Sunday, December 31, 2006

My Favorite Movies of 2006 (in roughly descending order)

The most exciting time of the year. Ryan has his list up over here; Kat's is here, with an addendum here; Mark just put his up, too.

The Departed

Martin Scorsese is not the first American to draw inspiration from a Hong Kong action movie. Most interpretations, though, have paid tribute to the double-fisted shootouts and slow motion spurts of blood. The Departed is the first film to successfully translate the hysterical identity crises that animated those films. In the Honk Kong of the early and mid-1990s, with China’s reacquisition looking, a dreadful sense of conflicted identities might have been a popular mood. In the US in 2006, it makes for the best kind of escapism.
In interviews I hear Scorsese say we more often than I, which would be humble were it not also a de facto brag on the professional company he keeps. Where would this movie, or any Scorsese movie, be without Thelma Schoonmaker or Michael Ballhaus? They are abetted by a great cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, and Vera Farmiga (quite good in a preposterous role); they all make you forget that Jack Nicholson is a little annoying.
None of this would be significant, though, if the film did not also turn the screws so well; I swear a Xanax ought to be included with the price of admission.

A Prairie Home Companion
I guess it’s sad that Robert Altman died this year, though it looks to me like he was warning against sentimentality about it in this funny, joyous paean to various sorts of endings. As The Onion reminds us, the world death rate is holding steady at 100%. Not many of us will go out after such an accomplished career, let alone on one of that career’s high-notes. I can’t think of a more fitting coda than this film.

Miami Vice
It turns out Michael Mann could not properly cash in on the trend for ironic nostalgia. Rather than a spoof or a straight-ahead action film, Miami Vice is another film about his signature themes of loneliness and discipline (like Collateral, beautifully shot with some kind of fancy digital camera). Gong Li is the first woman to play the Mann arch-type, but aside from that there’s not much new here. But even when he's treading water I think his films are better than almost anybody else's. (If anyone cares: the director’s cut DVD adds some to the love story between Crockett and Isabella, establishes the threat to Trudie earlier, includes an opening credit sequence that explains the nightclub sting operation that theatrical version opened in the middle of, and swaps out one of the worst songs).

United 93
The first half of United 93 is a detailed (almost fetishistic) portrayal of men (and a few women) immersed in their work. The panic and chaos that gradually envelops the ground-level characters gives the film a jarring verisimilitude; it will likely resonate with everyone who remembers that particular September 11 (even if the jargon makes no sense). The latter third of the film takes place mainly on the eponymous flight, and it’s both a terrifying horror film and a fascinating true-crime recreation.
The in-air sequences, moreover, aren’t heavy with cliché the way most speculative fiction is. A problem I have with a lot of re-created tragedy (like with, for instance, the filmed edition of The Perfect Storm) is the air of obligatory reverence; as if to preempt charges of exploitation, they make the sympathetic people one-dimensional, noble victims. Here, the villains are given a degree of humanity, and the passengers uncertainty and conflict.

When The Levees Broke
Calling Spike Lee's epic account of the worst natural and human-made disasters in American history documentary seems to underestimate it; oral history is getting closer. You also can’t go wrong with elegiac and monumental.

Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Gloriuous Nation Of Kazakhstan

The Borat movie proved immune to being spoiled. In spite of knowing exactly what was coming when I sat down, I laughed my ass off (when I wasn’t slouching down to escape the awkwardness). I didn’t think this movie was nearly as offensive as it’s detractors purport, nor as revealing about American prejudices as some of its supporters claim. It was, however, just about everything I'd hoped for, with a few surprising bonuses.

In my last year of college, I wrote a research paper on horror films with revenge narratives from the 1970s. Chris and I tried watching one of them (I Spit On Your Grave) again almost eight years ago, and it made us so queasy we turned it off early. I’m not sure what possessed me to want to spend a semester watching them, or how I made it through as many as I did, but I think reading Carol Clover’s Men, Women and Chainsaws helped.
I kept wondering what Clover would make of Hostel. For all the horror remakes of the last few years, Hostel actually achieves the moral ambiguity and depraved feel of those films. It also seems sprung from a similar political ideology, though to the extent one sees politics in it they feel contemporary (it might be interesting to watch it after The American Nightmare). Successfully reviving such a vile subgenre is a dubious achievement, but this movie has stuck with me more than a lot of more high-minded fare. Still, though, I don’t want anyone I care about subjected to it.

I was also a big fan of Spike Lee’s Inside Man, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa, and Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada .

There’s a lot to look forward to in 2007. There will be a new Paul Thomas Anderson movie; Wong Kar-Wai will also have his first English-language film completed. But, more importantly, a simple film with a simple title; five syllables that contain the possibility for redemption or even renewal; that together suggest a proposal, a promise, or perhaps an ultimatum: Live Free Or Die Hard.

Happy new year, everybody.

1 comment:

mark said...

I left a comment, but it didn't show up...oh well, here's my second try...

Good Stuff. I need to see "Miami Vice" and "Rocky Balboa". Especially the latter. You and Chris have made me very excited to see it.

Also, I love how you are hardcore carrying the torch for "Live Free or Die Hard". You should totally be a PR person for them! :)