This was not such a great year for film – I saw three of my top five in Toronto in 2007. However, I've never had so much difficulty choosing a number one film: I like the top two almost equally, but when it comes to ranking personal taste, I don’t believe in ties.
THE TOP TEN:
1. MAN ON WIRE
Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk across the World Trade Center could’ve easily made for a better-than-average cable TV documentary, but director James Marsh knew this extraordinary story was too good for that. With its unforgettable protagonist, quirky accomplices, marvelous archival footage and possibly the least cheesy reenactments ever, this is both an artful heist film and a celebratory document of a phenomenal stunt that was also a breathtaking work of art. But the film’s real power derives from it being just as much a requiem – although Marsh never directly references 9/11, the haunting presence of the Twin Towers themselves never lets you forget what was lost.
2. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN
From TWILIGHT to TRUE BLOOD, it seemed like vampires were everywhere in pop culture this year; this Swedish import offered a recognizable but fairly innovative take on the legend and managed the neat feat of a being a tender, coming-of-age love story and a bloody horror film. Set in an early-‘80s Stockholm suburb and centered on a shy, tormented 12-year-old boy and his new, oddly androgynous neighbor (who confesses to having been “12 for a long time”), Tomas Alfredson’s debut feature mixes genres with an uncommon assurance and does not hit one wrong note.
3. 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, AND 2 DAYS
Two college-aged women trying to secure an illegal abortion in Communist Romania doesn’t exactly sound like a fun time at the cinema (it wouldn’t make an ideal date film), but for all its bleakness and utter discomfort, Cristian Mungiu’s Cannes winner is, in a strange way, kind of fun. It gains considerable momentum from its construction as a thriller as it examines the contours of a friendship against a social backdrop it neither entirely condemns nor commends; its generous helping of black humor is also far more evident once it’s over.
4. MY WINNIPEG
I should just automatically reserve a spot for Guy Maddin on my top ten every year he makes a new feature – he’s the most original filmmaker at work today. With this strange, charming documentary/fantasy/essay hybrid, he cements his reputation as one of the best. For all its wildly imaginative tales of frozen horses, man pageants and “psychic possibilities”, this is Maddin’s most accessible, personal work and if that wasn’t enough, you have the added attraction of the glorious, irascible 86-year-old Ann Savage in her final role as Maddin’s mother.
5. THE VISITOR
When I first saw it over a year ago, I feared that Thomas McCarthy’s intelligent little film would never find an audience. Its account of a gloomy widower (Richard Jenkins in one the year’s best performances) obtaining a new lease on life via the immigrant couple he befriends could have been rendered in broad, sentimental terms; instead, the story is told with nuance and restraint, even as it evolves from a bittersweet character study into an impassioned critique of American policy toward foreigners post-9/11. That it did find a sizable audience is enough to restore my faith in film distribution.
The Norwegian TRAINSPOTTING, only with mental illness and existential despair in place of the heroin and booze? Perhaps. Joachim Trier’s film is far from unique in how it revels in the ebullience of having an entire adulthood ahead of one's self, but it’s the rare one that considers all the anxieties and uncertainties that come with the territory; that it does so with detached wisdom and grace keeps it from feeling contrived.
7. FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON
Inspired by Albert Lamorisse's classic 1956 short THE RED BALLOON, Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien seeks Paris as a thoughtful tourist would, freshly viewing the city’s day-to-day rhythms with the same sense of discovery found in his Asian films. Emphasizing textures and title-referencing motifs that subtly surface throughout, he’s created his most engaging, affable work to date without compromising his poetic approach.
8. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK
In his directorial debut, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman burrows even further down his own rabbit hole, forging a universe nearly brought to the brink of collapse by its art/life collisions and mind-blowing meta-references. Fortunately, it’s never less than a fascinating place to inhabit, aided by a brave performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman and a stellar, mostly female supporting cast. An absolutely terrifying comedy, it also resonates more profoundly than any of Kaufman’s previous efforts – especially with repeated viewings.
Only Mike Leigh could devise a heroine like Poppy (the magnificent Sally Hawkins), an eternally optimistic London schoolteacher whom, in a lesser director’s hands, would come off as infuriating and abrasive. But, for all her whimsy and light, she’s one of his most intricate creations, and much more than she appears on the surface. Although a little pokey, this comparatively lighthearted Leigh film is as full of substance as his best work, and Hawkins’ scenes with her hotheaded driving instructor (Eddie Marsan) are an unusual, beguiling cross between screwball comedy and kitchen sink realism.
10. STILL LIFE
For years I’ve tried to figure out what the fuss with critically-adored Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke was all about: whereas his past films, although full of great ideas, somehow always lost their grasp along the way, this one stays afloat from beginning to end. A beautiful meditation on the Three Gorges Dam, it examines a small village that was destroyed by the project through the eyes of two characters who return to seek out displaced family members. The gorgeous, languid camerawork is a huge part of the appeal, but STILL LIFE is more than just a pretty travelogue – it documents a historical moment, and via its two stories, the human cost of it.
The first half is simply genius; if the more conventional remainder sustained its weird poetry, the whole thing might have been my favorite film of the year.
CHRIS AND DON: A LOVE STORY
A documentary about the writer Chris Isherwood and his lover Don Bachardy and an illuminating portrait of any long-term relationship, gay or otherwise.
ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD
Werner Herzog goes to Antarctica (some filmmaker had to) and he finds pure shimmering beauty in its extreme icy terrain – not to mention a woman who can fold herself up inside a suitcase.
I’VE LOVED YOU SO LONG
Kristin Scott Thomas mesmerizes as a woman just released from a fifteen-year prison sentence in this unsentimental French drama that puts THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION to shame.
THE UNIVERSE OF KEITH HARING
With its one-of-a-kind subject having died so young, this is a vital document that aptly shows how Haring’s contributions to the art world continue to astound and inspire.
Both Ramim Bahrani’s film about a young street orphan working in the vast junkyard next to Shea Stadium and Lance Hammer’s mournful character study in rural Mississippi are deeply indebted to Italian Neorealism; both also feel more honest and original than most of what screened at the indieplexes this year.
THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS
With a perfect meshing of story and style, this Canadian feature starring Ellen Page establishes a new creative standard for what one can accomplish with digital video.
Gus Van Sant makes an agreeable return to mainstream filmmaking with this biopic, but it’s an unexpectedly lithe, likable Sean Penn that really impresses in the titular role.
BILLY THE KID
Billy, a 15-year-old teenager in rural Maine, isn’t especially unique or exceptional, but after watching Jennifer Venditti’s perceptive, at times heartbreaking documentary, you’ll never forget him.
Opera diva Galina Vishnevskaya anchors Aleksandr Sokurov’s anti-war film with a towering, tour de force display of tenacity and motherhood.
THE PRINCESS OF NEBRASKA
It will forever be known as the first feature film to have its premiere on Youtube, but this quite moving little experiment is not merely director Wayne Wang’s long-awaited return to form, but also an artistic breakthrough.
AT THE DEATH HOUSE DOOR
THE AXE IN THE ATTIC
THE BAND'S VISIT
BURN AFTER READING
A CHRISTMAS TALE
THE EDGE OF HEAVEN
RACHEL GETTING MARRIED
SONG SUNG BLUE