This critic's been carping for decades about feel-good cinema, how lousy it makes me feel, and this year I got the misery I begged for. In 2006, director after director signed in with downer bummer movies, yet I felt no uplift at all. These were EMPTY downer bummer movies, depressing and tortured tales signifying nothing, specious at the core, vacuous at the unhappy endings. Yuck!
Can anyone out there explain how those creepy tales in Babel connect in any coherent way, except that they're uniformly grim and unpleasant and go on forever? Ditto the private Idaho of David Lynch's Inland Empire. Steven Soderbergh bragged he was making on old-time Hollywood studio flick of the Casablanca ilk with The Good German. Not! What his dreary movie foolishly stripped away is Casablanca's warmth and humanity.
Here's a further list of seedy, depraved pictures, mostly by talented filmmakers, which sent me scurrying out of the theatre and up a wall in 2006: Stranger Than Fiction (Marc Forster), Lady in the Water (M. Night Shyamalan), Little Children (Todd Field), All the King's Men (Steve Zaillian), A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater), Art SchoolConfidential (Terry Zwigoff ).
The failure of Little Children was a particular disappointment, since it's from a fine novel by a friend, Belmont author, Tom Perotta, who also collaborated on the screenplay. But while Perotta's book is darkly comic, subtle of tone, the movie is drenched in tragedy and depravity. I blame the director, Todd Field, for transforming a tiny story into a bombastic one, dripping with gravitas. Field can never forget he worked with Stanley Kubrick, by acting in Eyes Wide Shut. He's deluded to believe he's inherited Kubrick's genius.
What else was wrong with 2006? Robert Altman, America's greatest living filmmaker, is no longer living. Nor is Betty Comden, one half of the immortal team (with the late Adolf Green), who penned Singin' in the Rain and other musical masterworks. Nor is Gillo Pontecorvo, the Italian director of The Battle of Algiers, the most incendiary of radical films, who also made, to my mind, the most underrated of all movies: the Marlon Brando-starring Queimada|Burn! I'm consoled a bit to have met all the above. I brought Comden and Green to speak at BU, I had breakfast with Pontecorvo in Istanbul, and I interviewed a very affable Altman several years ago in Boston, a conversation that rambled from Jacques Tati to the Red Sox.
And my final complaint about 2006, a serious one: where have all the foreign-language movies gone? They'll play quickly at the MFA, or the Boston Jewish Film Festival, or the Harvard Film Archive. But not since the 1950s have so few foreign-language films gotten distribution, and regular theatre runs. This is really awful: there's not one French or Italian or Russian filmmaker working today whose name carries box-office weight. Is Spain's Pedro Almodovar the only non-English-speaking European director whom people go obediently to see his films?
Finally, the laurels of 2006.
BEST FILM: Clint Eastwood's masterly diptych, Flag of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, extraordinary revisionist histories, powerful cinema storytelling, and perhaps the most persuasive anti-war films ever. Separating them is as absurd as choosing among Aeschylus's Oresteia Trilogy or Shakespeare's Henry plays.
BEST DISCOVERY: Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows (1969), the first American screenings of this hardboiled masterpiece of the French Resistance.
BEST DOCUMENTARY: Doug Block's 51 Birch Street, family secrets slowly peeled away in a Jewish suburb, and, to me, more poignant and ultimately meaningful than its famed predecessor, Capturing the Friedmans.
BEST FOREIGN FILM: Francois Ozon's Time to Leave, a tender Death-in-Venice-influenced tale of the last days of a gay fashion photographer hit with cancer.
BEST UNNOTICED FILM: Stuart Gordon's Edmond, one week in town of this ballsy adaptation of David Mamet's ferociously transgressive early play, with William H. Macy giving the Performance of the Year as an unleashed, murderous racist-sexist.
Counting the above, here's the Ten Best Fiction Films of 2006:
1. Flag of Our Fathers
2. Letters from Iwo Jima
3. Army of Shadows
4. Time to Leave
6. The Proposition
7. Mutual Appreciation
8. The Puffy Chair
9. United 93
10. The History Boys
And the second ten: The Departed, The Queen, Four-Eyed Monsters, Road to Guantanamo, Borat, Half Nelson, Notes on a Scandal, Casino Royale, Battle in Heaven (Mexico), District B13 (France)
The Ten Best Documentaries: 51 Birch Street, Shut Up & Sing, Finding Sean, Al Franken: God Spoke, Iraq in Fragments, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?, Sir! No Sir!, Street Fight, Sketches of Frank Gehry
Best actor: William H. Macy, Edmond
Runners-Up: Richard Griffith, The History Boys; Ken Watanabe, Letters from Iwo Jima; Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat; Forrest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland
Best actress: Helen Mirren, The Queen
Runners-Up: Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal; Penelope Cruz, Volver; Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada; Jennifer Aniston, Friends with Money
Best supporting actor: Mark Wahlberg, The Departed.
Runners-Up: Ken Davitian, Borat; Andrew Bujalski, Mutual Appreciation; Adam Beach, Flags of Our Fathers; Steve Carell, Little Miss Sunshine
Best supporting actress: Catherine O'Hara, For Your Consideration
Runners-Up: Frances de la Tour, The History Boys; Emily Blunt, The Devil Wears Prada; Rachel Clift, Mutual Appreciation; Adrianne Barazza, Babel
Best director: Clint Eastwood, Flag of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima.
Runners-Up: Nicholas Hytner, The History Boys; Paul Greengrass, United 93; John Hillcoat, The Proposition