...the best films of 2006. Still MIA for my viewing: The Queen, Half Nelson, Old Joy, Inland Empire, Venus, and The Lives of Others.
1. Children of Men - dir. Alfonso Cuarón - UK/USA - Universal
In an apocalyptic future where women are no longer fertile, Clive Owen must take a young immigrant woman (Claire-Hope Ashitey), miraculously and curiously pregnant, to the promise of safety. For a long time, I’d never truly been converted to the love for Cuarón, though I’ve enjoyed all of his films, save Great Expectations. Children of Men is not only the convincing factor in a newly formed love affair with the director, but the film could have been half as good as it is, and I still would have fallen. Children of Men has a strange force, one that really can’t be denied by film geeks, sci-fi nerds, or your average movie-goer. Like few films I can think of, Children of Men is absolutely riveting. Using a number of single-takes, the film feels like the antithesis of a Jerry Bruckheimer film. In the single take, Cuarón brings the audience into the action and never lets go. The level of desperation is immeasurable. As I just saw it, I’m still reeling through the experience at hand, piecing things together into a greater whole. Unfortunately, that conclusion hasn’t been solidified yet, so I can only describe and explain. Though one could see Children of Men’s placement as a knee-jerk decision, the only thing I can soundly state is that Children of Men is the finest film of 2006. So, yeah…
2. Volver - dir. Pedro Almodóvar - Spain - Sony Pictures Classics
For most of the 90s, Pedro Almodóvar was a cult figure of international cinema in the United States. Beginning with the surprise hit of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, he earned a small, but fervent following among those with a taste for the humorously perverse. He (and likely also Madonna, as a result of her sexual fantasies in Truth or Dare) made Antonio Banderas an international star and appeared to gain fans with each new film (though I really doubt he acquired any new ones with his lousy Flower of My Secret). Then in 2000, he won the best foreign-language Oscar that no one ever expected he’d win with All About My Mother. From there, he’s become probably the most famous foreign director in the United States with Talk to Her and Bad Education. Volver is the fourth of his critical successes, but for reasons beyond me, probably ranks as the lowest showing of support from his audiences. I find it troubling to rank his films in terms of quality or personal preference. Volver has made a number of critics’ list and won a few end-of-the-year prizes, but the enthusiasm just doesn’t seem to be there. Almodóvar is hardly the victim of an inability to broaden or advance with each film, so where’s the love? I’m certainly not criticizing my friends, but it seems as if each one who’s seen the film has resorted to the “Yeah, it was pretty good” response, a reply I cannot mirror. I left the screening of Volver glowing, reeling with pure enthusiasm. I was a bit hesitant at first to blow my wad over Volver to my friends, as it felt a bit less ambitious than Bad Education or Talk to Her, but I’ve ardently changed my tone. Out of all of his films, Volver has elicited the strongest emotional response from me. Enriched by Penélope Cruz’s radiant performance as the conflicted Raimunda, Almodóvar crafted an uncompromising world of broken, but pious women, each of them with unsatisfied void and despair. Seeing Almodóvar mature is a personal pleasure of mine. A friend of mine and I discussed the most telling moment of maturation in Volver when Almodóvar slides past a potential romance between Raimunda and a young production assistant. In his earlier films, he would have given us a wild, lusty sex scene between the two, but at this point in his career, his vision is more clear. Getting excited about a new Almodóvar film is the closest thing I can experience in relation to the hey-day of international cinema in the 1960s and 1970s. I hope I never become a person whose duty as an intellectual is to merely attend a film I’m supposed to see without any sort of passion. Though 2006 was a strange year for cinema, it provided me with at least a dozen films that served as reminders of why I do what I do.
3. United 93 - dir. Paul Greengrass - UK/France/USA - Universal
Of course you didn’t want to see this. I didn’t either. I still can’t make a proper defense for the film’s necessity, but a number of great things, especially in cinema, have come from a real lack of such. We all know World Trade Center was Oliver Stone’s Inside Man, a way to get back fans after the abysmal Alexander (Spike Lee should still be sorry about She Hate Me). But for Greengrass, United 93 is his solidification as one of the finest new directors of the past five years. What’s not here is revolting sentimentality; what is here is nail-biting tension and exactitude.
4. L'enfant - dir. Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne - Belgium/France - Sony Pictures Classics
For a long time, I doubted the appeal of the Dardenne brothers. Their style of filmmaking is sparse, and their subjects morose. I always thought of them as the Belgian answer to the grimy British Mike Leigh or Ken Loach, both of which hardly tickle my fancy. L’enfant, winner of the Palme d’Or in 2005 but not released in the States until a year later, wholly changed my opinion. Yes, the style is sparse, and, yes, the subject is morose, but simple this film isn’t. L’Enfant is an utterly nerve-racking depiction of two lost youths (Jérémie Renier and Déborah François) and their conflicting relationship with their newborn baby. Though the haunting sequence where Renier sells the baby is absolutely pulsating, the finer moments of L’enfant occur when the Dardennes counter the reality that these two people are parents with the characters’ playful jeunesse. It’s the first film I can think of that actually filled me with fear at the idea of kids having kids even if that wasn’t what they were trying to accomplish. Above all, L’enfant is realism without schmaltz or God-like dictation; it’s an unsettling window into poverty, dissatisfaction, and unfortunate aimlessness.
5. Shortbus - dir. John Cameron Mitchell - USA - ThinkFilm
I’ve written plenty and discussed extensively this film, so instead of writing something new, here is what I wrote for Playback’s best of the year. Both emotionally profound and curiously meta, Mitchell and his non-actors designed the characters together for Shortbus, breathing an air of authenticity and, at the same time, subversive theories on the nature of acting and filmmaking. The actors, especially Sook-Yin Lee as a "pre-orgasmic" relationship counselor, resonate with undeniable genuineness that you not only sympathize with these people, but you wish you were friends with them. It's hard to separate the characters from the actors, as they all appear to be playing themselves or, at least, extensions of their personalities, and partaking in unsimulated sex acts with one another. This strange contradiction is always in balance in Mitchell's hands, in a film that succeeds at coexisting emotional and theoretical levels. Shortbus is thoroughly resonant, blissfully triumphant, and admirably hopeful in its depiction of the anxieties and struggles of a generation.
6. The Proposition - dir. John Hillcoat - Australia - First Look
Nick Cave’s songs always suggested a capacity for the realm of film, particularly his album Murder Ballads. What better setting for a Nick Cave-penned feature than the western? In the western, he reduces man to his instinctual beast-like quality, a godless uncivilized world of beautifully filmed ugliness. As one-third of a trio of lawless outlaw brothers, Guy Pearce is given clemency by a town’s captain (the excellent Ray Winstone, who also turned in a fine performance in The Departed) if he can turn in his elder sibling (Danny Huston). There’s a surprising humanity buried within the grimness, a fine companion to both Children of Men and Pan’s Labyrinth. Who knew that 2006 would be the year that humanity in film (especially genre-bound films) would actually feel… human?
7. Time to Leave (Le temps qui reste) - dir. François Ozon - France - Strand Releasing
What happens when beautiful people die young? Le temps qui reste shows us in a likely more fascinating approach than, say, Factory Girl. As a thematic sequel to Ozon’s finest film, Sous le sable (Under the Sand), the film examines the grief and closure of the life of a young fashion photographer, diagnosed with terminal cancer. Ozon allows Romain (Melvil Poupaud) a single opportunity to finalize his existence and relationships with the people in his life that mean the most, including his aging grandmother (Jeanne Moreau) and younger boyfriend (Christian Sengewald). Le temps qui reste is undeniably French in its approach to melodrama; it’s aesthetically beautiful, inconclusive, and wonderfully fragmented. It’s not so much a three-hanky endeavor as it is a poem or mood piece, and an exceptionally affecting one at that.
8. The Descent - dir. Neil Marshall - UK - Lionsgate
When a horror film actually scares me, it’s certainly worth noting. But when a horror film instills extreme panic and terror within me, it’s a remarkable feat. The Descent is a rare horror film that’s carved from precision and skill instead of sloppy gore and cheap spooks. See if you want to go spelunking afterward.
9. Brothers of the Head - dir. Keith Fulton, Louis Pepe - UK - IFC Films
Ever hear that really awesome song that totally fucks itself with the vocals or lyrics? Ever want to mute the singing and just listen to the instrumentation? That may be a lousy comparison, but Brothers of the Head is the cinematic equivalent. I want to take the film, cut out all of the talking-head interviews of this faux documentary (yes, even the Ken Russell one), and piece together the rest into a wholly satisfying, mystifying film. The archival footage of the conjoined twin rockers (Harry and Luke Treadaway) is astounding as the film becomes much more of a thoughtful meditation on identity and stardom than you might assume. Unlike the atrocity of For Your Consideration, Fulton and Pepe’s refusal to step away from their documentary roots (or mockumentary in the case of Consideration) becomes a mere blemish in the long run, as the delicacy and poignancy of the rest of the film wins out in the end.
10. Pan's Labyrinth (El laberinto del Fauno) - dir. Guillermo del Toro - Mexico/Spain/USA - Picturehouse
I never would have guessed a film with head-smashing, monsters feasting on fairies, torture, and a minotaur would be so touching. Well, maybe I did, as Pan’s Labyrinth was definitely one of the films I didn’t need to see to know I liked it. Either way, Pan’s Labyrinth is Guillermo del Toro’s finest film, twelve steps better than his acclaimed Devil’s Backbone. The film is a grim fantasy about a young girl (Ivana Baquero) who escapes the torments of her tyrannical step-father (Sergi López) in a labyrinth where a giant creature tells her of her lineage as the reincarnation of a lost underworld princess. Set during the early years of Franco’s rule over Spain, del Toro uses his setting not in a political way (though with this and The Devil’s Backbone one could see a fascination with the time period), but as a literal, effective manifestation of the fantastical battle between good and evil. Pan’s Labyrinth is a real marvel.
So, of course, I somehow left out two other films that deserve a mention for the year... so here, they are. I don't know where they'd fit exactly, but oh well...
Combat - dir. Patrick Carpentier - Belgium - Water Bearer Films
If James Broughton had directed Tropical Malady, it might have looked something like Combat. Two lovers (Tomas Matauko and Léo Joris) escape civilization to a remote forest where they proceed to kick the shit out of each other as a game. Fight Club comparisons aside, Carpentier crafts a grand poem of visual and audio, as the scenes between the lovers are cut with frightening images of clouds and the director reciting the poetic thoughts of one of the men. The appeal of Combat isn’t simply in Carpentier’s dwellings of the relationship between brutality and intimacy as much as it is in his dexterity. The two characters speak only a few sentences to one another throughout the course of the film, and this is to its benefit. As the conclusion to a trilogy called L’irrégulaité de la Déchirure (The Irregularity of the Tearing), you must not forget that one man’s “pretentious” is another man’s “glorious.”
Little Miss Sunshine - dir. Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris - USA - Fox Searchlight
I said earlier that Little Miss Sunshine could have easily been the forgotten “indie” of 2006 that exploded à la My Big Fat Greek Wedding. It certainly could have been, but there’s a greater allure to the film that gives it legs on which to stand. One critic called the film “as calculated as a fourteen-year-old’s Myspace profile,” and to that I can’t necessarily argue, but Little Miss Sunshine’s humor is intelligent and its charm contagious. How can one not appreciate the idea of Steve Carell as the self-loathing homosexual “number one Proust scholar” whose grad student boyfriend left him for the number two Proust scholar? The cast is exceptional (though Greg Kinear would probably be the weakest link), and the score by Devotchka is wonderful. Little Miss Sunshine may not have been one of the ten best films of the year, but it still deserves to be mentioned.