Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Notes from Sundance 2007

Has Sundance sold its soul? Is it now the property of the big studios – or big corporations – as they continue their conquest and development of the small turf that once belonged to independent film? I can’t really say, since this year marked my first trip to the Sundance Film Festival – meaning I had no personal basis for lamenting the erosion of its indie cred. I didn’t see “Hounddog” or “Grace is Gone” or any of the higher-profile films that got snapped up for hefty sums, and it was only after roughly the tenth “sponsored by” preface to a screening that I began to recall that AOL and Volkswagon, as well as Entertainment Weekly, were festival sponsors. (I still can’t tell you who the others were, although their logos were certainly plastered over just about all things Sundance-related.)

What I can say is that I saw a broad range of very good, very different films that were by all appearances genuine labors of love – “indie” to the core. None of them featured much in the way of star power: the closest was STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING, a lovely little gem of a movie starring Frank Langella, Lauren Ambrose, Lili Taylor, and Adrian Lester – all actors of note, though hardly marquee names. “Starting,” directed by Andrew Wagner, traces the unusual dynamic that develops between Leonard Schiller (Langella), an aging, once-famous writer who’s slipped into obscurity, and a bright, intensely worshipful young grad student (Ambrose) determined to restore his renown. But it’s just as much about Schiller’s daughter Ariel (Taylor), a dancer-turned-pilates instructor who’s pushing 40 and feeling her biological clock ticking.

“Starting” is likely to be regarded in some quarters as too self-consciously literate – which I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing, given how few movies today can claim that as a fault. Wagner’s treatment of the relation between authorial voice and authorial biography as a matter of pressing importance is rather charming, and makes the film a natural draw for literary scholars and anyone who’s ever been obsessed with a particular writer. But beyond its intellectual pretensions, “Starting” is also remarkable for the depth of its characters and their relationships – not just between Leonard and his fangirl or Leonard and Ariel, but between Ariel and her on-again, off-again lover (Lester). I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen a relationship, in all its joys and flaws, drawn with such emotional honesty and perceptiveness. Ultimately, though, it’s Leonard who owns the movie, due in no small part to Langella’s beautifully pitched performance, which shifts almost imperceptibly from prickly to prim to vulnerable, and back again. Within the narrow range of feeling that Schiller permits himself to show, Langella (who also did very fine work in “Good Night, and Good Luck”) works marvels of nuance that I genuinely believe may earn him a shot at Oscar next year. He’s that good, and I feel privileged to have been one of the first members of the public to see him in this role.

At the opposite end of the dramatic spectrum, another memorable performance I had the privilege of witnessing was that of Jess Weixler in TEETH, a wickedly funny, decidedly squirm-inducing little horror flick about a young girl’s unusual, er, defense mechanism to unwanted sexual predations. (Two words: vagina dentata. Go look it up if you don’t know what it is.) The movie, written and directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein (son of Roy), teeters a bit uncomfortably between comedy, satire, and horror – after an effectively ominous opener, the next 15 minutes or so play like an overly campy parody of teen abstinence movements – but hits its stride once the chomping begins. (Note to the squeamish: this movie is headed straight for an NC-17 rating, and not because it’s too sexy.) Weixler is a hoot; in a weird way her performance reminded me a little of Naomi Watts’ in “Mulholland Drive”: you start out thinking “god, she’s so bad” and by the end she’s frickin’ brilliant. No wonder her acting won a special jury prize.

Speaking of jury prizes, to Sundance novices going for the end of the festival, I highly recommend buying tickets to at least a couple of the screenings of the prize winners. It’s pretty good insurance in case everything you pick yourself is a disappointment (though I personally was fortunate in that regard), and even if a prize winner turns out to be something you’ve already seen, you can easily sell your ticket to the long line of wait-listers – and pat yourself on the back for being so prescient. Of course even the grand jury can get it wrong. But they didn’t this year, at least if PADRE NUESTRO (winner of the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize) and MANDA BALA (winner of the Documentary Grand Jury Prize) were indicative. These choices may reflect a Sundance bias towards films that play to the jury’s social and multicultural sensibilities, but both of these films stand firmly on their own merits.

“Padre Nuestro,” written and directed by Christopher Zalla, tells a two-pronged tale of two Mexican youths who come to New York as illegals. One of them, Pedro, has a father in New York he’s never met, who he thinks will help him; the other, Juan, a thief with sharper wits and no scruples, steals Pedro’s identity and attempts to ingratiate himself with the initially surly, suspicious dad. The movie doesn’t unfold at all as you might expect it to (warning: the ending is guaranteed to leave a lot of viewers deeply frustrated), but that’s its beauty. That and the fact that it’s grippingly, kinetically filmed, and shows New York as the gritty city it really is. “Manda Bala” (Send a Bullet) is even more of a downer, though almost as compelling. Director Jason Kohn sets his sights on Sao Paulo, Brazil, a world warped by an all-pervasive culture of political corruption and everyday violence on a level unimaginable to even the most jaded or paranoid American. Kohn doesn’t tie the corruption on high to the social disintegration at the bottom as tightly as he might, but he still paints a vivid and unsettling picture of a world in which bulletproof cars, bodyguards, kidnapping and the cutting off (and later surgical reattaching) of ears to extract ransoms constitute mundane facts of daily life.

But I think my fav of the festival was PROTAGONIST, a film that defies classification, didn’t win any awards (though it was entered in the documentary competition), and may have trouble finding a commercial distributor. Which, though hardly surprising, is a shame, because it’s really one of the most interesting and watchable films I’ve come across in a while. Written and directed by the brilliant Jessica Yu, who won an Oscar in 1997 for her short “Breathing Lessons,” and whom I have now adopted as my idol, “Protagonist” focuses on four men—a gay ex-evangelist, a martial artist, a former bank robber-turned-journalist, and a German ex-terrorist—and explores the ways in which each of their life-stories follows the classic arc of Greek tragedy. Yu illustrates each point of that arc with chapter headings and excerpts from Euripides, acted out by puppets that manage to look at once like ancient Greek thespians and minimalist depictions of the very modern-day predicaments of each protagonist. Aesthetically, these devices can get a bit schematic, but Yu does a remarkably deft job intertwining the four storylines and showing their convergences without forcing them. More importantly, she’s managed to select four incredibly intelligent, articulate subjects who have attained exactly the right level of self-awareness, and to draw their own best insights out of them. All four men are compelling for different reasons, but I have to give extra brownie points to Mark Pierpont (the former gay converter). Anyone who believes that homosexuality is a sin that can be overcome through religious faith should just watch and listen to his story. It’s absolutely riveting, and deeply poignant.

Other films I saw:

CROSSING THE LINE: Intriguing docu about James Dresnok, an American GI stationed in the Korean DMZ in the 1960s, who one day decided to desert and defect to North Korea…and has lived there ever since. As if that weren’t crazy enough, three other Americans followed his example, though director Daniel Gordon focuses on Dresnok. Film offers some pretty mind-boggling revelations of the ways in which the DPRK incorporated the four Americans into their anti-American propaganda machine (including some propaganda films that would be hilarious if they weren’t also hilariously tragic), but at bottom it’s most fascinating as a portrait of a man who came from a troubled and broken background and claims to have found his place (and peace) in a society that initially could not have been more alien. The most fascinating part is that you actually come to believe him, or at least I did. You also get to see the utterly weird sight of a Caucasian boy (Dresnok’s son) speaking awkward, stilted English with Korean cadences and inflections.

THE POOL: Tranquil little film with hidden currents. Directed by American Chris Smith but set in India and featuring an all-Indian cast, it centers on a low-caste young hotel worker who’s obsessed with the swimming pool in an estate that he passes every day on his way to work. Eventually, he meets the inhabitants of the estate – an older man and his twentysomething daughter – starts working as their gardener, and befriends them both. What I liked about this film is the fact that it’s isn’t afraid to take a slow, unhurried pace and show the day-in, day-out routine of the working class, and apart from one quiet little twist at the end, feels no need to inject action, complication, or romance just for the sake of drama. Plus, its quietness is deceptive. “The Pool” operates very much on the iceberg principle: nine-tenths of what’s going on is beneath the surface, making the pool an apt metaphor for the film as a whole. Won a Special Jury Prize for “singularity of vision.”

DRIVING WITH MY WIFE’S LOVER: The one mild disappointment of my festival experience. This debut feature by Korean director Kim Tai-Sik follows the travails of a mournful cuckold who looks like the proverbial 80-pound weakling and who discovers his wife is cheating on him with a cab driver who never met a girl he couldn’t bed. The cuckold tracks down the robust, lusty-for-life cabbie and hires him for a long ride from Naksan (his home town) to Seoul. Complications follow. Part road-trip movie, part relationship comedy-satire, the movie has its moments but overall doesn’t quite cohere into a memorable whole.

I also saw a bunch of short films that varied in quality. The second batch I saw was markedly stronger than the first, and featured the winner of the Special Jury Prize – “The Tube Without a Hat,” a cute little Romanian short about a cute little Romanian boy who persuades his dad to go into town to get the TV fixed. I believe it and most of the other shorts are downloadable from the Sundance website.

Just as interesting as the films, I found, were the Q&As afterwards with the directors. Their articulateness varied as widely as their directing styles. At one extreme were Chris Zalla (“Padre Nuestro”) and Jessica Yu (“Protagonist”), who each handled the questions that rained down on them with impressive intelligence and fluency; at the other, Mitchell Lichtenstein (“Teeth”), a singularly poor public speaker with apparently little or no insights to share on a movie that really could have stimulated a rousing discussion. In between, Jason Kohn (“Manda Bala”), who identified himself as a “New York Jew” of Brazilian descent, but who came across like a slightly stoned southern Californian with a penchant for the “f-word” but also some entertaining tales to tell about his experiences in Sao Paulo.

When I wasn’t ODing on films, I was braving the briskly, sometimes bitterly cold streets of Park City and Salt Lake City, keeping an eye peeled for celebrities. Ok, not so much the latter. The fact is I went for the last four days of the festival, by which time most of the rich & famous have left town and the crowds have thinned proportionately. In any case, I heard that the celebrity count was low this year. I did see Jared Leto on Main Street. Sort of. That is, he passed us by on the street, followed by what I think was his band 30 Seconds to Mars. I heard some people murmuring his name just as they were passing, and my boyfriend spotted him and pointed to the back of his head. Does that count as a sighting?

Park City is in some ways an odd place to hold a film festival. The natural center and tourist draw is the boutique and restaurant-laden Main Street, but there’s only one small theater on Main Street. All the other screening venues are various performing arts centers, libraries, etc., miles away from downtown and apart from one another, which made it difficult just to chill (except in the literal sense) somewhere between screenings. Still, there was an excitement in the air that was infectious and palpable, and not quite like anything I’ve ever felt – even on opening night in a packed theater for a much-anticipated film. Because here, the anticipation was cheek and jowl with the sense that you really didn’t know what you were getting: it could be great, or it could be awful. Happily for me, the overall balance was much closer to great. All festivalgoers should be so lucky.

Saving the best for last: "Pan's Labyrinth," "Children of Men" create worlds to remember


directed by Guillermo del Toro
starring Ivana Baquero, Sergí López, Maribel Verdú

“Pan’s Labyrinth” is no movie for children, yet no movie in recent memory has so effectively captured the wonders and fears of a child’s universe. There’s no denying the film has a dark streak that shadows its wealth of vibrantly colorful and delectably, sometimes grotesquely fantastical imagery at every turn. Yet it’s precisely that chiaroscuro effect that gives the imagery its ring of emotional truth. It embodies the recognition that children's private worlds have a potential for sheer terror that easily eclipses anything an adult can conceive to frighten them.

Set in Spain some years after the fascists won the civil war, the film maps the double life of Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a girl hovering on the brink of adolescence but still clinging to the fairy tales and fables of her childhood—not so much a case of arrested development as a self-protective impulse against the grim, morally corrosive reality that threatens her from all sides. Framed as a tale within a tale, “Labyrinth” begins with the arrival of Ofelia and her pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), at a military outpost in the mountains where Carmen’s new husband, Captain Vidal (Sergi López), is stationed. Vidal, not to put too fine a point on it, is a monster: an icy one at home, with no concern for anyone in his new family except his unborn child, and a sadistic one abroad, determined to seek out and destroy the remnants of the resistance forces hiding out in the mountains.

When Carmen falls seriously ill from pregnancy complications, Ofelia becomes a virtual orphan. She is not, however, without allies. She finds a maternal surrogate in Vidal’s housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdú of “Y Tu Mamá También”), who’s also providing clandestine assistance to the rebels. And she finds another guide of sorts in Pan (Doug Jones), a faun who looks more like one of Tolkien’s Ents than Mr. Tumnus of Narnia. He informs her that she is the long-lost princess of a magical subterranean kingdom, but that to reclaim her birthright she must fulfill three tasks. From this point on, director Guillermo del Toro’s fervid imagination takes flight, shifting fluidly between Ofelia’s two worlds while amping up her increasingly urgent attempts to escape from one to the other (and back again). Some viewers may debate—pointlessly, in my mind—whether Ofelia's adventures are "real," a question that essentially amounts to asking if you believe in magic. As in so many classic children’s stories, only the child who believes may enter the magical realm—which, of course, is not the same thing as saying the realm doesn’t actually exist.

This deliberate ambiguity lies at the heart of the film’s haunting power. For Ofelia’s story functions not simply as an allegory of fascist Spain, but as a variation on the age-old philosophical conundrum: who’s dreaming whom? The most nightmarish moments in her quest mirror the horrors that grip the “real” world, and vice versa. In the film’s most spectacularly creepy fantasy sequence, Ofelia unwittingly awakens the Pale Man (Jones again), a cadaverous figure who vaguely resembles a skinned, stripped-down Pan and who can only see through eyeballs screwed into the palms of his hands. As he lurches after the terrified Ofelia, devouring every living creature in his path, he inevitably calls to mind the blinkered, murderous single-mindedness of that other ogre, Captain Vidal. At the same time, Vidal’s hunt for the rebels—a narrative in which Ofelia is often absent, even as an observer—frequently takes on the elemental feel of a fairy tale. Even the conclusion of that narrative has something of the quality of a fairy-taleish wish-fulfillment, albeit one exacted at a terrible price.

Remarkably for a film that depends so heavily on archetypes of good and evil in its characterizations, “Pan’s Labyrinth” features impressively layered performances—particularly by Baquero, who manages to capture the nuances of a child just this side of losing her innocence, and Verdú as the adult woman whose demeanor suggests a complex mix of toughness and vulnerability. But the real tour de force performance—apart from the incredible work of the cinematographer, makeup artists, and art direction teams, all of whom fully deserve their Oscar nominations—is that of del Toro. All talk about “los tres amigos” notwithstanding, prior to this film del Toro had never quite achieved equal status with compatriots Alfonso Cuarón (“Children of Men,” “Y Tu Mamá También”) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Babel,” “21 Grams,” “Amores Perros”). Now, with “Pan’s Labyrinth” under his belt, he’s assured himself a place in their ranks. Cuarón may have breathed cinematic life into the Harry Potter series, but it’s del Toro who’s succeeded in creating a world of pure enchantment.



directed by Alfonso Cuarón
starring Clive Owen, Michael Caine, Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor, others

At first glance, “Children of Men” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” share little in common other than the fact that they're both helmed by up-and-coming Mexican directors who happen to be buddies. Yet, having seen the two films within a week of one another, I came away with similar reactions to both. Each succeeded in plunging me into a world that felt at once terrifyingly alien and utterly believable. And each did so with a visceral visual punch and intense emotional appeal that kept me riveted till the last frame—something that rarely happens these days, even at movies I enjoy.

Whereas “Pan’s Labyrinth” offers the promise of riches as well as terrors, the universe of “Children of Men”—directed by Alfonso Cuarón and very loosely based on the novel by P.D. James—is almost unremittingly bleak, relieved only at fleeting moments by glimmers of humor and tenderness that have the feel of distant memories. The year is 2027, and human civilization is dying. Women have become mysteriously infertile, meaning no babies have been born for the last eighteen years; poverty and terrorism run rampant; political chaos reigns everywhere except Britain, which has dug in by closing its borders and implementing a de facto police state that ruthlessly hunts down and deports all illegal immigrants (or as they’re called, “fugees”). Even this measure of stability is constantly disrupted by raging mobs and guerrilla forces reminiscent of the old-guard IRA.

Every dystopia needs its Everyman, and “Children of Men” taps Theo (Clive Owen, in a terrifically realized performance – arguably his most sympathetic yet), a morose, disillusioned civil servant who ends up risking his life for nothing less than the salvation of the human race. The catalyst is Julian (Julianne Moore), Theo’s former lover and companion from his activist days, now head of a pro-fugee, anti-governmental resistance group known as the Fishes. One day, quite out of the blue, she picks him up and leads him to a miracle: a pregnant fugee girl named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey). Theo, for reasons that aren’t initially clear even to himself, agrees to help ferry Kee to the Human Project, a shadowy scientific entity devoted to figuring out why humans can no longer reproduce.

Alas, the Fishes’ network turns out to be no Underground Railroad, and things soon go badly awry, leaving Theo as the sole protector of Kee and her midwife, Miriam (Pam Ferris). He gets some assistance from an old friend, a philosophizing pothead named Jasper (the ubiquitous Michael Caine, very funny here), but otherwise he’s virtually on his own, tracking a perilous path to the coast that along the way reveals a society on the verge of complete breakdown. What’s especially unsettling about the horrors we see is that they hardly seem inconceivable from the vantage point of today—from the bomb that wipes out a shabby London diner to the nightmarish detention camps where refugees are placed in literal cages before being deported, and where the only rule seems to be shoot first, ask no questions later.

Cuarón films this journey through hell with dazzling virtuosity, eschewing close-ups in favor of long tracking shots that convey a vivid sense of almost newsreel-like immediacy and, in what’s bound to be the movie’s most studied sequence, a single take of a breathless, hair-raising car chase. The film also imbues the struggles of the two central characters with strong religious-allegorical overtones—perhaps too strong, as the charm that envelops this latter-day madonna and child occasionally tugs hard at even the most willing suspension of disbelief. Still, there’s no quibbling with the symbolic power of the newborn babe in a land of barren wombs and unstinting death, or the light that gradually dawns on Joseph’s, excuse me, Theo’s, face as he draws near the culmination of his quest. For, much as “Children of Men” operates as a sobering commentary on man’s capacity for self-destruction, it is just as much a paean to man’s capacity for faith and hope. It’s the spirit that never dies as long as there is one soul to nurture it, and it’s this spirit that lends the gray, despairing landscape of the film its lingering shimmer of beauty.


Also saw:


directed by Clint Eastwood
starring Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Ryo Kase, Tsuyoshi Ihara

Completing the diptych that began with “Flags of Our Fathers,” Clint Eastwood takes a second look at one of WWII’s bloodiest battles—this time from the other side of the barbed wire. While “Flags” (from what I understand, not having seen it) had a lot on its mind besides the battle itself, being based on a book that was at least as much about the U.S. war propaganda machine and its adverse effects on four individuals it exploited, “Letters” is fundamentally a simpler and more focused film. Still, many of the themes it explores intersect with those of the earlier movie, including the horrors of war, the price of patriotism, and the meaning of duty to a country that may manipulate one’s loyalty for doubtful, even unworthy ends. “Letters” examines the Japanese perspective on Iwo Jima from top, middle, and bottom: though it spends much of its time with Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), the general charged with defending the island, it’s just as interested, if not more so, in the responses of the lower ranks, particularly the grunts.

I have no idea how historically accurate the film is: I assume screenwriter Iris Yamashita did her homework, though having been raised with certain images of the ruthless efficiency and brutality of the Japanese war machine, the single-mindedness of Japanese nationalism, and the rigidity of the Japanese hierarchical structure, I found myself surprised, even a shade skeptical, at the degree of doubt, chaos, and insubordination revealed here. At bottom, though, Eastwood’s less interested in the effectiveness of Kuribayashi’s military strategy than in the aspects of human nature drawn out by those last, desperate hours fighting without military advantage or, indeed, military support from his own nation. As such, “Letters” is a fine, thoughtful, frequently poignant piece of work, though I couldn’t escape a vague sense that everything it had to say, every ambiguity and conflict it raised, was something I’d seen before. As a pure narrative, it packed no surprises: indeed, every small irony or reversal felt faintly formulaic and predictable from miles away. (I blame Paul Haggis, who co-wrote the story, and whom I still haven’t forgiven for “Crash.”)

That said, one doesn’t generally go into a war movie—at least not an Eastwood movie—for plot subtleties or flights of aesthetic fancy. At the end of the day, unless you’re Terence Malick, a war movie is there primarily to remind us that war is indeed hell, that it brings out the best but also the worst in man, and that when faced with whether to enter that hell, it may, in fact, be our duty to reason why, not simply to do or die. Nowhere is this better embodied than in Watanabe’s beautifully textured performance as a born leader, trapped in a situation not of his own making, who ultimately keeps his doubts—but not his humanity—to himself. In one of the film’s best scenes, we see Kuribayashi in the simple act of listening to a radio broadcast that’s practically tailored to evoke a sea of conflicting emotions. We see a hint of these emotions passing over his face before he masters them and turns around—only a hint, but it’s enough.



directed by John Curran
starring Naomi Watts, Ed Norton, Liev Schreiber, Toby Jones

Something about “The Painted Veil” doesn’t quite come together—at least it didn’t for me. It has all the ingredients of a great film, including exquisitely delicate work by Watts, Norton, and Jones, breathtaking cinematography that highlights without exoticizing the stunning beauty of the Chinese countryside, a haunting score by Alexandre Desplat, and a literary pedigree that still carries some weight, even if Maugham may no longer be an A-lister in the English canon. Yet the end product lacks the epic sweep and romantic energy that this genre of film really needs for full effect. Everything feels too carefully crafted and polished, too refined and restrained. Even the acting is so subtle that it sometimes comes across as muted. It’s not helped by the script’s overly brisk pace—particularly in the beginning, where we’re given a large chunk of plot (courtship, marriage, adultery, journey, cholera) and not enough corresponding characterization to get more than an abstract sense of who these people are and what makes them tick.

Nor do we get much sense of what a powder-keg China was in the 1920s—apart from a couple of uncomfortable scenes where the colonized threaten to turn on the colonizers, and which are clearly meant to be interesting primarily for their effect on the relationship between the two central characters. This, I suspect, is mainly the fault of Maugham, for whom the Chinese and the birth-pangs of the Chinese nation probably functioned as just so much scenery. The film tries to tweak this view a little, but not very much, and indeed it would have been futile to change the story’s essentially hermetic nature without rewriting it altogether. That, perhaps, is the root of the problem. For a film that paints on such a panoramic canvas, it feels small and strangely passé.


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Awards season kicks into high gear

So the Oscar nominations are in, and it looks like I'm going to have to drag myself to a showing of "Babel" some time within the next month...I've been resisting that movie ever since it came out last fall, mainly because I couldn't stand "21 Grams" (the director's last) and "Babel" looks like more of the same crap. Not just looky-we-are-all-connected crap (that I could deal with), but looky-we-are-all-so-connected-we-can-unwittingly-make-each-other-miserable crap. It takes a lot to make me willingly watch people wallowing in misery, and that kind of false high concept doesn't cut it.

Oh well. I know I should keep an open mind about the film, but I feel very much like I did going into "Crash" last year, and that doesn't bode well for my enjoying it.

The biggest surprise, I guess, is "Dreamgirls" getting nominated for 8 Oscars but no Best Picture, and "Letters from Iwo Jima" coming out of nowhere to snag the nomination instead. Actually, the latter isn't so surprising in retrospect, though if you'd asked me a year ago the odds of the Academy giving the nod to a movie entirely in Japanese with English subtitles starring a mostly non-marquee Japanese cast, I'd have said close to zilch. But the magic words here are CLINT EASTWOOD. The Academy just loves him. Somewhere out there, Martin Scorsese is probably helping himself to a stiff drink, or should be - though I actually think he stands a better chance this year of getting the Director Oscar than he ever has, not least because "The Departed" is a way better flick than either "The Aviator" or "Gangs of New York." I still don't think it's going to win Best Picture - but this year the race is more wide open than usual. I wouldn't write off any of the nominees.

The other snub people seem to be up in arms about is the lack of recognition for Pedro Almodovar's "Volver." I still haven't seen the film, so I can't comment one way or another on whether this is an outrage.

More Oscar thoughts later, as it gets closer to post time...In other awards news, Cinemarati is rolling out its annual awards, with a countdown from 20-1 of our top films and brief comment (and occasional dissent) on each. Yours truly is among those commenting, but it's the lists and the discussions you all should check out!

Monday, January 15, 2007

Top Ten Films of 2006

It's January, so it must be time for me to complain about this bad studio habit of releasing 90% of their awards contenders in December and about 75% of those (or so it seems) in N.Y. and L.A. between Christmas and the new year. I *live* in L.A., and it still annoys me. Admittedly that's partly because during the winter holidays I'm usually visiting family in suburban Virginia (not exactly movie nirvana, there), but also because I seem to spend the better part of the year unenthralled by the lean pickings in theaters, only to be overwhelmed by a surfeit of options at the very end. Why not spread the wealth more evenly over the year so it doesn't feel like either rut or glut? I think the industry underestimates its ability to remember good films that come out in the spring. If anything, they're more likely to stand out by comparison!

Anyway, I've been busy trying to watch as many promising-looking movies as I can in the past few weeks - both new releases (Pan's Labyrinth, Children of Men, Letters from Iwo Jima, The Painted Veil) and older ones that have been picking up Oscar buzz (Little Children, The Queen). Unfortunately, I've also gotten busy at work again so I haven't had time to review them, though I will get to them when I can. In the meantime I think have caught up sufficiently to make my top 10 list for 2006.

1. Pan's Labyrinth
2. The Prestige
3. Children of Men
4. The Departed
5. Marie Antoinette
6. The Fountain
7. United 93
8. A Scanner Darkly
9. The Last King of Scotland
10. Letters from Iwo Jima

(just out of the running: "Little Miss Sunshine," "Inside Man")

What strikes me about this year's top 10 list is that almost every single film on it has major flaws - and yet they are an infinitely more interesting bunch than those that made my top 10 last year. Whereas the movies I picked last year were thoughtfully, carefully, and somewhat generically "well crafted," this year's chosen filmmakers generally went much more out on a limb and illustrated much greater variety and distinction of styles. These are movies that burned themselves into my brain, even if they didn't completely work at all times.