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'Atonement' tops Grove's 10 best list

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Top 10: Considering that there have been years when putting together a Top 10 list was wildly challenging, 2007 really wasn't such a terrible year for movies.

Having liked enough films to compile such a list, I'm here today to play Santa and hand out some presents that hopefully will help these 10 movies get the Oscar nominations they deserve.

There are, of course, more year-end lists of best films these days than anyone could possibly want to read. Before long, we'll be seeing ads heralding the fact that a movie's on "over 100 top ten lists" or, in some cases, even more. Although these lists are typically called 10 Best Lists, they're really just lists of what the list makers like. "Best" is such a highly subjective word that it would be better to call them "favorites."

Today's list is really made up of my 10 favorite films from the past year -- in other words, what I liked most of those I happened to see. You could, of course, go to screenings three times a day and still not see everything that's out there to be seen. There were films I decided to skip and others I never quite got around to making time for. And there are a few others that are arriving so late in the year that there just hasn't been an opportunity to see them yet with the holiday season now underway. But of those that I did manage to get to or that I watched at home on DVD here are 10 I'm happy to recommend.

(1) "Atonement" from Focus Features tops my list of the year's best movies and was my favorite film of 2007. As genres go, I'm a longtime fan of epic period piece British romantic dramas. This one brought to mind "The English Patient," Oscar's best picture winner in 1997.

For director Joe Wright ("Pride and Prejudice") "Atonement" is a breakthrough film that should advance his career significantly. With "Pride" Wright won the British Academy's Carl Foreman Award for the Most Promising Newcomer in 2006 and the film was a BAFTA nominee for Best British Film. Wright also won the London Film Critics Circle's British Director of the Year award for "Pride." "Atonement," however, has now put him in the Globes best director race and stands to make him an Oscar nominee, as well.

Wright does a particularly impressive job early in the film of showing the same action from two different points of view in a key scene where Keira Knightley and James McAvoy are together in front of an outdoor fountain on a hot summer's day. Without them knowing it, they're being observed by Saoirse Ronan, playing Knightley's wildly imaginative younger sister, and we see the scene both as Ronan sees and interprets it as well as how it actually plays out between the young couple.

"Atonement" scored seven Golden Globe nominations, more than any other film this year. Although the film wasn't a favorite of the more esoteric critics groups, it clearly resonated with the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. voters who are, generally speaking, a better bellwether for the Oscars than the critics are. With Globes noms for best picture, director, screenplay (Christopher Hampton), actor (McAvoy), actress (Knightley), supporting actress (Ronan) and original song (Dario Marianelli), it's clearly got broad appeal that should make it a prime contender for Oscar consideration.

"Atonement" also did well with the Broadcast Film Critics Assn., which voted it five Critics Choice Awards nominations, including best picture, director, supporting actress (Vanessa Redgrave), composer and young actress (Ronan). Ronan, who's only 13, is fabulous in the film and I'm hoping Academy members give her the nomination she truly deserves.

McAvoy was overlooked by the Oscars and Globes last year for his outstanding performance in "The Last King of Scotland" opposite Forest Whitaker, who went on to win the best actor Oscar and the Globe for best actor-drama. The HFPA has already made up for last year by nominating McAvoy for best actor-drama and, hopefully, Academy members will put him in the Oscar race, as well.

My nine other favorite films of 2007 are listed alphabetically with some thoughts about why I liked them and what their Oscar prospects are looking like at the moment.

(2) "American Gangster" from Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment is a film I wasn't sure I'd enjoy because of its violence and the bloodshed it displays on screen. I'm also generally not fond of extra-long movies and "Gangster" runs 157 minutes. On the other hand, I had great expectations for the picture given the Oscar pedigree of its filmmakers and stars.

Director Ridley Scott is a three time Oscar nominee for "Thelma & Louise," "Gladiator" and "Black Hawk Down." Producer Brian Grazer is an Oscar winner for "A Beautiful Mind" (shared with Ron Howard). Screenwriter Steven Zaillian is an Oscar winner for "Schindler's List." Denzel Washington is a best actor Oscar winner for "Training Day" and "Glory." And Russell Crowe is an Oscar winner for "Gladiator."

Well, I was happy to find that the film's violence is organic to its story and never feels gratuitous. Moreover, Scott and Zaillian tell this story so well that time flies by. Washington and Crowe are beautifully balanced as stars and we care about what happens not just to Crowe, the good cop, but also to Washington, the murderous crime boss. Both stars are worthy of Oscar nods although Washington has the showier role. And for Scott, "Gangster" puts him back on the track after a few films that underperformed.

It's unfortunate for "Gangster" that last year's best picture Oscar winner, Martin Scorsese's "The Departed," was also a very well made high-profile very violent movie about criminals and cops with big stars and an A-List director. Whether Academy voters will endorse the same type of film for best picture two years in a row is anyone's guess.

(3) "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" from THINKFilm is another film I expected to like and definitely did from the get-go. Director Sidney Lumet is at age 83 a prime candidate for the Oscar that's eluded him throughout his 50 year career in Hollywood.

Lumet's been Oscar nominated five times over the years but somehow has never won despite having made some memorable movies. His nominations were for his first feature "12 Angry Men" (1958), "Dog Day Afternoon" (1976), "Network" (1977), "Prince of the City" (1982 as co-screenwriter) and "The Verdict" (1983). Although the Academy handed him an honorary Oscar in 2005, it's now time for them to honor him properly -- not just for being a legendary filmmaker, but for making a memorably gripping thriller that ranks with his best earlier work.

Lumet gets awards worthy performances from both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke. Hoffman, who won the best actor Oscar for "Capote" (2005), works so much and so well that he's all over the Academy map this year and could easily wind up competing with himself, which is never a good thing. Besides his strong lead performance in "Devil," he's also getting attention for his lead performance in "The Savages." Plus, Hoffman basically steals the show with his supporting performance opposite Tom Hanks in "Charlie Wilson's War." I was surprised that Hoffman didn't get any SAG nominations and hope he winds up getting Oscar recognition, perhaps for best actor for "Devil" and supporting actor for "Charlie."

To read my conversation with "Devil" producer Michael Cerenzie about the development of the film click here.

To read my column with Lumet about the making of "Devil," click here.

(4) "Charlie Wilson's War" from Universal Pictures is another film I knew I was going to enjoy before I saw it. It's the kind of classic Hollywood entertainment I've always liked -- and I definitely wasn't disappointed.

Just about everyone involved in making "Charlie" has already taken home an Academy Award or its equivalent. The list includes director Mike Nichols, an Oscar winner for "The Graduate;" Tom Hanks, a back-to-back best actor Oscar winner for "Philadelphia" and "Forrest Gump;" Julia Roberts, a best actress Oscar winner for "Erin Brockovich;" Philip Seymour Hoffman, a best actor Oscar winner for "Capote;" and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, a multiple Emmy Award winner for "The West Wing."

"Charlie" is proof that not every awards worthy movie these days is made on a shoestring budget by independent filmmakers. As funny as the movie is, it also has its serious side when we see Hanks as Congressman Wilson visit the crowded filthy refugee camps in Afghanistan during the '80s when Russian troops were slaughtering the Afghans. Wilson is horrified by what he sees -- which is what Nichols also shows us -- and returns inspired to do whatever it takes to fund a covert U.S. war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Moviegoers have consistently been rejecting movies with Middle East storylines and "Charlie" could run into the same problem. On the other hand, it might be able to get around it thanks to its star power and its sense of humor. Of course, Academy voters tend to look down their noses at comedy so there's no telling how they'll respond to this good time "Charlie."

(5) Miramax Films' French language drama "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is the kind of small independent film that awards givers love to celebrate. If it weren't in French, it would probably have broader Oscar potential, but if it weren't in French and set in France it wouldn't be the remarkable movie that it is.

Frankly, I didn't think I'd like the film because the idea of seeing a movie about a stroke victim who can only move his left eye sounded terribly depressing. As it turns out, the movie's not at all depressing. In fact, it's a wonderfully reaffirming story about the power of the human spirit and I've been recommending it to anyone who asks me what they should go see. Academy members who haven't seen "Diving Bell" yet because they're worrying about being depressed have absolutely nothing to worry about.

Director Julian Schnabel and screenwriter Ron Harwood both deserve Oscar noms for "Diving Bell." Their decision to use the camera to provide the point of view of stroke victim Jean-Dominique Bauby, played so very well by Mathieu Amalric, is the key to making "Diving Bell" work. Schnabel's a Golden Globe best director nominee for "Diving Bell," for which he was honored with the best director's award and a Golden Palm nomination at the Cannes Film Festival last May. Harwood, a past Oscar winner for adapting "The Pianist," is a Golden Globe nominee for "Diving Bell." This is a film that truly merits best picture Oscar consideration despite the fact that it's in French.

To read my recent conversation here with Schnabel about the making of "Diving Bell," click here.

(6) Disney's live action and animated fairy tale "Enchanted" is the kind of popular entertainment that's typically overlooked when media people compile top 10 lists. It lacks gravitas, which Academy members have such an appetite for, and because it's not a serious movie I'm afraid Oscar voters aren't likely to give it serious attention.

Nonetheless, "Enchanted" was one of the past year's films that I most looked forward to seeing and it left me all the happier for having done so. And considering the grim world we're living in these days, what's wrong with that?

Amy Adams is positively delightful in this story of a fairy tale princess who's exiled from her storybook land and winds up entering the real world via a manhole in New York's Times Square! She's a Globe nominee for best actress-comedy or musical and deserves an Oscar nod, as well.

To read my column with director Kevin Lima about the making of "Enchanted," click here.

(7) Warner Bros.' "Michael Clayton" worked for me because writer-director Tony Gilroy cast the picture with a great acting ensemble and got killer performances from them all. I was surprised SAG didn't give "Clayton" a best ensemble cast nomination, considering that it gave a best actor nod to Clooney, a supporting actor nom to Tom Wilkinson and a supporting actress nom to Tilda Swinton.

What I'd really like to see Academy members do is give Sydney Pollack a well-deserved supporting actor nod for his portrayal of the head of the New York law firm for which Clooney as Clayton is the fixer of all things in need of fixing.

In the best of all worlds, Clooney will wind up in the best actor Oscar race and Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton will land supporting Oscar noms. It's Gilroy's first feature as a director and with so many top directors competing this year -- like Tim Burton, Ethan & Joel Coen, Julian Schnabel, Ridley Scott and Joe Wright, all of whom are Globe nominees for best director -- he's a long shot. On the other hand, Gilroy's a seasoned screenwriter (all three "Bourne" episodes) and could land a well deserved best original screenplay nomination.

To read my conversation with Gilroy about the making of "Clayton," click here.

(8) Miramax Films' "No Country For Old Men" (co-financed with Paramount Vantage) is the film that emerged as an awards frontrunner thanks to critics and critics groups across the country. As a longtime admirer of Ethan & Joel Coen's films, I was looking forward to "No Country," especially after its initial success at Cannes last spring where the Coens were Golden Palm nominees. I never had to think twice after seeing it about putting it on my 10 Best List.

What the Coens have achieved with "No Country" is rare because films without anyone to root for usually don't work with audiences. Nevertheless, we're sufficiently fascinated by this movie's collection of "bad guys" -- and especially Javier Bardem, who's clearly the frontrunner in this year's supporting actor races and now has a SAG nomination in that category (as does Tommy Lee Jones) -- to be drawn into the world of "No Country" and want to find out what happens.

The film's 95% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com reflects how well it's been received by the critics, as does its best picture wins with the National Board of Review and critics groups in New York, Chicago, Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Dallas-Ft. Worth. Considering the critics' endorsements and the fact that "No Country" is one of SAG's nominees for best ensemble cast, the guild's equivalent of a best picture nod, it's a safe bet that we'll be seeing "No Country" in Oscar's best picture race.

(9) Sony Pictures Classics' black and white animated feature "Persepolis" was the subject of my column here Wednesday. As you've probably just seen that piece, I'll spare you having to read more about it today. If you haven't read that interview yet with writer-director Marjane Satrapi about the making of "Persepolis," click here.

(10) Never having been a fan of Hollywood Westerns, I wasn't expecting to like Lionsgate's "3:10 to Yuma," but boy was I wrong. It turned out to be one of the films I most enjoyed last year. I wasn't the only one who admired director James Mangold's remake of the 1957 Delmer Daves classic. It did well enough with the critics to score an 87% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com. Its status as one of SAG's best ensemble cast nominees is a good omen for it getting into Oscar's best picture race.

Lionsgate, of course, won the best picture Oscar with "Crash" in 2006 using the same springboard of a SAG best ensemble cast nomination with a victory that came right before the Oscar vote. Now with "Yuma's" SAG nod, Lionsgate is going to be sending DVD screeners of the film to the nearly 100,000 SAG members who participate in the final vote. That's the same winning formula Lionsgate used with "Crash" and Lionsgate could generate another Oscar success story. The Academy's membership is older and male and many of them have fond memories of having grown up watching and then making westerns. "Yuma" is a film that could resonate very well with them and Lionsgate is smart to be getting DVDs of the film into the hands of SAG members, who make up the Academy's largest voting branch.

Like many great Westerns, "Yuma" is the story of one good man trying his best all alone to uphold and serve justice on the lawless American frontier in the face of overwhelming opposition from a band of despicable villains. Mangold gets some strong performances from Russell Crowe as the film's legendary outlaw and Christian Bale as the good guy rancher who's doing his best to get Crowe's villain on the train to Yuma and the Federal trial that will result in him being hanged for murder.

To read my column with Mangold and producer Cathy Konrad about the making of "Yuma," click here.

Filmmaker flashbacks: From June 18, 1990's column: "The continuing campaign to alter the Motion Picture Association of America's rating system to create an adult or A rating that would in certain circumstances replace the present X rating is a well meaning but misguided effort that could change the balance of power in Hollywood.

"On the face of it, it seems reasonable to favor a new rating that would enable filmmakers to treat adult subjects without compromising their creativity. Presently, worthy films with adult themes from serious filmmakers are branded with the same X rating that's slapped on porno pictures.

"The problem with establishing an A alternative to the X is that it is often difficult to distinguish between what's worthy and what's porno. Moreover, in making such value judgments there is no right or wrong -- only each of our opinions. Obviously, our opinions reflect our individual taste, frame of reference, morals, local community standards, religious beliefs, etc. These vary tremendously and, again, there is no right or wrong, only what one believes...

"An A ratings would give filmmakers an entirely new and powerful right -- the right to do anything they please. That would take considerable power away from the studios since even directors who now have the right of final cut must live with contractual requirements that they not deliver an X rated film. That poses certain restrictions on how they handle sex and violence. Judging from what's now playing, filmmakers have learned to live quite nicely with such restraints. For many people there's already too much sex and violence on the screen. They'd argue that the existing rating system hasn't really cramped filmmakers' artistic style.

"At a time when the music industry is embroiled in great controversy over what certain groups are saying to youngsters through record lyrics, Hollywood should think long and hard before it changes the rating system that has successfully kept this industry's peace with American society for so many years. The last thing Hollywood needs is to put more power into filmmakers' hands and risk creating limited appeal A product that could fuel the efforts of would-be censors."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.