Sunday, December 24, 2006

Top 10 Films of 2006

Top 10 Films of 2006

1) Brick
2) Science of Sleep
3) Bobby
4) Little Children
5) The Queen
6) The Notorious Bettie Page
7) A Scanner Darkly
8) Quinceanera
9) Fast Food Nation
10) An Inconvenient Truth

Re:Honorable Mentions
Thank You for Smoking, Children of Men, V for Vendetta, Inside Man, The Departed, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Little Miss Sunshine, Half Nelson, Curse of the Golden Flower, l'enfant

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows steals the re-mastered honors for 2007.

Rebel Sammurai at the Balboa; Janus’ 50th Anniversary, Mizoguchi, Ousame Sembene, Mother Russia at PFA; 70mm Festival at The Castro Movie Palace

Top 5 classic films re-released this year on DVD

Re:Great Directors 2007
The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Seven films discussed

Top 10 Films of 2006

1. Brick
Cast from the die of The Maltese Falcon and transformed into a post-noir gem set in the vicinity of San Clemente, Brick casts Joseph Gordon-Levitt (evoking Humphrey Bogart/Sam Spade) as Brendon, a high-school student who discovers his ex-girlfriend’s corpse and must infiltrate a swarm of shadows to uncover her killer’s identity. Miles Archer (Spade’s partner who meets an early end) is re-imagined as Emily Kostich, Brendon’s unrequited love and femme fatale. The lightning rod guiding viewers to the heart of the crime is not a jewel-encrusted falcon, but a tainted brick of heroin. The script inhabits a dreamtime particular to Southern California that is riddled with heroin pushers, muscle-boys, jock-strap junkies, parking-lot slackers, aspiring actresses and an over-accommodating mom wielding corn flakes and Orange Tang. One of the film’s finer achievements is director Rian Johnson’s re-imagining of snappy noir dialogue, transposed into a contemporary youth-speak that takes effort to decode but eventually yields to a marvelous wit. Destined to be a cult classic in the tradition of River’s Edge, Brick is a clever whodunit staged in the terrifying country of drug-addled teens.

2. Science of Sleep
Gael Garcia Bernal leads this dizzying fable about a young man who has difficulty negotiating the boundary between his dream world and his everyday existence while Charlotte Gainsbourg lures him in and out of these states with muted playfulness and curiosity. Fantasy and lucidity are further explored in the two main characters (Stephan and Stephanie), played by Bernal and Gainsbourg, respectively. As Stephan slips further into dreams, Stephanie seems to have the keys to the door that divides the two states of consciousness. Writer/director Michael Gondry has fun dramatizing the giddy states people occupy when contemplating love while revealing that much of what we court when we are attracted to someone is often the projections that emerge from our unconscious. The Silence of Sleep is a comic blush of a film that explores the revolving door of adoration, fantasy and affection.

3. Quinceanera
This coming of age journal presents a girl preparing for her Quinceanera, a traditional Mexican celebration that announces a young woman is ready to enter into society. Along the road to this anticipated ceremony, Magdalena (played by Emily Rios) will discover her emerging sexuality, be forced out of her home and come to terms with her brother’s lifestyle while learning how death can tear a family apart but also reconstruct it. While not a perfect movie (some of the opening scenes feel awkward), the film slips into a natural narrative and the characters and their struggles will likely linger with audiences long after departing the theater. Quinceanera is as much about East Los Angeles and its gentrification as it is about the people that live there and must find their own humanity and humility in the face of the loss of innocence and a rare miracle.

4. Little Children
Little Children was an excellent suburban journal by Todd Hanes (In the Bedroom), a director who has delivered real depth of human emotion to the drama genre over the past few years. Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson (Hard Candy) lead the excellent performances, exploring the possibility of adultery to alleviate their internal strife. Little Children is a sober-eyed view at varying stages of decay in today’s current edition of the American dream.

5. The Queen
This British import managed to get me really interested in the scandal surrounding Princess Diana’s death – a subject that has rarely occupied my thoughts in any meaningful way. Helen Mirren and her cushy lot at Buckingham Palace held me breathless for the two-hour teeter-totter act that plays out between Queen Victoria, her public, the Royal Family and newly appointed Prime Minister Tony Blair. See the film for Mirren’s portrayal of Queen Elizabeth, which should stand as one of the great performances by an actor in the history of film. The Queen balances a juxtaposition of class and cultural values in the midst of a crisis while managing to display the foibles and glories of its characters with humanity and grace.

6. The Notorious Bettie Page
Decades after the sexual revolution, Americans still find themselves minding the gap on what constitutes pornography and the boundaries of appropriate/inappropriate sexual behavior. In The Notorious Bettie Page, filmmaker Mary Herron examines America’s politic on sex and bondage in the midst of the McCarthy era trials while enabling Gretchen Moll to occupy the soul of Bettie Page; a young woman who, in spite of her fervent belief in Christianity, became one of the most widely photographed S&M pin-up girls of the 1950’s.

It is fascinating to watch Moll bring a distinct air of innocence to what was once and still is considered inappropriate sexual behavior. Page’s power to seduce came from her unique ability to make sexual deviance taste like mom’s home cooking – a spell that continues to ignite the deep-seated fear of the patriarchy who remains largely in charge of setting laws for sexual conduct, both in the bedroom and in the photographer/filmmaker’s studio. The Notorious Bettie Page is a look at one woman’s courageous attempt to express the natural beauty of creation with the image of her body and the search to find her own sexual identity in a highly-repressed culture.

7. Fast Food Nation
Many critics failed to see the beauty of Richard Linklater’s recent gem, Fast Food Nation by expecting him to accurately reveal the mass of information in Eric Schlosser’s excellent book. To do so would have taken 16 hours of documentary footage, but Linklater (w/Schlosser as screen writer) chose to take the central theme of the book: failure – and course it through a few of the socio-political problems illustrated in the best-selling paperback.

If you’ve read Schlosser’s unforgettable rant you know how powerful the meat industry is and how much lobbying influence it has in Washington D.C. and beyond. With that in mind, it seems astounding that the film could be made in the America we live in today. Depictions of corporate cover-ups, toxic food manufacturing, the meat industry’s blatant disregard for the lives and safety of their employees (the same “illegal” immigrants that politicians and the bigoted citizenry love to hate), questionable slaughter-house practices, and the deep apathy that has cast a hypnotic spell on today’s corporate-driven suburban landscapes all populate the crowded world of Fast Food Nation.

Mr. Linklater’s film (like the book it is based on) reflects just how far we have fallen from the American Dream that ushered in drive-up service and neatly packaged suburban charm. If Americans find FFN hard to digest it is because they are getting a close look at not only what is in the beef, but also the willing subject devouring it. Far more complex than a mere poke at flesh as food, Fast Food Nation presents contrasting viewpoints on what it is to be an American in our culture of rapid convenience.

8. Bobby
It may be the result of being a child of the 1960’s, but I felt this film did an excellent job of evoking a moment in time when one politician in particular seemed deeply sincere in his quest to represent the feelings and values of progressive people in America. Bobby is the final chapter in the assassinations of three individuals that dared to address toxic levels of racism in America and our participation in the war in Vietnam. Robert F. Kennedy’s death came at the end of a string of assassinations that included Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and his older brother JFK - four tragic acts that heralded a decline in American ethics and morality - a condition that right-wing Christians and other over-zealous moralists seem to have failed to successfully address with Just Say No rhetoric and an ever-increasing brutality. The film takes place at a tipping point in our history, a moment when optimism was not yet considered passé or naïve; a time when peaceful negotiations and compassionate debate seemed not only possible but the reasonable thing to ask.

Bobby uses a Grand Hotel approach (surely it is a tribute of sorts to Grand Hotel) to display a microcosm of the era. Respect to Emilio Estevez (!!!) for his powerful script and finely-tuned direction. Estevez juggles multiple thematic threads and weaves them together to make a powerful statement about the loss of innocence of an entire generation through the death of one of its finest sons. Election politics aside, Bobby is a film about people who are passionately in pursuit of their existential goals, an act which seems revolutionary by today’s standards.

9. A Scanner Darkly
A Scanner Darkly is a tribute from filmmaker Richard Linklater to Philip K. Dick, author of the largely autobiographical sci-fi novel on drug addiction, paranoia, mental illness, the loss the self and the loss of personal freedom. Scanner starts with a premise devised by Samuel Beckett in his novel Molloy: a detective goes in search of himself – although Linklater’s agent winds his way through jangled passageways of surveillance, mind control, high-tech drug enforcement, deteriorating relationships, and betrayal - all while cruising doped out in a meta-being costume. As in Beckett’s meandering existentialist yarn, it is possible to discover the detective was not acting on his own free will; other beings close at hand (and carefully disguised) may have been the real operators at the controls.

Keanu Reeves and Wynona Ryder are perfectly acceptable thanks to Linklater’s technique of painting animated images on digital film (the same process he used in his meta-philosophical romp Waking Life). Rory Cochrane, Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson steal the side-show with unbridled comic routines. A Scanner Darkly captures the disassociation of the psyche that occurs in the sleep-deprived world of speed freaks and is an excellent portrayal of the Nixon era (the book is set in this period) while predicting questions of our right to privacy raised by Homeland Security and The Patriot Act.

10. An Inconvenient Truth
I kept wondering how it was that this film played for so long in so many theaters. I kept wondering if it would have happened that way if someone beside Al Gore had made the film. I kept wondering when I would finally get around to seeing this film. I kept wondering if Al Gore was going to run for President in 2008. Once I did get around to seeing it, I was most thankful to Mr. Gore for making it and for making sure it was available to Americans. Mr. Gore has had his eye on critical evidence that charts the decline in the Earth’s icecaps, and has traced the evidence that our globe is warming at an alarming rate. In addition to doing an excellent job of presenting the information in a clear and concise way that anyone could understand, Mr. Gore offers us hope that we can make real changes before we destroy the future of the planet’s natural resources. An Inconvenient Truth offers ways that we can address these much-needed changes. Kudos to the man who was once “the next President of the United States”; it’s a real shame we ended up with the other guy.

Re: Honorable Mentions – 2006
1) Thank You for Smoking
2) V for Vendetta
3) Little Miss Sunshine
4) Inside Man
5) Half Nelson
6) Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,
7) Babel
8) Curse of the Golden Flower
9) Children of Men

2006 seemed like a year with an abundance of films that were good but it offered no real masterpieces – there were lots of decent movies in fact – it’s a little hard to discern which films belong in the top 10 and which may have occupied the second-string selection that you are about to peruse – I never mean to imply the numeric ordering as “good, better, best” – it’s all just tossed out there for you to check out – so here comes a quick blast on the rest of the lot…

Thank You for Smoking was a deftly funny yarn about corporate spin politics that flowed down as easy as two dry martinis – V for Vendetta deserves a nod for bringing a good revolution flick to the screen in a time of mind-numbing apathy and for giving Natalie Portman a chance to remind us what a talented actor she is when she has something to work with – Little Miss Sunshine made us laugh uncontrollably at things long left for dead – Inside Man was a solid Spike Lee caper with fine performances from Clive Owen, Denzel Washington, and Jodie Foster – Half Nelson posed some questions about the rhetoric of education but got too comfy in the stoned-out heroin sequences, which tended to bore rather than intoxicate - Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was another surprisingly funny and fresh post-noir flick with a performance that will rock Robert Downey Jr fans – Babel was much better than previews led us to believe, it had some real depth in spite of the overly detached atmosphere – Xian Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower was a perfect film (astounding visuals!) until the last 10 minutes dove into what the movie had so successfully avoided up until then: an over-abundance of spectacle – Children of Men offered great performances and a chilling look at the future, but failed to fully flush out the clever ideas that drove the story - l’enfant was the newest effort by the Dardem brothers, a sober yet harrowing film about a young man whose existential decline (and eventual reckoning) occurs when he sells his newborn baby.

Re: Re-Release - Top Lost Treasure of 2006
Army of Shadows, by Jean-Pierre Melville
Melville’s taught masterpiece of suspense and intrigue during the Nazi occupation of Paris is a perilous journal through the final days of the French Resistance.

Re: Discoveries
Rebel Sammurai at the Balboa; Janus’ 50th Anniversary, Ousame Sembene, Mizoguchi, and Mother Russia at PFA; 70mm Festival at The Castro Movie Palace

The Top 5 classic films re-released this year on DVD are all from the Criterion Collection. The films range from an early silent masterpiece by the great director G.W. Pabst to Krzysztof Kieslowski’s meditation on identity.

1) Pandora’s Box (G.W. Pabst – 1929)
2) Elevator to the Gallows (Louis Malle – 1957)
3) Viridiana (Luis Bunuel – 1961)
4) Sword of Doom (Kihachi Okomoto – 1966)
5) Double Life of Veronique (Krzysztof Kieslowski – 1991)

Pandora’s Box is silent screen siren Louise Brooks’ greatest roles/performance, the Criterion Box set features a great booklet, rare interviews, and four soundtrack options – Elevator to the Gallows is Louis Malle’s remarkable debut as director and features Jean Moreau in one of her early roles along with Miles Davis’ haunting soundtrack – Viridiana is Luis Bunuel’s reckless tale of a nun that leaves the church to visit her uncle; a journey that ends in disaster (the film was banned by the Catholic Church, creating the usual scandal for Don Luis) – of the recent samurai classics released by Criterion, Sword of the Beast is the most relentless in its depiction of a man mysteriously possessed by his sword and features a knock-out performance by Mikijiro Hira – Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Vernonique is the first feature film by Poland’s great poet of fate and offers us a one of a kind performance by cinematic angel Irene Jacob.

Phillip Greenlief
Oakland, CA


Blogger Jeff Kaiser said...

Thanks for the reminder about Fast Food Nation. I finally saw it. )I read the book when it came out.) Sure, with me, it is "preaching to the choir"...but I loved it.

1:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't finished reading this in it's entirety yet but one thing caught my attention immediately. "Lynch calls on and surpasses the surrealists' attempts to register the many fleeting fragments of image and thought that influence and construct our consciousness." My thought - the sub-conscious rather than the conscious.

5:29 AM  

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