Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Good Stuff: Movies

Updated 12/31/06!

Standard provisos apply. There are plenty of year-end films I haven’t seen yet – yes, Pan’s Labyrinth, Children of Men and Letters from Iwo Jima, I mean you – and I’m not stopping at ten.

The best movie of 2006? Easy. Jean-Pierre Melville’s French Resistance drama Army of Shadows was made in 1969 but never played in the U.S. until this year, so it counts. Alone among the movies I saw it had me holding my breath, afraid I would break its spell. It takes the title going away. It reopens at New York's Film Forum on Friday and will be playing around the country into early 2007.

You want the best new movie of 2006? Fine. Fabien Bielinsky’s El Aura bewitched me when I saw it and haunts me still. A heist film, a character study, a brilliantly directed exploration of isolation mental and physical, self-imposed and otherwise. It’s one of a kind.

That’s what I loved. I saw plenty more that I enjoyed the hell out of. Here are the ones that truly popped, in the order I saw them, with minimal commentary.

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. In some circles this is regarded as a 2005 release. Just in case, I’m including it here.

Brick. Hammett in high school.

The Proposition. A tough-minded Australian western, featuring the best performance by flies.

A Prairie Home Companion. Maybe it is minor Altman, but it’s perfectly in tune.

Lady Vengeance. Chilling in its elegance.

Invincible. My orphan pick. A sports movie that nails every note. And I don’t even like the Philadelphia Eagles. But it speaks to the working-class Northeast football fan in me. It helps that the crazy dreamer’s name is Vince. And hey, Elizabeth Banks is in it!

Hollywoodland. The flip side of Invincible. Achieving your dreams is no guarantee of happiness. My faith in Ben Affleck is vindicated.

The Queen. The best written movie of 2006 is also the most politically astute, and moves like a thriller.

Slither. Delivering the gruesome goods counts for something around here. And hey, Elizabeth Banks is in it!

Borat. For the naked wrestling alone.

Casino Royale. Because the degree of difficulty involved was enormous.

Volver. Almodovar. Can he do any wrong?

Children of Men. Added 12/31/06. Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian vision is packed with sociopolitical ideas I haven’t yet processed. But taken purely as an action film, filled with extended, unbroken scenes of chaos and motion, it deserves a place on this list.

The film story of 2006 has to be the continuing changes in the way movies, particularly smaller ones, are distributed. I saw El Aura, my #2 choice, on TV because it debuted on IFC On Demand at the same time it opened in New York. Steven Soderbergh’s intriguing Bubble hit theaters and home video on the same day. The adaptation of David Mamet’s play Edmond, as dark and demanding a film as I saw this year, might as well have gone straight to DVD for the limited release it received. Technology makes these movies more accessible – you could be watching El Aura right now instead of reading this – but the downside is the audience doesn’t know they exist. And I doubt the advent of the downloadable premiere, which you know is coming, will change things.