Friday, December 22, 2006

Best and Worst of 2006

by Scott Mendelson

Every single year, there are various pundits and critics who claim that this year was the worst for movies in many an age. This time, I’m almost inclined to agree with them. Yes, there are gems, but they were fewer and far between and the amount of surprising failures was stunning and heartbreaking. Due to deadline concerns, there are a few movies that may have made the best of list that I have yet to see (mainly Children Of Men and Letters Of Iwo Jima). Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Hollywood continues its ridiculous practice of cramming every allegedly good movie into theaters in the last three months of the year, often in the last two weeks of the year, which causes many a decent film to go unseen while the previous nine months remain starved for quality. The insane notion that critics and Academy members will remember only films that come out in the fall and holiday season must be addressed. Meanwhile, here is the best and worst of 2006, for better or worse (make note of how many of these did not come out after September).

The worst movies of 2006.
Note: This list may not be purely the biggest pieces and rancid trash, but rather movies that were mystifying and downright painful in their failures. After all, putting Uwe Boll’s Blood Rayne on a worst-of list is almost an act of repetition. And When A Stranger Calls may be terrible, but it was completely entertaining in its confounding stupidity.

The Bridge
: an unintelligent, allegedly introspective documentary about people who commit suicide via the Golden Gate Bridge. Yet in the end, it becomes a parade of foolish, naïve people who just don’t get that depression is a mental illness and that their friends and loved-ones couldn’t have just ‘gotten over it’.

Everyone’s Hero: Easily the worst, most juvenile cartoon since… gosh… I can’t remember when. Filled with overacting celebrities that have no business doing voice over and a painfully dumb screenplay that turns the Boston Red Sox into murderous villains. The film falsely portrays the 1920s New York Yankees as a pitiful team that could only win with Babe Ruth at the plate. And, for a story that’s supposed to be about continuing to try even when the odds are completely stacked against you, where exactly was the far more appropriate Lou Gehrig?

World Trade Center
: A boring, clichéd-filled, disaster would-be TV movie filled with unsympathetic characters that got passes and raves from critics purely because ‘it was about 9/11’. Yet, in its relentless need to make us feel good, it made the survival of its heroes more important than the deaths of 2,800 other equally innocent people.

Thank You For Smoking
: An allegedly intelligent comedy that in fact has the depth and maturity of a sixth-grader who is allowed to use naughty content for the first time. Scene after scene has allegedly smart characters being fooled by grade-school tactics and banal simplistic arguments. This film does not take place in anything resembling the real world, but a fantasy land where people are SHOCKED when a reporter spills ‘off the record’ details, and said reporter is then SHOCKED when the victim then spills the dirt about their sex life. Further more we are supposed to be STUNNED when the hero (a tobacco lobbyist) makes a completely logical and correct comparison between cigarettes and the unhealthy eating choices of most Americans. A film filled with very stupid people who are supposed to be smarter than us.

And the worst movie going experience of the year…

Superman Returns: Easily the most stunning and heartbreaking screw-up of the year. And yet, it fails for the same reason that the vastly-overrated Spider-Man 2 fails: it’s a two-hour plus bore-fest that asks us to sympathize over a guy who moans because the girl he cruelly dumped, and won’t admit his true feelings to, won’t take him back. The other problems are numerous: A hybrid storyline that kinda sorta maybe is a sequel to Richard Donner’s and Richard Lester’s first two Superman movies, surprisingly mediocre special effects, the major set-piece that is stolen almost shot for shot from the pilot episode of Superman: The Animated Series, the casting of very young actors to play people that are supposed to be in their late thirties or forties, Kevin Spacey (now playing Luther as an act of career desperation) never deciding how campy or scary to play Lex, a stunning lack of scenes where Superman actually helps people in peril, and Christian symbolism that takes the subtle, potent Christ-parable of Donner’s original and makes it laughable in its explicitness. But the biggest problem of all is that that story, which basically involves a scary stalker who refuses to leave a girl alone, even though he dumped her in the cruelest, most selfish way imaginable, and yet he is still angry and bitter that she had the gall to move on with her life and find happiness elsewhere. Shame on you Superman. You’re supposed to represent the best of us, not the worst of us.

Ok, now onto the best films of the year. In a year when most indie-films fell by the wayside and didn’t quite work, there were a decent number of genre films that proved that you could work within the system and make quality product.

Over The Hedge: In a year filled with mediocre cartoons about wacky talking animals, the best cartoon of the year is about (gasp) wacky talking animals. The difference is in the details. While the cast has its share of celebrities, they give actual performances with nuance and subtly. Bruce Willis gives his second-best performance since Unbreakable (see below for more on that) and everyone shines in the funny, satirical take on the over consumption of suburbia. It is quiet and focused where other cartoons were loud and confused. It is funny and moving, slowly developing its characters so that the emotional pay-offs have meaning and feel completely earned. It’s terrific family entertainment.

Deliver Us From Evil: The second-best documentary of the year, in a year filled with good ones. It is a sobering, almost objectively clinical examination of one incredibly prolific pedophile priest and the lives he has scarred, as well as those who put their own power above their flock’s safety and allowed him to roam from parish to parish with no warning. It is devastating, but also fascinating.

16 Blocks: The best Bruce Willis performance since Unbreakable, along with director Richard Donner’s devotion to realism and plausibility makes this an uncommonly effective action film. It’s filled with three-dimensional characters, and even David Morse’s villainous rogue cop is somewhat sympathetic. And the film actually has an optimistic worldview, that of redemption and eventual decency. When’s the last time an action film climaxed with a long, moving conversation between the hero and villain? When’s the last time the somewhat happy ending felt so completely earned that it was actually touching? In a year filled with comebacks (again, see below), it was great to see Donner back in top form.

Little Miss Sunshine
and Stranger Than Fiction: Both involve quirky tales starring famous comics playing it straight and somewhat dark. Steve Carell’s top-notch supporting performance got the attention it deserved. Will Ferrell’s equally touching starring work did not. Both films are filled to the brim with quality actors doing their thing. Dustin Hoffman does his best work in years in Stranger Than Fiction and Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette are so naturally good in everything they do that we already take them for granted. Pardon the cliché, but see them both with people you care about.

Clerks II: Don’t laugh, this is some ways was one of the most potent movies of the year. At the end of a summer filled with misfires (DaVinci Code Code, X-Men 3, Lady In The Water, Mission Impossible 3), here was a film that was much, much better than expected. Kevin Smith returns to the world that made him a power player, yet the world is a soberer, more grown-up one. Smith is now an actual adult and his characters are struggling to become adults too, as they take stock in their squandered youth and try to find substance in their 30s that they so carefully avoided in their 20s. In the end, it’s a rallying-cry against the obsessive societal demand that every person live the same kind of life, but rather the life that makes him or her happiest. The climactic dialogue scene between our Dante and Randal is one of the best-written scenes of the year, and could become a staple in acting classes for years to come. Following a minor post-Dogma slump, this is easily Smith’s best film yet.

The Departed: Martin Scorsese makes a return to form, remaking a recent Asian classic and returning to the world of small time gangsters and divided loyalties that marked some of his best work. Featuring terrific acting by terrific actors across the board (for the first time ever, I liked Mark Wahlburg as much as I usually like Donnie), the film is above all a grand tragedy of men forced to be people they are not and being unable to step away even after their duality has outlived its usefulness. While some may carp and say all the critical adulteration was due to Scorsese doing another gangster movie, let me say that this is easily his best film since Bringing Out The Dead (a Nicolas Cage paramedic drama that has nothing to do with gangsters). This is pop entertainment as it should be.

Inside Man: Spike Lee roars back to life with this deliciously clever and completely fun cracker-jack box that leaves behind none of his trademark themes and film making tricks. Featuring one of the most purely entertaining scripts of the year, this hilariously well-written hostage negotiation thriller maintains high suspense because it refuses to become an ultra-violent carnage fest (since the violence is rare, we’re always on our toes). It’s a grown-up thriller in the best sense of the word. It’s smart, fun, well acted by actors having a blast (Jodie Foster comes delightfully close to ham in what is the closest she’s played to a villain) and never forgets to actually be a film of substance and morals. This is what happens when you let a true auteur play around in a mainstream thriller. You get a completely mainstream thriller that is also a serious work of art.

Casino Royale: Martin Campbell does it again, making the very best James Bond film since Goldeneye (directed by, gasp, Martin Campbell). Stripping the franchise down to its bare essentials, the new Bond, icy-cold Daniel Craig, is given the kind of support that equally hard-ass Timothy Dalton never received. Campbell returns to the first 007 novel (which never received a proper adaptation) and crafts a thrilling action adventure vehicle that re-establishes James Bond as the king of the action hill (you can practically hear him telling Jason Bourne to get the hell off of his lawn). Filled with smart characters, a complicated story, subtle villains, and brutal, brilliantly staged action set pieces that are always completely easy to follow and understand (none of that shaky cam, hyper-edit, super close-up crap from Mr. Campbell, thank you much), this is one of the best pure action pictures of the decade. New rule – how about we let Martin Campbell become the new Jon Glenn or Terence Young and have him direct a bunch of these? It’s quite obvious that, pardon the pun, ‘nobody does it better’. By the way, for THE best action picture of the last decade, try 1998’s The Mask Of Zorro (directed by… guess the pattern).

The Prestige: Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to Batman Begins is a dark, deliciously amoral duel between two fledgling magicians in Europe during the dawn of electricity. Your sympathy will switch back and forth between Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as they continuously try to one-up each other in magic and in life. As one of two period-magician movies released last fall, The Prestige is superior to The Illusionist as it makes its slightly smarter, far more complicated story truly about the craft of magic, rather than just using magic as a backdrop for a romantic thriller. Both are good films, but Nolan takes the bunny. It’s the densest, trickiest movie of the year that dares you to embrace its cold heart.

When The Levees Broke: Technically, this is a TV movie, having aired in August on HBO. But, it’s my list, my rules. Spike Lee follows up his first mainstream success with the most important and possibly best work of his storied career. Over four hours, hundreds of interviews, countless heartbreaking moments fill up what will likely be the definitive account of Hurricane Katrina and the most complete disaster in American history thus far in my lifetime. Ruthlessly clinical and letting the survivors and officials speak for themselves, Lee paints a stunning document of governmental incompetence and apathy, alleged greed and possible fraud by insurance companies, and the overwhelming devastation of a hurricane that completely wiped an entire American city off the map, possibly forever. Easily the most important work of art of the year, it is a time capsule to be preserved for all time, in anger and shame.

And, now, the best film of 2006:

Akeelah And The Bee: I missed this Doug Atchison picture in theaters and wrote about it when it arrived on video, and what I said back in September still applies, as it did when I first saw the film in July. This is the best, most wonderful movie I saw all this year. It’s a stunningly good movie about the simplest of stories. It’s a sweet quasi-epic about a young girl from the inner city who, with the help of a former champ turned coach, and her worried mother, and eventually her entire community, competes in the national spelling bee. It’s honest about the struggle to be educated and smart in the inner cities without being smothering or violent. It’s thoughtful about its story and characters, with Atchison not being afraid to use cliché if he can subvert it later. It features wonderful work from Keke Palmer, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, and even Curtis Armstrong. It is the rarest of rare, the kind of movie that wrings completely earned emotion out of you, over and over, not by sadness and despair, but by surprise and completely unexpected acts of goodness. It is a movie that demands the acknowledgment that we can, if given the opportunity, be human in the best sense and be capable of acts of great and simple decency.

1 comment:

Michael said...

I just re-watched Superman Returns (it was given to me by the in-laws-I almost wish I'd never let em know I like comics, they'll get me anything with a superhero now) and I was kind of digging it. Everything you say about it is true, but maybe I almost enjoyed it again cos I expected the turd I remembered from oh so long ago....


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