Any critic, blogger, or movie geek will tell you the same thing about 2006 awards season: that it took forever to get here, and when it did it lasted forever. In not just New York and LA but wherever else the 2006 movie-watcher called home, the end of the year brought too many great looking films for any functional human being to pencil in. This has sadly become the norm: spring and summer gems get left in the dust when the big awards pictures are unveiled in November and December and ruthlessly campaigned for gold. As a listaholic collector of these new releases, it's made me panic. Thankfully, on my trips to New York with Syd I snuck in VOLVER and LITTLE CHILDREN early. My favorite movie of the past year didn't play in Nashville until this year. A sneak preview here and there filled in some other gaps. But it's only now, in the second week of 2007, that I can begin to collect my thoughts, and that's giving up on INLAND EMPIRE, CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER, NOTES ON A SCANDAL, THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, and MISS POTTER (you laugh, but that Beatrix Potter ballet movie was the first movie I remember seeing). My Top Ten may be one of the last to come out, and it may look different two weeks from now. But here it is anyway. Other movies I'm sad to have missed include THE PROPOSITION, HAPPY FEET, THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON, MANDERLAY, THE BREAK UP, DOWN IN THE VALLEY, LOOK BOTH WAYS, THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE, DUCK SEASON, NEIL YOUNG: HEART OF GOLD, FLUSHED AWAY, BATTLE IN HEAVEN, BEOWULF AND GRENDEL, and yes, even LASSIE.
The thing that kept me going through it all? My newfound love of the documentary. Some say the new documentary boom doesn't hold up to the classic docs of decades past, but if 2006 only consisted of ten documentaries-- ones like 49UP, SHUT UP AND SING, WHY WE FIGHT, and WORDPLAY-- it'd still be a very good year. It's actually sparked within me a large debate about whether or not a good documentary is better, more useful, or even more "important" than a fiction film. While on a relative scale I'd probably rather watch a good doc and learn visually something I didn't already know, the following list goes to show that at the end of the day I'd rather escape, even if it's to an extremely bleak setting. I'm leaving the debate open ended, and on this list I'm letting a couple of my favorite docs represent them all. Beginning with...
Doug Block was launched on a journey of discovery when, after his parents' 54-year marriage ended with his mother's death, his father flew to Florida and instantly married his former secretary. In this profoundly moving documentary, Doug then begins to investigate the history of his parents' relationship, talking with his mother's friends, his sisters, and finally his alienated father to learn more about who these people -- "Mom and Dad" -- really were. It is impossible to watch 51 BIRCH STREET and not stare deeply into the memories, regrets, and possibilities of your own life.
Hollywood has a strange way of coincidentally releasing competing films on the same subject: MISSION TO MARS and RED PLANET, ANTS and A BUG'S LIFE, CAPOTE and this year's underseen INFAMOUS. This year this happened with two films about magicians, and THE PRESTIGE had all the thrill, shock and wonder of the greatest magic trick and then some. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman play two magicians who, through twist after turn after twist, do everything in their power to outwit, outplay, and outlast the other. Director Christopher Nolan, who brought his BATMAN BEGINS friends Bale and Michael Caine, plays with time as he did in MEMENTO, but it's easy to follow along as the story constantly jumps forward and back (Nolan has also now perfected his authentic style). Some of its big secrets we're supposed to figure out, while others still remain a mystery. But no other movie this year was as wonderful to watch and fun to dissect.
In Kelly Reichardt's quiet breakthrough feature, two old friends reunite for a camping trip in the Oregon mountains. They go into the woods grown apart; Mark (Daniel London) has settled down into middle-class society with a baby on the way, while Kurt (Will Oldham) is unchained, a drifting granola warrior on an eternal vision quest. When they come back from their trip together they haven't changed, but so much has happened. What took place is open to interpretation; when the guys reach the hidden hot spring they've been looking for, the camera leaves them in privacy for the first time. But what they do first when they get back seems to say everything. As much as we can tell from the tranquil surface, OLD JOY is about friendships drifting apart as people grow older, settling into themselves, and how this sadness is somehow tolerable.
Gauge an audience's reaction to THE FOUNTAIN and all will be revealed: the average moviegoer has no patience for a movie without a cookie-cutter concept, an ending without a simple conclusion, or a sci-fi film without robots, aliens, and explosions. Little do they know, THE FOUNTAIN pays tribute to the pure editing of imagery that cinema was originally about. Across three stories in three different times using the same two actors, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM director Darren Aronofsky cites heroes from Kubrick to Svankmajer, weaving the fabrics together with repeating visual motifs and Clint Mansell's fluid, operatic score. But what impressed me most was its heart, pumped passionately by Hugh Jackman in a performance that turned me from being ambivalent about the actor to practically being his publicist. THE FOUNTAIN's themes-- immortality, reincarnation, and the sorrow of death-- can be explored in greater detail an arm's length away on your nearest bookshelf. But it paints pictures that you won't forget, and it makes you think, discuss, and debate with whoever's next to you, which is much more than can be said for the movies that most people chose to see on Thanksgiving weekend.
I've said it before and I've said it again: A great documentary makes you feel, even if for only two hours, that its subject is the most important in the world. It was this movie that made me forget about AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH (which probably IS the most important documentary you can see). JESUS CAMP visits one of America's evangelical youth camps, and is full of complex and disturbing discoveries. The human brain can't always differentiate between what's real and what's not (it's the reason we cry at a good movie), but these young children, led in group rituals indoctrinating all sorts of moral and political dogma, look and act like the posessed victims of a horror film. What's worse: the icecaps melting, or America's future generations being taught that global warming is just a hoax? JESUS CAMP is the saddest, most troubling film I can ever remember seeing, and it touches on everything that worries me about this country today. But there is some hope; Perhaps these filmmakers might follow the path of Michael Apted (the torch-bearer for the unprecedented UP Series which continued with this year's 49UP), tracking down these kids at 18 or 21, when their independence might help them think, and believe, for themselves.
The Spanish Civil War is ending. Above ground, a young Spanish girl's ailing and pregnant mother has moved in with a bloodthirsty and fascist Captain. Underground, the girl discovers a fantastic world being rendered just for her. In Guillermo Del Toro's fantasy there are fairies and magic, but the film's horrifying perception of adult violence is not for kids. It is hard to talk about this beautiful, tragic movie without exposing its ultimate secret, where a magical faun and a series of seemingly disconnected fairy tale motifs (citing everything from CINDERELLA to THE WIZARD OF OZ) perfectly come together. In all of the great fantasies of childhood, the magical world is a metaphorical sanctuary for the coming of age. Here, it's so much more than just that.
It took two viewings for me to give Sofia Coppola the props she deserves for her imagining of the famous French teen. The most misinterpreted film this year, MARIE ANTOINETTE has about as much interest in painting a historically acurate portrait of the queen as Gus Van Sant's LAST DAYS had in probing the real Kurt Cobain; If you want a BBC miniseries, I'm sure one's out there. Using 80's new wave and modern indie rock as ambient film score, Coppola's Marie is simply our imagination-- specifically, a young woman's imagination-- of being in her decadent shoes. Kirsten Dunst has the perfect presence for the role, even if it splinters when she delivers one of her few lines, and Jason Schwartzman's minimalistic portrayal of the sexually lifeless Louis XVI is hillarious. As Coppola imagines Marie's adolescent independence through abstract cuts and montages, she occasionally reaches the lyrical heights of Terrence Malick.
Overlapping with the many great documentaries I saw this year is a group of films that point out just how messed up this country is right now. Nothing could prepare me for the shame I felt watching my fellow countrymen in "Ali G" creator Sacha Baron Cohen's BORAT. Cohen's character, a Khazakhstani reporter investigating the American way, is about as offensive as a character can be. But nothing Borat says or does even compares to the stuff that actually comes out these peoples mouths, like cowboys wanting to lynch homos or frat boys wanting to reinstill slavery. Blurring the line between fiction and documentary, this bonafide Hero's Journey opens up an enormous satirical can of worms; I'm just starting to realize that Cohen doesn't just want to show how racist Americans are for believing in Borat... he wants to remind us that we'd rather all play along than actually protest (ask yourself what you'd do if you and some friends ran into Borat on the street and you'll start to see the complexity of Cohen's act). Hats off to you, Mr. Cohen; You got me, and you've also made the funniest movie I've ever seen.
This year brought us the first two Hollywood films processing the events of 9/11, and director Paul Greengrass (BLOODY SUNDAY) set the bar as high as possible. Without a single movie star, UNITED 93 documents what we know to have happened on a hijacked plane that morning, and what went wrong in the country's chain of command on the ground below. On the surface, it reminds us how unprepared we are for such an emergency despite the best laid plans (many of the ground control officials play themselves). But beneath that, it draws a courageous comparison all of the human beings involved: the Americans who rallied together to bring the plane down, thereby averting its possible target, and their attackers. These terrorists struggled, feared, and prayed just as the passengers did that day. When both parties are convinced that God is on their side, we've got problems. UNITED 93 pays respectful tribute to the heroism of those passengers, and at the same time it demythologizes 9/11, exploring the complex reality of terrorism and religious warfare that isn't so black and white. How's that for an inconvenient truth?
In college I wrote a final paper on the Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, in which I discovered that all of his previous films (A LITTLE PRINCESS, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN, and HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN) were really about childhood. Little did I know then that in his next film, a dystopic vision of a nightmarish future, children would become a metaphor for humanity's very existence. CHILDREN OF MEN doesn't explain why, twenty years from now, women have become infertile and the world's superpowers have wiped themselves from the earth. It simply follows a group of rebels, led by Theo (Clive Owen) and his former wife Julian (Julianne Moore), as they lead to safety a miraculously-born child-- the first in eighteen years. Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shoot three crucial sequences in long, seamless takes, like when Theo navigates a chaotic battleground of tanks, explosions, and warfare (it's the most impressive and elaborately choreographed bit of war filmmaking I've ever seen). These visceral sequences alone don't make CHILDREN OF MEN a masterpiece, but the fact that they represent the movie as a whole just might; When the film abruptly and ambiguously cuts to its end title card, it hits you that the film itself could easily have been one long take, where there's no time to catch your breath, where characters die before you even got to know them, and where you hardly know what just hit you. Nothing could better represent our fear for the future than the idea of a world without children, nor could hope be more fulfilled than by the presence of one tiny child. In a time when darkness lurks just under the surface, CHILDREN OF MEN is a hopeful nativity story wrapped in our worst nightmare. A month ago I was wondering why no one was talking about this movie, and though it's still in limited release, it's slowly infiltrating critics' top ten lists. Watching Cuaron and Lubezki get this long deserved recognition is like watching your favorite local band make it big, and I couldn't be happier about it.
The next 25 (to recirculate the maxim that if you think it wasn't a good year for movies, you just didn't see enough movies): APOCALYPTO, BABEL, BRICK, CARS, DAVE CHAPPELLE'S BLOCK PARTY, THE DEPARTED, 49UP, THE GOOD GERMAN, AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, LITTLE CHILDREN, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, NACHO LIBRE, A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION, THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS, THE QUEEN, RIDING ALONE FOR THOUSANDS OF MILES, A SCANNER DARKLY, THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP, SHUT UP AND SING, STRANGER THAN FICTION, SWEET LAND, TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY, VOLVER, WHY WE FIGHT.
Biggest Disappointments of the Year: DREAMGIRLS - I seem to be in the minority on this one, but here are my reasons: The music sounds like showtunes, not like the great soul music of Motown and Stax. Jennifer Hudson may have stolen the show, but she can't act. Beyonce still can't act. The years pass so quickly in this story, from decade to decade, that there's no time to care about any of the already underdeveloped relationships. "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," the single song that will give Hudson an Academy Award all by itself (this is ridiculous when you really start to think about it), was triumphant in the theater, but looking back on it, it's just as cheesy as the rest of it to me. And I thought CHICAGO was going to up the ante for Hollywood musicals. Also: THE LAKE HOUSE - Start with a premise that had me drooling: a Griffin and Sabine-esque correspondence through time, then add resounding support from nearly every film critic out there. But I just couldn't take Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock seriously for a minute. For me, a concept can be as unrealistic and fantastic as it wants, as long as the emotions feel real. LADY IN THE WATER - Just ridiculous. And I love fairy tales. FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION - Just not funny. And I love the Oscars. SNAKES ON A PLANE - I coulda told you it wouldn't live up to the hype. There's a fine line between "so bad it's good" and just bad. Fans of this movie will say that it delivered just what it promised, but that doesn't account for the romantic subplot, the pointless sidekick, and any of the other scenes involving neither snakes nor planes.
Best Actor: Sacha Baron Cohen, BORAT
When it hit me that Cohen is just as eligable for year-end awards as any other serious actor, everyone else dropped off my radar. Cohen's subversive humor is genius, and has made me laugh harder than anyone else, ever. If Cohen's name appears on the Oscar ballot this February, I expect a cut of your office pool. Runners up: Will Smith (THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS), Hugh Jackman (THE FOUNTAIN), Leonardo Dicaprio (THE DEPARTED), Clive Owen (CHILDREN OF MEN)
Best Actress: Sandra Huller, REQUIEM
The amount of great female roles this year-- not just in Hollywood but in Indiewood too-- is few once again. But Sandra Huller is unmatched in this true story of a supposedly posessed young German girl. Unlike countless other horror movies, we don't see what she sees inside, but what her friends and family see on the outside. When she finally snaps, projecting her inner demons at her neglectful mother in a wrecked kitchen, it's spine-tingling. Runners up: Kirsten Dunst (MARIE ANTOINETTE), Penelope Cruz (VOLVER), Helen Mirren (THE QUEEN), Charlotte Gainsbourg (THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP)
Best Supporting Actor: Robert Downey Jr., A SCANNER DARKLY
His paranoid skittishness dominates every scene he's in, like when he hillariously debates the specs of his newly aquired 18-speed (or is it 16-speed?) bike. One of the most overlooked performances of the year, I suppose because he's a cartoon. Runners up: Michael Sheen (THE QUEEN), Mark Whalberg (THE DEPARTED), Kevin Kline (A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION), Alan Arkin (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE)
Best Supporting Actress: Vera Farmiga, THE DEPARTED
She's just now being considered "one to watch," even though her performance in 2004's DOWN TO THE BONE silently topped critics' awards. Was any other actress more captivating (and sexy) in such a small amount of screen time this year? Runners up: Shareeka Epps (HALF NELSON), Meryl Streep (THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA and A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION), Maggie Gyllenhaal (WORLD TRADE CENTER)
Best Director: Paul Greengrass, UNITED 93
Best Screenplay: Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, THE PRESTIGE
Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki, CHILDREN OF MEN
Best Original Score: Clint Mansell, with Kronos Quartet and Mogwai, THE FOUNTAIN
Best Scene: It takes a great, great scene -- one for the history books -- to trump BORAT's nude wrestling match. That honor belongs to "Battlefield / Ceasefire" from CHILDREN OF MEN. If you've seen the film, you'll probably never forget the scene I'm talking about. Runners up: Nude Wrestling (BORAT), Let's Roll, UNITED 93, Road Ambush (CHILDREN OF MEN), Olive's Dance (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE), Birth (CHILDREN OF MEN), Hot Spring (OLD JOY), The Tree of Life (THE FOUNTAIN), Escape at dawn (CHILDREN OF MEN), In Da Club (BABEL), Dojo (THE PROTECTOR), and Foot Chase (BRICK).
Worst Movies: THE WICKER MAN, THE LAKE HOUSE, FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION, THE WILD BLUE YONDER, DRAWING RESTRAINT 9, SNAKES ON A PLANE, MY SUPER EX-GIRLFRIEND, THE BLACK DAHLIA, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 2: DEAD MAN'S CHEST
And a slew of other fun awards (thanks to Atli at Cinemasters for coming up many of these categories), SOME OF WHICH MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS about movies you may haven't seen yet; Proceed at your own risk!
Best Title: BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN
Best Poster: THE GOOD GERMAN (see my Top Five Movie Posters list)
Best Trailer: BORAT, LITTLE CHILDREN
Best Shot: Battlefield, CHILDREN OF MEN; Last shot, MARIE ANTOINETTE; Last shot, UNITED 93.
Best Fight: Borat vs. Azamat, BORAT
Best Opening Studio Logos: THE GOOD GERMAN
Best Opening Credits: SUPERMAN RETURNS
Best Closing Credits: BUBBLE
Best Use of a Song: Snow Patrol, "Chocolate," THE LAST KISS (see my Year in Film Music post)
Best Sex Scene: Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzman, MARIE ANTOINETTE; Orgy, PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER
Best Nudity: BORAT
Best Soundtrack CD: MARIE ANTOINETTE
Best Villain: Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), THE DEPARTED; Sergi Lopez (Capitan Vidal), PAN'S LABYRINTH; Global warming, AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH
Best Line: "I am not attracted to you anymore. ... NOT!" - BORAT
Best Voice Acting: Paul Newman, CARS
Best Directorial Debut: Rian Johnson, BRICK
Best Child Performance: Shareeka Epps, HALF NELSON; Jodelle Ferland, TIDELAND
Best Casting: UNITED 93
Best Remake: THE DEPARTED
Most Overrated: DREAMGIRLS, LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA, CASINO ROYALE, THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU, L'ENFANT, HALF NELSON
Most Underrated: 51 BIRCH STREET, SWEET LAND, NACHO LIBRE
Most Pleasant Surprises: STRANGER THAN FICTION, WORLD TRADE CENTER, THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS
Most changed by a second viewing: MARIE ANTOINETTE, A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION
Most Pretentious: MUTUAL APPRECIATION
Most overly-criticized: TIDELAND
Biggest Hottie (Female): Jennifer Connelly, BLOOD DIAMOND, Vera Farmiga, THE DEPARTED
Biggest Hottie (Male): Clive Owen, CHILDREN OF MEN, Tony Jaa, THE PROTECTOR
Best Cameo: Pamela Anderson, BORAT
Best Death: Julian, CHILDREN OF MEN; Colin Sullivan, THE DEPARTED,
Best Twist: Donna, A SCANNER DARKLY; All of THE PRESTIGE
Best MacGuffin: Emily's phone call, BRICK
Best inanimate object: Vaseline mold, DRAWING RESTRAINT 9
Best Use of Silence: Ceasefire, CHILDREN OF MEN; Phone Call, THE DEPARTED
Best Special Effects: CHILDREN OF MEN
Best Trend: Thom Yorke songs over closing credits (A SCANNER DARKLY, THE PRESTIGE), Love stories set in three time periods using the same two actors (THE FOUNTAIN, THREE TIMES)
Worst Trend: Computer animated talking animal movies (OVER THE HEDGE, OPEN SEASON, BARNYARD, THE WILD, ICE AGE 2, THE ANT BULLY, FLUSHED AWAY, HAPPY FEET)
Best Moviegoing Experience: BORAT sneak preview full of fans
Worst / Strangest Moviegoing Experience: TALLADEGA NIGHTS, simply because everyone else was laughing so much more than me.
Best Tie-in Toy or Collectable: The die-cast cars from CARS, which I spent way too much time hunting down this summer.
Scariest: THE DESCENT
Cried During: THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS, CARS, WORLD TRADE CENTER, SHUT UP AND SING, CHILDREN OF MEN
Fell Asleep During: CHARLOTTE'S WEB, APOCALYPTO
Walked Out During: THE WILD BLUE YONDER
Movie Seen Most: BORAT (three times)
Most likely to be considered a masterpiece in 30 years: A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION
Best Ending: UNITED 93
And finally, here are 30 movies I'm looking forward to next year, where some of my favorite auteurs come out of hiding and where sequelitis is at an all time high.
The big screen adaptation of Philip Pullman's fantasy THE GOLDEN COMPASS, David Fincher's return with ZODIAC, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez' double feature GRINDHOUSE, Paul Thomas Anderson's THERE WILL BE BLOOD, Wes Anderson's THE DARJEELING LIMITED, Ang Lee's LUST, CAUTION, Soderbergh's OCEAN'S THIRTEEN, SPIDER-MAN 3, Michel Gonry's BE KIND REWIND, Pixar's RATATOUILLE, the digital epic 300, HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, Natalie Portman in MR. MAGORIUM'S WONDER EMPORIUM, Claire Daines, Michelle Pfieffer and Robert DeNiro in the fantasy STARDUST, Danny Boyle's space thriller SUNSHINE, David Cronenberg's EASTERN PROMISES with Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in the western remake 3:10 TO YUMA, the Korean monster movie THE HOST, Craig Brewer's BLACK SNAKE MOAN with Sam Jackson and Christina Ricci, the Shaun of the Dead team's HOT FUZZ, Brad Pitt in the confoundingly titled THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, Michael Moore's health care doc SICKO, THE SIMPSONS MOVIE, THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM, Paul Verhoeven's festival hit BLACK BOOK, Tim Burton's SWEENEY TODD, Robert Zemekis' computer generated BEOWULF, and for all you kiddies, TRANSFORMERS, SHREK THE THIRD, and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END.
If you made it this far, thanks for reading, and be sure to post your Top Ten and any other comments below. Lists are to me what cookies are to Cookie Monster.