Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Best of 2006: Movies

I know that people are probably sick to death of top 10 lists at this point (and if you are, check out The Reeler's gleeful evisceration of lists and the people who make them), and this already ran in shorter form in Las Vegas Weekly, but I do have that undeniable critical desire to put a capper on the year, and to elaborate more than I was able to in the Weekly. Some of my picks have been on numerous lists and praised extensively, but others are a little less acclaimed and deserve wider recognition. Last year, I resolved to see more films, and I did make a concerted effort late in the year to catch up on things that I had missed via DVD. Thus, I saw about 150 movies that were released theatrically in 2006, up about 10 from last year (which doesn't seem like that much, but represents a not-insubstantial effort). Naturally, things passed me by, but I feel pretty confident in this list as representative of the year as I saw it. Links are to my original reviews, where applicable.

1. The Science of Sleep
Last week, I did an appearance on local radio station KNEWS, going over the year in film, and I went on and on about how great this movie was, about its heady depiction of romance, its manic visual sense and innovative, non-CGI effects, its universal story about trying to find love, its humor, its warmth, its creativity, and as I finished this whole spiel, all the host says is, "What was that title again?" Obviously not a lot of mainstream audiences made it to this film, despite the general high awareness of Michel Gondry's last movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I think this deals with many of the same themes and emotions as that film did, although in a more dream-like, impressionistic way. Reviews were good - although not universally so - but I've seen the film on few top 10 lists. It's definitely worth another look when it's out on DVD February 6.

2. A Scanner Darkly
I'm surprised not to see this as a stronger favorite for best animated film awards, since it does far more with the form than movies like Flushed Away, Cars or Happy Feet (which have been getting the bulk of the praise). Richard Linklater's forever-in-the-works adaptation of Philip K. Dick's classic sci-fi novel is surreal, funny and prescient, and the jittery animation style perfectly complements the paranoid tone. It manages to be trippy without losing its central narrative thrust, and Robert Downey Jr. continues a string of great comeback performances. Another one worth a second look on DVD.

3. The Black Dahlia
I realize that I will convince no one that this is a great movie if they don't already think so. But for all the critical drubbing that this film took (and it took plenty), I find it hard to believe that even the most staunch opponents of Brian De Palma's over-the-top storytelling or some of the more questionable acting choices from Hilary Swank, Fiona Shaw and Josh Hartnett couldn't find some pure cinematic enjoyment in De Palma's swooping crane shots, or the lush, evocative set design, or the meta-creepiness of De Palma himself egging on Mia Kirshner as Betty Short to be more vulnerable, more raw. It's a movie of endless sensual pleasures, whatever you think of it otherwise. (One such pleasure, image via Keith Uhlich.)

4. Dreamgirls
As I've mentioned before, it surprises me how tepid the critical reaction to this movie has been. I find Oscar handicapping rather tiresome, but I'm sort of glad that this movie's alleged frontrunner status has cooled off a bit, and I actually kind of hope it doesn't win a ton of awards, because that would only intensify the backlash that I think is undeserved. This is a big, broad, unsubtle spectacle, but it's incredibly satisfying and successful at that, and just a pure pleasure to watch. I feel no shame about saying that it's one of the best movies of the year.

5. The Puffy Chair
I was lucky to see this movie at CineVegas, which is the only time it played theatrically in Vegas. With all the praise given to Andrew Bujalski (deserved, as far as I'm concerned, although I've only seen Funny Ha Ha and not Mutual Appreciation), the Duplass brothers here do many of the same things, capturing the rambling, often very funny self-absorption of arrested-development twentysomethings in a naturalistic, immediate way. Yes, this film has more structure and more actual jokes than a Bujalski movie, but its core is just as honest. And these are the guys who could clearly, with a little more money, bring that honesty to the mainstream. They certainly deserve the chance.

6. The Good German
Like The Black Dahlia, this is another stylish tribute to noir that has gotten overwhelmingly bad reviews, and even lacks the dedicated core of defenders that De Palma's movie has. While I can understand some of the criticism that this is more of an exercise than a film, I think it's a really successful exercise, and that the writing and acting is actually quite sharp, and that Steven Soderbergh does use the rigorous formalism to make an interesting statement, even if it takes a back seat to the style. I'm sure I'll elaborate further in my review once I see it again; it opens in Vegas on January 19.

7. Unknown White Male
I was sort of surprised not to see this on many lists of the best documentaries of the year; I suppose that political documentaries have really overshadowed personal ones. But this is such an amazing and heartbreaking story (so much so that some people have accused it of being a hoax), and Rupert Murray takes the great material and shapes into something as moving as any fiction film this year. I didn't see any of the Iraq-war documentaries this year that people have been raving about (most didn't play Vegas, but I've also not exactly been rushing to add them to my Netflix queue), and maybe my fatigue with that issue keeps me from some good films, but this is easily as good as any politically-minded nonfiction film that I've seen recently.

8. Inside Man
With all the attention that United 93 and World Trade Center have gotten this year, it's a shame that more people haven't pointed to the way that Spike Lee incorporated 9/11 more indirectly and organically into two of his recent fiction films, this one and 25th Hour. Lots has been written about how this is a great heist thriller - and it is - but I think just as valuable is the way that it reflects a subtly changed world. Confronting something as monumental as 9/11 head-on is important, and I hope that this year's two high-profile examples aren't the last to tackle that for a while. But exploring all aspects of life after such a significant event is important, too. Also, badass heist movies are cool.

9. Thank You for Smoking
There was a time after this movie came out that I was conflicted as to whether it was clever satire or just empty posturing, and I have to say at this point that I don't care. This is the best libertarian comedy of the year, possibly of all time; it's cynical and sharp and contributes nothing to the betterment of the world, and for that I love it.

10. V for Vendetta
I will say that in most other years this would not have made my list, since its political conscience is undoubtedly conflicted and its action is a little pedestrian. But having the courage to get even half of Alan Moore's radical political notions from the V graphic novel is noteworthy, and just because the film doesn't advocate outright anarchy doesn't mean it isn't making a provocative statement. You can side with Moore and get pissy about the comics not being transferred verbatim to the screen, or you can just appreciate an exciting action movie with some indelible images and a pretty bold political message.

And, without comment and in no particular order, my least favorite movies of 2006: Hoodwinked, The Dead Girl, Strangers With Candy, The Devil Wears Prada, Lady in the Water, Flyboys

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