I'm making two lists this year. Here's the first: my favorites movies released in US theaters in 2006. It's a couple of days early, but I'll update it if I catch something noteworthy before the bell peals. Also, note that it might look like several lists, but it's not. It's just one. It can't easily be numbered from one to thirty-three, but that's no cause for alarm.
realism with a conscience
• The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and
• The Child (L'Enfant)
documentaries of passion and urgency
• The War Tapes,
• An Inconvenient Truth, and
• When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
indie minimalism with a bead on the zeitgeist
• Mutual Appreciation and
• Old Joy
inquisitive, reverent archeology
• Letters from Iwo Jima
instructive, reverent archeology
• United 93 and
• Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
understated performances in stories I thought I knew
• Requiem and
• The Queen
survival and companionship
• The Secret Life of Words and
• Be With Me
childhood refashioned for adults
• The Science of Sleep and
• Pan's Labyrinth
audacious and under-appreciated
• Battle in Heaven and
America through the eyes of newcomers
• God Grew Tired of Us
strong performances in over-the-top stories
• Babel and
• The Last King of Scotland
a formal examination beneath a didactic veneer
• Fast Food Nation
Isild Le Besco is almost famous when she goes...
literate dialogue with humor and panache
• Brick and
laughing with 500 other people when I didn't expect to
• Clerks II and
but I still prefer...
• For Your Consideration and
• Little Miss Sunshine
probably the closest I need to get to American Idol
All of these films deserve further discussion, but I'll save the detailed commentary for another time. The overall strength and diversity of what made it into theaters surprised me once I gathered them into a pile. Genre films, political films, and films about science, culture, romance, immigration, wars of the past, and wars of the present. Of the 33 movies listed above, 21 are nominally American films, but the geographical lines are not always distinct. Two of those 21 (Iraq in Fragments and Letters From Iwo Jima) take place in other countries and use only native dialogue. The Secret Life of Words is from Spain but it stars a Canadian and an American, both speaking English. Borat stars a prominent British comedian pretending to be visiting the US from Kazakhstan. And Manderlay features a large cast of American actors in a story about slavery in the South, but it was made by a Dane who has famously never been here.
In fact, as a product of a globalized world, I continue to be fascinated by films with deliberately hazy cultural boundaries, and I think nearly every movie on this list shows a curiosity about the way people with differences connect to each other or tragically fail to. It's the stuff of comedy and the stuff of drama, the focus of chroniclers and problem-solvers alike. I suppose people in contrast have always been the drivers of narrative — Felix and Oscar, Ollie and Stan — but perhaps more than ever before those contrasts are falling naturally out of our need to peek outside of our borders just to understand what is happening to us, or what is happening to other people because of our actions.
The world is shrinking, and cinema, it seems to me, is particularly well suited to examine the phenomenon. Pictures. Sounds. You know.
Like everyone else — even the most ardent cinephiles and dedicated film critics — I missed far more movies this year than I saw. Oh, I saw plenty, don't you worry. But the world of film cannot be experienced in full by a single person (let alone a married one — ba-DUM-ting), so as I bounce among the web sites, newspapers, and magazines to read the end-of-year lists, my favorites are the ones that overlap with mine a bit but also recommend a bunch of movies I haven't seen. Nothing makes me more excited to see a movie than a strong recommendation from a friend. No amount of vacuous, anonymous Oscar buzz can pique my interest as much.
So I'll end with an anecdote.
One afternoon at Sundance '06 I saw a terrible film whose name I will not mention. The well-known lead actress flounced around the screen pretending to be an abused ex-con while the camera pawed at her like a drunk. With dubious depictions of the so-called cycle of dysfunction, the film pandered to audiences that seem pre-programmed to respond in kind, and its lack of insight into abusive relationships — cue the tears — left me disgusted.
But if you leave a movie like that and hear fellow critics (whom I don't know personally) sniffling and talking about awards, you begin to wonder if you live in a bubble, if your armor is just too thick. I sniffle at the movies all the time. But at this one I just clenched my jaw. I'd have been out the door at the half-hour mark except that I can't really write a review of a film that I haven't seen completely (lest I disclose that fact in the review). But, oh, the minutes of my life that I'd have saved from the teeth of the machine if I'd pulled the rip cord.
I guess it also irks me that some critics love to raise the value of the industry's currency by acting as if the epitome of artistic expression, in fact the reason for art in the first place, comes down to a simple statuette. [Filled with chocolate.] It's bad enough when these folks kick into action for a mediocre film, but when they do it for a bad one, you feel like throwing your notebook into the snow and reading a novel instead of trudging to the next screening.
But here's what you do instead. You step out of the theater into the bitter Utah cold to walk between snow drifts, across the recently shoveled parking lot, and wonder how many of the filmmakers who brought films to this festival are striving to do whatever this film has done. You find yourself in a mass of humanity pushing and shoving to get into the next film. You step back and try to form a line with those around you. You settle into place, you close your eyes, you brace against the bitter cold. Then two soft-spoken critics behind you begin to talk about the state of cinema as summarized by the Sundance program, and when they start to talk quietly about the last film, the way the camera salivated over its tightly-wrapped star's body, a cloud lifts and a ray of sanity warms your wind-whipped face.
And when those two men — whose names I never caught — start talking about a different film, one they loved, one that does not seem to have been mentioned among the festival "buzz" that's so eagerly devoured and shat back toward distant editors, you turn— I turned— and asked them if they were talking about a film at this year's festival. Yes, they said. It's called The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierez, a documentary by a German filmmaker who tells the story of the first US soldier killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and does so with great skill and compassion. Sensing an affinity, I went into my carefully constructed schedule like a brick through a window and made a date with the second screening of Heidi Specogna's documentary about Gutierez, a remarkable little film, sparsely attended at Sundance but worth all the scheduling adjustments it required.
My faith was restored and remains intact, even though the film has yet to find distribution in the States while the hideous movie that I won't name was nominated for a Golden Globe.
Goes to show you: there are pockets of sanity out there, but sometimes the quiet qualified voice is more reliable than the noisy mass of kleenex toters. The trick, as always, is to find them.
Update 2006-12-31: I've continued adding to the heres above as my favorite film folks submit their wrap-ups. I'll probably stop doing this now, but don't consider it a slight if yours isn't there. I just get overwhelmed by long lists, which is why my list of links in the Errata sidebar is slim and rarely changes.
Is it Vertigo cleverly rejiggered or just hokied-up?
• The Illusionist
Can it really be as dumb as it seems; is it Todd Solondz lite or a Todd Solondz take-down; is it a PT Anderson wannabe or a PT Anderson parody?
• Little Children
Can the exposition really be so clumsy when everything else is so elegant; is the delivery of the digital baby inspired by Gaspar Noé?
• Children of Men
• The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierez
constructive and good-natured documentary on a loaded topic
• Flock of Dodos
weird, sweet, stunning
• Syndromes and a Century
This analogy cannot be salvaged. End of transmission.