The Theory of Chaos

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Listomania - Top 10/Bottom 10 for 2006

Full post behind the jump

It’s not quite that movie-watching is a seasonal habit, but it certainly ramps up for me at the end of every year. One reason is that it’s when studios jam out all their most interesting pictures in the hopes of getting awards attention – from October to January I’m easily catching 2-3 new movies a week and would do more if I could. The other reason is my habit of using numbers to punish myself – as the year nears a close I become painfully aware of how few movies I’ve seen (by my own standards), and become determined to pump up my total while I still can.

It doesn’t really surprise me, then, that all but one of my top 10 list for 2006 consists of movies that were released in autumn or later. There were fine movies released throughout the year, but either I missed them or they simply weren’t quite at the level of excellence necessary to break into the list.

If you’d like a reminder,
here’s the list of 2006 releases I saw, so you know what I’m drawing from. As usual, I’ll count down both the best and worst, with commentary and links to my original reviews. It’s funny how, with only a few months’ perspective, my passions have shifted in intensity for some films compared to others. The same goes for years, I look back on films from 2004 and 2005 and wonder why I loved or scorned them so much. The lot of the reviewer I suppose – always providing a snapshot of the moment’s feelings which becomes permanent even if the feelings themselves aren’t.

The Ten Best Films of 2006 That I Saw

10. Stranger Than Fiction

There is just so much joy in this reality-bending comedy from writer Zach Helm and director Marc Forster that you can lose track of what a fiendish triumph of construction it is. Perfectly-pitched performances, wit, and a kind of seeped-into-the-bones romantic optimism give this story of Harold Crick, and his wristwatch, one of the best aftertastes of any movie this year.

9. Notes on a Scandal

You step away from the story and it all seems so bitter and horrible, but this movie has the power to hypnotize you so that, while you’re experiencing it, it seems all so cruelly delicious. Judi Dench, fearsome, vulnerable, and deliriously cracked, masterfully wields every flick of Patrick Marber’s cat-o’-nine-tails screenplay, and Cate Blanchett, in what is arguably an even trickier supporting role, delivers yet another virtuoso performance.

8. Blood Diamond

Edward Zwick has an authority for the big canvas, and that’s as apparent as ever in Blood Diamond, which manages to be both a thorough exposé of the nasty diamond trade in Africa, and a gripping, impeccably-mounted melodrama. Moviegoers may have been surprised that Leonardo DiCaprio received his Oscar nomination for this movie instead of The Departed, but watch again – his performance here is every bit as good, and possibly better.

7. Little Children

Poetic, passionate, aching, Little Children is the antidote to this year’s globe-trotting social issues films, because it is about nothing larger than our private fears and yearnings, but finds the means to project those into a beauteous grandeur. In a year of big gestures, Todd Field focuses on a father’s worry about his toddler’s hat, and the tasteful shades of blue worn by a suburban hypocrite, and the effect is captivating.

6. Letters From Iwo Jima

At an age when most would be a decade into resting on their laurels, Clint Eastwood continues to challenge himself with Letters, which manages to be lyrical and sympathetic while being a serious war movie. And in a foreign language, to boot. The filmmakers know that, much as people pretend it, we don’t need American faces or words on screen in order to relate to a story; they find universality in the situations, and trust in those to inspire our feelings.

5. The Departed

Martin Scorsese has joked that this is his first movie to have a plot. While not entirely true there’s insight in this self-deprecation – The Departed is like a celebratory epilogue to the genre of gangster cinema he’s owned for decades. But it also, thanks to William Monahan’s dense and gutter-mouthed screenplay, tells a story much more thickly-woven with intrigue and incident than we’re used to from Marty, whose specialty as always has been projecting tortured souls onto the screen with adrenalized vigor. Top it off with its cast – a heavyweight Battle Royal – and you’ve got this year’s likely Best Picture Winner.

4. Babel

It is about culture and language, but also about the broken relationships between husband and wife, father and daughter. It is specific down to the last scrap of fabric in its sprawling settings, but universal in its feelings of desperation and hurt. It is about growing up, about letting go, about trust, about the need to listen. But most of all Babel, the most emotionally-ambitious movie of the year, is about a single bullet, and just how far it can travel.

3. Pan's Labyrinth

A storybook tragedy that blends lovingly-designed fantasy with the most brutally unforgiving reality, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is a visual and emotional feast. In essence he has made two movies, each one of the best of the year, and found in their union a kind of perfect harmony, one that reminds us that a child really does exist in two worlds at once.

2. United 93

The experience of United 93 is indescribable, although I tried my best in my review. It is a dramatization that eschews the shortcuts of drama, an artifice determined to be as true as it can possibly be. From camerawork to writing to performance Paul Greengrass has brought into being a work which has little precedent in the history of cinema, an act of mourning and tribute conveyed through an absolute devotion to re-creation.

1. Children of Men

While United 93’s emotional impact is more profound, it relies heavily on the baggage we bring in. In fact, part of its virtue is in how it trusts that exterior stimulus. Children of Men has no such assistance, and so its ability to break your heart and marvel your senses comes entirely from within. This science-fiction allegory about a world where hope has dimmed to almost nothing is a technical landmark both for its camerawork and staging, but also a staggering catharsis for those who want to believe that no matter how ugly the world gets, there will still be goodness within.

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order)
: The Last King of Scotland, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Cars, Miami Vice, The Good German, The Proposition, The Queen, Little Miss Sunshine

The Ten Worst Films of 2006 That I Saw

10. Open Season

It is inevitable that when copycats race towards the latest trend, you’ll get results like Open Season. Sony Computer Animation solved all the technological problems of making a feature to capitalize on the audience cultivated by Pixar and Dreamworks, and they threw enough movie star voices in (as if children care about that), but they never got around to figuring out how to make any of it charming, instead delivering a film that’s by turns manic, nasty, and careless.

9. The Da Vinci Code

This ranking is less a result of objective badness as it is the ratio of talent-assembled to the bloated banality of the final product. The movie is handsome and packed to the rafters with gifted actors, but they are so frightened of the sales figures of their source material that they don’t dare examine it too closely, for fear they will realize how silly and unoriginal it actually is.

8. Eragon

This plays like a re-make of Star Wars starring the staff of Medieval Times. In the wake of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter it was too easy to predict – that we’d begin to see the lesser titles in the Fantasy section of Barnes & Noble raided for raw material. Lesser source material + lower budget + rookie talent both in the director’s chair and the starring role = the geek cinema equivalent of Malt-o-Meal cereal.

7. The Marine

It’s perhaps expecting too much to want a product of “WWE Films” to not land in my bottom 10, but as a long-time champion of B-action pictures – I even gave a thumbs-up to the remake of Walking Tall – it’s not like I don’t give projects like these every opportunity to amuse me. But John Cena’s dry-cement screen presence fails to unite this movie’s ludicrous and/or juvenile excesses into anything resembling coherent entertainment.

6. Saw III

Three years, three Saw movies, three entries in my bottom 10 list. Perhaps I’m just being stubborn, and fail to realize that, instead of the plot-hole strewn execution fantasies I think I’m watching, these are actually somehow ingenious subversive commentaries. To those who think so, who think there is meaning in this mutilation beyond what they bring to put a gloss on their desire to watch it, I feel justified in asking this question – don’t brilliantly thought-provoking movies usually have less sh*tty acting?

5. Lady in the Water

The only thing holding back M. Night Shyamalan, one of the most technically-gifted directors of his generation, is that he insists on working over and over again with M. Night Shyamalan, the childishly sloppy writer, and M. Night Shyamalan, the boring actor. His descent into egocentric mania has been fascinating to watch, tragic as it is in terms of wasted potential. Consider that the only reason Lady in the Water, a horror fairy tale that serves as the silly and arbitrary counter-point to the mesmerizing pathos of Pan’s Labyrinth, isn’t lower on this list is that he IS such a talented director.

4. Poseidon

Perhaps it’s optimism on my part to hope that people don’t go to the movies just to watch studios spend money. The failure of Poseidon might just support that theory. This movie sank (ho ho) from prominence so quickly people seem to have forgotten it even existed. When a movie studio spends this much money on something, that’s not the result they’re looking for. They couldn’t find much reason to re-make one of the seminal disaster movies of the 70’s except that it was certain to be very expensive. And they couldn’t find a reason beyond that for us to care about it.

3. Ultraviolet

I feel sorry for Milla Jovovich, who is lithe and intense and sexy, and possesses enough of all three qualities to be a legitimate female action star, the kind we don’t always have even one of working steadily. As long as she keeps choosing projects like the abominable Resident Evil franchise and this stupefying nonsense, though, she’s destined to remain in the fanboy ghetto, top-lining cheap, derivative movies that people make excuses for because of her agreeable nature about superfluous nudity.

2. Bloodrayne

For director Uwe Boll, making only the 2nd-worst movie of the year rates as progress. Bloodrayne really hits the bad movie jackpot – combining a goofy plot, bad effects, slumming actors and the kind of heedless enthusiasm that can only come from a filmmaker who thinks the tripe he’s serving up is really top sirloin. What movie, you ask, could actually score as worse than a movie that features Meat Loaf in a powdered wig?

1. Night of the Living Dead 3D

For people who know what a bad movie looks like, I always say their perception is skewed, because there’s a kind of minimal threshold of competence that accompanies just about all theatrical releases. Even if the actors are misguided, the writing hackneyed, and the premise stupid, you at least take comfort that the DP knew which end of the camera was up and that the editor could put the whole thing into the right order. If Night of the Living Dead 3D is worth nothing else (and I promise you, it’s worth nothing else,) it will finally show you the depths of incompetence which are actually possible in this medium. I’m sure of all the critical plaudits producer/director Jeff Broadsheet imagined being bestowed upon this limp and amateurish bastardization of a classic, one that never occurred to him was “Worse than Uwe Boll!” But that’s where he is, and I think certain congratulations are in order.


  • "Poseidon" = "Paint Your Cruise Ship"? Either way, an excuse for Richard Dreyfuss to buy more civics textbooks. The Oscar shun of "Children of Men" reminds me that "2001" was snubbed in favor of "more worthy nominees", such as Carol Reed's "Oliver". It would have been a delight to see an Oscar of Michael Caine listening to Aphex Twin or saying "Pull my finger". And as far as the Worst goes, Uwe Boll continues to outdo himself. It saddens me to see Michael "Eddie" Pare trapped on his ship of fools. There is a clever scene in Robert Edwards' dystopian fable "Land of the Blind" where the film-loving(and directing) President-For-Life Maximillian Junior, has MacKenzie Crook chained to an editing console, controlling him with electrical shocks, while feeding him pellets of food. That is probably the Boll-Pare dynamic. Or Eddie just ran up his phone bill or something. I have to admit, I was somewhat underwhelmed by
    "Miami Vice", and found there to be an appalling lack of chemistry between Colin Farrell and Gong Li. And I did like Ian McKellen's performance in "The Da Vinci". I found to be a spry delight, as he danced circles around his costars. Lastly, I like the Ken Russell joke title of the list. Funny, because I just caught "Tommy" on TCM's "30 Days of Oscar". Man, Oliver Reed makes some strange faces. And now I can finally die, having seen Ann Margaret covered in bake beans. Still, nowhere near as good as "Quadrophenia".

    By Anonymous Michael De Luca, at 1:55 PM  

  • You know, I've made that Ken Russell joke three consecutive years on my blog, and to my knowledge you're the first person who's gotten it. That, and just about everything you've written in this comment, are why I'm damned happy to see you poking your head up around here.

    Agree that McKellen was the best thing about Da Vinci Code, agree to disagree about Miami Vice - you're not alone in how you felt.

    By Blogger Nick, at 3:55 PM  

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