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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Looking Back: 2006 at the Movies

Tuesday’s Oscar nominations will begin the final round of looking back at the year just past. Possibly there is just too much of this obsessive list making and nominating and award-giving. Still, it’s not a bad thing to commemorate the lasting achievements – good and bad – among the releases of the last 12 months.

It was a brutal year. Several of the best films of 2006, including my four top favorites, are rated R for their violence. No doubt a number of despicable and awful movies were similarly rated. But these four enormously powerful movies didn’t shy away from portraying the brutality their subjects and stories called for:

United 93 – Many people seem to have avoided seeing this film. I encourage you to get over this reluctance – you won’t regret it.

Pan’s Labyrinth – Unique and wonderful, it’s getting a gratifyingly big advertising push and actually placed number 7 in this past weekend’s national box office tally, while playing at only 609 theaters.

The Departed – The biggest box-office success among my favorites, it’s bringing Martin Scorsese some much-deserved praise and awards. I recommend its source material, too, the nifty Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, which The Departed follows scene for scene.

Children of Men – Also currently filling theaters, though it’s too early to say if it will turn a profit, since it cost $75 million to produce. A terrifying premise, excitingly well crafted.

In addition, Casino Royale, the best “popcorn flick” of the year, was quite brutal for a PG-13 film. And Lady Vengeance and Curse of the Golden Flower, though more flawed than the other films I’ve mentioned, were both stunningly well directed and also hyperbolically violent.

Extraordinary documentaries have been giving many dramatic features strong competition among the best films of the last couple of years. Several of these premiered on television, but they are definitely movies, not just “TV shows,” and they should not be missed.

When the Levees Broke, Spike Lee’s look at Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, is, like United 93, a movie that many people have convinced themselves they’d rather not see. Don’t make that mistake. It’s beautiful, amazing, and yes, it will shake you profoundly.

Andy Warhol – This brilliant 4-hour biographical film about the iconic Sixties artist was shown on PBS, played briefly in a few theaters, and is now on DVD. It handles a fascinating subject superbly.

49 Up – The seventh in a series of British documentaries, following the same dozen or so individuals every 7 years since they were children. It’s utterly engrossing (watching them grow up and age before your eyes is quite an experience), and if like me you’re close to the subjects’ age, you will be moved to tears more than once. No need to have seen the previous films – they are summarized – but I recommend watching the whole series if you can.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston – moving, fascinating, completely entertaining, this is the story of an eccentric and influential musician and songwriter, whose emotional and mental illnesses have played a central role in his life and career. Barely released in theaters, this is a great “sleeper” to try if you’re looking for a good indie film to rent.

The Road to Guantanamo, a hybrid of documentary and drama, has the potential to change minds – and lives. Whatever your feelings about the U.S. prison at Guantanamo, you owe it to yourself to see this remarkable and disturbing movie.

In the category of “most overlooked” (also known as “you should rent them right now, even though you may not have heard of them”):

The Science of Sleep – not as widely seen as Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but I liked it better. Think of it as Truffaut’s romantic comedy Stolen Kisses with special effects that Dali might have designed.

Half Nelson – featuring two of the very best performances of the year

Friends with Money – not as good as Nicole Holofcener’s previous film, Lovely and Amazing, but still a charming, off-center comedy

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story – a funny and imaginative “non-adaptation” of the famous 18th-century English novel

The War Tapes – Unpolished but strong documentary featuring footage shot in Iraq by GIs.

Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple – yet another excellent documentary, scheduled to be shown on PBS in April

Most overrated movies of the year:

Little Children – Satires of suburbia are great when they work, excruciating when they misfire. And irritating when they get better reviews than they deserve.

Babel – Stars suffering glamorously. The movie deeply aches to be important – a sure-fire way to be annoying instead. A waste of great photography and editing, and a good supporting cast.

Three Times – You’ve likely never heard of this festival favorite from Taiwan, so it’s unfair of me to pick on it. Nonetheless the critical raves it received mystify me.

There is also the “not terrible, but terribly overrated” category, where I would place the charming-but-airheaded indie comedy Little Miss Sunshine and the never-before-released-in-the-US Army of Shadows, a “thriller” that failed to thrill me, although it has some well-wrought existential angst if that’s your thing.

Finally, there were three noteworthy disappointments from talented directors:

Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly,

Michael Mann’s Miami Vice,

and worst of all, Brian De Palma’sThe Black Dahlia

Not such a bad year, all in all. I hope this gives you a few items to add to your Netflix list, or even better, to go out and see in one of those endangered species, a movie theater.

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