Arts & Life



I'm Melissa Block.

Pirates and web-slingers, animated ogres and rats, robots and teen wizards -Hollywood's dream factories churned out a lot of fantasy in 2007. Four movies topped $300 million at the box office, the first time that's happened.

For his 10 best list, our critic Bob Mondello doesn't look at the numbers. He looks at quality. And he says, when you consider the year that was, the quality wasn't bad either.

BOB MONDELLO: Glittering behemoths at the multiplex, glittering jewels at the art house, filmmaking seemed especially bipolar this year, even within individual movies: comedies about death and destruction, dramas leavened by humor.

Tim Burton's serial-killer musical, for instance, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" with its throat-slashing title character and his partner-in-crime who bakes his victims into meat pies.

(Soundbite of movie, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street")

Ms. HELENA BONHAM CARTER (Actress): (As Mrs. Lovett) Here we are. Hot out of the oven.

Mr. JOHNNY DEPP (Actor): (As Sweeney Todd) What is that?

Ms. CARTER: (As Mrs. Lovett) (Singing) It's priest. Have a little priest.

Mr. DEPP: (As Sweeney Todd) (Singing) Is it really good?

Ms. CARTER: (As Mrs. Lovett) (Singing) Sir, it's too good, at least. Then again, they don't commit sins of the flesh, so it's pretty fresh.

MONDELLO: Delicious, in fact. Also a cut above, as it were, is another serial-killer flick, this one creepy in a more contemporary way: "No Country For Old Men" with nerve-rattling images from the Coen Brothers and eerie dialogue from Cormac McCarthy's novel.

(Soundbite of movie, "No Country For Old Men")

Mr. JAVIER BARDEM (Actor): (As Anton Chigurh) What's the most you ever lost in a coin toss?

Mr. GENE JONES (Actor): (As Gas Station Proprietor) I don't know. I couldn't say.

(Soundbite of coin toss)

Mr. BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) Call it.

Mr. JONES: (As Gas Proprietor) I didn't put nothin' up.

Mr. BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) Yes, you did. You've been putting it up your whole life you just didn't know it.

MONDELLO: There was also killing aplenty in a thoroughly unconventional western, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." Against breathtaking landscapes, Casey Affleck plays the coward and Brad Pitt, the famous outlaw who gave his assassin the gun that would eventually kill him.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford")

Mr. BRAD PITT (Actor): (As Jesse James) You know, what John Newman Edwards once wrote about me? He said I didn't trust two men or 10,000. Even then, I was cautious around. I've been feeling cornered and just plain (unintelligible) as of late, and I'd be pleased if you accept that gun as my way of apologizin'.

MONDELLO: Theirs is, shall we say, a complicated relationship. And a film about the geopolitical complications turned out to be the year's most unexpected comedy: "Charlie Wilson's War," the true story of some intrepid souls, including a congressman and a CIA agent, who helped organize a covert war in the 1980s.

(Soundbite of movie, "Charlie Wilson's War")

Mr. BRIAN MARKINSON (Actor): (As Paul Brown) This meeting is gonna be run professionally(ph).

Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN (Actor): (As Gust Avrakotos) Oh, absolutely. We'll be talking to deputy defense minister while his boss gets a belly dancer in front of Charlie's…

Mr. TOM HANKS (Actor): (As Charlie Wilson) A good friend of mine back in Texas is a well-known belly dancer. It's always been her dream to perform in Egypt so she's our way in. While she's dancin' for the defense minister, we'll be talking to the deputy.

Mr. MARKINSON: (As Paul Brown) Oh my god.

Mr. HOFFMAN (Actor): (As Gust Avrakotos) No, she's supposed to be good.

MONDELLO: With a script by Aaron Sorkin and direction by Mike Nichols, "Charlie Wilson's War" is sophisticated, mainstream filmmaking for grown-ups. For sophisticated mainstream filmmaking for kids, you pretty much have to look to Pixar these days. And they made what is, hands down, the year's most mouthwatering film: "Ratatouille," about a rat named Remy who wants to be a French chef.

(Soundbite of movie, "Ratatouille")

Mr. PATTON OSWALT (Actor): (As Remy) He's ruining the soup. And nobody's noticing? It's your restaurant. Do something.

Mr. BRAD GARRETT (Actor): (As Gusteau) What can I do? I am a figment of your imagination.

Mr. OSWALT: (As Remy) But he's ruining the soup. You gotta tell (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of music)

MONDELLO: As Remy took the cooking plunge, Pixar digitizers made sure there was plenty of wit to savor. That's five of the year's best, all major Hollywood releases.

So for the next three, I'm going to take us overseas, first to another exercise in animation. "Persepolis," based on a four-volume graphic novel, uses elegant black-and-white line drawings to tell a coming-of-age tale about a rebellious little girl in Iran, who is restricted, but not bowed, by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

(Soundbite of movie, "Persepolis")

Ms. CHIARA MASTROIANNI (Actor): (As Marji) (Singing) Stalks his prey in the night, and he's…

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As Character) (Speaking in French)

(Soundbite of screaming)

Mr. MASTROIANNI: (As Marji) (Singing) …watching us all in the eye of the tiger.

MONDELLO: An authoritarian crackdown in another society, communist East Germany, is the subject of a riveting suspense film called "The Lives of Others," about undercover surveillance, and the awakening, perhaps too late, of conscience.

(Soundbite of movie "The Lives of Others")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As Character) Georg Dreyman. (Speaking in German)

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As Character) (Speaking in German)

MONDELLO: In Germany, a man betrayed by his country; in France, a man betrayed by his body. "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" tells a true story about a stroke victim left paralyzed, unable to speak, and capable of moving only one eyelid, with which he managed to blink an entire memoir, letter by letter.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly")

Unidentified Woman #3 (Actor): (As ?) (Unintelligible) L-O-M-T (unintelligible) Merci. Merci.

MONDELLO: Yeah, yeah, I know, but it's oddly liberating on screen.

The homegrown film "The Savages" also crosses up expectations, managing to be entirely realistic and still somehow to find humor in a story about putting an addled parent into a nursing home.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Savages")

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon Savage) What if you're in a coma?

Ms. LAURA LINNEY (Actor): (As Wendy Savage) Jon.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon Savage) Would you want a breathing machine to keep you alive?

Mr. PHILIP BOSCO (Actor): (As Lenny Savage) What kind of question is that?

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon Savage) Well, it's a question we should know in case.

Mr. BOSCO: (As Lenny Savage) In case what?

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon Savage) It's this procedure. It's something they want for the record.

Mr. BOSCO: (As Lenny Savage) Who?

Ms. LINNEY: (As Wendy Savage) The people who run the place, the Valley View.

Mr. BOSCO: (As Lenny Savage) What the hell kind of hotel is it?

MONDELLO: "The Savages," intimate, recognizably real and splendidly acted. And I'm going to round out the Top 10 with another small film, but one that has a big voice: "Once," a sort of newfangled, old-fashioned street-musical with melodies that truly soar.

(Soundbite of movie, "Once")

MONDELLO: That's 10, which is an arbitrary number, especially in a year as packed with eccentric films as 2007, so let's just keep going. I also liked the swooning romance of the World War II drama "Atonement," the wide-open spaces of Sean Penn's "Into the Wild," and Julie Christie's gorgeous performance as a woman with Alzheimer's in "Away from Her."

The Italian film "The Golden Door" opened a fascinating window on immigration. "This Is England" looked at skinhead culture with an insider's perspective. And "La Vie en Rose" had not just a terrific performance by Marion Cotillard, but those glorious Edith Piaf songs.

(Soundbite of movie, "La Vie en Rose")

Ms. EDITH PIAF (Singer): (Singing in French)

MONDELLO: What music is to "La Vie en Rose," violence is to a pair of epics about greed and bad character: "American Gangster," starring Denzel Washington, and "There Will Be Blood," starring Daniel Day-Lewis.

The drama "Michael Clayton" is a piercing look at corporate corruption, the documentary "No End in Sight," a dispassionate look at America's rush to war in Iraq.

And a trio of small, wonderfully quirky films about family found universality in situations that don't seem all that universal. "The Namesake," a rich assimilation comedy about East Indians in the U.S. "Lars and the Real Girl," a surprisingly touching tale of a recluse who introduces an anatomically correct doll to his neighbors as his girlfriend, and "Juno," the hippest comedy around, about a 16-year-old who's darned if she's letting an unexpected pregnancy knock her off stride.

(Soundbite of movie, "Juno")

Mr. J. K. SIMMONS (Actor): (As Mac MacGuff) Who's the father, Juno?

Ms. ELLEN PAGE (Actor): (As Juno MacGuff) It's Paulie Bleeker.

Mr. SIMMONS: (As Mac MacGuff) Paulie Bleeker?

Ms. PAGE: (As Juno MacGuff) What?

Mr. SIMMONS: (As Mac MacGuff) I didn't think he had it in him.

Ms. PAGE: (As Juno MacGuff) I know, right?

MONDELLO: That's 23 reasons for cheer this year - unorthodox, offbeat reasons that we should probably hang onto as we head into 2008, full of optimism about the no-doubt equally unorthodox, offbeat charms that Hollywood will find in "Hannah Montana," "Sex in the City," and "Horton Hears a Who!".

I'm Bob Mondello.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: If you couldn't scribble fast enough to keep up with Bob, you'll find his complete 23-film 10-best list at

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