A few hits among many misses in Hollywood

Dec 26, 2006 at 3:11 pm
2006 at a convenient glance.

These are not listed in order. 2006 was actually a damn good year for film. Not too many real masterpieces were logged (maybe a couple), but plenty of solid works. Not too many home runs, in other words, but lots of solid doubles and triples. There were nearly as many good comedies as dramas and thrillers, which is to say it was a good year across the board. One category in which 2006 was deficient was documentary film, which had recently been in steep ascent. In the absence of a new Michael Moore film, the popular standout of the year in this genre was Davis Guggenheim’s Al Gore showpiece “An Inconvenient Truth.” Not one, but two Richard Linklater films failed to ignite. Politics was largely left out of the multiplexes, even in ostensibly political stories like those told in “World Trade Center,” “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Bobby.” Perhaps the lone exception, “United 93,” will someday be seen as the best thing to have come out in 2006.
Best Films: “Borat,” “The Departed,” “Flags of Our Fathers,” “United 93,” “Bobby,” “A Prairie Home Companion,” “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Babel,” “The Queen,” and “The Last King of Scotland.”
Honorable Mentions: “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Miami Vice” and “Thank You For Smoking.”
Biggest Disappointments: “A Scanner Darkly,” “Marie Antoinette,” “The Da Vinci Code,” “Fast Food Nation,” “Déjà Vu,” “The Pink Panther,” “Talladega Nights,” “The Fountain” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.”

Top 10 — Short and to the point, or off with your facial hair!

1) Miami Vice — Great cinema is great cinema, regardless of the actors’ facial hair. Or even the actors.
2) Marie Antoinette — “Miami Vice” and “Marie Antoinette” have more in common than you think. They are both 1) very visual movies that convey little of the plot through dialogue, 2) heavily indebted to brilliant cinematographers, 3) unconscionably underrated and 4) movies that remind me of why it’s always better to see movies in the theater.
3) Brick — Convoluted sociological treatise? Linguistic experiment? Parody of teen drama? “Brick” is a great mystery.
4) Cache — Director Michael Haneke’s work is so traumatic, so unsettling, so thought-provoking that you actually have to mentally prepare to see his movies. When’s the last time you were part of a movie audience literally struck speechless? This must be what Hitchcock’s films felt like 40 years ago.
5) Half Nelson
6) Friends With Money
7) Borat
8) The Prestige —“The Prestige”? More like the red herring. Director Christopher Nolan chose a great novel on which to base his follow-up to “Batman Begins.” It has romance, violence and an allegory about the egotism and obsession of the modern world. Oh, and there’s no such thing as magic.
9) The Departed
10) The War Tapes — Three years into Iraq and still for most of us our only image of the war is a plume of smoke from a faraway car bomb. It’s rare that we can see what is happening with any detail. In “The War Tapes,” we are given many new images: American troops mourning a young Iraqi casualty, insurgents caught surprised by the National Guard, American officers struggling to overcome language and cultural barriers.
Special thanks to U of L, which sponsored the local premieres of this and the other fine documentaries “Jesus Camp” and “Balseros.”

A Top 5 planted firmly in subtlety.

1) United 93 — The fear lacing nearly every frame of “United 93” is unfiltered, jolting, primal. Paul Greengrass’ account of the flight that was hijacked by terrorists on 9/11 and ultimately crashed in rural Pennsylvania achieves such an emotional intensity because it feels less like a fictional account and more as if we’re watching the actual event unfold on the plane and in the air-control towers through documentary footage. “United 93” eliminates the comfortable buffer between viewers and victims, hurtling into the events of the day to excise melodrama, shun exploitation and embrace moral responsibility by approximating the truth as closely as possible. By deftly and tactfully using cinematic tools to realize fully the horrors the passengers suffered, Greengrass pays the ultimate tribute to the victims of 9/11, where an entire way of life in America was dismantled in mere minutes.
2) Half Nelson — As a Brooklyn middle-school teacher with a sharp, politically aware mind compromised by a heroin habit, Ryan Gosling sidesteps junkie-performance histrionics for a quietly devastating naturalism. Director Ryan Fleck’s screenplay is a marvel of thoughtful characterization. Befriending an inner-city student, Gosling’s teacher deepens with contradictions as a mentor who erects walls between his days as an ambitious educator and nighttime junkie, and then denies they’re crumbling.
3) The Descent — Director Neil Marshall understands that evocative sound design — a sonar clash of shrieks as if an alien is digesting a velociraptor — is integral to making the best horror movie in years about cave-dwelling creatures hunting a group of females who also harbor killer instincts.
4) Old Joy — On a weekend camping trip, a friendship between two thirtysomething males irrevocably begins to fracture with every creak of restless trees in the woods, every awkward silence in the conversation.
5) The Departed — Thelma Schoonmaker’s inventive editing shakes up the genre beats with an unnerving rhythm.

Sweet and sappy is the name of the game.

1) United 93 — My top movie of 2006 is one I will never see again. This film firmly straps you in as a passenger on the United Airlines flight — re-creating every event and emotion felt on that tragic Tuesday morning, right down to the disappearing blip on the air-traffic controller’s screen.
2) Little Miss Sunshine — Brilliant and quirky characters drive this feel-gooder of the year. Unlike the Hoover’s VW bus, all gears are working together here — no need to push, just sit back and enjoy.
3) The Last Kiss — It’s no “Garden State,” but I still enjoyed this stab at thirtysomethings emerging into adulthood. The scenes between Zach Braff and Rachel Bilson were dynamic.
4) Half Nelson — Ryan Gosling is delectable.
5) John Tucker Must Die — OK, so not the most obvious pick here, but I enjoyed every minute of this PG-13 teen flick. A twist on the rags-to-riches storyline, a mixture of high-school caste systems, romance and revenge all bubbled over to an unclimactic ending, unfortunately.