Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Top Films of 2006

I'm going hog-wild with these lists--elephant-wild even. And I don't want to get too off-topic by writing something about film, but it is my first love. (I know. How do I know so much about everything? How does one become a film, music, sports, and culture expert? I mean, really, where do I find the time to eat? I'm so encyclopedic you'd think something was up, like I might actually not always know what I'm talking about. Nah.)

These lists are a bit thorny. Does having a film on my list mean I want to watch it a hundred times or ever again? Not necessarily. Is having a list of favorite films akin to a list of the best? It seems as if it should be. "Best," however, connotes public opinion or objectivity, and this list is concerned with neither. When you start thinking about what the best movies of a year are, you start worrying about some weird kind of posterity street cred, ranking The Thin Red Line at number eight while the clearly superior There's Something about Mary is chillaxin' at number thirteen. (I was a douche in 1998.) Still, "favorite" doesn't seem correct either. Some of the most thought-provoking art I've encountered has terrified me or forced me to confront uncomfortable things about myself (no homo). For example, this photograph is clearly one of the most important and powerful ever taken, but I feel weird calling it a favorite.

Simply put, of all the movies I've seen that were released this year--eighty- or ninety-something from what I could gather--these were the ones that affected, inspired, delighted, or fascinated me the most. Unfortunately, I missed Big Momma's House 2, so we'll leave this list open to editing. I did strive to see everything that suited my taste before making the list though, which in the past has meant downloading movies illegally, driving an hour out of town to a theater, or smuggling back an illegal copy from Mexico. (Fucking Kinsey.)

I realize that you may not put much stock in my film recommendations--especially if you're a Martin Lawrence fan--so to give you an idea of my taste, The Nutty Professor and Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills were my numbers five and two ten years ago, and this was my favorite Super Bowl commerical this year. ("Only fools work hard--I work smart.") Chili dog.

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Conversations with Other Women- Hans Canosa
The gimmick of the movie is that it takes place entirely in split-screen, which is impressive as a purely technical achievement. But those split-screens--capturing not only different points of view, but also different points in time and alternate reactions--highlight a screenplay and performances that would have been stunning work without their help. The only problem was that I got sidetracked thinking of other movies that would have been better with a permanent split-screen. There isn't a joke there; it's just an interesting idea.

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Volver- Pedro Almodovar
In the first twenty minutes of Volver, we learn that a girl has killed her father after he attempted to rape her, and the ghost of the family's deceased matriarch is trying to extend help from beyond the grave. And it's a whole lot of fun. I'm normally not a fan of Almodovar's work, but the blase way his characters treat these events is refreshingly funny. The word "whimsical" is often thrown around with Spanish cinema, but Volver's energetic pacing and charm definitely earns it.

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Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story- Michael Winterbottom
Endlessly inventive in its adaptation, Winterbottom's film twists with wit and the rebellious joy of being like no other movie you've ever seen. More than anything, Tristram Shandy reminds me of 24 Hour Party People, which you should rent. (Damn, I'm not being very funny so far.)

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Bubble- Steven Soderbergh
In the past few years, the conceit of capturing non-actors has been a hit-or-miss fad, much like the infancy of DV and directors' struggles to master it. One could never leave a theater without wondering if realism and unforced naivete were worth the sacrifices made by casting some slack-jawed rube. I mean, most non-actors aren't as good-looking as actors for one thing. The obvious solution to this problem is hiring real people who are still hot, but Soderbergh goes a completely different route. What he does here revolutionizes the entire idea of what a non-actor is. (Also, this is the best-lit film ever shot on video. Soderbergh makes Christopher Doyle look like your dad in Disney World. Worth mentioning.) By involving these people in the writing process, letting them improvise, and shaping the plot around them, he has not only hidden their flaws but made the film about those flaws. Those people whose names I don't even know become as essential to Bubble as Soderbergh is to contemporary cinema. Not to get James Lipton about stuff.

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Notes on a Scandal- Richard Eyre
I'm regretting ranking this one so highly already. It's interesting as an acting clinic, the narration is scintillating, and the plot never went exactly where I thought it would. As I'm writing this, it seems too high though. When I saw it, number eleven didn't jump out at me. What's done is done I guess.

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Borat- Larry Charles
Because of its popularity with critics and audiences alike--even if half of that audience left feeling weird and out on the joke--it's easy to forget just how bizarre, controversial, and avant-garde Borat is. As far as satire goes, achieving that trumps any other kind of success. That, and I like movies in which guys wrestle naked.

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Thank You for Smoking- Jason Reitman
Even when it doesn't work, Thank You for Smoking moves so fast and with such snarky aplomb that it doesn't matter. At the center is a magnetic Aaron Eckhart, who struts through every scene of this movie hitting just the right notes. Without exception (okay, maybe Katie Holmes), the rest of the cast clearly understood the tone Reitman was reaching for with his debut, and they act like the selfless steroids to Eckhart's Barry Bonds. (Anybody ever wonder why the steroids never get any credit for Barry Bonds' success? People just blame them for ruining the sport's purity without objectively noting that steroids must be pretty awesome if they can get a man in his forties to hit over seventy homers. And get custom-made hats from the MLB because his head is larger than 10" around. I mean, would it kill you to just step back and appreciate the power of steroids for a moment?)
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Jesus Camp- Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
Even when I like a documentary these days, the fault I keep branding it with is a lack of objectivity. On one hand, I can't blame the documentarians. If I were dedicated enough to spend years of my life filming a subject, I would want to put my own stamp on it too. Ewing and Grady, however, are the rare breed that lets controversial figures completely speak for themselves. The titular evangelical camp and the children being raised in its own image would have been mocked by most filmmakers, but the distance, maturity, and restraint used by Ewing and Grady are the keys to an attempt at understanding. After seeing probing images, hearing revealing testimonials, and watching one hell of a rat-tail, the viewer comes away enlightened, intrigued, and conflicted--but with his own opinion worthy and his own voice intact.

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United 93- Paul Greengrass
This isn't the type of film anyone wants to see, but it's the type everyone should. It slowly wraps you into its vortex, and the waves of confusion and fear being experienced by the people in the film (some survivors even playing themselves) are bounced right into your lap. More than anyone, when I first heard about Paul Greengrass (the dude who did The Bourne Supremacy?) making a 9/11 movie, I cringed. But the film honors its subjects in such an obvious and respectful way that it didn't happen soon enough. Putting all of the hand-held camera technical mumbo-jumbo aside, this is a touching, towering document.

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The Departed- Martin Scorsese
Many reviews of The Departed asserted something like, "Scorsese takes a typical crime drama and elevates all of the workings with an almost Shakespearean weight and significance." To me, that compliment doesn't do the movie justice. The Departed is a superb crime flick, and it doesn't have to "elevate" anything to be worthy of being one of the best films of the year or the career of anyone involved with it. Shouldn't any well-made film have palpable consequences, a sense of dread, and knockout performances, and the line, "Maybe...maybe not...maybe fuck you," regardless of genre?

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Stranger Than Fiction- Marc Forster
I seemed to like this one way more than most other people, and not just because I'm a Ferrell stan. To me, it seemed as if Zach Helm's screenplay presented a world where anything could happen, and that atmosphere translated into a sense of anticipation and wonder in me. It's a quick hour and fifty-three minutes, and I'm not going to rebuff people who call it "a Charlie Kaufman movie for people who are too stupid to understand Charlie Kaufman movies." It is, and I don't have a problem with that. The end really validated the emotional center of the whole picture, and the only thing for which I can take points off is the casting of Queen Latifah in a role that was pretty unncessary in the first place. She and Cedric the Entertainer are neck-in-neck in the marathon of seeing how long they can each play themselves.

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The Queen- Stephen Frears
I keep pointing back to the issue of tone, and this film's is as tenuously balanced as any other. Incorporating real-life archival footage expertly, it's a movie that knows when to be funny and snide and when to be deathly serious--doing each equally well. Helen Mirren is as good as advertised, but at its heart The Queen exemplifies how actions and vested feelings of the most intimate sort can have a much greater impact than we give them credit for.

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Little Miss Sunshine- Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
I was as charmed by this film as anyone else and laughed the whole way through. So instead of going on and on about its biting dialogue and underrated performances, let me recount a story of when I saw it in theaters: Two septugenarians brought their young granddaughter, based only on the title and oblivious to anything else. Within the first five minutes, we learn that a gay character has tried to commit suicide, that an atheist has taken a vow of silence, and that a sex-crazed grandfather is going to curse us through the next two hours or so. At first, Grams and Gramps ignored the profanity and adult content, but both proved too pervasive. Tugging their granddaughter, they called out (for everyone else's benefit), "Let's go. This is not enjoyable. We're leaving." They rose to leave and presumably demand their money back, but the little girl wouldn't go. "Madison," the grandma insisted, "This is not enjoyable. We don't want to watch this." Twice, the grandparents started to walk out, but the little girl stayed in her seat. Realizing his own lack of persuasion, the grandfather picked her up and carried her out of the theater screaming "I wanna watch it!" That little girl knew what was enjoyable, and I think Dwayne and Grandpa would have approved.

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Children of Men- Alfonso Cuaron
Last week, I was trying to convince my mom to see this instead of Because I Said So, and its premise is difficult to explain without making it sound like some Brave New World ish. "So, uh, it's the not-so-distant future, and women have been rendered infertile. Plus, this infertility stuff shuts down most of society and..." See, within the internal logic of the film, all of this seems completely natural. Its every move is so invested in actual human interaction and behavior that it proceeds as if this sequence of events is totally natural. Cuaron straps us into long takes and street-level angles to involve us in a sci-fi/adventure/drama that's absorbing, unpredictable, and moving. Look on the bright side: If women become infertile and we lose hope of continuing our civilization, eventually there will be no one to star in Because I Said So.

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Half Nelson- Ryan Fleck
Quick: name a good movie about a teacher. Quick: name a good movie about a teacher that is not a barely legal porn or does not feature a Coolio song. Of any subgenre, the uplifting teacher movie is one rife with emotional manipulation and artificial resolution. Told mostly in close-ups with no easy answers or contrivances, Half Nelson is the polar opposite. Fleck's debut feature is anchored by two unforgettable performances, without which the movie would have been nothing. Ryan Gosling, just as was the case during his tenure on "The Mickey Mouse Club," is a ghost of quiet desperation, and Half Nelson's gripping tale rests on his shoulders. Every scene of Half Nelson could have come off as disingenuous or artificial, but it doesn't falter once.

Best Performances
1. Ryan Gosling- Half Nelson
2. Maggie Gyllenhaal- SherryBaby
3. Leonardo DiCaprio- The Departed
4. Helen Mirren- The Queen
5. Sacha Baron Cohen- Borat
6. Shareeka Epps- Half Nelson
7. Forest Whitaker- The Last King of Scotland
8. John C. Reilly- Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
9. Aaron Eckhart- Thank You for Smoking
10. Steve Carrell- Little Miss Sunshine

Best Trailers

1. Spider-Man 3 (teaser)- Better than most feature-length movies this year. Probably the best trailer I've seen since Fight Club.


2. Marie Antoinette (teaser)


3. Borat (full)


4. Miami Vice (full)


5. Dreamgirls (full)


Bonus. The Number 23- Ladies and gentlemen, the funniest movie of 2007. This movie would be ten times better if Carrey had played it as The Riddler.

Over-Rated
1. Blood Diamond- This movie has a message, podnuh. Bad shit is happening in Africa, and that has to be delivered in the most heavy-handed, sanctimonious way possible for two and a half hours. (I'd love to see Djimon Honsou playing a regular dude someday. I'm sure he wants to. It's not his fault he's cast as the same taciturn Afrikans over and over again.)
2. Akeelah and the Bee- A lot of critics lauded the way this flick tugged at the heartstrings, even putting it on their best-of-the-year-so-far lists. To me, it was one step above a Lifetime movie as far as character development and structure go. Rent Spellbound instead.
3. The Proposition- I was intrigued by the premise of this movie, a man being forced to find and kill his older brother to save his younger brother from being executed. You'd think it would be fraught with Tarkovskian levels of guy-walking-through-the-desert-with-mental-anguish scenes, but everyone plays it pretty superficially. I kept waiting for the script to address this enormous conflict, and it ignores the most interesting thing about itself.
4. Pan's Labyrinth- A good movie, but never great for me. The way people are talking about it, you'd think it was Caddyshack or something.
5. Letters from Iwo Jima- So here are the two things I learned after another 150+ minutes of my life being snatched away: (1) the Japanese army was brave and dedicated though ultimately unsuccessful, (2) I don't really like Clint Eastwood movies.

Disappointments
1. The Good Shepherd- Seriously, why did the chronology of the events have to be shuffled around? Did that achieve anything dramatically? It's not like this movie didn't have other flaws, but that one stands out.
2. The Science of Sleep- This would have been number one if my expectations hadn't been lowered by its lukewarm reception at Sundance. (I'm a nerd.)
3. Superman Returns- Since I've seen this, one of my favorite comebacks has been: "Yeah, right. And Superman had an illegitimate child with Lois Lane." God, did Bryan Singer shit on American mythology.
4. Running with Scissors- It was only after I saw the movie adaptation that I understood why what was a hilarious, unique literary voice couldn't work on the screen.
5. Art School Confidential- A director with a great track record takes a subject perfectly suited for satire and muddles it into an unfunny mess.
6. American Dreamz- A director with a great track record takes a subject perfectly suited for satire and muddles it into an unfunny mess.
7. The Black Dahlia- Not only was this not the searing potboiler I was hoping for, the performances were maudlin and the ending was chili dog personified. If my girlfriend dolled up in '50s attire can't save a movie, I don't know what can.
8. Miami Vice- In an interesting bit of hipster revisionism, some people are actually liking this now. I guess in the end Michael Mann and I wanted two different adaptations. I wanted the dialogue to be good; he wanted it to be shitty. He wanted to film boats zipping across the water and inexplicit sex scenes; I didn't want to watch those things.
9. Flags of Our Fathers- I don't like Clint Eastwood movies, and some of these performances (I'm looking at you, Adam Beach) were terrabull.
10. Factotum
- Looking back on it, I can see why this wouldn't work. I think my fiancee summed it up perfectly when she said, "Matt Dillon always looks like he's in an acting class."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

How many chocolate chips are in my cookie? (Realization washes over my face) 23.

Ryan