Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Better Late Than Never: a brief 2007 review


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I finally finished up my coverage of the Sundance Film Festival at GreenCine Daily, and now I find myself in the midst of Frisco's festival season. We're in the middle of Indiefest, which I usually enjoy sampling a few titles from (as a big Dengue Fever fan I'm probably most excited by the documentary on that band's recent tour of Cambodia, Sleepwalking Through the Mekong). San Jose's Cinequest announced its program last week, and this is the year I'm finally going to attend this festival, after several years of simply eyeing their programming from afar. There's just no way I can let myself miss chances to see silent films by Ozu and Eisenstein I've only sampled on VHS before now; I'll definitely be making my first trip to the restored California Theatre for the delightful I Was Born, But... February 29th, and hopefully the monumental October (sometimes known as Ten Days That Shook the World) on March 7th as well. And there's other enticing options from the Cinequest lineup of recent films, such as Naomi Kawase's the Mourning Forest, which won a prize at the last Cannes film festival, and Esteban Sapir's the Aerial, which opened the 2007 Rotterdam Film Festival. I've already seen and can recommend a few of the films on the program; I caught the British-made noir-animation short Yours Truly at Sundance, and local filmmaker Alejandro Adams' Around the Bay on a screener. More on the latter later.

The SF Asian American Film Festival announced its lineup just yesterday, and as usual it's going to be hard for me to prioritize the anticipated titles at this, always one of my favorite festivals of the year. Again, more later, but for now, take a look at the lineup here, or check a new feature I just added to my sidebar, just below the "Frisco cinema" links. I'll highlight current and upcoming local film festivals in this slot, and try my best to keep it absolutely up-to-date, even at moments when I don't feel I have time to jot down impressions, hunt down urls, and publish new posts. Let me know what you think of this idea- I only wish I'd thought of it before!

But now, let me put the lid on 2007. Finally. Yes, we're already well enough into 2008 that this all might seem irrelevant by now, but since I didn't have my act together to contribute to the Senses of Cinema World Poll I where I usually house my year-end wrap-up of new releases, I figure I might as well put it here on my home turf. My top ten new-to-me and new-to-Frisco films of 2007 are as follows, in alphabetical order with superficial commentary but more substantial links:

Brand Upon the Brain! (Guy Maddin, Canada) more than satisfied my craving for neo-silent extravaganza.
The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, USA) is an affectionate critique of the privileged Westerner's outlook on spiritual journeys in Asia.
Everything Will Be OK (Don Hertzfeldt, USA) represents a new level of achievement from one of my very favorite short-form filmmakers.
Forever (Heddy Honigmann, the Netherlands) is one of the most moving documentaries I've found.
Grindhouse (Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Edgar Wright, Rob Zombie, and Eli Roth, USA) transcended its retro-thrill-ride essence by yo-yo-ing audience expectations in a fascinating manner. All directors involved were in peak form for this one.
Opera Jawa (Garin Nugroho, Indonesia) is the film that, for me, most perfectly encapsulated the mission of the the New Crowned Hope film project, even though I loved
Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand) and its expression of a favorite director's personal vision even more. Swap this title with the Wes Anderson film and this list becomes approximately preferential in order.
There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA), speaking of personal vision, sent me home with enough of this year's most visionary moments to completely overwhelm the nagging that its director wasn't always exactly certain what he wanted to do with this film.
Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea) found Hong in autocritical mode as usual, but this time the characters felt less like props for each other than they sometimes can in his films.
VHS - Kahloucha (Nejib Belkadhi, Tunisia) was the year's most entertaining and enlightening peek into the worldwide phenomenon of DIY filmmaking, through the keyhole of a Sousse action auteur and his followers.

Runners-up, because I can't just limit my favorites to ten, would include Martha Colburn's Destiny Manifesto, David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, Lev Yilmaz's How We Managed to Not Really Date Each Other, So Yong Kim's In Between Days, David Lynch's Inland Empire, Joel & Ethan Coens' No Country For Old Men, Jafar Pahani's Offside, Jessica Yu's Protagonist, Brad Bird's Ratatouille and Carlos Reygadas's Silent Light. Many of these, on another day, could easily have found their way on the "official" top ten list. But right this minute anyway, they feel like somewhat more minor works.

And here's where I apologize profusely to loyal and esteemed Hell on Frisco Bay contributor Adam Hartzell, who sent me his own top ten list for 2007 weeks ago, has weathered my endless procrastinations but is still willing to offer his thoughts on the year to you readers. Please forgive the unforgivable delay, my friend. Here's Adam:
I purposely made the decision to watch fewer films this year, reducing my screenings of new films (that is, films new to me) by one-third. I reduced the number of films I saw for many reasons, but a big motivator was being aware one can only consume so much media or else risk getting matters all muddled up. Plus, as much as I make efforts to incorporate my film watching with my friendships, it can take away from that time as well.

This is the first year where most of the films I watched were not from South Korea, the cinema I primarily write about as a contributor to Instead, most of the films I caught were from the country I call home, the United States. This is likely due to the fact that I wasn’t able to attend the Pusan International Film Festival since I was helping out with the Korean American Film Festival in San Francisco. (This also likely explains why no South Korean films make my list this year, although the Lee Bang-rae retrospective of his films from the 1960s that I caught at the Pucheon International Fantastic Film Festival was a highlight of the year.) Also, my DVD consumption increased as a percentage of what I watched. It appears that complacency set in, that is, in not consciously pursuing a certain number of films to watch, I fell into the easiest films to access and easiest spaces to watch films, respectively the United States and my flat.

With that summary of my idiosyncratic year at the movies, here is my Top Ten from what I was able to catch in 2007. (Films eligible for my list are those released in 2007 or at the edge of the 2006/2007 border along with films yet released that I caught at film festivals.)

10) Endo (Jade Castro, 2007, Philippines)

I reserve my #10 as a reach, a stretch. A film I know might not be brilliant but I took such a liking to, I allow it to seep ever so slightly into my list of the best of the year. In this case, placing Jade Castro's Endo on this list is a stretch because I saw it without subtitles at the CineMalaya Independent Film Festival at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in Manila while stationed at my company’s office there this past summer. I can't feel confident about this choice since I watched it un-translated. I know there are much better Pinoy films (see Noel Vera's list for way better guidance than I can provide), but I greatly enjoyed the mood of young adult ennui the film presented. What I couldn't understand I was able to bring to my co-workers who did their best to explain something they hadn’t seen but definitely an experience they all knew quite well. The title Endo is not referring to the BMX trick-riding term, but a term for contract workers at (mostly) mall stores and fast food establishments, working until the 'end of contract'. This information helped me better understand the long lines of manila folders (my co-workers don’t call them that in Manila) containing their resumes outside the malls on my walk home from work in the morning. The story follows two lovers who meet in their respective contract work and how they negotiate their futures considering the limited economic opportunities available to them.

9) Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright, 2007, UK)

Man this film was fun. I got the DVD from a White Elephant gift exchange at work. I had my gift stolen from me at the end and instead of continue the exchange stealing, I took the final remaining gift and I'm glad I did, otherwise I might not have caught this film until much later. The pace, dialogue, and ridiculousness of this 'model' village gone bad was a pleasant ride the whole way through. (Side note, one of my ex-pat co-workers is a firm believer in the 'greater good' of letting the underage drink at pubs claiming it helps reduce(?) teen pregnancy. Who knew a film like Hot Fuzz would generate such serious policy discussions?)

8) Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007, USA)

I was privileged to have the opportunity to see this treat in the lovely Pixar screening room where stars shoot above and cricket chirps surround before the fun begins. It says a lot that I still put this film on my list when I am truly sick and tired of the male-ego-enhancing trope of the unkempt/incompetent/uninspiring guy finding redemption when the together/talented/motivated gal takes an unjustified shine to him. (Thankfully, Juno was a nice corrective to the Superbads, Eagle Vs. Sharks, & Knocked Ups this year.) In spite of Ratatouille plotting through my political peeve, the film warmed my kitchen’s hearth like it did that of so many others.

7) Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, 2007, Taiwan)

I understand that the Women Film Critic Circle listed this one amongst their 2007 Hall of Shame and I’m curious to read an article/essay that expands on that argument.
Personally, my feminist frame doesn’t find the film to be an Eve-is-Evil narrative. And the character falling for her rapist does not condone the rapist or the act of falling in love with a rapist but presents someone making constrained choices within a misogynist system, within a world lacking in full female agency, not a film approving of said misogyny. But I’m open to contrary interpretations. As I left the Lumiere in San Francisco, I felt discomfort. I felt at dis-ease. I was cautioned about my passions (political and otherwise) just as the film intended.

6) Romántico (Mark Becker, 2005, USA)

I saw this film early in the year, so my memory is fuzzy, but I recall the film treating its traveling troubadour subject with great respect. Rather than caricature the border-crossing of Mexican immigrants, it allowed us a glimpse into that which many of us refuse to see everyday on our streets and behind our neighbor’s, or our own, doors. And the fact that it follows a man in the very city in which I was watching the film, San Francisco (at the Opera Plaza), made it even more impacting.

5) Pao's Story (Quang Hai Ngo, 2006, Vietnam)

The Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose has not been good to me. One previous screening I attended abruptly ended when the print caught fire. And Cinequest again had a lot of print problems with Pao's Story, resulting in the programmers needing, mid-screening, to switch to an alternate format (DVD or Beta, I can’t remember). But in spite of all that, it’s to Pao's Story's testament that my friend and I were still impressed with this feminist tale of sisterhood solidarity still able to reach across the divide of a wife and the too often Other-ed other woman.

4) Live-In-Maid (Jorge Gaggero, 2004, Argentina)

This little tale of class-crossings was touching without being condescending and educational about modern day Argentina without being didactic. This excellent film slipped into the Opera Plaza in San Francisco with limited fanfare, but justified the fare of this fan.

3) Passion and the Power: The Technology of Orgasm (Wendy Blair Slick and Emiko Omori, 2007, USA)

This film made me so happy in its gutsy willingness to treat with such splendid serious, intellectual curiosity a domestic technology the importance of which is often ignored when not being slanderously scorned – the loyal vibrator. Just the right dashes of dildo humor make this the feel good movie of the year! I caught it at the San Rafael during Mill Valley Film Festival and SF Bay Areans can catch it starting February 22 when it revisits the same theatre.

2) Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, 2007, France)

The second film on this list I caught in Manila, the CineManila International Film Festival this time. It lived up to the hype, justifying the not so easy trip outside my sleeping schedule to catch the screening at the Gateway Mall.

1. Killer Of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1977, USA)

Yes, I’ve seen this before, but it tops my list this year because it FINALLY got the release (and at the Castro nonetheless) it deserved when it was initially completed. See what a MacArthur Genius Grant can help accomplish?