2007 in Review

2007 saw the onset of a new job, the purchase of our first home, the birth of our second child, and the completion of the first draft of a dissertation. Obstacles right and left, with nothing to do but appreciate the blessings and struggle through the results. Translation: 2007 offered its own difficulties and adjustments, but as such, ended up a year of significant growth personally. When it came to the movies though, the increasing limitations cramped my opportunities for viewing more than ever before.

The limitations are apparent not only in my viewing schedule, but also in the films themselves: barriers erected, barriers redirecting, barriers transgressed, and barriers overcome. Such limitations can be both negative obstacles that inhibit freedom or prevent engagement, and positive opportunities for change, growth, protection, or victory. For me then, both personally and cinematically, 2007 is the year of the limitation.

True to form, listing my favorite films of 2007 requires an immediate subtraction from the traditional “top ten”: Having only actually seen ten new films, something of the exclusive or unique nature of such a traditional list would be lost if I just listed all ten. So I’ve limited myself to five, each of which illustrate or present limitations in their own way.

The Lives of Others pictures the limits imposed on East German society before the wall came down, and the power of art to cross traditional bounds regardless of walls and guards.

Zodiac recognizes the limits of technology through a retelling of the investigation surrounding the Zodiac killings in San Francisco three decades ago. While the film defies narrative expectations, it cleverly presents a supposedly “connected” world of people frustrated in their investigative efforts by their inability to communicate.

Killer of Sheep, made in 1977 but released for the first time this year, takes place in South Central Los Angeles, where people live lives that have largely been cordoned off from the popular imagination. Stan, struggling to get by and provide for his family, finds poverty at every turn. Even still, Burnett finds the beauty amid the difficulties.

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, Tsai Ming-liang’s latest, follows three solitary figures through the urban environs of Kuala Lampur, struggling to connect, but with little idea of how to do it. Tsai’s dialogue is more limited than ever, which only serves to enhance the barriers between these people.

Offside, easily my favorite theatrical viewing experience of the year, places several women inside the qualifying soccer match against Bahrain in the summer of 2005. However, because Iranian law doesn’t allow women to view such events, the film offers what turns out to be a slyly ironic take on the state of the country in the midst of Iran’s great victory.

With my decreasing ability to take in films during their theatrical release, my favorite discoveries of the year encapsulate my year in film more than anything. The greater variety offered through rentals means that the choices are more personal and more likely to connect with my own sensibilities. Like my favorite films of this year, each of these contains its own comment on limitations—financial, spiritual, or societal; limitations related to knowledge, addiction, health or gender.

Danielson: A Family Movie chronicles the history and life of the indie band(s) led by Daniel Smith, who creates unique and strangely engaging music, mostly on a shoestring budget out of the small studio space in his basement.

Requiem offers an unsettling portrait of demon possession or madness, depending on one’s perspective. Schmid’s use of subtlety in his portrayal of the affected teen and the simple ways in which common relationships are expressed make this film a refreshing antidote to what would no doubt be an overwrought melodrama in a US film.

Monsieur Verdoux is often noted as Chaplin’s first failure from a box office perspective. Thankfully box office numbers fade into oblivion sixty years on, and we are left to assess the film on its merits. Its scathing critique of modern society doesn’t let up once in its 124 minutes.

F for Fake finds Orson Welles in fine form, creating a masterful reflection on truth, certainty, value, and illusion. The editing here is worth the price of admission, as Welles uses it to great effect in destabilizing the viewers understanding of specific circumstances. What really happened and who was fooled? Well, I’d need to see it again to be sure (or not).

Flowers of Shanghai takes place in several brothels in late 19th century China. Hou’s shots linger on his subjects, rarely emphasizing an individual in the midst of others. Instead, we are left with the full scene unfolding before us, left to decide which characters and actions are worth noting. Hou trusts his audience—I love this kind of filmmaking.

Mouchette finds Bresson meditating on the trials of a young teenage girl who lacks love, companionship, and hope. Mouchette’s story is tragic, but the empathy Bresson creates for other human beings remains unmatched.

The House is Black is Forugh Farrokhzad’s poetic chronicle of a leper colony in Iran. Only twenty minutes long, the film remains deeply affecting throughout, as its diseased subjects eat, pray, and play, their humanity shining out through the disfigurement of their broken bodies.

Le Notti Bianche portrays a lonely young dreamer and several encounters he has with a mysterious, troubled, and attractive woman on a bridge. Based on a short story by Dostoevsky (White Nights), Visconti’s film possesses a dreamy quality that only serves to heighten the unreality of the world despite the vibrancy of the man’s encounters.

Half Nelson tells the story of a drug-addicted history teacher in an urban school. It deconstructs the myth of the liberal white savior while creating compelling drama around a budding relationship between the teacher and one of his students, a twelve year-old African-American girl.

Ten. Kiarostami’s film consists of ten dialogues on a variety of issues: sex, marriage, and parenting, to name a few. Yet while Kiarostami keeps our vision limited to a dashboard camera pointed at the front seat of a woman’s car, his film allows us to cross Middle Eastern societal boundaries and hear of life through the eyes of Iranian women and children. Brilliant. Hands down, the best film I’ve seen this year.

Other discoveries I enjoyed: Ace in the Hole (1951), Big Animal (2000), Crimson Gold (2003), Ivan’s Childhood (1962), Limelight (1952), A Moment of Innocence (1996), Shut Up & Sing (2006), Stranger than Fiction (2006), Volver (2006)

Half Nelson (2006)

Black and white. Male and female. Young and old. Rich and poor. Teacher and student. Addict and dealer. Parent and child. Ryan Fleck’s debut fictional feature, Half Nelson, details the shifts and transformations that come when two “opposites” collide. The film’s central character, a Junior High history teacher named Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling), frames his lectures around this concept, bringing it to his students through a variety of images. Calling his framework “dialectics” (referencing Hegel, and, probably even more, Marx), he teaches the idea that all of history is change, resulting from a collision of different objects. These collisions are always grounded in the real world, one person or group crashing into another.

The film’s characters embody the characteristics of Dunne’s philosophy of history. Their encounters are largely defined by the tensions and contrasts between them. Take the film’s central relationship between Dunne and his thirteen year-old female student, Drey (Shareeka Epps). On the surface, it’s easy to ask what a young, urban, African-American female and an older, (raised) suburban, male white teacher might have in common. They come from different worlds, his one of privilege, hers of need. His upbringing was safe, hers littered with the potholes of dealers and prisons. Yet his weakness (drug addiction) and her strength bring them together in a way that allows the dialectic to work itself out.

Fleck’s choice of shots in two sequences heightens our awareness of this dialectic in a formal sense. In the first, immediately following a basketball game (in which Dunne coached), Drey discovers him getting high in the girls restroom. The scene unfolds with handheld shots in extreme close-up. It begins with Dunne in a stall getting high, the camera going in and out of focus. Fleck cuts several times here, evoking the passage of time, which allows the drug to take root in Dunne’s system. Next comes several shots looking out from within the stall as Dunne hears someone in the restroom. When Drey finally opens the door, a second perspective is finally available, one beyond the drug-influenced vision of Dunne. Fleck cuts back and forth between these two perspectives as Drey helps Dunne by getting him some water, all the while staying in close-up.

The limits created by the use of close-ups in this sequence allow us to identify with each character’s perspective, even as they see different things in different ways (the shot often blurs as Dunne gets high). And just as the intensity dies down a bit, just as we get comfortable with our two distinct views of the action, Fleck pulls back for a wide shot, young Drey leaning over her prone teacher. The beauty of that cut lies in the fact that it serves to heighten a difference we already thought was fully distinct. Seeing this young girl thrust into such a position of fear and responsibility serves to illustrate the distance between these two characters.

In the film’s final minutes, several visual cues lead to a more complex view of this relationship. Indeed, they are not just opposites by film’s end. After Dunne has left everything, even his students, for a drug-filled night with prostitutes and other shady characters, Drey comes to get him. When she enters his hotel room, we see them in a wide shot sitting on opposite beds, facing one another. Here we find a visual moment that evokes both distinction and identification. That they face one another, that she’s black and he’s white, she a student, he a teacher, she poor and he from money—all these things lead us to see them as opposites. Yet, she sits there on equal ground with him. After all she’s been through, she too has fallen from innocence. She too has something to be guilty about. She too knows something of his addiction. And Dunne knows this. He knows she comes to him as an equal. In this way, they identify with each other.

All this leads to the final image, as she and Dunne sit in a long shot facing the camera on a couch back at his apartment. They are still terribly different people, yet their common direction and posture indicate that they’ve forged some connection. They’ve each been changed by the encounter with the other. She’s experienced a little more of the world, resulting in a chastened innocence. He’s been encouraged by a thirteen year-old girl who pursues him in the depths of his struggle. These two opposites have collided, leaving a synthesis in the midst of their pain and trials.