~BEST of 2006
January 12, 2007 by JAN ALBERT
JAN ALBERT’S BEST OF 2006
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE – for breaking the long movie draught of 2006. This was the first beginning-to-end GOOD movie I saw all last year – quirky, beautifully cast, and laugh out loud funny. Not to oversell this small joy but it’s a great ride. I loved Alan Arkin as grandpa and the rest of the family is pretty great too.
THANK YOU FOR SMOKING – satire is a hard form to pull off. This one flicks off the ashes and strikes it just right. It’s politically sharp, well-observed and extremely witty. Aaron Eckhart has to be one of the handsomest guys ever to grace celluloid and makes the perfect villain/hero out of an all too plausible cigarette lobbyist. Rob Lowe is hysterical as a Hollywood dealmaker and a pre-Tom Cruise Katie Holmes is wicked as what passes for a working journalist these days.
DREAMGIRLS – The first movies I ever saw on the BIG SCREEN were when my father brought me into Manhattan for a double feature of Brigadoon and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, an introduction to the movie musical that had me from “the mist of May is in the gloaming.” I am a sucker for great movie musicals and director/writer Bill Condon has created one just as magical in its way as Carousel and West Side Story. There are kickass costumes, dynamic editing, and a great story – a thinly veiled look at the birth and heyday of the Supremes and Motown. The first rate cast makes the most of a pretty good score and superstars Beyonce Knowles and Jamie Foxx take a graceful backseat to simply outstanding supporting performances from Eddie Murphy (in a perfectly-timed tip of the hat to the Godfather of Soul) and Jennifer Hudson.
HALF NELSON – Hey, it can’t all be sunshine and lollipops! So far as I’m concerned, this small film contained the performance of the year – Ryan Gosling as a crack addict who somehow still manages to function as an inspiring high school teacher. Absolutely mesmerizing to watch, I could not catch Gosling acting-I just believed and felt for the person he created so completely. The film overall struck me as a little naÃ¯ve but first-time director Ryan Fleck and screenwriter Anna Boden are to be commended for getting such a complex human being up on the screen – a self destructive man who nonetheless is a good guy with valuable stuff to offer.
LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA – We should all take inspiration from the ambitious work Clint Eastwood is turning out in his 70’s! In 2006, he gave us two films exploring the horrific WWII battle of Iwo Jima – one from the American POV and one from the Japanese side. I found Flags of Our Fathers a great idea (following the soldiers who raised the US flag on Iwo Jima back home for an orchestrated PR tour through the States to raise $ for the war machine) executed with a sledgehammer. It slams you over the head with its relentless bloodshed and brutal message, but I haven’t been able to get the way subtler LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA out of my mind. Despite the fact that the film is in Japanese and requires reading sub titles, I connected with all four main characters and their moments of truth. The stunning cinematography gives the film an otherworldly look of a washed out Hell on Earth, and the script structure, with flashbacks taking us back to the world these guys inhabited before fate brought them together on this God forsaken rock, scuttling like rats in a maze of underground tunnels, adds a depth and humanity that was missing in FOOF.
Maybe, it’s because the American story portrays the men literally as interchangeable cogs in the machine, (although Adam Beach stands out as a Native American GI trotted out for the big show) whereas Ken Watanabe and a few in his company emerge as noble individuals fighting a futile battle in the name of their government. Whatever the reason, I believe this film about man’s greatest folly will ultimately join LE GRANDE ILLUSION in the annals of classic anti-war films.
HOLLYWOODLAND – Catch up with this one on video. It came and went pretty quickly, but I thought it was a great little noir mystery that casts a spell and pulls you into the shady circumstances surrounding a childhood TV hero’s death. Rooted in the real life reporting of actor George Reeves death in 1959, it is nonetheless an act of imagination that keeps you wondering whether SUPERMAN jumped or was pushed. Adrien Brody has fun as a slimy low rent gumshoe and Ben Affleck’s own experience getting ground up in the glare of Hollywood’s star making machinery undoubtedly informs his extremely moving performance as a celebrity stranded by his own success.
BORAT – Horrible, vulgar, stupid/ hysterical, terrifying, brilliant. The idiot alter ego of Sacha Baron Cohen takes a road trip through the U.S. and exposes way, way more than you want to know about your fellow Americans. Not “very nice” but REALLY, you don’t want to miss it.
THE QUEEN – We all want to know how the other half lives and this film provides a really provocative look behind the palace doors during the stressful days following Princess Diana’s fatal car crash. Peter Morgan based his political and poetic screenplay on copious research and interviews, then took a leap of the imagination that transforms this film into something beyond documentary. His take on how Queen Elizabeth painfully transcends a lifetime of privilege and protocol to come to terms with a new prime minister, Tony Blair, and the public rage of her previously loving royal subjects is really eye opening. Helen Mirren inhabits Her Majesty in the same way Ryan Gosling takes on his character in Half Nelson (see above) and rightfully deserves to be crowned Best Actress at the Oscars this year.
THE DEPARTED – My all around most satisfying movie going experience of the year. A Shakespearean face off between good and evil and the twisted grey areas that lurk around both, set in Boston’s criminal underworld. Matt Damon and Leo DiCaprio are well matched adversaries; both great to watch, and all the supporting players, including Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Vera Farmiga, and especially Mark Wahlberg, have a blast with screenwriter William Monahan’s take no prisoners dialogue. The fact that the usually awesome Jack Nicholson is way over the top was annoying but not fatal. This is the kind of drama and great repartee I go to the movies for and Martin Scorsese, without a doubt one of the greatest film directors of the last century (I guess you can guess who my “best director” vote is going to), really knows how to serve it up.
A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION – I am not a fan of the gentle, folksy radio show this film is based on, but I adored the movie. It has all the hallmarks director Robert Altman was known for; overlapping dialogue from a huge cast of characters, fabulous long takes and fluid camera movement, and multiple points of view that create a unique chance for the audience to spy on a singular environment, in this case the behind the scenes and onstage doings involved in the very last live broadcast of a beloved institution, The Prairie Home Companion radio show. There is little to no dramatic tension, but somehow that doesn’t matter. Altman’s direction is so confident, so relaxed and loosey goosey, you just settle in and enjoy the sights and sounds. All the actors, including a radiant Meryl Streep, the divine Lilly Tomlin, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Virginia Madsen, Kevin Kline, Maya Rudolf, et al, look like they are having fun and their bonhomie is contagious. Altman even makes a movie star out of PHC host, Garrison Keillor, who is charmingly bemused by it all. The intimations of mortality that hang around the edges of this going away party are doubly touching in light of Altman’s recent passing. Whether an angel in a white trench coat appeared to guide the great director to a heaven where he can kibitz with the likes of George Cukor, John Cassavetes, Billy Wilder and Akira Kurosawa we will never know, but he certainly went out on a high note.
HERE are some other movies I really liked in 2006:
LITTLE CHILDREN: This very literary, yet impressively cinematic adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s novel focuses on the special insanity induced by living in suburbia, where folks move “for the good of their children.”
While her husband is away at work during the day and pursuing his new passion for internet pornography at night, a bored mom with a Masters degree (Kate Winslet – absolutely wonderful as always) and a confused former High School football hero, (Patrick Wilson) left behind to take care of his son as his wife’s career in the big city takes off, drift into an affair. Meanwhile their community becomes obsessed by the presence of a pedophile (a searing performance by former child star, Jackie Earle Hayley, that feels so real it is actually painful to watch) who has been released into the custody of his long suffering but loving mother. The ties that bind parent and child and the profound ambiguity many women feel about being “good mothers” are frankly explored in this challenging film that will reward repeated viewings. In fact, I can’t wait to see it again. Todd Field is definitely a director to watch.
CHILDREN OF MEN & INSIDE MAN: a futuristic paranoid thriller full of atmosphere and an ingenious bank heist, both anchored by the terrific CLIVE OWEN.
BLOOD DIAMOND: A rousing, old fashioned, action-adventure story with a new age conscience. Set in contemporary Africa, Leonardo DiCaprio gives his all as a hardened player with a heart of gold, dodging machetes on the trail of the big diamond that will transform his life. Leo really comes into his own as a great romantic leading man in the grand tradition here and delivers a wonderfully satisfying performance that breaks your heart a little.
CASINO ROYALE: Bond is blonde and Daniel Craig does the series proud. Director Martin Campbell throws in everything but the kitchen sink — there are 2 or 3 action sequences too many and you can see some of the plot turns coming from a mile off, but there are lots of fun moments and the opening chase scene is a doozy – worth the price of admission alone.
MARIE ANTOINETTE: I thought Kirsten Dunst was endearing as the teenage queen bored out of her gourd and that Sofia Coppola really got her dilemma – a husband who didn’t want to have sex, a kingdom full of hateful gossips, and scads of money to burn on clothes and cake. She was clueless about the troubles in Paris and just trying to keep her head above water at Versailles. The storytelling was kind of clunky, but you really can’t fault the eye-popping visual treatment. I loved the Monolo Blahnik music video right in the middle!
THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA: A well done Hollywood comedy with an audacious star performance by Meryl Streep as a tough dame running a NYC Fashion bible like Vogue. Emily Blunt also makes a splash as her bitchy assistant.
INFAMOUS: Timing is everything and Douglas McGrath’s Truman Capote film came second – just a year after Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning performance, so it has been unjustly ignored. It is stylish, very smart, sobering, and a triumph in its own right. Toby Jones also does great things with the incomparable Tru and it’s fun to compare the telling of the same story in the two films. McGrath’s emphasis on how this artist sold his soul to the devil is haunting.
BOBBY: I wasn’t looking forward to seeing a film about Bobby Kennedy’s assassination but that isn’t what this film is about and so, it took me by surprise. Emilio Estevez has made a movie full of heart about a day in the life of the Ambassador Hotel in L.A. – the day when Kennedy won the 1968 California primary. Estevez has a great touch with actors and there are many wonderful cameos from Sharon Stone as the hotel hairdresser, Helen Hunt as an insecure trophy wife, Laurence Fishburne and Freddy Rodriguez as chef and busboy, Lindsay Lohan as a teen marrying a classmate against her parent’s wishes to help keep him out of Vietnam, and Ashton Kutcher as a dealer turning two young campaign workers on to their first LSD trip. Estevez is clearly fascinated by the palpable feeling of hope for the future Kennedy awoke in this wide variety of Americans and the film left me hoping for a return of that kind of feeling for the future of our nation.
MISS POTTER: Two lovely small surprises came at the very end of 2006. VENUS is the sentimental tale of an old ladies man and his last love, a crude, working class lass. Peter O’Toole is now in his 70’s, but looks at least 10 years older, due, one would hope, to a life of enjoying himself 24/7. He still holds the screen with the same one of a kind charisma he exuded as a dazzlingly handsome young star on the rise. He has a bunch of fine scenes with an old chum, played by Leslie Philipps and some good moments with Vanessa Redgrave, as his ex wife. O’Toole has an amazing voice but as with all great screen actors, he never needs to talk to get your attention, his face says it all and no one has ever had a face like this old pro.
MISS POTTER is also a very sentimental but rathuh special film done with impeccable taste. This one is about Beatrix Potter, the creator of Peter Rabbit and many other enchanting children’s books. It performs the great balancing act of hovering just above treacly, but never quite touching it. It is a small story (like Potter’s beautiful little books) but it sneaks up on you. Renee Zellweger has the wonderful talent of believing and trusting in her characters and truly investing herself in them. Her rapport with Ewan McGregor is what screen chemistry between co-stars is supposed to be all about.
And last but not least, that brings us to BABEL. Many moments from this very ambitious film stick in my head like still photographs — two young brothers playing with a gun on a desolate mountaintop in Morocco, an anguished American (Brad Pitt) alpha male trying to keep his temper and save his wife’s life via long distance telephone, a Mexican nanny (outstanding performance by Adrianna Barraza!) playing substitute mamma to two blonde children, wandering desparately through the desert separating Mexico and the U.S. with one of them in her arms, a deaf Japanese teenager searching for love and recognition, wandering through a disco with blaring music she cannot hear — they are all trying to make a connection.
I really admired Alejandro Gonzallez Inarritu’s first film, Amores Perros, detested 21 Grams and am on the fence about this one. Inarritu and his screenwriter, Guillermo Arriga, are also struggling to make a connection between all these disparate human beings and it felt a little forced. I got it, I got it — we are not so different from each other as we may believe.
The camerawork is absolutely unforgettable and this film deserves your time. Let me know what you think.
I look forward to catching up with the ones I missed, like L’Enfant, The Fountain, Sherrybaby & The Death of Monsieur Levascou and letting you know about the ones to come in 2007 – next up: LOOK OUT FOR PHILIP HAAS’S THE SITUATION.
(Contact JAN ALBERT at firstname.lastname@example.org)