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Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Best of 2006

If you ever wondered why every movie critic in the world ends the year with a “Best & Worst” list the truth is not that their egos demand that you bask in the insightfulness of their picks so much as in their need to fill column space since no new movies open the last week of December. The big studios have already purged themselves of their best products before Christmas in the hopes of two things: raking in the big bucks from families needing something to do together to occupy that vast gap of time they must fill as part of the annual “holiday family reunion” and, more importantly, the studios hope to burn brightest in the memories of Academy Award voters who will be casting their ballots for the best in every category within the next few weeks. The studio execs are smart enough to know that like most of us, the aging baby boomers that make up the Academy will most likely have forgotten anything really outstanding they may have seen in the first two-thirds of 2006, so they save their most “relevant” and “adult” projects until closer to voting time. Certainly you understand that by “adult” I mean of more interest to the grown-up crowd than the usual seat-fillers at the cineplexes, the teens and early twenty-somethings.

Here in Vermont it may not seem like we’ve gotten the best Hollywood has to offer by the end of the year, and it’s true. To qualify for Oscar consideration a film only has to play for one week in a major market during the calendar year, so most of the “big” films we see advertised right now like Dreamgirls, The Painted Veil, Letters From Iwo Jima, and Notes on a Scandal have been playing to packed crowds in New York and Los Angeles, but may still be weeks away from hitting the big screen here. Meanwhile, the critics in those markets are also deciding for the rest of the country whether we should even consider spending our money on seeing these films long before they’ve arrived. Personally, I think most every movie has some merit to it or else it wouldn’t get made. Yes, there is a lot of junk out there, and between January and end of April you can expect the studios to pretty much litter the landscape with nothing but garbage, usually movies that were greenlighted by now-fired executives as vanity projects for some young star or director the studio wanted for another movie and could only get in a two-or-three picture deal which included an assurance to the star or director that their pet picture would get made. Then the studios “burn off” these films that they expect to lose money on as tax losses and use the first five months of the year to concentrate their marketing and sales efforts of the multi-gazillion dollar mega-hit effects-laden Summer blockbusters they have in store (think Spiderman 3; Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End; Shrek the Third; Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix; Hairspray; The Simpsons Movie). These, of course, are rarely the top Academy Award contenders. They aren’t meant to be. They are “Popcorn Movies,” built to be fun, enticing you to part with your money and hopefully coax you to buy the tons of ancillary products related to the movie that you or your children will feel empty without. The brainy and “cultural” stuff can wait until it counts, when the voters will be paying attention. In the Summer they are usually not at the movies anyway. They’re off in Europe, trash talking how stupid Americans are with the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna, while looking down their noses at anything without an Italian designer’s label sewn in it.

So with all that in mind, I’ve looked back at the 250+ movies I’ve watched this past year here in Vermont and I’ve created my own list. I’ve not included the obvious sure things like Dreamgirls because, even though I did see it on a jaunt to New York, and it deserves all the praise it is receiving, it hasn’t played here, and thus it will have to wait until next year. I’m sticking strictly with what you could have seen and what I experienced, in no discernable order:

The Best of 2006

V FOR VENDETTA: A fantastic and topical tale of government gone awry and the power of one man to sway a nation to wake-up and quit continuing to be passive sheep in front of their televisions each night doing nothing while more and more of their personal freedoms are being taken away. The question you have to ask ~ Is he a hero or a terrorist?

HAPPY FEET: Sheer, adorable fun with unbelievably beautiful animation, lovely music, great voice cast, lots of clever jokes and an important environmental message slipped in for good measure, but it’s a lesson learned painlessly in the overall story of a penguin growing up from egg to young adult.

KINKY BOOTS: Based on a true story, Serenity’s Chiwetel Ejiofor gives an
unapologetic and energetic performance as a drag queen recruited by the owner of a failing shoe factory in rural England to help him save the two hundred year old family business from closing by changing the product line from traditional men’s shoes to a line of boots marketed exclusively to the transvestite crowd, much to the astonishment of the factory’s long-time employees. A hoot from start to finish, though remarkably touching at the same time, and with a fabulous finale that puts The Birdcage to shame.

CASINO ROYALE: This 21st James Bond outing might just as well have been the first as it rebooted the legend of 007 and told the story of his becoming a “licensed to kill” secret agent but told in contemporary times. Daniel Craig, despite fears from long-time Bond fans, gave a dazzling performance and made the character his own. For the first time in years, Bond seemed worth paying attention to again.

AKEELAH AND THE BEE: An inspiring and believe-it-or-not exciting tale of an inner-city girl’s rise to prominence at the National Spelling Bee. KeKe Palmer is great in the lead, presenting Akeelah as a typical pre-teen without being cloying, smug, smart-mouthed or overwhelmingly sentimental as in the tradition of so many movies and television shows today. Laurence Fishburne also gives the performance of his career, a far step from his usual persona, in his role as a mentor with more than a broken heart, which is all too believable and sadly understandable. The tragedy from his past that colors his every thought layers his character with emotions you won’t see coming until you feel them bubbling up within yourself even before he shows them to us on screen. If this doesn’t move you, then you need to see a cardiologist right away because your heart is missing.

FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS: At 76, Clint Eastwood continues to awe with his visionary style of storytelling as he shows not just the gory battle on the beach at Iwo Jima where thousands died but also the equally affecting results of the government’s decision to turn three soldiers into media heroes despite their misgivings and their fragile mental states as they deal with the aftermath of their experiences in combat. Look especially for Adam Beach, a Saulteaux Indian from Manitoba, Canada and a member of the Ojibwa Nation, as Ira Hayes, an American Indian who grapples with racism, poverty, and alcoholism while struggling to keep up the façade of hero that his superiors demand of him. He is outstanding and has the potential to be a huge star if this performance is any indication of what he has to offer.

THE DEPARTED: Martin Scorsese scored with his all-star gangsters gone wild story about an old-time mob kingpin who seeds the Boston Police and the FBI with young informants and what happens a few years later when the big bosses in both of these agencies begin to suspect there are snitches in their midst. The blood flows in gallons, as does the swearing and gunfire, but with a cast that includes Jack Nicholson, Leonardo Dicaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, and Alec Baldwin what’s not to like?

THE QUEEN: Was there any better performance this year than Helen Mirren’s perfect turn as the tightly wound current British monarch who refused to publicly acknowledge the death of her former daughter-in-law, Princess Diana? Mirren captured the cold-heartedness of the situation without turning her subject into a monster; instead she surreptitiously managed to paint a portrait of Queen Elizabeth as a victim of her own power and regal heritage, trapped by responsibility and the burden of expectations that come with her bloodline. If anyone has a lock on the Oscar nomination for Best Actress this year Ms. Mirren is the one who should be clearing a place on her mantle for the coveted golden statuette.

APOCALYPTO: As dreadful as Mel Gibson has been in his personal life this past year, he took a huge creative risk and a gargantuan leap of faith by bringing this grisly look at the last days of the ancient Mayan civilization to the screen. The entire two-and-a-half-hour story is told solely in Mayan with subtitles, using real Mayan descendants and Mexican natives rather than trained actors in key roles. The characters are fascinating and fleshed out with minimal dialogue, but the invasion of one peaceful tribe by the encroaching “city dwellers” reveals a part of history that most of us would rather hear about in the hypothetical than see in actuality. It’s gross and gut-wrenching (literally), and you’ll leave with a new respect for the hardships of what early man (and woman) really had to go through just to survive. The cinematography is gorgeous, filmed on location in the jungle, and with techniques that will make you feel as if you are in the action rather than observing it. Mel may be a schmuck, but this is his best film yet.

THE PRESTIGE: Surely you didn’t think I could leave you without including a Hugh Jackman film amongst the year’s top ten? Aside my from my own personal bias (blush), The Prestige offers a whopper of a mystery in this turn of the 20th century tale set in London about the unbridled rivalry between two magicians (Christian Bale and Hugh) as they attempt almost anything imaginable (and a great deal that’s not) to wreak vengeance on one another in a variety of escalating escapades of one-upsmanship in the shared goal of destroying one another’s careers. This is the type of “popcorn movie” that seems frivolous enough, but will leave you thinking about it long after it’s over. What seems like a simple enough resolution to the story can be taken at face value and dismissed, but if you really think about what was involved in getting to the end you’ll be overwhelmed thinking about what it would mean for the lives of several people, over the course of many years, to get to that place. It’s really quite thought-provoking, and the sacrifices are more than most people could stand.


Blood Diamond
The Devil Wears Prada

The Good Shepherd
Little Miss Sunshine
Over The Hedge
Thank You for Smoking
United 93

1 comment:

redtown said...

In reality, the Queen's reactions to Diana's death surely covered a range of ambivalent feelings, and was not just a cold insistence on protocol, as suggested by the film.

Prince Charles tells his mother, "The Diana we knew was very different than the Diana idolized by the public", but this truth is never developed in the film.  I'll mention it here.

While the "people's princess" remains the icon of superficial popular culture, the Royals knew a very different, darker character behind the facades of glamour and pseudo-compassion.

Both Diana and her brother, Charles Spencer, suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder caused by their mother's abandoning them as young children.  A google search reveals that Diana is considered a case study in BPD by mental health professionals.

For Charles Spencer, BPD meant insatiable sexual promiscuity (his wife was divorcing him at the time of Diana's death). For Diana, BPD meant intense insecurity and insatiable need for attention and affection which even the best husband could never fulfill. 

Clinically, it's clear that the Royal family did not cause her "problems". Rather, Diana brought her multiple issues into the marriage, and the Royal family was hapless to deal with them.

Her illness, untreated, sowed the seeds of her fast and unstable lifestyle, and sadly, her tragic fate.