By David Ferguson
Greetings again from the darkness. The box office doom and gloom from 2005 was replaced with industry smiles in 2006. While, in general, this is good news for Hollywood, I was somewhat disappointed in both the quantity and quality of independent films this year. Still, I managed to attend 110 theatrical releases, 24 of which rated 8 or higher (no 10’s this year). While this percentage is a little below last year, it still averages out to two “must see” films per month.
No one can deny the inordinate amount of bizarre film moments in 2006. For example, every dollar Borat earned in the U.S. made me embarrassed of my citizenship. I do, however, feel better now that Sasha Baon Cohen is fighting lawsuits filed by just about everyone he duped while filming. The list of icons making appearances was truly unprecedented: Superman soars twice – once in the “return” and the other as Ben Affleck; Crockett and Tubbs exude cool; Ethan Hunt falls short; Captain Jack Sparrow sets the stage for the finale; Jack Black sometimes wears stretchy pants; Huey Long is resurrected and somehow over-played by Sean Penn; the mass appeal of the DaVinci Code novel fizzled onscreen; Robert Altman’s amazing career ended with an excellent adaptation of a radio series starring Garrison Keillor’s made for radio face; Johnny Depp tried to untrack his career with The Libertine; Nicolas Cage was front and center in the disastrous remake of The Wicker Man, but if the preview is any indication, his sleep-walk was merely a tune-up for this year’s Ghost Rider; Woody Allen (with Scarlett Johansson as his muse) re-emerged with his best comedy since Crimes and Misdemeanors; amazingly, Jen and Vince’s real life break-up was more entertaining than the film version; and while on-set hook-ups seem to the norm, how could the dreadful You, Me and Dupree have been an aphrodisiac for Kate and Owen?
Somehow James Bond lovers were worried about a blonde Daniel Craig. Must they be reminded that the franchise has survived Roger Moore, Teri Hatcher and even Tanya Roberts? Penguins and Al Gore had hit films, and Eddie Murphy was terrific in one of the most popular films of the year … without stooping to a fat suit or 8 hour make-up sessions. Ricky Bobby proved to be almost as popular as NASCAR and we all hope the Rocky road has mercifully dead-ended. Nicholson, Streep, Marty and Pedro all showed again why they are movie royalty, but Kate Winslet, Naomi Watts and Leonardo appear ready to assume the kingdom. Forrest Whitaker nearly scared me to death yet nothing was less frightening than the snake effects on the plane. Even though Fast Food Nation flopped, will someone please feed a burger to Jennifer Connelly? Bizarre moments would not be complete without a mention of Abigale Breslin’s energetic, if a bit extreme, dance routine secretly taught to her by Grandpa Arkin.
All told, the film industry gave us what we need … plenty of entertainment, escapism and thought-provoking moments. Here are my top choices (in order) for 2006:
1. THE DEPARTED
This is a no-holds-barred all out blazing explosion of film making! And so much fun to watch! If the “f” word bothers you, don’t watch. It may rival any Tarantino flick for harsh, but real-in-this-world language. If violence bothers you, don’t watch. There are some moments of extremely brutal and realistic violence and bloodshed. On the other hand, if you are like me … a fan of complex story lines and multi-faceted characters, amazing cinematography and editing, top level acting and crackling dialogue, this is the can’t miss film of the year.
Oh my … the acting is as good as it gets (pun intended) with Jack Nicholson as the personification of EVIL as Mob boss Frank Costello. This is a very bad man and Jack is in his element. Sure the guy is a great actor and can pull off fluff like insomnia with Diane Keaton, but this is the Jack that we have loved for decades. He literally spews venom with his lines and facial expressions. Matt Damon, back in his Boston comfort zone (remember Good Will Hunting?) pulls off the role of informant with a truly believable lack of conscience that will punch you in the gut. Now what to say about Leonardo DiCaprio? I promise to never call him “Little Leo” again! He is now a leading MAN and flashes the acting maturity that Scorcese has been pushing him towards for a few years. Sure, he steals some mannerisms from DeNiro (watch him flick a cigarette) but his simmering emotions are plastered on his face throughout and trust me when I say, this dude has a LOT of emotion!
As is Scorcese‘s custom, the supporting actors are solid, believable and disappear into their roles. A bloated, washed-out Alec Baldwin is remarkable. Martin Sheen is fine and Mark Wahlberg had to be laughing out loud when he first read his lines … I know I was! Few could pull off three or four of Wahlberg’s hilarious lines without sounding like a stand-up comedian instead of a wily, veteran cop.
This is Martin Scorcese’s best work since Goodfellas. Based on the 2002 Hong Kong film entitled Infernal Affairs, film historian Scorcese respectfully acknowledges the source material in the closing credits. Toss in Scorcese’s legendary pacing and camera action, an eclectic soundtrack that somehow combines the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison singing Pink Floyd (“Comfortably Numb”), Badfinger and Dvorcak, the most complex use of cell phones yet, and you have one amazing film that will keep you glued to the screen.
2. Little Miss Sunshine
For whatever reason, the trailer on this one grabbed me and had me anticipating its late summer release. Since then, the little film’s meteoric ascent is well documented. It became the film to see for all dysfunctional families … hmm, guess that is redundant. Alternatingly hilarious, charming and heartfelt, it is written by Michael Arndt with amazing depth. As bizarre as the characters are, we never once doubt that they are a family and belong together.
Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette are excellent as Olive’s parents and Alan Arkin is electric as the grandpa who teaches Olive “the moves” for her big dance. Steve Carell (The Office and The Forty Year Old Virgin) is perfectly creepy as the uncle/brother who is thrust into this community after his failed suicide attempt. His explanation of that at the dinner table is sharply written and brilliantly delivered. Paul Dano (Taking Lives and The Emperor’s Club) would steal most movies with his performance. He perfectly captures the tortured soul of most teenage boys. The only reason he doesn’t walk away with the film is Abigail Breslin who plays Olive. Most remember her aluminum foil headgear in Signs, and here she is simply magnificent as the ever-optimistic girl who is so looking forward to the pageant.
There is a line in the film about life being a series of never ending beauty pageants. Sadly there is a great deal of truth in that. Watching this family travel together and grow together is painful and rewarding; however, trust me when I say it will not motivate you to buy a VW van and travel cross-country with your family! Little Miss Sunshine is what happens on film when a wonderful script and talented cast come together. It’s not about the special effects; it’s about real people and real life with the perfect sprinkling of exaggeration.
3. Thank You For Smoking
Ahh, the power of words. In what is for all practical purposes his first major film as writer and director, Ivan Reitman’s son Jason, gives us an essay on how the spoken word can be a tool or even a weapon.
Aaron Eckhart is perfect as the fast talking tobacco lobbyist who smooth talks everyone from his boss to his son to reporters to students. As he says, “Charles Manson kills people … I talk“. And what a talent he has. Reitman, as a writer, shows a nice touch for the big story as well as some amazingly witty moments. The only weakness comes from the scenes which appeared to exist solely for the delivery of a killer one-liner. Fortunately that does not materially affect one’s enjoyment of the film or the effectiveness of the story.
The other two members of the M.O.D. Squad (Merchants of Death) are a quirky David Koechner and the underutilized Maria Bello. A terrific supporting cast is filled out with William H Macy, Rob Lowe, Robert DuVall and a former Marlboro Man played by the great Sam Elliott. In a small step forward from the usually creepy kid role (The Butterfly Effect, Birth) Cameron Bright plays Eckhart’s son who becomes enchanted with the power of his father’s words.
Some nice moments combined with a wonderful idea make for a very entertaining film. Stopping it from being truly great are some fragmented scenes that don’t seem to flow very well. The film is well acted, has a very creative opening credit scene and the closing song by The Kingston Trio make the ending credits a must see.
4. Little Children
Where the heck have you been, Todd Field? Last seen directing 2001’s excellent In The Bedroom, Field delivers another remarkable drama. He proves again his insight into real people and real relationships is a bit eerie and sometimes tough to watch as we often recognize ourselves in his characters.
An incredibly well acted movie led by the still on the rise Kate Winslet and an up-and-coming Patrick Wilson (The Alamo, Hard Candy), the cast creates an atmosphere of real life allowing us to forget the performances and concentrate on the multi-layered story (co-written by Field and novelist Tom Berrotta). The genius in the film is in so many specific moments within the scenes. Jennifer Connelly (as Wilson’s wife, and although still beautiful, she is scary skinny) at the dinner table when she realizes; Winslet as she is putting her daughter on the floorboard of the car; Wilson as he sneaks off the train; and the mothers at the swimming pool when they realize a predator has pierced their inner sanctum. That predator is Jackie Earle Haley who is just outstanding in his brutally tough and unsympathetic role. Haley was seen earlier this year in All The King’s Men and hopefully is experiencing a real comeback. Although he will always be remembered as the talented center fielder in Bad News Bears, he obviously has more to offer as an actor.
Really good dramatic stories are so rare these days. Movie makers tend to shy away from the tough decisions we all face every day so they fall back on proven and safe formulas and feel good fluff. This movie is real and tough and will force you to analyze your life and perspective. What a marvelous thing to be able to say about a film. So, yes I highly recommend the film, but more importantly implore Mr. Field to not leave us hanging for another 5 years. Film lovers need you!!
5. Volver (The Return)
Ho Hum … just another masterpiece from maybe the finest filmmaker working today, Pedro Almodovar. Mr. Almodovar is such a terrific story teller and visual artist and absolutely no one produces better female characters on film than he. Here he works again with the fabulous Penelope Cruz in what is absolutely her best performance. She is stunning, complex and luminescent.
The story is part melodrama – part fantasy, but mostly just a creative tale of the re-emergence of Cruz’s dead mother after the death of Aunt Sophie. I will not give anything away, but what follows is part hysterical and extraordinarily humanistic.
If you are a film lover and are not familiar with Almodovar, I encourage you to check out his work … Talk To Her, All About My Mother, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. These are not Hollywood type films, but all have heart, soul, a wonderful story and amazing characters. Additionally, his use of color is very unique and pure joy for any film lover.
6. Children of Men
Based on P.D. James’ novel, stud-director Alfonso Cuaron (Y tu mama tambien, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) delivers a stunningly bleak and intense version of the future and the human fight for survival. If you have seen the preview or read the book, you know the premise.
Claire-Hope Ashitey plays Kee, the first woman in almost two decades to get pregnant. With non-stop warring between multiple factions (that we never quite understand), a smaller, though equally intense, battle is on to save and control Kee’s new baby. Getting involved with the mission are Julianne Moore, Clive Owen, Michael Caine and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Owen and Moore are former spouses who lost their kid and Ejiofor has ulterior motives.
Caine is a hoot as Owen’s friend and guru, and Owen himself probably offers up his best film performance to date. Make no mistake, this is a bleak and extremely intense chase movie. Mother-to-be Kee is a bit “wicked”, but we can’t help but root for her to make it through to the good guys … the mysterious “Human Project”. Yes, I know all of this sounds a bit ridiculous, but it is such a well crafted movie and story that it somehow not only works, but sucks you in. Also take note of the excellent use of current events and music (including King Crimson) to make points and counterpoints regarding political issues. Kinda cool.
7. Stranger Than Fiction
The endless run of previews for this one had me a bit concerned that it might be a comedy with 4 funny scenes – all of which appear in the trailer. I never should have doubted director Marc Foster, who has two excellent films to his credit: Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland. As different as those two films are, Stranger Than Fiction proves Mr. Foster has a real eye for quality scripts, regardless of genre.
For anyone expecting a typical Will Ferrell film or performance, I say go in with an open mind. Ferrell is remarkably deadpan as IRS agent Harold Crick, who just happens to also be the protagonist of novelist Kay Eiffel’s (Emma Thompson) latest book. This is Ferrell’s best performance on film to date.
The film is a bit quirky, but provides an excellent look inside the world of creative writing, while at the same time allowing us to question the daily process we go through in living our lives. Spike Jonze’s Adaptation provided a look behind the curtain at the writing process and this film adds the “meet your maker” theme as a thought-provoker. What if the creator is really making it up as he/she goes? What if we have more control over our destiny than some would believe?
The three lead actors are all terrific. Ferrell as Harold Crick is like a blossoming flower as he discovers life with the luminescent Maggie Gyllenhaal (a baker – one who makes things for others enjoyment). Thompson is just outstanding as the blocked writer who always kills off her main characters and finally starts to question why. Few actresses would allow themselves to be filmed as disheveled and unmade-up as she appears here. Supporting work is solid by Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah (surely much of her role was left on the editing floor?), Tony Hale, Linda Hunt and an almost unrecognizable Tom Hulce (Amadeus).
A solid script, nice direction, wonderful acting and a very interesting theme make this an excellent film for most ages. Pay attention to the nice music provided by Austin’s own Spoon.
8. Don’t Come Knocking
Terribly underrated as a director, Wim Wenders has more than a couple of gems on his resume. Most notable are Wings of Desire and Paris, Texas. Without question, Don’t Come Knocking immediately jumps into the same class as those two extraordinary films. Collaborating with the insanely talented writer Sam Shepard for the first time since Paris, Texas, Wenders offers up a character study that many of us have more in common with than we might first imagine.
With a rare appearance in a film he has written, Mr. Shepard plays Howard Spence, a washed up western film star who hits the road in search of the life he somehow missed. Admittedly, when the film opens with Howard galloping off into the desert away from the film set, my stomach began to churn as I had flashbacks to Electric Horseman. Not long afterward, I became mesmerized by the pain of this man seeking redemption and meaning. Sure, there will be comparisons to Broken Flowers and many other meaning-of-life films, but writer Shepard never once pretends to be writing the great American self realization story. This is a VERY simple story about a handful of VERY interesting characters.
Jessica Lange (Shepard’s real life honey) plays his long ago, nearly forgotten love who has never wandered from her small town Montana roots. What Shepard learns, after visiting with his mother (Eva Marie Saint) for the first time in 30 years, is that Lange has raised Shepard’s son (Gabriel Mann). The focus drastically shifts for Shepard as he tries to make sense of it all. Just to add to his misery, Shepard is stalked by Sarah Polley (carrying her mom’s remains in an urn), who suspects she is his daughter.
The genius of the film lies in the characters and setting. We never feel we are observing. Instead, we are part of the story. Winders camera angles really capture the thought cycles of Shepard in the motel room, at the bar and on the sofa in the road. Watching this would-be dad and these might-be kids come to terms with all of this is at the same time slyly funny and intensely painful and intimate.
Spectacular performances by Shepard, Lange, and Eva Marie Saint, as well as strong support from Tim Roth, Polley, Mann and even the great George Kennedy make the story unfold in our reality. Wenders’ terrific camera work and small town setting with stunning panoramic views keep us comfortable, yet very aware. The pulsing guitar of the seemingly everywhere T Bone Burnett drives our pulse up or down depending on the scene. This is marvelous film-making … a masterpiece out of a seemingly little story.
9. Casino Royale
I have never really understood my fascination with Bond as I prefer to think of myself as too intelligent for this type of movie. Maybe it’s the great clothes, beautiful women, playing with guns, wonderful toys, fast cars and world travels? Well despite all of the hoopla surrounding this latest Bond production, feel relieved knowing that the 007 franchise is not only safe, but dare I say, better than ever.
Daniel Craig (although a bit long in the tooth) plays the just promoted to “00”, James Bond, and is flat out terrific! The acting ability he has shown in Road to Perdition and Layer Cake really take the story and script to another level. Sure he can strut and pose and gaze with the best of them (Pierce Brosnan), but Mr. Craig can really act (Sean Connery), which this somewhat complex script actually demands.
The action in the first 20 minutes is heart-pounding and incredibly fast and dangerous. Luckily the pace slows down a bit as the plot develops. Yes, there is a plot and this time it is not world domination. That is good news and bad news. One of the two disappointments in this fine film is the bad guy played by Mads Mikkelsen. He is a world class poker player and pretty evil in his torturing style (all males will squirm), but he just lacks the real charisma of the best Bond bad guys over the years. The other disappointment is the underuse of the greatest film theme song ever (yes, better than Star Wars) and the extremely weak Chris Cornell opening credit song.
Of course, there are beautiful women. Eva Green as Vespa Lynd is not your typical Bond girl. She is smart and smart-assed and goes toe-to-toe in a couple of ways with Bond. What a nice change of pace to see a Bond Girl’s role written in a full scale, complex manner.
Did I mention fast cars? The brand new Aston Martin is almost as cool as the 1964 model we get a couple of shots of. Since there is no Q, the wonderful toys are not in full swing yet, but the incredible settings in Prague, The Bahamas and Italy more than make up for it. The scenery and architecture are awe inspiring.
There may be no Q, but there is definitely an M. Judi Dench reprises her role, this time showing her frustrated side with her newest agent. She recognizes Bond’s rare abilities, but worries about his mental state. By the end, she knows he is ready for more.
The supporting cast includes the underrated Jeffrey Wright, the always great Giancarlo Giannini and super model Ivana Milicevic in a strange role. The cast is fine and second time Bond director Martin Campbell (GoldenEye) really lets the action and story and setting do most of the talking. His action scenes are not filled with close ups or rapid fire editing … we actually get to see the fights and chases. He does a nice job of keeping the viewer in the story. I couldn’t help but chuckle as Craig steps out of the waves and onto the beach – almost identical to the classic Ursula Andress scene in Dr. No. Being a huge Sean Connery fan, I find this difficult to say, but here goes … this is the best Bond movie to date. Wow!
10. The Notorious Bettie Page
Mary Heron is amassing quite the list of films which provide a glimpse into their specific era. Her previous I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho were at their best when commenting on the quirkiness of society during those particular periods. Although The Notorious Bettie Page is obviously about Ms. Page, it is every bit as much a peek behind the curtain at the world of kinky photo shoots in the 50’s.
The film is fun to watch both from the perspective of the story and the technical aspect of the way it was filmed and put together. The grainy B&W film and photos capture the period and the introduction of color in Miami Beach through the photos of Bunny Yeager is very well done.
The supporting cast is strong with David Strathairn (fresh off his Edward R. Murrow role), Chris Bauer (as Irving Klaw) and Lili Taylor. The star of the film is the wonderfully talented and underrated and underworked Gretchen Mol. Ms. Mol always brings an edge and spirit to her roles. She was absolutely mesmerizing in the little seen, Jason Alexander directed Just Looking in 2000. Here she is the notorious Bettie Page. Her smile is captivating and her body is flawless. She really seems to enjoy this role and helps us understand how the girl next door from Tennessee could become the underworld Pin-up queen.
As one would expect, the soundtrack from the era is terrific. Patsy Cline and Peggy Lee are just two of the featured performers. Although the film hints at providing a history into this industry, the final third kinda falls flat preventing pure movie magic. But the magic of Gretchen Mol and Bettie Page make this a fun movie to watch and one that will yield endless showings on HBO in the near future. Now will someone please turn Ms. Mol into the star she should be?
11. The Painted Veil
This is a surprisingly wonderful adaptation of the W Somerset Maugham novel. Maugham passed away many years ago, but in his time was an incredibly famous and popular playwright and novelist. His best known work is probably The Razor’s Edge. Part of the surprise is the beauty of the film since it is directed by John Curran, who has no directing credits to his name since 1995’s excellent Babe, the Pig. Curran’s eye and talent are on full display here with the aesthetics of 1920’s China and the devastation of cholera.
The story is simple, but oh so elegant. Edward Norton and Naomi Watts are a seemingly misfit couple whom circumstances bring to an ill-conceived marriage. They are quite the odd couple and not the least bit charming together, even in the good moments. Norton stumbles on an affair between Watts and Liev Schreiber and the next thing we know Norton and Watts are on a two week journey into the depths of a Chinese jungle where a devastating cholera epidemic is occurring. The horrible situation brings out the best in each as people and finally as a couple. Along the way, their lives are impacted by two rather off-beat acquaintances, Toby Jones (off his fine turn as Truman Capote) and the long lost Diana Rigg as the Mother Superior at the local orphanage.
The story is tight, interesting and believable … all signs of a terrific writer. The acting is worthy of such fine material and direction. Mr. Norton is wonderful as the quietly simmering bacteriologist who lacks interpersonal skills and warmth until the tragic environment brings about self-discovery. Ms. Watts continues her amazing run of top-caliber performances and is one of our top 3 actresses today. She is so subtle at times that it is easy to take her skills for granted. Mr. Schreiber, Mr. Jones and Ms. Rigg are all excellent in their roles and let’s hope that Ms. Rigg will continue to bless us with her screen magic. It has been 40 years since she was the sexy Emma Peel from “The Avengers”, but her presence on the screen is very welcome and needed. There is a haunting score that continues throughout the film and some tremendous piano work credited to Lang Lang. The mood of the music, and the film setting, work together to deliver the effect of reading the novel as we watch the film. Quite a knockout for director Curran, who hopefully will not now disappear for another 10 years!
Miss Potter – utterly charming story of Beatrix Potter, philanthropist and author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit
The Queen – terrific performance by Helen Mirren as we get a glimpse of the Royal family immediately following the Princess Di tragedy
Blood Diamond – intense, thought provoking film on the atrocities at African diamond mines
Last King of Scotland – ferocious performance by Forrest Whitaker as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.
The Devil Wears Prada – funny chick flick with Streep at her most wicked and Emily Blunt in a “welcome to Hollywood” role.
The Prestige and The Illusionist – fun to compare the two magical period pieces with fine performances by Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale and Edward Norton
Infamous – another fun comparison to last year’s Capote. Rare for two quality films on the same subject to be released within 12 months of each other.
Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima – the Japanese version is actually better than the American version, but both are well made historical insights from Clint.
VIDEO PICKS: If you missed 2005’s World’s Fastest Indian with Anthony Hopkins, I recommend tracking it down and enjoying this inspirational, funny and fascinating true story. Also last year’s The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio and Mrs. Henderson Presents are two that shouldn’t slip through the cracks.