Backwards and Forwards: 2006
Films I Might Have Underestimated: At some point, I will owe Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth a second try. Cinematography Oscar aside, I thought the lighting was a bit hard and flat, and I didn't care for the way the girl had been directed. Which is to say, I never cared what happened to Ofelia. But the biggest sin for me was that the politics were so flatly uncomplicated (the fascists are brute, obvious savages! the Resistance could hardly be more heroic!), and especially when compared to all the confrontationally strange imagery and tones elsewhere in the movie, that central dichotomy and the relations between the underworld and the "real" world never felt as complex as I wanted them to. Even a clichéd version of the charismatic antagonist would have been preferable, for me, to Sergi López's overt odiousness. Still, I have read plenty of convincing or at least ardent claims to the contrary, and it's worth re-exploring, particularly if it helps me get past my reluctance to engage with other del Toro films. The Host, which I did absolutely like, nonetheless threw me with its emphatic, weirdly parodic emphasis on the idiocy of its characters, over and over and over. Things reached the point where I couldn't quite figure what the film was gaining by having them be such a bunch of klutzes and oafs, but that's transformed in my memory into something I perversely like about the film. My more sanguine response to Bong Joon-ho's Mother this past fall has also made me curious, though I'd love to just forget his dismal contribution to the Tokyo! anthology film. Nathaniel and Goatdog both went bananas for what I would call the hipster-slickster weep-for-the-young-writer drama Reprise, but given that I remember nearly nothing about the movie, I might have needed to pay more attention to it or stay more open to it.
One Way or Another, I Need Another Look at: When Christopher Nolan makes sinister, sprawling movies about chiseled, almost interchangeable white men menacing each other in the halls of power, everyone goes gaga, but when Robert De Niro did it, the American press couldn't be roused. Matt Damon is unquestionably too young for his part in The Good Shepherd, and the eleventh-hour release date clearly didn't help. But from the score to the script to the sets to the unnervingly shifting dramatis personae to the unusual narrative structure, I thought this was pretty dark, tangy stuff, and it looked great on the screen, especially if you accept a certain kind of dour, bureaucratic blankness as part of the idiom the film is exploring.
In fact, The Good Shepherd shares with almost every film from 2006 that I'm keen to revisit a proclivity toward re-examining some facet of political history and historiography. I'd never conceived of the movies this way before compiling this list, but programming them as a repertory series under that banner would be pretty fascinating: the purposefully stilted, defiantly weird jury-trial of West African colonialism in Bamako; the lurid, sub-Saharan dictatorship-as-horror-show sensationalism of The Last King of Scotland; the Stasi drama The Lives of Others, which I was nearly alone in finding much too sentimental and conventional, for all its impression of stone-cold severity; the tonally opposite Marie Antoinette, still a prohibitive favorite for the dubious honor of having drawn the most openly sexist batch of reviews for any mainstream release in the 00s; and the virtuoso realism of United 93, whose existence never bothered me, since the film was hardly "entertaining," and I don't understand the national injunction to honor our dead without ever, ever regarding them, or without risking any empathetic, vicarious approximation of their experience. Very possibly the best of the lot is the movingly terse and elegantly visualized Letters from Iwo Jima, which I know I had some reservations about, but damned if I can remember what they were. In fact, damned if I can remember much about the film except the sepia tones, the slow-burning performance of Ken Watanabe, and the creepy underworld of those tunnels and caves. How I wished they'd opened this at a less frenzied time than late Decemberat the expense, if at all possible, of dropping it into Flags of our Fathers's October release window and abandoning that cruder, lamer, uglier picture altogether. (Note that The Host and Pan's Labyrinth would also fit themselves snugly into this series.)
Best Case for Trying Again: I couldn't believe how hard Casino Royale screeched on the brakes once James Bond and Vesper Lynd starting bumping his Goldfinger against her Octopussy. Honeymoon, schmoneymoon. Everyone in the audience is ahead of you on this one, James. Everyone. The Jeffrey Wright character, that long and weirdly Michael Lucas-y torture sequence, and the Isaach de Bankolé subplot all seem like extra elements the film doesn't need, and/or like juicy bits that Royale would have done well to extend at the expense of something else. I got pretty cranky about all of this, and speaking of, it didn't help that Crank and The Departed had pretty much sated me on grandiloquent action spectaculars by that point in the season. But on second pass, pre-Quantum of Solace, I was thrilled to re-discover how sexy and brainy and vervy the James-Vesper repartee actually is in Casino Royale, and how much energy the movie does whip up when it isn't strangely halting for a bit of extended card-playing or testicle-bashing, or dilating itself beyond reason for an inevitable finale. It's stylish, kinetic, and rather witty for great, long stretches. I should have given it more benefit of the doubt.
Recently Surfaced: By contrast, I gave Open Water 2: Adrift plenty of benefit of the doubt, and hot damn if the movie doesn't repay in spades. If you didn't like the original, don't worry: this was never written to be a sequel and was only titled that way for the American DVD. The scenario: six photogenic friends, conforming to more or less recognizable types, go for a day of sailing on Eric Dane's yacht. As you'll note in the photo, they enjoy a collective dip in the Pacific, but if you're reading the image carefully, you'll spot the problem: no one left a ladder down for getting back onto the boat. I know, you're wondering: surely there is a way around this, and how exactly does one mine a whole film from this predicament? But seriously, I have rarely seen such a mundane, completely plausible mistake get played for such (mostly) convincing ramifications and exquisite tension, especially as the hours pass and the sky darkens. The camera gets placed all over, and it's always scarily suggestive: is anyone or anything ever going to arrive on the horizon? How high is that slippery fiberglass wall, anyway? Is there something underneath them in the water? Is some clue to their rescue hiding in plain sight? Is the gal in the background subtly starting to lose it? Adrift works astonishingly well, up in the Dead Calm league of great open-sea nailbiters. (I haven't seen Knife in the Water, but there is a knife in the water in this movie, and that's not for nothing.)
Altogether a more auspicious, wondrously expectation-defying rental than, um, Phat Girlz, which I checked out to make myself a more fluent speaker of Mo'Nique before my hot date with Precious. Hardly sophisticated, and it's completely patent that the money was scraped together, almost literally: what look like unprocessed takes and non-colortimed dailies are edited right into the picture. But Mo'Nique has got real vitality in several scenes, and though her Buttoned-Down Best Friend is just awful, her Sassy and Thin Best Friend is sometimes kind of fun. The politics of body-image and of pan-Africanism, despite being so explicit, get twisted up in frustrating and occasionally disheartening ways, and whether it's a plus or a minus, Mo'Nique seizes on her one big chance to Act with a dramatic intensity that way exceeds the call for an obligatory sad-breakup montage.
Even If It's Not "Better" Than I Thought: I still don't like what they make Anne Hathaway wear when she starts to "get it" in The Devil Wears Prada, and a lot of the writing is pretty forced and asinine. I don't feel bad about the B, upgraded as it already was from an initial C+. But Hathaway herself is a linchpin of the film who has never gotten enough credit for that. Streep and Blunt and Tucci all have their succulent bits that I have quoted over and over in the ensuing years, and as perfunctory as the filmmaking often is, there are quick moments where some small formal nuance spring to life, like the scary handheld pan of the room as Tucci and Hathaway arrive late for a design meeting, and the slow, daunting image of Streep gliding forward like a snow leopard about to kill, only this leopard is holding a
Performances I'm Most Eager to Revisit: Maggie Gyllenhaal hasn't quite nailed a part since Sherrybaby, and a lot of the parts she has accepted haven't left a lot of room for that, anyway. I'm surmising that a trip back to this Jersey drama will either rekindle my hopes for her career or underscore certain omens of half-interested performances to come, but no such qualifiers are likely to attach to Danny Trejo's unsung but tremendous supporting performance as her inscrutable friend-sponsor-onlooker. The ensemble in 12:08 East of Bucharest might have been the year's best, although only Ion Sapdaru earned a year-end honor from me at the time. I can't tell you a lot about Leonardo DiCaprio's work in Blood Diamond except that I remember sitting in the theater thinking how much better I thought it was than the risible trailer had implied. Sadly, now all I remember is the trailer, and he doesn't deserve that.
Now that more people are joining me on the Vera Farmiga train, Breaking and Entering is likely to see a lot more rentals, where her spry take on a blowzy Romanian prostitute is bound to win admirers. I hope folks also start clocking Juliette Binoche's interesting work as a taciturn Balkan refugee in the same film. Al Gore finally got America listening about precipitous climate change An Inconvenient Truth, despite giving a pretty canned lecture. How'd he do that? But thank God he did! Lastly, Little Children and Notes on a Scandal are the kinds of late-fall awards magnets whose shelf-life can almost never compete with their gluttonous desire for trophies and prestige in the immediate moment. On those grounds, I was pretty hard on both movies, especially Children, and I think with good reason. Still, the hard-working casts weren't nearly as blameworthy as the overbearing direction, irregular momentum, and dubious dialogue in both projects. Jackie Earle Haley, Phyllis Somerville, and Judi Dench especially merit some more notes, even if I'm still scandalized.
Top Ten Films Still to Catch from 2006:
1. Colossal Youth (Portugal), dir. Pedro Costa, with Vanda Duarte
2. The Water Diary (Australia/New Zealand), dir. Jane Campion
3. Broken Sky (Mexico), dir. Julián Hernández, with Miguel Ángel Hoppe
4. Golden Door (Italy), dir. Emanuele Crialese, with Charlotte Gainsbourg
5. Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis (USA), dir. Mary Jordan
6. Night of the Sunflowers (Spain), dir. Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo
7. God Grew Tired of Us (USA), dir. Christopher Dillon Quinn
8. Les petites vacances (France), dir. Olivier Peyon, with Bernadette Lafont
9. Taxidermia (Hungary), dir. György Pálfi, if I can stomach it
10. Dance Party, USA (USA), dir. Aaron Katz, with Cole Pensinger
Runners-up: The inevitably creepy documentary exposé Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple; Time, a Kim Ki-Duk film that scored the top prize at that year's Chicago Film Festival; Abbie Cornish and Heath Ledger bottoming out in Candy; the documentary Small Town Gay Bar, in competition at Sundance; Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche's Algerian feature Bled Number One; Comedy of Power, from the not entirely reliable Claude Chabrol; Paolo Sorrentino's divisive The Family Friend; and gay-themed Berlin prizewinner The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros. At some point, I'll need to see Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 feature Army of Shadows, which numerous critics cheated onto their lists after it finally got its first commercial releasewhich only makes more obvious that 2006 was not far behind 2003 for bleakness on the cinema front. Once more, my Top Ten was more than usually replete with holdover releases from the previous year.
Labels: BwdFwd 00s