2007 may go down in personal history as the year I finally gave up on Hollywood. Well, almost. Maybe 2008 will be that fateful year. But the simple truth is that with just one exception, there wasn't a single Hollywood film that came to my attention (or, as in the case of the most recent example, I Am Legend, that was rammed down my throat) that had any appeal for me whatsoever. It's all a matter of taste, sure, but Hollywood's increasing dependence on formula and remake has, in recent years, worn me down.
We're going back a few years here, but the summer in which I was subjected to both Mission Impossible and Independence Day in the space of a couple of weeks was definitely a major turning point for my cinema-going, especially as I was seated in front of a woman who accompanied every spaceship swoop in the latter with a loud shout of "Whooooo!" The film had certainly found its target audience there. Titanic was the last straw. I'd gone because my girlfriend wanted to see it and persuaded a friend to join us because he had a car and the cinema was a few miles from home. He never forgave me for that one. I've never forgiven James Cameron.
From that point on I stopped going to see the big summer moviesand not long after gave up completely on the Hollywood mainstream, at least in the cinema. It wasn't just the movies, it was the changing nature of the audiences they were attracting, at least round our way. We've all experienced the noisy food wrappers and the family idiot who has to keep asking who that guy is or what that means, but in my final year of mainstream cinema attendance I didn't see a single film where someone didn't take a mobile phone call, and I do mean take it - they wouldn't switch the phone off or sneak out to take the call, but bark into it loudly and almost always include the inevitable "I'm in the cinema!" Even worse there seemed to be at least one nearby couple at every screening who wouldn't just mutter to each other throughout the film, an irritating enough trait in itself, but talk at a volume that suggested they thought they were at home watching a video with absolutely no regard for anyone around them. Usually one of the pair looked threatening enough to dissuade any attempt at admonishment. My girlfriend's last solo cinema visit was made similarly intolerable when one member of a young group sitting near her became quickly bored with the film and spent the rest of it playing games on his mobile phone with the volume turned up. Curiously, none of his companions seemed bothered.
DVD may remove the audience behaviour issue, but more recently it's the films themselves that have left me exasperated. Even mainstream films recommended to me by good friends and on the pages of this site in recent years have, when I've finally caught up with them, left me either disappointed or downright annoyed. I'm aware that many welcome a degree of certainty and even predictability once they get to a certain age, but with me it's the opposite. I've developed an intolerance for the safe and predictable and am constantly in search of the new in some shape or form. Unfortunately in a medium where most of the biggest strides and the greatest experiments were all made in the first forty years of its hundred-plus year existence, I'm having to settle for new takes on familiar stories and themes. If you're excited by cinema as a medium then that's not such a bad compromise, as long as the new extends beyond the simple repackaging of stock components and stars in a glossy new package. And I'm rather tired of having everything shouted at me, visually, aurally and metaphorically in a way that assumes we're all as stupid as that bottom-line demographic at which way too many Hollywood films seem to be targeted. It's that desire for the low key, for the whisper over the yell, that has prevented me completely giving up on Hollywood this year. Typically, the one film that looks like keeping the flame alive – David Fncher's Zodiac – is one I've still not seen, although the DVD – already available at a bargain basement price – is on the way.
With DVD, my viewing habits were restricted by other factors. Quite simply there were more DVDs released this year that I wanted to see than I actually had time to watch or could afford to buy. A whole slew of titles from Criterion and Tartan never even got ordered, while number of re-releases and special editions either sit on the shelf awaiting their turn or have been watched and half-reviewed and abandoned to make way for others. That's the trouble with doing this in your spare time – it takes up ALL of your spare time, which in my case is restricted anyway by two jobs (one full time, one part time – those damned bills have to be paid), running a film society and the sort of exercise regime required to stop this particular film fan turning into an oversized couch potato.
What surprised me when I was compiling the list, which with my increasingly shabby short-term memory was a task and a half, was that while last year I was fighting to whittle a huge list down to a manageable number, this year I had no real problems with either the films or (especially) the DVDs. I've seen a lot of both this year and have enjoyed a huge number of them, but the real standouts were smaller in number than I'd expected. Time and circumstance have excluded a few from the list that may well have made it. We tend to screen films some time after their initial release at the film society, usually because the distributors have a limited number of 35mm prints to rent and give priority to cinemas running the film for a week rather than one evening, which is fair enough. It does mean, though, that it will be January or February before I see Sicko, Eastern Promises, Control and Once, and March before I see Lunacy.
It's the same story with DVD. Criterion have released a large number of titles I covet but have yet to buy (like I said, there are bills to pay), including Robinson Crusoe on Mars, This Sporting Life, Drunken Angel, The Lady Vanishes, Night on Earth, House of Games, The Milky Way and The Naked City and a whole lot more, while the likes of Overlord, Ace in the Hole and If.... have been watched, but I've yet to get round to the extra features. And that Blade Runner box set looks like a dream come true, but I can't even imagine finding the time to watch everything contained within, so it will end up being bought and stored for later.
Which is all very well. There were still several very fine films and DVDs to celebrate this year, and with that overlong preamble complete it's time to make my pick. And just this once I'm going to pick one in each category that for personal reasons stood above all the others. As ever the candidates may not necessarily have been released this year, but that's when I saw 'em and that's all they need to qualify.
Before I pick my top ten there are a few that I do think should get an honourable mention for a number of reasons. The first film I saw in the cinema this year was Pedro Almodóvar's Volver, a hugely enjoyable drama with a priceless female cast who collectively and deservedly won the Best Actress prize at Cannes. Jan Dunn's Gypo showed just how lively and socially relevant a Dogme film can be, and followed in the footsteps of Pawel Pawlikowski's 2001 Last Resort in making fine use of its Margate locations.
Iranian cinema continued to deliver the goods in the shape of Marzieh Meshkini's Stray Dogs (Sag-haye velgard) and Rafi Pitts' It's Winter, while The Page Turner (La Tourneuse de pages), Them (Ils), I Saw Ben Barker Get Killed (J'ai vu tuer Ben Barka) and Shut Up! (Tais-toi!) showed a quality and variety in French cinema that British films are still struggling to equal. And as adaptations of novels go, you won't do much better this year than Kevin Macdonald's The Last King of Scotland, Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly or Tom Tykwer's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, the last of which which comes as close as you could hope to visualising a book that has for years resisted film adaptation.
A number of interesting documentaries kept the medium vibrant as a feature film genre. Julien Temple's Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten actually drew applause at our cinema screening, despite the curious absence of Clash guitarist Paul Simonon, while An Inconvenient Truth managed to make a Keynote lecture on the environment genuinely gripping and also succeeded in irritating Mark Kermode, which is a bonus. Whether Al Gore's message will have the desired effect is another matter – just yesterday I heard two middle-aged businessmen dismissing the whole global warming issue as a con – but we can only hope. Chinese cinema, meanwhile, broke with its image of thoughtful, deliberately paced social dramas to give us Mountain Patrol (Kekexili), an environmental thriller with all the pace, tension and violence of a mainstream action movie but an ending that's dark enough scupper any direct Hollywood remake. And finally there's African cinema, which this year produced two works that I was utterly gripped by, Abderrahmane Sissako's Bamako and Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's Daratt, which is due out on UK DVD in the new year.
And so to my final selection, in no particular order (except the last one).
Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait
A bold cinematic experiment that managed to completely piss off the intolerant, who all made the same ridiculous complaint, that the film should be in a gallery rather than a cinema, in the process suggesting that cinema should be reserved only for films that meet specific criteria, presumably defined by them. Bollocks to that. You don't want to see it? Don't hand over your money. You don't like it? Then do us a favour and leave so that the rest of us can become mesmerised by this fascinating, sometimes repetitive but often extraordinary audio-visual experience.
Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul
A fabulous trip through the extraordinary range of music styles that make up the music of Istanbul, directed by Fatih Akin, the German director of Turkish parentage who also gave us the excellent Head On (Gegen die Wand). The DVD comes with a soundtrack CD, and this is one you'll be playing.
The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)
An obvious one perhaps, but a compellingly told story of the thawing of an ice-cold member of the Stasi (the East German Secret Police) during the 1980s, brilliantly played by Ulrich Mühe, who sadly died not long after the film's completion. One hell of a hell of feature debut for director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.
Ray Lawrence follows his superb Lantana, only his second feature in 16 years, with an equally compelling story of male bonding and casual racism whose unhurried pace may cause the impatient to fidget, but whose atmosphere, character detail and storytelling are up there with the best of Australian cinema. The performances are once again uniformly excellent, with Gabriel Byrne, Laura Linney and the scary Chris Haywood all standouts.
Night of the Sunflowers (La Noche de los girasoles)
Another remarkable debut feature, this time from Spanish director Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo, whose non-linear structure and switching viewpoints don't just invigorate the storytelling, they continually shift the focus of what and who the story is actually about. As with The Lives of Others, the thing that strikes you most about memorable European first films is not their flashiness, but the maturity.
The sort of film that's easy to be blindsided by, the knowledge of its all Aboriginal cast and the story's origins in ancient tribal myth inevitably creating expectations of a worthy and ethnologically interesting piece, but giving no warning of just how entertaining and funny and well made the film is. David Gulpilil's English narration is particular is a gem.
Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del fauno)
Guillermo del Toro returns to form and how with this excellent companion piece to The Devil's Backbone (El Espinazo del Diablo), still my favourite of his films. Mixing horror, fantasy and political history, del Toro creates a dark fairy tale for grown-ups that taps into both childhood wonder and adult terrors in a way that bigger budgeted mainstream fantasies can only dream of replicating.
A giant leap over Nick Broomfield's first non-documentary feature (the 1989 Diamond Skulls), Ghosts tells the harrowing story of the 23 Chinese cockle pickers who died in Morecambe Bay in 2004, and does so with striking realism and heart-rending honesty. The best British film of the year, closely followed by...
This is England
Shane Meadows' tough, intelligent and autobiographical story of a boy growing up as part of the skinhead culture of 1980s England. Terrific performances, deeply uncomfortable scenes and a deliberate avoidance of clear-cut morality make this Meadows' most challenging and accomplished work yet.
But if I had to choose one film above all others this year, it simply has to be...
David Lynch's brilliant mindfuck is regarded by many as his most experimental film since Eraserhead and they may be right, but the path to Inland Empire can be clearly traced through Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, although both walk a path of uncluttered logic by comparison. Running for just over 3 hours and shot by Lynch himself on his own PD-150 DV-Cam video camera, it's a film that messes with your head even after four viewings but feels strangely 'right' in the way that dreams do when you're experiencing them, and has moments of skin-prickling brilliance. After our cinema screening a friend described the experience nicely as "like discovering film all over again for the very first time." The only reason I haven't reviewed the DVD is at the time of release I just could not free the considerable amount of time needed to properly do the film justice. Maybe one for a retrospective review later...
A much smaller section because it needs more than a great movie to make a great DVD, and if I've watched the film but not got round to the extras yet then they don't make the list, hence the regretful exclusion of Performance, The Butcher Boy and If...., three films I have been screaming to see released on DVD for years. All are utterly recommended on the basis of the films and the transfers alone, and we may still be covering If.... in the near future (are you reading this, Camus?). I never got round to buying The Harold Lloyd Definitive Collection, which I know I would have loved, or the Alejandro Jodorowsky double of El Topo and Holy Mountain, two favourites from years past released with director's commentaries. The release of the superb TV series Homicide: Life on the Street on UK DVD at long last is welcomed, but the lack of the extra features from the US release, a similar story to the UK releases of Oz and Deadwood, takes the edge of the pleasure. One series I was tempted to include is the anime Ergo Proxy, which is shaping up to be the sort of complex and intellectually stimulating experience most live action and Disneyesque animated features just are not, but we're only three volumes in at present and I may be jumping the gun.
So here are seven DVDs that made 2007 worthwhile.
The Host (Gwoemul) – region 2, Optimum
The best monster movie since Alien manages to by scary, funny and socially concerned without wrong-footing on a single element. Optimum's 2-disc set looks and sounds wonderful and is plastered with over three hours of worthwhile extra features. A Special Edition indeed.
The Aki Kaurismäki Collections – region 2, Artificial Eye
Long, long overdue but delivered in style by Artificial Eye as four separate collections featuring a total of 13 feature films and five short films by one of modern cinema's most distinctive and consistently enjoyable filmmakers (Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses aside). They are all worth having, not least for their consistently excellent transfers and soundtracks.
The Aki Kaurismäki Collection, Vol. 1 DVD review
The Aki Kaurismäki Collection, Vol. 2 DVD review
The Aki Kaurismäki Collection, Vol. 3 DVD review
The Leningrad Cowboys Collection DVD review
Nosferatu, eine symphonie des gauens – region 0, Masters of Cinema
A silent classic, beautifully remastered by F.W. Murnau-Stiftung in Germany and supported by some fine extra features in typical Masters of Cinema fashion. As usual there have been a number of excellent releases from Eureka under the Masters of Cinema banner this year, including Visconti's Bellissima, the Maysles brothers' Grey Gardens, Melville's Le Silence de la mer and Murnau and Flaherty's Tabu, but my long history with Nosferatu and the sheer quality of the restoration makes this one my favourite, though it does have a close contender...
Sansho Dayu / Gion Bayashi – region 0, Masters of Cinema
The first of four proposed two-film releases of the work of Japanese master Kenji Mizoguchi was a review that took some time and a couple of viewings to get a handle on, at least if I was to avoid just writing "Oh wow, just LOOK at these movies!" As a devotee of Japanese cinema who sometimes lacks the time to track down the films he should, such releases provide a welcome opportunity to fill gaps in my viewing and match movies to talked-about titles.
The Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession
A decent documentary about Jerry Harvey, a movie obsessive who turned Los Angeles independent cable TV channel into the film fan's dream. The clips alone make the movie a must-see, but what makes the DVD worth buying the filmmmaker's commentary, a gaggle of smart and similarly enthusiastic fans led by Xan Cassavetes, daughter of John and probably top of my list at the moment of people I'd like to sit down and chat with for a few hours.
Creepshow - 2-disc Special Edition
One of those reviews I got started on and still haven't found time to finish. In case I never do, this is a terrific revival of a wonderful, imaginative comic-book horror movie that is more fun than almost any other genre film of the past thirty years. The DVD is loaded with excellent extra features, including deleted scenes, a George Romero and Tom Savini commentary and a hugely enjoyable 90 minute documentary on the making of the film.
But my choice for DVD release of the year is...
Jan Svankmajer: The Complete Short Films – region 2, BFI
This was an easy decision. The most comprehensive DVD set of the year has been assembled with passion and care in every department, from the remastered transfers to the extensive and sometimes rare extra features to form a Svankmajer completist's dream package. If you're at all interested in animation or surrealism or art then you should own this set. Knowing that it was a real labour of love for Michael Brooke, the driving force behind this excellent package, inevitably adds you your appreciation of the work that has gone into it. Fabulous.
And that's it for 2007. My hopes for 2008? A small gap in the steady stream of review discs to allow me to cover the sort of titles I missed this year, and maybe a reviewer or two who will actually deliver the articles they promised, when they've promised. Sorry, just had to get that one in...