What was the stand-out moment for film in 2007? In one sense for me it was the almost simultaneous deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, a symbolic passing of two giants from another age of cinema. It’s not that there aren’t great directors at work today but they’re working in a wider film culture that’s been transformed, above all in two respects. Firstly, in Bergman and Antonioni’s day there existed in the general culture an awareness of and an interest in the directors of foreign subtitled films that simply does not exist nowadays. And secondly, it’s impossible to imagine any arthouse director today being given the opportunity as Bergman was of developing his craft through ten years of experimentation involving as many outright failures as successes. Even a country like France, famous for its support of art cinema, no longer offers the nurturing environment of the past—Pascale Ferran, when receiving her César for her superb Lady Chatterley, complained vociferously of how “middle” cinema (that is, what falls between big-budget extravaganzas and experimental films) is being squeezed out of existence; and there is the case of someone like Jacques Doillon (an important post-New Wave director, if little-known in the English-speaking world) who is only now making a new film after a five-year break forced on him by his inability to raise financing. Times have changed for the worse—and the end result is that we’re simply not going to have the chance to see as many exciting, inspiring, challenging films as in the past.
There were some interesting reactions to the Bergman-Antonioni double departure. At one extreme was Jonathan Rosenbaum’s op-ed attack on Bergman in the New York Times. Now, I have a lot of sympathy for Rosenbaum’s motivation here, namely the conviction that as cinema Antonioni’s work is immeasurably the greater and a certain perplexity that this wasn’t recognised in the reactions to the two directors’ deaths. But attacking Bergman’s admittedly uneven career hardly seems the right approach, particularly as Rosenbaum’s position is rather undermined by the knowledge that there are some great Bergman films like Fanny and Alexander that he has never seen. There’s also the factor that Antonioni’s last film, his contribution to Eros, was dreadful to the point of embarrassing, whereas Bergman’s last film Saraband was a bracing reminder of the icy splendour of Ingmar at his greatest.
For some (such as Peter Matthews in Sight & Sound) Antonioni’s and Bergman’s deaths are a symbolic marker of the death of cinephilia as we know (or rather, knew) it, a variation on the Death of Cinema complaints of the nineties. Although in institutional terms (funding, exhibition, newspaper and magazine reviewing, the calibre of film magazines) things are worse than before, this view is still clearly mistaken—there are plenty of good, even great films being made today. And one of the good things about 2007 was the quality of American films that have come out, something of a surprise to me given the state of American cinema in recent years. Not that there’s much hope to be found in the blockbuster mainstream (the brilliant and commercially disastrous Zodiac is the exception that proves the rule), but on the margins there has been real life: the modest Western revivalism of Seraphim Falls (which I much preferred to the noise and ultimate pointlessness of 3:10 To Yuma); the fine character-grounded crime dramas of Before The Devil Knows Your Dead and We Own The Night; the exciting experimental spirit of I’m Not There… And there are still more that haven’t come my way yet but which I hope to see soon: No Country For Old Men; Paranoid Park; The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford; and, the one I’m looking forward to above all, There Will Be Blood.
Any summary of one’s seen-for-the-first-time film experiences for 2007 has to include what’s come via DVD, and there have been some notable finds: Raul Ruiz’ first film La Vocation Suspendue (1978), a splendidly convoluted play with narrative that puts his recent work to shame; John Huston’s great exercise in downbeat seventies realism Fat City (1972); Mikio Naruse’s gentle evocation of the fading fortunes of a geisha house in Flowing (1956); Raymond Bernard’s powerful early anti-war film Wooden Crosses (1932); and Ken McMullen’s fascinating, simultaneously intellectual and emotional analysis of India’s Partition (1987).
But I’m going to offer a list here of the best new films I saw in 2007—first, the four standout films of the year; and then the other striking films of the year, in no particular order, that for whatever reason (modest success; excessive length; over-familiarity of style or subject matter) still didn’t quite measure up to the top four.
Sokurov’s brilliantly simple concept of placing an old grandmother among Russian soldiers in Chechnya has produced a flawless film. The deeply-felt humanism of its message is perfectly allied with a finely wrought texture of sound and image. Full review
Jia Zhang-ke and Apichatpong Weerasethakul (whose Syndromes and a Century was one of my favourite films from last year) are the two best Asian directors working today. Still Life ends with the image of a tightrope walker on a line between two buildings, a symbol of the marvellous balance in Jia’s film between social concern, emotional depth, and formal beauty. Leo’s review / Bright Lights Film Journal
Pascale Ferran’s excellent adaptation of an alternate version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (one which, it seems, keeps Lawrence’s dubious sexual politics and blood mysticism in check) gives equal weight to a portrayal of Constance’s psychology and of the natural world in which her romance takes place. Constance and her gamekeeper are made equal partners in their pursuit of sexual, emotional, and spiritual fulfilment (if anything, Parkin is feminised in the process), and Ferran’s treatment of the sex scenes, with their natural, down-to-earth ease and grace are as far away from the ludicrous acrobatics of Lust, Caution as it is possible to be. Screening log
This long, complex, intelligent, multi-layered film is the last thing I’d expect from the director of Se7en and Fight Club. I don’t think it quite deals with unknowability in the way some critics argue (the film clearly identifies as the serial killer someone who in reality has been ruled out through subsequent DNA testing), but it does frustrate and disconcert its audience in keeping with the experience of the characters in the story. Superbly cast, an equally superb recreation of its time (principally late sixties and seventies), this is the American film of the year. Thoughts from Beth / Rumsey / Chiranjit / Adam / Tom