Sunday, January 28, 2007

Excellent films (but not top 10) from 2006

These are films from 2006 which I really enjoyed but which didn't make the top 10.

********** Excellent Films (in alpha order) **********

Country: USA
Genre: Realism, Drama, Mystery
Soderbergh ventures into dogma 95 realism with this experimental drama/mystery about three workers in a doll factory. Using unknown actors (one recruited by the director at a KFC) and no written script, this small-scale, zero-budget film captures everyday life below the poverty line with painful precision. The boring, meaningless small-talk that constitutes dialogue will ring true for anyone who has made the uncomfortable acclimation to break-room conversations at a mind-numbing job.
Adding some action to the almost non-existent plot is a murder mystery that does seem a bit forced (it undeniably breaks the atmosphere of security camera realism) but manages to add depth and impetus to the story.
After a couple weeks in the theaters, Stephen Soderbergh’s film disappeared into oblivion and his producers let out a sigh of relief with the knowledge that he will now be back on the studio lot making them wads of cash with high-profile Oceans Eleven sequels.

Lady Vengeance:
Country: South Korea
Genre: Revenge Thriller
South Korean superstar Park Chan-wook wraps up his revenge trilogy with Lady Vengeance, a film that manages to be simultaneously the most interesting and least effective member of the bunch. Lee Geum-ja is a gentle and beautiful girl who has spent 13 years in prison for a crime she didn’t commit. Upon release she rejects the tradition tofu slab of purity and renewal, deciding instead to avenge herself on those who put her behind bars. Though the manner of Geum-ja’s revenge and its “elaborate” unfolding is the most mundane and uninspired of the trilogy, it becomes clear that Chan-wook has something more on his mind. Moments before our morally ambiguous protagonist can kill the man who committed the child-murder that she was accused of, she notices that his key chain contains a souvenir of the dead boy’s property… and five other objects.
A disturbing meditation on group/societal revenge and the various means by which post-grief catharsis is thwarted or achieved, Lady Vengeance may be the film from the trilogy that maintains the most resonance in the years to come.

The Science of Sleep:
Country: Italy/France
Genre: Surrealism, Fantasy, Coming-of-Age
Michel Gondry follows up his indie hit Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with this surreal biopic of a creative young man trapped in psychological adolescence. Gael Garcia Bernal is excellent as Stephane, the now-heartwarming now-obnoxious protagonist who narrates/observes his own life from a makeshift trash-TV studio set inside his own head. He falls in love with his artistically inclined next door neighbor but finds serious trouble dealing with his social insecurity and emotional immaturity. Imaginative flights of fancy (designed in Gondry’s signature style recognizable from his music videos) allow Stephane to escape his humdrum job and to avoid dealing with the read world.
Audiences may have difficulty dealing with Stephane as a main character, owing to his often excruciating vulnerability and childish behavior and psychology. The film is worth seeing, for the production designs if nothing else, but ultimately one feels a twinge of disappointment at how lightweight and low-profile the movie is compared to Eternal Sunshine.

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story:
Country: UK
Genre: Literary Adaptation, Comedy, Films about Films
Michael Winterbottom breaks into the mainstream with his wickedly post-modern “adaptation” of Tritram Shandy. The original lengthy 1759 novel attempts to narrate the life-story of Tristram Shandy, but ultimately fails because it becomes derailed so often that, in one of the grand literary jokes of the 18th century, Shandy doesn’t get around to the moment of his own birth until the 7th volume. In adapting the film, lead actor Steve Coogan and the rest of the cast get so entangled in their own minor ego-trips and mini-crisis that they ultimately fail to tell even a reasonable fraction of the novel’s subplots.
As Coogan comments during an interview about the film that takes place during the film, Tristram Shandy was “…a post-modern novel before there was any modern to be post about.” The movie captures the same spirit by highlighting the behind-the-scene adventures of the actors filming the movie. The errand girl is the most savvy film viewer on the production, a technical advisor for the battle scenes annoys everyone with his obsessive need for historical accuracy, Steve Coogan deals with his own British bad-boy image while taking care of his newly-born son, etc. Probably the funniest film I saw this year.

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