Monday, January 08, 2007

Film-Watching Robot's 2006 Year in Review: Salty Ham Edition

For the preceding three years, I've contributed to online magazine Senses of Cinema's year-end best-of hootenanny. I thought it would goad me into writing and submitting longer pieces, but I'm way too lazy. This year, I've decided to forgo sending them anything and put my comments and lists on my own movie blog. So, here it is:

The First Annual Film-Watching Robot Year in Review
by Dr. Mystery
Grade: A+

My favorite movies of the year (which means movies that screened theatrically in Austin for the first time in 2006):

The World (Jia Zhang Ke)
This Chinese film seemed to offer a new film language, one that had everything to do with life right now and nothing to do with other movies, contrasting nicely with most of modern filmmaking, which seems to consist of nothing but other movies with purpose and genitalia removed. Of course, this is not exactly true, but it's almost true.

Bubble (Steven Soderbergh)
I'm not a huge Soderbergh fan. I thought "Traffic" was a massively overrated preachy screed, and worse. Its expensive cast and budget and huge canvas ultimately boiled down to this (hopefully unintentional) message: Spend more time with your daughter or she'll get addicted to meth and let a black man fuck her. I don't know why the world needs, or more importantly, wants, an "Ocean's 13." "Out of Sight" was fun, but empty. Yet, I'm always interested in what Soderbergh's up to. He's prolific and adventurous, and the further he gets from big money, the more he has to offer. Of the handful of his films I like a lot, this might be my favorite. The beautifully creepy doll factory shots are stunning, the non-professional cast (the leading role is played by a KFC general manager) is far more interesting than any Hollywood ensemble, the story is simple, tight, and compelling, and Robert Pollard composed the score.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Tommy Lee Jones)
Tommy Lee Jones starred in a cheerleading comedy that filmed a few scenes near my hellish office job a few years before I was unfortunate enough to be hired there. A woman I work with asked him for his autograph on her lunch break and he was apparently an "asshole." He is also a surprisingly excellent filmmaker.

Neil Young: Heart of Gold (Jonathan Demme)
Demme finally decides to remind people that he is a great director, even though he's been bogged down in remakes and prestige pictures for the past fifteen years. This concert film, in technique and approach, is almost a sequel to another Demme concert film, "Stop Making Sense," and revealed Young's "Prairie Wind" songs to me in a way the album hadn't.

L'Enfant (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne)
The Dardennes are unrelenting filmmakers, and thank God for that. Their films are about action, but not in the Schwarzenegger sense. They are concerned with work, reaction, and redemption, not dead ends. One foot follows the other, and you're always getting somewhere.

I Am a Sex Addict (Caveh Zahedi)
A great comedy about a debilitating addiction that ruined several relationships and a couple of marriages. Self-indulgent? Of course. Look at the title. Also, painful and surprisingly affecting.

Idiocracy (Mike Judge)
Mike Judge gets fucked by the studios again. "Office Space" was given poor distribution and little promotion, even though it is the most accurate film about what office work does to people and is goddamn funny besides. "Idiocracy" was treated even worse. This time, Judge attacks the corporatization of America and our own stupid, apathetic complicity by name and gives us a big, dumb, funny comedy on top. Apparently, Costco, Pepsi, Taco Bell, etc. put pressure on 20th Century Fox and the movie went unreleased for three years before being dumped in only a handful of theaters in a handful of cities without any trailer, poster, or promotion of any kind. Luckily, Austin was one of the cities. Because of this, and because "Office Space" is an inspirational film for me, I'm overrating "Idiocracy" a bit. It runs out of ideas and momentum halfway through and devolves into a wacky action movie, but the first half is fantastic and it deserved a much wider release.

Factotum (Bent Hamer)
My favorite Bukowski adaptation because this one puts the humor and optimism that are an integral but often overlooked part of his work at the forefront, the visual look of the film is an intriguing combination of American and European sensibility (the director is Norwegian), and Lili Taylor and Marisa Tomei are fucking amazing in it.

Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck)
I already wrote about this one, but it is surprisingly excellent and well worth seeing.

Mutual Appreciation (Andrew Bujalski)
I really hope he branches out from the inarticulate and apathetic twentysomething sort-of-hipsters that populate his first two movies, but that's almost beside the point. Structurally, Bujalski is one of the most interesting directors to come along in a while, and he draws incredible performances out of non-actors.

Borat (Larry Charles)
I don't really need to say anything about this one. You all saw it. It's the most talked-about movie of the year. Some of it is problematic and makes me uncomfortable. Some of it is brilliant. I am glad I saw a bear in an ice cream truck frighten some youngsters and a couple of naked men fight each other in a hotel. I am sorry a lot of us are ignorant, prejudiced, and stupid, but I'm glad we're so polite. I laughed pretty much continuously.

A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman)
I didn't include this because Altman died. I really did admire this movie. I think it's one of his best late-period films. It all works for me, even the Virginia Madsen scenes that most people don't like. Most people I talked to about this movie focused on the radio show instead of Altman. I wish the radio program the best, but I would rather have lava poured in my ears than listen to five minutes of it. However, I found Garrison Keillor a good match for Altman's style and a surprisingly interesting actor. The movie to me is about an old man saying goodbye to his life, not an advertisement for NPR.

Dave Chappelle's Block Party and The Science of Sleep (Michel Gondry)
I wrote about both of these already. It was a good year for Gondry.

A Scanner Darkly and Fast Food Nation (Richard Linklater)
Another twofer. I like Linklater a lot. I know some people who think he's boring, but I don't find his movies boring at all. He's primarily interested in digressions, detours, and conversations, and he finds a lot of different ways to explore these interests visually. I always look forward to what he's doing. I don't think he's ever made a masterpiece, but I don't think he's ever made a bad film, either. And he consistently gets good performances from actors I don't like. In 2006, this included Winona Ryder and Wilmer Valderrama.

My favorite moving image of 2006 was actually a TV skit from 1989. Bruce McCulloch in a fake gray mustache from a "Kids in the Hall" episode, to Scott Thompson, playing his wife: "A man works all day, he expects a normal ham meal. Not goddamn bastard brine!"

Coming soon: Part II: Runners-up, disappointments, interesting failures, older movies on the big screen, and the worst movie I saw in a theater all year.

No comments:

Blog Archive