Sunday, January 28, 2007

Belated Top 10 of 2006


Overall 2006 was fairly poor year for films on all fronts: Hollywood due to quality, Independents due to lack of originality and foreign films due to lack of distribution (in theaters and on DVD). Almost every critic has made a point of mentioning the dearth of truly noteworthy films this year (except for action movies), but for the ardent searchers there are plenty of gems to be found.
Of my top ten 7 were foreign films, 2 Hollywood and 1 indie. Spanish directors were responsible for 3 of the films, more than any other nationality.


********** Top Ten **********

1) The Prestige:
Country: USA
Genre: Mystery, Historical Fiction
Christopher Nolan’s latest film is a dark, nourish take on the Christopher Priest book. Two spiteful, obsessive magicians (Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman in top form) vie for superiority in a lifelong game of escalating treachery and violence. Their feud inhibits their relationships with the women in their lives, their careers and their happiness, culminating in two versions of a trick called “The Transported Man” that are each accomplished in surprising ways. A rare Hollywood film with a unique style, clever plot and stunning conclusion. One of only two truly worthwhile Hollywood studio films that I saw this year.

2) Pan’s Labyrinth:
Country: Spain
Genre: Fantasy, Coming-of-Age, War-time Drama
Review: (Reproduced from an earlier email)
Though it did garner more votes than any fantasy, horror or science fiction film has ever earned at Cannes, I think this is the film that actually deserved to win. Spanish director Guillermo Del Toro is one of the most talented and consistent horror directors to emerge from the 80's and his storytelling craftsmanship climaxes in this Gilliam-style dark fairy tale. A young girl living with her pregnant mother and cruel fascist father during the Spanish Civil War finds that she may have a greater destiny than she ever imagined. Mixing fantasy with the horrors of war, the film manages to create a highly original and effective tone, aided by some brilliant well-integrated special effects and sound performances. Had I seen this film at a younger age (but not too young) it would probably have been one of my all time favorites.

3) The Lives of Others:
Country: Germany
Genre: Historical Fiction, Drama
Review: (Reproduced from my 2006 St Louis Film Festival reviews)
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (great name) scores a resounding success with his debut film, a refreshing German historical fiction film that actually isn’t about Nazis. Gerd Wiesler is a loyal and initially despicable East-German Stasi member, an investigator and interrogator who finds himself assigned to monitoring a similarly loyal playwright and his wife. Wiesler is drawn into the lives he observes and eventually finds himself questioning his motivations and his role in the greater communist machine.
The movie remains gripping, emotionally involving and contemporarily relevant throughout, delivering a balanced Grecian final act and a last line that came close to inducing tears. The three leads, especially the underplaying Wiesler, give great performances. The film won 7 of 11 German Oscar nominations (a record) and took prizes in Bavaria and throughout other European festivals (it was also just announced that it won the Audience Award in St Louis), and given its power, craft and accessibility it is likely to be a triumph upon its Feb 2007 American release.

4) Brick:
Country: USA
Genre: Mystery, Modern Noir
Somewhat overlooked on its initial release, Brick is nevertheless my personal favorite pick from this year’s indie circuit (half of everyone else seems to be relentlessly copying Wes Anderson’s deadpan comedy to less and less effect). Deftly adapting Dashiell Hammett’s flowery, hard-boiled prose to a modern-day high-school setting, first-time director Rian Johnson scores a hit that looks and sounds ten times better than most of his contemporaries (on about 1/10th the budget).
In typical noir style, amateur detective Brenden determines to hunt down his ex-girlfriend’s killer after receiving a mysterious phone call from her the night of her death. Brenden must play the school’s internal society against itself in a battle of intrigue, deceit and triple-crosses that takes utter concentration to follow. The visual sense, original music, biting wit and machine-gun dialogue combine to make this the potential Donnie Darko underground success of the next five years.

5) The Death of Mr. Lazarescu:
Country: Romania
Genre: Realism, Social Commentary Film
Cristi Puiu achieved a surprise major international smash (from Romania, no less) with this stunning, scathing attack on the medical system. Mr. Lazarescu is a man in his sixties, who feels a pain in his chest and head and starts vomiting blood. His quest for medical aid will be an endless descent into hell (his middle name is Dante) rendered in painstaking dogma 95 realism and backed by an assurance from the director and cast that is one of the best things on the screen this year. Although Lazarescu is old, alcoholic, friendless, smelly and ill-tempered, Puiu captures the need for sensitivity and dignity owed to even the most fringe members of humanity.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu easily placed 1st as the best film of the year in IndieWire’s 100+ statistical compilation of critics’ top 10 lists. As the first film in a series of six modeled after Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, it is certainly one of the most exciting new voices on the world cinema stage. A must see for anyone in the medical profession (that means you, Dad).

6) Children of Men:
Country: USA
Genre: Science-Fiction
Slow to reach a wide release and staggered theatrically around the world and within the US (in what has to be called an imbecilic distribution pattern for such an exciting and highly-anticipated film) Children of Men is certainly worth the wait. To say that Alfonsu Cuaron has not been one of my favorite directors is more than an understatement, but my opinions are happily changed by this jaw-dropping sci-fi action film with a social conscience and an eye for detail.
In a dystopic near-future, humankind has been unable to bear children for 18 years. The movie opens with the death of the world’s youngest man, a celebrity killed for not signing an autograph. Amidst the hopeless desperation of a dying civilization the government battles with a surge of immigrants, international terrorists, religious sects and uncontrolled crime. The film bursts with dust, smoke, grit, dirty crowds, downcast weather, seething rage and festering misery. Clive Owen plays a wealthy, but selfish, career man who finds himself drawn into the war over mankind’s final hope. His nightmarish road-trip is the most viscerally intense movie experience of the year, featuring several 5 minute plus single-shot sequences that are incredible to behold. Almost everyone else in Hollywood has something to learn from this movie. If nothing else it will remain a testament to the way long-takes can make an action movie more gripping than the spastic cutting of today’s average action fodder.
Woven into the story is pointed commentary about immigration policy, racism, terrorism, Homeland Defense, the uses of torture, media saturation and much more.

7) Volver:
Country: Spain
Genre: Mystery, Historical Fiction
Cuaron’s less-eager-to-sellout contemporary, Pedro Almodovar, also weighs in with a triumphant success. Volver is a highly genuine exercise in feminist magical realism. Three generations of women struggle to make it through life despite a soap opera buffet of trials and tribulations. Almodovar isn’t mining particularly new territory, but he plots his story much tighter than in previous films and finds fresh pockets of quiet humanity without his usual barrage of sex. A career highpoint for Penelope Cruz and a landmark for female showcase casts. Almodovar’s perfectly-paced story is engaging without overwhelming the characterization, as well as managing to pack some great ending twists without violating its internal logic.

8) Lunacy:
Country: Czech Republic
Genre: Surrealism, Horror, Social Commentary Film
Although hardly a hit with critics or audiences, Jan Svankmajer’s latest provocation may be his best work in my opinion (it is, if nothing else, his most blasphemous). Very loosely adapted from short stories by Edgar Allen Poe and the Marquis de Sade, Lunacy is the sly tale of a naïve man’s encounter with a black mass and a bizarre asylum. Svankmajer throws enough heretical, shocking or openly revolting imagery on the screen to make even the tolerant viewer squeamish, but does so without sacrificing his talent or his message.
Essentially the film is about the delicate balance of freedom and security in our society and the need to avoid extremes; Svankmajer comes out beforehand, however, to explain to us the details and to remark that, really, we are just watching a trashy horror flick with no redeeming value. As the director talks, a severed tongue wiggles across the floor: a hint of what’s to come. The rest of the film is paralleled by interspersed vignettes of raw meat crawling around (in stop-motion) and making witty references to the film at large.

9) The Aura:
Country: Argentina
Genre: Modern Noir, Heist/Caper
Review: (Reproduced from my 2006 St Louis Film Festival reviews)
A calculated film noir to its core, Fabian Bielinsky weaves an engaging and intelligent thriller. The lead character, Esteban, is an epileptic taxidermist who fantasizes about robbing banks (a bit of willful eccentricity in an otherwise semi-realistic but highly accomplished style). A hunting accident serves as the entry point for Esteban to test how much of a criminal mastermind he really is.
“The Aura” was Bielinsky’s second feature, and he died while still relatively young, soon after finishing it, depriving Argentina of one of their great hopes for a second film renaissance. The film he leaves behind may not be terribly original, but it remains a lean and well-crafted success, reminiscent of early Coen brothers and Erik Skjoldbjærg’s 1997 “Insomnia.”

10) Climates:
Country: Turkey
Genre: Domestic Drama, Art-House
Review: (Reproduced from my 2006 St Louis Film Festival reviews)
Nuri Bilge Ceylan continues to develop a stellar art-house reputation with his second feature film (his first film, “Distant,” is equally mesmerizing). “Climates” covers familiar territory for auteur-based festival filmmaking, focusing on the dissolution of an upper-middle class marriage. The traces of Bergman and Antonioni are clearly present, but Ceylan paves his own way with an exacting eye for detail that makes the audience feel the location, the passage of time and most importantly, the climate (see title).
Ceylan also stars in his own film, and along with his wife and leading lady Ebru Ceylan, reveals a flawlessly understated character portrait. We never really know what the characters are thinking or feeling (they certainly don’t speak very often or very honestly), but we can see premonitions and the aftermath in their dry expressions. A neo-Bazinian director (read: fond of very long static takes) in the extreme, Ceylan manages to immerse the audience in his immaculate visceral compositions and layered ambient sound. Not for all tastes, but a director to keep an eye on.


Molly said...

You, Sir, have brightened my day yet again, and I was not even having a bad one. I hesitate to offer my own alternate top ten list, but it would certainly include: Children of Men, The Prestige and Brick. I am of two minds about Pan's Labyrinth simply because it reminded me so much in style and theme of the Devil's Backbone, which I think I prefer.

Another film from this last year that particularly impressed me was The Last King of Scotland. In addition to Forest Whitaker's deservedly celebrated performance as Idi Amin, the film is an excellent thriller. It starts as an intriguing comedy/drama and spirals gradually into violence and horror as its wonderfully fallible protagonist embarks on a grand adventure and finds himself precariously placed in a position of ephemeral influence in the innermost circles of Amin's brutal government.

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Mad Dog said...

I need to see, like, 90% of the movies you reviewed in 2006. That just means there's more for me to look forward to! :3

Anonymous said...

Well, now I feel like an ass for asking about "Volver" when you'd reviewed it . . . Anyway, I shall add it to my must-see list.

I too was very impressed with "The Prestige." For one thing, it's hilarious to call Edison a thug. On a more intelligent note, I liked the twist ending because it wasn't an M. Night Shamylan (oh god, forgive spelling!) style twist that leaves you feeling insulted that you couldn't predict it. Yeah, the hints are there (I can't wait to see it again and look around for them), but it's still both surprising and plausible.

I also enjoyed "Children of Men" for the cinematography. However, the more I think about the plot, the less satisfied I am with it. There are many holes--what happened in New York? Why is the UK deporting everyone? What's going on with the fertility tests, and is it just the women who can't make babies, or men too? Also, the end sucks. That the ship is the "Tomorrow" and the end sound effects are children laughing lends hope to the movie's otherwise cynical/dystopic tone, but I am left wanting a more concrete answer to the question "What's next?"

Hopefully I sound minimally intelligent.