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Beauty's in the unexpected

December 16, 2007|CARINA CHOCANO

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 expose 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.


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