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Useless

Director: Jia Zhangke
Cast: Ma Ke

(Chinese Film Association; Very limited release: 13 Oct 2007; 2007)

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Useless Jia Zhang-ke


It seems as if Jia Zhang-ke went as far as he was either ready or willing to go in terms of eye-popping DV stylization with Still Life, and here, he’s retreating toward a purposeful minimalism, albeit with maximum ideas and potential for thematic expansion crammed into Useless’ 80-minute runtime. For a film that’s ostensibly about clothes, an awful lot is suggested regarding both China’s free-market identity crisis and the nature of art. This is that rare, superlative documentary where one can actually feel the filmmaker thinking along with his audience. If he fails to offer any pat conclusions from the evidence he’s culled, it’s only because the future—for all of us—is far less certain than we often tend to assume. Josh Timmerman





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I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone

Hei yan quan
Director: Tsai Ming-liang
Cast: Lee Kang-sheng, Norman Atun, Chen Shiang-chyi, Pearlly Chua

(New Crowned Hope; US theatrical: 9 May 2007 (Limited release); 2006)

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I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone Tsai Ming-liang


Alone in Kuala Lumpur, a Chinese visitor is roughed up by street thugs, cared for by a Bangladeshi man, and relocated to the local Chinatown, where a couple of women enter his life. All this is counterpointed by events involving a paralyzed hospital patient, played by the same actor. The characters are fascinating, but as always with Taiwan-based filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang, tones and textures are what matter most. His distinctive trademarks are all here—loneliness, shabbiness, music, passion, and lots and lots of water, an element that no other filmmaker save André Tarkovsky has imbued with such mysterious, even mystical qualities. Tsai is taking cinema to levels it never dreamed of exploring before. David Sterritt





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The Duchess of Langeais

Ne touchez pas la hache
Director: Jacques Rivette
Cast: Jeanne Balibar, Guillaume Depardieu, Michel Piccoli, Bulle Ogier, Anne Cantineau

(Pierre Grise Productions; Very limited release: 7 Sep 2007; 2007)

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The Duchess of Langeais Jacques Rivette


Jacques Rivette’s latest riff on Balzac is, it turns out, the most expertly realized (and legitimately tragic) literary costume drama since Terence Davies took on Edith Wharton. As a lonely military officer and shamed socialite, Gerard Depardieu’s look-alike son and the ever amazing Jeanne Balibar make for the year’s most hypnotic on-screen pair. Their almost constant back-and-forth—by turns, cautiously flirtatious and charged with palpable frustration—is never less than dexterously razor sharp, until, in the film’s mournful denouement, words cease to suffice. Josh Timmerman





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Red Road

Director: Andrea Arnold
Cast: Kate Dickie, Tony Curran, Martin Compston, Nathalie Press, Andrew Armour

(Tartan Films; US theatrical: (Limited release); UK theatrical: 27 Oct 2006 (Limited release); 2006)

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Red Road Andrea Arnold


Taking the aesthetically sparse elements of Dogma ‘95 to a new and unusual extreme, the minds behind the Advance Party have an even more limiting creative construct. The three filmmakers involved agreed to only make films using characters created by Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen. The setting must be Scotland, and the same actors must be used. For its first foray into this restrictive dynamic, Red Road is amazingly accomplished. It uses a surveillance camera set up and just a hint of criminal immorality to tell the tale of a young girl obsessed with a man she believes destroyed her life. The results bode very well for future installments. Bill Gibron





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Stellet Licht

Director: Carlos Reygadas
Cast: Elizabeth Fehr, Jacobo Klassen, Maria Pankratz, Miriam Toews

(Mantarraya Producciones; US theatrical: 2 Oct 2007 (Limited release); 2007)

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Stellet Licht Carlos Reygadas


Carlos Reygadas can come across as a provocative prankster in the mode of Lars von Trier, the self-satisfied bad boy, and he was criticized for it with his previous film Battle in Heaven. With Stellet Licht he channels a more subdued Dane, Carl Dreyer, to create a transcendental masterpiece on sacrifice and redemption from within. The story quietly unfolds through the ripples across the landscapes and faces of its characters: a Mennonite farmer, his family, and his mistress in northern Mexico. Having the dialogue spoken in Plautdietsch might seem like the arbitrarily arcane masterstroke of the provocateur, but the action is so universally engrossing it’s unnoticeable. Reygadas takes a hundred bold chances with this movie, particularly with the magical ending, and they all work without seeming self-conscious or trite. And he parts the curtain with one of the hands-down devastating opening shots of the year. Michael Buening





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Black Book (Zwartboek)

Director: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Carice van Houten, Thom Hoffman, Halina Reijn, Sebastian Koch, Christian Berkel, Waldemar Kobus, Michiel Huisman, Derek de Lint, Peter Blok

(Sony Pictures Classics; US theatrical: 4 Apr 2007 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 19 Jan 2007 (Limited release); 2006)

Review [21.Oct.2007]

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Black Book Paul Verhoven


John and Yoko famously asserted that war is over if we want it. Paul Verhoeven would beg to differ. This is a history of violence brutally transcribed in the present tense insofar as—Verhoeven unsubtly implies—mankind is mostly a bunch of fuck-ups and liars who can’t ever figure out how to play nice. The moral of this morally skewed story is that we don’t learn from our mistakes, so, naturally, we’re bound to repeat them, with only the specifics varying from war to war and atrocity to atrocity. The triumph here is that—unlike, say, Hollow Man or Starship Troopers, both certifiably underrated—Verhoeven has produced a film that even his fiercest critics can’t easily dismiss or ignore, and, more importantly, he managed to do so without remotely softening his caustically perverse sensibility. Josh Timmerman





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2 Days in Paris

Director: Julie Delpy
Cast: Julie Delpy, Adam Goldberg, Daniel Brühl, Marie Pillet, Albert Delpy

(Samuel Goldwyn Films; US theatrical: 10 Aug 2007 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 31 Aug 2007 (General release); 2007)

Review [26.Feb.2008]
Review [10.Aug.2007]

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2 Days in Paris Julie Delpy


Clearly, after a pair of introspective relationship films with director Richard Linklater, star Julie Delpy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset) wanted to channel her own thoughts about lost lovers onto the silver screen. Oddly enough, she decided that late career Woody Allen may be the best muse to draw from. With an equally winning turn by American Adam Goldberg to play off of, we meet a couple no longer capable of being kind to each other. Instead, the seemingly superficial quips bouncing between them hide a sour, substantive pain that won’t go away.  Personal problems and neurosis never looked, or sounded, so inviting. Bill Gibron





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Fay Grim

Director: Hal Hartley
Cast: Parker Posey, Jeff Goldblum, Thomas Jay Ryan, Saffron Burrows, D.J. Mendel, Liam Aiken, Megan Gay, Leo Fitzpatrick, Jasmin Tabatabai, Chuck Montgomery, James Urbaniak

(Magnolia Pictures; US theatrical: 18 May 2007 (Limited release); 2006)

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Fay Grim Hal Hartley


Ask most filmmakers—revisiting past glories can be a precarious proposition at best. In the case of Hal Hartley, the decision to check back in with his characters from Henry Fool seemed simple enough. But the wildly original reimagining done to the concept (including almost avoiding the first film’s title character all together) fails to fully prepare you for the twists and turns taken here. A spy thriller (?) with more ennui than espionage and its fair share of experimental cinematic shell gaming, many found it cold and convoluted. Those in sync with the director’s deviousness were however rewarded with one of his most intriguing works to date. Bill Gibron





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The Flight of the Red Balloon

Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Hippolyte Girardot

(Margo Films; US theatrical: 7 Oct 2007 (Limited release); 2007)

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The Flight of the Red Balloon Hou Hsiao Hsien


Hou Hsiao Hsien has amassed an incredible filmography and I’m not sure if The Flight of the Red Balloon, his “homage” to Albert Lamorisse’s classic children’s short, will be remembered as one of his defining moments. But this was unquestionably my most smitten movie going experience of the year, I grinned from ear to ear in its presence, no matter the melancholy nature of the story. Hou proficiently uses his now trademark approach—long interior scenes that rarely deviate from the master shot, extensive improvisation by the cast, and imagery set off by large brush strokes from bleeding light sources—to spin a typically sentimental story about wispy yearnings for lost loves. Everyday heartache rarely feels so tender and sweet. Michael Buening





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Brand Upon the Brain!

Director: Guy Maddin
Cast: Isabella Rosellini, Eric Maahs, Catherine Scharhon, Gretchen Krich, Sullivan Brown, Maya Lawson, Todd Jefferson Moore

(The Film Company; US theatrical: 9 May 2007 (Limited release); 2006)

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Brand Upon the Brain! Guy Maddin


Surreally melodramatic recreations of early silent-era cinema are hardly fresh territory for Winnipeg’s visionary Guy Maddin, but his stylistic and technical repertoire seems, with his latest, to be as finely honed as it has ever been.  With Brand Upon the Brain, Maddin’s ADD editing is at its most meticulous, his visuals at their starkest and most strikingly manipulated, and his narrative technique, conveying the story through brisk action and dialogue cut-away screens, both overlayed with narration, at it’s most confident and maximal.  The story’s manic phantasmagoria of nostalgia and dreams (poised between comedy and horror), may have existed mainly as an arena for Maddin’s design concepts, but oh what concepts and oh what results. Nate Dorr



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