2006: THE YEAR THAT WAS
by Harvey Perr
2006 was the year in which a French film from 1969 won the lion’s share of praise from the nation’s critics. It was easy to understand why. “Army of Shadows” was directed by an auteur favorite – Jean-Pierre Melville – and had a cast that read like a who’s who of French cinema (Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret, Serge Reggiani, Paul Meurisse, Jeam-Pierre Cassel), and seemed a serious refutation to the theory that every Frenchman was a member of the Resistance, an idea that couldn’t have been popular with French audiences in 1969, but which Marcel Ophuls, in his extraordinarily comprehensive documentary “The Sorrow and the Pity,” had subsequently proved to be frighteningly accurate. Twenty-seven years later, the long-overdue American release was also, in its seriousness, an antidote to the frivolousness of so many contemporary films, a commentary on how much we needed a film this bold, this dramatic, particularly now when we were engaged in an unpopular war that was nowhere mirrored in most of our recent movies. It was indeed a film of dark shadows, many of them haunting, some of them frankly confusing. A very good film, perhaps even an excellent one, “Army of Shadows” deserved recognition, but it was hardly the masterpiece its admirers suggested it was. What we were clearly clambering for were works that captured the harrowing quality of our times. It was a beginning.
By the year’s end, it seemed as if we had got what we wanted, what we needed. If films didn’t actually come out and address our deepest fears, they at least made an attempt to suggest that all was not right with the world. It is possible that we saw more than was there, that what seemed harrowing was indeed merely harrowing on the surface, that suggestion may have been more than enough, that digging deeper would have been too painful. The mere fact that “Children of Men” took place in a London of the not-too-distant future which resembled war-torn Baghdad was, it seemed, all that one needed to read all sorts of seriousness into a film that felt like absurdist farce to at least one member of the critical audience. Its final moments, pretentious in the extreme, had audiences swooning with despair. It was just as easy to laugh at. That its director Alfonso Cuaron had journeyed from the simplicity of “Y Tu Mama Tambien” to the grandiosity of this film was, in itself, laughable. And all that swirling camera work was certainly impressive, although it was never clear what effect all that swirling had intended to make. Maybe impressing us was enough. We were not impressed.
Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” added magical lyricism to its already stylized drama of childhood and fascism, but anyone familiar with del Toro’s other work –especially “The Devil’s Backbone” – could see that this was just a horror movie posing as a serious art film. It is interesting that one of the year’s re-releases was Victor Erice’s “Spirit of the Beehive,” which is also about being a child in fascist Spain (a child coincidentally exposed to a famous horror film, namely “Frankenstein”), an infinitely more nuanced and subtle treatment of similar themes. But it may be that horror films, like del Toro’s, are more suitable to contemporary audiences. Nuance and subtlety be damned, if you can show blood-letting and even have a character sew up his own wounds right there on camera. Is this the seriousness we were really asking for? For many, it seemed to be.
No film cried out to be taken as seriously as “Babel.” The action spans from Morocco to California to Mexico to Japan, telling three stories and – in what has become the signature style of its director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu in collaboration with his writer Guillermo Arriaga – eventually connecting them (no matter how tenuously or randomly) and, at the same time, moving back and forth in time as well as in locale. It refers to such explosive and timely subject matter as illegal immigration and terrorism and wears its self-importance as if were a badge of honor. The camera lingers on images until they burn into your consciousness. The music becomes attenuated to correspond with and bolster the lingering images. In short, it is so carefully, slowly, and oozily composed and executed that you hardly notice how many stereotypes are reinforced, i.e. Mexicans are vulgar and irresponsible and alcoholic; Moroccan children, like children everywhere, like to watch little girls, even their sisters, undress and like to shoot guns; Japanese teens, like teens everywhere, like to take Ecstasy and go wild at raves – or how many of the film’s central characters have their own elongated crying scenes as a form of encouragement, in these soulless times, to the soul. In such an awesomely self-conscious project, there are bound to be some powerful moments, and most of those are provided by Rinko Kikuchi as a deaf Japanese teenager with a potent and palpable and somewhat pathological need for sexual satisfaction. It is interesting that the film can still say something fresh about sex, while illegal immigration and terrorism are treated as mere grace notes. Why bring them up at all? Because it adds an aura of “importance” to a film already bloated with “importance.”
There is no need to belabor the original point, that we were hungry to see movies tackle significant themes in intelligent ways. We may have to wait twenty years to see if these films hold up to closer scrutiny. What this really boils down to is that there were many films that ended up on the year’s more interesting ten-best lists which I clearly didn’t like as much as others did. I would add to this group the following films:
“The Departed” – one hopes that Martin Scorsese finally wins the Oscar he has been pimping for and gets back to making films worthy of his talents. Yes, his artistry has never been more controlled, his mastery of the medium never more expressive, but, really, it was shameful the way the critics refused to see that there was a descent, not an ascent, in the parabola from a searing work of moral redemption like “Raging Bull” to a trifle like “The Departed.” Never boring, always brilliantly acted, but it has no staying power whatsoever.
“Notes on a Scandal” – oh, golly gee, a script by Patrick Marber, direction by Richard Eyre of the National Theatre, a cast headed by Dame Judi Dench and an actress incapable of hitting a wrong note, Cate Blanchett, and what do they come up with? Drivel. High-class drivel, to be sure, but drivel nevertheless, a tabloid-inspired look at subjects that you would think the talents involved would have taken seriously. Ugly, repressive, homophobic, predictable. And yet it has been referred to as delicious and stylish and witty and sly. What can one say?
“The Illusionist” – this should have been wonderful because the author of the original story, Steven Millhauser, has such a strong and inventive visual sense, but it took a lovely idea and turned it into pap. So much of Millhauser’s work could be transformed into truly great films, if truly imaginative artists were aware of and attracted to his stories and novels, but one hopes that “The Illusionist” isn’t used as an example.
“Little Miss Sunshine” – charming and likable but very minor and rather sloppily made and, to tell the truth, its satire was more toothless than barbed. The actors were game and, as an ensemble, very much in tune with each other. This was clearly everyone’s favorite independent movie of the year and the mere mention of Proust tickled audiences (in much the same way that the mention of Merlot made “Sideways” such an “intellectual” delight), but, because some of the year’s independent films were truly innovative and, therefore, truly independent, the fuss made over this one was depressing.
“Casino Royale” – Why all the fuss? Just another James Bond movie, when all is said and done. But as long as Daniel Craig plays Bond, I may actually want to see another one.
By year's end, "Army of Shadows" looked even better than it did when it was released in March.
That still left us with a pretty good collection of memorable films this year and here, finally, is one man’s highly personal and hardly definitive list of the year’s best.