. This is personal filmmaking at its soaring best. Penn honors his subject and the courage it takes to push boundaries.
4. Eastern Promises: Following his triumph with A History of Violence, David Cronenberg again investigates the nature of identity through this brutally mesmeric tale of the Russian mob in London. Viggo Mortensen astonishes as a tattooed operative caught in an ethical trap.
5. Sweeney Todd: Just for the record, Tim Burton’s translation of Stephen Sondheim’s blood opera about the demon barber of Fleet Street is a striking achievement in every way, particularly for the tour de force of Johnny Depp, who acts and sings his way into the black heart of the title character.
6. American Gangster: The so-called “black Scarface” is a career high for Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas, the Seventies drug lord who cuts out the mob middlemen and peddles his own heroin until a bullheaded cop (Russell Crowe, who knows bullheaded) brings him in. Ridley Scott digs into this juicy tale with epic style and wit. No wonder Jay-Z was inspired to rap about it.
7. There Will Be Blood: “Gargantuan” is a puny word to describe the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis in this movie equivalent of hellfire. Try “electrifying” or “volcanic” or anything else that sounds dangerous if you get too close. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson borrows a bit of Upton Sinclair’s Oil to tell the story of Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis), a turn-of-the-century prospector who strikes it oil-rich and learns hard how the ignorant armies of greed and bogus religion clash in America. Paul Dano also scores a knockout as a young preacher who gets under Plainview’s skin. Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) is the kind of artful renegade who restores your faith in the harsh power of cinema. His filmmaking is raw, risky and built to leave bruises. This is his bloody and brilliant Citizen Kane. Don’t even think of missing it.
8. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead: The directing Oscar that has eluded Sidney Lumet, 83, for half a century of classics, from 12 Angry Men and Fail-Safe through Network, Dog Day Afternoon and The Verdict, should be his by divine right for this long day’s journey into family dysfunction. When brothers, superbly played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, plan a no-victim robbery of their parents’ jewelry store, things go explosively wrong. Lumet takes a first-rate script by Kelly Masterson and keeps it popping.
9. I’m Not There: Think experimentation is dead? You’ll think again when you see what tirelessly innovative Todd Haynes does with the life and shifting times of Bob Dylan in this biopic that shatters all the rules of biopics. By now you know that six dazzling actors play Dylan, with Cate Blanchett the most dazzling of all. But see I’m Not There a second or third time and watch even more riches unfold.
10. Knocked Up and Juno: I hate ties, but there’s no better way to honor the year’s two best and ballsiest comedies, both on the subject of unexpected pregnancy and both resonating with unexpectedly harsh truths. In Knocked Up, writer-director Judd Apatow — the new master of laughs with a sting — takes the guy view as schlubby Seth Rogen impregnates Katherine Heigl on a one-night stand and confronts his sworn enemy: maturity. In Juno, director Jason Reitman, working from a kick-ass original screenplay by Diablo Cody, takes the girl view by letting teenage Juno (the impossibly talented Ellen Page) bypass a hasty abortion in favor of having the baby and being pro-choice on the adoptive parents. Don’t you love it when humor that bubbles also bristles?
Worst Comedy: Eddie Murphy takes the sexist, racist prize for Norbit, playing three characters, including an obese woman, under tons of latex. No hiding, Eddie. You’re busted.
Worst Epic: So much here, but let’s go with Evan Almighty, a big-budget Noah’s Ark update that sticks gifted Steve Carell with animals that defecate for real. Ditto the movie.
Worst Star Vehicle: Jim Carrey is unintentionally hilarious in The Number 23, just edging out Lindsay Lohan in the sappy Georgia Rule.
Worst Family Film: If you can endure Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium for five minutes without puking, your stomach is cast-iron.
Worst Soft-Core Sex: There is no denying that a nearly naked Christina Ricci looks tasty even when chained to a radiator by Samuel L. Jackson. But the religioso psychobabble of Black Snake Moan is too big a price to pay. Get the poster instead, and drool.
Worst Remake: It has to be The Heartbreak Kid, in which Ben Stiller and the Farrelly brothers drown the wit and wisdom of Elaine May’s 1972 original in an ocean of crude stupidity.
Worst Anti-War Film: Rendition uses star names (Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Alan Arkin) to decry the U.S. policy of torturing suspected terrorists in foreign prisons, then revels in showing us the torture. And they wonder why audiences stayed home.
The Michael Bay Award for Worst Soul-Sucking Dumb-Ass Bottom Feeder: Bay almost had it for Transformers — nobody does bull like Bay, he rocks it — but I’m going with Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End for illustrating just how low talent will sink for a big fat payday.