Wednesday, January 10, 2007

BEST AND WORST OF 2006

Okay, so I’m getting old in my old age. It’s taken me a full ten days into the new year to construct my best and worst movies of 2006 list. I wasn’t even going to do a list this year, but after several inquiries and a few outright demands, I relented.
 
Initially, I thought I hadn’t seen enough movies this year to make a list (I cut down, or so I thought). But when the ticket stubs and Netflix bills were tallied up, it seems I still managed to squeeze about 82 new films released in 2006 onto my plate while trying to do some “real writing.”
 
Yep. No two ways about it. I’m still an honest-to-goodness film geek.
 
THE BEST
 
10.) Pan’s Labyrinth
Director Guillermo del Toro deftly juggles fairy tale and fascism in ‘40’s post-war Spain while giving Terry Gilliam a run for his money as one of the most elaborate old-world visual stylists working in film today. I hadn’t much cared for Del Toro’s work before (Cronos, the subway bug movie Mimic), but the way in which he interweaves these two deceptively disparate stories and styles into one spellbinding whole is something to behold indeed. I may actually have to watch Hellboy now.
 
9.) Inland Empire
There is absolutely no narrative logic to be found in this movie. Just rabbits with laugh tracks, unrealistically gorgeous Polish prostitutes who do the “Loco-motion,” dimly lit hallways, doppelgangers, multiple split-personalities, and priceless Harry Dean Stanton one liners all somehow held together by a remarkably grounded Laura Dern performance. But, hey, this is David Lynch. What did you expect? Just sit back, relax, and let the weirdness wash over you.
 
8.) Inside Man
In previous “best/worst” lists, I had declared the heist movie officially dead. And Spike Lee no longer worthy of my 10 bucks after debacles like She Hate Me and Bamboozled. I spoke too soon on both counts. This is one of the most flat-out entertaining and cleverly-plotted thrillers I’ve seen in years with an on-point Denzel, Clive Owen and Jodie Foster. Who would have ever thought Spike would take to mainstream genre-fare so successfully? Who ever thought the heist movie could be reinvigorated by an irascible director whose default mode is often polemic? I’ll go on record and say this may be Spike’s best movie since the Do The Right Thing, the one that first put Spike on my favorites list. Now, let’s see if he can do a costume drama.
 
7.) Fast Food Nation
To quote Kris Kristofferson: “There’s shit in the meat.” Richard Linkletter casually commands about ten different stories exposing the ills of the meatpacking industry, the illegal immigrant experience, corporate boardroom cynicism, student activism gone sour, old school cattle ranchers put out to pasture and a culture at large addicted to bad, bad food. But unlike other films in the current trend of pastiche (Crash, Babel), Linkletter doesn’t jam the interconnectedness of the stories and characters down your throat. Instead, he treats the material as a healthy intellectual discussion on an unhealthy topic. He doesn’t need to heavy-hand the obvious. It’s there every time you dare to super-size. Straight from the cow’s ass to your mouth: "There’s shit in the meat."
 
6.) Army of Shadows
Normally, I don’t include re-releases on my best-worst lists. But since this masterwork of mood and restraint by Jean-Pierre Melville about the day to day struggles of members of the French Resistance never made it to U.S. theaters back in 1969, I feel compelled to make an exception. This is among Melville’s best works -- right up there with Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge -- and, as a member of the Resistance himself, it probably was his most personal. This time, his cool air of professionalism is applied to people of conscience rather than hired thugs and master thieves. It’s a quietly devastating movie. One that I fear most people will still never see.
 
5.) Flags of Our Fathers / Letters from Iwo Jima
Eastwood rips the U.S. war machine a new asshole – twice! Although both these movies are set in and around that highly-photogenic battle of World War II, the two combined – one from the U.S. perspective and one from the Japanese – easily have more relevance to what’s actually going on in Iraq today than 1,000+ hours of Fox News. It seems that even during the Good War, politicians were more concerned with selling war bonds and promoting the image of the valiant soldier rather than dealing with the realities of the men and women who returned from war physically and emotionally crippled. And that’s not even scratching the surface of what the Japanese soldiers had to face (i.e., mandatory suicide by grenade rather than be taken prisoner). Someone needs to chain Bush down and make him watch these movies back to back. But I’m guessing they’d have to read him the subtitles. Not to mention, the obvious writing on the wall.
 
4.) Borat
I haven’t laughed this hard in a movie…ever. Sure, it’s silly, borderline exploitative, and rife with lawsuits by people who didn’t know what they were getting into when they signed a release form. But you know what? They all pretty much got what they deserved. Sacha Baron Cohen takes Andy Kaufman style provocation-comedy to a whole new level using his bumbling, anti-Semitic, Kazakh TV news reporter to expose the latent racism and intolerance festering beneath the red, white, and blue. This little comedy may be the most political movie of the year when you get right down to it. But enough about that, the five-minute extended nude wrestling sequence that goes from hotel room to elevator to real estate convention is alone worth the price of admission. But I have to ask, after having a pair of sweaty fat guy balls in your face, what do you for an encore?
 
3.) Little Children
You may ask yourself…after American Beauty and Desperate Housewives, did we really need another movie or TV show about suburban malaise turning sinister? Well, when it’s directed with this much class and daring literary style by Todd Field (In the Bedroom), and acted to the hilt by an outstanding Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson, not to mention a bravura turn by Jackie Earle Haley (that’s right, Kelly from Bad News Bears! Moocher from Breaking Away!), the answer is a resounding…YES! Haley’s comeback performance will probably be the reason most people end up seeing this one -- it has that curious mix of dread and fascination that’s crack to Oscar voters. It reminds me of the scene in the movie where all the parents in town pull their kids from the swimming pool and watch in silent horror as Haley’s convicted pedophile character takes an afternoon dip. “I just wanted to cool off,” he explains. Well, Jackie, your career’s been cold as ice for twenty years. Enjoy the heat again…while it lasts.
 
2.) The Prestige
I’ve never been into magic. David Blaine and David Copperfield do nothing for me. But dammit if director Christopher Nolan doesn’t keep pulling psychologically dense and narratively complex rabbits out of hats each and every time out. This film about two rival turn-of-the-century London career magicians (Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman) was the most satisfying piece of pop entertainment in 2006. At once, a showy music hall spectacle full of twists and turns and, at the same time, a quiet character study of two men obsessed with career perfection…each other’s career perfection. The difference with Nolan is he EARNS his twists and turns like any good magician. And when he’s done sawing his cinematic ladies in half, he even has to good graces to show you in detail how skillfully you were deceived.
 
1.) United 93
Everyone knew (and dreaded) the inevitable movie about the 9-11 hijackings would come eventually. As a result, most stayed away from United 93 in droves. Which sucks really, because if you’re going to make a movie about the hi-jacking of United Flight 93, this is EXACTLY the way it should be done. No stars. No soaring soundtrack. No overbearing Hollywood heroics. Just a simple documentary-like account of a plane-full of scared human beings (both passenger and terrorist) locked into an inevitable tragedy. Director Paul Greengrass wisely recedes into the background and lets the events unfold as they happened, slowly building to the inevitable, extremely upsetting climax. You find yourself forgetting what you already know and thinking for a second…just for a second…can they turn the plane around? Considering the number of ways in which this film could have been mishandled, this is the most important and well-crafted movie of 2006. That said, I’m not recommending you run out and see it right away. Only when you’re ready. It’s the best movie you’ll never want to see more than once.
 
HONORABLE MENTION
 
A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints
Sure, the subject matter is not exactly fresh. Aimless New York City kids adrift in a haze of drugs, frustration and violence. You’ve seen it done before, and done well, in Mean Streets, Kids, and countless others. But there’s something in the way newbie director Dito Montiel attacks scenes which should be old hat by now and invests them with a rawness and ragged vitality that’s just simply missing in most American movies today. This one even had me humming KISS on the way out. “Because I’m back, back in the New York groove.”
 
Babel
If this triptych of tragic miscommunication tales were presented as three separate short films, rather than taking the now tired Crash model, I think I would have liked it much more. Inarritu is an incredibly gifted visual filmmaker who knows how to build a mood and milk tension. But it may be time for him to work with a new writer in a format that does not once again involve fate, chance, interlocking stories etc. etc. I liked the story about the deaf girl in Japan the most. The Brad Pitt-Cate Blanchett segment, though well-acted, felt a little too much like Oscar bait.
 
Casino Royale
The reset button worked! Finally, a reason to see James Bond movies again. Apparently, someone remembered Bond is in fact a hired killer and treated him as such. Taking him back to his darker roots (and casting the ice cold Daniel Craig) seems to have done the trick. At least for this installment. As long as they keep Bond off the moon and embittered by bitchy women (Eva Green gives him a wonderful fucking-over in this one), then perhaps the franchise will one up the glory days of Connery, his cheerful misogyny and martinis shaken not stirred.
 
Hard Candy
This film about a battle of wits between a teenage girl and the suspected pedophile she meets for an internet date gets a nod almost exclusively based on the career-making performance of a young Ellen Page. Expect to hear much more from this actress. Without her curious mix of fragility and strength, this film would have been another routine internet predator-exploitation pic (or your average episode of Dateline NBC). Apart from a completely obligatory and unnecessary Sandra Oh scene (most likely to secure funding), this little indie is worth a rental.
 
Little Miss Sunshine
On the other hand, this “little indie that could” needs none of my publicity. I’m sure you heard of it once if not seen it twice. Anyway, a funny little meditation on disturbing child beauty pageants and dysfunctional families at the mercy of the American will to succeed at any cost. Expect Oscar nominations to all actors across the board. Though it would be nice to Arkin take home a prize on this one.
 
THE WORST
 
10.) V for Vendetta
You say you want Hollywood to deal with serious subjects -- in this case, terrorism -- but then you see V for Vendetta and just wish they’d leave well enough alone. The parallels to 9-11 and London bombings cloaked in the thin guise of Guy Fawkes mask are heavy-handed and border on bad taste. Mainly because this is still a comic book movie at heart. I credit the Wachowski’s for attempting to elevate the action genre with topical concerns. But the way in which those concerns were delivered -- interspersed with whiz-bang action sequences and spoon-fed to a teenage audience -- may have had the opposite effect. Terrorism can be cool, kids! And those strap-on bombs make great accessories! Let’s all go to Hot Topic! I hear they’re selling plutonium half-off!
 
9.) The Black Dahlia
This film may not be the worst of the bunch, but it definitely hurt the most. I thought director DePalma and novelist Ellroy would be a match made in film noir heaven. As it turns out, the two just counteract each other. Perhaps it was just too much testosterone, too much Ellroy plot for DePalma’s steadi-cam to bear, or too much blank-slate Josh Hartnett for anyone to bear. That said, Hillary Swank in this movie is a revelation. Like most people, I thought she could only do cross-dressers, girl pugilists, and mannish women. But she’s also a dynamite femme fatale. Easily the best thing about an otherwise disappointing picture.
 
8.) Snakes on a Plane
Lots of hype + Lots of digital snakes = Bedtime for Bonzo. The only thing that kept me awake in this one was my constant amazement that this movie had all the goodwill going for it a modern blockbuster could ask for -- pre-awareness, internet buzz up the wazoo, several songs on the radio about it, its title a cultural touchstone – yet it still managed to completely drop the ball without one single funny or entertaining scene. Take a lesson: this is what happens when a studio marketing department directs a movie. Snakes in a Motherfucking Boardroom.
 
7.) Poseidon
I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I was in Vegas with no real money to gamble, and this was the only thing playing at the theater nearby. I know. You’re right. You’re right. There ARE nickel slots.
 
6.) Mission Impossible 3
Okay, so it’s not as bad as John Woo’s Mission Imp: 2. But that’s like dropping a deuce on a dinner a plate and saying, “Well, at least it ain’t diarrhea.” A turd is a turd no matter how you slice it. And this one slices like two hours of stale television. Somehow, this flick even managed to make the normally fascinating Phillip Seymour Hoffman feel routine. Do I really care about Ethan Hunt’s homelife? About as much as I care what Suri Cruise’s e-meter reading is this week.
 
5.) Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World / Scoop
I lump these two groaners together because, to me, Woody Allen and Albert Brooks are pretty much the East Coast/West Coast sides of the same coin – two once-brilliant comedians who continue to cast themselves in their own movies opposite incongruously attractive women. And because I suspect that, as of late, they are both secretly farming out all their jokes to the same ghostwriter--obviously, some guy in the Catskills named Shecky. Question: What’s worse than a woefully miscast Scarlett Johansson uttering another tired Woody Allen joke about Cossacks or Freudian psychoanalysis? Answer: Albert Brooks in a tunic telling outsourcing jokes and thinking that’s enough.
 
4.) Superman Returns
What happens when your electricity goes out on the Fourth of July? You suffer through this lifeless piece of superhero sludge as a last resort. Luckily, I slept through most of it in a cool, air-conditioned haze. Did Superman save the planet? Who cares. No one kneeled before Zod. And my A.C. came back on a few hours later.
 
3.) Lucky Number Slevin
You think the title is lame. Just try to watch the movie. On second thought, the title’s a pretty good representation of just how obnoxious this one is. You’ve seen it all before -- overwritten attempts at post-Tarantino tough guy banter with quirky but violent characters caught in a needlessly overcomplicated and non-linear-for-the-fuck-of-it plot. The beast goes by many different names. Last year it was called Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. This year, it will be called Smokin’ Aces. Mark my words.
 
2.) Basic Instinct 2
You know a movie’s in trouble when it has you pining for the subtlety of a Paul Verhoeven-Joe Eszterhas collaboration. Stallone’s Rocky Balboa may have been accused of being pure ego trip and about ten years late to the game, but the sell-by date on this curdled career-resuscitation attempt expired back in ’93. At least you root for the elderly Stallion to go one more round. With Sharon Stone, you just want her pop a Prempro and close her legs. I couldn’t even make it to the end of this flick. It hurt too much to see quality British actors like David Thewlis and Charlotte Rampling sucked into the gaping, bottomless black hole that is Sharon Stone’s extreme love of self.
 
1.) Running Scared
I hate to be anticlimactic, but I can’t even remember why I hated this movie so badly as to make my choice for Worst Movie of 2006. I just remember taking the DVD out of my player at the time and saying with unwavering assurance, “This is the worst movie I will see in 2006.” It probably had something to do with its over-caffeinated, hummingbird-on-meth editing style, ridiculous plot, and Paul Walker. Oh yes, Paul Walker. Now, it’s all coming back to me. Believe it or not, the director, Wayne Kramer, did that solid little indie The Cooler a few years back (why I rented it in the first place). How you go from that little movie to becoming legion with the likes of Tony Scott and Michael Bay all within one film is anybody’s guess.
 
DISHONORABLE MENTION
 
Down in the Valley
It’s not that this indie character study about a drifter with a cowboy delusion (Ed Norton) who falls for a teenage Valley girl (Evan Rachel Wood) is exactly a BAD movie. It’s the fact that for the first hour, it had the potential to be something very GOOD. But then it quickly descends into something better described as “Taxi Driver on a Horse Surrounded by Track Housing.” Sound interesting to you? Then, go ahead, check it out if you dare.
 
The Hills Have Eyes (remake)
It’s bad. Real bad. Do I really need to offer up any explanation for this one? Other than the fact that I saw it at all?
 
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
Other than some nifty special effects and another phoned-in Keith Richards impersonation by Depp, I have no idea what was going on in this movie. Nor do I care.
 
School for Scoundrels
Oh, what a waste of perfectly good Billy Bob. Kick-to-the-groin jokes only go so far. In all fairness, I saw this at an early preview screening, and on a lackluster internet date no less. I’m guessing the movie didn’t get any better prior to its release. I know the date sure didn’t.
 
The Sentinel
There’s a good movie to be made about the Secret Service. This ain’t it.
 
SUPERLATIVES
 
FEEL-GOOD DYSTOPIAN FUTURE OF THE YEAR
Children of Men – Not a bad movie, but I guess I like my dystopian futures a little more…dystopian. Is a world free of screaming infants really so bad? I kid, but this movie does have an oddly upbeat ending and maybe a little more humor and cuddly animals than its subject matter can bear. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…
 
FEEL-WEIRD DYSTOPIAN FUTURE OF THE YEAR
A Scanner Darkly – Not one of Linkletter’s best, but a decent entry into the Phillip K. Dick adaptation canon. And proof that you don’t always need the weed to feel a little stoned.
 
MOVIE YOU’D THINK I’D LOVE BUT DIDN’T
Factotum – I worship Bukowski. And Matt Dillon does a fine alter ego, Chinaski. And Lili Taylor doesn’t work nearly as much as she should. All solid reasons to love this movie. But for some reason, this one just didn’t move me. For my money, Barfly is still the one to beat when it comes to fictionalized Buk on the screen.
 
MOVIE YOU’D THINK I’D HATE BUT DIDN’T
The Break Up – What was all the negative fuss about with this one? Did people really expect it to be GOOD. It had a few legitimately funny scenes. And for a Hollywood tent pole summer release,
 an uncharacteristically realistic ending. That’s about all you can ask for a movie whose fate lives and dies by the tabloids. Not a great movie by any stretch, but pound for pound as good as its kissing cousin Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
 
STYLE OVER SUBSTANCE ACHIEVEMENTS
Brick – High schoolers talking in highly-stylized Chandler / Hammet '40s dialogue. Interesting for a little while. Until you remember, most of these actors were born in the 1990s.
 
The Proposition – There’s not a lot of story to this gritty western, but enough paint-on grime, filth, blood and rotten teeth to give you a sense of what the old west was really like. Or at least what’s it like on Deadwood.
 
Miami Vice – Michael Mann gives his cheesy pastel TV series the slick, spare, HD makeover. This thing oozes style and craft but comes up short on any kind of story. Not that it mattered.
 
Marie Antoinette – Sofia Coppola supplies another visually lush work chock-full of New Wave hits about an entitled teen living the dream in a foreign land, this time in 18th century France. I expected Bill Murray to walk in wearing a powdered wig at any moment. But, as usual, Coppola scrimps on anything resembling conflict--probably her point. Ah, the decadent parlor life! All shopping. No time for beheadings.
 
STEVEN SODERBERGH EXPERIMENT THAT WORKED
Bubble
 
STEVEN SODERBERGH EXPERIMENT THAT DIDN’T
The Good German
 
QUALITY HORROR FLICKS
The Descent
Slither
 
DOCUMENTARY SCARIER THAN ANY HORROR FLICK
Unknown White Male – What if you woke up one day on a New York City subway and had completely forgotten who you were? More harrowing than that…what if you grew to realize, you preferred it that way?
 
“WE’RE ALL SCREWED” DOCUMENTARY AWARD
An Inconvenient Truth – In a nutshell, either kick the oil habit ASAP, or hope your children are born with fins.
 
CHARLIE KAUFMAN LITE AWARD
Stranger Than Fiction – In case Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine simply weren’t user-friendly enough for you.
 
GREATEST HITS ALBUM AS MOVIE
The Departed – In case you haven’t seen Goodfellas, the Hong Kong original Infernal Affairs, or ever heard a Rolling Stones album in your life.
 
“IT’S HARD OUT THERE FOR A MAYAN” AWARD
Apocalypto – Beheadings, guttings, gorings, flayings, castration, impotence, children in peril, quicksand. Anything you wanna get off your chest, Mel?
 
BEST USE OF COUGAR / REDNECK CHILDREN
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
 
THE WARM AND MUSHY AWARD
A Prairie Home Companion – Not Robert Altman’s best but a more than fitting end to a remarkable career in film. His love of filmmaking, actors and performance in general is stamped all over this little Nashville in miniature. The man will be sorely missed.
 
MOST ANTICIPATED MOVIE OF 2007
No Country for Old Men – The Coen Brothers get back to their blood simple Texas roots adapting a great Cormac McCarthy western-noir novel with Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and Woody Harrelson in tow. Sure, they’re working outside of their own original source material again (gulp, Intolerable Cruelty anyone?). But if there’s a book out there more suited to the Coen Brothers treatment, I sure as hell haven’t read it.

3 comments:

Dhani said...

I'm so glad you decided to do the list. I was afraid I might have missed it! Your #1 Best Movie is exactly right, I agree with your thoughts entirely. I can't believe you give your money and time to see those movies that we know are going to suck. Better you than me! At least now I know I didn't miss anything. Happy to hear the blog will be active again... I'll be reading!

matt! said...

As usual your pics are spot on. For the most part.

I thought The Illusionist was better then The Prestige (although both had merit).

Casino Royale was (thankfully) brilliant, although it could have used more editing. At times i felt as though i was watching a 2.5h episode of Celebrity Poker Showdown.

EVERYTHING WITHOUT EXCEPTION in your "Worst" category was absolute agony to sit through. Especially Superman Returns which was even worse in IMAX. NEVER go see a feature film in IMAX.

Children of Men was my big disappointment. I should have known something was up when i couldnt finish the book. Suffice to say, if you saw the trailer, you saw the film.

I'm glad you finally went to see Brick! I told u you'd like it.

Jordan said...

Children of Men wasn't distopian enough for you?

You are a dark, dark man.

I thought it was terrific.