Wednesday, March 14, 2007

It wasn't the best or worst of times, Film in 2006

I think I saw more new releases in 2006 than in any other year in my life, and yet I still think I missed more interesting stuff than I got to (even with two plus months to catch up). I guess that is the nature of culture consumption at this point, even people who are in the enviable position of doing this for a living can't keep up with the volume of the content put out every year. Specialization allows one the see most of any one medium, but if you have disparate interests then all you can hope to do is rely on referrals to ensure you get to the very, very best stuff. My interests being (in descending order of time invested, if not actual esteem) film, television, music and literature, I feel I have done a mediocre job with movies, a fair job with television (it is the easiest, since all I have to do is go to the living room and turn off my brain), a bad job with music and no job with literature. I don't think I have read any book released in 2006. Books have the longest shelf life, and require the most investment, since they take so long to get through, so I tend to be the most risk adverse in my literature picks. I watch plenty of bad tv and movies, but only pick up books that I am fairly certain to enjoy.

Still, this is supposed to be a movie post, and I did get to see 32 movies released in 2006 (numbers unofficial and subject to change). Those movies are: Lucky Number Slevin, United 93, Mission: Impossible III, X-Men: The Last Stand, The Break-Up, Cars, Superman Returns, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Clerks II, Miami Vice, Little Miss Sunshine, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, The Queen, The Departed, Flags of Our Fathers, The Prestige, Babel, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Volver, Casino Royale, Letters from Iwo Jima, Dreamgirls, Children of Men, Notes on a Scandal, Pan's Labyrinth, Idiocracy, A Prairie Home Companion, The Last King of Scotland, The Proposition, A Scanner Darkly, Confederate States of America and I Am A Sex Addict.

Yet, at the end of the year I find that there are another 30 or 40 movies (officially, there are probably another 50 I don't even know about) that I really wanted to see. including The Black Dahlia, Jackass Number 2, Stranger Than Fiction, The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu (which Netflix just sent me), Three Times and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, to name a few. Some of them I will catch up on netflix (though the bottom of my queue is death row since I usually add two movies for every movie I watch), some I will see eventually in the theaters and some I will never see. That's just the way the cookie crumbles. It wasn't a great year for movies, nothing immediately jumped into my all-time top 10, but I haven't seen some of my favorites twice (which is where all-time favorites are developed).

So, without further ado, here are my favorite movies of 2006.

Children of Men: Hands down, number one with a bullet for me. I was absolutely thrilled from start to finish. It would be the most thrilling action movie of the year if it didn't have so many interesting and terrifying ideas. Clive Owen is the best actor working right now, and he is definitely the only actor working who demands that I see everything he is in (Leo and Christian Bale are close). The direction and cinematography are so amazing that despite no overall Oscar buzz everywhere I looked predicted an award for Cinematography (which went to Pan's Labyrinth). I am tired of reading reviews that pass off the incredible long takes as gimmicks and dismiss the movie as a setpiece. If any experimentation is seen as the tail wagging the dog, then film is already a staid and sad set of rules. I predict that this movie will have a second life on DVD and be a college classic for years to come.

The Departed - The most fun I had in a movie theater this year. I have seen the movie twice, but I was surprised that it was two and a half hours long, as the time flew by both times I saw it. My only complaint is about Jack Nicholson's awful, drooling, crazy eyed performance that doesn't convey the sort of horror-show terror that it should. Instead he makes the central character a cartoon character, like the Joker without the makeup. The fantastic dialogue delivered by the otherwise spectacular cast make up for Jack's scenery flavored gum, and I was estactatic when The Departed won Best Picture.

Borat: Some critics have retroactively saying Borat was a failure because its political message doesn't really hold water. First, who the fuck cares? It's a comedy. Would anyone criticize Old School for not making a coherent political point? Second, Borat's gift is that it gives us a wonderful cross-section of American insanity, but doesn't attempt to pass some grand judgement. That's us, racist, homophobic, xenophobic and patronizing, but then we are also endlessly patient and tolerant to those we think are handicapped for whatever reason. The attitude of everyone in the movie is summarized by the person on the elevator who steadfastly ignores the Borat and his manager even though they are both completely naked and Borat is carrying a rubber fist. All Americans are taught not to mention the embarrassing characteristic everyone is trying not to stare at, at least until they leave the room. By exploiting the American belief that everyone wants to be just like us, only they just haven't learned how yet, Borat manages to be the funniest movie of the new century.

Confederate States of America - I have reviewed it before, but suffice to say I think everyone in America would be well served to see and discuss this movie with a complete stranger.

Letters from Iowa Jima - While watching The Thin Red Line the other day, I though to myself: "War movies rank up there with musicals and biopics as my least favorite genres." The genre is so stifling that very few interesting things can be said anymore. Either the picture is jingoistic (The Green Berets) or it is a remake or All is Quiet on the Western Front, either way I am hardly thrilled by the explosions and gore. The ubiquitous color draining technique that Speilburg used in Saving Private Ryan only makes it worse, as the pictures all look the same now too. After I watched Flags of Our Fathers, which I didn't like at all (the ending was akin to the end of Pyscho in its explicitness), I was so bored that nearly didn't bother with Letters. Boy would that have been a mistake. It shows us a group of men dying and justifying it through a variety of reasons (honor, tradition or just to keep their families safe for a few more days). It doesn't spell out its themes and it demands that you think about the images and metaphors of the movie.

Superman Returns - Comic book movies are about as anti-arthouse as you can get. They are all summer blockbusters, loaded with special effects and they usually need to have mass appeal so there is pressure not to make anything too hard to figure out. Thus, I was blown away to see Superman, a comic book movie that is full of subtle details and subtext, without sacrificing the thrills. It is wrestles with uncomfortable personal responsibility as Superman's powers become a burden. Jesus's path to the cross is the obvious metaphor, but several others (Atlas, the Morningstar) are visually alluded to. It strongly bring Its a Wonderful Life to mind (one of my all time favorites), but it has more of an edge than that. It is heartbreaking movie, where the hero doesn't necessarily get the girl and even his mother can't comfort him, but it is beautiful and brilliant throughout.

Idiocracy - This is a deeply flawed movie, though I wonder how much Fox's meddling had to do with that. However, Idiocracy and CSA both demonstrate how devastating comedy is as weapon of subversion. I already posted on Mike Judge's hopefully not forgotten newest work, but I would like to strengthen my earlier comments to say that Maya Rudolph is fantastic both here and in A Prairie Home Companion, and I am officially converted to the church of Maya.

The Proposition - Nick Cave is bad, bad man. Between his screenplay for this movie, which is as raw and bloody as anything in Sam Peckinpah's oeuvre, and his album Abattoir Blues (an album entirely about death and murder), he has demonstrated that he is willing to tap into the ugliest and darkest parts of humanity with impunity. Violence in this movie is so wet and hard, and yet strangely compelling. The people are either hard boiled killers or doomed to have their innocence brutally despoiled. The town people are cowed into submission and two equally evil factions are compelled towards Guignol ending where no one is unscathed. This movie demonstrates again just how versatile and wonderful the mostly defunct Western genre is.

The Queen - It plumbed the depths of something I didn't care about at all, and yet I found myself enraptured by a performance that defines the method. I hate biopics, don't care at all about Princess Diana (I remember being upset that everyone focused on her and ignored Mother Theresa who died the same week), but this was an extraordinary look at post-WWII Europe. All of the cultures in Europe have unique characteristics and Englishmen are not like Dutchmen who aren't like Greeks who aren't like the Spanish, on and on, except now Europe is so unified that those cultural identities are melting into something more uniform. In The Queen, the most traditionally British person is suddenly made to confront how much the world has changed. Her ultimate decision to capitulate to the somewhat unreasonable demands of the populus is a remarkable portrait of the power of public opinion in the information age. Even the Queen has to bow her knee to an incensed public (and her warning to Blaire that he will suffer a similar fate is a nice dig in the present day).

A Prairie Home Companion - Leave it to Robert Altman to make a sweet comedy about dying right before he dies. It's a movie of moments, it doesn't have much conflict or plot, instead shows us a bunch of friends and associates spending one last night together. It would have been easy to make it a melancholy night, but Garrison Keillor doesn't believe in big goodbyes (that's what makes radio so great) and so everyone reminisces and tells funny stories. Any attempts at ceremony or decorum to commemorate the end of an era is subverted (the show stopper is Woody Harrelson and John C Reilly telling "bad jokes" while the producer is reduced to drinking). Death is treated with similar irreverence as a discussion of the demise of Chuck Akers devolves into fart jokes and Keillor discusses an unfunny joke with the Angel of Death while eating an apple. The cast is great (Would you expect anything else in an Altman movie?), though Kevin Kline and Maya Rudolph stand out. I bet I'll watch this movie more than anything else on this list (I've already seen it twice). I am going to miss Altman, but as Virginia Madsen says: "There is no tragedy in the death of an old man. Forgive him his shortcomings, and thank him for all his love and care." Thanks again, Mr. Altman.

The worst movies of 2006:

The Last King of Scotland: Can someone make a movie about Africa that doesn't star a white guy? This movie mentions in passing that hundreds of thousands of Africans were murdered, but bleeds with our idiotic Scotsman who not only aided and abetted the murderous Amin, but actually deserved some comeuppance for fucking Mrs. Amin. You don't fuck with crazy people! Why anyone would use mass murder to tell the story of how Nicholas Garrigan became a doctor in Scotland is beyond me. Whitaker is good, there are some pretty pictures, but nothing can save a movie this flawed.

Mission Impossible: III: I hated this movie more than anything I saw this year. So much so, that now I cringe when I hear anything positive about J.J. Abrams (writer and director) - and I like "Lost." Here is the fancy new "thriller" formula: Start the story in the middle, show something crazy happen (say: the hero gets shot in the face) and then flash forward to some other action sequence which would have opened the movie though now it has no drama since you know nothing interesting can happen, since you have already seen the middle of the movie. After 45 minutes of by the numbers plot and some action sequences that don't really make sense featuring a diverse cast of a hot girl (double points if she is Asian or Latino), a wise cracking black guy (I think LL Cool J or Ice Cube is available) and a "nerdy guy" (picture a prestardom Orlando Bloom with glasses) you get back to the opening of the movie. Of course there is a twist so you don't actually have to deal with what you showed happen at the beginning (for some reason the badguy shot one of his henchmen dressed up like the hero, just to prove to the hero that he would shoot him) and after a predictable mind-fuck twist towards the end (hint: the good guy with the most screen time besides the hero is always the traitor), everyone unimportant dies, happily ever after. The only, only, thing worth seeing in Mission Impossible is Truman Capote beat the crap out of Tom Cruise.


Anonymous said...

What an idiot. You pick a list of the best movies of the year without seeing all the movies. Why not watch 5 innings of a baseball game and then declare the winner. Let's call the blogmaster again.

Josh said...

I guess the previous comment is a joke? Perhaps some friend of yours is anonymously posing as a troll? Is there a sentient being out there who thinks that anyone sees "all the movies" before coming up with a year-end best list?

Anyway, nice blog. When did you go to Bard? I was there many, many years ago, when Adolfas was still teaching...Well, sort of...

Annandale said...

Yeah, I have no clue who it is, but I assume that it is either a buddy of mine or a teenage troll. I leave it up because it makes me look good by comparison. Thanks for the kind words and for stopping by.

Annandale said...

Also, I went to Duke, "Back to Bard" is a take off on the Steely Dan song: "My Old School." They went to Bard obviously and I like how it sounds. My name here is Annandale, which is the name of the school in that song.