It’s March, it’s Seattle, and it’s snowing. it’s like the winter weather doesn’t want to admit that its season is over. Neither did the Academy this year, as they trotted out their tired old Oscars with cardboard host Ellen Degeneres, doing her impression of milk toast and inflating already over-inflated celebrity egos. A few of her faithful female fanbase brought the Oscars a million extra viewers, but not enough to bring it up from the slump it was facing long before John Stewart got the head-scratch from middle America.
As for the winners, and nominees. I’ll quote Lisa Simpson: meh. Now don’t get me wrong I love Scorsese, and I’m glad he took home an Oscar for The Departed. It’s the one film I can’t argue with. However, as I mentioned in my last post, it’s a shame that genre films and popular movies get the shaft from the Academy. Remember Annie Hall? I thought not. Remember a little movie called Star Wars? Yeah, and guess which won Best Picture in 1977? Sigh.
Now, recent years have garnered some surprisingly good choices, such as The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003. It was groundbreaking that the usual “Academy darling” films, such as the pretentious Lost in Translation or overwrought Mystic River didn’t win in ’03 (I can almost hear Sean Penn crying: “Is that my Oscar in there?”). Still, I believe the average viewer is rarely represented by what we see at the top of the Academy’s list, so we’re going to start a Cinemagogue tradition, putting together a list of the top 10 films of each year. We will also include 5 honorable mentions, 5 admittedly “guilty pleasures”, and 5 movies that just smelled funny and aren’t worth the time in your Netflix queue.
Since Billy Crystal is nowhere to be found, let’s jump straight to the list.
Number 10 – runner up,best comedy Stranger than Fiction
Will Ferrell plays a man named Harold Crick, who suddenly hears the mysterious narrator of his life story casually mention his impending death. His response is less casual. Sounds strange, and a lot more high concept than Talledega Nights: The Ballard of Ricky Bobby. Before 2006, I wasn’t a big Ferrell fan, and now he not only has two hilarious films but one makes the best list for 2006. Dustin Hoffman plays a literature teacher and Emma Thompson plays the neurotic narrator who must decide what to do with Harold now that she knows he’s more than just fiction. The film deals with deep themes about our lives: are they scripted? Is any life insignificant? Is there meaning in our lives… or our deaths? Is it fair for someone else to have control over our fate? The film toys with concepts that stretch back to our earliest roots of chafing under the yoke of a sovereign God.
Number 9 – best horror The Descent
Reminiscent in tone and directing with the better episodes of “The X-Files”, this story of adventurous spelunkers is destined to end badly. It’s not original in concept, but it’s played well from the perspective of a character study. By film’s end, the title is less about the physical location and more about a spiritual declination. Leave it to the Brits to give us thoughtful examination of human depravity, trust, infidelity, and vengence, wrapped tightly in claustrophobic suspense. The tight spaces and treacherous terrain are almost more frightening than the breathing terrors below.
Number 8 – best swashbuckling Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
I know, I know. How could a Walt Disney fun film seriously make anyone’s top 10 list? Because I’m honest, that’s why. This film has been snubbed by people who liked the first film, which simply makes no sense. I made time to watch the first again, right before going to the sequel; the two flow together well, although the second is both darker and lighter than it’s predecessor. It’s the new Star Wars, even down to the Han/Leia/Luke love triangle with Jack/Elizabeth/Will. Remember, almost every “second act” takes flak in a trilogy, particularly with a cliff-hanger ending. It doesn’t satisfy like the first, because it intentionally leaves you dangling for the third. The Empire Strikes Back took a lot of criticism, and now it’s largely considered the best of its set. The Matrix Reloaded took heat, and sadly the equally weak Revolutions made it crash and burn. We won’t really have perspective on Pirates until the third one punctuates the second. Let’s just hope that the rum’s not gone.
Number 7- best fantasy/drama Pan’s Labyrinth
This deserved the Best Foreign Film award from the Academy. Shame on the marketing department for making this look more like a fantasy than a period drama. Set in fascist Spain in 1944, a young girl finds herself with a deranged stepfather who is brutalizing local revolutionaries. She finds herself distracted by strange visions that promise a fantastic escape from the harsh facts of life… but the majority of the film chronicles the stark reality she’s caught in. The same was true of director Del Toro’s film “The Devil’s Backbone”, which is also worth seeing. The film plays an interesting card at the end, questioning if a transcendant world is truly something we can hope for or merely a dream to help us through this meaningless existence. Plenty of great coffee conversation after this one.
Number 6 – best comic adaptation X-Men: The Last Stand
Brett Ratner polarizes the audience with his installment in the X-Franchise, replacing director Bryan Singer who left the merry mutants to focus on Kryptonian immigrants. Dealing with the familiar theme of racism present in all the X-films, “Last Stand” also deals with whether or not mutant powers can be considered a “choice”, or be cured… and the ethics therein. It also wraps the series nicely with Jean Grey’s Jekyll/Hyde battle against her dark side. Some tragic commentary on our own inner demons and our inability to remedy them with self-help, laws, or anything save sacrifice or death. Ratner went to great lengths to follow Singer closely, matching cinematography styles and many other elements that make this an emotional, worthy endcap to the story of Wolverine and friends.
Number 5 – best period film Apocalypto
Gibson does it again, with a tale about harmful religions and the dire need for Christendom… what? You thought it was about a young man named Jaguar Paw who pulls a Mayan style “Die-Hard” and takes down the badguys to save his family? Like a good magician, Gibson keeps the gore and action in the forefront, waving the lush scenery and action flick in your face while indicting false religion and showing that hypocrisy and manipulation through religion hasn’t changed much in a few centuries. Not only does this movie pay off on the testosterone meter like Braveheart, it also provokes some debate: is Gibson commentating on a depraved culture that deserved a God-ordained death, or is he subtly attacking current religious or political movements?
Number 4 – best science fiction Children of Men
A bleak, contemplative future wherein mankind has lost it’s ability to procreate: people have pets, lament life, and count the days until “the end”. Children of Men is the wonderfully illegitimate child of all those 70s science fiction films with Charleton Heston, where Soylent Green is people, the Omega Man needs to shed his blood, and we’ve been replaced by Evolved Apes. Shades of Blade Runner seep in as well, in a very linear tale that ends with hope – or a question mark. The film is more about character than future science, mind you; a much more personal film than the usual science-fiction meat grinder. Note, this film was robbed when it didn’t get “Best Cinematography” at the Oscars. Director Alfonso Cuaron (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) knows how to use a camera, whether it’s a long vista or a tight shot that goes on forever with seemingly no edit. Worth seeing for the visual style alone.
Number 3 – best action Casino Royale
In 2005, we saw a franchise revived in style with Batman Begins, forever erasing the horrible Schumacher devolution the characters endured in the previous decade. Finally, after years of tired retreads, “James Bond Begins” as well, having just obtained his license in this gritty action film that plays more like an episode of 24 than the tongue in cheek Brosnan bond of recent years. Seriously in need of reinvention, this is a Bond that takes more from Bourne and Bauer than any of the previous 007 incarnations. Nobody’s complaining; keeping Judi Dench as “M” is the one carry-over that pays off. From the opening chase sequence to playing poker to bringing down a Venetian historical landmark, this Bond kills the competition. The only thing that kept it from being higher than number one or two is some awkward pacing in the final act.
Number 2 – best comedy Thank You for Smoking
Actually, this movie is not really about smoking. And who thought a movie about lobbyists could be funny? In this movie about big business, Hollywood, politics, journalism, right and wrong, fathers and sons, NO one escapes scathing critique. Aaron Eckhart plays a man who has a gift – he can persuade anyone of anything, bending the truth to fit whatever reality he’s paid to paint. Is it wrong for a Nick Naylor to do what he’s good at? “Michael Jordan plays ball. Charles Manson kills people. I talk. Everyone has a talent.” The way Naylor explains it, it’s almost hard to argue… and that’s what makes the movie insightful.
That’s 9 of 10, leaving us just one slot for the best of the best in 2006. Without further adieu, the winner of the 2006 CinemagOscars is. (insert mindless montage of Hollywood’s finest)…
Number 1 – best mystery/suspense The Prestige
Take Christopher Nolan, phenomenal director of Memento, Insomnia, and Batman Begins. Let him use his Batman stars Christian Bale and Michael Caine and pair them with claw-popping X-Men alum Hugh Jackman and the award winning Scarlett Johansson. Grab a great novel by Christopher Priest, and put everyone in a period piece set at the turn of the century. Priest’s story of two rival magicians was far better than rival film The Illusionist, and the escalation of events turns conventional storytelling on its ear by the time the final curtain falls. Even David Bowie’s role, as historical figure Nikola Tesla, is well done. Human nature and subjectivity are explored, both within the characters and the viewer. Many of Priest’s novels are told from the perspective of an unreliable narrator, subsequently exploring what “truth” and “reality” really are; this film based on his work is no expection.
The acceptance speech music has begun to play… yep, that’s it… what you REALLY need to know about 2006’s cinema, and without the 3-4 hours of weak musical numbers, spliced clip shows, and irritating hosts. For those with Netflix queues, there are Cinemagogue’s 10 recommendations as the DVDs roll out this year. Later this week, I’ll add 5 “honorable mentions”, 5 “guilty pleasures” and my 5 movies of 2006 that just smelled funny (the stinkers) so you can be on guard.
Totally unrelated, it’s less than a week before 300…