Thursday, April 1, 2010

Year in Review: 2006

Personally, I think this past decade got stronger as it moved along, culminating in 2007, which was the best movie year in recent memory. But 2006 has more than its share of great movies itself, although tragically more than a few of my favorites were pretty much dismissed by critics that year. Still however, there are many titles to enjoy – so if you missed any, do yourself a favor and check these ones out.

10. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)
The Lives of Others is a fascinating movie, and inside look at life behind the Iron Curtain in Germany during the 1980s. Ulrich Muhe gives the best performance of his career (and sadly, the last) as an agent of the Communists who assigned to spy on a playwright and his wife. As he listens to their lives, he becomes more and more fascinated by them – and even though they are planning against the state (nothing violent mind you), he doesn’t report them. He just slowly becomes involved in their lives. The debut film for writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the film is a tense thriller on the surface, but is really more of a character study of a sad, lonely man who has devoted his life to his country, and the slow dawning realization that he may be wrong.

9. Inside Man (Spike Lee)
Spike Lee’s Inside Man was one of the biggest box office hits of his career, but was sadly pretty much ignored by critics, who enjoyed the film, but dismissed it as just another bank heist movie. How wrong they were. Inside Man is a pretty example of an auteur director taking on a mainstream project, but infusing it with their own personal obsessions – this time, the moral and ethical dilemmas that face ach and every character in the film – something Lee has addressed throughout his career. At first, it seems like police officer Denzel Washington, who is on desk duty pending an investigation into his alleged theft, is called to just another bank hostage crisis. But things quickly take a strange turn. Clive Owen is wonderful as the robber who seems to have planned everything out well in advance with his team. And why is Jodie Foster’s corporate fixer on hand talking to Washington, and what precisely is bank president Christopher Plummer trying to hide? Inside man is definitely a fascinating and tense thriller, but it is more than that. This has Spike Lee’s fingerprints all over it.

8. Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood)
This is the only time I will ever have a tie on my top ten list – but two me, these twin films from Clint Eastwood about the battle of Iwo Jima, one from the point of view of the Americans, and the other from the point of view of the Japanese really are the flip side of the same coin. Flags is the more problematic film – it tries to cram a little too much into its running time, but it is also the more ambitious of the two movies, trying to reconcile America’s view of their soldiers as heroes, with the views of the soldiers themselves, who feel completely differently. Letters from Iwo Jima is the better overall film – a fascinating glimpse at the men called upon to defend their country, and knowing full well that they will most likely be slaughtered on the island, but staying put anyway. Most directors when they reach their 70s either retire, or make safe films – with these two films, Clint Eastwood proves that his ambition hasn’t left him – in fact, it just maybe warming up.

7. The Proposition (John Hillcoat)
John Hillcoat’s blood soaked Australian “Western” is one of the best films the genre had to offer this decade. A band of three thieving and murdering brothers (led by the insane Danny Huston) are wrecking havoc on the outback. Transplanted Sheriff Ray Winstone captures Houston’s two brothers, and offers the older one (Guy Pearce) a deal – bring in Houston, the ringleader, and he’ll let the other two go. What follows is often difficult to watch, as the violence is strong and pervasive throughout (there is a particularly brutal whipping that was encouraged by Winstone’s proper wife, Emily Watson, who is then horrified by what happens). The Proposition, like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, is a harsh view of the genre – draining the romanticism out of being an outlaw, and looking at the actual causes and effects of violence. This isn’t a fun shoot’em Western, but one when you kill someone, it hurts.

6. Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro)
Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is an endlessly inventive fantasy film about a small girl living through the horrors of Franco run Spain. She and her mother travel to the outskirts of the country to live with her new stepfather – the endlessly cruel Sergei Lopez, who has been stationed there to try and quell the uprising taking place. In order to deal with all the horrors around her, she creates her own dark and twisted fantasy world, populated by creatures that are at once fascinating, and yet cruel, dark creations that we never know if they can trust. The movie is about childhood, and the barriers children build for themselves to try and protect themselves from the world they see around them. It is also the film that Tim Burton has been trying, and failing, to make for years – an endlessly dark fantasy that is at one horrifying and hopeful.

5. The Good Shepherd (Robert DeNiro)
For some reason, critics virtually ignored Robert DeNiro’s second directorial effort – a complex, intelligent, intense film about the founding of the CIA. Matt Damon gives a strong performance as a man recruited out of Harvard to join the Military Intelligence unit during WWII, and whose job continues well into the 1960s. The film is an inside look at the men who gather intelligence, and the toll it takes on their personal lives. Damon is married to Angelina Jolie (although he loves someone else), but he is essentially a stranger to his wife in kids. Hiding behind his glasses, Damon appears to be a blank man with no personality, but it is just the surface of the performance. DeNiro’s direction is assured – making the nearly three hour movie endlessly engrossing. Certainly one of the most unfairly neglected films in the last few years.

4. Inland Empire (David Lynch)
What can you say about David Lynch’s Inland Empire? It is his second surrealist shot at Hollywood following the brilliant Mulholland Drive, and once again proved once again that the older Lynch gets, the weirder he gets. This film, which he financed and distributed by himself, is about an actress (Laura Dern, in a stunning performance) making a film called On High in Blue Tomorrows, which is a remake of an old Polish film that was abandoned after the two leads were murdered. Thus begins this exercise in surrealism that includes a sitcom about giant rabbits speaking in non-sequitor with an inane laugh track in the background, and a group of prostitutes doing the Locomotion. What does it all mean? Well, I don’t have time to explain that here, nor would I really want to (or honestly, I don’t think I could), but this is a film that Lynch was born to make. That he had to make. Most audiences won’t know what to make of it, but for those who go with the film, they will experience a strange masterwork by a one of a kind filmmaker.

3. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron)
Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men works on any number of levels. At its most basic, it is a wonderful Christian fable, about a vengeful God who punishes humanity by making them unable to reproduce for 30 years, thus throwing the whole world into chaos, before a miracle happens. It is also an intelligent dystopian view of the future, and breathless action film (those long, unbroken tracking shots during the climatic gunfight in the dilapidated refugee city are amazing). The movie is anchored by Clive Owen’s solid performance as a man who is long past the point of caring, until he is given a shattering wake-up call. Cuaron has been making great films for a while now – among them Y Tu Mama Tambien – but Children of Men is the film that lifted up among the top echelon of directors working today.

2. Little Children (Todd Field)
If In the Bedroom was the film that announced Field to the filmmaking world, than Little Children is the film that cemented his status among the best directors out there right now. Little Children is an even more complex, more assured directorial effort than In the Bedroom was. The film’s title is supposedly about the children in the movie – but it really applies to all of the characters, who are one way or another all stuck in childhood. Kate Winslet gives a great performance as the housewife of an older husband, who is never around, who is bored just raising her kids. When she meets stay at home dad Patrick Wilson, everything changes. Wilson is the quarter back type – the guy who never looked at her in high school – and so when they start an affair, it’s an ego boost for her. For him, it’s a way to rebel against his wife (Jennifer Connelly), who earns all the money, and pushes Wilson to be more than he thinks he’s capable of. He is a guy who has never really progressed past who he was in high school – he was always good looking and popular, so he didn’t need to really develop a personality. Add in Jackie Earle Haley’s brilliant performance as a local pedophile, struggling to stay straight, and Little Children becomes one of the most interesting, deeply felt movies of the decade.

1. The Departed (Martin Scorsese)
Martin Scorsese finally won an Oscar for directing The Departed – and he deserved it. This film I think ranks right along the best films that Scorsese has ever made – and since Scorsese is my favorite director of all time, that is saying something. This epic gangster saga puts an undercover cop (Leonardo DiCaprio) into the Boston mob led by Jack Nicholson, without realizing that Nicholson has a mole of his own in Matt Damon who has infiltrated the police. The movie is supremely entertaining – it doesn’t let up for a second – but I think the fact that it was so entertaining led some critics to overlook the thematic complexity of Scorsese’s film. This is really a story of two lost young men, who have grown up without fathers, doing everything they can to please the surrogate fathers they have chosen. Both Nicholson, and Martin Sheen (who has the role of surrogate father to DiCaprio), know this, and use it to push their “sons” further and further into harm’s way, bringing them closer to death at every possible step. The film is also a superb Iraq war allegory, where the enemies are hiding right in plain sight. Scorsese hurtles the movie along at quick pace, but he never loses sight of the bigger picture here. To those who say that The Departed is little more than a remake of Infernal Affairs, I suggest you have another look at both films. Infernal Affairs was never this complex (at least until the second movie in the trilogy). This film belongs in the top echelon of all of Scorsese’s films.

Just Missed The Top 10: The Prestige (Christopher Nolan), A Prarire Home Companion (Robert Altman), Miami Vice (Michael Mann), The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky), Hard Candy (David Slade), Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck), The Descent (Neil Marshall), The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu), Brick (Rian Johnson), Babel (Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu)

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: The Departed (Martin Scorsese)
This was my favorite Oscar year since I began watching them way back in 1996, as it was the first time that my favorite film of the year actually won the Oscar in that stretch. The Departed was an unlikely winner, as violent crime movies hardly ever win the Oscar, but the Academy went with this time, and I couldn’t be happier. One of their best choices ever.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland
Whitaker is amazing in this film as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. He is ferocious and evil, with a look of sheer murder in his eyes at times, but he is also able to look downright happy and goofy at others times – this was the twin sides of Amin. The movie itself is not as good as he is – I do tire of movies about Africa told from the point of view of a white outsider – but it’s still hard to complain about this win (although, of the nominees, I would have preferred Ryan Gosling’s drug addicted teacher, and there was no excuse for the Academy overlooking Leonardo DiCaprio’s haunted animal performance in The Departed, instead of his rather standard work in Blood Diamond).

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Helen Mirren, The Queen
Queen Elizabeth II is a fascinating person, because every time we see her in public she has to put on a prim and proper face. So playing the Queen we know so well, in scenes that we have never seen her in before, had to be hard for Helen Mirren, who nevertheless give a great performance in the movie. Yes, I would have preferred Kate Winslet to win for Little Children, and would have loved to see Laura Dern nominated for Inland Empire of Ellen Page for Hard Candy, but again, it is hard to complain about an actress of Mirren’s stature winning this award for a great performance.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine
Alan Arkin is quite good in Little Miss Sunshine, a very enjoyable comedy about a dysfunctional family on a road trip. He is the type of inappropriate, profanity spouting old men that the Academy seems to love. Personally, I think that Steve Carrell was much better in the same film as the suicidal, gay uncle, and that of the nominees Mark Wahlberg’s profanity spouting cop was by far the best. But Arkin is a veteran actor, on his third nomination, so it’s no surprise that he won, and its not nearly as embarrassing as Jack Palance winning for City Slickers, so I’ll give them a pass.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls
Jennifer Hudson’s singing talent cannot be denied. She was given the plum role as Effie in this film, and knocks out her musical numbers, including the show stopper. However, I must say that in the scenes where Hudson has to act without singing, she is mediocre at best. This was undoubtedly a weak category this year (out of the nominees, I would have gone with Rinko Kikochi’s mute Japanese school girl in Babel), but I am surprised just how easily she won this award. Again, like Alan Arkin, this is nowhere near the most embarrassing Oscar win this category has seen, but rather a safe, middle of the road choice.


  1. What about "UNITED 93"? Did you see that film, which was third on appearances on top 10 lists of critics (under "LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA" & "THE DEPARTED") but was FIRST on number of #1 spots?

    How did "UNTED 93" NOT make the list?

  2. What about "UNITED 93"?

  3. Admittedly, I should have included United 93 in the runners-up section that was an oversight. But, no, I don't think United 93 was one of the 10 best films of that year. It is a well made film by Greengrass- but when it comes right down to it, I have always been more interested in movies about characters than anything else - and United 93 really doesn't have any. All the names and faces blend together. It's a movie that requires you know all about 9/11 or else it doesn't work at all. It exploits out emotions of that day - just like Oliver Stone's World Trade Center or Stephen Daldry's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - it just doesn't do it as overtly as either of those films. A fine film to be sure, but in the 6 years since it came out, I have never once had the urge to revisit it - unlike the films that did make my top 10 list for this year.