2006 at the Movies

’cause that’s what I do

Oh, you know the drill (and caveats) ...

#10: Little Miss Sunshine
Finally, a Sundance hit that deserves to be a mainstream hit. Like a stand-up comic act, Little Miss Sunshine is a little sketchy and contrived, but it delivers big on the laughs. The movie’s not exactly original; its antecedents include Flirting with Disaster and Slums of Beverly Hills, with a little Bad Santa thrown in (only grandpa’s a heroin addict instead of an alcoholic). It’s a piffle, but its messages — about the family you didn’t choose but you’re stuck with; that a large part of love is acceptance; that society is obsessed with winning — are poignant.

#9: V for Vendetta
Even if Alan Moore disapproves sight unseen, V for Vendetta was the biggest allegorical fuck-you to George W. Bush of any movie made this year. Sample quote: “How did this happen? Who’s to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? War, terror, disease. There were myriad problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you, and in your panic you turned to the now high chancellor, Adam Sutler. He promised you order, he promised you peace, and all he demanded in return was your silent, obedient consent.” The idealistic terrorist hero V, equipped with perfect elocution and fighting skills to match, is pure wish-fulfillment fantasy, and the movie is no less propagandistic than the propaganda it’s fighting. But in any case, it’s enormously satisfying.

#8: Casino Royale
This is a 007 flick in which James Bond, not the Bond girl, emerges half-naked, Venus-like, from the sea. Then there’s Bond, stripped naked and getting testicular torture, remaining witty and unflappable. Can you imagine Pierce Brosnan, Roger Moore, or even Sean Connery pulling this off? Like you can imagine four dimensions. Daniel Craig recharges the decrepit franchise faster than he can the defibrillator in the movie. For the first time, he makes Bond feel close to a real human being, and this allows the film to raise questions about the franchise with the campy, cartoony aspects stripped away. How comfortable should Bond, and by extension the audience, be with his cold-blooded killing? Is the Bond persona more interesting as a fantasy figure or as a façade that makes his actions palatable? And then there’s Eva Green. Wow.

#7: An Inconvenient Truth
Al Gore sounding global warming warnings might be a tough sell for some people, and the movie does not exactly possess an excess of aesthetic style, but it is probably the most important documentary distributed this year. Far from the dry educational films one sees in grade school, An Inconvenient Truth is infused with the kind of warmth, humor, concision, and clarity one rarely saw during Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. He finally seems comfortable in his own skin. Whatever one thinks of Gore’s charisma (or lack thereof), though, it is ultimately irrelevant to the issues raised in the film: the immense threat of global warming, and what to do about it. The former has been backed by scientific consensus; the latter is dependent on the human race putting reason and rationality over immediate self-interest, partisanship, and ideology. Unfortunately, history doesn’t support the likelihood of such prudence, but this documentary does.

#6: Our Daily Bread
Documentaries are often off-the-cuff hand-held camera affairs with little concern for lighting; these days, they’re often shot on video that looks like someone shat on the big screen. Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread is the rare doc that’s visually sumptuous and gorgeous. It looks at the mass production of food without narration, commentary, interviews, or music. One could either look at this as distant and clinical, or as proof that the filmmaker believes that the images speak for themselves — and they do. The rote, unfeeling manipulation of the animals — baby chicks on conveyor belts, cattle being bred, pig carcasses split open by saws — may be an implicit attack against animal cruelty, but it’s all presented so matter-of-factly that the movie does not force this interpretation on you; the film devotes just as much time to the processing of plants. Ultimately, more than human callousness toward animals, the movie is about technological efficiency and how that trumps all other values. For the workers in the film, it means doing the same assembly line gestures over and over, the type of punishment one would face for eternity in hell. Going into the movie, I thought I knew what the film would be like, but the power of the imagery means there is no substitute for actually experiencing it.

#5: United 93
Paul Greengrass’ depiction of the events of September 11th, 2001, may not be the most artful, but it has a nonjudgmental verite style that improves on his very partial Bloody Sunday. Unlike that film, Greengrass is not out to score overt political points. United 93 never comes close to emotional exploitation and avoids any hint of crassness, though it is unbearably moving. No doubt that is partly due to the inherent tragedy of the real events, but that didn’t exactly help, say, Titanic, and that points out the difference between Greengrass’s style and Cameron’s more conventional Hollywood take. Greengrass’ portrayal of events is respectful (though not stolid), and that includes the depiction of the terrorists themselves, who suffer a wide range of human emotion over the course of events.

#4: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
Okay, I’m not going to take in 150 minutes of an old man dying while he is shunted from hospital to hospital in just any mood. That doesn’t take anything away from just how masterfully Cristi Puiu pulls off his observation of systemic Romanian medical malfunction resulting from bureaucratic rules and doctors desensitized by repetition and ritual. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu could be seen as consciousness-raising over a social issue (though it never feels like that kind of film), but it is more generally about the replacement of humanity with inhumanity. Mixing black comedy with disturbing drama, the movie depicts Lazarescu’s gradually diminishing dignity at the same time as his hold on life weakens. Puiu certainly isn’t tugging at the heartstrings by having his protagonist be a grumpy drunk; what he does get, though, with Lazarescu and every other character — even those in the smallest roles — is that whether they are good or bad, arrogant or compassionate, responsible or not, they all feel very human, and in some of them, that humanity is slipping away.

#3: Russian Dolls
This sequel to L’Auberge espagnole is enormous, exuberant fun. Infectiously charming, Russian Dolls is an utterly light romantic comedy with no importance above that of entertainment, but the same could be said of most Lubitsch and Sturges films too. The nonsense plot is just an excuse to hang out with these eccentric characters, whom the actors obviously love to play and play with, and to bask in the visual splendor of Paris, London, and St. Petersburg.

#2: Battle in Heaven
Battle in Heaven is a revealing look at life in Mexico City. It’s also a Christ allegory with Original Sin and blow jobs (only the blow jobs aren’t sinful — quite the opposite). Even before the movie begins, a chauffeur and his wife have kidnapped a child for ransom, but the child has died. The chauffeur’s boss’s daughter moonlights as a prostitute, with sex acting as a metaphor for spiritual connection, and provides the opportunity for the chauffeur’s redemption. The movie is audacious, with real on-screen sex involving people with far-from-perfect bodies. At the same time, it treats the sex with a remarkable nonchalance.

Battle in Heaven is a notable step up for Carlos Reygadas from the already impressive Japon. This is a film with which the word “visionary” can be bandied about without shame.

#1: Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
It’s meta-fun with Michael Winterbottom and friends as they do Tristram Shandy, a.k.a. the unfilmable book. Taking a page from 24 Hour Party People, Winterbottom goes even further with self-reflexivity. A Cock and Bull Story is a film within a film, with the actors playing themselves playing characters from Laurence Sterne’s novel. Like the novel, the movie is a never-ending series of digressions, and we go from side-splitting discussions about the color of Rob Brydon’s teeth to the pitfalls of celebrity to perfectly capturing the behind-the-scenes aspects of filmmaking. Steve Coogan gets a lot of mileage out of playing himself as vain and myopic, but Brydon practically steals every scene he’s in. What makes that even more funny is that Coogan is worried about Brydon stealing the film within the film from him. Hilarious and knowing, no movie had more wit this year.

Honorable mentions: The Departed, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Prestige, The Science of Sleep, Volver.

What I wish I had seen before deadline: Children of Men and Letters from Iwo Jima.