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)

Killer of Sheep (1977)

Director Charles Burnett made this film in the 70’s, but not, as he says, for general release. Therefore, Killer of Sheep is only seeing a general theatrical release for the first time, some thirty years after its completion. It’s in Dallas this week, as was Mr. Burnett, who presented his film at the Angelika Theater and was kind enough to offer a lengthy Q & A afterward. More on that in a bit—first, the film.

Killer of Sheep is quietly, heartbreakingly beautiful, even from its first few frames. The complexity of certain scenes emerges largely out of silence and observations. There doesn’t appear to be a perceptible pattern to the placement of the camera, except that it focuses on various elements of the characters–sometimes heads, sometimes bodies, other times hands.

This way of seeing the parts allows the viewer a unique way to ultimately consider the whole of someone like Stan. As the film is a slice of life, to use Burnett’s phrase, it presents “slices of Stan”—both of his body and his deeds. Stan works, eats, talks, and sits. But it’s not a narrative film, so these elements of his life evoke a certain kind of disconnect from one another.

Such divisions between the individual scenes provide an opportunity for the viewer to piece various elements together in unique ways, without the dominance of plot forcing us into a narrow wedge of interpretation. Instead, much like life, we meet strangers, and while we slowly get to know them, the film’s structure prods us to engage and understand, rather than telling us who’s who and what’s what.

Several scenes linger in the mind, but I really appreciated a sequence late in the film when Stan’s wife leaves the dinner table in frustration, then watches from the couch as their young daughter helps her dad relax by rubbing his shoulders. Stan’s joy in this moment stands in stark contrast to the feeling of Stan’s wife (and in contrast to Stan’s demeanor throughout much of the film).

We know Stan’s wife has been frustrated by his detachment, knowledge which helps us understand why she leaves the table so abruptly. Yet the scene serves to deepen the emotional distance between them, not through a verbose and didactic argument or narration, but by focusing on the physical placement of the family in the room. Such moments populate the entire film, creating one of the most engrossing and engaging experiences I’ve had in the theater this year.

The Q&A (which I found out about the morning of) was well attended for being at 5PM on a weekday. The theater ended up about 80% full by the end. Mr. Burnett was soft-spoken and gracious. His answers were especially informative and detailed. Having been to a few of these director Q & A’s in the past, this last quality was most impressive.

Some highlights from the Q&A:

– Burnett names Jean Renoir as an influential filmmaker for him (along with Joris Ivens and Basil Wright). He spoke about Renoir’s The Southerner (a film I’ve not yet seen), specifically about the differences between American and European views of life in the South.

– Burnett was asked a couple of times about the influence of the Italian neo-realists on this film, and while he wanted to move away from claiming them as any kind of direct influence, he did eventually acknowledge that he shared some of their concerns. Notably, he was looking for truth and honesty in his portrayal of this part of the world. He, like the neo-realists, saw the film as an attempt to separate reality from illusion.

– In commenting on documentary film today, Burnett raised the debate about portraying real suffering on screen. How much is too much? He had always been of the mindset that if people could just see what was going on in certain dark corners of the world, they’d be appalled and do something about it. His test case was a recent doc called Empire in Africa, about the war in Sierra Leone. It apparently contains some actual footage of graphic violence (limbs being hacked off and the like), which has caused him to raise this question again for himself. How much is too much? Would seeing such terrible things actually have the opposite effect than what was intended, by turning people off the issue?

– When recently re-watching Sheep as it was being graded for DVD, he found in it a kind of nostalgia, a feeling of warmth for a simpler time, even if it was still terribly difficult for these people to get by. He was asked about making a film on the poor of today, and indicated he’d probably do something less lyrical than Sheep, more factual, focusing on the failure of educational and political institutions, along with probable causes for the troubles.

– As an introduction to the film, Burnett spoke about a question he hoped viewers would ask themselves after seeing it. He wanted us to ask “How can we help these people?” The film was made on the back end of the Civil Rights movement in America, and as such, is directly informed by its concerns. Yet Burnett wasn’t so interested in being didactic with this film. Rather, he hoped that by presenting a vision of the lives of the working poor, viewers would be moved to act on their behalf.

Many thanks go out to Mr. Burnett for coming to Dallas and offering such thoughtful commentary on his film. And kudos to the Angelika for hosting the evening and being willing to run an important film like this in a city that doesn’t always embrace such things. Here’s hoping we see more of this in the future!