Happy popcorn boxes

A look back at the films that made an impact in 2006

Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain

There was plenty to complain about in 2006. But whatever you might want to say about the year at the movies, you’ve got to admit it was interesting. And how could it be otherwise in a span that includes Borat, Brokeback Mountain, An Inconvenient Truth, United 93, World Trade Center and two Clint Eastwood films about the Battle of Iwo Jima, not to mention Apocalypto and The Da Vinci Code?

I’m not sure that any true masterpieces found their way into local theaters during the year, but we did get to see a rich variety of interesting work and, by my count, at least two dozen of the films that made it onto local screens are worthy of “best-of-the-year” consideration. And that number doubles when you include flicks, foreign-language in particular, that arrived via video.

The not-so-good news in all this is that while there were lots of good films around again this year, only a few of them drew large audiences. That’s not entirely surprising in an industrial art form that inevitably gets enmeshed somewhere between the conformist hysteria of mass marketing on the one hand, and the cultural fragmentation of niche-marketing and cyber-rumor on the other. Somehow in 2006, there was still enough creativity in all that chaotic machinery to produce remarkable films as diverse in nature as Babel, The Queen, A Scanner Darkly, Flags of Our Fathers and The Prestige.

Here, by way of reflection on the errant highlights of my movie year, are some “best of” lists and assorted other special mentions.

Best of the year in Chico movie houses (in alphabetical order)

Brokeback Mountain

Caché (Hidden)

The Departed

Flags of Our Fathers

Heart of Gold

Little Miss Sunshine

The New World

A Prairie Home Companion

The Prestige

The Proposition

A Scanner Darkly

The Science of Sleep

The Queen

Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Honorable mention:

Art School Confidential



An Inconvenient Truth

Inside Man

Joyeux Noël

Nacho Libre

Shut Up and Sing

Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

The U.S. vs. John Lennon

Best new foreign-language films (DVD only)
1. The Intruder (Claire Denis, France)

2. Three Times (Hsiao-Hsien Hou, Taiwan)

3. Café Lumière (Hsiao-Hsien Hou, Japan/Taiwan)

4. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)

5. Triple Agent (Eric Rohmer, France)

6. Gilles’ Wife (Frédéric Fonteyne, France)

7. Trilogy (Lucas Belvaux, France)

8. When the Sea Rises (Yolande Moreau and Gilles Porte, France)

9. Lemming (Dominik Moll, France)

10. That Day (Raoul Ruiz, France)

11. Russian Dolls (Cédric Klapisch, France)

12. À Tout de Suite (Benoît Jacquot, France).

Some exceptional American features by writer-directors working mostly on small budgets didn’t make it to local theaters; most are already available on DVD:

1. Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane: A brilliant portrait of psychological crisis.

2. Ira Sachs’ Forty Shades of Blue: Rip Torn, Dina Korzun and Darren E. Burrows are all very good as the principals in an obliquely fractured romantic triangle.

3. Wim Wenders’ Land of Plenty: Another fascinating chapter in the director’s love-hate relationship with American culture; with a fine performance by Michelle Williams.

4. Hal Hartley’s The Girl From Monday: A quirky absurdist/sci-fi satire on consumerism and corporate culture, with Bill Sage, Sabrina Lloyd and Tatiana Abracos.

5. Rodrigo García’s Nine Lives: Nine surprisingly satisfying short stories in 98 minutes, with a cast that includes Robin Wright Penn, Sissy Spacek, Glenn Close, Dakota Fanning, Kathy Baker and Joe Mantegna.

6. Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy: Another vivid minimalist-realist study, this time of two old friends attempting a reunion hike into the Oregon wilderness.

1. Neil Young: Heart of Gold: This Neil Young concert film directed by Jonathan Demme is astonishingly rich in emotion, chiefly by way of combinations of gravity and joy that the Demme-Young partnership sustains over a full 103 minutes.

2. William Eggleston in the Real World: Michael Almereyda’s scintillating Eggleston-like film portrait of the master of contemporary color photography. (DVD only)

3. Los Angeles Plays Itself : A masterpiece of the documentary as personal statement. (University Film Series)

4. Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinematheque: Jacques Richard’s monumental, joyously cinephiliac portrait of the legendary cineaste/archivist. (DVD only)

5. Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film: Ric Burns’ evocative study of the most famous of pop artists. (Broadcast on PBS)

6. Electric Edwardians: Revelatory showcase for exquisite film clip/documents from the earliest British filmmakers. (University Film Series and DVD)

Honorable mention: An Inconvenient Truth, Shut Up & Sing and The U.S. vs. John Lennon.

Short films
Three DVD sets released early in the year provided a wealth of short films by offbeat auteurs: Early Years of Greenaway: the Shorts (six little masterpieces of Peter Greenaway-style mock-British madness); The Short Films of David Lynch (six films including the painterly “Six Men Getting Sick"; Possible Films: Short Works by Hal Hartley 1994-2004 (mostly more abstract than either of his features or his earlier shorts). The Criterion Collection box set Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales includes a number of very interesting Rohmer shorts as extras. The compilation film Eros features a brilliant short by Wong Kar-Wai along with an absurdist comedy by Stephen Soderbergh and a sardonic sketch by an old master, Michelangelo Antonioni, and the extras on DVD include Antonioni’s hauntingly filmed meditation on the art of the classical Michelangelo.

Land of Plenty

Best westerns
It was a good year for westerns, particularly in the modern variations riffing on that distinctly American film genre: Brokeback Mountain and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Nick Cave and company successfully transposed the raw, elegiac Peckinpah-style western to an Australian setting in The Proposition. Broken Trail, a two-parter made by AMC, had Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church riding herd on an amiable Lonesome Dove knock-off with a touch or two of Deadwood influence. Down in the Valley, with Edward Norton and Evan Rachel Wood, and Wim Wenders’ Don’t Come Knocking, with Sam Shepard (who co-wrote), were intriguing but somewhat labored musings on the mythology of cowboys and the West.

Gay desperadoes
After all of the fuss about Brokeback Mountain, it seemed odd that practically nothing got said, in print at least, about the multilayered comedy of homoerotic crossfire in Talledega Nights: the Legend of Ricky Bobby, wherein all three of the main male characters (Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly and pre-Borat Sacha Baron Cohen) are variously entangled. For that matter, why has so little been said about the least shallow part of The Devil Wears Prada—the convolutedly campy vibe between the characters played by Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci?

Stray cats
Keith Richards (Ben Whishaw) and Brian Jones (Leo Gregory) talk business while naked from the waist down (in the mostly lamentable Stoned).

The long goodbye
Robert Altman got a lifetime achievement award in March, came out with a wistful A Prairie Home Companion in June, and died in November. The weird final sequence of APHC turned out to be even more haunting and prophetic than it seemed when we first saw it.