So I was poking around the computer at work, and what do I stumble upon? My Film Monthly "Year In Review" for 2006. Surprisingly unashamed of the writing-- though I did go a little overboard with the adjectives-- I've decided to post the damn thing here, warts and all. In the interest of historical accuracy, I haven't altered a line, but I would like to preface with a couple of after-the-fact amendments. I hadn't seen David Lynch's Inland Empire at the time; in retrospect, it deserves a spot on the list, probably around #5. Look Both Ways gets the drop, and The Departed moves to #10-- I still think Scorsese's Oscar winner is a blast, but it doesn't hold up as well under repeat viewings. As for the honorable and dishonorable mentions: I'm not so enamored of Pan's Labyrinth anymore, and a belated return to Michael Mann's Miami Vice reveals it to be a fascinating art-house mood piece disguised as a dumb, joyless action movie. They both gotta go.
No more disclaimers. I humbly present The Best and Worst of 2006, posted on February 1st, 2007 on Film Monthly Magazine.
YEAR IN REVIEW: 2006
War, social and political unrest, global warming—the world didn’t get much better in 2006 than it was in 2005. The good news, for cinephiles anyway, is that movies did. Weathering the storms of our time with conviction and bravado, artists both old and new found the silver lining in some very dark clouds. Directly or indirectly, with hope or with apprehension, they offered distinct visions of our collective present, filtering a messy, chaotic year through the complicated shades and vibrant hues of their work.
To those who speak of a disintegrating film culture: you just aren’t looking hard enough, or in the right places. The nearly unanimous support given to middling affairs like The Queen and Babel says less about what critics did see last year and more about what they didn’t. It was a remarkable year for cinema on the fringe, for low profile triumphs that flew slightly under the radar. Micro-budget moviemaking carved out a niche for itself in the art house market, thanks largely to the efforts of true indie prodigies like Andrew Bujalski (Mutual Appreciation), Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy), and the Duplass brothers (The Puffy Chair). Just as exciting was the steady flood of first-rate imports—from Almodovar to Hsiao-hsien to a veritable Australian film renaissance—and the rising popularity of documentaries. The political filmmaking of ‘05 continued unabated in ‘06, manifesting itself through both direct attack (the Iraq War docs) and roundabout, ostensibly harmless tactics (Mike Judge’s scathing Idiocracy, suspiciously and unceremoniously dumped by Fox this past fall).
Yet the majority of America saw none of these films, a fact I’d attribute to both limited availability (most of them never opened wide) and limited interest. What people saw instead was a whole lot of flashy, weightless spectacle and expensive, escapist fluff—remember, the big commercial success of the year was a sequel to a movie based on an amusement park ride. I usually don’t take too much stock in the distinction made between Hollywood and “independent” filmmaking, mostly because that line has become irreparably blurred: when the indies look like studio pics (i.e. a $10-million, star-studded spectacle like Bobby) and the studio pics look like indies (i.e., a gonzo anti-blockbuster like The Fountain) what’s the point in categorizing? Yet in 2006, almost all the challenging, relevant, and innovative work—the art, in other words—was made outside of the studio system.
Almost all of it. I must confess an admiration for at least some of this year’s Hollywood output—not the superhero epics or the romantic comedies or the Oscar bait, but the gloriously accomplished genre fare. The Departed and Casino Royale reminded me of how thrilling big-budget action movies can be when they’re really done right. The hot shots of indie filmmaking may have a monopoly on art, but, when it comes to pure entertainment, Tinsletown still has the edge.
Without further digression or summation, a year in movies.
1. The Proposition- Progress and tradition, loyalty and justice, entrenched past and encroaching future—The Proposition is a drama of collision. That’s also an apt metaphor for the way in which director John Hillcoat and writer/composer Nick Cave approach an ailing, faded genre: both adhering to and subverting its conventions, they’ve re-contextualized the modern western for a new land and a new mythology. Set on the scorched open plains of the Australian outback, this rousing, violent, poetic work is a triumph of collaboration, one in which everyone involved is working at the absolute peak of their game. The acting is uniformly outstanding, with Guy Pearce as a gaunt cipher, Ray Winstone as a hardened lawman, and the great, scene-stealing Danny Huston, funny and terrifying, as a Zen sociopath. Upstaging them all is the film’s sprawling backdrop, a savage kingdom as beautiful as it is stark and remorseless. Yet it’s the balance of visceral style and cerebral content that positions The Proposition at the very top of this year’s cinematic echelon. The cost of civilization, the bonds of brotherhood, the very nature of mankind—these are rich, profound themes, yet they never overshadow nor interfere with the narrative pleasures of this powerful, exhilarating genre piece. Simply put, it’s one of the best westerns ever made.
2. Conversations With Other Women- A man and woman—unidentified, anonymous ex-lovers—meet at a wedding reception and talk an entire evening away. That’s the long and the short of Hans Canosa’s exquisite second feature, a forceful reminder of how purely satisfying it can be, in this hyper-stylized age, to just watch a pair of actors connect on screen. Aaron Eckhart and Helen Bonham Carter are said actors, and Conversations With Other Women is their tango and their duet: they flirt, they reminisce, they conjure up the entire history of a lost love affair in 84 sparse minutes. The film does have a gimmick: it’s shot entirely in split screen, with him on the left and her on the right. Far from a distraction, this nervy stylistic trick strips away all periphery action, keeping the focus squarely locked on its magnetic leads and their heady, seductive, intoxicating chatter. Screenwriter Gabrielle Zevin has a rare understanding of the way middle-aged, white-collar sophisticates interact, and her dialogue—natural and eloquent, layered with subtext yet thrilling in its spontaneity—is the secret weapon of this underappreciated masterwork. In its own tidy, insular way, a near-perfect film.
3. Children of Men- It took two viewings for me to see the full scope of what director Alfonso Cuarón has accomplished with Children of Men. Maybe that’s because I spent the first viewing picking my jaw up from off the floor. The technical achievements of this bleak dsytopian epic are stunning and unparalleled: Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki infuse each and every scene with a breathtaking, kinetic urgency—there are set-pieces here that rank among the best ever filmed. Yet it would be wrong to suggest that the movie’s dazzling aesthetic glories were all it had to offer: envisioning a nightmarish near future where women are infertile and society lies on the verge of collapse, Children of Men courses with rage, compassion, and, most rewardingly, a hard-won idealism. As a lowly bureaucrat entrusted with the fate of the human race, Clive Owen, in the performance of his career, personifies the central philosophical conceit of the movie: a belief in hope as the key to revolution and to change. That the film works as either a mournful elegy for a dying world or a cathartic salute to a surviving one—not to mention a brisk, remarkable chase picture—is a testament to the democratic ambiguity of Cuarón’s poignant and staggeringly intense vision.
4. Dave Chapelle’s Block Party- The concert film as celebration—of music, of community, of life itself. In 2004, standing on the brink of super-stardom, comedian Dave Chapelle organized the music festival of his dreams: a one-day extravaganza in Brooklyn, featuring some of the premiere artists of contemporary hip-hop. Block Party chronicles that experience, and, as directed by whimsical wunderkind Michel Gondry, it’s about as joyous and uplifting as movies get. The director dices the big event into fragments and moments, mixing up space and time, shifting perspective from the performers on stage to the kids in the crowd and back again. At the center of it all is Chapelle, who’s loose, funny, and impassioned—a spirited ringleader of the festivities and a guiding voice throughout. His cultural and political insights lend the film a bold revolutionary slant, but, like all great music docs, this one derives most of its power from its music. Block Party should be required viewing for anyone who dismisses hip-hop as fundamentally negative or nihilistic: the artists—who range from The Roots to Jill Scott to a triumphantly reunited Fugees—rap about love and change, growth and perseverance. If this movie doesn’t put a bounce in your step and a smile on your face, nothing will.
5. Casino Royale- I’m as surprised as anyone to see this on my list, but against all odds, the 21st installment in the creaky ol’ Bond series is a sinewy, elegant, effortlessly cool affair. Really, it’s a reinvention, a return to basics: in taking us back to 007’s very first mission, director Martin Campbell strips the tried-and-true formula down to its bare essentials—no gadgets, no cartoon super-villains, just guns, girls, and high-stakes espionage. The action sequences are breathlessly exciting (especially that doozy of an opening chase), but the giddy joy of Casino Royale is the way in which it transforms a cheeky, quip dispensing icon into a real character again, a flesh-and-blood person with real fears and real desires. This Bond is brash and brutish, decidedly rough around the edges, and he’s played, with mesmerizing intensity, by a brooding, steely-eyed Daniel Craig. Getting to the heart of the super spy’s callous nature—his flippant nihilism, his casual misogyny—Craig does something downright transcendent: he turns this latest entry in the blockbuster franchise into a devastating human tragedy. A Bond film that’s actually about something? Move over Goldfinger, we have a new champion!
6. Three Times- A simple title for such a complicated movie—complicated not in its plotting, but in the tangled web of ideas that it weaves. The latest from Hsiao-hsien Hou, a Taiwanese filmmaker whose movies rarely screen in the U.S., this gorgeous, mannered, esoteric anthology explores the amorphous nature of love, and how it evolves or withers with time. There are three stories, each set in a different era, but with the same leads, Qi Shu and Chen Chang. Alone, these self-contained vignettes—tonally, thematically, and aesthetically disparate—are wholly satisfying. Together, though, they form an even greater whole, a complex cinematic thesis and three-act tone poem that charts an uneven path from the sweet innocence of first love to a distinctly modern brand of romantic disenchantment. Admittedly, it isn’t entirely easy to decipher or deconstruct all of Hsiao-hsien’s artistic intentions, which he hides behind layers of dreamy ambiance. But when the journey is this rapturously beautiful, this visually and sonically appealing, you can hardly complain about getting lost along the way. Three Times is a film you’ll want to get lost in, again and again.
7. The Departed- There’s nothing quite like watching a master at play, and The Departed is Martin Scorsese’s greatest toy in ages. A suped-up remake of the Hong Kong action thriller Infernal Affairs, this violent, razor-sharp crime opus crackles with maniacal energy and bracingly funny black humor. Yet to dismiss it as fun but regressive backsliding (as some critics have done) is to deny the very nature of its construction: mixing the messy, rock-and-roll vitality of his earlier work with the control and artistic maturity of his latter day experiments, Scorsese has made the first film of his career that’s got both the gritty swing of Old Marty and the operatic grandeur of New Marty. But even if the detractors were right, this electrifying tour through the mean streets of Boston—with a searing Leonardo DiCaprio as a mole in the mob and a cunning Matt Damon as his undercover counterpart in the police force—would still be the year’s most purely entertaining ride. William Monahan’s script is tough and smart and Howard Shore’s music pulsates and soars, but, bottom line, this is the Scorsese Show. And oh, what a show it is.
8. The Science of Sleep- More than any other artistic medium, cinema seems an appropriate conduit for the expression of the unconscious mind. Like David Lynch, writer-director Michel Gondry (who had one hell of a year: see #4) understands and embraces the opportunity to recreate the dream world of his imagination. The Science of Sleep, like the artist’s iconic music videos, is a series of airy, abstract wonders, surreal dream sequences that bear the personal, idiosyncratic mark of their creator. The visual effects—all papier-mâché and stop motion—have a charming organic quality, but it’s the awkward romance between Stefan (the fiercely talented Gael Garcia Bernal) and Stefanie (the lovely French movie star Charlotte Gainsburg) that grounds this whimsical fantasia, keeping it from floating off into the ether. Stefan can’t distinguish his dreams from reality, but that’s the least of his problems: he’s a lovesick fool—insecure, selfish, and plagued by doubts. As a lilting, Gen X love story, The Science of Sleep is no match for Gondry’s own Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But as a vigorous tug-o-war between the filmmaker’s id and superego—cast as the struggle between Stefan’s epic fantasies and the stark reality of his life—it makes for a charming, fascinating trip.
9. Brick- You know those modernized Shakespeare adaptations, the ones in which entire pages of dialogue and full storylines are transported to a contemporary setting? That’s Brick for you—just substitute Dashiell Hammett for the Bard. Rian Johnson’s hypnotic and deviously clever first feature has all the trappings of a hard-boiled, 1940s detective movie: double-crossings, labyrinthine plot twists, slinky femme fatales, crooked cops, menacing thugs, even a McGuffin. It’s got all these things, yet it plays out not in some shadowy urban jungle, but, rather, in and around a suburban high school. Call it Teenage Noir, if you must, but don’t call it a stunt: though it’s funny and jarring to hear Johnson’s spot-on, rat-a-tat-tat vernacular spilling out of the mouths of freshly-scrubbed, So-Cal valley kids, Brick transcends its film-school premise. As a junior Sam Spade, Mysterious Skin’s Joseph Gordon Levitt has the charisma and presence of a young Bogie, and the movie built around him is a moody marvel. Johnson smartly equates the backstabbing power struggles and hot passions of seedy crime thrillers to the every-day drama of high school—and in the process comes closer to capturing the real spirit of noir than a cartoon homage like Sin City ever could. Obscenely enjoyable.
10. Look Both Ways- There are any number of films that might have occupied this tenth and final spot on my list (see the honorable mentions below), but I can’t pass up an opportunity to pay affectionate tribute to one of 2006’s unheralded triumphs. The debut feature from Australian filmmaker Sarah Watts, Look Both Ways traces the lives of several characters grappling with their own mortality in the wake of a sudden, public tragedy. There are shades of Altman and P.T. Anderson here, but Watts’ vision is scarcely derivative. In a year in which style and substance weren’t mutually exclusive—where they mingled and co-existed instead, complementing each other even—the writer-director boldly employs flashy techniques (like rapid photo montages and beautiful, watercolor animation) in service of old-fashioned good storytelling. And though it relies a bit too heavily on the conventions of the ensemble drama (i.e. the mournful montage set to a pop ballad), the film’s life-affirming climax is overwhelmingly emotional. With superb acting and an exceptionally strong script, this quirky gem deserves—nay, demands—to be discovered by a wider audience. Spread the word.
I saw 99 new movies in 2006. That’s more than I’ve ever seen in one year, and though many of them were unremarkable or worse, a good number were well worth checking out. In other words, in a weaker year, any one of the following films could have made my Top Ten list.
The honorable mentions of 2006, in alphabetical order:
The Descent, Half Nelson, Little Fish, The Lives of Others, Marie Antoinette, Mutual Appreciation, Old Joy, The Prestige, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Puffy Chair, A Scanner Darkly, Sherrybaby, and Volver.
1. Running Scared- Irredeemably atrocious. If Tony Scott dropped acid, then spent a week watching music videos and playing Grand Theft Auto, he might come close to making something as vile and mind-numbingly stupid as this. Wayne Kramer’s shamelessly plagiaristic style is matched only by his gleeful sadism and moral bankruptcy: in the writer-director’s warped mind, a child blowing away his abusive father with a stolen handgun is cause for righteous celebration. Aesthetically and ideologically repugnant—not just the worst movie of the year, but one of the worst I’ve ever seen.
2. Bobby- On the opposite end of the spectrum, a preachy liberal wank fest, as embarrassingly earnest as a Hallmark card. A labor of love from triple-threat Emilio Estevez, Bobby tells a dozen stories, none of them interesting. Movie stars play dress-up to the Super Sounds of the ‘60s, pausing now and then to deliver a heavy-handed speech. Of the film’s many sins, its greatest is the way in which it tidily reduces the entire spirit of a decade—the hopes and dreams of a generation—to a series of bumper sticker slogans. Sitting through two hours of this didactic bullshit makes me want to vote Republican.
3. Running With Scissors- A shrill hissy fit of a movie. "Nip/Tuck" creator Ryan Murphy transforms Augusten Burroughs’ best-selling memoir (beloved by many, unread by me) into a dysfunctional-family sitcom, one that’s alternately hateful, saccharine, and self-consciously quirky. Joseph Cross, bland and whiny, is our long-suffering hero, forced to spend years dealing with his unstable mother and the wacky antics of his off-the-wall surrogate family. Compared to those who actually saw this dreadful film, Augusten got off easy.
4. You, Me, and Dupree- The jokes are as stale and lazy as the premise. It’s as if the producers got Owen Wilson attached and thought the movie would write itself. Wilson does his usual nice-guy doofus routine while Matt Dillon scowls and Kate Hudson scampers around in cute outfits. For two hours. I like broad, scatological comedy as much as the next guy—well, okay, maybe not—but this is just inexcusable.
5. The Last King of Scotland & Little Children- Proof apparent that all it really takes to be a winner is to dress like one. There’s no other explanation for the baffling acclaim that these pandering, condescending, middlebrow trifles have garnered. Last King is a racist potboiler posing as a social-outrage polemic. Little Children is a shallow suburban satire, a shameless amalgam of American Beauty and Happiness. Neither of them is worth a damn. Both of them are nominated for Oscars. What was I saying earlier about a disintegrating film culture?
Being a film buff isn’t all sunshine and lollypops: there’s a dark side to spending all your free time at the movie theatre. None of the following pics are quite as wretched as the six I just listed, but if that isn’t the biggest backhanded compliment I’ve ever given, I must be mincing words.
The runner-downs, the bronze medal atrocities, the dishonorable mentions of 2006:
The DaVinci Code, Hostel, Lady In the Water, Lucky Number Slevin, Miami Vice, and X-Men: The Last Stand.
SO, WHAT’S NEXT?
One of the most rewarding and daunting things about being a film enthusiast is that it’s a full-time job. There’s never a time in which new movies aren’t coming out. This means that even as I close the book on a year of cinema, I have to gear up for the start of a whole new one.
If 2006 was the year of indie breakouts and big-budget sequels and Martin Scorsese, what will 2007 hold for us? What will be the big grosser—Spider-man 3 or Pirates 3?