Earlier this week, I along with 20 other San Francisco film critics assembled at an undisclosed location -- okay, it was a café -- to vote on the best films, best performances and best other stuff of 2007. It's an interesting experience. I spent a few weeks combing through the year's releases, coming up with my own choices. Then I second-guessed some of them, deciding whether I should eliminate certain choices. If I was absolutely certain that someone would make the final ballot, then I would cast a vote for someone more obscure, someone I really liked. After doing that, I scrapped the whole thing and went back to my favorites in each category, regardless of where they placed.

For Best Supporting Actress, I selected Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone (301 screens) as my #1 choice, comfortable in my certainty that she was a dark horse and that no one else would pick her. She was far from being the focus of that film, but she knocked a home run in her few scenes as a horrible, drug-ridden mother who has lost her baby girl. As a bonus, she was also in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (321 screens), a film that also made a decent showing on my personal ballot. (She lost a few points by being in the wretched Dan in Real Life, but gained them back again by being on TV's "The Wire.") In any case, Ryan not only made our final ballot, but she actually won. Congratulations, Amy! My other picks, Taraji P. Henson in Talk to Me, Kristen Thomson in Away from Her, and Maggie Smith in Becoming Jane, didn't make it so far. As for my fifth pick, Cate Blanchett in I'm Not There (148 screens), you've not heard that last of her.

The same happened for Best Picture. I was certain that nobody on the planet loved The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (35 screens) as much as I did, so I placed it at #1, over more obvious choices like No Country for Old Men and Eastern Promises, both of which everybody seems to like. Much to my happy surprise, Jesse James actually won. I was astonished, especially after watching inferior pictures win that award two years in a row (Brokeback Mountain and Little Children). For Best Director, I ranked Andrew Dominik lower, and the Coen Brothers at #1, since Dominik has only made two films, and I'd like to see more from him to make sure Jesse James was no fluke. Once again, I was pleased to see that my #1 choice won!

I didn't fare so well in the documentary and foreign film categories. With such a large group of critics, one can't expect everyone to see every obscure little film, so the films that get the most votes are the ones that come out at the end of the year, and the ones that arrive on Academy DVD screeners on the voters' doorsteps. My favorites were Jafar Panahi's Offside, Alain Resnais' Private Fears in Public Places, Bong Joon-ho's The Host, Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest and Johnny To's Exiled -- all of which are gone from theaters. The Host arrived in screener form, and it did fairly well, but our winner was The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which I liked a great deal. But I don't think it should have counted, given that the director is American.

As for documentaries, I was flabbergasted to see that my favorite, Into Great Silence -- one of the greatest documentaries I've ever seen -- wasn't considered. I tend to judge documentaries harshly and I look for artistic qualities as well as journalistic ones, so I have a hard time compiling five (even though I saw twenty or more). My #5 choice, which I watched just a couple of weeks ago, was the intelligent and captivating Iraq documentary No End in Sight. I have to admit that, though I put off seeing it, it may be the best Iraq documentary yet and the final word on the subject. It won our award, by the biggest landslide in any category.

Our other winners included George Clooney for Best Actor in Michael Clayton (201 screens), Julie Christie for Best Actress in Away from Her and Casey Affleck for Best Supporting Actor in Jesse James. Overall, I missed seeing Amy Adams and Josh Brolin on the ballot, but was pleased that Ashley Judd in the under-praised Bug made it farther than I ever would have dreamed. The best thing of all was that I actually liked each of our winners. I was very proud that our critics group managed to overlook all those second-rate movies that had been specifically pitched as award-worthy, like Into the Wild (360 screens), The Kite Runner, Atonement (32 screens), In the Valley of Elah (7 screens) etc. In other words, we actually awarded excellence instead of hype, and that felt good.