- Inland Empire (David Lynch) David Lynch takes a dive into his own subconscious looking for 'the big fish' and takes us with him. The result is the most horrifying, baffling, and enthralling film of the year. Technically, Inland Empire was released in 2006 in order to make Laura Dern eligible for a much deserved but totally improbable Oscar nod. It played at the Oak Street long enough for me to see it, ponder it, see it again, ponder it some more and know that I had no choice but to go see it again. As obsessive as that sounds, I was simply trying to work out the linage and, as a result, some meaning. The rabbit holes within the rabbit holes are still just as confounding, but a journey I am more than willing to take anytime.
- I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-Liang) As if to tame his muse, Tsai Ming-Liang splits Lee Kang-Sheng’s character, Hsiao Kang, into two: paralyzing one, physically injuring the other; one receiving compulsory care, the other loving care. Tsai returns to his native Malaysia for yet another lyrical parable about human and geographic alienation. The poor characters are assaulted by smoke that permeates the air of Kuala Lumpur while they try to make physical and emotional connections in the most desperate of ways. I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone is a visually striking film with light that glows into the dark cavernous spaces that fill the film. Fortunately there was the inclination of a relationship between two men, so it was included in the Walker’s Queer Takes series last summer; although now available on DVD, Tsai’s films have an undeniable presence on the big screen and they revel in the theatrical group experience.
- I’m Not There (Todd Haynes) Todd Haynes has done the impossible. He has taken six actors who portray six different facets of one character; he creates a non-linear narrative out of fact, fiction and myth based on truth; he throws formula out the window on one of the most formulaic genres of film; and he has created a film that is cerebral and emotional, specific and vague, factual and fictitious. The jaw-dropper is that it works, in grand regalia that will never be replicated. It is and isn’t a film about Dylan, and beautifully reflects a celebrity reality that shifts with the collective unconscious of the masses that define him.
- Climates (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) There is no question why this film is compared to the work of Antonioni. The camera alternates between grounding his characters within the horizon of a metaphorical, but very real, landscape to then examining these same characters with lingering, non-judgemental close-ups. Climates offers many surprises in the form of skillful camerawork and one of the most uncomfortable scenes ever put to screen. Really. Ceylan himself stars along with his wife, Ebru Ceylan, to utter sublime perfection. Climates screened at the 2007 Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival, and is now available on DVD.
- Southland Tales (Richard Kelly) If there is any film this year that best described the plight of American culture, it was Southland Tales. The characters are obsessed with the artifice of celebrity (in some cases, their own celebrity), confused but equally committed to a larger purpose (politically, socially and personally), blindly dazzled by advancement, and hopelessly happy about their demise. Kelly has the audacity to created a loving sci-fi satire that scorns and embraces pop culture equally, in the exact same way we all do. This was no doubt a crime that Kelly would be punished for, as this postmodern pop dream fell flat on it’s face twice: once at Cannes 2006 and then again upon it’s US theatrical release this past Fall. I can only hope it’s reward will come Donnie Darko style, with a cult status that brings the director’s cut back to the big screen. (More of my blah blah blah here.)
- Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett) Getting it’s theatrical release thirty years late was one of the biggest gifts to theater goers this year. Burnett does the impossible by taking a snapshot in time and making it timeless. The still and quiet camera work only accentuates the restlessness in the hearts and minds of the individuals on the screen. It is an elegant film that never trivializes the characters or the audience. There is no question why this film was declared a national treasure by the Library of Congress as one of the first fifty on the National Film Registry and selected it as one of the "100 Essential Films" of all time by the National Society of Film Critics. It is just that kind of film. The DVD release of this film includes a commentary track by Burnett himself as well as his 1983 feature My Brother’s Wedding.
- Bug (William Friedkin) The most subversive film of the summer. Touting Bug as a horror film “from the director of The Exorcist” was way off the mark. What people got was a politically charged pot-boiler that worked as an analogy for American society and the irrational fear oppressed upon the innocent masses. Bug was adapted from Tracy Lett’s stageplay that Friedkin saw it in New York. He was so taken with the play that he asked Michael Shannon to reprise his role on screen as the paranoid soldier. He and co-star Ashley Judd give performances that would send James McAvoy and Keira Knightly running for their lives.
- Bamako (Abderrrahmane Sissako) The opening film of the 2007 Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival, Bamako played to a full house at the Riverview. Bamako is one of those rare examples that bucks convention but exudes substance. The poetic weaving of everyday life in Mali and the oppression of Western society in the guise of a mock trial against the IMF does not belittle the weight and seriousness of the film. The villagers who surround the ‘courtroom’ represent a society that is both empowered and ambivalent over the proceedings, as if Sissako himself acknowledges the futility of his message. Indeed, I wish more people had seen it.
- Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino) Let’s just try to forget that Death Proof was attached at the hip with Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and start over. Not because Planet Terror was bad, it was exactly what it was supposed to be and very funny, but it paled in comparison to Tarantino’s turn-the-tables and pull-out-all-the-stops actioneer. I would have seen it again if it didn't mean either watching Planet Terror again or timing my theater-going to only see part two of the Grindhouse double feature. Thankfully, I have underestimated Tarantino after his self-indulgent spree as God of all things Asian, and he turns out a film that I can only assume intentionally alienates his fanbase of 18-24 year old males who enjoy seeing men get the last laugh. Fully healed from a broken arm from Kill Bill, Zoe Bell shows no fear against Stuntman Mike or some of the crazy stunts ever.
- Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy) One of the smartest Hollywood movies of the year. The plot, as interesting as it is, takes a back seat to the unusually complex characters. George Clooney, Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson carry this film to unexpected heights.
- Sunshine (Danny Boyle) How to appropriately categorize Sunshine? Science fiction? Melodrama? Horror? Can it be all things to all people? Personally I love the free-form path that Sunshine takes, unwilling to be pegged down. Bold enough to admit humanity's inadequacies and triumphs that have defined the world we live in. Beyond that, it looks and sounds fantastic, as the images entertain all our fantasies about outer space in cinematic glory.
- Blade Runner: The Final Cut (Ridley Scott) For all intents and purposes, this may as well be my first viewing of Blade Runner. I feel like I have seen it a couple times, but it could have very well been 20 years ago, and it was probably on VHS “formatted to fit your TV.” Seeing it last month was certainly seeing it anew for me, and despite Harrison Ford’s youth and Sean Young’s shoulder pads, Blade Runner seems wholly contemporary. The incredible quality of Blade Runner strikes me in a similar way that Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira strikes me: regardless of how advanced digital technology gets, no anime will ever come close to the amazing hand-drawn perfection of Akira. In Blade Runner’s case, the detail in the sets and whatever else went into some of those aerial scenes will never be matched. Even the quirky jazz-synth soundtrack seems to defy its age. To say that this film was ahead of its time is a huge understatement, and its re-release just makes all of the subsequent imitations look pale in comparison.
- Tekkonkinkreet (Michael Arias) Sometimes you just have to wonder is US produced animation will ever come close to that coming out of Japan. I guess the closest we will get is Tekkonkinkreet from American Michael Arias, who lives and works in Japan. With animation by Studio 4°C, this film is just stunning.
- Still Life (Jia Zhang Ke) Forget about what China’s accelerated economy means to the world, imagine what it means to the people living there. The Summer Olympics will no doubt give us one picture of that, but Jia Zhang Ke’s Still Life gives us another version. Still Life takes place in the town of Fengjie on the banks of the Yangtze River near the Three Gorges Dam project where life is anything but still. Residents are moved out only to be replaced by transient laborers paid to transform the city. If the demolition of a city by hand is hard to imagine, Jia presents it as a perfunctory part of life just like everything else. Still Life is Jia’s most elegiac film yet with human resilience and flights of fancy at the heart of it all. Still Life will get a limited release this month.
- Memories of Matsuko (Tetsuya Nakashima) Memories of Matsuko is just about as bittersweet as they come. Diverting your attention from tragedy with musical numbers and visual panache only allows the story to have that much more gravity. Matsuko is helplessly oppressed in a patriarchal society that she accepts as fate. Miki Nakatani is amazing as the irrepressible Matsuko. From the director of 2004’s Kamikaze Girls, Memories is anything but ordinary.
- The Sun Also Rises (Jiang Wen) Jiang Wen, better known as an actor than a director, has possibly made the most original Mainland Chinese film I have seen is a long time. It's surreal and abstract, but still charming and engaging. Two interconnected stories that span from the late 50s to the mid-70s play out more like a fairytale or fable than any sort of comedy or drama. It is also something of a superstar production, employing some of the best cinematographers and production designers in the business, not to mention the very interesting cast of characters, that all come together to absolutely defy the conventions of a Mainland film.
Honorable Mentions: Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (Douglas Gordon, Philippe Parreno), The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel), Manufactured Landscapes (Jennifer Baichwal), Paprika (Satoshi Kon), No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen), Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg), 28 Weeks Later (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo), Ghosts of Cite Soleil (Asger Leth), No End in Sight (Charles Ferguson), Branded Upon the Brain! (Guy Maddin).