Thursday, February 08, 2007
Top 10: 2006
2006 was a contemplative way for film, as both highbrow and junk movies considered notions of heroism, cultural identity and the always uncertain future in subtle and surprising ways. After Fahrenheit 9/11 and the subsequent wave of self-conscious agitprop bound to topical content, the cinema of 2006 represented a return to something more timeless. So while several of the films on this list couldn't be more prescient, they're also well-told stories that will likely have a shelf life beyond today's headlines.
There's a sense of urgency in the films listed below; while there was plenty of disposable filler this year, there's also the feeling that storytelling is more important than ever. That feeling is evident with 60-year-old filmmakers experimenting with their craft as though they were film students just getting their hands on the camera. It can also be felt in the sudden leaps forward of promising young directors who have established their importance, and with relatively new filmmakers just beginning to introduce themselves to us. As the methods of filmmaking and exhibition are changing, the possiblities are becoming virtually endless; the films listed below are the work of directors who have chosen to seize the day.
1. Children of Men The perfect marriage of form and content. We'll be talking about Children of Men for years, not just because it's an astounding technical achievement, but also because there isn't one shot, one cut, one movement of the camera that isn't loaded with meaning. Alfonso Cuaron has made the rare science-fiction film that understands that ideas, not CG bells and whistles, should drive the narrative. The result is a film with worlds to say about where we've been and where we're going, connected by the basic truth that we're all responsible for the world that our children inherit. It's not a message, it's an ongoing question, and one that Children of Men poses brilliantly - while the film plunges us into absolute horror, it also inspires genuine optimism.
2. The Fountain The film that made me a trembling mass of jelly. To call Hugh Jackman's space-chi-practicing, tree-sperm-drinking space odyssey ridiculous is to miss the point completely; what's amazing to me is that Darren Aronofsky had the guts to be ridiculous enough to court the sublime. Because The Fountain is really about the stories we create to express our hope in life after death - these stories are silly at face value, but it'd be foolish to dismiss their significance. A film deeply rooted in the power of myth, The Fountain is also a smart enough film to understand that nothing gives our existential concerns more fuel than the fear of losing one's soulmate. It's great speculative fantasy, and (largely thanks to powerful performances from the leads) it's also a devastating love story. While Aronofsky is smart enough not to provide pat resolution to the questions he raises here, The Fountain does what all great art should do; it reminds us that meaning is ours to create.
3. The Departed It's annoying to see detractors of The Departed, who argue that it's not "important Scorsese" and split hairs over its thematic depth, ignore what a completely fucking entertaining movie it is. Every actor is at the top of his/her game, the script is perfect, the soundtrack rocks and it's funny as hell. Scorsese made a genre movie that succeeds on every level without compromising his vision in the process - if that doesn't deserve a Hollywood award, than I don't know what does. And the rat isn't just a cheap joke; it's a brilliant cheap joke.
4. Inland Empire I'd be lying if I told you I "got" this movie, but I have little patience for anyone quick to dismiss Lynch as inaccessible. His movies have always proven to be coherent no matter how fragmented they appear; he just makes the audience work a little harder than we're used to. So while his three-hour, grainy DV epic of identity dislocation left me emotionally and intellectually exhausted by its final dance number, I'd never call it a chore. It's already clear that Inland Empire has a great deal to say about filmmaking, performance and the self, and if you're willing to go along with Lynch's methods, than the film opens up new ways of experiencing cinema. It's a welcome return to his experimental roots, and it contains the performance of the year in Laura Dern, who embodies all of our confusion and is a wonderful guide through Lynch's strange world.
5. Pan's Labyrinth Hooray for nerds! In Guillermo del Toro's collision of horrors both fantastic and real, one can see the influence of not only fantasy literature and film but also video games, Dungeons and Dragons, and possibly prog rock. The story of a young girl (Ivana Banquero, brilliant here) who journeys between a world filled with fairies and monsters and the war-torn Spanish countryside could have been unbearably arch, but Del Toro doesn't have a pretentious bone in his body. You can feel his mad geekiness in every frame; it takes a true believer in the importance of fairy tales to make a fantasy this exciting, creepy, and ultimately devastating.
6. United 93 The one film on this list that I haven't reviewed elsewhere on this blog - it's just too emotionally devastating. Suffice to say that, if a 9/11 movie needed to exist, I can't imagine a better one than this. Paul Greengrass and his terrific cast wisely underplay the kind of mawkish sentimentality that ruined this year's other September 11th movie, allowing a subtle, unsensational form of emotional truth to shine through. United 93 is an extraordinary act of verisimilitude, coming as close as any film likely can to sharing what the last moments of United 93's passengers must have been like. The result is a brutal experience that isn't for everyone, but it probably shouldn't have been any other way.
7. Shortbus For me, 2006's signature moment in cinema has to be the sight of one man singing the national anthem into another's ass. In a fall movie season loaded with "serious" but forgettable awards bait, John Cameron Mitchell's pansexual ode to peace, love and all things kinky was a welcome breath of fresh air. Shortbus is a radical movie not only for its explicit sex but because, in telling a sweet story about a group of sexually and emotionally confused New Yorkers for whom sex is only the gateway to a deeper emotional journey, it's a passionate cry for a shift towards tolerance, community and peace. Has there ever been a sweeter reason to make a movie containing autofellatio?
8. The Proposition The first great western since Dead Man. Nick Cave's screenplay contains the same stark poetry found in his lyrics, and director John Hillcoat perfectly captures Cave's vision, with all its hellfire and brimstone. While some found the film too solemn, I admired the visceral strength of its images - the violence is remarkable not because of its explicitness but because one can practically feel the impact of each gunshot. And yeah, the wages of sin are well-trod territory for westerns, but the filmmakers and cast (it's been a good year for Ray Winstone) respond to the gravity of the material with such unselfconscious conviction that I can't help getting caught up in its grim tale of frontier justice.
9. Superman Returns You probably hated this, and I can't blame you. Bryan Singer's rebooting of the Superman franchise eschews most of the payoffs we've come to expect from a comic book movie in favor of something more lyrical. It's not nearly as fun as Spider-Man 2 or Batman Begins; all I can say is that something about its melancholy version of Superman as a lonely, detached hero who is in the world but not of it resonated deeply with me. It's a superhero movie of unusual scope and ambition, a marriage of art and popcorn; the result may be unwieldly, but I can't help loving it.
10. Little Children The most difficult film on this list, but one I can't seem to forget. Todd Field's adaptation of the Tom Perrotta novel is a curious, often confounding work that is both deeply sarcastic and completely sincere. It contains some of the strongest performances this year - Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson as the young marrieds flirting with disaster are a perfect mirror of Jackie Earle Haley as a man at war with his own nature. It's funny, insightful, and best of all, it has faith in its audience's intelligence.
For more best-of-2006 goodness, check out the Muriel Awards, an informal poll of various film bloggers whose creators were kind enough to invite me to participate. And, of course, I look forward to hearing your takes on the best of 2006.