Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Ancient History: A Look Back At 2006's Cinema

Okay, so you could say this is me doing a clever, post-post kinda thing, where we think about the movies of a year when it's long-faded enough for academic criticism. But the truth is, I wrote this when my computer was in the shop, just found it on my pendrive, and thought it bore sharing. I know, I know. Enjoy?

THE BEST MOVIES OF 2006, in some rough order

1. Syriana - If 2006 was all about sprawling socially-conscious multiple-protagonist films with blown-out pallettes and subvertingly poetic inserts (which it was), I submit that this (rather than the year's simultaneously underrated and undeserving Best Picture) is the one folks are going to dig out in 50 years' time and say, "and when they got it right, this is how good it was". Notoriously labrynthine, confoundingly baroque and self-obfuscating, this is a film that really makes you work for your kicks. But what borders on narratological audience-participation is rewarded with some of the deepest characters, realest plots, most heartfelt performances in what's becoming the genre of the decade.

2. United 93 - Taking a similar approach to its ubiquitous subject matter as 2005's Last Days, Paul Greengrass' uncomfortably intimate, claustrophobic pic succeeds in all the ways that film failed. Throughout, a narrowed, fractured perspective is used to sublime and chilling effect, whether it's watching people react to the Twin Tower attacks or hearing half of a mother's tearful final phonecall to her children.

3. Out Of The Blue - Not just the best New Zealand movie in a long time (fine, ever), but just plain one of the finest films of its type anywhere. Falters at times in its hesitation as to whether to be cinema or verite, but every other - no doubt daunting - decision is made perfectly, planting the pic in the miniscule spaces between exploitative and dismissive, shocking and cloying. The Man Alone had it coming.

4. Casino Royale - Surely should be counted as a catastrophic failure as a Bond movie: unsexy muppet-man sings widely-derided (and excellent) title song before story transpires that's politically feasible and bereft of stupid sci-fi gadgetry, relying instead on the hitherto-avoided gambit of making James Bond an actual character. Consequently, it's by so far and away the best of the series that it makes you wonder how anyone ever put up with anything that went before, and the first instalment that can be wholeheartedly recommended to those without a whit of interest in what James Bond is or why they should care. (All "best" claims, of course, are issued with the caveat that The Living Daylights is still just as good).

5. Hard Candy - Of course it seems timely, but rather than relying on any sort of oh-look-there-is-this-thing-called-Myspace-and-it-scares-eldery-whites ballyhoo, Hard Candy taps into timeless themes of accusation and suspicion, deftly manipulating the sympathies and exchanging victim for predator on an almost scene-by-scene basis. Comparisons abound with The Woodsman, Happiness et al, but Hard Candy's closest cousin may really be The Crucible: both mesh theatrical containment with a cinematic awareness of what's offscreen. This film also contains what may be the single best performance by a young actress ever.

6. Borat - Sacha Baron Cohen's in-character appearance on Letterman makes apparent just what a hell of a director Larry Charles is. The Borat character, as well as being intensely unlikeable, is not possessed of infinite screen-potential; all the more impressive, then, just how well this film holds up. Much has been made of the merciless barbs the film aims at American culture, but what else strikes you is just what a perfect skewering it is of that modern myth, the Inherent Nobility Of Subtitles. Ignore the brouhaha generated by the prodco's dodgy practices; watch Borat as a razor-sharp Christopher Guesting of the tre-arthouse Stranger In A Strange Land genre.

7. Brick - The thing about why-wasn't-this-done earlier ideas is that, underdone, they can be a depressing answer to that very question. Brick, while at times leaning on its gimmick, for the most part is exactly the loving, inricately detailed realisation deserved by its central premise. Onscreen noir having long since passed into lazy pastiche (thanks very much, Sin City), it fell to this odd little genre-twister to bypass all the cliches and pare the style back to the elements. Brick doesn't look or talk like the modern notion of what film noir ought to be; it gives it to you straight, no chaser. As such, it succeeds more admirably than most anything since Chinatown.

8. Thank You For Smoking - Exactly as sharp, subversive and vital as it needs to be. While sometimes experimenting with a Message and peering at length into the ol' comedy trap of Laughs Or Plot?, pic still succeeds admirably as a collection of near-perfect riffs tied together with a story that, well, could've been done a lot worse.

9. Miami Vice - Deeply, deeply flawed, this perfect idea for a movie - Michael Mann shows us exactly what was good about his tv series by taking out all the superfluities and updating what's left - would've been a damn sight better if it could've stayed on target and had a third act filmed. As it is, it's half the best crime movie since Heat, and half a perfectly serviceable romance/thriller that's better than anyone else does 'em, just not as good as Mann's usual.

10. Metal: A Headbanger's Journey - A slightly confused, hopelessly subjective, articulate and vibrant testament to just how much one guy likes headbangin'. Let's have a lot more like this!

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