I actually have a lot of lists and "awards" to bestow this year, but the way I always get myself in trouble is by trying to do everything at once, and then eventually deciding it's too late to do any of it. Sure, everybody is tired of year-end lists, and most people got theirs done at the actual year-end. I'm perfectly content feeling like I have a somewhat comprehensive take on things by now: the day before the Academy announces its Oscar nominations. So there's more to come, but for the time being, I thought I would at least get this up and done.
I know everyone has been complaining about how 2006 was a bad year for film, and maybe overall it was, yet I still found myself with plenty of titles to choose from, and a few that I think will stand the test of time. The hardest thing for me, in fact, wasn't finding enough movies to fill my list, but rather determining any sort of order. Other than my top film of the year, I have a feeling that the rest of my top six or seven is relatively interchangeable, and several of those I include in "Next Best" on a given day could potentially crack that top 10.
So, without further ado: Below is the list; clicking on a title will take you to brief comments on that title (as will simply clicking on the "Continue reading ..."). The only films I included are titles which were released in New York during 2006 and were not nearly 40 years old. (Army of Shadows deserves a special and separate mention). There are also comments (after the jump) about what's missing. Other worthy notables (as well as a few other categories) will be for another post. And now ...
THE BEST FILMS OF 2006
- Pan's Labyrinth
- The Departed
- Old Joy
- Children of Men
- The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
- Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
- The Road to Guantanamo
- This Film Is Not Yet Rated
- 49 Up
- Half Nelson
- The Heart of the Game
- Jesus Camp
- Lady Vengeance
- Letters From Iwo Jima
- Marie Antoinette
- The Queen
WHAT'S NOT ON THE LIST
(but you might think it should be ...)
THE BEST FILMS OF 2006
1. Pan's Labyrinth
I've made no secret of my adoration for Guillermo del Toro's magical and miraculous film since I first saw and wrote about it at the New York Film Festival. Last year I decided to start what I am considering a new tradition in my movie-viewing life: The best film I see one year will be the film I watch before any others the following year. So, for example, after determining that Batman Begins was the best of 2005 (and yes, I hold to that), at 12:30 AM on 01/01/06, I popped in the DVD. This year, I did not watch a movie until Jan. 2, but when I did, it was Pan's Labyrinth. Having seen it a second time, del Toro's filmmaking -- both technically and narratively -- impressed me even more than before. I kept seeing little things I hadn't noticed the first time. I kept comparing my current viewing experience with the previous one and noticing ways that my memory had tricked me, but in a good and fascinating way. For utilizing all the elements of cinema and creating a singular breathtaking whole, Pan's Labyrinth is by my estimation far and away the best film of the year.
2. The Departed
I'm an unabashed Martin Scorsese fan, another fact I have rarely kept hidden, but The Departed is the first time in a while that I have seen Scorsese use all his tricks while simultaneously expressing his pure joy of making a film. Sure, he's held to a higher standard -- at least in my book -- so while Gangs of New York or The Aviator are good movies, they're certainly not good Scorsese movies. While The Departed may still not crack the ranks of his top five -- Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, GoodFellas, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Mean Streets -- but it certainly fits in nicely at the top of the next tier including Casino, After Hours and The King of Comedy. (Personally, I'm also a big fan of Bringing Out the Dead, but I know I'm apparently int he minority there.) I know people also seem to be saying that Infernal Affairs, upon which The Departed was based, is a better film. I thoroughly disagree. One of the things I find so fascinating about Scorsese's treatment -- and I wish was true about most Americanized remakes -- is that the film definitely has its own and different point-of-view. Yes, the stories are similar, but the dynamics of the environment and the characters themselves are different enough that I don't even like to compare them. Add to that all the Scorsese-film traits that seamlessly enter the frame -- from religious iconography to use of modern music -- and you have a movie that deserves to be looked upon with utterly different eyes. The Departed is, in fact, a bit of a departure for Scorsese himself, with deliberately jarring (even sloppy?) editing or the extremely quick flash of the titles when most unexpected or the way most deaths are glanced at rather than dwelled upon. As similar as this world is to the gangland one he's perfected before, it isn't the same, maintaining a harshness or even cynicism that treats reality as constantly moving and out of our control. It's his best directing job in well-over a decade; it will hopefully win him his first Oscar (and deservedly so for this film rather than as a career achievement); and while I struggled to decide whether to place it at number two, it most definitely should live in the top five.
3. Old Joy
Few movies stayed with me this year after leaving the theater as much as Kelly Reichardt's meditative drama about growing-up and friendship. Not a lot "happens" in Old Joy, and the experience of watching it versus having just watched it are actually quite different: the former is occasionally a bit of a slog; but the latter is, at least for someone in his/her mid-20s to late-30s, a thought-provoking and emotional experience that is hard to imagine not resonating deeply. Old Joy is a rare film that manages to affect both one's internal and external world simultaneously, truly depicting how much one is dependent on the other. It also brilliantly exposes how easy it is for people who come from the same place and have long been the best of friends can drift apart, without being able to necessarily recognize the person they once knew, and yet, there can still be personal and important ties that bind. Old Joy is a film to watch, think about, forget for a while, and then reexamine, all the while trying to place yourself into the lives of these characters. As small films go, this one couldn't be much bigger.
4. Children of Men
This certainly seems to be the year of the Mexican director. Between del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón, they're representing, and if you through Alejandro González Iñárritu, it's a pretty impressive trio (even if his Babel is now officially in the lead as this year's "most overrated" film). But if you had asked me two weeks ago what I thought of Children of Men, it wouldn't have even made my list. I've had a different experience with this film than maybe any other before. Sure, I've seen films repeatedly and liked them more or less with each successive viewing, but never have I actually decided that I needed to give a movie a second chance because my experience of watching it simply wasn't matching up with my memory of the film itself. I went to see Children of Men shortly before the New Year, and I walked out of it disappointed. I didn't dislike it by any means, but I was feeling like I had experienced a slight missed opportunity for something really special. I felt like every bit of it could have been tighter -- not so great when a movie is under two hours anyway -- and while nothing in the story confused me, I overheard many other audience members expressing confusion and disappointment, and their complaints all seemed to make sense.
But then, two things happened: first, I found myself constantly thinking about different scenes and sequences -- the way they were shot; the way they were played out -- and I found myself always saying, "That was amazing the way that ...." And then, in considering the reaction the film was getting from many people whose opinions I generally respect, I thought to myself: Did I miss something? Was I particularly distracted or in a bad mood?
I'm not 100% sure what happened, but I did check out Children of Men again this past weekend, and I have to admit that I was flat-out wrong. That's right ... W-R-O-N-G. Eloquent and elegant and provocative and exciting and compelling are all adjectives that come to mind after giving Children of Men a second go-round, which I find particularly surprising considering how much of the film's story seems to depend on surprising you with actions that are totally unexpected. I saw a lot more in the film this time, and I saw much deeper layers of meaning and imagery, particularly in the utterly brilliant final act at the refugee camp. Why did I not look upon Theo's encounter with Kee in the barn as representative of the Virgin Mary in the manger? Why did I not consider more strongly the implications of the baby being a girl rather than a boy? Why did I not notice (or pay attention to) glances of background violence all throughout the film's climactic battle sequences that hold lots of power even as they happen in the blink of an eye to people we don't know? I can't answer that. But I can say that in a year with anybody touting Babel and Little Children, not considering the brilliance and importance of a film like Children of Men is a crime in itself. Bleak may not make people happy, but it generally makes us think.
5. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
So it may seem like I'm in a particularly bleak mood and focusing quite a bit on death this year, eh? Well, it's not me. It's these very talented filmmakers examining the world around us, and this is what they see. Cristi Puiu's examination of the final night in the life of a Romanian retired widower isn't always easy to watch, but it's another experience that will likely stay with you long after it has ended. The one thing we don't actually see is the death of Mr. Lazarescu, and that's part of this film's strength. As the film progresses, you learn that you're actually not watching a character study of how a man deals with declining health, but rather a commentary on how a society treats its citizens, especially those who may be quickly devolving into helplessness. Although the film is a picture of life in Romania, much of its depiction and criticism of that country's health care system could easily be translated and adjusted to our own.
6. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
Adapting the unadaptable is what filmmaker Michael Winterbottom set out to do with this film, and whether or not he succeeded is beyond my abilities to judge as I have never actually read the original Laurence Sterne novel. Yet the multiple narratives and characters portrayed in Tristram Shandy weave in and out of each other providing humor that runs across the spectrum from giggles of delight to large, sometimes painful, belly guffaws. Tristram Shandy was easily one of the most funny and creative films I saw all year (even though I saw it in 2005), and was a great continuing example of the versatility of Winterbottom as a filmmaker.
7. The Road to Guantanamo
And if you need further proof concerning said "versatility," just take a look at this film. Few filmmakers would ever think of making two films as different in story, subject matter, tone, and ultimate goal as Winterbottom has with Tristram Shandy and The Road to Guantanamo, and fewer still would do so in back-to-back. In fact, other than Richard Linklatter, I can't think of one. As funny and innovative as I found Tristram Shandy, Guantanamo proved to be equally innovative -- in a very different way -- and utterly sobering. Winterbottom's mix of dramatic and documentary storytelling blend together perfectly. I suppose some could criticize the film for excessively demonizing the American military -- most definitely the primary bad guys in this story -- but as there is ample evidence that much of this kind of treatment has occurred, plus the fact that the stories here are true, at least as presented by the real men the film is about, it's hard to argue that something can be excessive if it is truthfully representative. Guantanamo is powerful and emotional, and it should be required viewing for everyone.
8. This Film Is Not Yet Rated
I said it then and I'll say it again: I love This Film .... Kirby Dick's documentary examining the secretive Motion Picture Association of America's ratings process is not just illuminating but also thoroughly entertaining. He may deal with the story and some of its issues in a mildly lighthearted manner, but in no way does (or should) that lessen the importance of this fun film's message regarding who's controlling our media and underhanded censorship.
9. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
I struggled with whether or not to include Borat. Part of me doesn't consider it such a great movie, but another part of me recognizes that I can't remember another time in my life that I've laughed as hard for as long and as consistently. So, is being a great entertainment and a hysterically funny film enough to consider it one of the best movies of the year? Ultimately, I decided it was, for even though the tendency to feel more like a series of random sketches than a cohesive story is prevalent, the nature of the storytelling and filmmaking -- this blend of scripted, improv and straight real-life filmmaking -- is pretty innovative and overall it works. Borat has a few moments here and there, especially closer to the end, when it seems like it's about to fall apart and let you drift away, but then right in time, it rights itself. And it's just so damn funny!
I know, I know ... Mel Gibson. Why would I go see a Mel Gibson film. Well, because ultimately, I do try to separate the film from the filmmaker, and especially in the case of Apocalypto, I'm very glad that I did. By far his most mature and (in a way) restrained film as a director, Apocalypto is a magnificent telling of an important period, culture and society in the world's (and this hemisphere's) history, and one that is woefully neglected in Western mainstream culture. Everything that I found painfully annoying and wrong about The Passion of the Christ is the opposite in Apocalypto, and Gibson truly does justice to his story and these characters. Most fascinating, however, is the film's implied epilogue, particularly coming from the filmmaker who made The Passion of the Christ: after seeing these two parts of the same civilization battle each other out of a combination of greed and need for dominance, Jaguar Paw witnesses the Europeans landing on the beach, looking like no kind of man he's ever seen before. We know what's coming next although in his wildest dreams, Jaguar Paw could never imagination the future his people are in for. And yet, this future and the death of the Mayan Civilization -- one which Gibson seems to rightfully honor even as he depicts how its internal battles and hubris helped lead to its demise -- is directly related to European dominant attitudes that primarily extend from a place of religious superiority. In essence, at the very same moment that Gibson tells us to mourn the disappearance of these proud, intelligent and advanced people, he's showing their future conquerers who took whatever they wanted to and could because they believed in a divine right for the white European male to possess and control all. While Gibson's point may be that the Maya never would have disappeared had they not begun to combust from within, I wonder how he meshes that idea with one stating that they also may have survived had armies and explorers driven by Christianity not devoured everything in their paths. Regardless, Apocalypto is a phenomenal film, and although the events in it occurred more than five centuries ago, much of what it has to say about internal cultural divisions and battles doesn't seem so different from what we see around us today in this country. Sure, maybe there are fewer human sacrifices involving ripping out a living man's beating heart ... but you know ... tomAYto, tomAHto.
49 Up is Michael Apted's latest film in the continuing saga of the real lives of 14 English people. The most compelling of his entire series, 49 Up for the first time truly shows what could be considered an entire life, constantly jumping back to juxtapose this 49 year old with the 7, 14, 21 and so on -year-olds we knew earlier. It's a tremendous film and brilliant social commentary.
Half Nelson impressed me with its unconventional story, not sugar-coating the reality of the lives of this unlikely good friends, and, while presenting an ending that could be seeing as uplifting and positive, leaves enough untold to remind you that tomorrow, everything could fall back to shit. Additionally, Ryan Gosling continues to prove himself as one of the best actors working today, and Shareeka Epps does more than hold her own opposite him.
The Heart of the Game was horribly neglected by its distributor (Miramax), receiving little-to-no support upon its brief theatrical run last summer. It's quite a shame because this female Hoop Dreams is almost on par with that classic sports documentary, but in some ways, it's far more interesting and much more than a simple sports doc.
Jesus Camp remains the most frightening film I saw in 2006.
Lady Vengeance is the third in Korean director Park Chan-wook's "revenge trilogy," and while I still prefer Oldboy to this film, the disparity between the two is negligible at best. (Unlike, I must say, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, which I personally found far less satisfying than either of the other two films.) I reviewed Lady Vengeance during the New York Film Festival in 2005 for Gothamist. Reflecting on the film from a distance and rereading my earlier thoughts now, I can't help but consider the added layer of revenge as a path to redemption (as opposed to simply a way to foment one's anger) as certainly the most thought-provoking theme of the three films.
Letters From Iwo Jima may have been the second of Clint Eastwood's parallel WWII in the Pacific films, but for my money it far surpasses anything in Flag of Our Fathers. The Japanese story just proves to be far more engaging than the one Eastwood tells from the American side. Maybe that's because Letters unfolds in front of us while Flags is far more memory and reflection; the trials of the young men in Flags seem to be the fame they encounter as props to raise money back home, while in Letters , we encounter a very different mindset of honor combined with only watching men who are all basically about to die. I understand the decision to release these films in this order, but it's a shame if more people, particularly Americans, don't see Letters -- not the best film of the year (and certainly not the best Foreign Language Film of the year you stupid Golden Globes), but definitely up there and a tremendous achievement (yet again) by Eastwood.
I never did get around to writing my defense of Sofia Coppola's unjustly harangued film. As one who has not been such a tremendous fan of her filmmaking -- I liked Lost in Translation fine but wasn't completely bowled over by it, and The Virgin Suicides did its best to put me to sleep no matter how hard I fought it -- but I was greatly surprised by what I saw this time around. I was even more surprised when I went to a second press screening and discovered that many of my problems with the film were solved by little things I had missed the first time, especially some small nuances in Kirsten Dunst's performance. I think criticism of Marie Antoinette as simple eye candy is unfair and patently untrue. Looking past the gimmickry and the flash of the film lies the same theme of a "little girl lost" that Coppola doesn't seem to want to get away from, yet here presented in a character whose real history makes it nearly impossible to think of sympathetically. And yet -- historical accuracies or inaccuracies and anachronisms aside -- I, at least, reached an understanding for this Marie (if not the real one) that made her tremendously sympathetic and even, maybe, pitiable. I wonder how this film would have been received had it come from an unknown director as opposed to a woman who many still think of as a spoiled little daddy's girl who comes from film royalty.
The Queen may not have been groundbreaking cinema, but it's hard for me to imagine how anybody could have told this particular story any better. Stephen Frears directing Peter Morgan's fantastic script took a potentially dry, drab and dull event in history and made it engaging and fascinating. Obviously they received tremendous help from likely Oscar winner Helen Mirren as well as a tremendous supporting cast, most notably Michael Sheen as Tony Blair. As I wrote in October, The Queen is a magnificent example of all the pieces of a movie coming together to fit perfectly so.
Sherrybaby certainly isn't without its flaws, and the majority of the film's success hinges on the tremendous performance given by Maggie Gyllenhaal. But as I mentioned previously, writer/director Laurie Collyer gets bonus points from me for simply knowing not just where her story starts but also precisely where it should end.
I haven't seen every 2006 release, and there are several movies that I did see and would have most liekly been on my Top 10 had they come out in theaters. I can guarantee that The Host (my review here) will be on that list for 2007, most likely at least in the top five. (The film opens in the US this March.) Woman on the Beach from Korean director Hong Sang-soo and Syndromes and a Century by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul are two that will receive some serious consideration from me.
Titles that I still have not yet seen but which I've noticed mentioned on many other lists or just seemed interesting to me (so who knows if they'd make mine) include Battle in Heaven, Climates, Iraq in Fragments, Mutual Appreciation (although, I don't really consider myself part of the Bujalski cult), The Painted Veil, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, The Prestige (woe is me for missing a Chris Nolan film; eagerly awaiting the DVD release next month), The Puffy Chair and Three Times.
Additionally, I have not been back to see Inland Empire since my first experience with it at the NYFF in October. Maybe once I see it again (which I do intend to do ... at least one day), my opinion will firmly jump from one side to the other, but ultimately, I can't bring myself to call a film one of the best of the year when half the time I think about it I love it, and the other half I simply want to role my eyes in near-contempt. My feeling is that I will appreciate it much more on a second viewing, but that doesn't necessarily mean I will enjoy it any more. And there's the conundrum.
And, as I mentioned at the beginning, Army of Shadows was certainly one of the best movies I saw this year. OK, so it had never been released in the US, and that's why several critics placed it on (and even atop) their year-end lists. As great as it is, however, I have trouble listing a film as among the best movies of 2006 when it was actually made two years before I was born in 1971. But, hey, that's me! Now, if we create a new kind of list, say "The best film I saw for the first time in 2006," it would make that list, but then that also opens the doors to lots of movies, and chances are, many people wouldn't even have one movie from the actual year on their lists.
And then finally, there are all the films that are garnering nominations and awards and have become, to some audiences at least, big favorites. Some of them I like; some of them I hate; many of them ridiculously overrated; others, just utterly disappointing. But that's it for now ... those will have to wait for another time, and as a few of them will probably be earning more of my ire tomorrow morning at approximately 8:30 AM (Eastern), we can tackle them then.