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)

Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

Chaplin’s first true “talkie” in both sound and style, Monsieur Verdoux also marks the first time he officially abandons the Little Tramp character he made famous. Yet “abandons” may not be quite the right word, for Chaplin himself embodies the Tramp, even as this new character of Verdoux leaves those old outward cues behind.Monsieur Verdoux takes Chaplin as actor to an unfamiliar role, that of a murderous bigamist, a mantle his Depression-era character takes on after losing his job of thirty years as a bank clerk. Henri Verdoux visits his wife and child regularly, but not often enough for them, as they complain about his always being away on business. Of course, his business is of a most unseemly and time consuming nature: he marries rich widows, fleeces them for their money, and then kills them.

The film represents a development away from the unbridled optimism of Chaplin’s old screen persona, all the while retaining (though sublimating) the same boisterous charm and playfulness of that former character. This leaves the distinct impression of both continuity and discontinuity with Chaplin’s previous work. Echoes of the earlier films are apparent, notably when the Tramp’s coy, playful smile makes an appearance in a rowboat with one of his wives.

Such continuity is evident from the first few lines of narration as the film opens. Verdoux offers a brief history of himself, finally commenting that to do what he does, one must fundamentally be an optimist. In other words, he has bought into the prevailing mindset of the modern world: the belief in undying progress and the advancement of mankind. Even at this early stage of the film, it’s clear Verdoux sees himself as an extension of the modern age.

Yet in that opening scene, with narration peppered with optimism and hope, the “new Charlie” makes his first appearance, albeit at this moment, only as director. While his words are punctuated with optimism, the image before us is one of a graveyard. We even see Verdoux’ gravestone. We know he speaks to us as a dead man, much like William Holden’s young writer will do three years later in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. Like Wilder’s critique of the Hollywood machine, Chaplin uses this imagery to undercut the optimism of the modern age in the first few frames of the film.

The sense of discontinuity only grows throughout the film, as more and more of this character becomes clear. It’s still Charlie, but he’s changed. That paradox is beautifully contained in the stunning final image, one of Verdoux walking away from the camera, in handcuffs, on the way to execution. For anyone familiar with his work, that scene evokes the final image of Modern Times, where the Tramp and the Gamin walk away, arm in arm, into the sunset. The latter image is filled with hope and determination as they head off toward their destiny. In Verdoux, destiny surely lies ahead, but this time it is one of death and destruction.

Despite the wonders of his earlier work (City Lights and Modern Times are brilliant) the discontinuity present in Verdoux takes the film to a new level. Not only does it breathe new life into Chaplin’s onscreen persona, but it traverses new ground by examining the dark underbelly of a Depression-era, Capitalist, and warmongering society. Verdoux makes it clear that such things matter, not just on the stage of world diplomacy and economics, but in deeply personal ways as well. These commitments change the structure of society, thereby affecting its people. On the one hand, they bring a surface level optimism and hope for the future – people are thinking about what can be accomplished. But on the other, such commitments work against that hope in the dark corners of our cities and people. In light of this, one wonders with Verdoux what good it is to gain the whole world, if we lose ourselves in the process.