I have always arrived at this year-in-review column with considerable frustration. Bigger city critics, particularly those writing for dailies, commonly enjoy access to all the films that will eventually compete for Oscars and other annual honors. As a result, their top 10 lists can act as an early reaction to the award season to come. The same is not true in a smaller market like New Orleans, where the award nominations themselves often determine what gets released here and what doesn't. Thus, many of the films you may see celebrated by critics from New York and Los Angeles won't be available to Crescent City viewers until late January or even February. This whole process of delayed release dates means, for instance, that of the films I saw in 2006, two that I admired the most, Steven Spielberg's Munich and Woody Allen's Match Point, were movies that competed for Oscars last March. And in the award season to come, I may not see a handful of lauded 2006 films until six or eight weeks from now. In short, any year-end lists I might submit to this space have to be qualified by the absence of films I haven't yet had the chance to see.
Happily, the wait time between the end of a film's theatrical run and its availability on DVD and cable is ever shorter. So what I can offer below is a grouping of films into positive and negative categories: those pictures you should avoid, and those you should go out and rent or schedule to catch on cable.
CLEAN YOUR ATTIC INSTEAD
I don't actually see every movie that comes to New Orleans, and I try to know at least enough about every release to avoid the dreadful whenever possible. So the list in this category is by no means comprehensive. Nonetheless, I saw a half dozen pictures this last year I wish I hadn't had to. I loved Mel Brooks' original The Producers with Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, but I hated Susan Strohman's musical version. What was once delightfully rebellious became strained and hackneyed. I reacted the same way to the Pink Panther remake with Steve Martin. A string of summer movies that aimed for blockbuster status earned my scorn. Clark Johnson's The Sentinel attracted the likes of Michael Douglas to a feature about a plot to assassinate the president, but the picture never managed even rudimentary narrative skill. Then came Poseidon, which might have made me laugh out loud at its clumsiness if it hadn't lasted so long. Ron Howard's The Da Vinci Code was howlingly preposterous. Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest was all the more disappointing after the delightful fun of its predecessor. With Billy Bob Thornton in the lead, Todd Phillips' School for Scoundrels promised a cross between Bad Santa and School of Rock but delivered a picture without the tiniest inspiration of either. The year's prize for worst picture, though, goes to Paul Dinello's Strangers with Candy, a "comedy" so leaden it left critics contemplating the merits of career change versus suicide.
A longer list of films, however, merits your attention. Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth makes a compelling urgent case for how modern society had better address global warming or face catastrophic consequences. Robert Altman's final film, a fictional rendering of an episode of Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion, is quirky, unpredictable and quietly winning. Paul Greenglass's United 93 and Oliver Stone's World Trade Center focus on two different dramas in the terrorist attacks on 9/1, and both serve to illustrate that the abiding lesson of that infamous day is not about who we hate, but about who all we love. Phillip Noyce's Catch a Fire, meanwhile, warns against the perils of sacrificing our ideals in order to deter those we see as our enemies. In this case, the incarceration and torture of an innocent South African man turns him into the revolutionary he had not been before. Also set in South Africa, Gavin Hood's Tsotsi looks at the horrible price society pays for failing to solve entrenched poverty even as it dares to imagine redemption for a young man seemingly lost in instinctive violence.
David Frankel's The Devil Wears Prada will almost assuredly bring the great Meryl Streep another Oscar nomination for best actress for her portrayal of a mean fashion magazine editor. Count on Streep facing competition from the equally great Helen Mirren for the latter's performance as a harried Queen Elizabeth II trying to deal with the death of Princess Diana in Stephen Frears' The Queen. And whereas Richard Shepard's Matador probably won't bring Oscar recognition to Pierce Brosnan's burned-out hit man, it probably ought to. Brosnan is a fearless performer of terrific range and he's exquisite in this underrated comedy. Elsewhere, Julian Jarrold's Kinky Boots casts the limelight on Chiwetel Ejiofor as a flamboyant drag queen who turns his instinct for footwear design to the service of an endangered British shoe company. Ejiofor has appeared in Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda and other films, but Kinky Boots gives him the opportunity to put a host of talents on display, and he really establishes himself as a performer to watch.
The fall movie season of 2006 was outstanding, and that promises superb rental/cable opportunities in the months ahead. Martin Scorsese checked in with the mob thriller The Departed that further enhanced his reputation as one of contemporary cinema's master artists. Allen Coulter's Hollywoodland backs away from its generative premise but sustains a fascinating look at the death of TV Superman George Reeves and provides Ben Affleck the complicated material for the best performance of his career. Robin Williams also got strong material in Barry Levinson's Man of the Year, which is a much more satisfying picture than its trailers suggested it would be. Comparably, Will Ferrell succeeded in the best role of his career in director Marc Forster and writer Zach Helm's delightfully inventive Stranger than Fiction, which tells the story of a fictional character hoping to convince his author to spare his life so he can be with the woman he loves. The venerable Clint Eastwood contributed the imposing Flags of Our Fathers, which dramatizes America's World War II invasion of Iwo Jima and reminds us, as we seem ceaselessly to need being reminded, of the horrific thing we ask of young people when we send them to war.
The eclecticism of my cinematic taste is indicated in the vast difference in my two favorite films from 2006. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Babel is a multicultural tour de force, telling four stories spread over three continents and emphasizing humankind's continuing need to recognize the dignity and the vulnerability of those with whom we share the planet. In contrast, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' Little Miss Sunshine is a movie about a dysfunctional family and an adorable little girl that makes you laugh out loud and sends you home with a brimming heart. If you see only two from the list above, these are my top recommendations.
- 2006 Fox Searchlight Pictures
- Little Miss Sunshine, starring Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, Alan Arkin and Abigail Breslin, was one of the highlights of 2006.