Cinema Psycho

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Archive for February, 2007

Oscars 2007: The Academy Gets It Right (Mostly), and People Still Complain

Posted by CinemaPsycho on February 27, 2007

Well, now that the smoke has cleared, it’s time to dissect the annual train wreck that is the Oscars. I use the term “train wreck” with affection of course, as I fully expect it to be a complete mess every year, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Yes, the show was very long this year. It runs long every year – I don’t know why this is a surprise to people. What I don’t understand is that the longer the show goes on, the more commercial breaks there are! It doesn’t make sense. Don’t they sell ad space for a certain amount of time? Surely they don’t plan to run long…do they? You would think that if they were worried about time, they wouldn’t cut away to commercials after, I don’t know, 3 1/2 hours or so. Maybe it’s just me.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – get rid of the stupid “red carpet” fashion show (save that nonsense for the E! channel, which covers it all day long) and start the show at 8:00! Even if the show runs long, people could still possibly be in bed by midnight. For that matter, why not just give in and make it a 4-hour show? Schedule it from 8 pm – midnight. That would give the producers time to schedule everything they want to throw in there (and possibly some extra time if they need it) as well as give audiences fair warning. It should be obvious by now that three hours isn’t going to cut it. I can’t remember the last time the Oscars actually ended perfectly on time. I don’t know if it ever has, at least in my lifetime. So why not just accept the fact that it’s a long damn show? Why is that so difficult?

Anyway…I actually thought this year’s show was a class act for the most part. Ellen DeGeneres made for a decent host, managing to be witty and genial without crossing the lines of good taste the way Chris Rock did. I couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief when she said that the night was about “celebrating the nominees” – yes, Oscar producers, that’s what the show is all about! It’s their night! That’s the whole point of the ceremony, and it’s about time that was the focus again.

So let’s just throw out some random thoughts about this year’s Oscar show:

How did Chris Connelly become the official “personality” of the Oscars? No one even knows who the hell he is! This is the same guy who said (on his old MTV show in the early ‘90’s) that Unforgiven would be dull and a huge flop. I’m reminded of that bonehead call every time I see him. Every year that he’s nominated, Eastwood should get to smack him upside the head on camera. If you’re going to hire a movie-industry journalist to be the face of the biggest event in Hollywood, at least find one who knows what the hell they’re talking about.

I don’t want to hear any bitching about Scorsese winning, OK? We’ve all been waiting for this for years now, and now that it’s finally happened, people are complaining that it’s not for his best film! Well, he should’ve won for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and GoodFellas, but that didn’t happen. He’s not competing with his past films, he’s competing with the other films released this year. And The Departed was the best of the year in my book, so there’s no reason to consider it undeserved. No one’s saying it’s his best film. If his past artistic triumphs (and Oscar losses) played a part in his winning this year, I’m fine with that. If the Academy collectively threw up their hands and said, “Ah, let’s just give it to Marty this year and get it over with”, I’m fine with that too. But he didn’t just win Best Director, his movie won Best Picture as well. If the Director award was simply a consolation prize for the guy, they didn’t have to give the movie the big award as well. But they did. The truth is, The Departed rocks hard, and audiences and critics both love it. So why shouldn’t it win? Because Scorsese has lost so many times in the past? What kind of sense does that make?

I think we all know that Forest Whitaker, Helen Mirren and Jennifer Hudson had their awards locked up from the start. It’s almost not worth speculating on whether they were actually the best in their categories, because their winning was as close to inevitable as these things get. Not even divine intervention could have prevented those choices from happening. I would’ve liked to see either Abigail Breslin or Rinko Kikuchi take Supporting Actress (and they have just as impressive a body of work as Hudson, let’s face it), but I knew that wasn’t going to happen. For such relative unknowns, even getting nominated at all is a victory. So good for them. As for Hudson, I still haven’t seen Dreamgirls, so I can’t speak to the quality of her performance. But the idea of anyone involved with a reality show winning an Academy Award frightens me deeply. I’ll let it go this time, but don’t let it happen again, OK? Seriously though, given how ubiquitous Hudson was in the media even before her nomination, I think there would’ve been riots in the streets if she had lost. Oprah would declare a national emergency. I just don’t want to someday hear the words, “And the winner is – Nicole Richie!” This sets a dangerous precedent, that’s all I’m saying.

The big surprise for most, of course, was Alan Arkin winning over Eddie Murphy in the Supporting Actor category. I actually had a feeling that it could happen – the wind seemed to be blowing away from Murphy in the weeks before the show. I thought it could go either to Arkin or to Wahlberg, but most likely Arkin to give Little Miss Sunshine something in the major categories (Original Screenplay was a lock for the same reason). I love the movie, but I never thought it had a shot at Best Picture, though it would’ve been a nice surprise. I don’t have anything against Murphy personally; I practically grew up on his SNL season, his comedy albums and stand-up movies, not to mention the Holy Murphy Trinity of 48 Hrs., Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop. But it’s no secret that Eddie’s not incredibly well-liked in Hollywood. Jeffrey Wells has practically declared jihad on him since his nomination, and the reports of Murphy being an egocentric sellout dick for the past two decades have spread throughout the media. He’s had his supporters as well, but it didn’t help that Norbit was stinking up cinemas this month. If they’d only released that thing a month later, Eddie might have his Oscar. I honestly think that this was another Burt Reynolds/Boogie Nights situation here – as worthy as the performance might have been, the Academy members just couldn’t bring themselves to vote for the guy. And, like Reynolds, Murphy didn’t play the game of shaking hands and kissing babies, so he didn’t give them any extra incentive. Arkin’s a veteran actor who’d been nominated a couple of times before and lost, he’s in a movie that a lot of people loved, and he was damn good in it. Looking back on it, the choice seems obvious now. Will Murphy ever have another chance? Well, not if he keeps making movies like Norbit and Daddy Day Care. What’s Burt been doing lately? Nothing? Exactly. Will Eddie squander the chance for a career renaissance the same way? You tell me.

Helen Mirren wins Best Actress – now she has to embarrass herself by starring in a big, bad action spectacle. What’s it going to be Helen, Tomb Raider, Catwoman or Aeon Flux? I kinda like the idea of Helen Mirren kicking people’s asses. Did anyone see Shadowboxer though? Yikes! Any anti-Mirren contingent could’ve squashed her Oscar hopes simply by distributing copies of that piece of crap to the Academy members. I did see The Queen, and I thought it was a decent HBO movie that somehow made its way to the big screen. Mirren is very good in it, but come on, let’s get real. At her age, you slap a wig on her and she passes for the Queen of England. I was put off by the guy who played Prince Charles, because he looked nothing like the man. It didn’t help that 1/3 of the movie was news footage – it was like watching an old videotape of CNN from 1993. This is what passes for great cinema now?

What was up with those freaky shadow dancers? How can they possibly see what shape they’re making? Loved the Snakes on a Plane reference though. It’s so unhip that it’s hip again. I was hoping they’d do a tribute to Brokeback Mountain.

The sound-effects orchestra…interesting in a “what the hell is this supposed to be?” kind of way. Could’ve easily been cut for time, and probably should have been.

Loved the “Comedian at the Oscars” number. They should’ve gotten Bill Murray to sing it though. No, wait, that’d be too sad. Wonder how Eddie felt about it – oh that’s right, he hasn’t done a good comedy in years anyway. It doesn’t apply to him.

Hotness of the Year – Penelope Cruz. Damn that woman looked good! Too bad Salma wasn’t there to cheer her on.

Brad Pitt didn’t show up. Did anybody notice? The media sure did.

Nicholson and his bald head! For a minute there I was like, “how did Michael Chiklis get invited?”

Downfall of the Year has to go to Dreamgirls for losing Best Song despite having 3 entries in the category! And they lost right after performing them, which was priceless! The producers obviously thought one of those songs would win, hence they scheduled the songs right before the award. Oops! Guess not! The fact that they lost to Melissa Etheridge, a talented singer who writes her own songs, was not lost on me. Sorry Beyonce, but your caterwauling just didn’t cut it. Why do people think the song won because of its message? No one votes for Best Song because of a message. Just ask the Grammy voters.

Tribute to Ennio Morricone – great! Celine Dion singing – not so great! What were they thinking? There are no Italian singers out there?

The Death List – please tell the audience to be silent until the end! This shouldn’t be a popularity contest. We all know that actors get much more love than, say, screenwriters or editors or cinematographers, even in death. But that’s not what this show is supposed to be about. Either save the applause until the end, or cut the damn audio. It’s offensive to those of us who actually care more about cinema than celebrity. And where the bloody fuck was Adrienne Shelly? Acclaimed actress and writer-director, thank you very much! I hope she’s flipping you all off in the afterlife.

Michael Mann’s Tribute to America in Films – he was being sarcastic, right? Fucking Reservoir Dogs? Scarface? Yeah, that’s some real patriotic stuff there.

Nancy Meyers’ Tribute to Writers – maybe they should get someone who doesn’t just recycle old romantic comedies to do this. Like Nora Ephron…kidding.

Al Gore – good thing he made a documentary, so Hollywood had an excuse to kiss his ass. Where were all these people 7 years ago, when it might have mattered? They should’ve had a Bush impersonator run onstage and steal his award. Never mind that Al’s wife is one of the most pro-censorship people on the planet. That apparently doesn’t bother all the free-speech loving liberals in Hollywood. Not that he still wouldn’t have made a better President than the fuck-up who stole the election from him… I can only wonder what the millions of Chinese people watching might have been thinking. “Who is that guy?”

Melissa Etheridge refers to the woman that’s she’s practically married to as her wife! Shocking! Scandalous! Well, some people might think so, but those people probably aren’t watching the Oscars anyway.

Peter O’Toole – maybe next year, buddy!

So that about covers it for this year. Nice to see Pan’s Labyrinth get a couple of well-deserved awards. Would’ve liked to see Babel get more recognition, but you can’t have everything, right? Seems like the Academy was actually watching the films this year, which is a good sign for the future. There’s really nothing to complain about as far as I’m concerned. No major travesties that I could see. When it comes to the Oscars, that sounds like progress to me. So everybody quit bitching!

I’ll be back soon, with more reviews and stuff. See you in the funny papers. Now I have to go return Caged Heat to the video store. Later!

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Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on February 23, 2007

Directed by Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck/starring Natalie Maines, Emily Robison, Martie Maguire/The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment

A documentary about the country group and the controversy surrounding their anti-war statements on stage.

I’m not a fan of modern country music in general, so before the events that are documented in this film, I was only vaguely aware of the Dixie Chicks. I don’t think I could name more than one of their songs if you put a gun to my head. It’s just not my thing. Up until a few years ago, I had never given them a second thought, despite the fact that they had sold millions of records. I cared about them about as much as your average country fan cares about Bad Religion or Rage Against the Machine.

Then in 2003, something happened that brought them to my attention, as well as the attention of much of the world at large. On the eve of the Iraq war, singer Natalie Maines took the stage in England and proclaimed that they were “ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas”. This provoked a media shitstorm that had two effects: 1) it made me realize that Natalie Maines is really cute (hey, she’s my type, what can I say?); and 2) former fans started protesting their performances and demanding that country radio stop playing their music. In the blink of an eye, the Chicks went from beloved performers who had the #1 country single and album at the time to persona non grata in the world of country music.

Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing basically chronicles this event and its aftermath, as well as the group’s eventual comeback with the pop-influenced Taking the Long Way CD.

At the time of the controversy, the whole thing seemed pretty absurd. On the one hand, I admired Maines for standing up and speaking her mind, especially at a time when her particular opinion was extremely unpopular. The fact that I happen to agree with said opinion (let’s get that out of the way right now, and then put it aside) just made her more sympathetic in my eyes. Plus, she’s really cute, so that helps.

On the other hand, it’s hard not to feel that Maines did a pretty foolish thing when she made that remark, given that her group’s core audience was essentially made up of the kind of ignorant rednecks who voted for Bush. She seriously misjudged the intelligence level of their fans, as well as the general tone of political discourse in America. From a 2007 perspective (in which even Ricky Martin can flip off the President on stage, and it barely makes a ripple), it seems ridiculous and absurd. But this was a time in which even the President’s Chief of Staff advised entertainers to “watch what you say”. Given all the flag-waving that was going on at the time, how did she expect these people to react?

It might have been different if Maines were a rock singer or even a pop star. Let’s face it – country artists are expected to support the status quo, whereas rock and pop artists are expected to challenge the status quo. Obviously I’m generalizing here, but that’s generally how it works. Eddie Vedder can say whatever he wants about the government on stage (and he has), and you don’t see people running around burning their Pearl Jam CDs. You don’t see conservative talk-show pundits accusing Green Day of being “anti-American” because they wrote “American Idiot”. People expect that from rock bands – it’s not news. But when a country artist says something derogatory about the President of the United States, that’s news. The fans have different expectations. It’s like an unspoken agreement – so unspoken that no one let Maines in on it, apparently.

I honestly think that’s the main factor in the outrage surrounding Maines’ statement. It’s not just that she said it and these people don’t agree with it – it’s as if she doesn’t have the right to say it. It’s like she not allowed to disagree with the President or the government. Bill O’Reilly (idiot) is seen in news footage here saying, “she doesn’t know what she’s talking about”. Which, like most of what O’Reilly says, is beside the point. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that’s the truth. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Doesn’t she still have the right to say it? Of course she does, and people have the right to disagree. They even have the right to stop listening to her music because of it (even though one thing has nothing to do with the other). Hell, I used to like Ted Nugent until I found out he’s a bow-hunting neocon whackjob. But I don’t go around burning his records either (of course, since the guy hasn’t recorded anything decent in 30 years, it’s not that hard to avoid him). Nor do I prevent other people from listening to his music or tell radio stations to stop playing him. I may think he’s an idiot, but he has the right to be an idiot! And I have the right to think that he’s an idiot. And you have the right to think I’m an idiot. Why is this so difficult for people?

These are exactly the kind of issues that Shut Up & Sing should be dealing with, but doesn’t for the most part. As a personal chronicle of what the Chicks went through, it’s exemplary. As a film about freedom of speech, however…it’s barely passable. This is strange, since veteran documentarian Kopple (American Dream, Harlan County USA) has never exactly been shy about exploring the political underbelly of America. But she and co-director Peck kind of take it for granted that we agree with Maines and understand why freedom of speech is important (when apparently there are millions of Americans out there who don’t grasp that concept, as the movie shows). We see tons of news footage of people saying moronic things about them, but we’re never given an intelligent argument either for or against the Chicks. At one point, after watching Bush comment on the situation on TV, Maines calls Bush a “dumbfuck”. Which is all well and good. But the movie never makes us understand exactly why he’s a dumbfuck, or why she chose that particular word to describe him in response to what he says.

This is the main problem with the movie as a whole – it deals a little too much with the personal stuff, and not enough about the larger issues surrounding them. It’s as if the Chicks themselves don’t really know how to articulate their views, so they just take it for granted that everyone watching just agrees with them. We understand very well that Maines is against the war. But why is she against the war? We don’t really know. We’re told that the Dixie Chicks “have never been a political band”. So what made her say what she did? What motivated her to speak up at that time, besides just watching the war rev up on CNN? Someone who’s not a politically-minded person isn’t going to have an opinion one way or the other. She obviously does have an opinion, therefore she must be at least slightly political. You don’t address a roomful of people by accident. Where did this come from? How does a country artist wind up having what most people would consider a liberal point of view? Maybe even she doesn’t know. I’m a liberal, and I’m surrounded by rednecks every day, so I can relate. But you have to give us some kind of background for this stuff. Sure, I understand where she’s coming from, but a lot of people obviously don’t, so it would’ve been nice to see her articulate it. This was the perfect platform for Maines to defend herself, and we never see her using it.

What’s really odd about this movie is that it seems to exist in a vacuum in a strange way. If you only had this to go on, you would think that the Iraq war was only important because of how it affected these three women. It’s all about their suffering, their loss, and their eventual triumph. Yes, it’s admirable that they pushed on in spite of everything and re-defined themselves as artists. But, again, aren’t there larger issues to explore here that might be more important than one musical group’s career? Scenes of the Chicks at home, talking to their husbands and playing with their kids, just seem like footage from a CMT puff piece and have nothing to do with anything. Couldn’t Kopple and Peck have spent that time showing us something insightful and informative? How about talking with the families about how the boycotts and death threats affect them? That might have been interesting, at least. Better yet, track down and interview some experts on freedom of speech issues about the reaction the Chicks got and the impact it had on culture as a whole. You know, the kind of stuff you’d see in a documentary.

It’s hard to criticize a movie for not being what it isn’t, rather than being what it is and doing it badly. Most of the time, I wouldn’t do that. But it seems like there was a real opportunity here that was mostly blown. If all you want from a documentary is a superficial, scratch-the-surface treatment of its subject matter, then I highly recommend Shut Up & Sing. I imagine that fans (the ones that are left) will be fascinated by the group’s fall and eventual comeback, especially the behind-the-scenes material of the group and their managers trying to figure out what the hell to do now. I was particularly moved by Maines’ defiance in the face of it all (“fuck country radio, then”) as well as her frustration and disappointment in what used to be her fan base. I only wish she were in a movie that puts her story in perspective, because she found out something few entertainers ever do: who her friends really are. It’s a remarkable story, stuck in what is unfortunately a mediocre film.

The disc they sent me was in full screen (or as they call it, “Standard Version”) and contained no significant extras. Kind of a lame presentation, if you ask me; the film could’ve benefited from a decent widescreen transfer and some informative bonus material. Even if you love the movie, this is a rental at best, not a keeper.

**1/2 2/23/07

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Man About Town (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on February 14, 2007

Directed and written by Mike Binder/starring Ben Affleck, Rebecca Romijn, Gina Gershon, Adam Goldberg, Bai Ling, John Cleese/Lionsgate Home Entertainment

A successful Hollywood talent agent finds his life unraveling after his private journal is stolen by a vengeful reporter.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: I don’t hate Ben Affleck. I know there are lots of people out there who just can’t stand the guy. I personally know several people who go out of their way to avoid anything he’s in. It’s just one of those chemical-reaction things; I feel the same way about Jerry O’Connell and his smug, obnoxious frat-boy smirk (he’s also in this movie, unfortunately). But Affleck’s never bothered me. He seems intelligent, witty and self-deprecating in interviews – he seems like one of those guys who knows how lucky he is to be where he is. You have to be a pretty good actor to fake that, right?

I honestly feel that it’s time to put an end to the Affleck jokes. Yes, the guy had a long string of flops including Jersey Girl, Surviving Christmas and the notorious Gigli (which I’ve never bothered to see; that’s probably why I don’t hate him). However, it’s always seemed to me that people held his personal life (and the ensuing media overexposure) against him to the point where they were rooting for him to fail. It didn’t help that he was making sucky movies at the time, sure. But as much as I despise bad movies, it tends to bug me when people take a little too much glee in kicking actors when they’re down (that includes certain film critics, who should be above such behavior). Now, after his stellar performance as George Reeves in Hollywoodland and his brief but funny turn as a doomed bail bondsman in Smokin’ Aces, it seems like the tide is finally turning.

Now comes Man About Town, a film that Affleck made in 2005 (during his “down period”) that has gone straight to DVD. I’m sure many observers will dismiss the movie automatically based on that (“uh-oh, Affleck’s going straight to video!”), but they really shouldn’t. Admittedly, Town isn’t a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a decent, enjoyable little piece of work that deserved better than the fate it received.

Affleck plays Jack Giamoro, a big-shot Hollywood talent agent who seems to be on top of the world. He’s got a great job, an unbelievably hot wife (Romijn) and…well, what more do you need in life, right? But something seems to be eating at him; there’s a kind of vague dissatisfaction going on there. For reasons even he can’t put his finger on, Jack has signed up for a journal-writing class (I had no idea such a thing even existed – how hard is it to write down your own feelings?) in a half-hearted attempt to figure out exactly what his problem might be.

Naturally, it turns out that Jack’s life isn’t all it seems to be. His super-hot wife is actually cheating on him with his biggest client, sitcom producer Phil Balow (Goldberg). As if that weren’t bad enough, Jack’s journal is stolen by a classmate, failed screenwriter turned spiteful reporter Barbie Ling (Bai Ling) who wants to write an expose on him that would possibly finish his career. Meanwhile, Jack is struggling to take care of his very ill father (Howard Hesseman), who is living with him after suffering a stroke, while dealing with bad childhood memories. And he’s trying desperately to land a hotshot TV drama producer (O’Connell) as a client. So, yeah, Jack’s life is pretty complicated at this point.

I know what you’re thinking – it’s Jerry Maguire meets The Player, right? Well…yes and no. There are enough similarities to both that I can’t say it’s completely original. But Affleck and writer-director Binder (The Upside of Anger) manage to pull it off well enough that you don’t think about it too much. Binder’s films tend to be acquired tastes – he makes grown-up movies about grown-up problems, which doesn’t really appeal to the kind of people who still obsess over whether or not Greedo shot first. His mixture of comedy and drama tends to be a little awkward, but it mostly works here. Sooner or later, he’s going to hit one out of the park (perhaps with his next film, Reign Over Me, which comes out next month), and while this isn’t quite The Big One, it’s still a solid effort.

When the movie works, it’s mainly due to Affleck’s performance. No, I’m not kidding. He does the kind of acting here that his detractors probably wouldn’t have believed he was capable of. He can do the Charming Handsome Guy act in his sleep, but he reveals hidden depths to a character that could have come off as merely shallow and superficial. Binder is smart enough to know there’s nothing people love more than to see a guy like that get humbled and knocked off his pedestal, and the more Jack’s life turns to shit, the more Affleck makes us care about him.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that there’s a solid supporting cast backing him up. It’s always great to see Cleese in anything (especially given that his film appearances have been few and far between lately), and he has some hysterical moments here as the obnoxious journal-writing professor. Romijn, Goldberg, Gershon, Ling, Kal Penn and Binder himself all have good moments here as well. Conversely, the subplot featuring O’Connell (who doesn’t seem bright enough to write a Post-It note) and his actress wife (Amber Valletta) who auditions for Jack as Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct seems extraneous and doesn’t really go anywhere particularly interesting. The ending, in which all of Jack’s various problems seem to converge on him at the same time, seems a bit frantic and screwball-comedy to follow the bittersweet humor that’s come before it. But enough of the movie works, and works really well, that I can’t write it off over minor flaws.

I know that there are people who find films about Hollywood “too inside” and wonder why audiences should feed into the town’s self-obsession. I’ve always maintained that a good movie can make you care about anything, so I’ve never really understood that point of view. But Town doesn’t really feel too inside – you don’t have to be incredibly showbiz-savvy to follow what’s going on. Although you might feel a bit left out if you don’t understand jokes like “you sound like a bit player on a Dick Wolf show”, it shouldn’t really keep anyone from enjoying the film as a whole. It’s not really a movie about Hollywood so much as it is a movie about people who just happen to work there.

If the idea of a comedy-drama set in Hollywood starring Affleck and directed by Binder completely turns you off, then you should probably stay far, far away from Man About Town. You’re probably not going to enjoy it. But if you’re open-minded enough to give it a shot, there’s plenty here to reward you. At the very least, it’s worth a rental, and when it comes to straight-to-DVD movies, that’s pretty much all they can ask for.

There aren’t a ton of extras on the disc, but there’s a decent amount for a film that never got a theatrical release. Several deleted scenes, a blooper reel and a couple of short behind-the-scenes interview pieces, “Visual Journaling” and “Talk to My Agent”. The interviews are pretty typical Electronic Press Kit stuff (and were obviously shot when the movie still had a shot of going theatrical), but given that some companies wouldn’t have bothered to put anything on there, it’s better than nothing.

*** 2/14/07

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Last Call for 2006; You Don’t Have to Go Home, But You Can’t Stay Here

Posted by CinemaPsycho on February 7, 2007

Overall, I think 2006 was a pretty good year for film. I generally feel that way about every year, pretty much. There are always highs and lows, of course. But some years I actually have trouble making out my Top 10, because there aren’t 10 films that I really loved enough to place somewhere on the list. That’s not the case with 2006, thankfully. Lately I’ve been catching up with last year’s films on DVD that never played anywhere near me (courtesy of Netflix) and, while only one of those made my list, it reminded me that there were even more good films out there than the ones I got to see in theaters. So, looking back on the year in general, it’s hard to be too disappointed.

I could easily make out a Top 15 or even a Top 20 list (if I pushed it), but I feel that kind of defeats the purpose. The whole point of making out a Top 10 list is that you have to make tough choices. It’s not about tossing off a random list of all the films you liked this year – it’s about picking 10 films, and only 10 films, that represent the absolute best cinema of the year to you. If someone was in a coma for the entirety of last year and wanted to catch up, but only had time to watch 10 films, which 10 films would you recommend they watch? Which films would make for absolutely essential viewing for that calendar year? Some tough calls have to be made, and a couple of movies that I really loved didn’t make the cut. That’s the breaks. I’ve also been rearranging the order of the films that did make it up until the last minute (literally) but the final 10 feels absolutely right to me.

Of course, such lists are always arbitrary by nature, and as usual I feel compelled to remind the readers that this is all just my opinion. These are the 10 films that worked the best for me personally. Each person’s list will be different. That’s as it should be. These are my personal favorites, the films that blew me away. The list has no more or less meaning than that. So just have fun with it, because I certainly did.

This year, I’ve decided to do something different than previous lists, where I just basically named the 10 films and left it at that. From now on, I think I’d like to list the films in descending order, along with a short explanation as to why each film made the list. You know, like the real critics do. Films that won’t be on the list, because they never played close enough to me that I could see them, include: Volver, Little Children, Letters from Iwo Jima, Venus, Notes on a Scandal, Inland Empire, The Last King of Scotland, Perfume – The Story of a Murderer, A Scanner Darkly, Fast Food Nation and The Science of Sleep. I imagine the list would be different if I lived in New York or Los Angeles, but…I don’t. So if anything, my list is more accurate about what most of the country actually gets the chance to see during a given year. Although I did go pretty far out of my way to see a couple of these – that’s just how it works when you live in the middle of nowhere. You have to do what you have to do.

So, without further ado, let’s get started:

10) The Black Dahlia – yeah, I said it. Deal with it. Brian DePalma’s film is both a solid adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel (which I’ve actually read, unlike most critics it seems) and a total DePalma film through and through. What were people expecting, exactly? DePalma at his best is pure cinema joy, and DePalma doing noir equals his best work in years. Maybe audiences just aren’t in tune with the guy anymore. Their loss.

9) Borat – I’m not typing that ridiculously long title. You know the movie I’m talking about. Easily the most hysterical straight comedy in years, and one that completely captured the zeitgeist. No movie this year said more about Who We Are Right Fucking Now than Borat. Just one thing though – can people please stop imitating the guy already? Much like Austin Powers, it’s not funny when you do it, OK? Just stop it.

8) United 93 – still the most harrowing experience I’ve had in a movie theater this year. Watching the system completely break down at the nation’s worst time of crisis ever is more frightening than any horror film could ever be. But seeing a small group of people courageously rise up against an act of evil is more uplifting than any so-called “inspirational” film could ever be. It could never be “too soon” for that.

7) Lady Vengeance – the one film on the list that I saw on DVD. Chan Wook-Park is responsible for some of the most stunning cinema of the last few years, and the Korean director’s final installment of his “revenge trilogy” is nothing less than astonishing. The story of a woman recently released from prison after 13 years, Lady starts out as a simple “woman on a mission” revenge flick and takes an unexpected turn into something more painful and heartbreaking. If you liked Wook-Park’s Oldboy, this is simply a must-see.

6) Curse of the Golden Flower – I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic when I say that Zhang Yimou is a filmmaking god. After Hero and especially House of Flying Daggers, a new Yimou film is now a must-see event in my book, and Curse does not disappoint. Just a gorgeous, incredible film that demands to be seen on the big screen. Don’t expect a lot of martial arts in this one though – it’s more of a Shakespearean family drama (and we all know how those turn out) with massive battle scenes. So visually sumptuous that your eyes can’t take it all in. Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li are just amazing. This is one of those films that you wish didn’t have to end.

5) Little Miss Sunshine – yes, this has been criticized in some circles for being “another indie comedy about a dysfunctional family”. What these curmudgeons don’t get is that it’s a really damn great indie comedy about a dysfunctional family! Think of it as this year’s Sideways, if you must. It’s a movie that sneaks up on you, that starts out as a simple ensemble comedy but gradually resonates with something deeper. It’s about the impossible quest to be perfect, and if you can’t relate to that, you must live an incredibly privileged life. The irony of it all is that Olive really is the true “Little Miss Sunshine”, as well as being one of the best characters and performances of the year. If Abigail Breslin doesn’t deserve that Oscar, I don’t know who the hell does! What a perfectly cast film, with Kinnear, Collette, Carell, Arkin, Breslin and Paul Dano just hitting all the right notes and playing it beautifully. (Remember when people were talking about Carell for Supporting Actor? What happened to that?) Intelligent, hysterical and heartbreaking, this beautiful little indie flick drives circles around 99.9% of Hollywood’s recent so-called comedies.

4) Pan’s Labyrinth – forget about building that fence, because the Mexicans are here, and they’re kicking ass! (Also see: #2 and #3) Guillermo del Toro’s bitterly sad adult fantasy can be interpreted in a number of ways, but I saw it as a young girl’s reaction to the tragedy and insanity of the war-ridden world around her. Whether or not her fantasies are “real” is beside the point. While some audiences may have trouble connecting with the film, del Toro’s vision and skill are breathtaking, and only point to greater artistic leaps in the future. (Note: technically I saw this after my self-imposed Feb. 1 cutoff date, but it’s so damn good that to leave it off the list for a technicality would be criminal.)

3) Children of Men – Alfonso Cuaron’s devastating film transcends the conventions of typical science fiction to simply be a great film, period. Too bad the Academy didn’t see it that way, but screw ‘em. The justifiably praised groundbreaking camera work is just a bonus – the real draw here is a great story, terrific acting and a sensibility that seems to herald the next wave of filmmaking. This is Tomorrow’s Movies Now, the beginning of an upgrade that we should feel privileged to witness. Those who complain that the birth drought was never explained – congratulations, you completely missed the point of the film. You’re not supposed to know why (or care), just see the effect it has on an increasingly desperate and hopeless world. If Borat is Who We Are Now, this is the epitome of Where We Are Now. Absolutely nerve-jangling stuff, not because it feels like a movie but because it feels like real life.

2) Babel – somehow this movie has gained a reputation as being overly earnest and politically correct. Those people obviously didn’t see the same movie I did. Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s smartly observed mosaic of life on three continents takes his usual intertwining storyline gimmick to a new level of sophistication. An incredible film that anyone who gives a damn about the world around them should see. But politically correct? Tell that to the Moroccans! (If I ever get injured in a place like that, just shoot me and get it over with. Please.) If Abigail Breslin doesn’t get that Supporting Actress Oscar, it should go to Rinko Kikuchi, a young Japanese actress who I’d never seen before, but hope to see again many times. Fantastic piece of work.

1) The Departed – I’m not one of those people who insist that “Scorsese should only do gangster films”. Bullshit! Marty has earned the right to do whatever he wants, and he’s proven he can pull off just about anything. Well, anything but Gangs of New York, which technically is a gangster film. But there’s no denying that he’s firing on all cylinders with this one, a remake (of the HK cop film Infernal Affairs) good enough to make me forget that the original even existed. Everyone’s at the top of their game, even Mark Wahlberg who for my money hasn’t given a great performance since Boogie Nights. Until now. Not to mention the wonderfully over-the-top Nicholson, the fantastic DiCaprio, Damon, Vera Farmiga, Alec Baldwin and Martin Sheen! Great soundtrack, great cinematography, great editing – hell, I’ll bet the catering on the set was awesome! Scorsese at his best is just cinematic bliss. It’s no surprise that this was his biggest commercial hit ever – I mean, why wouldn’t it be? I can’t imagine anyone with even half a brain not liking this film. But please, enough with the sequel talk. The Departed deserves to stand on its own.

Well, there you have it. Once the Oscars are over in a couple of weeks, we can put 2006 to bed for good. My thoughts on this year’s lineup? Seems pretty good, actually. I have few genuine complaints. For once it seems like the Academy was actually paying attention. I have to say that I’m really rooting for Scorsese this year – give him the damn Oscar and get it over with! How much longer does the man have to wait? Doesn’t seem like the competition is really that strong this year, so even if another movie wins Best Picture, the time is absolutely right for him to win Best Director. And he deserves it.

More than the Oscars though, I’m looking forward to 2007’s lineup really getting started. For me, the heavy hitters will begin with the March 2 release of David Fincher’s Zodiac, a film that I am foaming at the mouth to see. Of course there are tons of films I’m looking forward to seeing this year, but that’s the first big one as far as I’m concerned. So far, not much has interested me except Joe Carnahan’s surprisingly fun Smokin’ Aces (how did that get buried in January?) and Luc Besson’s bizarre kiddie flick Arthur and the Invisibles (I didn’t hate it, but good lord, what a weird film). As usual, I’ve spent much of the first two months of the year catching up on the films I wanted to see last year. Now it feels like this year can finally get off the ground, and there are plenty of treats, big and small, to look forward to. As always, I can’t wait to start digging in.

But for God’s sake, if I ever decide to sit through Norbit, stop me however you can. Use physical force if you have to. I’ll thank you later.

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