It seems a little strange to call Tsai Ming-liang the filmmaker of the year when he hasn’t debuted a single feature in the past twelve months, but the dictates of the ten-best list force us to consider a temporally diverse set of films as a single year’s work, provided they all had their American theatrical debut sometime between January 1 and December 31, 2007. After all, some objective standard is needed. Tsai’s 2005 film The Wayward Cloud, an unquestionable masterpiece, and his generally excellent 2006 offering I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone both debuted in New York theaters this year, and no other filmmaker has made a comparable offering in the same time frame.
A more difficult problem is posed by Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, his brilliant 1977 master’s thesis which, despite making the rounds on the festival circuit, was never given a proper theatrical release until this year. That picture, like Jean-Pierre Melville’s rediscovered Army of Shadows (1969) last year, has already topped many ten-best lists and, given the objective standards employed by the listmaker, it would seem destined for inclusion on my own. Still, as a purely personal decision, I have decided not to feature Burnett’s film; 30 years seems like too large a gap to bridge in a single list and, besides, the film has screened plenty of times in the interim.
With November and December devoted primarily to bloated award hopefuls, the best films have increasingly debuted in the first half of a given year. After the disappointment of year-end art-house blockbusters like Atonement, Juno and I’m Not There, we can look forward to a more promising January schedule which features Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Jia Zhang Ke’s hotly anticipated Still Life among its expected pleasures. Jia, a far more important filmmaker than anyone who premiered a feature this December, and who is more in touch with the way people actually live than almost any other working director, is thus relegated to the January ghetto, where he can be safely ignored by year-end listers and award givers alike. (Interestingly enough, many impatient critics have put Mungiu’s picture on their 2007 list lest it already be forgotten by the time they make their 2008 rankings).
Of the ten films on my list, only two (Colossal Youth and Eastern Promises) came out in the second half of the year. Four of the films screened (in New York) as part of the IFC Center’s outstanding spring schedule, a schedule that also brought viewers Killer of Sheep. Two others played for barely a week at the Anthology Film Archives. Only two (Away From Her and Eastern Promises) had anything resembling a wide release. So what does all this tell us? Does it say more about my personal sensibilities or about American film culture in general? After all, why have I focused on films that are almost impossible to see outside New York and which—given their formal strategies more than their subject matter—can never really hope to enjoy more than a limited audience? Because I still think it important to champion films that challenge our assumptions as filmgoers and as human beings, to find films that speak to the genuineness of our experience rather than the reduction of experience offered by most mainstream and art-house fare alike. And finally because most of the films singled out on other lists (worst offender: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) simply look terrible. For a medium that does so much of its work through its visual presentation, why has it become critically acceptable for films to look so awful? For these reasons and more I have selected the following ten features:
1. The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Ming-liang)
If the films of Tsai Ming-liang are all marked by an undercurrent of sexual alienation, then The Wayward Cloud, an outrageous apocalyptic fantasy set in the world of Taiwanese porno, would seem to be the director’s final word on the subject. Dissecting the business of creating pornography in minute, clinical detail, this work of anti-erotica matches Tsai’s typically restrained formal presentation with an unfettered vision of sexual debasement, culminating in the brutal, violent conclusion which has been the subject of much online discussion and which remains one of the few truly unsettling sequences in cinema this decade. Only a series of outrageously erotic musical numbers—which build on the far tamer musical sequences in the director’s earlier The Hole, provide any measure of relief.
2. Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
The year’s most sheerly beautiful work, the Thai master’s latest diptych features a series of (mostly) fixed tableaux of two hospitals: a rural building from the 1970s and a modern urban unit. As in the director’s earlier efforts, the film’s second half recasts and completes elements from the first, while ignoring others altogether and introducing entirely new threads. The characters in the first part all have their counterparts in the second and are played by the same actors, a correspondence suggested by the film’s discussion of reincarnation. But the correspondences are by no means exact and the film’s refusal of resolution combined with the director’s sure eye for the concrete signs of both traditional and modern Thai experience mark the work as a unique aesthetic object, awash with precise, evocative imagery and suggestive throughout of a sense of unresolved mystery.
3. Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa)
Colossal Youth presents a tightly constrained world, dimly lit, composed in grays and blacks. Set in the Fontainhas slum outside Lisbon and compiled from over 320 hours of footage, Costa’s film is built around a group of real life men and women who more or less play themselves. Fixing the inhabitants (who are forced to evacuate to government housing as their neighborhood is being razed) in tight, fixed compositions, the director everywhere eschews the easy condescension and vicarious thrills typical of films that detail ghetto life. Costa makes the visual contrast between the cracked grays of the hovels and the antiseptic whiteness of the government buildings one of the film’s central facts. Colossal Youth is primarily about the inhabitants of Fontainhas, but just as importantly, it is about the aesthetics of our perception of the world.
4. I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-liang)
The second Tsai film to hit New York theaters this year, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone finds the director trading in his signature Taipei milieu for the rougher streets of his native Kuala Lumpur and splitting his central figure Hsiao-kang into two co-existing incarnations. Tsai hits on one of his most striking settings via an abandoned construction site flooded with water, around which the film’s characters congregate. In one shot late in the film, he focuses his camera in close-up on a moth as it comes to rest on Hsiao-kang’s arm. The next shot pulls back to reveal Hsiao-kang fishing in the flooded area with a makeshift pole, while the moth leaves his arm and flits around behind him. The moth flies wildly, seemingly without purpose, but as it comes to rest, the camera fixes the frozen moment, one of the many instants of beauty that intrude into a directionless world. Tsai’s achievement, here as elsewhere, is to capture both the lack of direction and the beauty simultaneously.
5. Flanders (Bruno Dumont)
Brian De Palma’s depiction of wartime rape may have earned more attention, but Bruno Dumont’s exploration of war atrocities is more intellectually rigorous. Alternating between the bare farmlands of rural Northern France (shot on 35 mm) and the desert-inflected landscapes of an unnamed Middle Eastern country (shot on 16mm), Dumont shows how the aimlessness of several young lives gives way to incomprehensible acts of violence when his characters are confronted with previously unimaginable situations. Relentlessly cynical, Dumont nonetheless gives his hero Demester a rare gift: a small measure of redemption. In tracing his character arc from inarticulate farmboy unable to acknowledge his feelings for his lover Barbe, through soldier steeped in the brutality of war, and ultimately to a man capable of speaking the words “Je t’aime” (the film’s final lines), Dumont has fashioned what is arguably his most satisfying film.
6. Day Night Day Night (Julia Loktev)
A matter-of-fact presentation of the terrorist act, Julia Loktev’s Day Night Day Night follows an unnamed young woman as she prepares to detonate a nail bomb in the middle of Times Square. Like Weerasethakul’s film, Loktev’s impressive debut divides into two parts. The first documents the banality of the preparations in meticulous detail. The second transports us with a shock to noisy 42nd st. where the film’s sudden sensory onslaught finds the audience’s disorientation mirroring the woman’s own. The film may offer no great insights into the mind of the terrorist, but that’s not what it’s after. Instead, it adroitly presents the banality of the process that underlies the horror of the act, offering something new to the post-9/11 artistic exploration of terrorism.
7. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg)
The dialogue’s unconvincing, the plot’s full of ludicrous contrivances and the lead character is almost completely superfluous. And yet, David Cronenberg’s latest achieves an undeniable greatness, a greatness tied to the film’s treatment of violence, or rather its entire attitude towards the very notion of screen violence, a concept the film simultaneously elevates and deconstructs. The famous bathhouse scene is the key moment here; a jolting throb of violence which causes the viewer to question his own responses to the onscreen mayhem, as a nude Viggo Mortensen dispenses with two would-be murderous thugs through a series of comically brutal stabbings, turning the scene into a reductio ad absurdum of the very notion of the violent showdown.
8. Into Great Silence (Philip Gröning)
Gröning’s three hour, nearly silent film detailing the ascetic life of the Carthusian Monks of Southern France has the force of a fully realized experience. What ultimately gives the film its mesmeric draw is the sense of circularity with which Gröning invests his work. A full cycle of seasons is observed. The daily tasks of the monks are repeated. Even the various quotations from philosophers and bible verses with which Gröning intersperses his work are used several times throughout the film, with the same long quotation beginning and ending the picture. This is a work that’s precisely attuned to rhythm and which forces the viewer to adapt his own mental pace to the pace of the monks’ lifestyle, to enter into their rhythm and, by extension, into their uniquely meditative and self-contained world.
9. Private Fears in Public Places (Alain Resnais)
Adapting a forgettable stage play, Alain Resnais creates an utterly compelling film that gains its power through largely traditional screen elements (strong narrative, compelling figures, graceful, but “invisible” direction) rather than through any of the challenging formal strategies that established Resnais as one of the world’s most important filmmakers. The whole thing is a series of indoor scenes between two or three characters, but the dominant presence is that of the snowstorm that rages outside and is glimpsed through windows and doors throughout the picture. When Resnais temporarily suspends his formal restraint and allows the snow to magically intrude on a key exchange it feels absolutely appropriate, the film’s central symbol modestly, but definitively, addressing its characters in a moment of revelation.
10. Away From Her (Sarah Polley)
A film that could have taken a serious misstep at nearly any moment, but which never overplays its hand, Sarah Polley’s devastating look at a Canadian couple’s experience with the wife’s Alzheimer’s gains its remarkable power from its refusal to sentimentalize and from its final acceptance of life as it is. The film is built out of a series of exactly observed details and a unique sensitivity to its characters’ difficulties. Avoiding the self-consciously dramatic, Polley navigates her characters through nearly impossible situations, never underplaying the debilitating sadness of these situations, but refusing to overemphasize it either. As Professor Anderson checks his wife into a care facility, his hard won understanding of her specific needs and the retrospective light it casts on their relationship results in that great screen rarity, a work of art that is genuinely heartbreaking without specifically trying for that result.
Andrew Schenker is a freelance writer based in New York. His work can be accessed at The Cine File.