All Around the World: The Best International/Indie Films of 2007

20. Useless, Dir. 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

19. I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, Dir. 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

18. The Duchess of Langeais, Dir. 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

17. Red Road, Dir. 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

16. Stellet Licht, Dir. 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

15. Black Book, Dir. 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

14. 2 Days in Paris, Dir. 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

13. Fay Grim, Dir. 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

12. The Flight of the Red Balloon, Dir. 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

11. Brand Upon the Brain!, Dir. 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

10. The Man from London, Dir. Béla Tarr

For such an intensively meditative film, I’ve never attended a screening where a large portion of the audience looked about ready to punch a hole in the wall when they left the theater as after I saw The Man From London. While falling short of director Béla Tarr’s previous masterpieces his Georges Simenon adaptation, stripped to intense psychological minimalism, is still penetrating and horrifying. After the initial set up — night watchmen Maloin (Miroslav Krobot) steals a suitcase full of money after watching a handoff go awry — the movie is scarce on defining plot points. Instead the dramatic turmoil of guilt and corruption is etched in Fred Kelemen’s cinematography, whose use of high contrast lighting highlights every pore, wrinkle, scar, and tear duct in character close-ups and landscape shots. From its extended opening shot, one of the greatest of the year (see Stellet Licht for the other), Tarr cements his reputation as master of protracted contemplation. — Michael Buening

9. Lust, Caution, Dir. Ang Lee

It’s a shame that so much focus was placed on the sex scenes in Ang Lee’s otherwise serious WWII thriller. There is so much more here than bare bodies gyrating, though it is a very important element in the narrative. In fact, the sense of feigned superiority expressed by the Chinese nationals conspiring with the Japanese invaders is far more sly and seductive than the last act showing of skin. It’s the lure of power and its impervious, numbing nature that draws the characters in and toward their uncertain fate. That Lee decided to explore this idea physically as well as psychologically speaks to the film’s ultimate success. — Bill Gibron

8. Them, Dirs. David Moreau and Xavier Palud

Clémentine and Lucas are a French couple who live and work in Romania, where they lead a contented life until the night when a string of strange occurrences — their car is stolen, odd noises resonate, the phone won’t stop ringing and then goes dead — alerts them to impending danger in their large, lonely house. Soon they’re in flat-out panic mode, and they have reason to be: They’re under attack by mysterious enemies who clearly won’t rest until they’re dead. And if you think that’s scary, the explanation that emerges is even spookier than the goings-on themselves. Written and directed by David Moreau and Xavier Palud, this fact-based horror tale is guaranteed to get under your skin. See it if you dare. — David Sterritt

7. Day Night Day Night, Dir. Julia Loktev

Alfred Hitchcock once said that dread is best established when the audience is in possession of information that the characters or circumstances would literally die for to discover. This is clearly the set up preferred by filmmaking newcomer Julia Loktev’s suicide bomber drama. A nondescript girl spends a day in a NYC hotel room, preparing to walk out into Times Square with a vest full of explosives tied to her torso. Working fear and trepidation out of the mundane premise, the director then drives the point home further by making the conclusion as morally complicated as possible. It turns an unsettling situation into something almost unwatchable. — Bill Gibron

6. The Orphanage, Dir. Juan Antonio Bayona

Take one shot of Terry Gilliam, a couple of jiggers of Guillermo Del Toro, and a heaping helping of outright originality, and you’ve got the amazing first feature from Spanish spook master Juan Antonio Bayona. Using the old school fright film formula of finding suspense within the characterization, the director delivers the kind of grandiose ghost story that reminds us of Gothic days gone by. One of the more visually arresting flights this year, Bayona gets the most out of his sinister seaside locale, making typically tame settings like a broom closet or a potting shed wail with banshee cry creepiness. The results are spellbinding and spine tingling. — Bill Gibron

5. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Dir. Cristian Mungiu

At a time when bogus reality shows pass for true-life realism, this wrenching Romanian drama is a hard-hitting reminder that insightfully crafted fiction is still the surest way to probe the deepest, scariest depths of human nature and its discontents. The story couldn’t be simpler — a woman helps a friend get an illegal abortion in Romania under the communists — and the cinematic style of writer-director Cristian Mungiu couldn’t be more straightforward, following the moment-to-moment action with clear-eyed objectivity. The result, thanks to razor-sharp camerawork and stunningly honest performances, is psychological drama of the most riveting and imaginative kind. — David Sterritt

4. The Host, Dir. Bong Joon-ho

When The Host (Goemul) played at the New York Film Festival in 2006 I hoped that this monster movie would herald a new age of global blockbuster filmmaking, when Hollywood would be challenged and reinvigorated by the ingenuous use of lower cost digital effects and directors would work from culturally specific yet broadly entertaining aesthetics that twist subversive structures into widely accessible pop formats. I thought Bong Joon-ho would be this movement’s Steven Spielberg and Song Kang-ho its slapstick Harrison Ford. At least when it was released in the United States this year, the revolution didn’t happen. But if Bong and Song keep making movies that mix shit-eating action sequences, family drama, and political allegory with such exhilarating expertise, resistance will be futile. — Michael Buening

3. Into Great Silence, Dir. Philip Gröning

In this literally awesome documentary about a Carthusian monastery in the French Alps, filmmaker Philip Gröning captures not only the look, sound, and atmosphere of the place, but also the intimacy of its moods, the textures of its light and shade, and the almost physical quality that time itself acquires in an environment where religious ritual, behavioral regularity, stasis of the body, and inwardness of mind have reigned for centuries. The film has a purity of spirit that, in a profound artistic paradox, further enhances its investment in the bedrock materiality of the perceptible world on which both life and cinema are inevitably grounded. This is one of the rare movies that must be seen to be believed. — David Sterritt

2. Paprika, Dir. Satoshi Kon

Satoshi Kon’s latest stunner is — like so many good and bad movies before it — about dreams. As its hallucinatory narrative steers perilously close to running off the rails, the line between conscious and unconscious space-time grows increasingly ambiguous. Right, this is sci-fi noir so (purposefully) convoluted as to make those damn Matrix movies look down-right streamlined by comparison. It’s also just about the most impressive example of Japanese animation I’ve viewed to date. Check it out if you like anime; absolutely don’t miss it if you’re still skeptical about the form’s capabilities. — Josh Timmerman

1. Still Life, Dir. Jia Zhangke

Where Mainland Chinese wunderkind Jia Zhangke’s first three films registered the influence of gritty Italian Neorealism, Still Life feels more discernibly indebted to Antonioni’s architectural mise-en-scene, a trend that first seemed present in his fourth feature, 2004’s The World. Without sacrificing a shred of empathy for his cautiously optimistic, mostly working class characters, Jia has progressively heightened the formalist nature of his aesthetic, balanced with a few sly surrealist touches. To be sure, Still Life‘s lush, almost tropical locale provides a welcome opportunity for Jia’s career-long DP Nelson Yu Lik-wai to shine. The high-def DV master lends this one a Malick-like view of natural wonder, of ephemeral beauty in peril. The result is a profoundly sad movie–a masterful meditation on loss. —Josh Timmerman