The Movie Club
Dear Dana, Carina, and Wesley,
Hi, everyone, and thanks for having me. I'll confess to being a bit intimidated as well, having read this feature for years and watched as some of my favorite critics partook. I'm not sure how I ended up here, but I'm happy for the chance to hash out 2006 with all of you. As for reprising it in person: The week's young, I'm in the centrally located city of Chicago, and I'm still swimming in booze left over from our annual New Year's party. How about a wrap party at my place on Thursday night? (Oh wait, I'm supposed to go to a screening of Smokin' Aces that night. Some other time, then.)
For the sake of convenience, here's another link to my top-10 list, although, after agonizing over placement and exclusions for quite a while, I'm much more eager to dig in to some of the topics Dana raised. Regarding Borat, I was happy to see it turn up on some year-end lists, but it didn't make mine for some of the same reasons Dana suggested and for the simple fact that it's just too shaggy a piece of filmmaking to make my cut. That said, it made me laugh harder than anything I'd seen in a long time, even if it didn't make me think all that hard. Maybe it's just that I was familiar with Borat from Da Ali GShow,so it lacked the shock of the new, but I was a little baffled by the outrage and lawsuits that greeted it in some quarters. As for the latter, if there's one thing this Girls Gone Wild/YouTube/Saddam-execution-captured-on-camera-phone moment has proven, it's that there's always a camera on and nothing ever goes away. And for the former, while I'm not sure if Cohen set out to probe the dark heart of America anyway, I'm more inclined to agree with my Arkansas-based colleague Noel Murray's comment that it mostly proves "southerners are unfailingly polite, and will put up with a lot more boorishness than they should, even if it makes them look guilty by association." (The Yankee liberal in me did get a little giddy when Borat/Cohen trashed the antique store selling all the if-the-South-would-have-won-we-would-have-had-it-made merchandise, however.)
As to war films, I think part of what made Letters From Iwo Jima so powerful (and, with a bit of finessing and some smart trims, would have made Flags of Our Fathers just as powerful) was its attempts to skirt the formula Dana described. With Letters, it's clear from the start that there's no chance of a victory, Pyrrhic or otherwise, so we're left watching how these men deal with their final days knowing the end is near and everything they've fought for will come to nothing. The flashbacks to life-before-wartime are as sparing as they are heartbreaking. But I think there's some value to the formula itself, if only because war movies bear a cautionary responsibility that other genres don't. Not to get too off the topic of 2006, but part of what made Troy such a disgusting venture a couple of years ago was the way it shirked its responsibility at a time when the question of what it means to commit to war couldn't be any more vital. Here's the first war story, the story of a decade-long, civilization-destroying battle, and it's treated as an extended spring break from which a couple of unlucky youngsters don't make it back. Seeing Giovanni Ribisi's guts may not stop any wars, but I'll take every acknowledgment of war's cost I can get these days.
Wow. Now I wish we were still talking about Borat. So in order not to get too heavy, let me briefly say that United 93 tangled me up more than any film I can think of in recent years. I came in with great skepticism, then wrote a review that cautiously endorsed it. But at the end of the year, few films had stuck with me more and it made my 10-best list. I think seeing Oliver Stone's World Trade Center made the difference. It's as conventional and flag-waving a film as could possibly have been made about that day. In fact, with a few tweaks, it could have just been an inspirational movie about men trapped in a mineshaft as a film about 9/11.
Maybe it was just that, at the end of the year, so much left me unmoved that the stuff that made an impact looked even better. I saw a pattern of settling into acceptable mediocrity in 2006, and it worries me. Dana, I was thrilled that you dubbed Children Of Men the movie of the millennium. I'm not quite sure why others weren't as bold in their praise for a film that technically, dramatically, and thematically risked so much and made those risks pay off. So much else out there—whether art house- or multiplex-bound—simply got the job done and called it a day without taking any real chances. Babelfrustrated because I kept wanting the Tokyo-set Rinko Kikuchi/Kôji Yakusho segment to spin off into its own movie. It was genuinely about the ostensible theme of communication breakdown, where the rest of the film was just about people in need of a phrase book. Little Miss Sunshine had performances too good for the quirk-bound material. I'm an unreconstructed comic-book geek with a whole shelf of books reprinting Superman comics and expected either to love or hate Superman Returns instead of thinking it just OK. I vaguely remember spending two hours watching something called Dreamgirls last week. That's the one with all the singing in it, right? I'll take loony, heartfelt efforts like Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain or Michel Gondry's The Science Of Sleep (which, admittedly, turns into a minor form of torture by its final scene) over yet another plunge into the dark heart of suburbia like Little Children any day.
Wesley, am I wrong, or was much of the year a battle between greatness and complacency?