Sunday, January 07, 2007

Favorites of 2006

20. Déjà vu- The annual appearance of a Tony Scott film! Scott always wants to make more than a Bruckheimer financed action film, and he often carves out sublime little moments between his characters, giving his films an extra dose of personality. Plus, he’s a director who understands the nuances of charismatic lead performances, presenting Denzel with what feels like his most loose and vivid performance in a few years. This is the most fun I've had at the movies in a while, and it features one helluva car chase that has implications for 2 different dimensions.

19. Slither- James Gunn’s “Slither” is a gore-filled modern day horror film that clearly understands its roots in the “b” movies of the 50’s and 60’s when communism was represented as an unknown evil from outer space that would quietly and efficiently cocoon inside normal people’s bodies and devastate small towns. I could be describing “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” or “Slither”, so not much has changed in the wake of terrorism! Whether it’s the delirious plot or the immensely entertaining performances of Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rooker, Nathan Fillion or Gregg Henry, “Slither”, like “Casino Royale” mirrors the most inventive and entertaining slices of its genre without pretension.

18. Casino Royale- Daniel Craig has saved Bond. Well, maybe not. But “Casino Royale” exceeded a lot of expectations. As a spy film, it’s thrilling in the economic way it deals with locations and double-cross interactions. As a Bond film, it features ‘hot ladies and suave drinks’ while maintaining a sense of realism about its emotions and its violence. And ss a Hollywood blockbuster, it heightens the insane action set-piece (see the run through a construction site) that dominates the genre. Pretty much on every level, “Casino Royale” is a fantastic treat.

17. The Good Shepherd- Taut and compelling filmmaking on the birth of the CIA with another morally complex script by Eric Roth. With its long procession of whispers, furtive glances, double speak and quiet betrayals, it’s a spy film that owes more to the cinema of the 70’s rather than the slam-bang politics of today’s film market. Director Robert DeNiro gave speaking parts to a host of great actors, but it’s the quiet fortitude of Matt Damon (who truly established himself this year with this movie and “The Departed”) and the reserve of Keir Dullea as a side-switching KGB agent that grounded the film in realism.

16. United 93- While Oliver Stone opted for more maudlin sentimentalism, director Paul Greengrass chose to film the events of September 11th with a much more authentic and gut-wrenching account of the day’s events. Filmed with documentary like precision, “United 93” methodically showed the day’s horrible events with mind-numbing detail.

15. Tristram Shandy; A Cock and Bull Story- In between political commentary films such as “In this World” and “Road To Guantanamo”, British director Michael Winterbottom took time out to helm “Tristram Shandy” which is an adroit comedy about the filming of a movie overrun with procrastinations, based on a novel about procrastination. Ehh, none of that makes sense, but the film, starring Steve Coogan, is witty and serious fun. Once again, Winterbottom has proven his chameleon-like prowess as he dives from one genre to the next with ease.

14. The Devil and Daniel Johnston- The year’s best documentary didn’t deal with the war in Iraq or document a mass terror such as life inside Jonestown. Instead, director Jeff Feuerzeig’s tale simply details the unknown rise and eventual fall of one Daniel Johnston from Texas, a songwriter who inspired the likes of Kurt Cobain and Pearl Jam and was a smash hit at several Austin South by Southwest festivals. This is highly entertaining as the musical portrait of a disturbed genius and harrowing in it’s depiction of one man’s slow crawl into mental illness. I urge everyone to check this one out. You’ll not be disappointed. Rent this and “Be Here To Love Me” for a fantastic Texas-cult-rock-savior-turned-crazy documentary double feature at home!

13. Breaking News- Each year, a new Johnny To crops up on my list. After including “Throwdown” last year, I said something to the effect of “the most underappreciated Asian director working today.” That theory still holds true, as he’s already filmed and released 3 more films in 2006, all getting raves from the festival circuit. “Breaking News” begins with an elaborate 8 minute tracking shot that documents the shoot-out between cops and robbers. It goes even more haywire from there, throwing up elaborate set-piece after elaborate set-piece as the criminals sneak their way around an apartment high rise and the media traces every violent step. There’s nothing really deep here, but To films with such kinetic energy, his films leap off the screen. I implore everyone to fill up their Netflix queues with his films. There’s not a loser in the bunch.

12. Fast Food Nation- Richard Linklater’s panoramic view of three distinct tiers of people involved in the meat packaging industry- illegal immigrant workers, middle class workers and activists, and the executive suite- is sharp and incisive in its observant demeanor. This was a banner year for Linklater (after molding “A Scanner Darkly” into required viewing) and “Fast Food Nation” doesn’t cheapen tough ideas for the sake of entertainment. This is a film that wants to examine the problem of “shit in the meat” from a wide variety of angles, and in doing so, Linklater also explores the divergent modes of life within America.

11. Half Nelson- Ryan Fleck’s film sounds like the stuff of genuine Lifetime channel programming- an inner city school teacher (played brilliantly by Ryan Gosling) inspires kids by day and smokes crack at night. One of his students (Shareeka Epps) discovers his secret but decides to keep it to herself. The greatness of Fleck’s film is in the details- nothing is forced and the dynamics between Epps and Gosling are amazing. Fleck also continually places his characters in predictable circumstances and gives us unpredictable narrative turns- such as the scene where Gosling goes to confront a local drug dealer played by Anthony Mackie (who, if there were any justice, would receive and win the supporting actor Oscar) outside his house and a wholly believable reaction between the two develops. “Half Nelson” is a character study that resonates.

10. The 3 Burials of Melquidas Estrada- Working from a script by Mexican scriptwriter Guillermo Arriaga, Tommy Lee Jones’ directing debut is a powerful gut shot that re-imagines the western and would make Peckinpah proud. Taking justice into his own hands, Jones rounds up the border patrol officer (Barry Pepper) who killed his friend and drags him (literally at times) across the Mexican border to bury the body. The depth of Jones’ direction and the ensemble acting are stunning in their simplicity. Eschewing melodramatic bonding moments, Arriaga’s script bounces back and forth in time without feeling like a cheap trick. With the addition of “The Proposition”, it looks like the western may be making one bloody good return.

9. A Scanner Darkly- Linklater’s second film on this list utilizes a Philip K. Dick story as a jumping off point for a grand, rambling exercise in sci-fi muck racking and paranoia from the likes of Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson and Winona Ryder (animated, of course, in more ways than one). It would be easy to get lost in the continuous banter that has made Linklater a cult favorite, but “A Scanner Darkly” succeeds in more than that, giving us a masterful and surprising look at the future with brains and heart. And that final scene is a knock-out.

8. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu- A two-and-a-half hour funeral procession is, basically, at the heart of Cristi Puiu’s “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. The title character complains of a headache and we follow him over the course of the next two hours and 30 minutes as he’s shuffled from hospital to hospital, emergency room to emergency room, lost in a bureaucratic groundswell because they continually misinterpret his severe symptoms as alcoholism. While the film is maddening and infuriating, it also draws some pretty sharp characterizations of doctors and nurses who rule their 5-10 minutes of screen time. Puiu’s camerawork, alternating between static long shots and handheld fluidity, acutely documents the mass confusion of the Romanian hospitals coming-and-goings. While the story is sad, Puiu imbues the whole sardonic affair with a vast intelligence.

7. Clean- The most criminally underappreciated film on this list, French auteur Olivier Assayas strikes subtle gold again as he charts the day-to-day survival of the gloriously pretty Maggie Cheung, fresh out of rehab after the drug overdose of her rock star husband. The film’s main conceit is the unobtrusive manner in which the camera hovers on Cheung’s shoulder as she struggles to reconnect with her son, now in the possession of his grandfather (played with tender precision by Nick Nolte, an Oscar worthy performance). Assayas works best in casual modes, and the beauty of “Clean” lies in the unpredictable narrative turns between Nolte and Cheung. Plus, no director films “hanging out” quite as easily as Assayas does.

6. Miami Vice- If only I could see Michael Mann’s latest film on a digital projector again. It’s certainly the best looking film of the year, and one that’s made me a proponent of Hi-Def filmmaking if they all look like this. Cheesy 80’s pop culture references aside, this is not the old Miami Vice. All of Mann’s tropes are in play here- aching loneliness between city dwellers who are one step away from living in alternate (i.e. normal) universes, a lucid understanding of honor, and shoot outs filmed in dazzling style that clearly understand the complex logistics that accompany such a cluster fuck. And, the bad guys truly look and feel like bad guys. “Miami Vice”- right up to its beautifully timed fade out as Farrell walks towards a hospital- still places Mann as the premier filmmaker of the high-gloss- thinking-man’s-action picture. No one strips apart the crime genre quite as brilliantly either.

5. Hidden- Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke has the market cornered on clinical observations of violence, but with “Hidden”, his tight aesthetics reach a smothering level of malaise. When an intellectual couple (Daniel Autiel and Juliet Binoche) begin receiving copies of videotapes filmed in long shot outside their apartment, tensions and old political wounds began to boil to the surface. As the videotapes rise in intimacy (shooting inside his house and the house of others), so does the claustrophobic and paranoid actions of Autiel. There are no shock cuts here- only static long shots that sustain the unrelenting mood of the film. And much has been made of the film’s final shot, but seen in the light of Haneke’s oeuvre, it’s a pretty clear statement about the propagation of youth inflicted violence. There are more genuine surprises here than in six other films combined.

4. Children Of Men- There’s one thing if a film is technically proficient, and then there’s the type of film like Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children Of Men” that’s technically proficient because of its strong narrative, and the two compliment each other beautifully. There are 2 steadicam shots in this film that are beyond description, but they wouldn’t mean a thing if we didn’t care about the characters trudging through them. While Cuaron thickly lays on the metaphorical digressions (there’s something in the way those kittens cling to Clive Owen’s pants and the dogs who “never like anybody” are at peace with him), “Children Of Men” excels in manufacturing a convincing vision of the future that’s terrifying and oh so contemporary.

3. A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints- The true underdog of the year (and the best debut of 2006), Dito Montiel’s highly autobiographical tale of growing up in Astoria, Queens in the 1980’s feels as fresh and energetic as the first images blazed onto the screen from Scorsese. Both filmmakers have an acute vision of male teen angst on the hardened concrete streets. From the film’s opening frames, Montiel is in full command, driving a youthful cast through moving, unexpected slices of life. There’s such an emotional honesty in certain scenes between Shia Lebouf and his father (Chazz Palminteri) that Montiel reminds me of Cassavetes in the way he maneuvers through sensitive territory with body language and editing. So, that’s 2 great directors mentioned already. I’ll stop there. Needless to say, this is a film that understands the pains of growing up- and by adding Robert Downey Jr to the mix as the main character returning home later in life, Montiel also layers the film with authentic guilt that can only come from someone who lived it.

2. The New World-You know it’s one hell of a year when faced with choosing between a new Malick and a new Scorsese as the top film event of the year. Released eleven months ago, Malick’s tone poem about new lands and new love resonates just as deeply today as it did back in January. This is a stunning film in every sense of the word. Malick’s use of movement and music, his disassociation of word and image through voice over, the heartbreakingly natural performance of Q’Orianka Kilcher and the crisp visuals… all juxtaposed together in an epic manner to tell the humblest of stories. “The New World”, like all of Malick’s films, is one that sinks under your skin and places you in a totally different state of mind. Beautiful filmmaking on every level.

1. The Departed - In transferring a Hong Kong action thriller to American shores by way of Boston, director Martin Scorsese brings together an all star cast and efficiently re-invests himself in the criminal world. Not only is the violence brash and the characterizations vibrant, but there’s a sublime connection even in the film’s small moments- the electricity between DiCaprio and Farmiga in a kitchen, the seething hatred of Mark Wahlberg- and tension that mounts with each passing moment as The Departed continually shocks and confronts the viewers expected notions of how a ‘blockbuster’ crime film should end. This is certainly the towering cinematic achievement in 2006.


Adam Ross said...

Great to see "A Scanner Darkly" on your list -- Linklater is truly in a class by himself. I also thought Downey's work in it was underappreciated. Great list.

PIPER said...

I agree, A Scanner Darkly was a great film and a somewhat unexpected surprise this year.

Miami Vice was also excellent.

You should see Hard Candy if you haven't.

Haven't seen Slither, but want to. It looks fun.

Joe Baker said...

Adam and Piper, I truly regret not seeing "A Scanner Darkly" on the big screen with an audience. I"m sure it would've been a great experience.

I have seen "Hard Candy" and while I think its a decent film, I certainly think that the lead actress (whose name escapes me now) has a bright future in Hollywood.

Anonymous said...

I'm no fan of the Departed... but other than that, looks good. Two things:
(1) I didnt know Johnnie To until I caught Exiled--which is fantastic!--in Toronto this year. I should see more. Besides Breaking News, any suggestions...?
(2) Re: The Miami Vice related HD comments. I never thought I'd accept anything other than film, but I checked my unfinished list and, turns out, the three best--and most aesthetically pleasing, challenging, maybe even rigorous--"films" of '06 were all digital. Just wait til you see Still Life, Climates & Inland Empire.

Joe Baker said...


There are 2 sides to Johnny To's films. If you can get through some of the lazy sentimentalism of films like "Yesterday and Once More" (a film about dueling jewel thieves that looks fantastic with its widescreen compositions) and "Throwdown", then you're really gonna love the more macho side. "The Mission" is a great action film about a group of bodyguards trying to protect their boss from double and triple crosses. There's a marvelous shoot-out in an abandoned mall that I watched over and over, in awe of its bravura set-up and composition. Then you have films like "Running Out of Time" and "Running Out of Time 2", plus "Fulltime Killer", films pretty drunk on action.

As far as Hi-Def goes, I'm eagerly anticipating the three mentioned, especially "Inland Empire". I haven't been a huge fan of Jia Zhangke's previous few films like "The World" and "Unknown Pleasures", but the images from "Still Life" look stunning.

Do you have a blog? I didn't see one attached to your name. If you were able to attend Toronto, I'm sure you could post up some great thoughts on films that very few get to see.

Thanks for your comments!