Best Films of 2007

I saw more than thirty films that I would call very-good-to-great in 2007 but none that impressed me as much as my favorites from last year, Syndromes and a Century, Still Life / Dong, and Colossal Youth. On average, though, the quality was excellent, and there were several really pleasant surprises. So here are ten favorites, in alphabetical order, with some honorable mentions thrown in, followed by my favorite discoveries of 2007.

Favorite New Films of 2007

  • At Sea (Peter Hutton) — The highlight for me of TIFF’s Wavelengths program, followed closely by Heinz Emigholz’s Schindler’s Houses. Both are rigorous essay films told in silence (or near-silence) and shockingly beautiful images.
  • En la ciudad de Sylvia (Jose Juis Guerin) — My most pleaurable film-watching experience of the year. My ambivalence about that pleasure is what makes the film more than just an exercise in spectatorship.
  • Fengming, A Chinese Memoir (Wang Bing) — I’ve forgotten many of the details of Fengming’s story, but I can clearly recall her gestures and expressions. As a work of documentary, though, I find the film most interesting for the ways it foregrounds the fact that, when recounting someone’s story, editing takes place even when the filmmaker never cuts.
  • I’m Not There (Todd Haynes) — On most days, it’s my favorite film of the year. It went from “interesting” to “great” during the second viewing, when I realized that Godard is at least as important to the film as Dylan. I’m Not There is closer in spirit to a Don DeLillo novel than a biopic. It’s about a specific historical moment — the period roughly between the inauguration of JFK to the end of the Vietnam War — when the image won and what we call postmodernism was born, and, more specifically, it’s about the constant slippage between our culture of images and real political power. Haynes gets my Director of the Year Award. Also, I still can’t believe that the Heath Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg scenes are: 1. My favorite part of the film, and 2. An even more enjoyable throwback to the New Wave than Christophe Honore’s Dans Paris.
  • Inland Empire / More Things That Happened (David Lynch) — My other favorite of the year. I finally “got” Lynch in 2007, and this film more than any other captures what I most admire about him. Grab any random snippet from Inland Empire and you’ll find something strange and beautiful that is full of earned emotion, written in the distinct hand of its maker. A day after seeing it, I’m tempted to say the same of Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd.
  • Munyurangabo (Lee Isaac Chung) — Chung’s is far and away the best debut film I saw in 2007. It’s a beautiful character piece that melds Western and African cinematic sensibilities in illuminating, non-didactic ways. I can’t wait to see what he does next. And speaking of films from/about Africa, my favorite final scene of the year goes to Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Daratt. Heartbreaking.
  • Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong) — Lee’s is the best of several great Korean films I saw this year that blend melodrama with genre and socio-political critique. They’re more pathos- and plot-driven than the films I typically watch, but they’re also unpredictable, smart, and, at times, startlingly transgressive. See also Im Sang-soo’s The Old Garden and Bong Joon-ho’s The Host.
  • Useless (Jia Zhang-ke) — Less epic and refined than last year’s combo of Still Life and Dong, Useless is nonetheless a work of subtle complexity. For another rich essay on memory and art-making, see also Heddy Honigmann’s Forever.
  • Une Vieille Maitresse (Catherine Breillat) — After watching nearly all of Breillat’s films this year, I’ve come to think more highly of her as an essayist than a filmmaker. She’s at her best when she’s grounded in naturalism, as in Une Vieille Maitresse, and I really enjoyed seeing her aesthetic mashed-up with all of those period trappings. (Asia Argento and Roxane Mesquida in corsets!) It was a good year for sexy French period pieces, generally. I also loved Pascale Ferran’s Lady Chatterley and Rohmer’s Les Amours d’Astree et de Celadon.
  • Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge (Hou Hsiao-hsien) — That shot of the painting near the end of the film? The one that slowly pulls in and out of focus, finally catching the faces of the children in reflection? Best shot of the year, and a perfect example of why Hou’s newest film will always appear on my year-end list.

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2007

Limited to one film per director. Otherwise it would consist only of films by Watkins, Costa, Ray, and Tourneur.

  1. Les Bons Debarras (Francis Mankiewicz, 1980)
  2. Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942)
  3. Edvard Munch (Peter Watkins, 1974)
  4. Fireworks (Kenneth Anger, 1947)
  5. High School (Frederick Wiseman, 1968)
  6. No Quarto de Vanda (Pedro Costa, 2000)
  7. Sicilia! (Straub and Huillet, 1999)
  8. They Live By Night (Nicholas Ray, 1948)
  9. Time Indefinite (Ross McElwee, 1993)
  10. The Tree of Wooden Clogs (Ermanno Olmi, 1978)

And Special Recognition to . . .

The Wire — If Berlin Alexanderplatz, Histoire(s) du Cinema, and Scenes from a Marriage can be discussed as films, then so should each season of The Wire. What David Simon, Ed Burns, and their crew at HBO have accomplished isn’t television. It’s the best traditional narrative filmmaking on display anywhere in America right now. And in the process, it also offers a kind of prolonged economic analysis that I never imagined possible from this medium. I’ve only watched the first two seasons so far, so expect to see mentions of seasons 3-5 this time next year.