By Nick Schager
[Photo: “Persepolis,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2007]
Amidst all the new features from established auteurs, it would be easy to overlook the fact that 2007 was a banner year for debuts. In an effort to counteract any potential disregard, here are five films from six first-time helmers who, on the evidence of these maiden productions, will likely be heard from again very soon.
Directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi
Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel series “Persepolis” has been rightly acclaimed for its blend of humor, pathos, and social commentary, yet its stark black-and-white visual style hardly seemed a natural fit for the big-screen. Any concerns about lost-in-translation problems, however, disappeared from the opening frames of Satrapi’s animated gem (co-directed by Vincent Paronnaud), which bursts with vibrant, prickly, poignant life. Satrapi’s film isn’t just a faithful adaptation but an energized improvement of its source material, lending the author’s personal saga of oppression and exile an aesthetic fluidity and vitality that few animated efforts, of this year or any other, can match.
Away From Her
Directed by Sarah Polley
An adaptation of an Alice Munro short story about a long-married couple torn apart by Alzheimer’s, “Away From Her” would be a remarkable feature from a filmmaker of any age. The fact that it was authored by 28-year-old actress-turned-director Sarah Polley, though, makes its success that much more stunning. It’s a tale marked by a gentle touch and a humanistic interest in the frustration, pain, loneliness and resilient optimism that accompanies growing old. And its deeply felt sensitivity extends to the treatment of its magnificent leads Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie, whose performances are given room to breathe and blossom by Polley’s composed camerawork.
The Band’s Visit
Directed by Eran Kolirin
On its face, Eran Kolirin’s wry dramedy appears poised for typical culture-clash mushiness. What it ultimately delivers, however, is an affecting dose of subtle, heartfelt sweetness. An Egyptian police band’s accidental arrival in an isolated Israeli village is the premise for this sly investigation of communication barriers, with the unexpected meeting between Egyptians and Israelis standing as an obvious allegory for current Middle East relations. Yet the beauty of “The Band’s Visit” is that it never feels the need to overtly remark upon its larger concerns, or allow them to interfere with its moving portrait of lonely souls in desperate need of reciprocated kindness.
12:08 East of Bucharest
Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu
Corneliu Porumboiu’s “12:08 East of Bucharest” is more overtly comedic than last year’s heralded Romanian import “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” but that’s not to say it’s any less profound a work. Revolving around a TV talk show host’s attempt to produce a program about whether the 1989 revolution that expelled Ceausescu from power occurred in his rural town, the film commences with dry joviality and slowly develops into a piercing and piercingly funny meditation on the impossibility of establishing concrete truths. Its elegant bookending shots of streetlights going on and off (visual representations of spreading politicization) are textbook examples of understated symbolism done right.
King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Directed by Seth Gordon
This rollicking cinematic depiction of videogame culture came courtesy of documentarian Seth Gordon, who considers his chosen social environment with sincere thoughtfulness free of patronizing mockery. Gordon’s non-fiction crowd-pleaser thrives partly because of its thrilling underdog narrative involving the quest by family man Steve Wiebe to topple arcade game legend Billy Mitchell’s record Donkey Kong score. Brimming with good guys, bad guys and colorful peripheral figures, it’s a true-life tale fit for a Hollywood film. Ultimately, though, its resonance comes less from its twists and turns than from the director’s focus on the emotional and psychological forces compelling his subjects to compete.
[Additional photos: “Persepolis,” Sony Pictures Classics; “Away From Her,” Lionsgate; “The Band’s Visit,” Sony Pictures Classics; “12:08 East of Bucharest,” Tartan; “King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters,” Picturehouse]