20 Favorites of 2006
1. The New World
The New World is a meditation on love and loss, innocence and betrayal, and the limitations of a society based on material progress. I came away from watching it with a feeling of having traveled back in time to a land of pristine beauty where the vigorous dream of establishing a sane civilization was still alive, if only for a brief moment. Terence Malick attempts a retelling of that dream, specifically the vision of Pocahontas, the Indian princess, daughter of Algonquian Chief Powhatan, who imagined a country where both Europeans and Natives could live together without bloodshed. It is a work of stunning cinematic poetry whose appreciation, I believe, will grow with the passage of time.
2. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
Dante Remus Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu), a 62-year old retired engineer, is brought to an emergency room by ambulance complaining of stomach and head pains. Berated by haughty “professionals” for not taking good care of himself, Lazarescu is shunted from hospital to hospital as we watch his condition slowly deteriorate. Romanian director Cristi Puiu’s Kafkaesque masterpiece, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu dramatizes the deplorable conditions in Bucharest’s emergency rooms where overworked and underpaid health care workers show callous indifference to their patients instead of concern and compassion. Filled with gallows humor and a profound awareness of the human condition, Lazarescu is one of the most affecting films of the year.
In An Inconvenient Truth, former Presidential candidate Al Gore does not hold back from telling us unpleasant truths about the effects of global warming. Presented as a slide show and a personal essay, Gore asks us to look at unprecedented changes caused by global warming: powerful hurricanes fueled by warming currents in the Gulf of Mexico, temperatures in excess of 120 degrees, melting of the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, and an increasing envelope of air pollution in Los Angeles, Mexico City, and Shanghai, China. The film includes reflections on his sister's death from lung cancer and his son's automobile accident at the age of six. It is a spirited call to action, one of the most important and most moving films of the year.
4. Old Joy
Two friends in their early thirties meet to renew their previous friendship on a camping trip in the gorgeous Cascade Mountains of Oregon. Kurt (Will Oldham) is a balding free spirit, while Mark (Daniel London) is a working man who is about to take on the responsibility of being a father. Both men seek to recreate the magic that once brought them together but their connection is now so tenuous and their worlds so divided that it seems as if there is no longer anything to hold onto, even memory. Kelly Reichart’s superb Old Joy is a film of rare beauty unburdened by typical male-bonding clichés, more the “big chill out” than The Big Chill. While it is the story of male friendship, it is not about plot or even character but a film of mood and atmosphere that tells its story with gestures, expressions, and silences punctuated by the ambient sounds of nature and the music of Yo La Tengo.
5. V for Vendetta
V for Vendetta is a Hollywood action film with a difference – it is a film of ideas that has something intelligent to say about contemporary society. The film allows us to see quite clearly that revolutionaries do not come from thin air but are created when their human dignity is violated. Though it has its roots in a comic strip, it asks a serious question – whether political action must be accomplished by peaceful means through established political channels or whether civil disobedience (aka terrorism) is justified when everything else has failed. V for Vendetta is not high art nor is its political message always coherent, but it is a stylish thriller that is emotionally riveting whether or not you support its basic ideas. It is also a work of conviction that succeeds in challenging our minds and, in its stirring conclusion, reinvigorating our hope for humanity.
Syndromes and a Century by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a visionary masterpiece that blurs the boundaries of past and present and, like the plays of Harold Pinter, explores the subjectivity of memory. It is an abstract but a very warm and often very funny film about the director's recollections of his parents, both doctors, before they fell in love. Towards the end, a funnel inhales smoke for several minutes as if memories are being sucked into a vortex to be stored forever or forgotten. Like this serenely magical film, it casts a spell that is both hypnotic and enigmatic.
Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertesz, Fateless is a hauntingly beautiful film whose narrative unfolds in the form of miniature vignettes rather than peak dramatic moments. The film is seen from the perspective of 14-year-old Gyuri Koves (Marcell Nagy), who spent a year in Buchenwald during the last days of World War II and who provides the narration. Unlike most films about the holocaust, it stipulates that happiness and beauty can co-exist along with deprivation and despair. There have been many films about the holocaust but none quite as intimate and personal as Fateless.
L'Enfant (The Child), winner of the Palme D'Or at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, is a fully realized, powerful work of art that brings back Jérémie Renier as Bruno, a low-level thief, panhandler, and slacker who refuses to work and can only support his girlfriend by illegal means. Like the Dardenne's earlier films, the power of L'Enfant is cumulative. As Bruno evolves and we become more aware of his vulnerability, our capacity for forgiveness is challenged and the film prompts us to grow along with the character. In an ending that is unique and painfully touching, L'Enfant achieves a rare authenticity.
Death is a creative act and, as part of the process of rebirth, it is to be embraced, not feared. This is the message of Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, a dazzling visual extravaganza that spans thousands of years in the relationship between Thomas (Hugh Jackman) and his dying wife Izzy (Rachel Weisz). The film is about love and human emotion, but does not shrink from confronting the big questions - the nature of death, the search for enlightenment, and whether our true essence is human or divine. It has an epic feeling, a 2001 for the 21st century.
Bobby tells the fictionalized stories of 22 people who gathered at the Ambassador Hotel Ballroom on June 4, 1968, the night Senator Robert Kennedy was shot in the pantry after winning the California Democratic primary and concluding his acceptance speech to a cheering crowd. Shown only through newsreel clips taken from his campaign for the presidency, the film is unabashedly dedicated to celebrating Bobby’s memory and contrasting what he stood for with the emptiness of our present leaders. Supported by an outstanding ensemble cast that includes Anthony Hopkins, William H. Macy, Laurence Fishburne, Sharon Stone, and others, Bobby reminds us of a time when young people had leaders that they could look up to and who inspired them to think of politics as a potentially noble profession.
11. Half Nelson
Ryan Fleck's first full-length feature, Half Nelson, is a gritty, sensitive, and emotionally harrowing film that meticulously avoids the inspirational clichés of many teacher-student films and the obligatory violence of films set in the ghetto. Like his parents who were liberal activists, he wants to make an impact on the world but is disillusioned with the current political climate and, out of frustration and fatigue, has drifted into a crack-induced stupor. Gosling's performance of the charming but flawed teacher is completely credible, so nuanced and touching that we root for him in spite of his capacity for self-destruction.
12. Live and Become
Radu Mihaileanu's Live and Become tells the story of Ethiopian Black Jews known as Falashas who were brought to Israel in Operation Moses in 1984 by the Israeli Mossad. The film spans fifteen years in the life of young Solomon (called Schlomo by the Israelis), describing his experiences of being alone into a foreign country that speaks a language he doesn't understand and filled with people of a different religion and a different color. It tells a universal story of alienation, wanting to belong, and the pain of feeling alone, feelings shared by people of all religions throughout the world.
13. Woman on the Beach
A film director with writer's block leaves the city of Seoul to finish his script at a Korean seaside resort. An entanglement with two women, however, reveals his inner confusion and forces him to confront his self-defeating behavior. Hong Sang-soo's latest, Woman on the Beach, is a comedy drama about love and the complications that develop in relationships when one partner is less than candid with the other. It is a thoroughly engaging film with sparkling dialogue, complex characters, and outstanding performances from the lead actors. If it leaves us with a touch of sadness about people's inability to connect, it also leaves us smiling about their resilience and capacity for joy.
14. Still Life
Set in the village of Fengjie, since submerged in water to make way for the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, Still Life by Jia Zhangke dramatizes the life of villagers who have been forced from their homes, had their traditional way of life destroyed, and sent to live in cities against their will, often having to resort to begging and garbage collecting, or even prostitution to stay alive. The film tells overlapping stories of the emotional trauma of local people caught in the dislocation at Fengjie while a new village is being built. If his future projects contain the unmatched cinematography, compelling story, and characters whose lives touch us as in Still Life, we have much to look forward to.
15. Ten Canoes
Playfully narrated by Australian icon David Gulpilil, Ten Canoes, directed by Rolf de Heer (The Tracker) and Peter Djigirr, tells a dreaming story that acts as a lesson for a young man in the tribe who feels that the youngest wife of his older brother should be his. The story has elements of kidnapping, sorcery, and revenge but is mostly about values: how a community living in a natural environment before the coming of the White man developed laws and systems to guide its people. Through myth and illuminating visuals, Ten Canoes generates a greater awareness and understanding of indigenous Australian culture and acts as an impressive counterweight to the argument that Aborigines should give up their past and join the modern world.
16. The Host
Korea’s top-grossing film of all time The Host is a monster movie with a difference. Seen by ten million people during the first three weeks of its Korean release, the film directed by Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder), combines genre-typical special effects with family drama, comedy, and political satire. Heroism belongs not to a super hero but to a slightly dysfunctional working class family that bands together when it counts to battle a mutant tadpole that has abducted a member of the family. One might imagine different subtexts to explain the film. Whatever one you decide on will work. The bottom line, however, is that The Host is a scary monster movie that is well crafted and highly entertaining and has a compelling human factor that is both comic and tragic.
Most Disappointing films of 2006:
©2006 Howard Schumann