The Best of 2003

The Best of 2004

The Best of 2005

A Royal Movie Year
Rounding up the best of 2006.

LOOKING BACK, NOT IN ANGER, I guess it wasn't so bad a year in movies after all.

No, not Hollywood movies. Those piss me off more than ever, and not because I'm an irascible old codger. (Actually, I prefer to be called a coot.) It's hard to find even guilty pleasure in the overproduced, over-hyped mainstream cinema, most of which has less vivacity than a salamander left to bake on the pavement on a hot Mississippi summer afternoon.

If you love the cinema, you can always start your day off wrong by watching the network morning talk shows, where decent actors with nice smiles discuss their movies with risible grand illusions. And then it's into the night as Charlie Rose invites them to say the same nothing, and to take five times as long to say it.

Ah, dear readers. After all these years, this annual rite has come to feel downright epistolary. I know you. I sense you. I can see you reading these words, holding the newsprint to your nose for a scent of my cologne. Well, I have a confession to make. That's not cologne. It's the redolence of critical standards, good taste, and a well-turned phrase.

Anything, for you, my sweets. I love each and every one of you equally, as long as you don't try to tell me that you liked Babel or The Prestige or Superman Returns or Blood Diamond.

I watched maybe a dozen Hollywood movies this year, so if you believe that no list is definitive without the writer having seen Talladega Nights, The Ant Bully or Casino Royale, then go read People in the checkout line. I began by saying that it's been a good year, by which I mean the year offered movies worth engaging on the home entertainment format of your choice. Here, in alphabetical order (almost), they are:

American Gun. After Zero Day and Elephant comes yet another thoughtful drama of high school violence that observes the phenomenal, not the inexplicable. Aric Avelino's film can't explain why these things happen, but it deftly suggests how we create an environment in which they do.

Borat. See it once, with innocent eyes: Sacha Baron Cohen's brutal Candid Camera-style satire puts people at such ease that they make fools and racists of themselves with very little prompting. But at the same time, many of his subjects try desperately hard to be nice to his eponymous character, a bumpkin Kazakh journalist in America. At times, the joke's on Baron Cohen, too.

Brick. "Clever" is a word I don't get to use often, but it aptly describes Rian Johnson's engaging noir film set in a high school, where a girl is murdered and a detective-classmate investigates. It's like Peanuts, all grown up, and its post-modern black humor is great fun.

Caché. Michael Haneke's tantalizing psychological drama, set in Paris, was made before the French riots of '06 but carries a prescient political message about assimilation. It's a demanding and at times cruel film, typical of this challenging German director.

CSA: Confederate States of America. I like my reality made up: Here's the second of three documentary-style movies on the list. This one, from writer/director Kevin Willmott, imagines what America might be like had the South won the Civil War. Scarier still: Some of the racist vignettes in the movie are taken directly from the reality of late 20th Century America.

Death of a President. The controversial mockumentary imagines what could happen if President Bush were assassinated and Veep Cheney took over for him. It's all highly entertaining speculation, of course, and hardly prophetic - for example, there's no pregnant lesbian in their scenario.

Death of Mr. Lazarescu. The first blush of an emerging new cinema is always exciting, especially when it's good. Cristi Puiu's long, dark, depressing story of an old man's final few days is both a literal tale and a metaphor for its native Romania, a country still recovering from decades of dictatorship and decay.

Infamous. Two Capotes in two years. How are we so blessed? This version of the diminutive author and how he wrote In Cold Blood is more gossipy and more gay, a great companion piece to the earlier Capote. Watch them together - and discuss.

Overlord. Made in England in 1975, but just now released in the U.S., Stuart Cooper's film is a work of art about a work of history, the story of a young man and his appointment with destiny on a beach in Normandy. The black-and-white cinematography is by John Alcott, who shot Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon for Kubrick.

The King. Gael García Bernal plays an American lad just released from the Navy and looking to meet his father (William Hurt), who got his mother pregnant 20 years ago, and who's now an evangelical preacher. What begins as a difficult family drama turns into a sort of psychological horror story in which writer/director James Marsh makes some surprising and disturbing choices.

The Queen. Is it better to be royal or to be divine? The real Queen Elizabeth II is the former. Helen Mirren, portraying her, is the latter. Mirren's flawless performance has Oscar written all over it - and I don't mean Oscar Wilde.

Prairie Home Companion. Robert Altman's greatest film is Nashville (1975). His most recent great film is Gosford Park (2001). Few directors can claim so long a stretch of artistic success. Prairie Home Companion is his last - he died in 2006 - and a gentle (for him) summing up of both his style (kaleidoscopic) and his central idea (the importance of family, whether biological or sociological).

Tsotsi. The poverty in contemporary South Africa, made intimate and potent by one young man who lives in a shanty town and makes all the wrong choices. When he finally makes a right one, it's too late, and his slide into self-destruction is heartbreaking.

I could go on, but my ink well is empty and my quill has run dry. So until next year, kind readers, I remain -

Yours,
H