Ha Ha Ha

ten noteworthy films from the year we remembered how to laugh

2006 was a quiet year in culture, as if people were winded or had their minds on other things. The most ambitious movies, whether their ambition took the form of trying to revive the Man of Steel (Superman Returns), reinventing the musical (Idlewild), or actually providing an answer to the meaning of it all (The Fountain), made the biggest belly-flops. Burned and exhausted, aesthetes curled up in a corner to take stock of the past; the DVD release of the year was the Janus Film Library’s birthday tribute to itself, Essential Art House, consisting of fifty movies you should have already seen, packaged in a coffee-table edition and priced in the neighborhood of six hundred dollars. It’s a handy thing to have on the shelf, but it seemed to announce the death of something — maybe the once-venerated concept of a foreign “art cinema,” which seems a little quaint in the age of world culture and the Independent Film Channel.

The giant totem concept extended to publishing, where Thomas Pynchon proved that he still has a thousand pages in him, and Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie finally set loose upon the world a lavish, pricey edition of their ten-years-in-the-making dirty comic book. I’m sure I’ll love both books when I find time to read them in the hospital where I’m recuperating after having sold a kidney to raise the money to buy them. Terrific albums were turned in by the likes of Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Bob Dylan, Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, and even Maria Muldaur (devoting herself to the songs of, um, Bob Dylan), but they’re all eligible for social security or closing in on it, so their triumphs are confusing and even disheartening to a pop press fixated on youth. (The death of Robert Altman was, in an odd way, another blow to the cult of youth, as it gave people the uncommon chance to mourn a major artist who was in his eighties and who was actually still doing vital work, and from whom more — much more — might have realistically been expected.) As for what’s going on in theater these days, I couldn’t tell you. Maw won’t let me go to the Broadway area anymore for fear that I’ll be shanghaied by imagineers and regain consciousness in Florida, doing hard time in a Goofy costume.

In some ways, the relative lassitude of the last twelve or so months could be seen as a relief. It’s not like I couldn’t use a breather. In the last couple of years, some sections of the pop culture community had seemed on the verge of giving themselves hernias as they strained to make statements about the times we’re living in — and sometimes gave the impression that they thought maybe they could drive George Bush from office through sheer disgust. When the resilient little fucker failed to leave, a lot of people must have wondered what it was all for; worse, some of them seemed to think they knew. Maybe the most depressing development of the year was in the blogosphere, which had been a great place to crack wise, spew invective, spread rumors, and generally act up in class while letting people who might otherwise have found themselves at the end of their rope know that they weren’t alone. This year, with Bush circling the drain, the leading political bloggers should have been having a great time kicking him while he was down, but some of them decided that it was time to Get Serious, to the point that a few sad lost souls seemed to think they were put on earth not to be kibbitzers but kingmakers.

In Connecticut, the blogs, for all practical purposes, ran a candidate for the United States Senate. The fact that their candidate, after getting a shitload of ink, woke up the morning after the election with a renewed interest in the want ads just proves something they should have known already: namely, that having your own unedited public forum where you routinely call anyone who disagrees with you about anything an idiot is not good preparation for actual politics. In the real world, when you leave voters with the suspicion that you think they’re idiots, very few of them will actually change their votes — or even stay at home pondering whether you might have a point. Most of them will just get pissed at you and vote for the other guy, even if he is a weak suck.

The misplaced urge to impress the world with what a grown-up you are also made itself felt in artists’ attempts to commemorate 9/11. Two competing sentiments, equally inane, were heard again and again throughout the year: one arguing that since five years had passed we all had to remember extra-hard this year, and the other insisting that it’s still too soon to “relive” those events by seeing a movie like United 93 or World Trade Center. At least the former did a strong and honorable job of trying to present a version of a shadowy, troubling event that most of us have probably already fantasized about, wondering how it felt to be on that plane and to slowly put the terrible pieces together. The indie movie The Great New Wonderful seemed to argue that, in the end, 9/11 tore a little hole in people’s lives, but then, for all the talk of everything having changed, everyone went on about their lives. In his novel A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, Ken Kalfus, with more satirical bite than these filmmakers chose to muster, was sacreligious enough to imagine New Yorkers who are barely affected by 9/11, except to the degree that it helps them with whatever personal battles they’re engaged in.

But World Trade Center felt as if Oliver Stone had made it for no other reason than that he wouldn’t have been able to live with himself if someone else had gotten there first. Based on past performance, it’s hard not to suspect that Stone worked so hard to keep his movie untainted by “politics” not because he really cared about the dignity of the people involved in the real events, but because he couldn’t figure out what political take on 9/11 would best serve his image. In using the event as grist for an expert disaster movie about some good but uninteresting men trapped under rubble, and failing to connect it to the way a cabal of morons used that event to debase the country they’d sworn to serve and trash its position in the world, Stone just seemed to be asserting his right to make a big, expensive movie even though he had nothing to say on the subject — thus revealing himself as the Cecil B. DeMille of the baby boom generation. Even more depressing were those films by younger directors — like Half Nelson and Old Joy — that tried to declare their political consciousness by jamming dead-ended characters up against brick walls and then throwing their hands up in despair. A favorite tactic was to use radio news commentary (as in Old Joy) or silenced voices from the past (as in Bobby) as a Greek chorus hammering home the point that there is no point, no way to build a better world.

The best corrective to this kind of brain-dead pomposity and self-congratulatory hopelessness is, of course, laughter — and here is where the year turned out to be a little special. Bush, who had been regarded as untouchable not very long ago, began the year as an officially recognized figure of fun. Laughter was probably the healthiest and maybe the most constructive response to knowing that we still had two or three years left of a government headed by a lazy dauphin who regards himself as a fearsome warrior-king but who wouldn’t know the Martians had landed until his advisors begged him to switch to CNN for a minute. After Katrina, we all know that if a nuclear explosion took out the West Coast, Bush’s response would be to embody the immortal words of the late Freddie Prinze, Sr. — “is not my job, man” — and maybe, if he’s in a generous mood, stage a photo op. It’s a living nightmare, but it’s kind of funny, too. I can’t remember a year that was so rich in occasions of unintentional comedy: from the James Frey farce (with its sordid but amusing spin-off starring Li’l’ J. T. LeRoy, with special guest idjit Asia Argento) to the Mel Gibson-Michael Richards double-header to the Mark Foley Show — all of it leading up to the spectacular flameout of the Republican congress on election night — we all laughed. After a while, it began to feel as if not just a string of individual events was being mocked, but the very fabric of the Bush Era — a time that began with people wondering what David Letterman and Saturday Night Live would be like now since in the aftermath of 9/11 it seemed like the first person who cracked a joke would be taken out back and shot. When the Bush ice age first started to form, a city newspaper might fire an editorial cartoonist for making fun of the president, or Slate might cancel its “Bushisms” feature to show that it was on board with the war effort, or ABC might cancel Politically Incorrect in response to Ari Fleischer tsk-tsking in Bill Maher’s general direction — and people would just shrug and agree that we no longer lived in a time where disrespect of authority could be tolerated. But with the events of 2005 having revealed that Bush was not just evil (which a lot of people sort of recognized while telling themselves that it was a sign of his strength) but also impotent, incompetent, and uncaring, the lid had to come off with a vengeance.

Blending seamlessly into this general atmosphere of graveyard hysteria was the pop culture event of the year, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. I hesitate to call Borat the movie of the year, because that might sell it short. The backlash has set in by now, good and hard, but nothing can take away the way this movie owned its moment, the way few movies are lucky and canny enough to do. Some good and wise souls claim to be too affronted by Borat to laugh: George Saunders, whose own fiction does not appear to be the work of a man who thinks that ordinary Americans need to be protected from scornful mockery, wrote a New Yorker piece that has the distinction of being perhaps the most unfunny, shrill, viciously wrong-headed thing ever published by a writer as hip as he is. The movie (or, more likely, its reviews) must have really gotten up his fucking nose to get him to so completely lose his bearings. More ominously, David Edelstein (a movie reviewer so dedicated to promoting — indeed, to proselytizing for — the positive, cleansing effects of outrageous comedy that he not only named There’s Something About Mary and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut to be the movies of their respective years, but claimed to find entertainment value in as off-year a Farrelly brothers comedy as Me, Myself, and Irene) denounced the movie as too cruel to bear, because Sacha Baron Cohen, in the person of the clueless and deplorable Borat, insulted a woman’s looks. In a movie that Edelstein admires unreservedly, Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore — not playing a hateful, manipulative boob, but presenting himself as a concerned and caring soul — put a war supporter face-to-face with a woman who’d lost a son in Iraq so that he could record the fireworks. That’s supposed to be okay, because it makes some kind of political point, though I’m not sure that the point (which is what, exactly — that people who lose their sons in Iraq but continue to support the war didn’t really love them?) couldn’t have been made without causing distress to the grieving mother and queasiness on the part of those who had to watch her. Borat has also been defended politically, on the grounds that Baron Cohen has revealed us to be a country full of drunken frat boys, anti-Semites, homophobes, and hypocrites. Having spent more then ten minutes in this, the country of my birth, before seeing the movie, I was able to absorb this news without going into deep shock. Yes, Borat is a kind of documentary and deserves to be appreciated as such, but in the end, all that matters is that it’s so fucking funny. That is the only answer to the charges that it’s unduly cruel; if it weren’t true, the fact that it reveals what it reveals about the country wouldn’t matter a whit. All that finally matters is that, in times as dark as these, I spent ninety minutes in a packed theater doubled over crying from laughter, in a way that I’m not sure I have since I was pre-pubescent and the movie in question was Young Frankenstein. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Oliver Stone.

Borat is a fitting hood ornament for a year that may not have produced any masterpieces but did provide the stubborn seeker of fun with several small, happy surprises. Here’s ten of them.

1. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
The major exception to the “no masterpieces” rule cited above, and a welcome instance of someone taking on a major part of the history we’re living through and addressing it with all the furious anger one might expect but still managing to keep his head (and his filmmaking control). Spike Lee had a good year; his theatrical release, "Inside Man", was just an entertainment, as enjoyable and characteristic — and minor — as The Departed. But, to give credit where credit is due, it was his first decent non-fiction film in twenty years.

2. The Queen
The second-likeliest exception. Director Stephen Frears and writer Peter Morgan’s docudrama about how Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) saved the monarchy by coaching Eizabeth II (a transcendent Helen Mirren) on how to appear halfway human on the occasion of Diana’s death could easily be mistaken for a PBS-friendly exercise in canny Anglophilia; it is a crowd-pleaser, never more so than in the deeply satisfying (and deeply unlikely) scene at the end where Liz thanks Tony for his efforts before warning him that, inevitably, he will someday slip up and the crowds will turn on him, too. But hidden inside the comedy and smart chat are attitudes towards both the royals and the people that can’t be easily sorted out, and a friendly smile composed of three rows of teeth.

3. Neil Young: Heart of Gold
A triumph both for director Jonathan Demme and Young himself, who’s been seriously tinkering with movies for more than thirty years but has only recently (with this project and his 2004 Greendale) started getting them right. Those who are only interested in seeing Young rock out may be disappointed, but this concert movie (filmed soon after he’s gone through life-threatening brain surgery) catches him accompanied by a crack band — including his wife, tucked amid the backing vocalists — and at the peak of his autumnal country-folk form.

4. Little Miss Sunshine
A near-perfect indie comedy with a dream cast (Steve Carrell, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin, Greg Kinnear, Paul Dano, and the uncanny little Abigail Breslin), and a rare example of a middle-America satire that manages to be genuinely sharp yet warm without succumbing either to sentimentality or smugness.

5. A Scanner Darkly
Many directors repeat themselves unthinkingly, out of a lack of anything new to say or any idea of how to say it. It’s actually a measure of Richard Linklater’s integrity that, when he realized that the rotoscope animation style he’d used in Waking Life would be the perfect way to adapt Philip K. Dick’s drug-dream of a novel, he didn’t back off just because he’d done it before. Hollywood has been contriving ever louder ways to screw up Dick’s material since at least Blade Runner; he and the Texas termite Linklater are made for each other.

6 & 7. The Science of Sleep and Dave Chappelle’s Block Party
This year’s Michel Gondry double feature shows the talented, flaky, good-hearted hipster director enjoying the sensation of being freed from the challenge of trying to transfer Charlie Kaufman’s brain patterns to celluloid. Sleep, which Gondry wrote, is romantic, dreamlike, and risky, constantly in danger of collapsing into mere whimsy. It stays on the tightrope at least 70% of the time. Block Party, the record of a musical event that Chappelle threw together and hosted to celebrate his stardom when it was still new, emerged this year — in the wake of Chappelle’s decision to walk away from his TV show — as a de facto declaration of its star’s freedom and evident mental health; it’s another happy mess, a celebration of the DIY spirit, a Wattstax for our times.

8. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
Or, a bunch of British wise guys hanging around, in and out of period costume, jiving. Michael Winterbottom’s improvisatory comedy is both the real For Your Consideration and, in its own peculiar way, an honorable stab at adapting the spirit and techniques of Sterne’s novel into a manageable movie. Gillian Anderson’s steady transformation into one of the most reliable (and maybe the hottest) sort-of-English actresses around (see also the BBC’s Bleak House and The Last King of Scotland) continues apace.

9. Happy Feet
The latest by the ever-surprising George Miller (already responsible for both the Mad Max and Babe franchises, as well as Lorenzo’s Oil) probably isn’t actually the ninth-best movie of the year — you have to get over the hump of a slow first half-hour to get to the gold. But it’s a brave message movie that’s also a genuine family entertainment — as the Jesuits have always said, you need to get them when they’re young — and its hard-edged optimism is a much-needed corrective to those well-meaning movies that think they’re being adult and realistic by sobbing and hiding their faces in their hands. Plus, it has dancing penguins in it! I mean, honestly, what do you people want?

10. Iraq in Fragments, The Ground Truth, My Country! My Country!, Blood of My Brother: A Story of Death in Iraq, The War Tapes, Baghdad ER and Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers
Along with Michael Winterbottom’s docudrama The Road to Guantánamo, these documentaries and others have piled up steadily over the year, forming a counter-narrative to the war you get to see (or, rather, don’t get to see) on TV news. All the films named are at least good, and a few of them are much better than that, but what matters right now is the sheer weight of them, and the rebuttal they form to the government’ attempt to keep Iraq from turning into Vietnam II by keeping pictures of coffins out of the newspapers and off of TV. The technology is making it easier and easier for anyone who’s interested to get out there and open up the world to those willing to see what it looks like. Thanks to the ham-handedness of the Bush administration’s crackdown on information, more and more people are liable to get interested.