Saturday, March 17, 2007

Best Movies Of 2006

[edited 3/18 for typos, incomplete thoughts, and one horrible movie]

Yeah, so it's almost April. I can't make a best-of list in March?

2006 was kind of a lousy year on the whole for "important" movies. This is evidenced by my #1 movie of the year having won Best Foreign Film at the Oscars last year. Further, the gap between #1 and #2 is far wider than the gap between #2 and #10. "Oscar" films like Dreamgirls and Flags Of Our Fathers fell short of expectations (apparently), and successful ones like Babel and The Queen didn't make a meaningful dent with the average moviegoer. Even the five Best Picture nominees had its share of weaknesses, after a 2005 in which the nominees (if not the winner) were arguably award-worthy.

The resulting void in high-end story-telling was filled by movies on the low end. Rarely have there been so many successful high-brow action movies in a single year. Not in the sense of originality of premise, a la The Matrix or Die Hard, but in the sense that cliched B-movie genre stories were given A-movie treatment. Bringing an auteur's touch (and gravity) to stories in traditionally superficial genres. Everything in the movies is cyclical, so this is hardly a reflection of the New World Order or anything, but this certainly seems to be the trend. The list that follows is awfully long on quality...

  • Look at what Martin Scorcese, Spike Lee and Michael Mann did with their warmed-over action premises. All three turned in superlative efforts. The bar may have been raised TOO high.
  • Casino Royale accomplished what the Bond series has been working towards for over a decade: a plausible, believable, mature Bond.
  • Children of Men, a filler-heavy, hole-ridden story with a great hook, snuck onto best "films" lists thanks to the exceptional, visionary direction of Alfonso Cuaron.
  • I haven't seen Apocalypto, but it is generally believed to be in the same category: a visceral action film with high aspirations. I don't need to see it to know that the premise is higher on concept than bankability.
  • Then there's Banlieue 13, whose parkour action is more original and organically thrilling than anything in the previously-mentioned films.

I find it remarkable that so many action movies managed to bust past the "genre film" label. Given how many disappointing "serious" films (Dreamgirls, Flags Of Our Fathers, The Good German, All The King's Men, Marie Antoinette) and traditional tentpole thrill rides (Pirates 2, Superman Returns, X3, Da Vinci Code) saw release this year, it's encouraging to see so many talented filmmakers roll up their sleeves to make simple, entertaining, well-made movies. And though these guys may appear to be "slumming it," many of the world's great directors have worked primarily within genre: Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, the French New Wavers (Godard, Melville et al), Spielberg, Tarantino... a list of masters if I ever saw one. There's no shame in going this way, as opposed to taking the traditional art/auteur road.

What's more is that the auteurs who make shoot-em-up movies put the rest of Hollywood's gun-for-hire genre specialists to shame. As an audience, how could we possibly tolerate another Brett Ratner piece of crap after we've just finished watching The Departed? Who'd even attempt a standard future-apocalypse movie after seeing Children of Men? What double-cross heist movie could possibly top Inside Man? There's Hertz, and there's not exactly; the A-list just proved it. Hacks of Hollywood, you've been outed.

So, now that I've buried the lead, let's get down to doing what bloggers do best... lists.

Honorable Mention
  • The Science Of Sleep
  • Inside Man
  • Little Miss Sunshine
  • Banlieue 13
  • The Pursuit of Happyness

Most Surprising (good)

  • Monster House
  • Night At The Museum
  • Miami Vice
  • Talladega Nights

Promising Movies That I Wish I'd Seen
  • The Fountain
  • The Proposition
  • The Prestige (it's in my apartment as we speak)
  • The Good Shepherd
  • Perfume
  • Big Momma's House 2
  • For Your Consideration
  • Happy Feet
  • Little Children
  • Stranger Than Fiction
  • Curse of the Golden Flower
  • The Lives of Others

Promising Movies I'm OK With Missing Or Having Missed

  • United 93
  • World Trade Center
  • Dreamgirls
  • Blood Diamond
  • Apocalypto
  • Volver
  • The Queen
  • Flags of Our Fathers
  • Letters From Iwo Jima
  • The Last King Of Scotland (I said it once, and I'll say it again: you don't need to tell me that Forest Whitaker kicks ass.)

Promising Movie That I Definitely Don't Need To See, Because The Prick Who Made It Is A Miserable, Overrated, One-Trick Pony Who Cons Big-Name Actors Into Hamming It Up In An Ensemble, In The Faint Hope Of Grabbing An Oscar That The Actor Probably Doesn't Deserve In The First Place, While Simultaneously Conning The Audience Into Buying His Phony-Baloney, Contrived, Manipulative, Melodramatic Horseshit... Anyway, This Guy Sucks

  • Babel

Films That Disappointed Me

  • Let's Go To Prison
Wow. I was really excited about this one. I was so sure this movie would be hilarious. And I was so wrong. There were a couple laughs, and Will Arnett is his usual incredible self, but the rest of the movie is an abortion. Great idea, tons of potential, even some great lines. But as a whole, it's pointless, stupid, unlikable, and very, very unfunny. That such a small and ultimately harmless movie could cause me this kind of disappointment is a real feat. Sigh.
  • X-Men: The Last Stand
  • Snakes On A Plane
Remember my spiel up top about good directors shaming bad ones? These two movies are made by bad ones, and it shows. SoaP obviously wasn't meant to be much, but even that could have been fine given the tiniest bit of talent or brains. X3, however, was a complete miscarriage. What was once the most thought-provoking comic book film franchise is now one of the most insipid. If they open up a war crimes tribunal against Brett Ratner, I'll testify. And I'll volunteer to smash his nuts with a sledgehammer. What a heartbreaker.
  • Clerks II
I've grappled with this one for a long time, searching for a justifiable reason to hate on it. My conclusion is that the problem is neither a lack of humor nor a lack of observational commentary, but an inability to balance those elements properly. It's too serious-minded (a la Chasing Amy) to suit the comedy, but too cartoonish (a la J&SB Strike Back) to let the serious material resonate. No single element is all that bad, but the juxtaposition doesn't work.

Further, I felt like Kevin Smith showed too much restraint in certain parts. The funniest part of the movie, a rant on how Dante could theoretically impregnate his own mother via a toilet seat, isn't even in the movie. It was cut, presumably, because the scene had a very important point (Randal's gonna miss Dante) and the rant doesn't affect the scene's outcome. From a Robert McKee standpoint, that's legitimate, but that's not what Kevin Smith got famous doing. I don't care what happens to Dante and Randal, I care what they're talking about while it happens.

And am I alone in wondering why there was so little attention spent on ass-to-mouth? That's where the comedy gold is. It's not in creepy Elias.

Anyway, yeah, disappointing. Not, like, X3 disappointing, but still.


10. The Devil Wears Prada

Hey, I'm as surprised as you are. But this movie is really, really good. The thing that separates this from typical girl-movie crapola, apart from the presence of Meryl Streep, is its breakneck pace. The story moves along at 200 miles per hour from start to finish, giving you a feel for the pressure and an entertaining ride at the same time. The wardrobe, the pith, the script, the acting (Streep, Anne Hathaway, Emily Blunt)... all excellent.

9. Idiocracy

Even though its high point as a film involves a dog biting a guy in the nuts, the social commentary has stuck with me well beyond the initial viewings. Mike Judge again shows an ability to tap into practical, down-to-earth fears... increasing garbage, increasing corporate presence, decreasing command of proper English... and turn them into an apocalypse. It's box-office poison, which Fox certainly recognized. It's cheap, which should be evident from the first scenes. But it's an excellent movie.

8. Casino Royale

(flickr user Gilmore Boy)

After the success of GoldenEye, Pierce Brosnan expressed a desire to make Bond more real, more fallible. Those attempts in later films (Die Another Day, The World Is Not Enough) were hackneyed and isolated, exposing a lack of commitment to that cause. Casino Royale certainly solved that problem. The most plausible and thoughtful of all the Bond films, and featuring the series' most talented Bond in Daniel Craig, it keeps the action real (Banlieue 13-style parkour chase, Bourne-style fist-fighting, Idiocracy-style testicular torture) and focuses almost exclusively on Bond's character.

7. Dave Chappelle's Block Party

One of the most genuine, lovable movies you will ever see. Great music, great idea, and well-executed on all ends. A very funny monument to the ways in which generosity repays itself. And how many movies do such a great job conveying earnest, unadulterated positivity without turning sappy? Flawless concert film.

6. A Scanner Darkly

Very, very underrated movie from Richard Linklater. There's a unresolvable problem of disembodiment, however: even though the technology is the only way to faithfully reproduce the story, the distance inherent between character and audience is just too much. It's not unemotional, but the most dramatic places in the story subject us to an odd, unsettling feeling rather than emotional resonance. When we discover the depths to which Keanu Reeves' character has fallen, it isn't as devastating as perhaps it ought to be. It's just somewhat troubling. Nevertheless, it's a fascinating movie with plenty of replay value.

5. Children of Men

This dreadfully serious film is just as much a reflection of modern society's post-apocalyptic fears as Idiocracy. It's a tangible apocalypse, where the planet is a technology-free wasteland and England is the Middle East. But it's got so many plot holes, and uses genre cliches so freely, that I can't list it much higher. Still, the ambition and vision on display merit high marks.

4. Borat

Like so many people, I was blown away. (Shortly after Azamat was! Thank you, thank you.)

I nearly spat out a lung. It's not much of a departure from the HBO show, except in that they went so far over the top with the concept that it couldn't possibly be done again. During the credits, sitting aghast in my seat during the would-be Kazakh national anthem, my mouth was gaping. I couldn't believe what I'd seen. That's the sign of success.

The real achievement here is making Sacha Baron Cohen a household name. He's one of our few genuine comic geniuses. The points of comparison for this guy are along the lines of Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Peter Sellers... the giants of screen comedy. It's good to know we'll have more SBC in the coming years.

3. The Departed

Class act from start to finish. As excellent as Infernal Affairs is, The Departed is that much better. It's the ultimate double-cross crime thriller... gritty as Scorcese, clever as Hong Kong. And after having watched a lot of very talented actors botch the incomparable Boston accent in recent years (most notably in Mystic Rivah) it was refreshing to hear Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg do an understated, natural job of it. Everyone was great, the story was fantastic, and it was as exciting as it could have been.

But it's not a chart-buster. It hasn't changed the game in any way. We won't be pointing to future double-crossing cop movies as Departed rip-offs. Because there's nothing much to rip off. The achievement was in the professional execution of the fantastic script. That it won Best Picture doesn't change the fact that it's just a bang-bang shoot-em-up movie done very well. It's not The Godfather, it's not GoodFellas. It's just a great movie. (Then again, so were Gladiatorand Return of the King.)

2. Pan's Labyrinth

The movie that deserved Best Picture. This is the second straight year in which the best movie wasn't even nominated (Walk The Line missed out last year), a failure that I consider criminal. Well, maybe not "And the Oscar goes to... Crash!" criminal, but unarguably the mistake of the year.

Pan's Labyrinth is just unreal. Like everyone else, I was expecting something a lot less Spanish Civil War-obsessed. I wasn't expecting Schindler's List with a Crazy Eyeball Hands Guy. (I love calling him that. I especially like making him talk like Adam Sandler. Hey, I'm Crazy Eyeball Hands Guy! I got eyeballs in my hands like a crazy guy! NOW GIMME SOME CAN-DAY!!!)

Aaaanyway, it's not only the most creative film of the year but the film that best leverages its creator's genius. Guillermo del Toro, like his countryman Cuaron, deserves to be an A-list director. There's no doubt in my mind that a Hellboy sequel will kick all kinds of ass.

1. Tsotsi

Any weirdness I feel about putting this movie on my list is neutralized by being given the ability to tout this movie again. I haven't been so moved by a movie in a long, long time. I was a mess by the end of this thing, and I don't mind saying it. Every aspect is just phenomenal. The gritty shanty-town set sucked me in, and the story did the rest.


  1. A fine reminder of all the movies I want to see, but while I mostly kind of agree with your take on Iñárritu (without having seen Babel but with having found 21 Grams not really that interesting), I have to take a moment to defend Amores Perros. The movie was one of the most affecting experiences I've had watching a movie over the past several years. There were clues that some later excesses were coming (like the fact that the second of the three acts was basically pointless to my mind), but overall I think it was amazing. It's one of the movies I think most often about of any I've seen, because it really was that powerful.

    So, I think you have to acknowledge the man is an incredible talent. He's also incredibly self-indulgent and pretentious, and needs to bring his ass back to earth. And there's certainly no indication he's moving in that direction. So I'm not saying you need to re-start watching his movies or anything. But to call him overrated and leave it at that I think is thoroughly insufficient. I mean, he only has three movies to his name, and his biggest sin seems to be pretension. Hardly stands out as bad to me, in the long run.

    Also, I haven't seen Last King of Scotland yet, but I think you're underselling the potential of a really dramatic cult of personality film. The documentary I saw about Mobutu last year was one of the most riveting things I've ever seen, just because trying to process that legacy is totally mindblowing. I'm really looking forward to doing the same with Amin.

  2. OK, I just read your other piece about Babel/Amores Perros, and I have this to say:

    1) I agree that its non-linearness does not make it better. Although I do think it's episodic nature has some benefits.

    2) I agree it's messy and self-indulgent.

    3) I actually think your frustration with his "trick" is making you miss the fact that the film is anything but a one-trick pony.

    All I mean is that I completely disagree that the format of the film is a primary reason for its success, and I think you're dwelling overly on that. The content itself (of the 1st and 3rd parts) is why that movie was great. And the format of the film just isn't important enough to negatively impact Amores Perros in a big way, just as it isn't enough to make 21 Grams or Babel more interesting than their stories are. At least not for me.

    If anything, what I remember critics going crazy about was Iñárritu's visceral depiction of Mexico City. It was kind of fetishistic in that sense (though some people thought he brought the same to Memphis in 21 Grams) could almost hear the self-congratulation of the reviewers for loving his gritty, vital presentation of Mexico City. But as much as that bothered me, I think they're right (though I've never been there). It's also the only way to justify that 2nd part...because the whole package is necessary to see his vision of Mexico City.

    Anyway, I doubt this has been particularly convincing for you, but the important measure, for me, is how much I've thought about it since. And it's been probably three years now since I saw it, and I still think about frequently. That's gotta say something.

  3. I didn't hate Amores Perros in and of itself. It's a great, well-made, affecting movie. I watched it at your apartment. It was a really depressing ride home as I recall. My objection isn't strictly about Amores Perros. But once is enough. We didn't need three identical copies.

    The reason, if anything, is that I think Iñárritu's better than this. For him to keep slumming it with the same stupid idea looks like laziness. I think if he's got so much to say, he'll apply his sizable talents to a plausible, resonant story. But if he genuinely finds this format interesting, then I'm clearly wrong about him, because he's a dumb shit. This contrived BS stuff... seriously, who the fuck cares? Twelve stupid strangers run into each other and fuck each others' lives up even worse. Such is life. Oh, bra-vo. Someone rename the Pulitzer after this guy.

    The coincidence thing is obviously just a device, and every movie uses coincidence on some level, and so forth. But if you repeatedly insist that the audience confront a ridiculous, contrived storyline, the moral of the story ("this is what life is like") won't resonate either. That Amores Perros managed to make up for it was a combination of fortune and novelty. It's not a tried-and-true formula for success, that's for sure.

    Also, regarding urban grit, I'll see your Amores and raise you City of God. Both notable for urban grit, multiple threads to the story, ensemble cast, heartbreaking tales of woe... but Cidade centers on a single protagonist in a single neighborhood, and deals with how all the stories affect HIM directly. It's one of the great movies ever made. Amores, affecting as it is, is a curiosity by comparison.

    Also, I'm not against Last King of Scotland or anything like that. My thing there was more of a pro-Forest statement than anything. But now that you mention it, I do find it tiring that a story like this almost always has to be told through the eyes of a white dude. As if the Idi Amin story couldn't have been compelling or resonant without being told through the white man's eyes.

  4. I think we're basically on the same page here. Maybe I'm a little more interested in what he will be able to do with Babel, and more willing to put with his excesses...but then it's not like I have any real plans to actually watch the movie.

    City of God is definitely a better movie than Amores Perros in a lot of ways, but there are things that I don't think it accomplishes as well. If grit is the thing then no contest, but I do think you get a much fuller and more diverse picture of Mexico City than Rio. I don't know, Amores Perros is right up there for me. The reliance on coincidence clearly is a crutch though, and pretty durn annoying. I certainly don't think I'd enjoy talking to him very much.

    BTW, I just got the Tsotsi soundtrack. It's good.

  5. thanks for this list... I need to check out some of these