Saturday, January 06, 2007

Best Films Of 2006: Vancouver Critics Weigh In

The New Year has come, the Best Of lists continue, and their abundance maketh the movie-goer's heart glad. A particularly bountiful windfall of snazzy year-end releases this time around means the theatres are packed with movies worth seeing.

The Movie City News "Big Chart" compiles all the critic Top Ten lists they can find: as of Jan 2, 214 had been tallied, giving a pretty good sense of what (mostly American) reviewers considered the best films of 2006. Now that the Georgia Straight and Vancouver Sun critics have brought forth their own selections, I've noted those, as well as the rankings of the Indiewire poll (to my taste, the most reliable of the lists or meta-lists: features only the very best critics).

As for what's showing locally, CHILDREN OF MEN (the P.D. James-derived dystopia) and PERFUME (Tom Tykwer's high-budget take on the best-selling historical-set serial killer novel) premiere this weekend. OLD JOY and MUTUAL APPRECIATION (two darlings of the ultra-indie press) are this week only at the VanCity, and I'm intrigued by CSA: The Confederate States Of America, Monday only at Cinematheque - a faux-Ken Burns doc on the premise, "what if the South had won the Civil War?" THE PAINTED VEIL is also new at the Fifth, and looks like my cuppa.

LITTLE CHILDREN is flat-out stunning, very similar in scope and tone (human scale, morally searching, contemporary literary source material) to the same director's justly acclaimed IN THE BEDROOM, just as truthful and unflinching but (unless its glories fade with time) even more complex: my friend Peg said "this is what movie making is all about," and I have to agree. HISTORY BOYS is a marvel: same extraordinary cast as the West End stage hit, a head full of ideas about ideas, the treatment of the "sexual harassment" theme perhaps glib, but adds to the pile of things to talk about after the final reel - and if you pay attention, you may find one of the film's two Christian characters a fascinating (and, appropriate to the script, complex and nuanced) study of a certain kind of integrity. Helen Mirren is as good as THE QUEEN as everyone is saying, in a film that's as restrained and royal as its subject. THE DEPARTED is potent, but ultimately I found myself distanced from the proceedings, in my head not my gut or heart, because of plot convolutions: chiefly memorable for me are Leo's performance and ultra-punchy, blackly-funny dialogue. STRANGER THAN FICTION felt a little slighter and a little slicker than I expected, but what can I say, God spoke to me through the movie (He did that a lot this Christmas, also chatting me up during AKEELAH & THE BEE, LITTLE CHILDREN and SCROOGED - clearly, He's no respecter of critical tastes). APOCALYPTO is mostly notable for immersing us - in blood, in fear, in another world - but isn't dismissable: it's premise that we're seeing a civilization under the judgment of God makes the film better or much worse, depending on your perspective. I dutifully checked out VOLVER because it keeps getting raved, and realize I need to learn to trust my instincts: I'm just on a different wavelength than this Almodovar dude, I'm afraid.

Most-anticipated not-yet-here films are PAN'S LABYRINTH, a fantasy for grown-ups set against the Spanish Civil War - if it's eye candy, it's from Bernard Callebaut's - and LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA, a Japs-eye-view of the horrific WW2 battle by Clint Eastwood that mirrors the Yanks-eye-view of his FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, still dug in at a Coquitlam moviehouse (what you want to bet they don't quite manage to overlap?).

And at the rental shack, SOPHIE SCHOLL has now reached the shelves of some Rogers stores, only a couple months behind our celebrated Videomatica: #2 or #3 of the year for this viewer. UNITED 93 is agonizing, brilliant, intense, and never exploitative. THE DEATH OF MR LAZARESCU is among the 2006 top three of many cinephiles, was a big hit at the VIFF. Jeffrey Overstreet has been urging FFCC (Film & Faith Critics' Circle) voters to check out THREE TIMES in consideration for our year end awards. 49 UP continues my all-time favourite documentary series, and figures on plenty of year-end lists (perhaps mine as well). THE PROPOSITION looks like a good double feature with the also nasty (but definitely worthwhile) THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA, the bastard spawn of Flannery O'Connor and Sam Peckinpah. TSOTSI has lots of fans, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE was probably Vancouver's favourite movie this past year and might make my Top Ten if I can get past my feeling that it doesn't play fair. You don't need to hear me rave L'ENFANT even one more time - it's been either #2 or #3 on my 2006 list for a very long time, and unlikely to budge. I snagged myself a cheap PV copy of FATELESS at Rogers the other day that I'm eager to watch. And hey - if CACHE counts as a 2006 movie, how come it's not ranking way higher? (Of course, foreign indie fare always faces the fate that ragged distribution and micro-marketing budgets inflict, my dearly loved SOPHIE SCHOLL, HAWAII OSLO and REQUIEM all being cases in point).

Compilation of Critic 2006 Top Ten Lists

Jan 2 (214 critics)

1 United 93 - Smith, Yamauchi, MacArthur, Monk - Videomatica, Rogers (Indiewire: 8 )
2 Queen, The - Eisner, McArthur, Monk - Fifth Avenue, Rio, etc (Indiewire: 11 )
3 Departed, The - Smith, MacArthur - Granville 7, Feb 13 DVD (Indiewire: 3 )
4 Pan's Labyrinth - "Coming Soon" (prob Jan 12), Fifth Avenue (Indiewire: 14 )
5 Letters From Iwo Jima - Eisner - "Coming Soon," Fifth Avenue (Indiewire: 19 )
6 Borat - Smith, Monk - VanEast, Paramount, Riverport, Station Square, etc (Indiewire: 15 )
7 Little Miss Sunshine - Eisner, Smith, Yamauchi - Videomatica, Rogers
8 Babel - Smith - Paramount, VanEaset, Station Square
9 Little Children - Monk - Granville 7
10 Half Nelson - Eisner - Feb 13 DVD Videomatica (Indiewire: 10 )

11 Children Of Men - - Tinseltown, everywhere (Indiewire: 9 )
12 The Death of Mr Lazarescu - - Videomatica, Rogers (Indiewire: 1 )
13 Volver - Eisner - Tinseltown, Fifth Avenue (Indiewire: 17 )
14 Army Of Shadows - - (Indiewire: 5 )
15 Dreamgirls - McArthur - Riverport, Paramount, etc.
16 Flags of our Fathers - - Eagle Ridge
17 L'Enfant - Smith - Videomatica, Rogers PV (Indiewire: 2 )
18 Casino Royale - Yamauchi - Everywhere
19 A Prairie Home Companion - Eisner - Videomatica, Rogers (Indiewire: 16 )
20 Old Joy - - VanCity (Indiewire: 7 )

21 Three Times - - Videomatica (Indiewire: 6 )
22 Inland Empire - - Dec 29 wide release (Indiewire: 4 )
23 Notes on a Scandal - Eisner - Fifth Avenue
24 The Proposition - Smith, Yamauchi, Monk - Videomatica
25 An Inconvenient Truth - Eisner, Yamauchi, MacArthur, Monk - Videomatica, Rogers
26 Deliver Us From Evil - - Oct 13 release
27 A Scanner Darkly - - Videomatica, Rogers (Indiewire: 13 )
28 Marie Antoinette - - Denman
29 Brick - Yamauchi - Videomatica, Rogers
30 Tristram Shandy - - Videomatica, Rogers

31 Last King Of Scotland - Smith, Harris, Monk - Tinseltown
32 Climates - - Oct 27 limited release (FC: 12 )
33 The Lives Of Others - - Feb 9 07 limited release
34 Thank You For Smoking - Yamauchi, MacArthur - Videomatica
35 Battle In Heaven - - Videomatica (Indiewire: 18 )
36 The Fountain - - Granville 7
37 The Descent - - Videomatica
38 Happy Feet - - Various
39 Stranger Than Fiction - Monk - Tinseltown, satellites
40 Inside Man - - Videomatica, Rogers

41 Dave Chapelle's Block Party - - Videomatica, Rogers
42 The Science of Sleep - - Videomatica
43 Good Shepherd - - Everywhere
44 Feb 20 07 Prestige - Yamauchi - Denman, Granville 7 Feb 20 DVD
45 Neil Young: Heart Of Gold - - Videomatica, Rogers PV
46 Painted Veil - Eisner - Fifth Avenue
47 Apocalypto - - Tinseltown, Rio, Riverport, etc
48 Blood Diamond - - Park, Paramount, Riverport, etc
49 Lady Vengeance - Smith - Videomatica, Rogers
50 World Trade Center - - Videomatica, Rogers

Also notable, further down in the Top 100 Or So...
History Boys - (Eisner mention) - Ridge
V For Vendetta - - Videomatica, Rogers
Shortbus - - Mar 13 DVD
When The Levees Broke - - Videomatica
Days Of Glory - - Dec 8 limited release
Iraq in Fragments - -
Water - - Videomatica
Miami Vice - - Videomatica, Rogers
Devil Wears Prada - - Videomatica, Rogers
49 Up - - Videomatica
Duck Season - - Videomatica
Superman Returns - - Videomatica
Pursuit of Happyness - - Tinseltown, Richmond Centre, Riverport, etc
Illusionist - - Jan 9 DVD
Akeelah and the Bee - - Videomatica, Rogers PV
The Road to Guantanamo - Videomatica, Rogers
Mutual Appreciation - - VanCity, Feb 13 Videomatica (Indiewire: 20 )
Cache - Harris - Videomatica, Rogers PV
Manufactured Landscapes - Smith, monk
Cars - - Videomatica
Jesus Camp - - Jan 23 DVD
War Tapes - - Videomatica
Our Daily Bread - -
Perfume - - Granville 7
Woman is the Future of man - -
Fateless - Eisner, Smith - Videomatica, Rogers
Sweet Land - -
Devil & Daniel Johnston - - Videomatica
Russian Dolls - - Videomatica
Clerks II - - Videomatica, Rogers
Bobby - -
Sophie Scholl - Eisner - Videomatica, Rogers
Tsotsi - - Videomatica, Rogers PV
Aura - -
Guide To Recognizing Your Saints - -
Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada - - Videomatica, Rogers PV
Black Dahlia - - Videomatica, Rogers
Break-Up - - Videomatica
Devil's Miner - - Videomatica
Iron Island - - Videomatica
Hostel - - Videomatica
Lady In The Water - - Videomatica, Rogers
Pirates: Dead Man's Chest - - Videomatica, Rogers
Puffy Chair - -
Good German - - Fifth Avenue
Why We Fight - - Videomatica, Rogers

And some that didn't figure in the MCN 100 Or So, but were picked by our local crix...
A Comedy Of Power - Harris
Border Post - Harris
The Promise - Harris
The Curse of the Golden Flower - Harris Tinseltown, Riverport
Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles - Harris
Catch A Fire - Harris
I'm Your Man - Harris, MacArthur
Click - Yamauchi
The Protector - Yamauchi
The World's Fastest Indian - MacArthur
For Your Consideration - MacArthur Dolphin
Scoop - MacArthur
Shut Up And Sing - Monk


Reel Fanatic said...

I'm almost afraid to admit it, but I just flat out didn't care for "The History Boys" .. I just couldn't shake the thought that none of these knew they were in a movie, but were instead just delivering the same stage pitch, and it just didn't work for me

Ron Reed said...

You're not alone in your reaction, reel. Fact is, I seem to be very much in the minority in my enthusiasm for this one. Here are some bits from an email exchange from one of my most perspicacious fellow-travelers, filmically speaking;

Thanks again.I find I often agree with your choices, and we have seen quite a number of great films on your recommendation. However I am surprised you rave about the History Boys, which we both disliked.

Two things - I found the sexual stuff crude and well - unconvincing. Teenagers are unlikely to speak directly to their teachers about sex as depicted in this film.

More importantly, I found the casting completely unconvincing, as these are supposed to be teenagers - right? They are in the final year of school supposedly being groomed for university, so in the British system they would be ~16. Not one of them looked under 19, and several looked and acted in their 20's. (Dakin - Dominic Cooper - looks and acts every bit the 26 he is in real life.) Was the casting director on vacation? Did they not have anyone with continuity savy? To me that is a significant problem,and every bit as annoying as the Hollywood films that have 6 year olds talk like 10 year olds and 10 year olds like teenagers.


Now, I happen not to have found those elements to have made a serious dent in my appreciation (indeed, enthusiasm) for the film. Perhaps it's my live theatre mentality, but I'm just not very concerned with casting by precise age and type - I'm more than willing to suspend my disbelief about a performer's age or "look" and simply enjoy what I take to be a fine performance. I think of it as "a stretch." But it's a stretch that my friend didn't find himself making, and I wouldn't argue the difference in taste there. (He didn't like my de gustibus non es disputandem sign-off, but I stand by it!)

His strong disagreement with the veracity of the script (as opposed to the casting) with respect to sexuality I would tend to agree with: the sexual politics (or perhaps sexual psychology?) of the film seems artificial to me, as well. For my friend, and I imagine for a number of viewers, that's a deal-breaker, especially since sexuality is such a core subject of the story - and it's fair to note that my friend is a medical specialist with plenty of knowledge about matters. All i can say is, that (significant) weakness in the film didn't come anywhere near counter-balancing my tremendous appreciation for the other things that were going on, having to do with the nature of teaching and mentoring, pragmatic academic careerism vs curiosity and love of learning, the value of history and learning, the difference between cleverness and truth - the discussion about the Holocaust alone was enough to make this a film favourite.

Other critics are hard on the director's not-especially-imaginative transition of the stage play to the screen: it's still too much a stage play for their liking. Well, I like stage plays, and as I'll never see this one in London or on Broadway...