On July 30th of this year, the cinematic community mourned the passing of two of its most revered figures when Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni passed away within hours of each other. Both men had lived to a grand old age, and neither had made a film for a couple of years, but the coincidence of two great directors dying on the same day prompted a number of articles to be written about the end of cinema's great age. They were seen as two of the last bastions of challenging, existential, spiritual and searching filmmaking, and with their passing, many wondered if we had any such directors from the modern era who were willing or capable of living up to this benchmark. So if we were to take the pulse of contemporary cinema based on what we've seen over the past twelve months, what conclusions would we come to regarding the medium's current health?
If today's generation of filmmakers does possess an heir apparent to the likes Bergman, Antonioni or Tarkovsky, then perhaps it is Carlos Reygadas, the Mexican director who made his most accomplished film this year with Silent Light. Reygadas' long takes, intelligent mise en scène, and his embracing of the film's spiritual elements, recalled the work of the great directors mentioned above, and one suspects that there is more interesting work to come from this preciously inconsistent auteur, as he continues to refine his gifts. Reygadas' use of the Mennonite community in his film also shed light on a society which had previously been unexplored in cinema, and Rolf de Heer's Ten Canoes was a similarly enlightening experience, being the first Australian film to feature an all-aboriginal cast and to be made solely in their language. In fact, most of the great foreign-language films to be released over the past few years have come from newer filmmaking territories – Romania's renaissance continued this year when the outstanding 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (released here in January) won the Palme D'Or at Cannes – and these pictures are currently putting offerings from the more traditional cinematic powerhouses in the shade.
This year's batch of French cinema was particularly disappointing. La Vie en rose contained an top-notch central performance from Marion Cotillard as the tragic Edith Piaf, but the film itself was a clumsy biopic; Pascale Ferran's new version of Lady Chatterley was overlong and passionless; and the acclaimed Gallic adaptation of Harlan Coben's Tell No One was little more than a bog-standard thriller. It took an American to make the best French movie of the year – Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Feb 2008) is a beautiful and deeply moving account of Jean-Dominique Bauby's near-total paralysis. For much of the year, German cinema was riding high on the back of one film in particular. The Lives of Others won an Oscar in February and has received incredible critical acclaim wherever it has played. It has appeared on most critics' top ten lists and everyone who sees the film seems to be amazed by it. Have a look at this quote from Mark Cousins, who selected the film for Sight and Sound's 2007 top ten:
"I looked in vain for the names of Billy Wilder and IAL Diamond on The Lives of Others, which I saw later than most critics, but I could not find them. They must have, modestly and posthumously, refused the credit. Could any living filmmaker have written a scene of such dramatic and ironic complexity as the one in which Christa-Maria goes into a bar and is approached by her secret fan and observer? Surely not. Surely those precise skills are gone".
Apart from the sheer craziness of Cousins' quote, the overwhelming adulation heaped upon The Lives of Others throughout 2007 left me wondering if I saw a different film to everyone else. As far as I could see, The Lives of Others was a polished, well-made, fitfully intriguing drama which wasn't worth getting particularly excited about. It certainly pales in comparison with The Counterfeiters, a rougher but far more compelling German film about Jewish prisoners forced to collaborate with their Nazi captors; and it has nothing on Edge of Heaven (Feb 2008), the new film from Head-On director Fatih Akin whose story crosses between Turkey and Germany, bringing the strands together for an unexpectedly touching finale.
Much of 2007, as ever, was dominated by American cinema, though, and unfortunately it seems that the only thing worse than Hollywood not tackling major issues is, well, Hollywood tackling major issues. The war on terror was a central theme among many films this year, with unsatisfying results all-round. I was expecting more from Robert Redford's Lions for LambsRendition was a simple-minded attempt to bring the issue of extraordinary rendition to the public's consciousness, but the public wisely steered clear. Paul Haggis tried to make a film which functions both as an anti-war polemic and a straight-ahead thriller, but despite sterling work from Tommy Lee Jones, than a 90-minute lecture set in a couple of small rooms, and Gavin Hood's In The Valley of Elah (Jan 2008) fails on both counts. The only worthwhile dramatic feature on the subject so far has been Brian De Palma's Redacted (March 2008), an anguished howl of a film which is far from a perfect picture, but at least it has more to it than empty, heavy-handed speechifying. In any case, the failure of every one of these films at the box-office poses the question of whether people actually want to see these films? Perhaps the cinema-going public is suffering from a bad dose of war fatigue as this endless conflict drags on, and there doesn't seem to be a receptive audience for films that place the subject front and centre. The first wave of great Vietnam films started to appear in the late 70's, years after that war had ended, so perhaps we'll only get some cinematic perspectives on this issue when the dust finally settles on the conflict, if it ever does.
For the most part, American filmmakers are at their best when they work within traditional genres, and that was certainly the case this year. Films like The Bourne Ultimatum and Michael Clayton might be little more than thrillers, but they are thrillers made with real intelligence, vitality and skill, and Tony Gilroy – who wrote one film and directed the other – has certainly made a name for himself this year. Another staple of American cinema is the western, and we were told that they had made comeback this year – but have they ever been away? Every few years a batch of westerns will tend to surface, and 2007 just happened to contain a couple of good ones, with James Mangold's entertaining remake of 3:10 to Yuma and Andrew Dominik's astonishing film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Dominik's picture is beautiful, unconventional and thrillingly ambitious: predictably, it died a box-office death.
Some people liked to lump the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men (Feb 2008) in with this bunch of films as further evidence of a western revival, but despite the Stetsons, their picture doesn't really fit the mould. It is, however, a stunning return to form from the brothers after hitting their lowest ebb with 2004's The Ladykillers, and Javier Bardem's embodiment of Chigurgh – the relentless killer created by author Cormac McCarthy – is one of the year's most indelible performances. With the Coens turning to the darker side of life this year, it appears comedy in America belongs to one man alone right now, and Judd Apatow's double-bill of Knocked Up and Superbad (which he produced) has certainly established him as the premier comic filmmaker in contemporary cinema. Everything Apatow touches seems to be gold right now, and with his name attached to plenty of upcoming projects (including David Gordon Green's next film), it appears there are plenty more laughs to come.
Overall, the most exciting aspect of American cinema in 2007 was the sight of so many filmmakers breaking out of their comfort zones, to push themselves in new ways as they attempted to offer us a genuinely new experience. Some directors, like Wes Anderson, seemed happy to play with the same old toys, but elsewhere Todd Haynes gave us I'm Not There, David Fincher gave us Zodiac, Richard Kelly gave us Southland Tales, Darren Aronofsky gave us The Fountain, and of course Andrew Dominik's marvellous Jesse James picture fits into this category too. Not all of these films succeeded by any means, but they all felt fresh and different, and they were all made by single-minded filmmakers who desperately wanted to put their vision up there on the screen. Whether you loved these films or hated them, you have to respect that.
PT Anderson is another American filmmaker moving into new and unchartered waters, and his teaming with Daniel Day-Lewis for There Will Be Blood (Feb 2008) is the most exciting prospect for 2008 at this early stage, but there are plenty of other reasons to be optimistic about the year ahead, and about the state of cinema in general. On a technological level, Pixar continue to lead by example with Ratatouille blending jaw-dropping animation with perfectly formed storytelling; and Robert Zemeckis' Beowulf was the biggest step yet in making 3-D a viable cinematic tool, with exciting possibilities lying ahead in that field. But the most reassuring thing we can take from this year of film is the fact that all of 2007's best pictures were based more on strong, engaging, emotionally resonant storytelling than effects or spectacle. The old masters may be gone, but as long as we have compelling stories being brought to life by imaginative, intelligent filmmakers, then the future of cinema appears to be in safe hands.