Sunday, February 25, 2007

Hey all. Mike here, finally, with a Top 10 for 2006 list for me. Like I said before, I save it for Oscar time, so that I can catch up with as much as humanly possible. The biggest films for this list I couldn't get to, with major regret, are Half Nelson (no time), Volver (either it wasn't convenient or I couldn't get anyone to go), Deliver Us From Evil (this documentary dropped out without a trace it seemed, and when it resurfaced in Manhattan, it cost either 11 or 15 dollars to go. Uh-uh.), Water (a Foreign Language nominee that I took one look at the DVD box, and thought it looked like work to get through) and Venus (my friend left the DVD with someone and couldn't find the FUCKER!!!!!). Anything else I'll catch up to at some point.

A couple of things about the year. In retrospect, the top 5 filled automatically. And this year was more memorable for me in terms of entertainment then actual artistic work. There was plenty for me to enjoy. The button pushing of V For Vendetta. The unexpected scares of the highly underrated British horror film, The Descent. Large sections of Borat the first time I saw it. And watching the audience howl and squirm at the homo-erotic hotel sequences, when I caught the second half of Borat again. The terrific 3-D work on the re-release of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. Daniel Craig playing James Bond, a la Batman Begins, in Casino Royale. Jennifer Hudson's big number in Dreamgirls. The uplifting pleasant surprise that is Rocky Balboa.The visual spectacle of Happy Feet; it really helps that instead of an animator, they had an actual film director like George Miller painting the pictures, so to speak. Plus, the idea that Happy Feet will have more of a subliminal influence over kids then an Al Gore documentary will on adults("We can't support these policies. We'll kill off the cute dancing penguins!!!") I don't mean to demean the Gore documentary, it is worth catching. I just think Happy Feet will more effective in the long run.

Like I said, all entertaining. And NONE of it good enough to make the list. Being pretty good wasn't enough. It's as though almost all the films that came out last year were battling for 6-10. And you needed more then just moments to to stand out as a whole.

That being said, I still managed to put together a list of 10 that I feel comfortable with, and comfortable enough to push. But there is one other damning aspect about the quality of films this year, but I'll save that for later in the list . . .

Now I do reserve the right to change my mind a year or two down the line, and add and drop something at another time, or change the order of 1 or 2 films, based on what else I see. 2 examples:

First, for my 2004 list, I had The Passion of the Christ 7th and Team America 8th. But then I finally saw Ben-Hur at the Ziegfeld, and saw how subtle the crucifixion was handled. So I flipped the order of Passion and Team America, a year after I first put the list together.

Second, for my 2005 list, I had King Kong fourth, Good Night and Good Luck fifth, and Crash tenth. But five months later, I finally saw The Constant Gardener, and three and a half months later, I saw the original King Kong, and had time to re-evaluate and appreciate it. After that, I flipped the order of Peter Jackson's version and Good Night, and dropped Crash off my list in favor of Gardener.

Normally, I have a some kind of runner-ups, but not this this year. I do want to make note of the worst film I paid to see this year: Inland Empire. Yes, I see something of a thread in David Lynch's new film, but my God is it exasperating. Watchable only if you have the sentiment I had of being curious of the next image, despite not enjoying what you see. Talking giant rabbits (pictured above), a woman doing a subtitled monologue about her sister and her shitting monkey, and storylines that go forward backwards, sideways, go away, sometimes return, sometimes not and do things i long stop caring about. For me, this is exactly like Robitussin cough syrup: neither one actually works, and the memory of the horrible taste of both is easy to conjure up.

I can understand those who paid for it liking it. They've probably felt they put something out there, and got something back. But critics who are paid who are praising Inland to the hilt. They're almost criminally negligent as far as I'm concerned, drawing people to pay 11 dollars to catch this. That being said, for Mulholland Dr. fanatics only. Everyone else, run away.

Now for the list:

10) JESUS CAMP- Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady depict the narrowing of the separation between church and state, that is, if those who run this place have anything to say about it. A look into a training camp where born-again Christian children are brought to become "an active part of America's political future". We see these children at home where you see them getting home schooled, and show in their views that they will slowly be closed off and exclusionary. In some cases, they're at this point already. Though the one girl who talks about how bad a role model Britney is over 15 months ago . . . The saying ' From the mouths of babes' come to mind.

We also see the summer camp in Devil's Lake, North Dakota, where they are trained they hone their 'prophetic gifts'. Part of that training includes praying to a cardboard cutout of George W., and taping the kids' mouths with the word "life" on it, while protesting abortion in front of the Supreme Court building.

There is no narration. The camera stays on for long periods, and the subjects speak for themselves. The adults depicted actually felt this was a fair representation. All except one, Pastor Ted Haggard. We see him giving a sermon, and talking to one of the kids. He denounced the group depicted as a "sub-group", negative”, and not “normative". Yes, the same Ted Haggard who about 5 weeks after the film's release, was dropped from his church after his male prostitute outed him. Remember the excuse he supposedly gave his wife? "No, honey. I didn't have sex with this man. I bought crystal meth and massages from him! For three years! Isn't that better???"

Sorry, I digress. A strong documentary that ranks among the best horror films around. Not the best documentary though. That's later on the list.

P.S.: A good companion piece is Friends of God, shown from time to time on HBO and its sister stations.

P.P.S.: Shortly after Haggard's indiscretion came out, the summer camp featured in "Jesus Camp" announced that it would shut down for "at least several years". The camp was vandalized. The pastor running it, after being inundated with negative phone calls, emails, etc., had to ask the makers not to distribute the film in Bismarck for fear of the documentary camp kids's safety. Wonder if anything has changed since the film came out on DVD?

9) THE DEPARTED- This would be higher ranked, but the last third dropped in quality. The exact part? When Jack Nicholson (as a Boston Mephistopheles) started doing his rat impression, and then accelerated with the ridiculous multiple shootings in the elevator; a sequence that drew huge laughter the longer it went. Matt Damon's mostly stiff performance didn't help. And don't buy Marty's assertion of this only being mildly influenced by the equally well done, Honk Kong crime film "Infernal Affairs". An assertion he backed off from once award season came along. That being said, it's Scorsese best film since Kundun, and DiCaprio's best lead performance ever. Hopefully, Vera Farmiga, as the woman torn between DiCaprio and Damon, will keep getting more attention from here on in.

8) LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE- The best comedy on the list. Dark to be sure, a film I initially dismissed as National Lampoon's Vacation. A little deeper then that. Vacation fit the early 80s with a family trying desperately to fit the American Dream into their lives, but seem to realize, through comedy and Christie Brinkley in her underwear, that the best way to survive is to stick with the assholes you really know then the assholes you don't know. And oh yeah, don't let your little girl enter a beauty pagent, unless you want them to become sex object/freakazoid hybrid of the ungodly kind.

Not the cheery, uplifting message you would want, but it is cheery in its own fashion. If that's too dark for you, then the grandpa who lusts after his grandchild and the suicidal brother/uncle really isn't going to help you. However, the mixture of light and dark and laughs works for me. Great cast helps. All notice has gone to Alan Arkin and Abigail Breslin as grandpa and grandchild, and it's good to see that. Personally, I leaned closer to both Toni Collette (a favorite of mine, pictured above when she attended the BAFTAS for Sunshine), and especially to Steve Carrell as the suicidal gay brother/uncle Proust expert. Do I care that some others don't find this film? No. Next . . .

7) LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA- The best of the Oscar nominated films, though that might come off as less of a compliment then in previous years. More meditation then grisly war epic, though there are enough emotional and physical gut wrenching moments to go around. Eastwood continues to show cinematic storytelling vitality, depicting the Japanese army stationed on the island for what becomes a long, painfully drawn out, defensive suicide mission. I still feel Ken Watanabe was unfairly left out for a Best Actor nod, as the the newly transferred general, who seems to have not as many problems with the invading Americans, then with the pig-headed stupidity of most of his own officers. And don't think for one second that Eastwood isn't comparing the Japanese officers and/or leaders, who are keen on fighting wars aggressively, but aren't smart enough to know how to actually win, with future generations of screw-ups, including the present day generation of leaders. But that isn't is first intention, it is (according to him via a release):

In the end, it is not about who won or who lost; it’s about the sacrifices a soldier makes for his country.

6) CHILDREN OF MEN- Among the better of the dystopian sci-fi flicks, going along side films such as Brazil, Blade Runner and Soylent Green. I wouldn't place it above Brazil, though it shares both at least a bit of a British sensibility, and the same studio backing it (and an inability to market either one).

As the years have gone by, one can find more elements in Brazil in our lives. Hopefully, that won't be the case with this film. Though the resemblance in the film's left leaning terrorist group with the IRA, the double-talking news network and ineffective government, and the shot of the hooded man from the Abu Ghraib torture pictures makes you think the creators might believe otherwise. Definitely the best Cinematography of any film this year.

5) UNITED 93- The film I probably avoided seeing the most out of everything on this list. At the end, I surprised myself at thinking how often I'll be seeing this film on cable when this comes on. The answer: quite a bit. I agree with another film critic whose name I can't remember, in wondering if this wasn't based on a true incident, would director Paul Greengrass have been as successful in capturing and retaining our attention? Could a similarly themed fictional thriller be as powerful. In the end, it's irrelevant. It happened and it's powerful film making.

Granted, a healthy chunk of what happened on the plane itself is imagined, in terms of who said what to each other, who was too fearful to do something and whether the passengers actually succeeded in killing at least one hijacker. But about half the film takes place in areas where we do know exactly what happened, such as several air control centers and NORAD. Using several of the real life controllers, bosses and soldiers bring even more heightened realism. First you dread cutting back and forth from the flight, before and after takeoff. Then you dread going through the actual events of 9/11 all over again, in naturalistic real time. Then you get angry over the depth of how incapable we were in responding, and how desperately we needed those passengers to act.

If I had seen this on the big screen instead of home video, I might have rated it higher. As is, it's pretty high up.

4) LITTLE CHILDREN- Imagine if American Beauty had a heart for its characters AND wore said heart on its sleeve, no matter what dubious choices are made. You get a rough idea about Little Children, a film that New Line Cinema seems to have mismanaged from the get-go. Are you telling me Warner Bros can get the word out on a long Japanese war film from Clint Eastwood, but New Line can't do squat with a film that is at least funnier and comparable in terms of quality acting? If this film was with Focus, Fox Searchlight or even Disney's variation of Miramax, this film would actually be seen.

Sorry, I digress. The best screenplay adaptation, with a top notch cast. You even get good performances out of Patrick Wilson and Jennifer Connelly, and that's not an automatic anymore compared to Kate Winslet, who's wonderful as always. And yes, Jackie Earle Haley is a revelation, and yes, for him, the nomination and critical attention will have to be the reward.

Sorry, I digressed again. Even though I give the impression that the film is warmer then American Beauty, I'm not saying that is warm and cuddly. Director/Co-writer Todd Field seems to follow a part-time edict of his former director Stanley Kubrick: you can still show your love of humanity by depicting them in their harshest light. And any sympathy shown is a natural by-product, not one forced by the creator. If he lived long enough, I think Stanley would be proud of his former actor.

3) PAN'S LABYRINTH- A terrific mix of fantasy and brutal reality, neither given heavy preference or short shrift over the other. Never an uninteresting shot from Guillermo del Toro and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro. Sergi López gives us one of the best villains ever; never sympathetic, rarely unbrutal, and strangely never anything less then human. But if we don't care for the little girl, the filter we're watching most of this through, the film won't be nothing more then just good. Ivana Baquero turns in a performance that's mature for her age, while never forgetting she's a little girl, trapped in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. The Best Foreign Film made in the past 18-24 months. But NOT the best Foreign Film to come out in the U.S. last year. That distinction belongs to . . .

2) ARMY OF SHADOWS- Yes, this is how weak I think 2006 is in films. That a film from 1969, making its U.S. debut now, is better then anything to come out in the past 14 months. I wondered if I should put the film on here, or just give honorary mention. But there have been plenty of times when a foreign film came out later in the U.S. then elsewhere. Downfall coming out about 1 year later is one example, Solaris coming out here 4 years after its initial release is another. So I will not hold that against Army of Shadows.

Like I've said in previous posts, this is a war film shot through the filter of a film noir. Ordinary people facing huge odds to fight a better armed enemy. Where your allies in other countries are too busy dancing and enjoying pop culture, and don't have much faith in your Resistance cause. And why should they believe in your cause, if you yourself don't know if the next countryman you meet, will be helpful, sympathetic yet ineffective, or will sell you out? Starts strong, settles into a particular rhythm with subtle changes, and just when you've been lulled, wallops you in the end. The film will linger with you long after the end.

Despite the praise, I couldn't call this number one. I needed to pick something made more recently. So I go for this . . .

1) THE HEART OF THE GAME- A film that I couldn't get anyone to see to save my life. It drew no audience and didn't even make the short list of nominees for Best Documentary at the Oscars. A shame.

The film covers over five years of the Roosevelt Roughriders, a girls high school basketball team in Seattle. One of the two people it centers on is their eccentric coach, who teaches tax law, but spends his spare time leading his usually small teams to success. We meet many of his players and see their problems. The other person the film centers on is one of the star players. She has difficulty with grades, not spending time with her friends who go to the rival inner city school, and then she gets pregnant.

We see the training, we see them at and away from school. We see them win, and occasionally lose. This isn't Rocky, this happened. Best documentary of the year, best film of the year, and among the best sports films ever. And you couldn't make this story up if you tried.

The Heart of the Game will be out on DVD Tuesday Feb 27.

There. I think this is long enough, don't you? Later all.

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