by HELEN GEIB
The year started on a high note with the first new movie I saw also one of my favorites, Last Holiday. If you didn’t see it, you’re probably laughing at me right now for claiming a Queen Latifah vehicle as one of my favorite movies of 2006, but if you did see it you understand my feelings because it was an irresistibly likeable and charming film. Last Holiday was the first of four enjoyable life-affirming dramedies released last year, followed by The Matador, Stranger Than Fiction and Little Miss Sunshine. All were well crafted crowd-pleasers with strong performances and a pleasing mix of intellectual substance and quirky character-based comedy.
First quarter 2006 also offered the best action/suspense genre films of the year, three underseen and underappreciated little gems of fast pacing and sharp dialogue: 16 Blocks, Running Scared and Lucky Number Slevin. Bruce Willis reaffirmed his star power in the first and third of those, and Paul Walker proved he can carry a film in Running Scared and one of the two fine family features of the year, Eight Below. The other strong family film was Glory Road, about the first integrated college basketball team. The true story material was powerful despite dilution by a family-friendly script, and Josh Lucas gave a marvelous performance as the coach.
Lucas also starred in one of the major missed opportunity movies of the year, Poseidon. Lucas, Kurt Russell and a tightly plotted sequence of perils and escapes were just enough to salvage some entertainment value from a film nearly sunk by its excruciatingly bad dialogue. Passable dialogue and Poseidon would have been fine light summer entertainment. Flags of Our Fathers proved another major disappointment from Hollywood, frittering away the intrinsic power of its material with an obtrusive and haranguing framing story and narration. Subtract the pervasive schoolroom lecture and it would have been a fine historical study.
On a happier note, the year boasted two good romantic comedies (Something New and The Holiday) and one good romantic drama (Lake House). Three emotionally satisfying romances may seem like a small number, but compared to recent years it’s a flood. These otherwise quite dissimilar films shared the essential genre characteristics of a warm tone and lovers the audience really wants to see come together for a happily ever after ending. Special credit must be paid to whoever it was behind the scenes of The Holiday who took the imaginative leap needed to recognize that Kate Winslet and Jack Black make a natural on-screen couple.
The most unexpected movies of the year were the two morality tale westerns, the American modern western The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and the Australian period “outback western” The Proposition. Both boasted intriguing takes on classic genre characters and situations and exploited their desolate-beautiful landscapes to the full. The remarkable Brazilian feature House of Sand, set in the arid desert coastlands of that country, outdid even those films in its powerful evocation of landscape as a determinant of peoples’ lives.
The otherwise overly familiar dystopian sci-fi thriller Renaissance was a visual treat for its innovative and beautiful black and white animation. Zhang Yimou’s emotionally distant classical tragedy Curse of the Golden Flower was an exquisitely beautiful film that managed to be simultaneously dull and breathtaking.
Michael Mann’s Miami Vice unexpectedly proved to be the most interesting art film of the year, a mood piece masquerading as an action crime movie. The Prestige was a tremendously enjoyable drama about obsession and the pursuit of excellence, with a suspenseful, intelligent and intricate story and fine performances by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman. David Bowie as Nicola Tesla and Andy Serkis as his assistant in that film were a delight.
No review of 2006 would be complete without a nod to Snakes On A Plane, the internet sensation that wasn’t. It was an entertaining and unpretentious genre movie anchored by a pitch-perfect star turn by Samuel L. Jackson. The overblown blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man’s Chest was really very enjoyable despite being only half a movie. The filmmakers had the good sense to retain many of the elements that made the first Pirates so wonderful, foremost the marvelous cast. I will disavow this favorable review if the third film does not reveal the seemingly treacherous and dissolute Commodore Norrington as the double agent for the British that I confidently believe him to be.
Although well-directed and acted, The Departed was compromised by story problems and suffered from comparison with its source, the exceptional Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs. The best crime drama of 2006 was another Hong Kong film, Johnny To’s Election 2. Unfortunately, if unsurprisingly, denied American theatrical distribution, it was a complex and intelligent film of significant artistic merit and a highly developed political consciousness, and one that deserves wider attention.
The end of the year brought four fine dramas about the struggle for individual expression and happiness, in the face of greed and brutality in civil-war torn Sierra Leone (Blood Diamond); insularity and dehumanizing ideologies in a projected dystopian future England (Children of Men); cruelty and arrogance in fascist-era Spain (Pan’s Labyrinth); and small-mindedness and self-absorption in contemporary American suburbia (Little Children). All were well-made, well-acted and memorable films. Blood Diamond was particularly distinguished by an exceptional performance by Leonardo di Caprio, while Children of Men displayed virtuosic cinematography.
The best film of 2006 was United 93. Harrowing and cathartic, superbly crafted with intelligence and sincerity, United 93 is an important film and a great one.