|Illustration by Chuck Kerr|
Since complacency begets falsehood, all truths are inconvenient. An Inconvenient Truth, Davis Guggenheim’s record of Al Gore’s quest to save the planet, is an urgent reminder of impending catastrophe. Rather than succumb to pious homily, the film uses data, reason, and spunk to demonstrate the need for immediate action. Beyond its case for global warming, An Inconvenient Truth strikes a blow against the ambient hebetude on behalf of open, intelligent inquiry. It defies not only the unenlightened self-interest that is ravaging the earth but also the dumbing down of our culture, and it does so with humor and hope.
Both humor and hope are on rambunctious display in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. When Sacha Baron Cohen impersonates a Kazakh journalist traveling across the United States, what he captures on film is an acrid but uproarious record of anti-Semitism, misogyny, racism, homophobia, provincialism, and endemic stupidity. Like Aristophanes, Rabelais, and Swift, Cohen is crude and obnoxious, but right on target. Exposing stagnant hearts and vacant minds, he is a comic knight come to save us for a better day.
In The History Boys, veteran actor Richard Griffiths’s character Hector passionately describes how literature has affected him over his extensive career as an educator: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”
The same can be said about film. There were many exceptional, entertaining and unforgettable moments that stood out from the 168 movies I got to see over the past year. So, in no particular order, here are three of my personal favorites from the cinematic moments that etched themselves into my mind in 2006.
Steve Carell’s mad dash in Little Miss Sunshine – As the suicidal scholar Frank Hoover, Carell rips the door completely off the frame of the family’s Volkswagen van and sprints to the hotel where Olive, his 7-year-old niece, late for registration, will compete in a beauty pageant. As the emotions that have accumulated during the road trip are released in this unabashed tear through the parking lot, I realized there was no way in hell Frank would let Olive miss her chance at happiness.
The metaphorical stag in The Queen – The animal will have a different meaning for everyone as Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren), on more than one occasion, comes face to face with the beautiful deer. For me, it symbolized the end of an era in the Monarchy and the Queen’s realization of just how special Princess Diana was to the people of England.
The emotional and silent performance by Rinko Kikuchi in Babel – Her character’s display of sexuality and desperate need for human contact is compelling, and accomplishing this without uttering a word is even more phenomenal.
So look, yeah, I loved the scene in Babel where Cate Blanchett has to pee, and I adored the scene in The Fountain when Hugh Jackman sprouts plants (it’s just so Svankmajer), but what really got me off in movies this year was “Goat on a cliff.” For those of you still thinking I’m a perverted bastard right now, I’m talking about a scene from Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep, in which the protagonist, Stéphane (Gael García Bernal), is being bullied by a delightfully lusty Alain Chabat to engage in a trusted sexual position with the romantic leadstress, Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). When she asks, in a dream sequence, what “goat on a cliff” means, Stéphane deftly replies something like, “It’s just a children’s story. You don’t want to know.”
The Science of Sleep was my favorite movie of the year, despite its mediocre reviews. Critics abhorred Stephane’s childishness, but lest we forget, compadres, how often artistic genius and immaturity are paired. I didn’t hear anyone whining when it was Amadeus.
(And P.S., for those of you who “got lost,” I have this to say: Go watch Crossroads. That shouldn’t be too mind-bending.)
A fantasy neither lurid nor Lucas (George, that is), The Science of Sleep was refreshing because it was, indeed, of exceptional visual beauty, but it also left me with an entirely different gut reaction both times I saw it. Dismissed as being thin on character development, Sleep’s Stéphanie was to me quite the contrary: a layered, realistic, unknowable female character. And as for Stéphane … some celebrate the 12 days of Christmas, but over at my apartment we’re celebrating the twelve days of García Bernal. (Yes, it’s possible — if you count the two times you saw Babel and double up on a couple of the better rentables.) Join me next year for the 12 days of Laura Dern.
My Top 5 of 2006:
5. Superman Returns - The return of the Man of Steel after a twenty-year absence from the big screen was initially greeted with a lot of critical buzz, but fans reacted with lukewarm enthusiasm to the “direction” taken with Superman’s kid. Nevertheless, Bryan Singer’s tribute to Richard Donner’s 1978 classic is a near flawless expansion of the Superman movie mythology … if you can accept it.
4. V for Vendetta - A super-hero movie that attacks its audience for being complacent as their government erodes their civil liberties? A super-hero that’s a terrorist? Ballsy, and brilliant.
3. United 93 - Some questioned the wisdom of releasing a movie about 9/11 a mere five years after so many lost their lives, but Paul Greengrass does more than recreate the day’s events with his documentary-style feature direction. He memorializes them.
2. Stranger Than Fiction - It’s hard to find anything but beauty in Zach Helm’s touching script about a man who learns he’s going to die from a mysterious narrator just as he finally figures out how to live his life.
1. The Proposition - Few in America took the time to see this Australian Western written by Nick Cave. The musician’s poetic prose plays out onscreen as Guy Pearce is forced to hunt down his savage brother Danny Huston – an elemental force of nature in the Outback – in exchange for the life of a third brother being threatened with the gallows by a local sheriff. It all serves as a beautiful metaphor for the inhospitable, unconquerable Australian bush that the British wrongly believed they could control.
As we’re skipping Top Tens and the like this year, I’ll also forgo the Best Movies idea in general (after saying that Little Children deserves more love than it’s getting) and simply note five 2006 cinematic experiences that were more than just a movie on a screen.
United 93 - Set it alongside World Trade Center for a lesson in the former’s achievement. Oliver Stone made a movie about Triumphs of the Human Spirit, Heroic American Values, and all that familiar stuff. Paul Greengrass stared into the unexplainable void of September 11, paid his respects to those who confronted it firsthand, and captured shades of frustration, horror, anger and grief that five years of talking and politicking have failed to deal with fully.
A Prairie Home Companion - On its own, a charming little movie that was buried in the shadows of Altman’s masterpieces. That was my judgment when I thought the filmmaker would be working long into his 90s; news of his death, though, put an aching spotlight on PHC’s tenderly comic look at mortality.
An Inconvenient Truth - Invaluable not as cinema but for the stubbornly intelligent passion of its star, whose message about climate change should have been heeded long ago.
Borat - He was already a proven talent, and who knows if he can survive now that Borat’s element of surprise is extinguished, but Sacha Baron Cohen — here, in Talledega Nights, and in innumerable public appearances — was responsible for far more than half this year’s movie-related laughter.
The Departed - Okay, this one is “just a movie.” But what a serendipitous collision of moviemaking ingredients! Back-on-the-beat Scorsese, sometimes-dicey actors doing their best work, and a killer crime saga whose tension is only improved by moving it from Hong Kong to Boston and making class and race integral to the plot.
The nice thing about writing last for a piece like this is getting a peek at what everyone else has already written, and being able to tailor my contribution accordingly; that is, write about what hasn’t been covered. (So, like, cheating.) 2006 was notable for spectacle (Snakes on a Plane), resurrection (Superman Returns, Casino Royale, Rocky Balboa), and highly anticipated projects that delivered (Borat, Babel, The Prestige) and didn’t (The Da Vinci Code). Below: a few of the moments that stayed with me, and likely will for a while.
The four-plus-minute-long, single-shot, multilevel fight scene in Tom yum goong (The Protector) - Granted: Narratively speaking, The Protector gets its ass kicked by anything better-structured than a third-grade “How I Spent My Summer” essay. Physically speaking, though, everything and everyone else in the world gets its ass kicked by Tony Jaa. This brilliantly kinetic, no-cut sequence, wherein Jaa chucks dudes through walls and windows as he makes his way to the top of a building, proves it, and is as close to a live-action video game (in a good way) as you can get. (Youtube it.)
The gut-busting surprise ending to Little Miss Sunshine - The film wasn’t entirely flawless, but its performances were, and the rest was reasonably close. Any shortcomings, nonetheless, were completely wiped by little Abby Breslin’s focused, innocently joyous, Alan Arkin-inspired “coming-out party.”
The bathroom-set deconstruction of the Palestinian-Israeli beef in Seres Queridos (Only Human) - Please go find this film, for yourself or a loved one. Really. Not only is it an uproarious and just-about-perfect modern farce, it manages, via short-but-pointed shrift, to make a masterfully eloquent argument — in about 60 seconds — against the longest-running argument any of us can remember.
The “trick valentine” stunt in Jackass: Number Two - Here’s where I’ll get buried by dissenters, but while the admittedly hilarious Borat delivered far, far smarter laughs, this shameless sequel, I’ll venture, accounted for larger and more frequent ones, including this fiendish, ingeniously simple (and G-rated, to boot) early-goings prank that had me laughing harder and longer than anything else in theaters during ’06.