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Phantom Limb: The Best Unreleased Films of 2007

For cinema hounds, 2007 may not have been Mecca but it was certainly a banner year. That went double for New Yorkers who not only had the advantage of the rejuvenated IFC Theater but also the old standbys of the avant-garde and enfant terribles: the Walter Reade Theater, Film Forum, and the Anthology Film Archives. And DVD has opened up new doors in availability, especially where foreign and independent films are concerned. Even if a DVD of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s hypnotically potent Syndromes and a Century won’t be available till early next year, magnum pieces of celluloid art like Philip Garrel’s Regular Lovers, Lights in the Dusk, and Pascale Ferran’s Lady Chatterley (amongst others) were readily available before the year was out.

And don’t forget the internet. Disregarding bootlegs, the net quickly became a hotbed of marketing and distribution for foreign films and a select few American auteurs (most notably: indie maestro Andrew Bujalski and the mumblecore rats that followed in his wake). Whether it was through eBay, download sites, or more advanced methods, films that would either go unseen or ignored in the public eye appeared a few months in advance in several incarnations. Besides the controversial leaks of moneymakers like American Gangster, The Simpsons Movie, and SiCKO, The Lives of Others was available even before the Oscar-win was announced, while The Host, This is England, and Andrea Arnold’s Red Road were available to be digested online long before they premiered in theaters.

The potential of all these innovations has yet to be completely embraced, but there’s always the new year. Most of the films on the list below I found at the New York Film Festival, the Tribeca Film Festival, or the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s always-rewarding Film Comment Select Series, but they didn’t see the light of day at any local cinema. A little over half of these films have been picked up for distribution since first premiering, but that still leaves more than a handful of great films without stable footing in the marketplace. And this is being said after an adaptation of Speed Racer has been completed at an estimated budget of $100 million.

Still, not all is lost. New Yorker Films have done us all a big favor and picked up Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo’s ingenious Woman on the Beach, only the second of the young master’s catalog to see stateside theatrical release. New Line, after a dismal 2007 season, picked up distribution rights to Michel Gondry’s mucho-anticipated Be Kind Rewind and Ed Harris’ long-overdue follow-up to Pollock, the western Appaloosa. The Weinstein Company is taking a big risk with Inside, a French horror film that takes the genre to the brink, while Warner Independent takes up duties on both David Gordon Green’s Snow Angels and Michael Haneke’s shot-for-shot remake of his own Funny Games. Besides the films below, the brazenly forward-thinking guys and dolls at IFC First Take are handling Love Songs, Christopher Honore’s follow-up to Dans Paris, while the IFC Films crew is distributing new films from Guy Maddin, Abel Ferrara, and Jacques Rivette. Along with, you know, that election thing, 2008 already has the look of a clincher.

The Top 15 Unreleased Films of 2007

1. Paranoid Park – Returning to the bland hallways, classrooms, and lockers that served as an aura of terror in the spellbinding Elephant, Gus Van Sant continues to redefine his style with his latest outing. Titled for a skate park that the teens in the film frequent, Paranoid Park works on the same long takes and evasive editing that Van Sant perfected with his Young Death trilogy, but he now cautiously fills the spaces that were left open in those efforts. Adapted from Blake Nelson’s novel of the same name, it follows the time before and after a young skateboarder is implicated in the accidental death of a railway security guard. The result is eerily familiar yet astoundingly fresh and focused. Foremost comes Van Sant’s visual style, amplified by master cinematographer Chris Doyle (who makes a cameo as the teen’s uncle), and his stunning use of audio to punctuate both his storytelling and the character’s palpable grief and worry. In a scene of jaw-dropping power, the sounds of a forest being rustled by a coming storm fill the image of the skateboarder with worry and guilt after the unspeakable act. This is, without a doubt, Van Sant’s most daring film to date.

2. The Flight of the Red Balloon – ‘Surpassingly tender’ is how the Village Voice‘s Nathan Lee described it and yet, as dead-on as that is, it doesn’t begin to encompass the sort of deft work that the indefatigable Hou Hsiao-hsien is up to in Flight of the Red Balloon. Shot in France by a Taiwanese cinematographer (the absurdly talented Mark Lee Pin-bing), the film takes the basis of Albert Lamorisse’s adored The Red Balloon and reconfigures the story to Hsiao-hsien’s own parameters. The balloon drifts into the film on its own spacious whim, constantly disarming attempts at pinning it to a singular metaphor. The radiant Juliette Binoche does her best work since Kieslowski’s Blue as the troubled mother of the boy who let go of the balloon, and Song Fang captures every glimmer of emotion as the nanny the mother has recently hired. Like Van Sant’s latest, this is a film dedicated to how the spaces and silences are filled on screen. Working with Pin-bing and sound engineer Chu Shih Yi, Hsiao-hsien saturates even the most minimalist of scenes with every creak of floorboard and every draft of wind to create a style that is completely engrossing. Pin-bing and Hsiao-hsien completely rethink how Paris has been shot before, but for a Chinese director who didn’t shoot abroad until four years ago, he shows a convincing familiarity with the city and its nostalgic corners.

3. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days – Romania, I love you, but you’re bringing me down. With a Romo New Wave currently flourishing, the Vlachs have had one great film per year since 2006 with Cristi Puiu’s sky-splitting The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and this year’s sharp 12:08 East of Bucharest. 2008 brings Cristian Mungiu’s devastating 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, a black-market abortion drama set during the Ceausescu regime. Shot with a lugubrious lens by the talented Oleg Mutu (who also shot Lazarescu), Mungiu’s tale of two college girls who procure a back-alley abortion in
a cheap hotel keeps its politics at bay and stays closer to perceptive storytelling. That being said, the film doesn’t shy away from the horrors that women faced under Romania’s Communist era: a close-up of the freshly aborted fetus caused a cumulative gasp at the screening I attended. Laura Vasiliu’s performance as the girl in need of the procedure has an acute paranoia, but it’s Anamaria Marinca’s revelatory turn as her best friend that runs the gamut from infallible bravery to gauzed shame that will stick with you.

4. Silent Light – Carlos Reygadas’ latest experiment in cinema has been remarked as a paradigm of pretentious filmmaking and, well, it sorta is. It’s not surprising, seeing as the director’s last film, the completely bonkers Battle in Heaven, was given the same rep from dozens of film critics. Silent Light has a polarizing effect and could leave one with a disquieting opinion. But Light is also exquisitely made and is stunningly ambitious, and it confirms Reygadas’ cred as one of the most formidable young talents to arrive in art cinema in some time. Reygadas films a family of Mennonite farmers as they basically reenact and expand the second half of Carl Dreyer’s Ordet in Chihuahua, Mexico, with cinematographer Alexis Zabe (Duck Season) giving the space a haunting repose. The film radiates the feeling of discovery past the director’s boundless mind: The Mennonite language hasn’t ever been uttered onscreen before now.

5. Tachigui – The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters – Mamoru Oshii continues to push the art of anime into new levels of audacity with The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters, his ineffable new film that casts the history of 20th century Japan through the lens of a syndicate of thieves famed for being able to eat everything from udon noodles to beef kebabs without having to pay. Got that? Oshii’s batshit epic moves with the political and social shifts in Japanese culture over the last hundred years using a new technique called Superlivemation that culls together aspects of photography, animation, and digital puppetry to create a truly unique vision of these fictional bandits that overeat, over-order, and Jedi-mind-trick the hapless louts at fast food joints. But the dense nature of Oshii’s myth gives the realities of the country’s wars, revolutions, and cultures a heaving importance and a surrealistic edge. Though Oshii is best known for the double helix of his Ghost in the Shell films, Grifters gives his art a rejuvenated punch and a pungent vitality.

6. Useless – Quite possibly the most defined and consistent of modern Chinese filmmakers, Jia Zhang-ke continues his obsession with the seismology of his culture and the rippling tides of globalization in his latest documentary. Useless finds the director studying the gentle riptides of the clothing industry in Southeast Asia with stresses on three specific facets. He starts in the sweatshops with dozens of workers laboring over garments for export, then moves to fashion designer Ma Ke, whose newest line of clothing has been named Wu Yong, and ends in a small tailoring house in Fenyang (Zhang-ke’s hometown) where the director studies the topography of the countryside. As always, Jia doesn’t push his agenda, happier to just document these three processes and outcomes with a poet’s eye. Zhang-ke’s regular (read: brilliant) cinematographer Nelson Yu Lik-wai turns his long-takes into meditations on the durability of fashion and clothing as an expression of culture, most notably in the Fenyang section. Not nearly as epic as his best films (Platform, The World), Useless nevertheless evokes the director’s themes with acute perception.

7. The Last Mistress – Besides being one of the most influential French directors of the last two decades, Catherine Breillat has been one of the few directors to question female archetypes and mince sexual politics into surprisingly relevant immorality plays. Her latest, based on Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly‘s Une vieille maîtresse, finds her drawing every drop of feminine desire out of the indefinable Asia Argento and spinning the masculine gaze like a dreidel. Argento plays the Spanish chanteuse that continues to seduce a young, penniless French man, even when the poor dandy finds a wife with the niece of a wealthy widow. As both character and actress, Argento seems dismissive of any control that the medium might have on any other actress: her actions are bawdy but seductive only in her unwillingness to bend to the will of any man. Though it lacks the abstract spontaneity of Breillat’s previous work (Fat Girl, Anatomy of Hell) but it ranks as one of the provocateur’s best in sheer vastness and an uncompromising envisioning of the Norman aristocracy.

8. Go Go Tales – Though never truly embraced in the mainstream, Abel Ferrara has made a name for himself in the independent scene, earning an ironclad reliability in the crime genre. In his latest work, Go Go Tales, he reconsiders and envisions John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie in the piss-pour squalor of Ray Ruby’s Paradise, a strip club that specializes in the truly perverse while advertising an inordinate classiness. Tales follows Ruby through one day as he searches for a lost Lottery ticket and tries to keep his club from being shut down by investors and his sleazebag brother (Matthew Modine as true filth). What makes this one of Ferrara’s best and one of a few true valentines to the skuzz of NYC is the restraint and containment that the director works into a healthy lather. The girls spiral into the disparity, with Asia Argento (again) leading the pack as a stripper who does her act with a rottweiler. All the while Dafoe plays Ruby like the Titanic: bigger than life even when sinking to the bottom. The same could be said about the film.

9. Alexandra – When we last saw Aleksandr Sokurov, he was imagining Emperor Hirohito’s days surrounding his August 1954 meeting with General MacArthur in his staggering The Sun. Alexandra trudges in the cracked soil of an army camp in Chechnya where a hulking grandmother has come to visit her soldier grandson. As with all of Sokurov’s work, Alexandra is comprised of long takes of muted action and language while the dry yellow color of the film seems to saturate the actors’ skin. Like the balloon in Hsiao-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon, the title character, played by opera diva Galina Vishnevskaya, has no time to be a fixed metaphor and is at once Mother Russia, death personified, the grandmother of every soldier, and the essence of human interaction. In the ebb and flow of Sokurov’s eponymous career, Alexandra confirms an inarguable upward turn.

10. Actresses – An actress of uncommon talents, Valeria Bruni Tadeschi goes for round two in her sophomore directing effort, Actresses. Tadeschi stars as Madelline, a stage actress preparing for the lead role in Turgenev’s A Month in the Country while she handles a mid-l
ife crisis. Past ripe, single, and without child, the actress finds herself wavering between hallucination and reality, but the line between these states can only be viewed through a microscope. In terms of acting, Tadeschi’s circus of characters, which includes dynamite turns from both Mathieu Amalric and Louis Garrel, play on palpable eccentricities, but the psychological warfare going on below the surface gives the narrative and the characters shading. When Madelline begins to breast-feed someone else’s infant, it feels like something awkward enough for Noah Baumbach but spiked with Lynchian surrealism. We later find out the mother of the baby was busy trying to seduce her boss, Madelline’s director. Some things are universal.

11. The Unforeseen – Fellow critic Chris Barsanti aptly defined Laura Dunn’s sublime documentary as ‘more elegy than position paper’ in his coverage of 2007’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival. The same can be said about the work of the film’s most prominent producers: Terrance Malick and Robert Redford. In telling the story of land developers in Austin, Texas and the Biblical struggle over the area known as Barton Springs, Dunn’s magnificently visual feature-length debut sidesteps grandstanding and ventures for a more personal brand of political portrayal. The eye of the storm centers on a greedy (not evil) land developer who lost all his money and pride on the project while the large corporations backing him went onto their next pet project. Texan talking heads range from lobbyists for both sides of the aisle to Willie Nelson to Redford himself putting in their two cents on the issue but they are tapestries for all intents and purposes. Ultimately, it’s Dunn’s use of imagery, working with cinematographer Lee Daniel (a frequent collaborator of Richard Linklater), which edges The Unforeseen into the select lineage of environmental documentaries that transcend both environmentalism and documentary filmmaking.

12. Secret Sunshine – Lee Chang-dong’s Oasis stands as quite possibly one of the most audacious romances to ever be made, let alone released on Western shores. In telling the story of a violently over-friendly ex-con and his love for a woman with cerebral palsy, Chang-dong found steady-footing and never compromised either of his characters in what seemed like an utterly impossible story to tell the right way. The director brings the same convictions, though not the brass ones, to Secret Sunshine, the tale of a woman adrift in life after her son is kidnapped and subsequently murdered. Through anger, a religious period, and lunacy, Chang-dong follows the widow in the small town of Milyang as she grieves and desperately tries to avoid a pestering lovefool (Song Kang-ho in fine form). Chang-dong’s direction is tight and impressively assured, but in all fairness, it’s Jeon De-yeon’s storm-the-gates performance as the widow that makes Secret Sunshine such a thrilling experience. As the film becomes more novelistic, her performance becomes coextensively more nuanced and vibrant until the quietly devastating final image.

13. Taxidermia – For those with strong stomachs only: György Palfi’s Taxidermia overloads with imagery that suggests an all-night orgy at a timeshare owned by Monty Python, Jim Henson, and Peter Jackson. A spectacle of the grotesque laid over a generational triptych, the set pieces in Palfi’s film range from a pack of wildly-obese eating competitors vomiting into a festering abyss to a Red Army private blowing fire out of his penis while he lusts after the large wife of the general, and, finally, to an act of shocking self-taxidermy that ends up in a museum. Still, the best is a pair of world-class tubbies fornicating outside in rapture of other thoughts: He’s eating while she stares at her husband. Palfi’s vision is engrossing, extraordinarily visual, and really, really gross at times where most films would just go for gross-out. It’s the kind of film Volker Schlöndorff might make if he still had the vitality of his 1970s output.

14. The Banishment – Andrei Zvyagintsev’s debut film, The Return, garnered him a surprise Golden Globe nomination, one of a scant few to be offered to a Russian film(maker). Yet, his second and by all means more assured effort, The Banishment, walked away from the 2007 Cannes competition without a distribution deal. The film features the same breathtaking cinematography that The Return showcased, courtesy of lensman Mikhail Krichman, but the breadth of the narrative has enlarged substantially. On a short vacation in God’s country, a wife confesses an affair and consequential pregnancy to her husband as they prepare for a late-night drink. The husband subsequently asks her to ‘fix’ the situation with help from his hoodlum brother and some doctor friends. Though stylistically derivative, Zvyagintsev has created a solemnly evocative portrayal of familial distrust that, at a spot shy of three hours running time, effectively explores the actions of all the family members and the reverential landscapes that surround the family. Zvyagintsev, in only two films, has quickly secured his spot as one of Russia’s most accomplished young directors.

15. These Encounters of Theirs – This one gets in as part misanthropist pride and part memorial for the late, great Danièle Huillet, who died nine days before her last collaboration with husband Jean-Marie Straub saw release in France. A wee bit of torture for anyone not open to the study of motion in portrait, These Encounters of Theirs translates Cesare Pavese’s Dialoghi con Leucò into a set of still-camera shots of two characters, Greek gods in Pavese’s book, waxing philosophical on everything from the laments of omnipotence to that silly little business of the meaning of life. Utterly impossible to watch unless baked or inexcusably concentrated, Huillet and Straub offer these dense images with an unorthodox love of natural stillness, save a gust of wind doing battle with the branches of a tree in the background. In the same league as James Benning’s recent studies of nature Ten Skies and 13 Lakes, Encounters is at once rustic in its artsy pretensions and breathlessly hypnotic in its allegiance to the image.

What unreleased flick are you most excited about?

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