28 January 2007

the Top 10 films of 2006 (part II)

The emails have started. “What’s with the list? Where’s the rest of it?” Why, right here. Keep in mind that tonight I’m going to see El Laberinto del Fauno (2006)–a.k.a. Pan's Labyrinth, which could very well blow up the whole list. Or, it could change nothing. The first five are directly below, or, here.

6. The Painted Veil

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starring: Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber, and Toby Jones
written by: Ron Nyswaner, from the novel by W. Somerset Maugham
directed by: John Curran
PG-13, 125 min, 2006, USA/China


My roommate Josh calls this the single greatest film about cholera he’s ever seen, which is some deceptively high praise. I say it contains the best of a trifecta of memorable 2006 performances from Edward Norton. Between this, Down in the Valley (2006), and The Illusionist (2006), he’s shown more range than some highly acclaimed actors do in their entire career. Here he plays second fiddle to a magnificent Naomi Watts in John Curran’s nuanced film about two Brits in a loveless marriage fighting a cholera epidemic. The scenery is stunning, the acting sublime, the direction purposeful. It has some flaws (the ending comes to mind) that prevent it from being something more, but still it’s a damned fine film.

7. 13 Tzameti

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starring: George Babluani, Pascal Bongard, Aurélien Recoing, and Fred Ulysse
written and directed by: Géla Babluani
NR, 86 min, 2006, France/Georgia


Read my original mini-review

Now that we’re well into 2007, I think we can all agree that last year was something of an off year for film. There were some highlights, sure, but twenty years from now, no one’s going to mistake 2006 for 2001, or even 2005. And that’s fine, because it gives us a chance to include Géla Babluani’s wickedly inventive debut feature, 13 Tzameti, a film that would have been largely forgotten in a stronger year, but one worth checking out nonetheless. The premise is a simple one: a bunch of rich guys get together to wager large sums on money on an elaborate game of Russian roulette. Only our hero, due to a combination of misguided ambition and bad luck, isn’t exactly a willing participant. Is it great cinema? No. Is it cool? Oui.

8. Tsotsi

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starring: Presley Chweneyagae, Terry Pheto, Kenneth Nkosi, and Zola
written by: Gavin Hood, from the novel by Athol Fugard
directed by: Gavin Hood
R, 94 min, 2006, South Africa


You remember Tsotsi. Last year I told you it would win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and it did (20 out of 24, by the way). And for good reason. Thanks to the peculiarities of the category, though, it is a 2006 release in the US, so here it is on the top 10, nearly a year after winning an Oscar. Go figure. Tsotsi is the story of a thug (Presley Chweneyagae) who in the process of stealing a car, accidentally steals the baby in the back seat. Rather than return the child or sell it on the black market, he opts to keep it, despite having no idea how to care for an infant. It’s a powerful tale of redemption as he tries to become the father figure he never had, doing whatever necessary to provide for a child.

9. An Inconvenient Truth

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starring: Al Gore and his wacky PowerPoint extravaganza
directed by: Davis Guggenheim
PG, 100 min, 2006, USA


Disclaimer time: I, Lucas McNelly, am a registered member of the Green Party, a wonderful organization that promotes such things as ecological wisdom, social justice, nonviolence, and global responsibility. So, naturally global warming is an issue that I find particularly troubling. But, I am also a film critic who takes very seriously the edict that false praise (or praise motivated by an agenda) is fundamentally dishonest and borderline immoral. So, with that in mind, read this: An Inconvenient Truth is an exceptional film, an engaging and terrifying look at the impact of our lifestyles on our global ecosystems. Al Gore is surprisingly witty (in his own droll way), and clearly motivated to promote some sort of change in the way we approach the environment. And if he’s right about only part of his data (and there’s no legitimate reason to believe he isn’t), then we’re in big trouble. Not in our children’s lifetime, but by the end of our lifetime. And if his information is as accurate as he says it is? Well, then this is the scariest film I’ve ever seen.

10. A Prairie Home Companion

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starring: Garrison Keillor, Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Woody Harrelson, Lily Tomlin, John C. Reilly, Virginia Madsen, and Maya Rudolph
written by: Garrison Keillor, from the story by Keillor and Ken LaZebnik
directed by: Robert Altman
PG-13, 105 min, 2006, USA


Read my original review

After Robert Altman’s passing a couple of months ago, there was pretty much no way this film wasn’t going to end up on my top 10 of the year. I toyed with a few minutes about where to put it, but the final spot seems pretty much perfect for this sadly whimsical look at the last broadcast of Garrison Keillor’s radio show. To quote myself: “It is a film that perhaps only Altman could have made. It is not, by any stretch of imagination, a great film, for much like the radio show it depicts, it has no such ambitions and would be embarrassed to be considered as such. But, it is a whimsical delight, the likes of which is rare, too good-natured to be thought of with anything but fondness.” In all of cinema, there is perhaps not a more fitting and appropriate final effort than this. A great filmmaker goes out in style. He’ll be missed.

19 January 2007

the Top 10 films of 2006 (part I)

I don't have the energy to finish this tonight, so here's the first 5. The next five shall come soon.

1. United 93

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starring: Lewis Alsamari, J.J. Johnson, Trish Gates, and David Alan Basche
written and directed by: Paul Greengrass
R, 111 min, 2006, USA/UK


Read my original review

Back in May, I called this "a masterpiece in every way imaginable, a stunning and gut-wrenching film that makes a case for being the best American film of the decade and the most powerful piece of cinema since Schindler's List (1993)." When viewed against the atrocity that is Oliver Stone's World Trade Center (2006), it looks even better. Greengrass captures perfectly the horror and confusion of September 11 in a film that looks like it may be too powerful to win major awards, as people understandably don't want to relive it. There aren't many films that can make such a claim. Clearly, this is the best of the year.

2. Little Children

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starring: Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, Noah Emmerich, and Jackie Earle Haley
written by: Todd Field & Tom Perrotta, from the novel by Perrotta
directed by: Todd Field
R, 130 min, 2006, USA


Read my original review

It turns out not many people liked this film nearly as much as I did, but I fell in love with the muddled morality, the depiction of a suburbia where fidelity is not a given, and the belief that interpersonal relationships are as fragile as they come. Todd Field directs some of the best performances of the year from Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, and Jackie Earle Haley, who's return to the big screen is one of the great surprises of 2006. In just his second film, Field does not repeat himself; he does not hammer you over the head with symbolism. He trusts you are on his wavelength, or at least can get there quickly. It really is a wonderful film, despite what you may hear to the contrary.

3. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

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starring: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Shirley Henderson, and Keeley Hawes
written by: Frank Cottrell Boyce, based on the novel by Laurence Sterne
directed by Michael Winterbottom
R, 94 min, 2006, UK


Meta films are all the rage these days, which generally means there aren't any good ones. So, it's refreshing to find a gem like Michael Winterbottom's look at a British film company struggling to adapt a novel no thinks is possible to film. The leading man is worried about the height of his shoes, his co-lead has a "proper sexual thing" for his character's love interest, the battle scenes look horrendous, and no one has any confidence the film will actually be any good. As Coogan says, "This is a postmodern novel before there was any modernism to be post about." The film is engaging, inspired, and, best of all, funny. Meta can be so cliche, but when it works, it soars.

4. Moartea domnului Lazarescu

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starring: Ion Fiscuteanu, Luminita Gheorghiu, Gabriel Spahiu, and Doru Ana
written by: Cristi Puiu and Razvan Radulescu
directed by: Cristi Puiu
NR, 150 min, 2006, Romania


Here's some interesting numbers for you: Moartea domnului Lazarescu has a Metacritic score of 84, a couple of critics awards, and has shown up on 16 high-profile top 10 lists. Here's the interesting number: it grossed less than $80,000 domestically. So it may just be the most critically revered film per dollar in film history. Why? Well, 150 minutes of an old man dying doesn't sound like much fun, and it isn't. But, it is incredibly moving and makes profound statements about the state of heath care in the 21st century. It's not a film you'd want to watch more than once, but once should be enough.

5. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

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starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian, Luenell, and Pamela Anderson
written by: Sacha Baron Cohen & Anthony Hines & Peter Baynham & Dan Mazer, from a story by Sacha Baron Cohen & Peter Baynham & Anthony Hines & Todd Phillips
directed by: Larry Charles
R, 84 min, 2006, USA


Read my original review

Sacha Baron Cohen's raucous comedy has been as well documented as any film this year, from the publicity stunts to the controversy to the pending lawsuits, and for those of us with an affinity for Da Ali G Show, highly anticipated to boot. Thankfully, it didn't disappoint. Cohen's performance is one of the most daring ever put on film. Not only does he not break character surrounded by people unaware they're in a comedy, but he does so in scenarios where he's in very real danger of getting his ass kicked. Brando never ran that risk.


******

Don't forget the Lovesick Blog-a-Thon right here, 14 February 2007. Fun for all ages.

17 January 2007

the new blogger

As you may have noticed, I've converted, and somehow in the process lost my header (of which I was a big fan, even if no one else was). When I get a chance, I'll try to figure out how to get it back.

******

Don't forget the Lovesick Blog-a-Thon right here, 14 February 2007. Fun for all ages.

07 January 2007

current cinema: Little Children

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starring: Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, Noah Emmerich, and Jackie Earle Haley
written by: Todd Field & Tom Perrotta, from the novel by Perrotta
directed by: Todd Field
R, 130 min, 2006, USA


Todd Field's suburban drama Little Children opens with the news that Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), a sexual deviant, has been released and is now living in the quaint little Massachusetts town. This development mobilizes a group of concerned parents, led by former cop Larry Hedges (Noah Emmerich), and becomes the topic of the day for the small group of mothers who's children play together in the park. One of them suggests the pervert be castrated--a view not uncommon in the town--even though he did nothing more than expose himself to a child[1]. Regardless, castration isn't nearly as important as the other recent development. Mainly, that the good-looking Brad (Patrick Wilson) has returned to the park with his son. On a bet, Sarah (Kate Winslet) introduces herself to Brad, and before long they form a friendship over the daily trips to the park and, later, the pool. Neither of them is happy in their respective marriage, and before long, an affair has begun.

Little Children is the second feature film from actor-turned-director Todd Field, the first being the sublime In the Bedroom (2001). Based on that and the paragraph above, it should come as little surprise that Little Children is not a film to be taken lightly. The potential audience for it is small, and it requires a certain temperament to stay with the story long enough to discover its potential power. Which is to say this is a film that expects a certain amount of cinematic and literary maturity from you and refuses to hold your hand while you catch up. This is a good thing. Field does not repeat himself; he does not hammer you over the head with symbolism. He trusts you are on his wavelength, or at least can get there quickly. If not, well, there's probably a screening of We Are Marshall (2006) down the hall.

Little Children is a film more ambitious than In the Bedroom in every way, as Field has clearly gained confidence in his abilities as both a storyteller and a visual director. The shots are more dynamic, the camera movements more purposeful, the narrative choices stronger. But, is it a better film? Truthfully, I'm probably a bad person to ask, as I have a certain attachment to In the Bedroom, which was filmed ten minutes from my hometown and includes radio broadcasts from WQSS, my employer at the time of the filming. So, I'm a little biased. But, I wouldn't argue either way. Both are powerful films from an exciting new director willing to plumb depths few will approach. To say one is better than the other would be counter-productive. I only bring it up as a frame of reference, an example of just how good Little Children is.

This is not all Field's doing, even though his is clearly the unifying influence. The performances are strong across the board. Kate Winslet adds another great performance to her resume, and Patrick Wilson acquits himself as more than just a pretty face, but the strongest turn comes from Jackie Earle Haley, the recently re-discovered child actor[2] who plays a deviant. Haley brings an effeminate vulnerability to the role that makes you cheer for him to overcome his past, while at the same time being terrified of what he might do if someone actually gave him the chance. This is a common theme in the film, as the storylines and the characters are so real, so complex, and the sense of morality so believably muddled, that near the end of the film, when it appears something has gone terribly wrong, you can easily imagine ten to fifteen things that could happen--ranging from the inconsequential to the horrific--and could fit perfectly into the larger film. That sort of dramatic potential in the final minutes of a film is not only rare, it's genuinely scary. Just like real life.

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[1] Not that exposing yourself to a child isn't a terrible thing to do, but in the world of sexual deviancy, there are worse things.

[2] You may remember him from The Day of the Locust (1975), The Bad News Bears (1976), and Breaking Away (1979). Or, you might not.

04 January 2007

A Question

What, if anything, prevents us as a film blogging community from presenting our own awards? Are the Duluth or Kansas City critics that much more respected and/or influential? Or do we just not collectively care enough?
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