Saturday, August 16, 2008

2006: A Retrospective (Part 1 of 3)

The year 2006, to me, was an extraordinary one. Cinema sparkled and fizzled with originality. The 40+ movies I saw were mostly great ones (with a few disappointments and three major failures of note). The great films, though, were many, and it was mighty difficult to pick only ten that I liked.

But here goes the attempt:

In a year of good if disappointing summer tentpoles, M:I III best represents what can be done with the genre if everything was done correctly. At the forefront is a remarkable performance by Tom Cruise, an actor who is seriously underrated. The action scenes are simply magnificent in the film, which, while not perfect, is among the most viscerally exciting action films of the new decade. The direction, by "Lost" creator J.J. Abrams (he was responsible for this year's Cloverfield, as well), rivals Paul Greengrass's for The Bourne Trilogy. I have watched this film over and over, and am still astounded by the sheer creativity of the project. I hope they make a fourth film.

This is a prime example of a family film that works beautifully the whole way through. When I saw this film in April of 2006 (or May, I can't remember) I was not expecting very much. But from the first frame to its last, Akeelah and the Bee simply works. The story is beyond conventional; we know every step it will take before it takes it. But that is necessary in a movie that could and should not be allowed to cheat the audience with a fake ending. It's the right one for this movie, and a beautiful one. Keke Palmer will be remembered for this film.

In an Altmanesque move, writer-director-star Emilio Estevez put together an incredible ensemble of stars: from greats Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Fishburne, and Helen Hunt, to newer actors Shia LaBeouf, Lindsay Lohan, and Ashton Kutcher. Bobby is a highly underrated, emotionally cathartic drama, up until its shocking and devastating final images. I was transfixed by Bobby, which stands on its own as a near-great picture.

7. Happy Feet

Yes, Happy Feet. As soon as I saw this film, I knew I'd seen a classic in the making. Telling a universal and important story, while keeping the visual liveliness incredibly detailed, Happy Feet was nothing short of dazzling when it came out in 2006. Many condemned it for forcing a message about environmentalism, but what it really does is intimately side with the penguins on the matter. No, they may not be humans or have human feelings, but they are affected, and the fact that they are not emotionally damaged doesn't mean we shouldn't care. That's what the film is about: taking joy in the life of an insignificant thing.

6. Saw III

I know, I know. You're wondering why I would have a film relegated to the "Torture Porn" genre on my top ten list, right? Well, Saw III is a little different. More frightening than expected, as well as more emotional and character-driven than the other films of the subgenre probably are (I haven't seen them), this film is helped along by a riveting performance by Tobin Bell as the creepiest villain in recent years. The "clown puppet on a tricycle" gimmick was thankfully "second-stringed" for a surprisingly effective character drama hidden under the sadistic violence and torture. Jigsaw's games start to get to his victims' heads, but it presents a question for us as well: Should we choose suicide when nothing is going our way, or life? What if we were forced to choose between two options: commit suicide, or die trying to escape? This is a thoughtful rumination on fate, but the movie doesn't simply sprinkle it in between the villain's contraption scenes. The themes build upon one another until the surprisingly tender end, when the villain is seen, not as the king in the chess game, but a player as well. He's a human with a moral compass, however skewed it may be.

5. Dreamgirls

Dreamgirls is a pitch perfect examination of the 60s R&B scene, at its center a tour de force performance from Eddie Murphy, in his first live-action movie role since the critically eviscerated The Adventures of Pluto Nash way back in 2002 (that Murphy did not win the Supporting Actor Oscar is an outrage). Ultimately Dreamgirls is much more than your average musical biopic; it's character piece of the highest order. Not only was Murphy electric, but so were Jamie Foxx as the discriminative agent, and "American Idol" contestant Jennifer Hudson in an Academy Award-winning performance as the most troubled of the Dreamgirls.

4. The Pursuit of Happyness

Some people I know called this simply "The Pursuit..." with the second part of the title left off in a rather strange attempt to bring across their distaste for this film. Why this is I'm not sure. What I am sure of--this is a masterpiece. Even though the film is somewhat low-key, a la Million Dollar Baby, it's final few minutes are pure, unadulterated, perfect. I embraced the downtrodden tone, that anguished feeling of misery, of never quite getting your way, and the final sequence is, in fact, happy, without ever feeling sentimental or forced. The characters, as well as the audience, deserves those final moments. They are the icing on an intricate, powerful film that I have never forgotten to this day.

3. The Descent

A terrifying, enthralling, deceptively simple horror film, The Descent is one of the best of its kind ever made. The plot is threadbare, as is necessary: five women descend into a cave on a spelunking, and one makes it out. This is not revealing anything in the film; what happens to these women is entirely unpredictable and for you to discover. A film like The Descent comes around once in a blue moon (Cloverfield was the same way), but when it does come, it deserves rejoicing. The documentary filmmaking style is the key to the film's success, such as in one scene that depicts a character that gets trapped under falling rocks, and brings the most visceral impact on the viewer. Ultimately, it is both a horror film, and a rumination on mortality and fear.

2. Pan's Labyrinth

If my No. 3 film was the scariest horror film of 2006, then Pan's Labyrinth is like the weird, visionary stepchild. That film's humanoid cave creatures were like the long-lost family of the Pale Man in this film, which was very close to beating my number one film to its spot. This mind-bending fantasy is definitely meant for adults, but the themes of the film are what work the best. The film is ultimately a tragedy in many ways--a main character dies in the end similarly, if much more tragically than, in Bridge to Terabithia, the sort of PG-rated version of this from not even two months later. It's even better than that film, which will show up on a later list, and ultimately a marvelous war film above everything else, with a masterful lead performance in child actor Ivana Baquero, as the film's Alice in a terrifying, bizarre Wonderland.

1. Children of Men

This was, no doubt about it, the greatest achievement that 2006 offered. An emotionally draining, creatively masterful, thinking man's science fiction film, Children of Men was nothing short of a masterpiece that deserves every accolade that it can be given. The story is almost deceptively simple: A man must protect and deliver a pregnant girl into the safety of a boat that will bring her to a highly secure military facility. The reason is frighteningly plausible: There are no longer any women able to produce children. Is this what we will come to? Director Alfonso Cuaron, a friend of the director of my number two film, has created a realistic and, as I said before, frightening future, not unlike Spielberg's two visions, and just as creatively designed.

The leading performance, by a transcendent Clive Owen, is the catalyst for the film's ultimate power. Owen's character is an everyman, which raises the question of what an everyman would do in this position. The moment that Theo realizes his mission is possibly the finest bit of facial acting this decade has seen. What he utters at this point has surprisingly Christian undertones (most Christians I've talked to have taken this utterance as the Lord's name in vain; I take it as a reminder of a similar situation that Mary and Joseph had 2,000 years ago). It's the deepest film of 2006, and as many movies as I have seen from that year, I doubt that will change.

No comments: