Thursday, January 11, 2007

Tops (and flops) of 2006

So here, on my 100th post, and first of the new year, I salute the Top 10 films of 2006: Army of Shadows, Casino Royale, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, The Devil Wears Prada, The Hidden Blade, Iraq in Fragments, The Painted Veil, Pan's Labyrinth, The Queen, and A Scanner Darkly.

I feel no urgent need to put them into order of preference, which smacks of Golden globalism and Oscar blogging, as if endless ranking, grading, and enumeration have anything whatsoever to do with quality. It doesn't--all of them have stayed with me, a total of 10x more than others. That were 10 films I found outstanding last year, plus a few "11's" and a bunch of worthy titles well worth exploring on DVD, cable, or better yet at the theater, is pleasure enough for me--particularly given that quality Hollywood releases pretty much pulled their usual, aggravating no-show from January-March, and were notably scarce over the summer.

It's not a terribly surprising list, for which I make no apologies. There is sometimes sense in consensus, though The Devil Wears Prada (the only movie I saw twice theatrically last year) and particularly The Painted Veil strike me as undervalued. The only unfamiliar title for veteran Top 10 watchers might be The Hidden Blade, Yoji Yamada's excellent samurai picture that I saw as a screener DVD, a good thing, as like so many arthouse releases and foreign films it died theatrically. Look for a roll call of the dead below, under noteworthy films I missed; many are documentaries, which seem to be press-screened far more than actually exhibited, and if I blinked, I had no choice but to Netflix them.

A few things. I had no problem putting Army of Shadows, the best film of 1969 released in 2006, on my list; it is, in this country, for all intents and purposes a new release, for which we can thank New York's Film Forum. But the decision by many critics to put Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke on their lists strikes me as flat-out wrong; true, it was shown at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, but it was an HBO picture shown otherwise on HBO, and doesn't count as a feature film release. It's an outstanding documentary, to be sure, but it's superb television, not cinema.

My underrated releases could easily be filed as "Certain Regard" pictures, but one of their attributes was how they slid under the critical radar. I was glad to find them. My overrateds, however, aren't necessarily terrible; it's just that one of their attributes was how needlessly fussed-over they were, particularly the enervating Eastwood war pictures, which between them have maybe three or four inspired scenes (Letters from Iwo Jima is like a slow and draggy Sam Fuller picture from a half-century ago, updated, like its companion, with noticeably poor CGI). Into a category called "Unresolved" I filed a few pictures that I can't quite shake, but can't quite define, either, like Hostel, which I'm (almost) sure is a bad movie but captures the contemporary horror zeitgeist better than its ilk.

One thing I can say with certainty is that my worst pictures are all pretty horrible. Some of the wounds were self-inflicted; did I really need to watch the remake of When a Stranger Calls on Starz? The worst of the lot was the posturing, excruciating Miami Vice. That experience I will quantify for you.

On with the show. And to all a good year, which has already yielded a few good pictures, as you will see.

11s (close, not quite there): Borat, Children of Men, Happy Feet, Notes on a Scandal.

UN CERTAIN REGARD: Blood Diamond, The Bridge, Candy, The Departed, The Descent, Down in the Valley, Dreamgirls, Duck Season, Edmond, Gabrielle, Half Nelson, The House of Sand, Inside Man, jackass number two, Lady Vengeance, L'Enfant, Le Petit Lieutenant, Monster House (in 3D), Mountain Patrol: Kekexili, Night Watch, Our Brand is Crisis, Running Scared, Shortbus, Sisters in Law, Sophie Scholl--The Final Days, State of Fear, Thank You for Smoking, United 93, Venus, Volver, Why We Fight.

WORST: Babel, Beowulf & Grendel, Bloodrayne, The Da Vinci Code, The Good German, The Good Shepherd, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, Manderlay, Miami Vice, The Omen, Running with Scissors, Trust the Man, When a Stranger Calls, The Wicker Man.

OVERRATED: Brick, Flags of Our Fathers, The Last King of Scotland, Letters from Iwo Jima, Little Children, Little Miss Sunshine, A Prairie Home Companion, The Prestige, Unknown White Male, V for Vendetta.

UNDERRATED: The Bridesmaid, District B13, Excellent Cadavers, Find Me Guilty, Hard Candy, Heading South, Home of the Brave, Hollywoodland, Infamous, Lemming, The Motel, The Road to Guantanamo, Scoop, Slither, Superman Returns.

UNRESOLVED:(out there, vexing, but with merit): The Fountain, Hostel, Inland Empire, The Proposition, 13 Tzameti, Tideland.

SEE YOU LATER (noteworthy movies, for better or for worse, I missed): Bobby, Come Early Morning, Death of a President, Deliver Us From Evil, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Fast Food Nation, 51 Birch Street, For Your Consideration, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, The Ground Truth, Idiocracy, An Inconvenient Truth, Jesus Camp, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, Lady in the Water, Marie Antoinette, Mutual Appreciation, The Pursuit of Happyness, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, The Science of Sleep, Sherrybaby, Shut Up and Sing, Stranger Than Fiction, This Film is Not Yet Rated, The U.S. vs. John Lennon, Who Killed the Electric Car?

FIRST 2007 RELEASE SEEN: Nick Cassavetes' Alpha Dog, a true-life teens in troubler, opening tomorrow. The opening shots, of children at play as "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" plays on the soundtrack, is fair warning that the next two hours will be pretty heavy-handed. Better is ahead.

ONES TO WATCH FOR THIS YEAR (based on screenings and festival viewings): Black Book (March 2), Exiled (June), The Hoax (Apr. 6), The Host (March 9), Poison Friends (March 30), Tales of the Brothers Quay retrospective (Jan. 19), Triad Election (Apr. 25).

DISTRIBUTOR WANTED: The wrenching, Cambodia-set child prostitution drama Holly, the best film I saw at the Montreal World Film Festival last August. Someone in the U.S. should take a chance on the fine Spanish crime melodrama Round Two as well.

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