In the spirit of the season and goodwill and whatnot, I thought I'd forgo griping about the sorry state of things this week and instead send out some love to the downtrodden, the small films of 2007 that were somehow overlooked, underrated or outright ignored in some way. Let's start with the Russian film The Italian, released in January, which caused critics to dredge up the word "Dickensian" for the first time in a while. But for all that it was a surprising, deeply-felt story of an orphan who escapes the orphanage to find his birth-parents.

Kino released the documentary Romantico in January as well, and they're apparently counting it as a 2007 release. I wrote a few weeks back about the documentary format; there's certainly a place for journalism and reporting, but the very best documentaries, the ones that stand the test of time, are the ones that capture the details of life, like Crumb, Hoop Dreams and To Be and to Have. Romantico is one of those. It tells the story of a mariachi illegally based in San Francisco who decides to go back to Mexico to see his family, even though he risks never being able to return (of course, his income in the States is much higher than in Mexico). Romantico will most certainly be overlooked in any discussion of 2007's documentaries, but it's worth seeking out on DVD.

2007 was the year of the Western, and I won't take no for an answer. There were more high-quality Westerns this year than any other year since the late 1960s or early 1970s. The first one, a great surprise from February, was Seraphim Falls. It's basically a chase movie, with Liam Neeson following Pierce Brosnan through all kinds of landscapes, taking aim and shooting whenever possible. It's three-quarters of a great movie, and only falters when it stops to explain why the men are shooting at each other. I mean, who cares?

David Lynch's Inland Empire suffered a terrible fate: it fell between the cracks of two years. It screened for critics in December of 2006 in New York, Los Angeles and Boston, thereby qualifying for ten best lists. But since Lynch self-distributed the film and refused to send out DVD screeners, the rest of us didn't get to see it until 2007. It was the best new film I saw this year, but I guess it will have to wait for my best-of-the-decade list. Frankly, it was also the scariest and the most wildly inventive, and the best hope for the future of cinema.

It has been many years since anyone cared about Hong Kong action cinema, especially since the 1997 handover when most of the big stars came to Hollywood. But Johnny To, who made one of my all-time favorites, The Heroic Trio (1993), has continued to work steadily and quietly, getting better and better all the time. Two of his latest, Exiled and Triad Election were released in the United States this year, and you'd hardly know that the same master filmmaker was behind both. The former was a lucid, exciting revenge thriller, while the second was a carefully studied tale of honor, more like The Godfather.

It's no masterpiece, but I found Chris Rock's I Think I Love My Wife a good deal more mature and intelligent than it had any right to be. Of course, it was based on a film by one of cinema's most literate scholars of the human heart, Eric Rohmer. The main drawback was that Rock panicked and added some stupid slapstick -- such as a "Viagra" sequence -- to appeal to his old fans. His old fans weren't interested anyway; had he stayed with his instincts, this film would have resonated much harder and for much longer than it did.

After winning an Oscar for Best Live Action short, English director Andrea Arnold made her feature debut, Red Road. It was an amazingly assured debut with lots of quiet atmosphere and a terrific lead performance by Kate Dickie. What's more, we'll get to see these characters again. The film is part of an experiment by writer Anders Thomas Jensen. Two other filmmakers will be making their own films using the same, pre-existing characters.

The old master of the French New Wave, Claude Chabrol, quietly released yet another great nail-biter, Comedy of Power, in April. Isabelle Huppert stars (in her seventh Chabrol film) as an unflappable judge, dubbed "the Piranha," who tries to stamp out corporate corruption, but finds that the decay is far deeper and more dangerous than she realized. Chabrol is so consistent and reliable, and his films are so frequent, that they are overlooked as a matter of routine. Only when he's gone, I think, will people realize that he was even there.

Lynn Hershman-Leeson's new quasi-documentary Strange Culture touches on some startling current events, but also re-invents the documentary format. She finished it before the story was over, actors appear playing real people and then the real people appear as themselves, and images of comic books fill in the blanks. Most people seem baffled by it, but it's one of the year's essential non-fiction films. It opened briefly in San Francisco in October, and recently qualified for Oscar consideration. With that, I'll leave off and perhaps pick this up next week.
categories Columns, Cinematical