Movies, Best Of, 2006

More than any other year in recent memory (recent memory being about five years, give or take), I’ve managed to see an outstanding line-up of movies. (Don’t get me wrong–there were massive duds, too; like The Punisher, and Primer, and Dogville.) Some of them were actually released this year, but most of them have been around for a while, making their appearance by way of Netflix. Here’s where I say a word or two about the best I’ve seen.

For novelty purposes, I’m going to divide the movies into semi-arbitrary categories and then pick a category winner. Keep in mind the fact that I’ve already culled the herd (because, honestly, it would be embarrassing to pit, say, The Mummy Returns against Dellamorte Dellamore in the “undead” category).

1. Movies Released This Year

Contenders: Casino Royale; The Prestige; The Proposition; The Science of Sleep; X3

There’s X3, which holds its own as a decent action movie. Not exactly brilliant, but a fine addition to the X-Men franchise. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really stand much of a chance of winning here, so let’s move to The Proposition, which comes up as a natural must-see for Nick Cave fans. An Australian western, filled with spectacular imagery, stand-out acting, and held up by a surprisingly solid plot. Gruesome, as you might expect. Maybe more. I was blown away by The Science of Sleep, which took me almost totally by surprise. This movie is the quirkier, more independent, more heart-wrenchingly brilliant, distant cousin of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which was crafted by the same director, Michel Gondry). The Prestige, a movie about dueling magicians, by Christopher Nolan (of Memento, Insomnia, and Batman Begins), is intentionally clever, but–and this is where individual mileage may vary–by the end of the movie, it was more clever than I’d given it credit for. And that made it as impressive as the magic tricks it meant to portray. And for theatre-fare, the last real contender is Casino Royale.  Which, honestly, I loved–but which still doesn’t stand a chance against The Science of Sleep.
Winner: The Science of Sleep.

2. Documentaries

Contenders: Fog of War; Why We Fight; Winged Migration

Fog of War (about Robert McNamara) is historically interesting yet still relevant, and Winged Migration is wholly spectacular and a movie I’m glad I got the chance to see on the big screen; but Why We Fight was the movie that astounded me most of all. Maybe it does preach to the choir, but it does so with vigor and conviction.

Winner: Why We Fight.

3. Noir (Or Something Like It)

Contenders: Brick; Heist; Jackie Brown; Shadow of a Doubt

Admittedly, this is a scattershot realm of noir-ish movies, but it’ll have to do. Shadow of a Doubt sets a high standard, but despite its good execution and status as a “classic”, felt a bit dated, even if it does still have the power to surprise. Heist and Jackie Brown both pay tribute to Shadow in their own ways. Heist is one of David Mamet’s outings, and true to form, it’s filled with fantastic lines, strong acting, and a curious, cock-eyed rhythm. Jackie Brown somehow ends up being Pulp Fiction’s less-referenced poor relation, even though it’s nearly as strong. Each film in this category is astounding in its own way, and in a few years, Brick may fall by the wayside, a brief flickering that never really made its impact on film history. But for now, Brick is my favorite. Confident, lyric, and spooky, Brick casts a startling shadow.

Winner: Brick.

4. Not Alive, Not Dead

Contenders: Alice; Dellamorte Dellamore; Otesanek

Be it zombies or animated animal pelts or a dead log, this is surely a strange competition. Alice is a surreal stop-animation retelling of Alice in Wonderland; it uses animal bones and household objects, socks and pots, dolls and keys to create a hugely surreal landscape. Otesanek, by the same director, tells the story of a childless couple that take in a piece of tree root which (naturally) becomes animate, and hungry for human flesh, at that (of course). But Dellamorte Dellamore (re-titled in English as “Cemetery Man”) is the most captivating of the lot, telling a story in which zombies are, if anything, a minor detail, and loneliness, confusion, and loss are the presiding factors.

Winner: Dellamorte Dellamore.

5. It’s A Crime

Contenders: Heat; Io Non Ho Paura; Le Professionnel

Each of these movies is about a different kind of crime. Heat concerns what we think of (by way of film, mostly) as “professional” crime: painstakingly choreographed crime, flawlessly executed and nearly certain to be successful. Io Non Ho Paura (“I’m not afraid”) is about the kind of beast professional crime becomes when it invades the lives of ordinary people. And Le Professionnel is essentially the story of state-sponsored crime, spies trained to kill other countries’ officials. Heat brings with it a stellar cast and excellent production values. Io Non Ho Paura brings nuance and compelling morality plays: a story you can believe, one that involves not superstars and machine-guns, but down-the-street neighbors and greed. Le Professionnel brings style, and totally unfettered panache. Heat is in many regards the best movie of the group, but Le Professionnel wins my vote because it dares to end with style.

Winner: Le Professionnel.

6. Strange Connectors

Contenders: Carnages; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Kontroll; Oldboy

These are movies about interconnectedness. In Carnages, everyone is connected by the remains of a slaughtered bull, eating its flesh and buying its parts and puzzling over the meaning of it all. It’s a gimmick, but it works, kind of. Oldboy is a crime-drama/thriller in which the characters’ connection really doesn’t emerge until the end–and when it does, you’re either convinced, or not. Compelling, but absurd. Frantic, but paced. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is about the connection of memory, and what the world might be like where we could… Well, you know. Erase it, and stuff. Love could be a dirty word, and fate wonders what kind of place it has in the world. But Kontroll, a beautifully serene tale of friendship and redemption (or something close enough) that’s just a bit too convoluted to be a parable, cut-and-dried, steals my heart. And my vote.

Winner: Kontroll.

7. Absurd to Reason

Contenders: Brazil; Delicatessen; Howl’s Moving Castle; I Heart Huckabees; Ivan Vasilevich menyaet professiyu

Of course it’s not reality, that’s why we love it so much. Ivan Vasilevich Menyaet Professiyu lets Ivan the Terrible and one of his modern descendants switch places, and does so to comical effect. It’s a fun gag, all the better since the movie’s actually in Russian. Brazil is comical, but dark: a future wound up in bureaucratic incompetence (all the more horrifying because it’s recognizable), technology, and blood. Wildly imaginative, like everything Terry Gilliam does. Howl’s Moving Castle, magical, murky fare from the ever-splendid Miyazaki, shows us a world of war and demons, enchanted scarecrows (or…?) and canine spies. Delicatessen is dark, like Brazil, but contains a larger spark of hope that things might turn out right, even if people are eating one another. The moral of the story: as long as there are clowns, we can overcome cannibalism? Or…? But I Heart Huckabees is the most hopeful of all, promising, maybe, that all the nonsense in the world will find its own way to work out, if we just let it. The characters in the other movies dance awkwardly around their unreasonable worlds, but in I Heart Huckabees, you get the feeling that everyone actually develops, even if all that really means is they get hit in the face.

Winner: I Heart Huckabees.

Overall winner…

Oh, you’ve got to be kidding; I’m not a miracle-worker.