In the cold light of December, the final box office total for 2006 represented a slight improvement over the embarrassment that was 2005 (thanks almost entirely to the $420 million windfall that was Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest). But what about the quality of films? Honestly, 2006 felt like a lean year. There were bright spots, to be sure, but even some of the year’s most critically acclaimed efforts fell short of perfection.
Little Miss Sunshine was undoubtedly a bright spot on the summer movie horizon, but it expended an awful lot of effort overcoming its cliché dysfunctional family/road trip plotline. Clint Eastwood’s much-touted Flags of Our Fathers felt epic and real. It also felt preachy and distracted at times. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar-hungry Babel was an impressive package, but ultimately too glum, too sluggish and too filled with stupid characters to leave an impact. Blood Diamond got a lot of press (and a Golden Globe nomination for Leo DiCaprio), but the explosive action ultimately detracted from the film’s grim political message (and vice versa). ... And the less said about the critical slobbering over Borat and Happy Feet the better.
So what are my choices for this year’s top films? Read ’em and weep.
Director Martin Scorsese scored the biggest hit of his career with this fun, fast-paced, freewheeling remake of a tight Hong Kong thriller (2002’s Infernal Affairs). Not only does it feature an incredible ensemble cast (Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin), but everyone on screen looks like they’re having a ball. Less streetwise serious than most of Scorsese’s previous work, this one proves the master is just as capable as anyone else of crafting a dynamite popcorn flick.
I still think Bill Condon’s lavish adaptation of the hit stage musical takes a little while to find its legs. But once it does, Dreamgirls is dazzling entertainment. You simply can’t ignore the supporting contributions of Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy--one starting out her career on the right foot and one grabbing onto a comeback with both hands.
Unless you’re an Alibi Midnight Movie Madness regular, you probably missed this unique revenge saga from South Korea. Correct that error now by tracking down the DVD. Director Chan Wook-Park (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy) is possibly the deftest practitioner of cinematic whiplash on the international scene right now. This story of a seemingly saintly woman who gets out of jail and goes on a bloody revenge kick against the man who betrayed her manages to be hilarious, touching, dramatic, thrilling, gorgeous and horrifying-
So many of the great films this year were driven by fine performances. Here, Forest Whitaker breaks out of his mold as Everybody’s Favorite Supporting Actor with an astonishing portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Funny, charismatic and barking mad, Amin comes to vivid life here. Equally important to the film is the performance of Scotsman James McAvoy as Amin’s doctor/
Flags of Our Fathers was supposed to be Clint Eastwood’s big Oscar grab, an epic depiction of the battle of Iwo Jima. But it underperformed at the box office and ultimately overreached its “war is hell” premise to drive home a too dogmatic point about government propaganda. This afterthought of a film, shot back-to-back with Flags, tells the same story from the perspective of the Japanese. Removed a bit from the national politics of the situation, Eastwood creates a much more clear-eyed look at the tragic, dignified duty that soldiers stare down on a daily basis.
Another film, another amazing performance. Helen Mirren had better win an Oscar for her take on Queen Elizabeth, tragically disconnected from her people in the wake of Princess Diana’s death. Mirren’s performance manages to show the Queen for what she is: imperious, icy, isolated and ultimately sympathetic. She’s matched by the great Michael Sheen as populist politician Tony Blair. Together, the two engage in a deft verbal ping-ping match that gives this film its zesty drive.
Let me say this again: Zach Helm’s smart, original and fantastically witty script will win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. The slyly existential comedy deserved a better reception than it got at the box office--if for no other reason than it proved Will Ferrell has more in him than Talladega Nights.
So many films this year tried to lob tomatoes at big government and big business. So many of them fell short. Possibly because they sucked (Fast Food Nation, I’m looking at you). Possibly because a surge of documentaries did it so much better. (What would we have done without you, Robert Greenwald?) This early entry, however, showed exactly how a satire should be played: With a straight face and a fantastic sense of humor. Of course, a charismatic lead actor (Aaron Eckhart, sympathetic for all his evil tobacco industry hucksterism) helps too. Clever, perceptive, darkly funny and rooted in an everyday reality.
English comedian Steve Coogan took a famously “unfilmable” novel from 1760 and turned it on its ear in this marvelously indescribable exercise in postmodern comedy--a mad mash-up of Tom Jones, Fellini’s 9 1/2 and “The Office.” Coogan plays both “Tristram Shandy,” an Englishman having a particularly hard time telling his own life story, and “Steve Coogan,” an egotistical actor having a particularly hard time shooting a movie about Tristram Shandy. This wonderfully unpredictable film manages to step outside of the novel and, at the same time, mirror the original’s off-kilter tone. How much of the film is real, how much is improvised, how much is scripted mockumentary? Who cares?
It was a great year for action (Superman Returns, District B13, Casino Royale), but this pseudo-superhero flick is something special. A fiercely literate hero, a keen antiestablishment attitude and some wicked-cool fight scenes add up to a film that dazzles the senses and challenges the mind. Aside from the Sci-Fi Channel’s “Battlestar Galactica,” I can’t think of a work of fiction that so seamlessly melds popcorn-munching thrills with thought-provoking political discourse. Some found it a bit too on-the-nose with its criticism of terror alerts, wiretapping and interrogation camps. But remember: The original comic book was written as a criticism of Margaret Thatcher’s administration, proving that the more things change, the more they stay the same.