Martin Scorsese!!!! David Lynch!!!! Richard Linklater!!!! The Waiting for Guffman gang!!!! The most charming Sundance movie in the history of cinema!!!!!!! The funniest movie since the creation of laughter!!!!!!!!! And a hideous artistic fiasco so abysmal the director should be stripped naked and pelted with eggs by every man, woman and child in America!!!!!!! Ah, yes... if nothing else, 2006 was a year of heightened expectations, very few of which turned out to be as good (or as bad) as anticipated. Time and again, I felt myself straining to embrace movies I wanted to love...but just as often, I was pleasantly surprised by movies that were supposed to be awful. As in 2005, I didn't see anything I flat-out loved, but there was a lot more to like this year -- and that's not even counting the following...
WILDCARDS: (potentially worthy movies unseen by moi in 2006): The Descent, Letters from Iwo Jima, Pan's Labyrinth, United 93, Dreamgirls
And now, the Top 10 I did see:
DAVE CHAPPELLE'S BLOCK PARTY
Why? Because this rollicking concert documentary is the best film of its (admittedly small) genre since at least Stop Making Sense and possibly Woodstock. Because while there were plenty of well-made flicks in '06, Dave Chappelle's Block Party was an event...and I don't just mean said block party, an all-day, all-inclusive jam for the residents of one hardscrabble Brooklyn neighborhood (and one lucky midwestern marching band) featuring undervalued performers like Erykah Badu, the Roots and Jill Scott. For one thing, it was a fantastically classy, big-hearted, easy-going comeback for Dave Chappelle after his 2005 "meltdown" (especially in light of panty-gate, Kramer-gate, Mel-gate and all the other tacky celebrity behavior this year). But even beyond that, in this post-9/11, post-Katrina, post-optimistic, pre-apocalyptic era, director Michael Gondry captured a joyfully defiant moment of celebration, hope and community sorely needed but sorely missing from most of the media landscape of 2006. And, quite simply, Dave Chappelle takes the top spot because his block party was the most fun I had at the movies all year.
2. THE QUEEN
notable exception to my opening rant about unfulfilled expectations and
overpraised filmmaking, The
Queen more than deserves its spot on this and just about every
year-end Top Ten list in the land, and if Helen Mirren doesn't score Best
Actress, I'll eat my flat hat. But the peerless Brit's career-best
performance as a cagey, imperious monarch struggling to comprehend the
alien emotional landscape beyond her own anachronistic detachment is supported
by an equally impressive, spot-on turn by Michael Sheen as the Ghost of
Tony Blair Past and a witty, well-oiled Mercedes of a screenplay that explores
the fascinating terrain of Britain's modern monarchy, media manipulation,
public perception versus personal ethics and the true nature of leadership.
THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED
A funny, real-life detective yarn, a brief history of film and a timely exposé of American cultural hypocrisy...all that AND a compendium of notorious, uncensored sex scenes? What's not to like? This Film Is Not Yet Rated is a gotcha! documentary in the Super Size Me tradition, where the filmmaker explores a larger topic by subjecting himself to a series of misadventures. In this case, the subject is the shadowy, puritanical Motion Picture Association of America, an unelected, unimpeachable board which subtly shapes our national cultural agenda by determining which films (and values) are "family-friendly" and which are marginalized by means of the current G-PG-PG13-R-NC17 ratings system. Combining movie clips and filmmaker interviews, director Kirby Dick demonstrates how the MPAA habitually demonizes sex in movies (particularly the homo- variety) while letting violence slide...but the real fun of the movie is watching the ironically-named Dick track down the secretive MPAA board members together with a spunky private detective (who, coincidentally but with obvious thematic irony, also happens to be a lesbian mother) before submitting the very film you're watching to the very group it's about for a rating in a great meta moment of "F--- You" brio.
One of the crown jewels of this year's quality crop...oh, wait, that's what I wrote about last year's number four movie, Capote, and this year's number four hardly qualifies as high-quality filmmaking. The visuals and performances (give or take Rosario Dawson) are about what you'd expect from a crass wage slave-turned-indie director (not to mention the fact that my generally open-minded parents and their friends, a minister and his wife, walked out somewhere between the, uh, panty troll and the donkey show)...but if Borat's mean-spirited, badly filmed, crudely funny (but, c'mon America's critics, not THAT funny) shtick is worthy of recognition based on shameless laughs, then I'm willing to champion Clerks II, which I found just about as funny as Borat, Talladega Nights and Jackass 2, but with a more satisfying climax than any of them, a recognizably realistic working class sensibility and a big musical number...well, okay, Jackass 2 had a big musical number, too, but still...after a year of depressing headlines and all the assorted headaches and disappointments that come with being a grown-up, the aging Gen-Xer in me was plenty happy for the brief comfort food escape of Kevin Smith's overgrown adolescent Jersey dude aesthetic.
Speaking of aging Gen-X icons, this lo-fi rockumentary follows Boston's own Pixies during their 2004 reunion tour and (to my mind anyway) definitively answers the question, "Which Pixie would be your best traveling companion on a long car trip?" (Hint: it's not Kim Deal...and it's definitely not pill-popping magic enthusiast/drummer David Lovering...and it's probably not Black Francis either, especially if the air conditioner's busted.) While I admit one of my reasons for digging LoudQuietLoud may be simple nostalgia for a more exciting subcultural moment, the dark humor, distinctive personalities and dysfunctional dynamics of the band's intertwined relationships were at least as entertaining as, say, the family in Little Miss Sunshine. Oh, and did I mention it's a concert film? Or that the Pixies freakin' rock?
THE WORLD'S FASTEST INDIAN
Not to pick on Little Miss Sunshine again, since it was indeed extremely charming (if a wee bit overpraised, yes?)...but after LoudQuietLoud, my other favorite road trip movie of the year (well, technically last year, although it didn't reach Boston until 2006) was The World's Fastest Indian, an overlooked, underrated true-ish story about an aging Australian mensch named Burt Munro who, like Ricky Bobby, just wants to go fast...more specifically, he wants to run his customized 1920 Indian motorcycle at the legendary Bonneville Salt Flats just once before he dies to see exactly how fast his contraption can go. And that's it. Burt's journey from Australia to the Salt Flats in Utah with his bike pretty much takes up the whole story, and some of the episodic scenes along the way come from the standard-issue "quirky road movie" kit, but Anthony Hopkins submerges himself so deeply into the lead role you can barely see him acting, and the philosophical, indomitable joie de vivre of Munro (both the character and the real guy, who appears in a documentary accompanying the film on DVD) is contagious and truly inspiring in a way most "inspiring" true stories never manage.
Years ago, after Reservoir Dogs, there was a glut of wannabe Tarantinos filling their tired genre exercises with overstylized hipster language in a play for indie street cred, so I was a little wary of this self-consciously arch high school noir with its tongue-twisting patois and talk of muscle and dope rats and "The Pin." As it turns out, though, Brick was more like what an episode of Twin Peaks might have looked like six seasons later if they'd dropped the supernatural stuff and hired David Milch as a staff writer...well, maybe not quite that good, but still pretty impressive for a little Sundance indie.
A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION
To be honest, A Prairie Home Companion wasn't a movie I expected to make my Top Ten list. I enjoyed the lazy, loping rhythyms, the overlapping dialogue, the intelligent humanity -- all the distinctive trademarks of a Robert Altman film -- but I figured there'd be plenty more of those, so this one was nothing special. Now, of course, Virginia Madsen's angel of death hovering around the final broadcast of an old-fashioned radio show has taken on new meaning. Altman went out with class and style, providing his own best eulogy in a scene where a surprisingly cinematic Garrison Keillor refuses to depress his audience by acknowledging the death of one of the radio show's performers. Thinking him heartless, someone asks, "What if you die someday? Don't you want people to remember you?" To which Keillor replies, "I don't want them to be told to remember me." With Robert Altman, that shouldn't be a problem...he'll definitely be remembered.
LADY IN THE WATER
Yeah, that's right, I said it: Lady in the freakin' Water is my #9 movie of the year. Even if I didn't like M. Night Shyamalan's earnest, loopy fairy tale, I would have put it on my list as a counter-balance to the feeding frenzy of passionate contempt this harmless fairy tale managed to generate among America's movie critics in 2006 (I mean, it's not freakin' Triumph of the Will, for cripes sake!). To me, something like, say, American Pie 5: The Naked Mile is far more worthy of disdain for its naked cynicism -- after all, whether or not you think he succeeded, Shyamalan at least tried to make a thoughtful, entertaining movie...and, sure, maybe he was asking for trouble with all his screenplay's talk of magical narfs and scrunts (not to mention decisions to make one of his characters a nasty movie critic and casting himself as a writer destined to change the world)...but I think the slow pace and naked, aching sincerity of the movie is what really made it a target for many of the same critics who went overboard in the other direction for more hipster-friendly fare like, say, Borat. Personally, I was drawn in by Paul Giamatti's typically great performance, as well as the offbeat tone and storytelling, which came together in unpredictable, satisfying ways far superior to Signs, The Village and many, many less interesting, less villified 2006 releases.
BEFORE THE MUSIC DIES
This documentary about the American music industry's poisonous effect on American music is less-than-perfect filmmaking, but like the scrappy, under-the-radar bands and performers it champions (including Calexico, Los Lobos and, in a nice bit of Top Ten synchronicity, the Roots and Erykah Badu), director Andrew Shapter's labor of love inspired me like no other movie in recent memory. Sure, the movie argues, we're besieged on all sides by soulless monolithic corporations with no interest in truth, beauty, peace, love or understanding, but in the age of YouTube and MySpace, when movies and CDs can be made and distributed cheaply and viral videos and blogs can have a tiny impact on elections, maybe Time magazine wasn't so crazy after all. Maybe their person of the year "You" (and me) really do have some control over the cultural and political landscape after all...but only if we all quit grousing about Bush and Paris Hilton, etc., and actually work towards something better.
MENTION: Matador, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story,
2 A.M., Inside Man, Bubble, M:I:3, The Puffy Chair, Small Town Gay Bar,
The Devil Wears Prada, Little Children, Little Miss Sunshine, Talladega
Nights, 49 Up, The Prestige, Borat, The Fountain, Inland Empire, The Curse
of the Golden Flower, Notes on a Scandal.
MOMENTS/PERFORMANCES: Pierce Brosnan’s 007 kiss-off in Matador,
Jodie Foster in Inside Man, Meryl Streep and the bitchy assistant
in The Devil Wears Prada, Jason Mewes’ Buffalo Bill impression and
Trevor Fehrman’s fully realized performance as Elias in Clerks II,
the supernaturally adorable Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine,
Mia Kirshner’s hauntingly memorable performance in the otherwise forgettable
Dahlia, the first half (and soundtrack) of Marie Antoinette,
David Bowie’s fantastic entrance as Nikola Tesla in The Prestige,
Grace Zabriskie and the bunny family in Inland Empire, Mark Wahlberg
in The Departed, that ass-kicking foot chase in the first half of
Royale, Judi Dench in Notes on a Scandal and Jackie Earle Haley’s
fearless, raw-nerve performance as the child molester in
MOST DISAPPOINTING: FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION
musty, toothless, Borscht-belt schtick about vapid, clueless show biz types
fell way below the bar set by This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting
for Guffman, Best In Show, A Mighty Wind and even director
Christopher Guest's previous Hollywood satire The Big Picture.
Without enough humor (or interesting character work) to fill even its surprisingly
slight 86 minute running time, the project would be a complete misfire
if not for Catherine O'Hara's depressingly accurate depiction of plastic
surgery madness and one great drunken rant that generates more comic energy
than all the rest of the movie combined.
BETTER THAN IT HAD TO BE: THE FOUNTAIN
knows I'm no Aronofsky apologist, and I despised every second of Requiem
for a Dream...but this time out, the director's obsessive, humorless
style was perfectly matched to his subject, i.e. grief, death and the meaning
of existence. While the director lacks the humanistic empathy required
for a messy subject like addiction, his abstract formalism is well suited
to fantasy and pointy-headed stoner philosophy. And his imagery,
overwrought and overpraised in Requiem, is more controlled and effective
here, from the subatomic beauty of his galactic skies to the Mayan priest
with his flaming sword, giving The Fountain the visual jazz and
pulp solemnity of a classic graphic novel.
MOST OVERPRAISED: THE DEPARTED
any good cinephile I've always loved Martin Scorsese, but I'm truly baffled
by the critics who rank this fast-paced but forgettable genre exercise
alongside GoodFellas or any of his other classic crime operas.
Aside from Mark Wahlberg (and Middleboro native Peg Holzemer as a scary
Southie dame), I didn't believe any of the movie star cast as cops or
robbers, and the plot, give or take a surprising death, was by turns predictable,
far-fetched and nonsensical. So, naturally, this is probably the
year Marty finally gets his Oscar.
WORST IN SHOW: FLIGHTPLAN & LITTLE MAN
there were a lot of disappointments in the past year, I managed to avoid
most of the flat-out stinkers (although I couldn't escape the coming attraction
trailer for Little Man, which qualifies by default as the worst
thing I actually saw in theaters in 2006). But the worst full-length
movie I saw was Flightplan, a 2005 release that stank up my Netflix
queue with a moronic plot that some lazy Hollywood writers no doubt sold
for way too much money, some overpaid industry suits greenlit (instead
of something that actually made sense) and some overpaid director and movie
stars (including Jodie Foster and Peter Sarsgaard, who should know better)
didn't bother to improve. Shouldn't people who get paid so much actually
be good at their jobs? The question, of course, is rhetorical.
& 2. THE WIRE & DEADWOOD
Movies are good, but HBO is better. Hands down. Nothing I've seen in theaters for the past two or three years has impressed me as much as The Wire or Deadwood, which both delivered stellar new seasons in 2006. Comparing the two shows with esteemed culture vulture Scott Von Doviak, we both favored The Wire as the best show of the year in a very tight race, because while it has no one single character as compelling as Deadwood's indomitable anti-hero Al Swearengen (and no scene as viscerally cathartic as this season's scream-inducing, cataclysmic battle royale between Al's henchman Dan Dority and Hearst enforcer Captain Turner), the Baltimore-based Wire wins on the epic scale of its ambition, scope and execution. Both shows are complex, multilayered depictions of the cause and effect of good and evil in vivid, lived-in environments, brimming with scores of fascinating characters fully inhabited by their astonishing ensemble casts. But while Deadwood's baroque plot occasionally wanders into non-essential filler (like the third season's snoozy behind-the-scenes melodrama involving the titular town's resident theater troupe), The Wire, over four seasons, has maintained an astonishingly consistent novelistic structure, pace and focus that other long-form shows would do well to emulate (I'm talkin' to you, Lost...and you too, Sopranos!).
3. EVERYBODY HATES CHRIS: Chris Rock's charming family sitcom has great jokes and one of the best ensembles on television. An underrated gem.
4. SURVIVOR: The crown jewel of reality shows has always been about social politics, and the Cook Islands edition (where tribes started off mixed by ethnicity) was a particularly interesting edition, while the introduction of Exile Island and the Hidden Immunity Idol put fresh spins on a continually evolving and addictive game.
5. THE SOUP: The Daily Show of entertainment reporting was more essential than ever this year as charismatic host Joel McHale sat back and let TomKat, Britney, Fed-Ex, Lindsay, Paris, Mel, Kramer and all the rest make fools of themselves for our viewing pleasure.
6. 30 ROCK: Tina Fey's comedy show about comedy was smart and funny right out of the gate and just keeps getting better, unlike a certain comedy show drama I could mention.
7. LOST: Frustrating, but still essential viewing...assuming they prove they're not just making it up as they go along sometime in the very near future.
8. THE AMAZING RACE: Like Survivor, the season-to-season quality depends heavily on casting, but this race around the world is generally addictive (and I can't wait for the all-star edition).
9. ENTOURAGE: Funny and suspenseful, the show works because it balances the fun of being a movie star with the fleeting nature of fame.
10. BIG LOVE: Not as compelling a family drama as Six Feet Under, but Harry Dean Stanton is a great villain and the rookie season built to a satisfying climax that promises good things in the future.
Honorable Mention: The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, The Office (although I missed most of this season thanks to grad school), Celebrity Poker Showdown, The Sopranos, The Comeback.
ANNOYING: STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP
I've blogged about how condescendingly tone deaf and wrong-headed I think this show is, but Mad TV nailed it right between the eyes.
SHOW: LUCKY LOUIE
Wow, a sitcom with swear words! Well, based on the constant hysterical laughter of the studio audience, I guess that's enough for some people. Me, I prefer a sitcom with humorous dialogue and maybe one or two characters I don't actively hate.
1. INTUITION by Allegra Goodman: Crisp prose and sharp characterizations make this peek inside the ego-driven inner workings of a Harvard research lab on the verge of a major discovery (or massive fraud) a gripping page turner.
2. THE BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DEAD by Kevin Brockmeier: What initially seems like merely an imaginative depiction of the afterlife develops into a moving dramatization of the interconnectedness of every human life.
GASPING FOR AIRTIME by Jay Mohr: Not a 2006 release, but a book I
enjoyed for its unromanticized, grunt's eye view of what Saturday Night
Live feels like from the inside.
1. TOO MUCH LIGHT MAKES THE BABY GO BLIND: I've been wanting to see this Chicago experimental theater staple since I first heard about it back in 1993, and it was definitely worth the wait. The Neo-Futurist troupe performs an ever-shifting group of stunts and mini-plays that are by turns funny, thought-provoking and just plain cool.
2. THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE: The music may not add much to the American songbook, but the charming cast, clever staging and quick-witted script evoke all the comedy, drama and trauma of childhood anxiety.
3. KATHY GRIFFIN: She may be a diva, and maybe she's a handful in real life, but seeing her in person at the Berklee Performance Center was like seeing Siouxsie Sioux in the '80s -- a visitation from a pop culture goddess.
Mention: No Exit and Wings of Desire (at the A.R.T.),
2006 theme song: "Make Your Own Kind of Music" by The Mamas and the Papas
Album of the Year: St. Elsewhere by Gnarls Barkley, which surprised me by actually being as good as everyone said it was (plus, how can you not love a band that performed live with guys in Imperial stormtrooper uniforms)?
Soundtracks of the Year: Dave Chappelle's Block Party & Marie Antoinette.
Musical Event of the Year: Orphans by Tom Waits
Musical Discovery of the Year: Zero 7, especially the song "You're My Flame." As it turns out, I've loved various songs of theirs for years without realizing they all came from one great band.
right, enough of this 2006 stuff...on to '07!