After a decidedly hohum start to the year, in which the languishing industry was saved by an impish Johnny Depp and the usual underwhelming bloat (X-Men: The Last Stand, The Da Vinci Code, Superman Returns), the fall of 2006 came triumphantly packed with quality. For the first time in several years, I actually felt overwhelmed by the number of films worth seeing in the theaters.
While some have lamented (falsely, in my opinion) the lack of politically conscious or relevant films as compared to 2005, the overall artistic risk-taking was significantly higher in 2006. We saw two directors from Mexico make an incredible leap to auteur status, a couple masters return to form, and South Korea, with Chan Wook Park’s continued brilliance and the imminent arrival of global sensation The Host, establish itself as the most exciting film country in the world.
Caveat Emptor: I haven’t seen David Lynch’s latest, Inland Empire, yet. I can’t imagine it not making the top ten and shall review it for next month.
Let’s try a countdown this time to build suspense.
Just like the great Primer, Riann Johnson’s Brick is a sterling example of the limitless power of creativity, regardless of budget. Johnson spent years scraping cash together so he could direct the film himself. A hard-boiled film noir, complete with staccato tough talk and set in a high school, Johnson’s film is filled with pathos and menace. Led by a magnetic, acerbic Joseph Gordon-Levitt and filled with a colorfully dramatic, yet believable gaggle of characters (including a fantastic turn by Lukas Haas as a young drug kingpin), Brick is both a freshly sly take on a filmic archetype and a gripping missing-person mystery. Forget Little Miss Sunshine—this is indie-filmmaking at its best.
#9: A Scanner Darkly
Ignored in its theatrical release as a meandering stoner comedy, Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly is actually the most fearless and faithful adaptation of a Philip K. Dick work since Blade Runner. In the near future, the war on drugs has been lost and Substance D ravages the country. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover cop addicted to Substance D who’s ordered by his superiors to spy on himself and his friends. Filmed with the Roto-Scope technique, where actors are shot on regular film and then animated, A Scanner Darkly is a grim, disorienting affair. The effects of Substance D are not fetishized nor glamorized, and the addicts are constantly grasping at strands of normalcy that are no longer there. Impeccably acted and paced, A Scanner Darkly is a mournful and uncompromising film that will only grow in stature.
#8: Letters from Iwo Jima
Clint Eastwood returns to the elegiac, tonal form of his earlier films such as Bird and Unforgiven. The second part of his ambitious Iwo Jima project, Letters from Iwo Jima follows the Japanese and their doomed defense of the island, from their initial strategizing to the desperate rattle of starvation and ritual suicide. All of the actors are spot on, restrained and impassioned. The photography by Tom Stern and score by Eastwood’s son Kyle are in complete melancholic harmony. While definitely a film I admire more than love, Letters from Iwo Jima is a peerless portrait of everyday men stuck in an unwinnable war and at the mercy of a shadowy and callous government. A very relevant film indeed.
#7: Casino Royale
Simply put, Casino Royale is the greatest Bond film ever. It contains all the swagger, thrills, and sexiness of any of the best of franchise, but for the first time Bond feels human, vulnerable, and in real danger. Daniel Craig’s take on the icon is dark and heady, his Bond is cocky yet insecure, brutal and refined, and the closest to Fleming’s original character. Eva Green also redefines the Bond girl, creating a sultry, bold woman who has genuine chemistry and sparks with Craig. Casino Royale is filled with remarkable chase sequences and locales and memorable villains, but it’s the movie’s tough soul that makes it so affecting.
#6: The Good Shepard
Robert De Niro’s operatic masterpiece of the beginnings of the CIA was saddled with inexplicably tepid reviews. A shame, because, taking a cue from the tragic beauty of The Godfather saga, De Niro has made the most gripping and impressive espionage film I’ve ever seen. Where The Godfather films immersed themselves in the immigrant experience, The Good Shepherd reveals the unctuous elitism of the waspy bluebloods who ran (and still run) our country. Matt Damon, in a brilliant performance, plays one of the CIA’s main architects as a man intrinsically uncomfortable with humanity and emotions. The films spans decades and continents, cleverly linking and looping back on a blurred photograph and distorted sound recording that hold the key to the Bay of Pigs debacle and the very haunted heart of the CIA.
#5: United 93
No one wanted to see United 93 and, in a certain way, I understand. I was in no way prepared for how visceral and wrenching United 93 is. Unrelenting, even-keeled, and in real time, United 93 never looks away or sentimentalizes the story. Filmed with many of the actual people (FAA directors, etc.) who were working on that day, United 93 has an immediacy not seen in many documentaries, let alone narrative films. The greatness of United 93 is its matter-of-factness. It single-handedly reclaims 9/11 as the inexplicable and heart-breaking tragedy it is, brushing aside all the political browbeating that had soiled it for years. United 93’s importance is that it will be shown in high schools in 50 years. It’s artistry is that kids won’t be able to turn away.
#4: Lady Vengeance
Chan Wook Park is one of the most exciting directors in the world. His “revenge trilogy,” which started with the tough, unrelenting Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, followed by the epic, mind-blowing Oldboy, completes with the devilishly entertaining, morally ambiguous, and achingly elegant Lady Vengeance. Jumping in time, punctuated by shocking violence, and scored and photographed with a baroque beauty, Lady Vengeance is a film that effortlessly straddles pop-filmmaking and philosophical complexities. Sometimes difficult to watch, but ever magnetic, Lady Vengeance is bloody, brainy art.
#3: The Departed
After more that a decade of middling and uneven projects, Scorsese returns with his most vivid and realized movie since Goodfellas. An incredible ensemble cast weaves a story of betrayal, identity, and personal hells. Nearly all the actors deliver some of their finest work, Alec Baldwin, Mark Wahlberg, and Matt Damon in particular. Scorsese uses his hallmark skills: dynamic camera work, canny pop music choices (Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, Badfinger), and overlapping dialogue and editing to create a sense of unyielding urgency. Hilarious, horrifying, and endlessly entertaining.
#2: Pan’s Labrynth
Wow. Guillermo Del Toro has made some interesting films (The Devil’s Backbone) and some competent big-budget Hollywood flicks (Blade II, Hellboy), but nothing could prepare one for this. Essentially tied with Children of Men, Pan’s Labyrinth is astonishing in its vision, execution, and grandeur. It effortlessly balances two tales, one of the brutal fascist regime in World War II-era Spain, the other a dark and unsettling fantasy world populated by gigantic toads and ancient fauns. A young girl is at the center of both. Del Toro’s mastery is apparent in every frame, gorgeous and haunting, at times grimly violent and difficult to watch, Pan’s Labyrinth is a mystical heady film containing multitudes. Del Toro wisely never tries to parallel the fantasy and the real, he simply lets them exist.
#1: Children of Men
Like Del Toro, fellow Mexican native Cuaron made a huge leap with Children of Men. Arguably the most believable vision of the future ever, Cuaron’s 2027 feels lived in, off the cuff, and deeply, viciously real.
In a dystopic future where women are no longer fertile and a child has not been born for 18 years, Theo (Clive Owen) is lured back from a life of booze and despair by a mysterious and hopeful pregnancy. This simple plotline lends itself to a film of startling impact and power. Cuaron utilizes some of the most remarkable cinematography I’ve ever seen, with unbroken takes lasting 10 or 12 minutes of incredible carnage.
Children of Men, chock full of searing acting and astute critiques of contemporary times, is fearlessly alive and fresh. Watching the film (and for that matter its stylistic brother, Pan’s Labyrinth), I felt I was witnessing not just the emergence of a director of limitless talent and vision, but a new way of making films. Immediate and visceral, yet elegant and rapturous, Children of Men was the most rewarding film of the year.
The Year’s Worst: The Lady in the Water
Even though I obviously didn’t see all the dreck that was released in 2006 (Fur, Night at the Musuem, Little Man, etc.) I feel confident that this is easily the worst movie of the year, relegated to the special place in my life of films so atrocious and infuriating that simply thinking of them fills me with unease (Powder, 25th Hour, and Gangs of New York are other examples). The horrible true story of what happens when a monstrous ego is left unchecked, M. Night Shyamalan’s “fairy tale” is an incredibly banal, uneventful, and straight-up baffling disaster. Scrunt? Narf? Don’t even bother to find out, nothing happens in this movie! Bryce Dallas Howard sits in the shower for two hours and Paul Giamatti (doing his best with the material) mills around an apartment complex filled with clichés, listens to a boy read cereal boxes for clues to the future. Meanwhile some ludicrous animatronic animal roves, and a really, really lame metal band covers Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm.” It’s not as bad as it sounds—it’s way worse—but I almost feel impelled to recommend it so one can see the true horror. Then again, this movie is almost surreally boring, so don’t bother.