Monday, February 19, 2007

My Favorite Movies of 2006

What's a top ten for? I figure that it's an expression of your own taste, not what critics, awards groups, advertisers or even friends tell you to enjoy. Looking over my list, I can generalize about my mood. For one thing, I've had enough of post-9/11 fear, revenge and seriousness. Cinema that tries to be a newspaper (United 93, World Trade Center, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Babel, the dozens of Iraq war documentaries) isn't meeting my needs, but critics at this time of year have a way of hyping such films as serious and "important." One prominent blog argued that lack of interest in Iraq war documentaries was a sign of poor citizenship--never mind however else we might be working to stay informed or make our opinions matter. The biggest problem with the profession of film critics is its lack of diversity, esp. in terms of aesthetics. The Departed is a perfect example: an adrenaline rush of a movie, overlong but made with top-notch skill, it's a shallow, macho thriller. It has polish and gusto, but it's an empty thrill ride, yet it's a top awards contender this year. I won't argue that The Notorious Bettie Page and C.R.A.Z.Y. are equally skillful, but they were much more relevant to my life. And they both withered on the vine for lack of attention. C.R.A.Z.Y., from far-away exotic Canada, has played in countries around the world including Turkey but was never picked up for distribution in the U.S. I had one chance to see it, at Reeling, Chicago's gay film festival.

I saw my usual number of new films this year (between 90-100) with more still to see, but I thought it was a rather weak year (third in a row). Unlike A. O. Scott, who moaned recently that people who say it was a bad year are just engaging in lazy "they don't make 'em like they used to" thinking, I think it's a fair statement. Some crops are just better than others (2007 already looks miles better!) but this year offered less critical consensus, which is always fun. Some trends and events of note: Wellspring went under, a terrible loss; there was a shakeup at The Village Voice, which also looks like bad news; I've yet to see the film Idiocracy but there seems to be a troubling story emerging that this mass media satire was buried by Fox; IFC Films/IFC First Take has emerged as a major player, and relatedly (some good news), quicker release of DVDs seems to be helping foreign and indie films survive.

1. Children of Men (Universal)
One reason I think it was a weak year is that even with my top choice I can think of some arguable weaknesses (for the opinion of someone who hated the film, read Andrew Sarris' grumpy review): it's arguably far-fetched and "mindless" (more emotional than rational), and it isn't the greatest actors' vehicle. But to me it's probably the greatest science fiction film since the underrated A.I.. Taken literally, it is rather implausible, so if realism is the god you serve you may as well skip it. But by exaggerating many of the features of today's world (threats to our security, privacy and ecology), it captures our anxieties and offers us a glimmer of hope, of redemption. Cuaron evokes the kind of emotions (wonder, dread) that make me think of Spielberg's best work, and he's surely Spielberg's greatest rival. I've been a big fan of his children's films (A Little Princess, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), and so the role played by a child in this film is especially fitting, but it also asks audiences to set aside their cynicism when cynicism has never been more fashionable.

2. "My Dad is 100 Years Old"
It seems a bit unorthodox to include short films in my top ten lists, but there have been some exceptional ones these last few years, and they've simply excited me more than most feature length films. This 16-minute film, shown in theaters with the revival of Rossellini's The Flowers of St. Francis, is a tribute to the filmmaker by his daughter Isabella, directed by her recent collaborator Guy Maddin. It's an excellent example of a film whose auteur is not (solely) the director. Isabella plays a number of film legends including Hitchcock, Chaplin, Selznick and her mother Ingrid Bergman, all having a discussion in a movie theater about her father. Completely unique, an absolute treat for film lovers.

3. The Notorious Bettie Page (Picturehouse Entertainment)
This film was greeted with such indifference it's like it never existed. Was the problem that it was partly shot in black and white? That it scared off people who thought it would be sleazy? That the Bettie Page fad had crested? Or was it that it treated its subject as a human being rather than a campy sex object? I have no idea, but Mary Harron has proven herself one of the most enduring directors of the "new queer cinema" of the 90s (that much too short-lived moment) by always doing unique work, and I found this film's grace and optimism refreshing. Gretchen Mol gives one of the most generous performances of this or any year (she's been so unfairly overlooked by the awards groups, esp. the Independent Spirit Awards--what purpose do they serve?). Yes, she's naked during some of the film, gloriously so. More than any recent film I can think of, certainly more than Shortbus, which tried a lot harder, Mol celebrated the body's natural beauty. Sexuality in movies is so often prudish or routine but here it's somehow transcendent, even pastoral in one particular outdoor scene. In real life sexuality is also risky, vulnerable especially for a woman, which makes some of Page's decisions all the braver, given her experiences of abuse, about which the filmmakers are frank without indulging in fashionable exploitation. In the end, I was moved by Harron's and cowriter Turner's integrity in honoring their heroine's choices, especially the religious ones, at a time when too many people have become panicked about religion. The soundtrack, too, is excellent.

4. The Illusionist (Yari Film Group Releasing)
There's a much-discussed and bizarre phenomenon of strangely similar films arriving to theaters in pairs. This year it was two stories about 19th Century magicians, The Illusionist and The Prestige, and there was much more anticipation for the latter because the source novel has a cult following. Several people went so far as to boycott The Illusionist because they saw it as a kind of copycat, a lot of silliness. Both films are excellent and quite different, but I prefer this one. Adapted from a short story by Steven Millhauser ("Eisenheim the Illusionist," from The Barnum Museum), The Illusionist tells the story of a magician (Edward Norton) in turn-of-the-century Vienna who falls in love with a woman (Jessica Beil) who is engaged to the prince (Rufus Sewell). I saw this just after the terribly disappointing new M. Night Shyamalan film (Lady in the Water) and couldn't help thinking it was exactly the kind of film he should be making.

5. Tristram Shandy: a Cock and Bull Story (Picturehouse Entertainment)
Deliciously dry British humor flavors this admirable and entertaining attempt to translate the source novel to the screen. Half adaptation and half fiction about the making of an adaptation, this didn't work for some, but for me it transcended comedy. Dare I use the 3-letter "A" word?

6. Change of Address (Changement d'Adresse)
Simply a delightful romantic comedy, sexy, gentle and heartfelt. The fact that it involved a musician made it even more enjoyable for me. The structure, the unexpected departures from formula, the absurdist approach to philosophies of love, all of it gave me an impression of unusual intelligence and artistry. It's a film many people would enjoy if they just gave it a chance, but I'm not sure how many people I'll be able to convince about its high quality. After all, most people seem to think silliness can never be taken seriously. I feel sorry for them!

7. Linda Linda Linda (Viz Pictures)
What at first seemed just another slow-paced Asian art film (about, of all things, 4 high school girls creating a rock band for a school project) grows in power to become a uniquely and unexpectedly touching experience. I'm not sure everything came through the cultural translation (esp. the material about Japanese-Korean relations), but I have since learned that kids are forming rock bands in Japan like never before. The flip side of Gus Van Sant's Elephant?

8. Evil (Ondskan) (Magnolia Pictures)
A Scandinavian boarding school drama set in the 50s whose intense, cruel violence put me in mind of Lord of the Flies. Its troubled and troubling hero evokes James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, but his relationship to violence is much more morally questionable. A local critic accused the film of stoking the audience's bloodlust, but I thought the film ingeniously addressed the many dilemmas of violence--whether it can be avoided, whether it should be, why and when it should be used. (Also, during Kill Bill, a film that certainly aroused bloodlust, my audience shouted and cheered, but during this film all I heard was whimpers.) It doesn't touch Cronenberg's A History of Violence for artistry, but it deserved much more support from critics. (This film played at Cannes in 2003 but only finally reached the U.S. in 2006.)

9. C.R.A.Z.Y. (no U.S. distribution; dvd forthcoming from Netflix)
It feels like I've seen hundreds of gay coming-out stories, but I don't remember seeing one that succeeds so well at including the point of view of a parent struggling to accept a child's unexpected sexual identity. A straight director and gay co-writer collaborated here and achieved something exceptional. True, it's excessive at times (terribly so in an Israeli sequence), but experiences like this are messy affairs in real life. I'll take this over more conservative yet "tasteful" Hollywood treatments like Brokeback Mountain any day.

10. Little Children (New Line Cinema)
I haven't read Tom Perotta's source novel, but this makes the second exceptional film to be made from his work. Director Todd Field's In the Bedroom was strong but I wasn't prepared for how much this film would impress me. The story's brave take on sex offenders and the way our society creates and handles them is just one reason to see the film. Kate Winslet heads up a terrific cast (she's been Oscar-nominated a fifth time, sure to lose again).

11. Three Times (IFC Films)
Very reminiscent of Wong Kar Wai (In the Mood for Love, 2046) yet completely in keeping with Hou Hsiao-hsien's previous work. Romantic, visually gorgeous, slow and moody with a great soundtrack. I'd like to see this again.

12. Wordplay (IFC Films)
A surprisingly entertaining documentary. (Or perhaps the idea of watching a documentary merely to be entertained offends you?) It may not be inspiring like Spellbound--unless you count that craving to do a crossword puzzle you'll have for a week after seeing it--but the cast of characters is delightful and the energy and enthusiasm of the film are contagious.

13. The New World (2005) (New Line Cinema)
Shame on me. I skipped this in the theaters and waited for DVD. It was gorgeous and would have been amazing to see on the big screen. As a meditation on our nation's founding, it's mythical and romantic yet also manages to be clear-eyed about our failings.

14. Pan's Labyrinth (Picturehouse Entertainment)
In many ways the most exciting film of the year, Pan's Labyrinth is rich and masterful in its memorable blend of fantasy and Spanish Civil War movie, but it's ultimately too pessimistic and gratuitously violent. When Red saw it, he heard a couple argue afterwards, summing up typically: "What was the point of that ending?" "Because, that's how life is." Well, that may be provocative, but it isn't a vision of life I can embrace. I believe if Steven Spielberg's name were on the film as director, critics would be condemning its irresponsible mix of politics and fairy tale, but that's neither here nor there. It's still a brilliant film and I hope it presages better from Del Toro.

15. The Queen (Miramax Films)
An exceptional script and top-notch direction are the key ingredients here, though Helen Mirren is certainly excellent in the role that has won her nearly every award but the Nobel Peace Prize. I walked in thinking the cult of Diana was ridiculous and that monarchy is an outdated political abomination, and I was surprised that a film which might have been just another tv movie of the week has as much to say to me as it does to the royalty nuts. Its warm humanism was refreshing, but even I wondered if it was a bit too kind to the politicians involved until I heard writer Peter Morgan's illuminating Golden Globes speech.

16. The Prestige (Newmarket Films)
The lesser of two Victorian magician films was still a great entertainment, but it ran into some serious problems in its ending (whereas the ending of The Illusionist was like the cherry on top). And I have to note this is the second film in my top 20 this year featuring Michael Caine, getting even better with age.

17. The Science of Sleep (Warner Independent Pictures)
I greatly preferred Eternal Sunshine, but Gondry's latest is still individualistic, trippy and romantic. And how surprising that Charlotte Gainsbourg has the opposite problem that Juliet Binoche has: when she switches from acting in French to acting in English she becomes more charming.

18. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation)
The film provided a few laughs, yes, but made me think more than any other film this year (besides Pan's Labyrinth). Cohen mixes improv, "reality tv," and satire, borrowing from Johnny Knoxville and Michael Moore as much as the Comedy Central crowd. It's one of the very few 2006 films people will be remembering and talking about long after the Oscar hoopla dies down. The ingenious Cohen has been attacked, defamed, sued and questioned to a degree second perhaps only to Mel Gibson this year, and I'll admit I'm as queasy about some of his tactics as the next person, but ultimately I agree with Time Out New York's Joshua Land: "There's hardly a shortage of commentators bemoaning the degraded state of American culture, but only transgressors like Zwigoff and Sacha Baron Cohen seem to understand that it might be necessary to sacrifice the niceties of good taste and fine art in the process." And something I just learned (it's the film that keeps on giving): when Borat is supposed to be speaking Kazakh, he's actually speaking Hebrew!

19. Little Miss Sunshine (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Cute indiewood ensemble picture (an enviable cast, though some members were underutilized) notable mostly for giving us some solid laughs (though most of the jokes were spoiled in the trailer) and for its aggressive, innovative and successful ad campaign.

20. Notes on a Scandal
Tacky, pulpy and so enjoyable. And thus it just edges out Almodovar's latest. (Penelope Cruz was revelatory in Volver, but Notes has two world-class actresses, Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett.)

HONORABLE MENTIONS (the next forty)
Volver, Half Nelson, Sweet Land, Lassie, An Inconvenient Truth, The Bridesmaid (Demoiselle d'honneur, La), Strangers with Candy, Stranger Than Fiction, L'Enfant, Slither, Comedy of Power, Changing Times, Interkosmos, A Scanner Darkly, The Devil Wears Prada, Quinceanera, Eight Below, Friends with Money, Shortbus, Iron Island, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, The Lake House, The Painted Veil, Letters from Iwo Jima, The Fountain, Why We Fight, The Departed, Climates, Dreamgirls, Cars, Bubble, A Prairie Home Companion, Thank You for Smoking, On a Clear Day, District B13, Twelve and Holding, Clean, The White Countess, Nacho Libre, Casino Royale.

Best Actress: Gretchen Mol (The Notorious Bettie Page)
Runners-Up: Penelope Cruz (Volver), Helen Mirren (The Queen), Meryl Streep (The Devil Wears Prada), Judi Dench (Notes on a Scandal)
Best Actor: Steve Coogan (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story)
Runners-Up: Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson), Michael Sheen (The Queen), Ralph Fiennes (The White Countess), Paul Giamatti (for making Lady in the Water bearable & also for The Illusionist)
Best Supporting Actor: Simon McBurney (Friends With Money), Runners-Up: Mark Wahlberg (The Departed), Stephen Colbert (Strangers With Candy), Alec Baldwin (The Departed), Steve Carell (Little Miss Sunshine)
Best Supporting Actress: Frédérique Bel (Change of Address),
Runners-Up: Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada), Charlotte Gainsbourg (The Science of Sleep), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Stranger Than Fiction), Phyllis Somerville (Little Children)

Best Child Performance: Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine)
Best Adolescent Performance: Claire-Hope Ashitey (Children of Men)
Runners-Up: Q'Orianka Kilcher (The New World), Shareeka Epps (Half Nelson), Zoe Weizenbaum (Twelve and Holding), Ivana Baquero (Pan's Labyrinth),
2006 "It" Girl Award: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Best taglines: "Hell on Heels" (Devil Wears Prada), "One Woman's Mistake Is Another's Opportunity..." (Notes on a Scandal), "Censorship, uncensored." (This Film Is Not Yet Rated), and "The story of a man who could only count to #1" (Talladega Nights); Worst: "If You Ain't Outta Control, You Ain't In Control." (The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drft), and "She Always Thought She Was Somebody... And She Was." (Last Holiday), and "He's nacho average hero." (Nacho Libre).

Activist Film of the Year: An Inconvenient Truth (deserving of the overused term "important")
Most Overrated Film: Hollywoodland
Most Underrated Film: The New World
Best Gay/Queer Film: C.R.A.Z.Y. / The Notorious Bettie Page
Best Film Critic: Matthew Wilder and Sam Adams, best contributions to the IndieWIRE poll.

2006 Soundtrack Highlights: Lang Lang performing Satie and Alexandre Desplat's main theme (The Painted Veil), main titles/end titles by Eastwood and Stevens (Letters from Iwo Jima), "Long, Long Time Ago" by Javier Navarrete (Pan's Labyrinth), Children of Men soundtrack (esp. John Lennon and Jarvis Cocker), Notorious Bettie Page soundtrack (esp. the songs by Patsy Cline, Jeri Southern, and Julie London), "Linda Linda Linda" (Linda Linda Linda), "Rain and Tears" (Three Times), DeVotchKa/Sufjan Stevens (Little Miss Sunshine), the stunning lip-sync'd number in Volver, Philip Glass's Notes on a Scandal soundtrack, Broken Social Scene's "Stars and Sons" (Half Nelson), Brit Daniels/Spoon (Stranger than Fiction soundtrack), "Okan Bale" by Angelique Kidjo (Changing Times), "You Know My Name" by Chris Cornell wasn't bad (Casino Royale), and (o.k.) *the* number from Dreamgirls.

I enjoy seeing new movies, but lately I'm even more excited about the past. This year I saw more older movies than ever, and as a group they far outclassed the Class of '06. A baker's dozen of them were pure gold: 3-Iron (Bin-jip), a 2004 Korean film, was the highlight of a strong series of Korean films I watched--if it had been released here this year, it may have been my number one choice. I tend to love or hate Douglas Sirk films, and I loved All I Desire (1953), a rarely screened gem starring Barbara Stanwyck. Brief Encounter (1945), quoted in the recent play/film The History Boys, lived fully up to its classic reputation. I rented The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) for Gene Tierney and was surprisingly moved by still another take on the impossible romance story. Girls About Town (1931), an early Cukor film unavalable on DVD, surprised me with its bold pre-Code sexuality and dazzled me with its opening montage. Kay Francis and a handsome young Joel McCrea were lead the cast. Modern Romance (1981) is the best Albert Brooks film I've yet seen by far. How is it not better known? Breakfast on Pluto got me interested again in Neil Jordan, and his Mona Lisa (1986) was an enjoyable precursor to The Crying Game. I look forward to watching more of his early films. The New One-Armed Swordsman (1971) is everything I could have desired in a campy older martial arts film, if I'd only been a bolder dreamer. Now all I hope for is a dvd release. One of the few key Sturges films I'd not yet seen kept an impossibly glorious string of classic comedies going: Palm Beach Story (1942). I've tried a few Jean Renoir films and been impressed but not fallen in love with any of them until The River (1951), which will no doubt inspire me to keep trying with his other films. I expected Ken Russell's Tommy (1975) to be dated and campy, but I didn't expect it to be so powerful. It absolutely won my respect. I've seen some of the best and most celebrated screwballs of the 30s, but Trouble in Paradise (1932) electrified me. Whenever I see any of its (heretofore unknown to me) cast pop up in any old movie, I instantly sit up and pay more attention, a smile on my face. And I thought I'd never see another film noir that would interest me after being in a film group that watched a couple dozen, but I adored Preminger's Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)--nearly the equal of the classic Laura.

I also highly enjoyed: Breathless (1960), Army of Shadows (1969), Classe Tous Risques (1960), Chicago (1927), Fourteen Hours (1951), Grey Gardens (1975), The Servant (1963), The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), Cabin in the Sky (1943), Evil Dead 2 (1987), Bus Stop (1959), Psycho (1960), Oliver Twist (1948), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), Un Air de Famille (1996), I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), Duel (1971), and Bad Company (1972). And the highlights of a "silly film" series I watch with Red: The Court Jester (1956), Ride the Wild Surf (1964), Teenagers from Outer Space (1959), High School Confidential (1958), Viva Las Vegas (1964), and Speedway (1968). And that's just scratching the surface. Here's to '07 and its excavations!

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home