MY YEAR IN FILM 2006
ARE MY STANDARDS TOO HIGH...
& MISSES RATHER THAN FAILURES?
Are my standards too high...
There were several films this year that left me wondering to myself as I left the theater, "Am I simply asking too much?" These were films that had much to recommend them, but still somehow fell short for me. For instance, there's a level on which Cars had everything I've come to expect from Pixar: peerless animation, great voice-acting, charming secondary characters, an efficient sense of pacing and staging, an effectively sentimental plot, a maudlin Randy Newman ballad, Larry the Cable Guy... hey, wait a second! But it wasn't just a second-rate comedy hack with an irritating catchphrase that derailed this movie. I walked out of the theater thinking that the well had finally run dry: the Pixar formula finally and unexpectedly felt like a formula. Plus the creepy character designs and overall concept didn't help anything.
Superman Returns featured what was probably the most exhilarating and satisfying action sequence of the year in Superman's efforts to save a crashing airplane/space-shuttle hybrid. But why did Singer keep all of the Lester/Donner films' worst elements, such as the cheesy approach to Lex Luthor and the proclivity for scientifically dubious (to the point of being nonsense) plotlines? Add in a Supes, Jr. and there's a lot you have to overlook to focus on the good parts. That Rian Johnson's "high school film noir," Brick, worked at all is something of an accomplishment in and of itself: this is a movie that obviously could've easily been much, much worse. Still, once you get adjusted to the fact that he actually managed to pull off the stylistic high-wire act, you realize there's not much to the content. It's a cool, daring notion without much else behind it.
The first Michel Gondry film I liked, The Science of Sleep has a lot going for it: Gael Garcia Bernal gives my favorite performance of his career as a man-child burdened with too much imagination, the execution of the individual scenes is flawless, I liked the outfits chosen (is this costume design? I've never thought to complement such a thing before), the self-consciously low-budget special effects work fantastically, and the final scene is one of the most emotionally complex moments I've ever seen in a mainstream film. But the general aimlessness wore me out and by the end, the film felt so repetitive that it was hard to stay interested. Plus, I didn't for a second buy the strange scene where Charlotte Gainsbourg's character puts on a dress and becomes a party animal. Still, it was nice to see a film bursting at the seams with style and emotion, rather than half-full of undercooked dramatic situations.
I was as shocked as anyone that Half Nelson avoided any semblance of cliché in the "white teacher in the ghetto" genre, but it still ultimately felt forced - in assiduously dancing around platitudes about learning and caring, it ended up creating some dramatically dubious situations. Plus, even if it was careful to avoid the common pitfalls of condescension and redemption seemingly inherent the genre, it was ultimately still just a school-room drama about learning and responsibility. In addition, Ryan Gosling is always too much of an "actor's actor" for my taste: file him in the same category with Meryl Streep, Robert DeNiro, and Edward Norton and then keep that file away from me. I feel like I should also acknowledge Inland Empire, but I really don't have much to say about it other than I was shocked just how crappy the dv-footage looked. Either you like Lynchian non-sense (which is a very different thing from liking any one of Lynch's individual films) or you don't and Inland ranks alongside Eraserhead as the most Lynchian film in his body of work. It feels like the culmination of his entire career. but still somehow inessential. Plus, I fell asleep for, like, an hour during it and didn't feel like I had missed anything.
Pan's Labyrinth had one of the best sequences of the year (the Pale Man sequence) and, for that reason alone, I'd recommend it to just about anyone. However, Guillermo Del Toro's clumsy handling of an interesting, complex subject (the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War) left much to be desired: cartoon villains and re-treads of ideas copped half-heartedly from Spirit of the Beehive and Cria Cuervos weren't enough to sustain the movie every time it came stumbling back to reality from the exemplary fantasy sequences.
...and misses rather than failures?
On the other hand, there's no way I could recommend George Miller's Happy Feet without some big disclaimers - John Cribbs and I were five minutes and one cherry coke away from walking out on this sweet baby. The Moulin Rouge meets March of the Penguins central conceit is every bit as vomitous as it sounds. I really don't ever need to ever again hear Nicole Kidman's breathy Marilyn Monroe impression or see anthropomorphized Penguins get jiggy to an ultra-vanilla version of my favorite Queen song. However, the last half hour is pretty mind-blowing by any standard. With the film's massive financial success, it's hard to imagine there won't be entire generation traumatized into ecological consciousness by the grim, upsetting, heart-breaking turn the film takes. Like Miller's Babe: Pig in the City, this movie has a gleefully cruel streak seemingly designed to upset the wee ones in the audience. Come to think of it, the idiot man-child stuff in Miller's Beyond Thunderdome has kind of the same effect, too; only on an adult audience equally unsuspecting that such grosteques elements will be plopped into their noisy action movie.
The Break-Up was theoretically a comedy, but a word of advice: don't see it if you've just broken up with you long-time girlfriend and still share a fantastic apartment with her. The movie is a painfully accurate depiction of the pettiness, miscommunication, and mistrust that undoes love. Jokes? Not so much. But the criminally underrated director Peyton Reed proves he can handle more than bouncy, colorful pop culture explosions like Bring it On! and Down with Love - there's a melancholy and urgency to the material that makes it hurt even if you're in no way sympathetic to the actors involved. For the record, I am not sympathetic to the actors involved.
Asia Argento's second feature, The Heart is Deceitful Above all Things, was put in the unfortunate position of being made just before the author of the memoir on which it was based was unmasked as a fraud. The hysterical and ridiculous plot of the source book gets all of its strength from supposedly being real: if it's fabricated, it's not much more than cheap provocation, the kind of garbage that baits its audience with incest, molestation, prostitution and drug addiction. Still, Argento continues to be as interesting a director as she is a screen presence and the way she unselfconsciously throws herself into the project redeems many of the film's lesser qualities (like the script, the tonal imbalances and an over-reliance on star cameos). As in Scarlet Diva, she throws a hundred different visual styles and ideas up on screen and this time more of it sticks than doesn't - it's one of the rare movies where you can feel the filmmaker's joy at exploring the filmmaking process and that authenticity goes a long way towards redeeming the bullshit at the root of the work.
THE ENDLESS PARADE OF CG KIDS' FILMS
Back when CGI broke, I resisted it. I've always been suspicious of the artistic value of technological breakthroughs and, even more, I was a devotee of the hand-drawn animation that had slowly devolved from Chuck Jones succinct character design over Maurice Noble's gorgeous background layouts into Hanna-Barbera's black-line scribbles over block-y drawing of the same lamp over and over. I didn't want to face the final nail in the coffin of hand-drawn animation and it was clear CGI meant the end was near. Pixar's brilliant work calmed me down for a bit, but it was inevitable that ugly, pointlessly semi-realistic, sub-Disney "3-D" films were the future of animation. This year's crop of films should silence everyone who believed in their hearts that CGI looks better and that technological changes equal progress. Witness this list of the damned:
Over the Hedge: Bruce Willis voices the leader of a ragtag group of anthropomorphized animals that seek to deal with loutish humans. Snarky, self-reflexive hi-jinx ensue. As well as fart jokes.
Open Season: Ashton Kutcher voices the leader of a ragtag group of anthropomorphized animals that seek to deal with loutish humans. Snarky, self-reflexive hi-jinx ensue. As well as fart jokes courtesy of Martin Lawrence. Ooh! Both Martin & the Kutch in one film?! What did I do to be so lucky!?
Barnyard: The fat guy from "King of Queens" voices the leader of a ragtag group of anthropomorphized animals that seek to deal with loutish humans. Snarky, self-reflexive hi-jinx ensue. As well as fart jokes.
The Wild: Kiefer Sutherland voices the leader of a ragtag group of anthropomorphized animals that seek to deal with loutish humans. Snarky, self-reflexive hi-jinx ensue. As well as fart jokes. Somehow, this film ended up being exactly the same film as Madagascar. I wonder how that could've happened.
The Ant Bully: Julia Roberts got involved with this project for the sake of her kids, so that they could learn the true meanings of friendship, decency and teamwork. Plus, everybody loved Antz, right? Right?
Everyone's Hero: Christopher Reeves created this project for his kids so that they could learn the true meanings of friendship, decency and teamwork. Plus, everybody loves sassy talking baseballs voiced by Rob Reiner, right? Right?
Monster House: Hmm. no rag-tag animals. Doesn't seem to be a vanity project. Ah, yes! There were fart jokes! And an important message about the general creepiness of old people.
DIDN'T NEED TO SEE IT TO KNOW IT SUCKED
The Lady in the Water
Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties
All the King's Men
Date Movie (but yet, I saw it. Worse still: I have a friend who insists it's good. That's crazy talk!)
Poseidon (but seen because of my "Support Kurt Russell at any Cost" policy; incidentally, a policy which has landed me in many a jam)
Also, it certainly wasn't one of the worst movies of the year, but who buys this bullshit? The Departed was an empty-headed exercise in pure testosterone bullshit. Sure, it was ok on a visceral level, but so was The Marine. It seems dishonest to praise one and snicker at the other when both had nothing on their mind than engaging in a bit of histrionic dick-swinging. The same was true of Volver, only inverted: am I supposed to praise a film with a sitcom level plot and boring, awkward writing when its highest aspiration appear to be to achieve the level of Telemundo-esque melodrama? Its approach to femininity is exactly as reductive and exploitative as The Departed's approach to man-boys with guns.
A Prairie Home Companion was another film that got a free pass critically, this time with an excuse built-in: you'd have to be a little hard-hearted to come down on this film after it's undeniably brilliant creator just died. But, nonetheless, it really sucked. The wisp of a plot didn't contain enough incidental pleasure to justify its uninspired clichés, Meryl Streep's fussy overacting was a continual source of irritation, Kevin Kline seemed to have wandered in from a different (and somehow worse) movie, and the Virginia Madsen angel business was plain embarrassing. Don't get confused: films like California Split, M.A.S.H., Thieves Like Us, 3 Women and Short Cuts are the reason Altman gained admittance to the pantheon, but his career was also littered with trash like Gingerbread Man, H.E.A.L.T.H., Quintet, and, unfortunately, A Prairie Home Companion.
Films I missed that I hold out hope for being good (or at least worth seeing):
Fast Food Nation
Wild Blue Yonder
That reminds me, though: what the fuck did Mike Judge do to 20th Century Fox to cause them to make his well-reviewed Idiocracy all but un-seeable? It literally makes no sense. Didn't they learn their lesson with Office Space?
Performance of the Year: Helen Mirren in The Queen. This film is a just a little too staid and obvious and innocuous to make my best films list, but make no mistake: Helen Mirren's portrayal of the struggling Queen is the best bit of acting you will see this year. It's a thankless task - part studious impression, part conduit for allegory, part awards showcase role - but Mirren manages to step back from all of the noise and create a singular vision of a woman in isolation bearing the strange weights of history and country.
Comedic Performer of the Year: Sacha Baron Cohen (Talladega Nights and Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakshtan) Give credit where credit is due.
The "Jeremy Irons in Dungeons and Dragons Award" for giving it your best shot, even though you probably shouldn't have: Is there anyone that this could go to other than the man himself, Jeremy Irons, in Eragon?
Supporting Performances that altered for the better the cinematic landscape of their respective films: Vera Farmiga in The Departed and Gong Li in Miami Vice. It's no coincidence that level of acting skyrockets in every scene in which either actress appears. Both women an excellent listeners that are genuinely interacting with their costars and not simply blurting out lines at full volume (as with every other motherfucker in The Departed) or sullenly reciting jive couplets (as with everyone else in Miami Vice). Colin Farrell seems frequently stunned by Li - when she establishes eye contact with him and thinks before she speaks, it causes him to spring to life: you are no longer watching two performances; instead you are watching two human beings interact. And Farmiga's restraint and intelligence in the many clearly improvisational scenes seems downright heroic in comparison to absurd histrionics that her co-stars spew up on the screen. In both films, the ladies are a real ace in the hole and it's hard to imagine either film without their dynamic performances - the actors in The Departed would have simply melded into one undifferentiated mass of sweaty, twitchy self-indulgence and Colin Farrell would have been his usual cipher in Vice. It might not be so impressive that the well-established and respected Li ups the game of Academy Award winner Jamie Fox and "World's Biggest Jackass" Award winner Colin Farrell, but you have to be impressed with the way that Farmiga comes across as the MVP on a squad that includes Jack Nicholson, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, and Matt Damon.
Movies you May have forgotten existed: Ultraviolet, Firewall, Stranger than Fiction, The Sentinel
Best Movie Starring a Professional Wrestler playing a possibly supernatural character with a decaying head full of maggots and horseflies: See No Evil. Runner-up: Neil Young: Heart of Gold
Best Title: Stick It!
For the Museum of AmerIndie style: Little Miss Sunshine
Seriously, someone needs to stop Michael Winterbottom: Tristam Shandy and Road to Guantanomo.
Least Likable Child Star: Cameron Bright (Ultraviolet, Thank you for Smoking). The creepiness of Haley Joel Osmet with the talent of a young David Charvet.
Worst case of futro in a movie: Fat, old Adam Sandler's jogging suit in Click - but really, that movie contains loads of things that could've just as easily captured the title.
Really, really shitty Sequels for which I harbored even the dimmest hopes of enjoyment: Clerks 2, X-3: The Last Stand, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, The Lake House (aka Speed 3)
Sequels to dread: Clerks 3, Thank You for Jerking off to Internet Pornography, Lucky number sl-eight, W for Wendetta
Please stop making movies based on comics: V for Vendetta, X-3: The Last Stand ,Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties
The Local Hero award for over-rated under-rated movie of the year: Old Joy
(plus Mutual Appreciation gets an honorable mention ribbon - way to go, buddy, being mentioned in an honorable capacity!)
Best Re-releases:The Mystery of Kasper Hauser, Repulsion
Best Movie I saw a 35mm print of on the big screen: In a Year of 13 Moons. Runner-up: Meat (by Frederick Wiseman). 2nd runners-up: Charlie Varrick/ Time of the Wolf/ Road Warrior (tie)
Seriously, though: if you don't get a chance to see Michael Haneke's stunning Time of the Wolf on the big screen, don't bother. It is one film that uses a visual strategy that literally will not translate to into any other viewing experience aside from on a big screen in a pitch black theater. If you get a chance to catch in 35mm, do not hesitate to do so.
This year, I also experienced an amazing film in less than stellar conditions: Hans Jurgen Syberberg's Hitler: A Film from Germany. It's a seven-hour deconstruction of the concept of "Hitler" that uses everything from rear-screen projection to interpretive dance to dramatic reenactment to puppetry to examine Hitler the mythic force, Hitler the social device, Hitler the politician, Hitler the symbol. It's an incredibly draining experience and not just because of the running time - by the end of the film you'll have come to a new, queasier, more complex understanding of a well-trod and seemingly exhausted subject. Unfortunately, I saw the film on a crappy digital projection, which undermined to experience somewhat. Suffering through the blurry visuals and muddy sound was worth it, though: it's an utterly unique experience, something beyond simply "seeing a movie."
A documentary you absolutely must see (even if I wouldn't exactly call it a good film): Jonestown: The Life and Death of the People's Temple. Going into this film, I associated Jim Jones with nothing much aside from three vague concepts: religious cult, mass suicide and cyanide Kool-Aid. The whole story is even more complicated, heart-breaking and weird than you can imagine. Sure, the cinematic treatment is just a bit of sub-"60 Minutes" reportage, but the wealth of truly unsettling footage and unrepentant (almost nostalgic) first person testimonials are utterly mind-blowing. Ever wonder what Jones could've said to convince his followers to drink the Kool-Aid? Wonder no more because Jonestown plays the actual audio recordings made as Jones laid out the doomed settlement's options: "You can either die now by your own hand or die later by theirs."
A trans-dimension creature recites a list of his sins to Charles Freck in A Scanner Darkly.
Matt Damon charms Vera Farmiga's reluctant psychologist in the elevator. The Departed.
Philippe Gerbier shares his cigarettes with the other condemned men. Army of Shadows.
A bullet to the neck before he can even say "Fuck you!" in Miami Vice.
"There is someone/ standing behind you/ turn around" on the subway in Final Destination 3.
The deranged, depressed penguin hallucinates his family and throws a fish repeatedly, pathetically into the wall. Happy Feet.
The band of bird/squirrels eat the strange fruit and drift into a hallucinatory slumber in Blood Tea and Red String.
The warden explains the stages of recovery to the main character's chagrin in Lunacy.
Nicolas Cage (dressed in a bear suit) punches yet another lady in the face. The Wicker Man.
A debauched black mass complete with delicious cake, naked nymphomaniac nuns, a raving blasphemer and blow-jobs. Lunacy.
The albino mice want their turtle back! Blood and red string in Blood Tea and Red String.
Robert Patrick attempts to seduce the female hostage. Doesn't he know that's The Marine's girl?!
Johnny Knoxville: anaconda wrestler. Jackass 2.
Superman Returns to save the space-shuttle/airplane from crashing.
Our young heroine eats a grape and awakens the Pale Man in Pan's Labyrinth.
The Albanian woman provides a translation... for a price. Inside Man.
Benoit Magimel hops the fence and steals the stone head. The Bridesmaid.
"Hey, loser gets a ping-pong paddle shoved up his ass!" and the look on Jay Chandrasekhar's face in Beerfest.
The two-second time machine in The Science of Sleep works!
No, Laura Smet is not joking. She is being serious. The Bridesmaid.
Atom Egoyan recognizes the courtyard from the late-night tv documentary on the Lebanon massacre. Citadel.
Borat takes a ride with some frat boys. Suddenly, the movie is more depressing and horrifying than funny. Borat.
"I'd appreciate it if you don't tell anyone I scream like that." Accepted.
Fat-man/midget bungee jump. Jackass 2. And Jason Taylor is here for some reason.
Philippe Gerbier and the impromptu escape to a barber shop. Army of Shadows.
The marines decide not to take prisoners in Letters from Iwo Jima.
Keanu Reeves looks out at the field, totally lost to his own mind at the end of A Scanner Darkly.
Michael Rooker's interstellar blob shares a moment of connection with Elizabeth Banks at the end of Slither.
Jim Jones' followers show up at the airstrip and there's no way this can end well. Jonestown: The Life and Death of the People's Temple.
FAVORITE SCENE OF THE YEAR:
Atom Egoyan and his wife make the mistake of going with a shady tour guide to the Citadel.
Just so you know, I did see these films, but didn't think they deserved the Top-Ten List play they got. Some of them I liked, but none of them are any great shakes. A couple really stink. I have put them in order of increasing stinkiness (with the least stinky first): Clean, The Devil and Daniel Johnston , The Good German, Letters from Iwo Jima , Perfume, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, The Curse of the Golden Flower, The Good Shepherd, Notes on a Scandal, Little Miss Sunshine, Three Times, Children of Men, Shortbus, The Prestige.
- christopher funderburg, January 2007
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