Saturday, December 23, 2006

1 Year, 4 Good Months -- and 10 Top Movies

Hollywood Packs a Punch,
But Only After September;
Antidote to Studio Poison

December 22, 2006

It's traditional for movie critics to compile 10-best lists, and I have done my part gladly. If only the movie business had honored the tradition of a 12-month year. Nine of my favorite films opened after the halfway mark in 2006, seven of those opened during the past four months, and one doesn't open until next week.

Why do I seem to be more concerned with the calendar than the films? Because this pattern reflects, more clearly than ever before, an obsessive-compulsive disorder that has been afflicting the movie industry and alienating its audience. The disease is a fixation on accumulating awards that may enhance a given movie's chances of winning Oscars. Since most of these pre-Oscar awards are bestowed in December or early January, presumably by people lacking long-term memory, most movies deemed Oscar-worthy are now released in the fall or early winter, leaving the rest of the year as a wasteland for grown-up movie lovers, though a playground for movie-consuming teens. Ten-best lists are part of the problem, of course, but I've never claimed to be part of the solution, so here goes, in alphabetical order. (Meaning 10-better this year but no clear best.)

Looking to the future, honoring the past: 'Little Miss Sunshine' (left) and 'Letters From Iwo Jima'
"Deliver Us From Evil": In our entertainment society, where reading is what one does to learn more about celebrities, Amy Berg's documentary is a model of what documentaries do most valuably -- enterprise reporting that brings back news of the real world. Her subject is pedophile priests, as personified by a former priest and convicted pedophile, Oliver O'Grady, who, at Ms. Berg's urging, decided to discuss his predations on camera. His bland obtuseness is chilling, though no more so than the church's failure to protect children from him.

"The Departed": Quintessential Scorsese from a peerless American director at the height of his powers. He hasn't worked at that altitude in recent years, so this crime drama set in Boston is a cause for special celebration. It's also an argument for setting the auteur theory of filmmaking within the context of a collaborative medium. Mr. Scorsese's authorship suffuses every frame -- and, yes, every spasm of violence. Yet the film's distinction is also due to the screenwriter, William Monahan, the cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus, and a superlative cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson.

"The History Boys": Nothing special here in the department of filmmaking, though there's certainly nothing wrong with the way Nicholas Hytner has translated his stage production into a feature film. What's special is the substance of Alan Bennett's celebrated play and the cast that performs it, both transferred intact. Who cares about cinematic innovation when, for the price of a movie ticket, you can watch wondrously articulate students and teachers at a small public school in England thrash out Mr. Bennett's brilliant arguments about what education is for, and how to dispense it?

"The Last King of Scotland": It's hard to believe that this tumultuous and richly detailed film is Kevin Macdonald's first feature. It's harder to believe that the director didn't somehow bring Idi Amin back from the grave and persuade the Ugandan dictator to reveal himself in the fullness of his seductive, spectacular madness. I'm talking, of course, about Forest Whitaker's magisterial performance, the likes of which I've never seen on stage, let alone on screen. And the movie is much more than a one-man show. James McAvoy brings blithe wit and tremendous verve to the role of the dictator's young Scottish doctor.

"Letters From Iwo Jima": Let's imagine that we're back in World War II, or shortly after, and a filmmaker who's also a star asks his studio to let him make a movie that will humanize the enemy and show the folly as well as the horrors of war. A tough sell? No, an impossible one. Even now, though, it's remarkable that Clint Eastwood was able to sell his vision of an epic war film told from both sides of a specific battle, let alone that he was able to make it so magnificently well. "Letters" has a clearer narrative line than "Flags of Our Fathers" does, but both films should be considered, and seen, as one.

"Little Miss Sunshine": Having said that there's no best film this year, I should add that this comedy about a dysfunctional family's road trip deserves a best-for-the-health-of-the-industry award. Modestly budgeted and hugely enjoyable, it's the perfect antidote to the cocktail of poisons that the studios have concocted and continue to consume -- bloated budgets, fatuous stars, sloppy craftsmanship and boring scripts. The husband-and-wife directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, worked from an extraordinary debut script by Michael Arndt. Mr. Arndt has already been picked off by Pixar -- good news for all concerned.

"Pan's Labyrinth": Writing at this point about Guillermo del Toro's masterly admixture of political thriller, historical horror and surreal fairy tale is tricky; the movie doesn't open until next Friday and I don't want to pre-empt my own review. Suffice it to say for now that the setting is Spain in the 1940s, after the fascists have prevailed in the Spanish civil war, and the fairy tale includes a magic labyrinth, an enchanted forest and a monster that, like Franco's Spain, devours the young. And that the enchantment, in the hands of Mr. del Toro and his collaborators, is dark and complete.

"The Queen": By now you must know that Helen Mirren gives a superlative performance as Her Majesty Elizabeth II, and that she'll almost surely win an Oscar for it. Her performance is so fine that it takes her from the realm of conventional acting into a realm of mind-and-body-melding for which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has no consecrated category. (But they should give her an Oscar anyway.) The film as a whole is worthy of her part. Stephen Frears directed from an original script by Peter Morgan (who co-wrote "The Last King of Scotland") that does what one might have thought impossible -- makes us care, intensely, about this monarch, and even the monarchy.

"United 93": This documentary-style drama, written and directed by Paul Greengrass, is actually two films in one: Both are singularly successful. The first part, solidly grounded in verifiable facts, dramatizes the events immediately surrounding the terrorist attacks of 9/11 -- the doomed innocence of the United States on that sunny morning, the disarray of the nation's defenses. (Nowhere has that disarray been documented more vividly.) The second part, based on very few facts, is a speculative dramatization of the passenger revolt aboard one flight that was bound for the U.S. Capitol. Most movies don't have much impact on the real world anymore. This one does, for daring to address its subject directly, and powerfully well.

"Volver": Penélope Cruz is the big news here (since Pedro Almodóvar's prodigious virtuosity is old though always welcome news). She's more appealing than she has ever been -- and that's saying a lot -- as Raimunda, a sorely tried wife and mother who returns from a sort of soul death to joyous, passionate life. The movie, a shaggy ghost story, is all about returning from the dead, among other things, and there's never been a livelier group than the women in it -- not only Ms. Cruz but Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas and Yohana Cobo.

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