Thursday, May 10, 2007

Films: Best of 2006

You’ve got to love the Academy Awards. As Helen Murrin said in a interview before the event, "It’s the mother of all awards shows." I don’t think she was trying to make a point, but it’s interesting that she refers to the Academy Awards as a show rather than an honor.

My greatest concern, with regard to the awards, had always been for the actors who win very early in their careers. It might not be such a good thing, you know. How will the career of Jennifer Hudson develop, now that she’s won? Maybe she should get some counseling from Patty Duke or Marisa Tomei. Better to win when you’re older, I think. Then you’ve got the respect of your peers and it really doesn’t matter that much.

Here are a few of my favorite films from 2006.

Three directors--Ken Loach, Ermanno Olmi, and Abbas Kiarostami, team up to film episodes that take place on a train traveling from Austria to Italy. Though a few of the characters appear in more than one segment, (well, they’re all on the same train) there is no significant tie between the three stories.

The first scene involves an elderly businessman (Carlo Delle Piane) who begins to fanaticize about the young female business colleague (Valerie Bruni Tedeschi) who has just arranged his rail journey back to Italy after a meeting. He begins to compose a letter of thanks to her on his laptop, and as he writes the expressions of affection get more and more elaborate. From time to time his reverie is interrupted by scuffles in the passageway between the railcars. An Albanian family is riding out there, and the conductor seems to be giving them a hard time. (Maybe they don’t have enough tickets?)

In the second segment a young man escorts a fat and demanding woman much older than he on a journey about which we know little. He takes every opportunity to remove himself from the woman’s company, and much of the episode involves a conversation he strikes up with a teenaged girl in the hallway outside his compartment. She’s from his home town, though he doesn’t know her, and she eventually reveals that she knows his sister, and also his old girlfriend.

The third follows three rowdy young Scottish soccer fans who are taking the train to Rome to see a European cup final. They strike up a conversation with an Albanian boy in the snack bar (we saw his family out in the passageway in the first episode) and they later suspect he stole one of their tickets. This leads to a confrontation even more heated than the brutal and sarcastic conversation they were having earlier amongst themselves.

Few viewers saw this film, I suspect. At any rate, reviews are scarce, with opinions ranging from "boring" to "unstressed loveliness." I found it mesmerizing. The entire film has an unhurried pace that allows the viewer to linger on the passing faces and casual interactions that take up most of the time within the confines of a moving train. The film’s promoters suggest that the stories are related through the recurrent themes of privilege and exclusion, the mystery of chance, and sacrifice. But Tickets has none of that slightly bogus metaphysical voodoo we meet up with in the films of Krzysztof Kieślowski, for example. It leaves us with the lingering aftertaste of having not merely watched a tale or two unfold, but of having suddenly been given the gift to see things—big, little, emotional, trivial—more clearly than ever.

Casino Royale
Action at its best. The young James Bond has a glinty look in his eye, a chip on his shoulder, and a very modest kit-bag of electronic gadgets. Lots of fist-fights, car chases, explosions, with little of the suave smirkiness or high-tech camp that had worked its way into the Bond films like a malodorous rot.

The Best of Youth
This six-hour Italian made-for-TV drama follows the lives of two brothers from their college years well into middle age. One becomes a psychologist. The other drops his promising studies in Italian literature to become a cop, we don’t know quite why. The psychologist’s wife becomes a terrorist. His sister marries his best friend, who eventually becomes a judge. Other friends lose their jobs. Various aspects of the Italian political scene make their way into the drama. There are children to raise, parents to tend to, lovers and girlfriends here and there. We get to know a few mental patients quite well. People die. But boy, do we like these people. Lots of things remain unexplained (like life) but the production flows beautifully and every aspect of the film is top-flight.

Little Miss Sunshine
I ask you, How often do we get to see a film set in the American Southwest in which Proust and Nietzsche both figure prominently? Yet Little Miss Sunshine is a comedy with character to spare. Though the cacophonous mayhem being raised by the family we’re watching has been referred to as dysfunctional, it seems fairly typical to me, if my upbringing can serve as a basis for comparison. In any event, it functions marvelously throughout the film, and Toni Collette, in the role of the mom, provides a core of concern and practicality to hold it’s centripetal elements together.

Director Pedro Almadovar has long been interested in the exaggerated and sentimental plot-twists of the soap opera, yet he has been able to consistently alter the contexts of such narratives and concoct imaginative modes of presentation that provide a veneer of intelligence to sustain our interest. His recent films have become simultaneously lighter and deeper, and in Volver, once again, he provides us with a unique and thoroughly entertaining family drama with plenty of signature quirks, sentimental touches, and unexpected turns of events.
The plot focuses on Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) and the clutch of women with whom she spends much of her time—her daughter, her sister, and her aunt, whom she visits from time to time back in the village where she grew up. Cruz’s husband is clearly nothing special, and he meets a bad end fairly early in the film. Her attempts to dispose of the body are the stuff of farce. The plot thickens further when her mother, (played by veteran actress Carmen Maura) who is dead, re-appears on the scene. Without being in any way an indictment of men, Volver focuses on the mutual affection and concern that women both draw upon and provide for one another as they make their way in the world.

Pan’s Labyrinth
Pan’s Labyrinth touches upon the fantasy, hope, imagination, and sacrifice that give fairy tales their appeal. But unlike such pleasant if campy retellings as Ever After and The Princess Bride, it takes us back to the origin of fairy tales, when there was much more at stake than an invitation to the ball.

The setting is the Spanish Civil War, and the situation is dire for those who oppose the fascist state. The film focuses on an adolescent girl and her mother, who has recently married a brutal military commander for reasons of expediency—or perhaps we should say survival. The girl spends her time reading fairy tales while her step-father is out hunting down rebels. She is introduced by one of the cooks (who also figures prominently in the story) to an ancient labyrinth that stands in the forest just beyond the camp. In the depths of the labyrinth the girl encounters a fawn who challenges her to perform a number of heroic escapades. Is he evil? We really don’t know.

Director del Toro’s triumph has been to weld these two worlds together (hence all the Academy Awards for technical achievements). The film is chary of philosophic pronouncements, but when the commander utters the cry, ‘The girl’s mind has been corrupted by these fanciful tales!" the audience reaction is probably universal, "You should read a few of those books yourself, you bastard."
Earth and femininity and blood flow through Pan’s Labyrinth in an uncanny way. It may not be as fun as we’d hoped, but it’s a masterpiece—Rome: Open City meets Peter Pan.

The Lives of Others
The setting is East Germany, circa 1984. The main characters are security agents of the Communist government who were friends and students together many years ago. One is now a surveillance expert, the other a powerful government minister. The plan is to keep tabs on one of the nation’s most popular, and seemingly very loyal, playwrights. The minister has ulterior motives for ordering the operation. As the program unfolds, his friend develops reasons of his own for making sure that it’s unsuccessful. Much of the film focuses on the lives of the playwright and his actress-girlfriend, who has a few personal problems of her own. We’re given an inside look at a dreary world where mediocrity is rewarded and acts of conscience can carry a very high price-tag, but the film also exposes the latent honesty and heroism that can sometimes erupt in the most unlikely places. The Lives of Others is an espionage thriller, but it’s also a subtle human-interest story, meticulously crafted and full of choice details.

Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu delivers yet another powerhouse. It tells three more-or-less unrelated stories concurrently. We might call them the Mexican wedding story, the Japanese teenager story, and the Moroccan shepherd story. It all sounds so benign! The settings are exotic, the camera work is jumpy, and we’re given little time to relax and enjoy the scenery as the film lurches from crisis to crisis. Iñárritu makes very good use of his settings and his actors, the music is varied and compelling, and the shifts from locale to locale are well-timed.

The film would have been better if Brad Pitt and Kate Blanchett hadn’t been included in the cast. It’s not that they’re bad, but that they’re stars, and the foreign, gritty tone of the film is undermined by the presence of people we recognize. Babel remains a powerful tone poem of overwhelming emotion—loss, confusion, fear, and violence. The energy level remains high and the events unfold with utter naturalness. Perhaps, in the end, the film doesn’t add up to anything, but neither does a Mahler symphony. What it does do is burn the tribulations or a few ordinary people into our memories like a bad dream that we can’t forget. Yet it’s worth asking the question, I think, How much anguish and pain and dislocation do we have to put ourselves through these days, before we can be moved when a father clasps his daughter by the hand?

A Good Year
It’s long since become popular for art-school film directors to quote scenes from famous Hollywood films, and even to re-shoot films meticulously scene by scene. It’s rare to come upon a film nowadays that actually attempts not merely to quote from or parody the classics of that Golden Age, but to emulate their style. This is what Ridley Scott has done with A Good Year.

First you need a star, and no one fits that bill more completely than Russell Crowe. Then you need a hackneyed plot. The sentimental tales of Peter Mayle will do, with their Englishmen coming down to Provence to be seduced by the wine, the food, the women, the countryside, and the leisurely lifestyle.

It’s a treat to spend some time in the midst of all this stuff—especially during the winter—and Scott’s art directors and casting agents have done a good job of assembling it. In fact, there are so many beautiful women in this film that it borders on the absurd, though the differences are worth noting. Just consider the middle-aged wife of the man who tends the vines in comparison to Crowe’s young British-Indian secretary; or the waitress at the café who gets run down on her bike as against the young American woman who claims to be Crowe’s long-lost cousin. Brilliant, as they say in England. Even the woman in the bank, very proper and officious, is given an ankle tattoo.

On the other side of the divide, Crowe’s British business associates must give pride of place to the alpha male, but several of them do have a well-developed GQ stubble. And could you possibly do better than Albert Finney in the role of the worldly-wise uncle upon whose estate the film’s plot revolves?

Crowe himself is faced with the difficult task of convincing us that underneath the exterior of a callous, ruthless, heedless, arrogant prick of a multi-millionaire bond-trader, there lurks the soul of a sensitive lad who once cared for other people. He doesn’t really pull it off. In fact, his charmless abrasiveness is rather difficult to watch. Yet his associates and minions play off of him well, the action is well-paced, and the comic pratfalls—floundering in a mud-filled swimming pool, for example—are just good enough to do their part in sustaining our interest.
The crisp editing, snappy dialogue, unabashedly romantic theme, and sheer cinematic chutzpah that’s been put into every scene of A Good Year make it a very entertaining film. (How strange, no one liked it but us!) Several subplots are wisely left unresolved. As we were leaving the theater Hilary remarked, "That was a lot better than Under the Tuscan Sun."

Marie Antoinette
arie Antoinette is a stylistically adventurous and largely successful portrait of a intellectually light-weight but rather sweet individual who happened to be married off to the king of France at the age of fourteen. Whether it is an entirely accurate portrait I sincerely doubt. It remains a thoroughly entertaining spectacle and a convincing story that holds true to its tone from beginning to end. It belongs in the vicinity of Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones, and it stands head-and-shoulders above such turgid works as Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, for example.

Revolutions always begin at the top and work their way down. In Marie Antoinette Sophia Coppola gives us a touching and merciless portrait of the sentimental romantic and heedless consumer that, several revolutions later, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, far too many of us have become. But there is also a down-home freshness to Marie’s character that’s very appealing, and the story of her shifting relations with the court and its complicated routines is very interesting indeed.

also worth a note

Joyeux Noel
During World War I German and French troops often hunkered in trenches well within earshot of one another, waiting for the next bloody and futile exchange of lethal ordinance. Through a strange turn of events that must be seen to be believed, one Christmas Eve a few such sections along the Western Front called an unauthorized truce and celebrated the holiday together. They even held a soccer match in No Man’s Land! The flash of brotherhood was over all too quickly. The film dramatizes this event and explores both its causes and its unfortunate consequences for the individuals involved.

The Queen
The Queen takes for its subject the week following the death of Princess Diana. We watch as Queen Elizabeth and other members of her immediate family react with stoic restraint while the hoi polloi of England express their profound tabloid grief at the tragic event, and also turn their ire on their seemingly indifferent monarch. The crux of the film involves Tony Blair’s attempt to convince the queen that she ought to acknowledge the significance of Diana’s death publicly, even though it runs counter to protocol, and also to the deeper feelings of the royal family that Diana was a disgrace to their "line."

Helen Murrin’s portrayal of the queen is spot on, and all the other principles are equally fine. But the story, in the end, becomes slightly dull. The most dramatic person involved, Princess Diana, is already dead by the time the opening credits have run their course, and the second most interesting character, Tony Blair, only appears in his role as newly-elected prime minister trying to establish relations with the queen at an awkward moment in history. I’m waiting for Oliver Stone’s version of Diana’s life. That would be good. A film about Tony Blair might also be very interesting. But a film about the queen, even as well-done as this one is, can only be mildly interesting. Elizabeth reaches her height of emotive power when standing in a river by a broken-down jeep staring at an 18-point buck. If she weren’t the queen no one would be making a movie about her. So the question becomes: Why have a queen?

The Nativity Story
This retelling of a very familiar story captures both the strength of family ties and the depth of faith and tradition among rural Jews at the time of Christ. It’s a fantastic story, like The Lord of the Rings, but here the human element has been emphasized, which only adds to the film’s mythic allure.

Carlos Saura once again explores the byways of Spanish dance and music, using the same static cameras, large mirrors, and cavernous industrial settings that were featured in his previous film Flamenco (1995). Here the numbers are loosely patterned after Isaac Ibeniz’s classic piano suite Iberia, with ballet, sprightly jotas, experimental forms, and plenty of flamenco dancing along the way. The choreography is often beautiful and the camera work hardly less so. The film features Spanish artists of the first rank, including Sara Baras, Antonio Canales, Manolo Sanlúcar, Gerardo Núñez, the pianist Rosa Torres-Pardo, Chano Domínguez, Jorge Pardo, and Enrique Morente.

As with his earlier Flamenco, it’s as easy to applaud the care, artistry, and resources devoted to Iberia as it is to wish the film were more uniformly inspired. In an effort not too seem too ethnographic, perhaps, one long segment captures the twists and turns of a female dancer in a nude bikini trying to free herself from a big piece of cellophane. The changing light on the surface of the plastic is mesmerizing, but it’s entirely out of synch with the rest of the movie.

An Inconvenient Truth
Al Gore has put together the world’s best powerpoint presentation to expose perhaps the world’s most compelling long-term challenge: Global Warming. The graphics are good, the pace is fairly brisk, and even though the material is familiar, it strikes us here with renewed force.

The Ground Truth
Survivors of the Iraq debacle discuss the physical and psychological scars of the experience. A film everyone ought to see.

Sweetland received an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature. I didn’t like it that much. The flashbacks are amateurish and confusing, the "socialist" element is not clearly established, and the dumb Swede who marries the German girl is a cipher. All the same, the film does have its moments.

The Prestige
Christopher Nolan (Memento) examines the careers of two magicians in Victorian England. It’s a dark tale with a good cast (Michael Caine, Christopher Bale, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johannson), some interesting science, a little bit of romance, and more than a few surprising twists.

The Curse of the Golden Flower

This film has almost none of the enchantment of Yimou Zhang’s earlier efforts Hero and House of the Flying Daggers. Li Gong is fascinating to watch in the role of the Emperor’s wife, but the plot is clumsy, the battle scenes are mechanistic, and there is little swashbuckling élan. On the other hand, if you’re in the mood for palace intrigue, shiny clothing, and a ninja here and there, the film is certainly worth a look.

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