Best of 2007

Honor of the Knights

It’s funny to think back on 2007–a year fraught with many personal changes for me (necessitating a sometimes sporadic approach to blogging here at Film Journey)–and still recognize that I managed to attend four major film festivals, publish liner notes to a CD and a DVD, write entries for MovieMail and film festival catalogues, catch revival screenings and new releases, and watch a steady flow of multiregion DVDs. And I don’t even feel that obsessional–I have plenty of non-cinephile friends, indulge in other activities (drawing, hiking, reading, European board games), and spend a lot of time exploring Los Angeles. In many ways, the life of a cinephile has never been easier.

As with previous years, I’m compiling my favorite films from the totality of films I screened this year. Given the vagaries of film distribution, I’m also considering any recent but yet undistributed film fair game for inclusion, though this means movies like Colossal Youth, Still Life, Offside, and Regular Lovers–which are topping many lists this year–have already appeared on my lists in years past.

One more note, my top ten list of favorite DVDs of the year has been published along with many other fantastic lists at DVDBeaver’s new 2007 poll.

Top Ten New Releases (alphabetically):

ïAway From Her (Sarah Polley, Canada)

Emotionally wrenching melodramas are not generally my cup of tea, so I rented this lovely, nuanced, lucid adaptation of Canadian author Alice Munro’s story about Alzheimer’s three times before getting around to watching it, and I’m very glad I finally did. What stands out are the surprises: the humor, the inventive structure that (fittingly) mystifies the story’s chronology, and the supplementary characters. (I particularly liked Kristen Thomson’s down to earth nurse.) It’s a stunningly well conceived look at facing difficult truths, told with a hushed sensitivity rather than emotional bombast that makes it all the more affecting.

ïBlade Runner: The Final Cut (Ridley Scott, USA)

Yeah, I know it’s a 25 year old film, but the Final Cut is an extremely subtle digital reedit that deserves its own title, so I think it qualifies. The film itself is still probably the greatest science fiction film ever made in Hollywood in terms of its thematic ambition, overwhelming visual detail, applicability to real world technological and social issues, and compelling moral ambiguity. The new print and re-amped sound design make it even more immersive, and the film’s striking juxtapositions and deliberate pacing have never seemed more powerful and seductive.

ïDaratt (Dry Season) (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, Chad)

It’s exciting to see potent features coming out of war-torn countries in Africa grappling with themes of genocide and revenge in daily life–such is the case with this quietly intense drama, as well as Munyurangabo (honorable mention, below). Had I seen them in reverse order, they may have switched places on my list; both are exceptional dramas about young people with heavy burdens, immersed in inner maelstroms of tradition, obligation and conscience. Both are told in an artfully minimalist manner that evokes the Dardennes’ cinema of penetrating physical and ethical inquiry, though Daratt seems especially adept at (cinematically) navigating the pregnant silences of its interpersonal tensions.

ïHonor of the Knights (Albert Serra, Spain)

My worst screening experience of the year delivered what may be my favorite film of the year, this highly enigmatic, contemplative portrait of an old man and his burly assistant as they sit and wander through nondescript woods in medieval armor, rarely speaking, searching (it gradually seems) for the ineffable. It inspired jeers and anger and a steady flow of walkouts, but by the time the lights came up and I was the only person left in the auditorium (along with director Serra, who graciously offered me a Q&A), I felt that I too had endured the knight’s journey, had genuinely felt the despair and confusion and yes, even the revelation of life, perseverance, and a cinema unlike any other.

ïI’m Not There (Todd Haynes, USA)

I don’t know much about Bob Dylan, and I don’t know if this film gets me any closer to understanding the real man, but as an exploration of character beautifully fragmented into various memorable pieces, I found the movie to be an utterly rich and immersive view of personhood. With exceptionally fluid montage and multiple standout performances, the film demonstrates considerable technique while never feeling studied, and it becomes a highly enjoyable and dense musing on identity, celebrity, and the media.

ï It’s Winter (Raffi Pitts, Iran)

This unusual but highly perceptive film seems closer to Five Easy Pieces than most Iranian cinema in its exploration of the existential psychology of the Iranian working class. Unemployment among skilled tradesmen has become a serious issue in Iran, and Pitts’ poignant adaptation–brought to life by remarkable cast of nonprofessional actors–of Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s classic 1969 novel, Safar (The Trip), is a penetrating and lingering portrait of people in perpetual limbo.

ïKiller of Sheep (Charles Burnett, USA)

Another classic from the past, Burnett’s tremendously lyrical evocation of South Central in the mid-’70s finally received the commercial release it deserved. A major accomplishment in mood and tone, it was a soulful call to reality in an era of cynical Blaxploitation hype, and remains a captivating and moving tribute to quotidian, working class life in all its beauty, sadness and hope.

ïOpera Jawa (Garin Nugroho, Indonesia)

An impossible-to-classify film, this sensational mixture of gamalan music and dance with art installations and the Hindu myth of Ramayana (plus a bit of Mozart for good measure) is a wildly creative and haunting masterpiece. Fortunately, it’s being released in the UK on DVD this month, and I’m very much looking forward to revisiting its cryptic and powerful symbols and motifs.

ï Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud & Marjane Satrapi, France)

As a fan of Marjane Satrapi’s iconic graphic novel, I was worried about its adaptation to film, so I was pleasantly relieved that it made the transition so well. The film is a concise and beautiful vision of Satrapi’s eventful childhood and ensuing years in revolutionary Tehran and abroad, and it abounds with elegant lines and curves that shift and blend into a striking, harmonious aesthetic that never overpowers the deep human emotions at its center.

ïRomance of Astree and Celadon (Eric Rohmer, France)

This could be Eric Rohmer’s final film, and it’s so out of synch with contemporary fashion–a period piece with little to no special effects, an extended defense of monotheism and monogamy, a gender-bending farce that plays it straight–that I’m amazed it has been receiving such positive word of mouth on the festival circuit. I’m also thrilled, however, because the film is a genuine delight, full of Rohmer’s witty treatises on love and fidelity, as well as his bumbling, superficially eloquent characters who have to depend on serendipity simply to fathom the intricacies of their own hearts.

(Ten very honorable mentions: Ad Lib Night, Diary of the Dead, The Duchess of Langeais, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, The Legend of Time, The Mourning Forest, Munyurangabo, Secret Sunshine, The Violin, and Zodiac.)

Top Ten Older Discoveries (seen first in 2007):

ïChronicle of a Summer (Jean Rouch, 1961)

ïClass Relations (Straub-Huillet, 1984)

ïIndia Matri Bhumi (Roberto Rossellini, 1958)

ïLes MisÈrables (Raymond Bernard, 1934)

ïMonsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin, 1947)

For me, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood doesn’t hold a candle to this vision of capitalism taken to its sociopathic extreme. (Surprisingly, this is also one of the few films I haven’t heard compared to Blood.) Chaplin’s black-as-night “comedy of murders” is about an unemployed, Depression-era banker who feels compelled to marry and murder widows just to earn a living, and the film is all the more painful because of its light, delicate tone.

ïMy Brother’s Wedding (Charles Burnett, 1983)

ïMuriel, or the Time of Return (Alain Resnais, 1963)

ïOut 1 (Jacques Rivette, 1971)

ïPalms (Artur Aristakisyan, 1993)

ïThe Terrorizer (Edward Yang, 1986)

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