In lieu of a Top 10 list, which essentially invites you to put your picks against mine in an ego-fueled contest of "whose is bigger," here's a selection of worthwhile films that likely slipped past you during their brief stopover in Bay Area theaters. They might not be the "best" films of 2007, but they're all movies I could watch again in five years, or 25 years.
1. Heddy Honigmann's breathtaking documentary Forever, which uses Paris's famed Pere-Lachaise Cemetery as its hub, screened once at the S.F. International Film Festival when the director was honored with the Persistence of Vision Award. A beautiful and profound work, the film provides a visceral experience of the immortality of great art, and the continuing influence of deceased artists on the living. Forever had a brief theatrical run in New York, but there's no sign of a DVD release on the horizon. Its placement at the top of my list is not intended as a frustrating tease, though, but as an imperative to add it to your must-do-some-day list.
2. There was a period when the best films in the world were coming out of Paris, then Hong Kong, then Tehran. Now Bucharest is the hot spot, with The Death of Mr. Lazarescu making critics' lists in 2006 and Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days (opening here Feb. 1) primed to cut a swath. 12:08 East of Bucharest screened at the Roxie in September with little fanfare, but this no-frills tale of a day in the life of three men who convene on a TV panel to wax nostalgic about the day of the revolution is well worth a look. Writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu provides a caustic reminder that people invent and forget recent history as it suits them -Â— a Stalinist technique that the Bush Administration has appropriated (but I digress). The film dares to point out that a lot of people aren't happy about the death of communism, whether they're closet fascists or simply preferred that nightmare to the evil of cold-hearted capitalism.
3. Mafioso, Alberto Lattuada's 1962 satire of Italy's postwar economic miracle, was the revival of the year (along with Rules of the Game, which was wondrously restored to gorgeous perfection). The great Alberto Sordi plays a bright young Milan factory manager who takes his sophisticated, big-city trophy wife and kids back to his village in Sicily. Lattuada wrings sly chuckles out of the culture shock, then takes the story in darker, deeper directions.
4. Gypsy Caravan is a concert film, road movie and social-issue documentary rolled into one musical feast. Jasmine Dellal's opus premiered at S.F. IndieFest and earned a run at the Roxie, and should really be seen on the big screen. But if you can pump up the volume on your home theater system, you'll want to check out the DVD when it's released in 2008.
5. The marvelous Australian Aborigine fable, Ten Canoes, immerses the viewer in a time and place that's both distant and timeless. A sardonic tale about the curse of hubris and the cost of misguided violence, Rolf de Heer's film somehow feels quite timely. The lilting voice of narrator David Gulpilil and the swampy, inexorable cinematography of Ian Jones conspire to cast a delicious spell.
6. The veteran political filmmaker Ken Loach infuses every frame of The Wind That Shakes the Barley with a simmering rage against injustice. This saga of conscience and sacrifice set amidst Ireland's "troubles" in the early 1920s boasts a first-rate script by Paul Laverty and a no-holds-barred performance by Cillian Murphy.
7. At 160 meditative, mellifluous minutes, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Outlaw Robert Ford probably dissuaded some moviegoers from going to the theater. Andrew Dominik's adaptation of Ron Hansen's novel is crammed with insights and artistry, but it's perhaps best viewed as Brad Pitt's response to the Warren Beatty films of the '70s (notably McCabe and Mrs. Miller). In addition to playing a character, Pitt (as Beatty did) is commenting on his public persona, the curse of celebrity, the threat of betrayal and the immortality guaranteed to movie stars.
8. Grbavica, which unfolds in Sarajevo in the aftermath of the Bosnia war, is a powerful exploration of the relationship between a single working mother and her 12-year-old daughter. The proverbial secrets threaten their bond, the gritty Eastern European setting is often cheerless, yet a ray of redemption lifts the picture into a kind of transcendence.
9. The Hoax. How can a film starring Richard Gere find its way onto a list of overlooked movies? When it does only $7 million at the box office. This crafty, fast-paced and deceptively dense comedy recounts how Clifford Irving conned publisher McGraw-Hill into believing that he'd been tapped by Howard Hughes to pen the reclusive billionaire's autobiography. Gere makes a brashly enthusiastic salesman, while Alfred Molina sweats buckets as Irving's friend and accomplice.
10. How can a film starring Angelina Jolie find its way onto a list of overlooked movies? OK, A Mighty Heart wasn't overlooked, but it was definitely underrated. Critics and moviegoers expecting the story of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl's post-9/11 kidnapping in Pakistan to be turned into a Jolie vehicle were disappointed, but not those who appreciated British director Michael Winterbottom's talent for submerging the viewer in the disorienting cacophony of Karachi. American audiences generally avoided every Iraq War-themed movie of 2007, perhaps because we don't want to face our culpability in a disaster of enormous proportions. But if you want a sense of the Muslim street, and what the world is like beyond CNN's filter, this is the film to see.