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 scr