I'm behind on posting about this stuff because I'm so busy trying to catch up before end-of-year lists and awards, although I did find time to mix in a little variety with the catch-up.
Babel (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2006)
I found Iñárritu's last movie, 21 Grams, completely insufferable, despite the generally high praise it received, and this looked like more of the same hyper-seriousness and pretentious storytelling devices and condescending social commentary. But for the first hour or so, it was not bad. The jumbled chronology, unlike that in 21 Grams, makes a certain amount of sense, since it allows Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga to intercut between stories, and within each of the three narratives, the chronology is linear. So that didn't really bother me, and the stories themselves are at least somewhat interesting; the thread about the Japanese girl, as most reviews have mentioned, was the best, while Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett wailing in Morocco was probably the worst. But even that was tolerable for a while, at least until Iñárritu and Arriaga give in to their melodramatic impulses and each situation just gets more and more ridiculous, until by the end the characters have been tortured so much it's almost laughable. I like movies that are dark and bleak, but this is a movie that wants both to make you feel guilty and uplifted, and I just wasn't having it.
The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)
Remarkably even-handed considering its provocative subject matter, and while it obviously offers at least a somewhat sympathetic portrait of terrorists, it doesn't shy away from showing the horrible things they do to innocent people. Really, no one in this film comes off well, and yet it's still really engaging, and seems to get away with a lot that a film made today about Islamic terrorists certainly would not. The vaunted documentary feel is not as authentic-seeming today, when there's greater technology available for street-level filmmaking, but it's still pretty visceral and raw.
Bright Leaves (Ross McElwee, 2003)
McElwee is a damn genius to make all the minutiae and musings of his daily life into such amazingly compelling, funny and touching cinema. I didn't know what to expect when I saw his first feature, Sherman's March, and it just totally blew me away with its completely honest and disarming tone and unique approach to filmmaking. I haven't seen any of the features that McElwee made between Sherman's March and Bright Leaves (they weren't available on DVD until recently), but it's obvious that each one just picks up on whatever's going on in his life and consuming his thoughts at the time. The first line of voiceover in this film is "So I had this dream..." and you know that you are immediately again in the presence of this great raconteur. McElwee seamlessly blends family history, an obscure Hollywood melodrama, his grief over the death of his father, North Carolina's conflicted relationship with tobacco, and his anxiety about his son growing up into a narrative that's entertaining and contemplative and easy to identify with. Sitting down with a McElwee film is like reading a really good memoir, and I definitely went right to Netflix to add his other newly available films to my queue.
For Your Consideration (Christopher Guest, 2006)
I lowered my expectations greatly for this film after reading so many negative or lukewarm reviews, but even so it was disappointing how unfunny and ineffective it was. The Hollywood satire is obvious and outdated, and the realism (even amid absurdity) of Guest's earlier films is gone, replaced with cartoonish characters and situations that rarely radiate any sense of having real feelings or inner lives. The loss of the mockumentary format means that Guest's method of encouraging formless improvisation becomes a crutch, with scenes just sort of limping along without a beginning or end. With the pretense of documentary, moments like that make sense, but in a straightforward narrative they're just awkward. Worst of all, the movie just isn't funny, with tired bits and many members of Guest's repertory company playing variations on the same roles they've done several times now. I'm not sure where Guest goes from here to avoid completely running out of steam, but I think he needs to find a new approach if he's going to make anything nearly as clever or funny as Waiting for Guffman or Best in Show ever again.
Happy Feet (George Miller, 2006)
I initially dismissed this as yet another throwaway kiddie flick about talking animals that I was glad I didn't have to see, but a steady stream of very positive reviews that mentioned its surprisingly subversive nature and scant resemblance to the previews inspired me to give it a chance, and I sort of regret doing so. (I saw it in a theater on Thanksgiving with my family, probably the second movie I've paid to see this year, and of course got an awards screener a few days later.) It was definitely not entirely what the previews suggested, but I'm not sure that's a good thing - it starts as this typical fluff about acceptance and tolerance, and then turns into a sort of bleak adventure about the cast-out penguin before morphing again into a preachy story about environmentalism and then back into the big uplifting ending. I thought the environmental message was tacked-on and preachy, the pacing was off, and the standard kids' stuff was pretty boring. Some have complained about it being too scary and too sexually frank for kids, but that didn't bother me as much as it just being too confused about what kind of movie it was. The animation did look great, though.
An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2006)
I realize that I railed against this movie when it first came out and vowed never to see it, but I felt like that was probably an unnecessarily stubborn attitude given that I had an awards screener sitting next to my TV, and I didn't have to go to a theater or pay money to see the movie. Plus, I've made an effort to see pretty much every other notable release this year, and regardless of my opinion on it, I can't deny that this is a notable movie. So, I watched it sort of begrudgingly, which is admittedly not the best way to come at any movie, but I think I can confidently say that this is grossly overrated as a movie and even as a social statement. Obviously it's a very rudimentary film, mostly just a video of Al Gore doing his standard lecture on global warming. For that it's certainly not worthy of a theatrical release, but on video or on TV it might not make a difference. But Guggenheim also cuts away periodically from the lecture to these canonizing segments on Gore's life and career that are so cheesy and heavy-handed that they almost undermine the serious social message by making Gore out to be a martyr to environmentalism. From watching this film, you'd get the idea that he's the only person in the world who knows and/or cares about global warming.
And then there's the message, which I will concede right away may very well be completely accurate. But it comes across in the first 10 minutes, and then Gore just spends the time going over the same things again and again. I'll save you the trouble of seeing the movie, if you haven't: Global warming is real, it's dangerous, it's caused by humans and it's reversible. There, you saved a rental fee. Go buy an energy-efficient lightbulb. (Incidentally, I still don't care about the potential reality of global warming and its effects on future generations. As far as I'm concerned, the entire planet can explode the minute after I'm gone, and that will be fine with me.)
Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942)
Bette Davis is great as a woman with the most overbearing mother of all time in this thick melodrama with lots of wink-wink sexual innuendo. It's interesting that the great love story is between her and a married man, yet it's never portrayed as immoral. The movie's understanding of psychiatry is pretty ludicrous viewed from the present, but then again, so is the rest of it, and that's sort of the point.