(Delayed – and delayed – and delayed – to wait for the Chicago release of a film that turned out to be rather important to my final list. I’m nothing if not thorough).
What a dull year 2006 was! Compared to last year, there were a few more pretty okay films, and infinitely fewer masterpieces. And this year wasn’t good enough to lick 2004’s shoes clean. But wotcher gonna do…stop watching movies? Not likely. I have little enough to blog about as it is.
So, the Template for Internet-Based Criticism dictates that here, I’m supposed to include the clucking about how dividing movies into the Good and the Not As Good is an arbitrary waste of time that distracts of from what really matters: the celebration of movies in all their goodness. No other art is so beholden to lists!
Except that I’m a compulsive list-maker. It’s fun, dammit, to confront the fact that no, you will never have exactly ten films that you like in a given year and all of the little mental negotiations that go with that. It forces you to think long and hard about your priorities: what is primarily interesting to me about film? What typifies that? What does it take for a movie to really get my attention otherwise?
Then, of course, there’s the endless delight to be had in comparing lists. I know the readers of this blog, and I know you have very strong opinions on the cinema. Who doesn’t? And lists – that pointlessly arbitrary moment when I say “The Queen is TOTALLY better than The Departed” and someone else says “Oh yeah?” and I say “Yeah!” – are a path to thinking about movies, and isn’t that what it’s all about? It’s being an active viewer, and more importantly, about engaging with other active viewers. Every time I do this sort of thing, a little part of me hopes to start a fight: not for the antagony of it, but because it is a sign of passion, and passion is the heart and soul of filmgoing.
First things first: I’m sorry, but yes, there are two undistributed films on this list. This makes me a mean person, I know, but they were both great films that were produced somewhere in this world in 2006 and in 2006 did I see them. It’s called “My Top Ten Films of 2006” and not “Your Top 10 Films of 2006” for a reason. Look at it this way: it’s my strongest possible recommendation that you give the one a look when it gets released, probably late next summer, and the other one…hey, pirated DVDs are fun!
(Two Oscar nominees in my top 5? I must be losing my edge).
1. INLAND EMPIRE
2. Flags of Our Fathers / Letters from Iwo Jima
3. Syndromes and a Century
4. The Queen
5. Children of Men
6. A Prairie Home Companion
7. A Scanner Darkly
8. Neil Young: Heart of Gold
9. 12:08 East of Bucharest
1. INLAND EMPIRE (David Lynch)
Shortly after seeing the movie, I got to complaining about people who put this film in the middle of a list, like there’s some legitimate way to claim that it’s a better film than Dreamgirls but not quite as good as Pan’s Labyrinth. This, I felt, was strange, because there is fundamentally no way to compare INLAND EMPIRE to any other movie ever. You gotta go all in, I argued, either leave it off or call it #1.
Well, here I am, going all in. Because deep down, I suspect that this will long be the most important film of the year: not reinventing cinematic language so much as it exists in contradistinction to the cinema itself. It’s brave and it’s strange and it’s quite unlike anything I can think of; and at the same time it’s funny and the mark of an absolute genius, someone who can combine imagery and sound like nobody else in history. Whether or not being wildly different is the same as being good, I leave to others to decide.
Mostly, it’s on here because it really is the film all year that I loved watching the most, as sick as that makes me. After all, I saw it twice in 30 hours and at this writing, I’ve already picked a date to see it again. Cinema doesn’t get much more compelling than that.
2. Flags of Our Fathers / Letters from Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood)
I spent a lot of time trying to decide what to do here. Individually, we have a war film of uncommon depth and humane outrage, with a curdlingly bad screenplay; and we have a practically perfect and even more humane tone poem. But when their wonder twin powers activate, something truly special happens: history’s first combat story to completely lack a villain. No matter which film you see first, you’re going to spend it rooting for the bad guys of the second one. That’s a powerful notion, and it strips away the very idea of moral absolutes. It would be nice if having two subjective versions of a story added up to the objective truth, but of course it can’t; and the true masterpiece isn’t either of these films, but the space in between, the place that we can’t get to because we’re biased, irrational humans, and Eastwood’s great achievement is gently, sadly reminding us that such a place exists.
3. Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Seeing this film this year was like what I imagine seeing L’avventura must have been like for the crowd at Cannes in 1960. I guarantee that you have never seen a film quite like this one: aggressive in its use of sound, and positively violent in its use of off-screen space to create meaning out of the unimaginable paradox that, as the film insists on its constructed and artificial nature, we become more invested in the course of its fiction. To say nothing of its monumental two-part structure, dividing the film and the whole world into the rural and the urban; the polite and the efficient; the traditional and the modern; and above all, the female and the male. (This is not the one with a distributor) Hip, hip, hooray – more in comments.
4. The Queen (Stephen Frears)
There’s not a single film from 2006 where everything – writing, directing, acting, cinematography, editing, production design – came together to create a more unified whole than here. For that, we have one man to thank, and that is Stephen Frears, one of the cinema’s finest directors, and one of the most under-appreciated, just because he lacks the tics and quirks of style that would make him a full-fledged auteur. He leads a team of professionals at the top of their game to make a sublimely crafted tragedy on the model of a Shakespearean history: a woman of power watching as her own actions threaten to run that power into oblivion.
And, yes…the finest career performance of the greatest living actress. There, I said it. Happy?
5. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón)
Cuarón stepped quietly into the ranks of the world’s greatest filmmakers with his sixth feature, an impossibly perfect study of a degraded looking-glass version of our own culture. I can’t think of any moment all year that made me swoon than that first endless tracking shot. Unless it was the second endless tracking shot. Or the eighth. Which is to say, this film is about as overwhelmingly cinematic as they come, creating one of the most fully-realized fictional worlds in years. Best of all is that in a decade full of sophomoric political satire, this is the first one that had something to say more profound and frightening than “Bush is t3h suxx0rs.”
6. A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman)
Apparently, you need to be a Midwesterner to really love this one. But I am, and I remain utterly entranced by the complete rightness of this paean to our firm, stubborn, idiotic pragmatism in the face of death. I’m glad that Altman’s final film was something like this: a tribute to the hard work of a collective, the first film in his lengthy career to be almost totally without cynicism or superiority. And his death makes its overriding theme – you can’t stop endings, so it’s best to embrace them when they happen – almost unbearably beautiful. Needless to say, it is a comedy.
7. A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater)
The absolute best meeting of form and content all year. A treatise on drug-induced paranoia ought to be an unsettling and dangerous film to watch, and the computer-interpolated rotoscoping Linklater first used in Waking Life is put to fine use in creating a disorienting world of shifting lines and twitchy flickers at the edges of perception. It doesn’t hurt at all that the cast is an Olympic Pantheon of the figures you’d most want to see in a film like this: Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey, Jr. as the Alpha and Omega of hardcore drug use, with the blank slate of Keanu Reeves the perfect battleground to watch a man without much personality lose what little he had.
8. Neil Young: Heart of Gold (Jonathan Demme)
I’m a tiny bit biased – I loves me some Neil Young – but a good concert film is a good concert film, and Heart of Gold is one of the best concert films since…well, since Demme’s Stop Making Sense for the Talking Heads over twenty years ago. It’s the second film on this list about death, but here it’s not an abstraction: it’s a grim reality etched onto every line of Young’s craggy face. When he’s not singing elegies from his valedictory Prairie Wind album, he’s sharing anecdotes whose constant unspoken punchline is “and he’s dead now,” and the divine Ellen Kuras cinematography (still my favorite of 2006) never gives us a moment’s respite from the shadows across the singer’s face, obscuring everything but his beautifully soulful eyes.
9. 12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu)
The winner of the 2006 Camera d’Or at Cannes is also, hands down, the funniest thing I saw in a movie theater all year. A satire of the Romanian public sphere in the second decade after the Revolution doesn’t sound all that amusing (or watchable), but they do things differently in Europe. Of course, being funny is just the spoonful of sugar to sneak the real film past while we’re not looking: an attack on historical revisionism and the human tendency to inflate our own importance. And yet, in its final moments, it achieves a transcendence that belies all the apparent misanthropy that precedes it, raising the possibility that how we got here matters far less than enjoying ourselves now that we’ve arrived. (This is the one with a distributor).
10. Volver (Pedro Almodóvar)
And thus is the mortality trilogy complete; but if A Prairie Home Companion is about acceptance and Heart of Gold is about loss, Almodóvar’s latest is unabashedly about celebration. What better way to remind ourselves to live in joy than to acknowledge that this will all end some day? More than any film of 2006, Volver is about the orgasmic experience of being a living creature, and to a degree, it’s a warning: most of us will not have the chance that the characters have to correct the wrongs we do, which makes it all the more important that we live without regrets. Easily the happiest movie to ever include a subplot about incest.
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
An Inconvenient Truth
Little Miss Sunshine
The Argument That I Would Have Used If I’d Included Snakes on a Plane on the List (Which I Very Nearly Did)
A film professor of mine who probably influenced how I respond to cinema more than anyone else I know once introduced me to the concept of the Cinema of Attractions, which is to say, movies that exist solely to show you things that can’t be seen anywhere other than a movie. By that measure, Snakes on a Plane is the most cinematic film of 2006. Right from the title, it announces – nay, brags! – that there isn’t going to be any plot here. It’s going to be about snakes. They will be on a plane. Samuel L. Jackson will fuck their shit up. I acknowledge that many people don’t care about seeing snakes on a plane, and I feel very sorry for them, because in a way this is a very flawless movie. It, unlike everything else this year – or ever, actually – is precisely what it must be; the Platonic ideal of a movie about snakes on a plane.
Essentially, I view this as an experimental film, or at least an abstract work; it engages in representation purely on the level of spectacle. It functions in a way that narrative films don’t and can’t and shouldn’t. Sometimes art is a humane character study, but sometimes art is a dancing pig.
Top 10 Films That Weren’t Made in 2006; American Distribution Sucks
(links to reviews)
1. Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969)
2. Three Times (Hou Hsao-Hsien, 2005)
3. Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (Zhang Yimou, 2005)
4. Brick (Rian Johnson, 2005)
5. The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005)
6. Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story (Michael Winterbottom, 2005)
7. The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)
8. Why We Fight (Eugene Jarecki, 2005)
9. The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005)
10. Water (Deepa Mehta, 2005)
Best Movie That Wasn’t a Movie
“It’s not TV, it’s HBO,” and while Lucky Louie or Entourage might make one chalk a point up for TV, sometimes they crank out pure, unadulterated art like the third and final season of the unjustly cancelled Deadwood. Big screen or small, these 12 hours were just about the finest cinema I saw all year: with Ian McShane leading one of the greatest ensemble casts ever brought together, Deadwood reached positively Shakespearean heights with an arc stretching from the gathering of clouds to horrible bursts of semi-random violence to the black joke of the final line of the series, a rebuke to all those who like their endings resolved and their moral clarity unfogged.
I know everyone expects to see the execrable Lady in the Water here, but at least that had Paul Giamatti trying his level best to hold the film on his shoulders. Whereas When a Stranger Calls had Camilla Bell giving what might very well be the worst performance I have ever seen in the English language coupled with editing that makes the film harder to follow than watching the raw footage out of order.
Inside Man. How a perfectly twisty genre film with some of the best camerawork of the year, directed by a certified A-lister like Spike Lee fell so far off everyone’s radar within a month of its release, I’ll never know. It’s like Dog Day Afternoon for the post-9/11 set, and in my mind, its cocksure stylistic bravado serves only to underscore the significant flaws of the solid, generally uninteresting The Departed.
For ages, I was back and forth between The Departed and Babel, until January 14, 2007, when mostly on a whim I rented United 93, and my path was clear. It is sheer pornography of the filthiest kind: imagine how you would feel watching a group of men gangbanging a woman in a heap of pig shit, and you have an approximation of how dirty I felt for watching United 93. Of course, there isn’t actually porn of women being gangbanged in pig shit, and this tells me all I need to know about the value of United 93. To be sure, it’s well-shot and well-edited and even well-directed, although there’s nothing remotely imaginative about it (hand-held video to create a sense of documentary-like realism? Welcome to the 1990s, Paul Greengrass!) But for every minute of the film, I desperately wanted to be somewhere else, preferably in the shower, and this was before the hijacking, 62 minutes in. I double-dog-dare anyone to provide a coherent argument for what actual psychological need this thing fulfills. I was alive on 9/11/2001 – I don’t need a damn movie to remind me what it was like.
Also, don’t send me any links to pig-shit related pornography, because I actually do like having any faith at all in humanity.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch was one of my very favorite films in 2001, and I expected some trace of its breathless energy in John Cameron Mitchell’s follow-up Shortbus. Instead, I got a catalogue of indie stereotypes shot on splotchy, cheap video, and I was asked to regard it as “edgy” and “important” and “real” because a man shoots a wad in his own mouth. I respect the film’s politics very much; its aesthetics are beneath contempt.
Rocky Balboa. A week of good press couldn’t make me forget a year of being certain this was going to be the vanity picture to end all vanity pictures; instead it was a tiny but undeniably moving study of Old Manhood.
Terry Gilliam’s Tideland, a film so vindictively unpleasant and difficult at the same time that it’s sweet and charming and sincere, that I need to watch it a second time just to decide if I want to watch it a second time.
Most Dicked Over By the Studio
I’ll bet you’d like Idiocracy. And I bet I’d like Idiocracy, too. But neither you nor I saw it. Because Idiocracy – a film from the creator of Office Space, for chrissakes – was released to one or two theaters in seven North American cities for one week. And at least in Chicago, it wasn’t even a good theater: it was some damn second-run place several blocks away from public transportation. Sure, it’s already out on DVD, but honestly, what the fuck, Fox?
Buried in an instantly forgettable chunk of Oscar bait, Jennifer Hudson’s colossal, planet-shattering performance of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls is the perfect example of why movies exist. Or, in the immortal words of Armond White, it’s “soul-rotting.” Something tells me I’m a happier person than Armond White.
“Enough is enough! I’ve had it with these motherfuckin’ snakes on this motherfuckin’ plane!”
-Samuel L. Jackson, Snakes on a Plane
Best Line Not Involving the Words “Snakes,” “Motherfuckin’,” or “Plane”
“We come from people who brought us up to believe that life is a struggle, and if you should ever feel really happy, be patient, this will pass.”
-Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion
Most Ineffable Line
“Ow, my legs!”
-Nicolas Cage, offscreen, during a montage, The Wicker Man
I knew not a damn thing about the film when I saw the first of those five cut-out posters, but I decided instantly that I must watch it. Now. Beyond being a sexy bit of advertising, the series also nails a twofer of film noir themes: lost identities and psychic emptiness. And the color-coding is an inspired touch.
Snakes on a Plane
“Samuel L. Jackson vs. snakes on a plane.” The poster makes itself: you need three things. So why is Sam shunted off to one side in what could be virtually any interior space in the world, with nary a reptile to be seen? Not even Breakdance Karate Woman can save this stillborn disaster.
Oh, and the tagline sucks.
Most Pretentious Poster
Best Trailer. Ever
If just for its elliptical use of sound and the juxtapostion of a naked woman with a train set, the trailer for Little Children is better than most short films. In fact, it is better than most features. In fact, it is better than Little Children, although I really loved that movie.
Best Title. Ever
Sometimes a title is a metaphor to direct us to a film’s theme. Sometimes it is a description of the content. Sometimes it just sounds punchy. Snakes on a Plane is all and none of these. What it is above all, is a promise.
Best Title, 2006
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, a joke as funny as anything in the movie. Go ahead, say it aloud without breaking into a smile, I dare you.
Most Misleading Title
John Tucker Must Die, as meek and nice as any teen comedy you can imagine. Wither Heathers?
Worst Title Change
From Red Sun, Black Sand to Letters from Iwo Jima.
Most Frustrating Mispronounciation of a Title
I didn’t realise how bad it was until Cate “Star of the Film” Blanchett fucked it up at the SAG awards, but here goes: it’s not BAY-BELL (like “Abel,” which is a mistransliteration), and it’s not BAB-BELL (like “babble,” although the one word is derived from the other). It’s BAB-EL, from bab “gate” + el “God.”
Best Popcorn Movie
Casino Royale. Bond the way he was meant to be: lean and dangerous, not at all cool, but endlessly exhilarating.
Judy Dench acting her withered wrinkly ass off as a “fucking vampire” lesbian in Notes on a Scandal. Good for you? Probably not. Entertaining? Hell yeah.
Best Superman Movie
Neither the sincere and hopelessly grim Superman Returns, nor the revisionist, demythological Hollywoodland. No, the best film from 2006 about the Man of Steel was the long-awaited DVD debut of the Richard Donner cut of Superman II, an improvement in every way over Richard Lester’s original: grander in scale, more honest in its characterizations, and in every way the best possible completion of the story begun with the 1978 original.
Best Turn-of-the-Century Film About Magicians
Best Film About Magicians Starring Hugh Jackman
Best CGI Movie About Animals
Most Obnoxious CGI Movie About Animals
Worst Film about 9/11/2001
After all that, I still prefer United 93 to the soapy World Trade Center, and let’s just pretend that The Path to 9/11 never existed.
Best Film About the Most Notorious Unsolved Crime in California History
Presumably, David Fincher’s yet-unreleased Zodiac.
Best Altmanesque Study of American Culture at the Height of the Turmoil of the 1960s, Using a Political Assassination as Metaphor
I refuse to believe it could possibly be Bobby.
Best Film I Saw for the First Time in 2006
Hiroshima mon amour
Most Troubling Development in Film Reception Theory
Maybe this is old and something I’m just now noticing, or maybe it’s actually gotten worse recently, but has anyone else noticed a strong realism vogue in 2006? As in, the worst criticism you could level against a film is that it’s “unrealistic,” or “unbelievable.” For God’s sake, we’re talking about what is, inherently, the most surreal art form in the world. Realism? Realism can have its place, but it’s frankly a bit of a waste of motion picture stock. Movies can be everything from Star Wars to Mothlight to Viridiana, so why does everybody fall down with praise for an artless bit of boring like L’enfant?