Mr. Beaks Does the Best of 2006

     January 9, 2006

Posted by Mr. Beaks

;

Tsotsi

;

For a year that started off with so little promise – going to movies for free became something to actively dread – it’s a little surprising to find myself reflecting on this year with a great deal of (albeit se;le;ctive) enthusiasm.; What was good tended to be wonderful, which explains The Squid and the Whale, a film that struck an intensely deep personal chord within me, settling at the number ten slot.; Though the gems didn’t arrive until the Cannes Film Festival in May (whence three of my selections originated), the wait for quality was well worth it.; The only major disappointment over the next six months came from watching far too many sensible critics knuckle under the studio hype machine with overly enthusiastic responses to such horribly mundane prestige pictures as Capote and Walk the Line, two professionally crafted films made watchable by their respective star turns but ultimately undermined by their adherence to tiresome biopic conventions.; Both films will be quickly forgotten.

;

The same will hopefully be true with Paul Haggis’s Crash, which does for race relations in 2005 what Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner did in 1967:; absolutely nothing.; I’ll own up to being bamboozled by Haggis’s script several years ago; the man’s a very persuasive writer, and he plots with one-hour television tidiness.; But seeing it in action magnified all of his unsubtle contrivances, turning the film into well-directed, expertly performed bit of problem picture nonsense harkening back to the worst Stanley Kramer productions.; And that’s a genre that needs to remain relegated to its MOW cage.; As for Haggis, he’s a deft craftsman who seems to have no interest in his fellow man save for how they might be dubiously arrayed to advance his writing career.; He’s the anti-Kieslowski.

;

Since I’ve unexpectedly shifted into negative mode, maybe now is a good time to quickly rattle off the films that made me look like this:

;

Diddy Gone Batty

;

The Pacifier – The biggest marketing bait-and-switch in history:; Gary the Duck.; When this finally hit DVD, my friends convened a drinking contest wherein we resolved to drink whenever Gary was involved a bit of comedic business.; Forty-five minutes in, we realized that Gary merely straying into the frame would be insufficient to get us crocked.

;

Cursed – I have no idea how Wes Craven, Christina Ricci and Jesse Eisenberg made it through the lengthy reshoot process on this misconceived Scream throwback without killing themselves.; Luckily, the year improved for Craven (Red Eye), Eisenberg (Squid and the Whale), and Ricci (killer sample on the new Beck LP).

;

House of D – David Duchovny is an awful writer, and an even worse director.; Unfortunately, he did both on this movie and cast Robin Williams as a mentally-challenged middle-aged man.; Artaud was a pussy.

;

The Bad News Bears – Whatever it was Richard Linklater was preoccupied with while he apparently hung out on set while cameras rolled and captured enough coverage to cut together a feature-length film, I hope it was worth Paramount’s blown $40 million.

;

Serenity – Not really a bad film, per se, but the zealous behavior of Joss Whedon’s unironically monikered “Browncoat” fandom, which the writer-director encouraged, made me want to wish the whole unexceptional space saga into non-existence.; Happily, the tepid box office returns took care of that for me.

;

Stay – David Benioff is a great screenwriter.; Marc Forster appears to be a very talented director.; This film should’ve been abandoned the day David Fincher lost interest in it.

;

The Longest Yard – I’m shocked that Robert Aldrich didn’t bust out of his casket and start shattering half-filled bottles of Wild Turkey over the heads of everyone even tangentially involved in this misbegotten, sissified remake of the 1970’s Burt Reynolds prison football classic.

;

The Skeleton Key – Written by Ehren Kruger.; Not rewritten by Scott Frank.

;

That’s enough of that.; Time to steer this barge out of the sludge and back into the open water of… a metaphor that’s apparently going nowhere.; Before I commence with the top ten, how’s ‘bout some honorable mentionin’?

;

Dallas 362

;

;

Dallas 362 – Barely seen, hardly distributed, and startlingly inventive first film from writer-director-actor Scott Caan should be mandatory viewing for aspiring independent filmmakers who think they’re being clever by simply employing non-linear storytelling.; It’s not a perfect film, but it is deeply felt and respectful of its uniquely drawn characters.; And how is Val Lauren not one of the most sought after character actors in town?

;

2046 – It never opened up enough to be considered top-shelf Wong Kar-Wai, but it’s a wondrous mess.;

;

Hostage – A nasty B-movie that recalls Don Siegel at his lurid best.; Critics carped about its implausibility, but director Florent Siri e;xe;cute;s his set pieces with enough precision to make the ludicrousness more than palatable.

;

Good Night, and Good Luck – Another George Clooney 1950’s fetish exercise that soars whenever David Strathairn is chomping on Edward R. Murrow’s exquisitely worded censures.

;

Up for Grabs

;

Up for Grabs – When Barry Bonds hit his record setting seventy-third home run in 2001, two men emerged from the right field Pac Bell scrum with a claim to the ball.; What transpires over ninety minutes in Michael Wranovics’s documentary is the stuff of classic American satire – greed, chicanery, entitlement… it’s all here, and it’s all wincingly hilarious.

;

Brothers – Susanne Bier’s bruising tale of familial discord set against European involvement in Afghanistan.; Though the metaphor may not hold together, the performances are remarkable, while the ending is more chilling than almost anything seen this year (though it took Spielberg and Munich to best it).

;

Murderball – Quad rugby is now a nationally known sport thanks to filmmakers Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, who should wake up praising someone or something for the existence of Mark Zupan.

;

Cinderella Man – The best borderline-bullshit feel-good Hollywood entertainment of the year.; Ron Howard does his populist thing with the fantastic narrative, while Russell Crowe again proves that, off-screen misbehavior be damned, he’s one of the most magnetic and talented movie stars of all time.

;

Land of the Dead – Horror with furious subtext delivered by the genre’s most socially conscious auteur, George A. Romero.; More thematically complex than any of the previous zombie go-rounds, and, oddly enough, the most entertaining.

;

War of the Worlds – Steven Spielberg is no longer America’s favorite popular storyteller because he refuses to give audiences what they want.; As with A.I., people confused survival as indicative of a pat happy ending, but what’s one slightly singed son when the guy’s telling us it’s going to take a lot more than the hint of invasion to unite us again as a people?; Loses points for some dodgy internal logic that can’t be explained away by an overarching formalism (as was the case with the Kubrick adaptation).

;

The Aristocrats

;

The Aristocrats – Some of the funniest comedians alive telling the dirtiest joke of all time, and, in the middle of it all, Sarah Silverman concocts a roundabout way of telling us she was raped by Joe Franklin (who’s lately threatened to sue for slander).

;

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – Frightening and slightly erotic, the boy wizard franchise starts down the path to manhood in its most conventionally satisfying episode yet.

;

Match Point – Woody Allen’s best film since Bullets Over Broadway.; It begins with a reference to Strangers on a Train (this time positioning the audience as spectators, i.e. Robert Walker), and quickly turns into a Dreiserian riff on ascending the society ladder rung by inevitably bloody rung.; What many viewers (including, most recently, David Denby) have failed to appreciate is that, unlike Clyde Griffiths, it’s not Chris Wilton’s overwhelming handsomeness that ingratiates him with well-to-do Hewitt family; it’s the fact that he was a British tennis star, which is just a step below royalty in that country.

;

The Matador – Nothing extraordinary, but Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear and Hope Davis turn a nice piece of writing into an immensely pleasurable tweaking of the hoary hit man genre.

;

Sky High – The best superhero movie of the year.; It may be modest in its ambitions, but it’s flawlessly structured and, therefore, isn’t undone by an incomprehensible third-act that gets worse on repeat viewings.; (And this is in reference to something a bit more positively received than The Fantastic Four.)

;

Layer Cake – “Fucking females is for poofs.”; Matthew Vaughn’s first film as a non-enabler of Guy Ritchie’s empty stylishness is the great British gangster flick Lock, Stock… and Snatch yearned to be.; George Harris’s Morty pounding the stuffing out of an old foe to Duran Duran’s syrupy power ballad “Ordinary World” is exhilarating; Craig’s XXXX coming to grips with having committed murder is massively unnerving.

;

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit – Hard to believe this fell out of my top ten.; The best family film of the year, and, y’know, the first W&G appearance in ten years.; Gromit continues to be the most miraculous animated creation in film history.

;

Finally, before charging forward with the ten best films of the year, a word on a film that should be on my list, but isn’t on account of its not being finished…

;

The New World

;

The New World – Terrence Malick recovers from his inscrutable, nature-obsessed adaptation of James Jones’s quite human The Thin Red Line with a meditation on the irresistible force of manmade progress.; Whereas the philosophical inquest of his previous film fit uneasily with his gruntish dramatis personae, the florid musings of Captain John Smith, Pocahontas and John Rolfe flow organically out of the picture’s otherworldly tone.; James Horner’s score is, once again, a collection of tired cues from prior works (this time it’s Field of Dreams, Braveheart and Star Trek II), but Malick atones for the sins of his composer with some evocative selections from Mozart and, most triumphantly, Wagner).; The film feels as if it could do with some tightening, but there’s something right about this first cut’s wildness.; I hope it isn’t scrapped entirely.

;

And now, 1,500 words later, my Top Ten of 2005:

;

The Squid and the Whale

;

10.; The Squid and the Whale

;

For everyone other than Armond White, there are two possible reactions to the caustic antics of Noah Baumbach’s barely fictionalized Brooklyn brood:; gasp or laugh.; I laughed.; Hard.; And only because I was shocked that Baumbach had succeeded in dramatizing filial disintegration with such brutal, unsentimental efficacy.; For those who’ve wondered what it’s like to grow up in a family that’s temporarily stopped loving each other, The Squid and the Whale is the scabrous dispatch of record (unseating the still very good Shoot the Moon).; Certainly, there is something to the 1980’s setting of the movie that makes it very Gen X friendly (Walt plagiarizing “Hey You”, a make out session scored to Bryan Adams’s “Run to You”, Frank’s adolescent vodka binge over Tangerine Dream’s Risky Business soundtrack), but anyone who’s ever hated their parents for toppling off their pedestal of infallibility will surely relate.; Every performance is a keeper; that said, Jeff Daniels has been rightly singled out for his bitter intellectual who’s too delusional to realize that the entire world is laughing at him.; When his wife, an excellent Laura Linney, finally does laugh in his face, it’s devastating.; Had Baumbach not completely blown it in the final ten minutes, this would’ve ranked much higher.; That I’m willing to forgive such a major flaw speaks to the rest of the film’s majesty.

;

Munich

;

9.; Munich

;

Steven Spielberg’s A Brief History of Revenge.; Depicting the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre as the starting point of the modern Palestinian terrorism, Spielberg laments the downward spiral of violence even as he allows that the notion of inaction is patently absurd.; Embedded in a breathtakingly assured suspense film that’s as masterful as the best paranoid thrillers of the 1970’s is the unsettling idea that civilization’s capitulation to bloodlust effectively destroyed (or, as some might say, exposed as a lie) the global pretense to morality celebrated after the Allied victory in World War II, ending with a coup de cinema in the picture’s final pan down the island of Manhattan.; By utilizing the shadowy methods of the dispossessed as a means of squaring the dispute only begets more atrocities on both sides, and Spielberg pays his audience the compliment of being even-handed, which has been misconstrued by obfuscators on the right as “moral relativism”.; There is a discussion to be had on the deploying of factually sketchy events to drive the point home, but dramatic license is hardly synonymous with dishonesty.

;

Brokeback Mountain

;

8.; Brokeback Mountain

;

When I told Ang Lee I thought his film, which utilizes young actors to tell a multi-generational tale of societal discovery, was “Giant turned inward”, he smiled and shot back, “Or Giant turned outward”.; Such irreverence may have been unexpected after the heartbreak of his lushly romantic epic, but that puckish comment underscores the wry humanity evident in all of Lee’s films.; Sure, he tackles weighty topics with occasionally tragic outcomes, but you can’t get to the wounded core of your characters without a touch of levity, which is abundant in Jack and Ennis’s gradual, unexpected courtship at the outset of the film.; Working from a fantastic script by Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana, Lee avoids the pitfalls of obviousness at every turn, right up to the pulverizing finale where the emotional understatement of all that’s come before pays off in well-earned tears, at which point Brokeback equals the impact of its fifty-year-old progenitor with a far more economical use of screen time.; (It’s also important to note that, like Giant, Brokeback is not revising the Western genre; it’s seeking to redefine an archetype much bigger than its filmic representation.; In other words, comparisons to other Westerns are awfully limiting.)

;

Kingdom of Heaven

;

7.; Kingdom of Heaven: Director’s Cut

;

20th Century Fox’s jihad against the Crusades epic they spent over $100 million to produce would’ve been this year’s most stunning act of Hollywood stupidity had Tom Rothman not been behind it.; Excising most of the narrative in order to play up the action – which is, at best, a secondary element in the film – Rothman and his charges made incomprehensible Ridley Scott and William Monahan’s very precise rumination on the destructive force of ideological extremism in all its pernicious forms.; At last, the motivations of Orlando Bloom’s Balian are drawn more sharply into focus, while whole character arcs are restored to better explicate the importance of Liam Neeson’s Godfrey (dead before minute twenty in the theatrical cut), Jeremy Irons’s Tiberias and, most satisfyingly, Edward Norton’s leper king Baldwin.; Though the film still refuses to give audiences a rollicking close, it is, like Munich and some of the films yet to be mentioned, respectful of their intellect.; This is a spectacle of ideas, one that should be given a proper theatrical release before making its way to DVD.

;

A History of Violence

;

6.; A History of Violence

;

Is there a filmmaker alive more qualified to delve into this picture’s titular subject than David Cronenberg?; And was any film more open to interpretation than this thematically ambiguous exploration of man’s dormant capacity to kill, what it takes to awaken this inclination, and how far he’ll go to protect that which is threatened by his violent acting out?; It’s the way Cronenberg and screenwriter Josh Olson’s story twists that makes it such a fascinating and perverse study.; Midway through the film, Tom Stahl (Viggo Mortensen), having piled up an impressive body count in two violent encounters, goes primal and practically rapes his wife, Edie (Maria Bello), on an unforgiving flight of wooden stairs.; That scene seems to be the bye-bye point for most audiences, but it launches the film into highly provocative waters; is Tom the victim of moral decay, or is he really a monster?; And, if so, is every man a monster at his core?; Cronenberg offers no answers.

;

The Constant Gardener

;

5.; The Constant Gardener

;

It took a filmmaker as prodigiously talented as Fernando Meirelles to finally transfer John le Carré successfully to the screen, though his accomplishment reaches past the angry espionage of the novel to discover a doomed romanticism reminiscent of Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient.; Borrowing that film’s lead, the great Ralph Fiennes, Meirelles has skillfully constructed a love story in which affection is not truly requited until both parties are murdered.; Rachel Weisz’s Tessa Quayle hastens her death questing justice; Fiennes’s Justin Quayle brings about his by taking on Tessa’s cause after jealously investigating her possible infidelity.; Justin’s a horrible sleuth, the meek antithesis of Harry Palmer, but Meirelles and le Carré aren’t after a rousing thriller in that mold.; And though the movie brims with righteous indignation, it isn’t a political tract, either.; What stays with you is the thought of Tessa and Justin reaching the same terminus alone.; I adore Brokeback, but this was the love story of the year.

;

Last Days

;

4.; Last Days

;

Finishing up his Trilogy of Tarr a more than respectable two-for-three, Gus Van Sant surpasses the formal greatness of Gerry with an opaque examination of Kurt Cobain’s tortured exit.; As I said back in July, the film is “a strangely playful rumination on detachment and surrender that veers far enough away from the tabloid version of Cobain’s fate… that it gradually becomes clear that Van Sant is interested in capturing the gestalt of the event, not the truth.”; Do not, however, mistake playful for a lightness of tone; the film frequently captures the inner anguish that must’ve been roiling within the deeply troubled musician.; I’ve been meaning to revisit the film since my first viewing, but haven’t had the time, so this review remains my most lucid collection of thoughts.

;

The 40-Year-Old Virgin

;

3.; The 40-Year-Old Virgin

;

Alligator Fuckhouse.; Judd Apatow has his day, Steve Carell is a movie star, and more than a handful of perspicacious geeks are now familiar with the comedic genius of Seth Rogan.; I never thought any of the preceding was possible.; In a lesser year, such blessed events make this an easy number one, but I don’t want Apatow and company to get lazy, so they’re gonna have to settle for number three behind…

;

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

;

2.; Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

;

It doesn’t seem right to label a guy who made millions as one of the highest paid spec screenwriters in Hollywood history “mistreated”, but for Shane Black, this actually was this case artistically.; After an interminably long (by this town’s standards) layoff of eight years, Black returned with a new original script that, shock of shocks, didn’t sell for seven figures.; The difference is, this time he directed it.; And, oh, what a fucking difference.; I was a Black fan prior to this film, but, man, was it hard to make a case for the guy’s talent when all of his scripts were being turned into soulless studio blockbusters by directors emphasizing style over substance (as was the edict of the 1980’s and early 1990’s).; Produced by Joel Silver for a scant $15 million, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is obviously the cheapest Shane Black movie ever made, but it’s also a full-blooded ode to film noir that’s self-conscious in a completely disarming manner that’s always eluded Quentin Tarantino.; Though Black, via his storytelling surrogate Harry Lockhart (a reinvigorated Robert Downey, Jr.), is constantly addressing the audience, he’s doing it out of a mad desire to entertain.; Thankfully, he’s an immensely witty fellow, and, unlike Harry, an ace at narrative.; Black’s so good, you forgive him when he cheats by planting a body in a hotel shower practically out of thin air.; That’s not the only bit of iffy internal logic, but Chandler drew the same criticisms, and, somehow, he’s endured.; Black isn’t on Chandler’s level yet, but now that he’s in full command of his voice as a director – and, by the way, this guy is a born filmmaker – it seems blasphemously possible that Philip Marlowe’s creator may at last have a spiritual successor in L.A. noir.;

;

I hope this was worth the wait…

;

Tsotsi

;

;

1.; Tsotsi

;

Impossible.; Gavin Hood’s been making movies for eight years or so, but neither of his previous two works – one of which, A Reasonable Man, costarred the late, great Nigel Hawthorne – was released theatrically in the United States.; Only one, In Desert and Wilderness, is (barely) available on DVD.; In other words, Gavin Hood was a completely unknown quantity to me when I wandered into a screening of Tsotsi a few weeks after the film had won the People’s Choice Award at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival.; And while that’s a very well attended festival, Tsotsi had the misfortune to screen after most of the major critics had skipped town.; Glancing over the last films to snare the top prize in Toronto – Hotel Rwanda, Zatoichi, Whale Rider, and Amelie – didn’t instill me with a great deal of enthusiasm. ;Nice films, but not exactly memorable.

;

How, then, to account for a film that initially taps into the lurid exhilaration of City of God only to slam home with the moral authority of To Kill a Mockingbird?; Three months after watching the film, I still don’t know much about Gavin Hood, so let’s start with Athol Fugard, the internationally renowned South African playwright on whose only novel the movie is based.; The story is very simple:; an unfeeling thug (a revelatory performance by Presley Chweneyage) shoots a middle class Johannesburg woman in the midst of a car jacking only to find a mile or two into his getaway that he has inadvertently kidnapped her infant child.; While the parents enlist the unenthusiastic authorities to scour the shantytown for their baby, Tsotsi, not enough of a monster to cold bloodedly murder a defenseless newborn, ineptly tries to provide for the child if only to stop it from crying, and, in the process, backs away from the abyss toward which he’s been swaggering most of his life for lack of a better option.

;

It’s a classic story, but not one so foolproof in its construction that it couldn’t be bungled by a sub-par filmmaker or a brazen sentimentalist.; That’s where Gavin Hood takes over.; Though he’s a supremely confident stylist, he distinguishes himself by virtue of a humanism that connects him not only to Kieslowski but also de Sica and, yes, Renoir.; Indeed, just as de Sica was warring against what he termed “the collective cauterization of emotion” that had befallen his country after World War II, Hood is confronting with great compassion the cold-hearted, socially irresponsible inclination to view lower-class criminals as insects that need stamped out.; And he does this hopefully rather than cynically.; That said, he does not discount the existence of sociopaths (exemplified by one of Tsotsi’s cohorts), but he does rightly assert that most people have the capacity for good.; That’s what passes for a revolutionary idea in our pessimistic age.

;

I will have more to say about Tsotsi closer to its February 24, 2006 release date, by which point it will hopefully be an Oscar frontrunner for Best Foreign Film.; If this is a just world, we’ll be talking about it as a Best Picture favorite a year from now.; But Tsotsi is more than that.; It’s a timeless parable that captivates, enlightens and encourages us to better understand our fellow man no matter how far he’s fallen.; And it does this without lecturing, condescending or pitying.; Impossible.

Watch Now
Around The Web

Latest News