Death, Talk and Coffee

2006 on Celluloid and Disc

1. United 93 (Paul Greengrass)

Though it blinked off radar screens shortly after takeoff, this sober dramatization of events aboard the “fourth plane” stands out as the most striking film of the year. Half historic reenactment, half horror film, restrained yet ferocious, it’s the most avant garde studio film since 2001. It’s also the best film about the eruption of irrational violence into the everyday since Alan Clarke’s Elephant. As a cinematic response to national tragedy, its closest relative is Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. However, unlike Van Sant, who views the bloody deeds from an aesthetically distant vantage, raising the audience above the carnage, Greengrass straps us in cheek by jowl with passengers and terrorists alike. In fact, some critics have complained about the film’s claustrophobic proximity to the event itself, claiming it far too soon to cast a backward glance. But Greengrass suggests we will never have the distance to truly comprehend the horror. United 93 gives us no rationalization, no illumination, no consolation. It only represents the massacre in all its senseless, paralyzing terror.

2. A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman)

Oddly enough, a good companion piece to United 93 in that both deal with the same subject: the suddenness and fellowship of death. But Altman’s swan song illumines the encroaching darkness with grace, humor, and a nicely judged touch of whimsy to recommend that we do go gentle into that good night.

3. Los Muertos (Lisandro Alonso)

Shortly after he is released from a penal work camp, the film’s protagonist Vargas humps a back alley prostitute while her kids play outside. Suddenly, we cut to him savoring a dish of ice cream and staring at passing traffic in childlike reverie. This surprisingly seamless edit nicely encapsulates Alonso’s wondrous co-mingling of the beautiful and the ugly, of violence and love, guilt and innocence.

4. The Wire, Season 4

As informative and topical as a census and as engrossing and enriching as a great novel, The Wire is a show about America. A show about how our ideals are rusting like our cities, about how we maintain the power structures that destroy what’s best in us. Unlike the more popular HBO shows, e.g. The Sopranos, which despite their skillful storytelling always seem to be begging you not to turn the channel, The Wire demands concentration, reflection, and response. If you want the news of the day watch it instead of CNN.

5. L’Enfant (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne)

With their fourth working class parable about becoming a person the Dardenne brothers join fellow Francophones Bresson and Rohmer in designing cycles of moral tales that live in dynamic conversation with each other.

6. Metropolitian (Whit Stillman) (DVD)

After finally accepting that the Powers That Be were likely to deliver reparations for slavery before coughing up Stillman’s debut feature on DVD, the Criterion Collection finally stepped up to the plate with this handsomely packaged release. The new transfer elucidates the highly verbal film’s under-discussed visual style and includes one of those rare extras: a worthwhile actor/director commentary. Actor Taylor Nichols partly captures Metropolitan’s singular charm in describing it as “a low budget-film about high-budget people.”

7. Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice) (DVD)

Touching and disturbing, Erice’s most famous film patiently probes the close relationship between wonder and fear. Along with Dillion’s Ponette and DeSica’s Shoeshine, it offers the best and most moving insight into the melancholy of childhood.

8. Six Moral Tales (Eric Rohmer) (DVD)

Less pieces of a puzzle than notes on a scale that combine in different melodies and harmonies, their resonance deepening with repeated viewings.

9. Dazed and Confused (Richard Linklater) (DVD)

The long overdue Criterion release of Linklater’s third film accords it the dignity denied it during years of dorm room double features with The Stoned Age.

10. Christmas in July (Preston Sturges) (DVD)

If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee — it’s the bunk.