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The Best Films of far, anyway...

United 93 - The best of 2006 (So far!)
by Jason Whyte

Since it is at that halfway point of 2006, it’s about time to look back on the year so far in film while we are in the midst of the Supermans and the Pirates. (I did a list like this at the same time last year and it was a nice contrast to my end-of-year list posted in December.) Since everyone is busy at year end with the Christmas releases and the Oscar hopefuls, it’s a good idea to champion what has made film so great so far this year. And from this creaky seat, it really has been interesting.

Of course, the first few months of any year can give us some truly dreadful cinema, especially in the January-February dumping ground. But as always, if you look beyond the multiplex garbage and keep your eyes peeled, there are some truly great films out there, whether they are independent, foreign or limited release. Without further ado: (This list is valid for films released until June 15th, 2006, based on 112 films released in this calendar year. Titles have been viewed theatrically, at film festivals and/or on DVD.)

#1. United 93 (United Kingdom, dir. Paul Greengrass) – The year’s most important film shows, simply and accurately, what happened as Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco was taken over by terrorists on September 11th, 2001. What it does NOT do (and this is the key to its power) is show any political standpoints. Rather, it simply shows people under extreme circumstances – in this case the people aboard Flight 93 as they slowly start to realize the situation, as well as several east-coast air traffic controllers dealing with the situation on the ground – in the moment, as it is happening, and we know as much as they know. The director is Paul Greengrass, no stranger to topical films (Give his film “Bloody Sunday” (2002) a look if you haven’t already), and keeps the film moving to its dizzying, haunting finale that left me in tears. I doubt there will be a stronger film in 2006.

#2. The Proposition (United Kingdom/Australia, dir. John Hillcoat) – Simultaneously bizarre while beautiful and ugly as hell, this is John Hillcoat’s answer to the American Western: to shape an unforgettable epic in a time and place under the burning Australian sun. Renegades, lawmakers and redemption all come crashing together in the late 19th century in a film that is brutal to sit through but hits an emotional peak thanks to every single scene and character working as it should. The film stars Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone and a surprisingly powerful performance by Danny Huston that I hope will be remembered come Oscar time.

#3. A Prairie Home Companion (United States, dir. Robert Altman) – The most fun I've had watching a movie this year, and quite possibly director Robert Altman’s best film since “Short Cuts”. The film is about death; the death of a show created by Garrison Keillor that has been running in St. Paul, Minnesota for years on end, as well as the death of the live radio performance, of people putting on their coats, going out and paying to see something in public. At the same time, the film is also about the celebration of life, that even if you know the fate of something afterwards, it is better to simply live in the moment and experience the feeling of life, and in this case the show must go on. The film is intentionally different from Keillor’s real show, using some of his trademark characters in different ways for the film, but it makes sense cinematically. Altman’s camera never seems to stop moving, the music sequences are toe-tapping, the mid-music interludes are hilarious and it ends on such a thrilling, happy note that you wish for more films of this nature rather than all the teen-sex comedies that dominate the marketplace today.

#4. L'enfant/The Child (Belgium, dir. The Dardenne Brothers) – I have not seen “L’enfant” since its closing gala screening at last year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, but the film has not left me. It follows, completely and simply, two conflicted characters in Paris who have decided to abandon their child for money, but soon realize the error in their ways. The end result is surprising in that we care so much about the plight of this deeply flawed father who goes through a complete emotional crisis, and the finale is more hopeful, more faithful than we are expecting. The film has gone on to a somewhat successful American theatrical release and should be out on DVD later in the summer.

#5. Manderlay (Denmark, dir. Lars von Trier) – Lars von Trier just loves to piss people off, especially Americana. Those are the best words I can think of to look at Trier’s crazy/beautiful followup to his 2004 film Dogville, where Nicole Kidman and a whole cast of characters battle wits in a small American town. In this film, Bryce Dallas Howard replaces the Kidman role as Grace, who has made her way down to another small town (run by Danny Glover) and finds herself once again overwhelmed with assimilating herself into society. If you’ve seen “Dogville”, you recall Trier’s fascinating, minimalist approach to the story, the narration and especially the visuals, with chalk outlines instead of real sets. Here, the outlines are still visible but there are a few more visual tricks that go further away from Trier’s once serious Dogma 95 approach. “Manderlay” remains a powerful and timely film, just like its predecessor.

#6. Tom Yum Goong (Thailand/Australia, dir. Prachya Pinkaew) – Everything but the kitchen sink is thrown into Tony Jaa and director Prachya Pinkaew’s followup to the amazing “Ong-bak”, in an action film that is understandably light on character development and story but so relentlessly kinetic on its action and fight choreography that it left me nearly unable to breathe after the credits rolled. The plot involves Jaa as he battles his way around Sydney, Australia to retrieve two lost elephants that have been stolen from his home town for use in a restaurant that cooks endangered animals. Sure, the description is all silly nonsense, but the deliriously kinetic pace, the incredible amount of bad guys thrown Tony Jaa’s way and the direction of the fight sequences (including an incredible, one-take action scene following Jaa up three flights of stairs) is outstanding. What great fun, and if you are going to do an action picture in this day and age, THIS is how you do it.

#7. Neil Young: Heart of Gold (USA, dir. Jonathan Demme) & Dave Chapelle's Block Party (USA, dir. Michel Gondry) TIE

Two fascinating documentaries that are different in subject, but similar in themes of the love of music and live performance, and both come through the eyes of the amazing cinematographer Ellen Kuras, who is arguably the best DOP working in indie-cinema today.

“Neil Young: Heart of Gold” focuses on Young on his “Prairie Wind” tour, filmed over two nights, seamlessly edited into a single experience and showing a weathered, kind old soul as he performs music from his new album as well as some of his best hits. What is important about the film is how carefully director Jonathan Demme focuses on the performance aspect of the concert and refuses to film it in the usual way a MTV concert does (constantly cutting to the audience, the lighting schemes, etc). Not only do we feel like we are there, but more importantly, we are given a flawless look at theatrical performance just like “A Prairie Home Companion” also accomplishes.

Director Jonathan Demme is known for “The Silence of the Lambs” and the remake of “The Manchurian Candidate”, but he is also renowned for the 1984 docu “Stop Making Sense” featuring a Talking Heads concert done in a similar manner. Both movies are now out on DVD, and the two would make a great double feature with the sound system cranked.

Dave Chapelle’s “Block Party”, on the other hand, shows funnyman Dave Chapelle a short while after the point in time where he learns Comedy Central is offering him $50 million for season three of “Chapelle’s Show”. After running off to South Africa, he gets the idea in his head to put on a block party in an undisclosed location in Brooklyn. Patrons are asked to meet at a secret location with no actual information of what they are getting into.

Not only being just a great document of performance, the film shows us the people that Dave Chapelle has connected to as well as Chapelle’s great personal nature. Some of the early scenes in the movie involve Chapelle as he ventures out into his home town and invites the school marching band, locals (one of which declines because he can’t hear well), and it wisely leads into the later scenes when you see how Chapelle connects with his musician friends. You get the real feeling that Chapelle is a kind, likeable individual that loves and dearly respects his fans enough to put on one hell of a show.

#8. Thank You For Smoking (USA, dir. Jason Reitman) – How wonderful; a movie for a strong anti-smoker (read: me) that works both as a satire on the dangers of smoking as well as Big Tobacco that has a lot of topical information, but is also funny as hell as it argues the personal ethics of all its characters. Aaron Eckhart’s great performance as Tobacco spokesperson Nick Naylor blindsided me just as much as Eckhart did nearly 10 years ago with his star-making role in Neil Labute’s “In The Company Of Men”. Director Jason (son of Ivan) Reitman nicely balances the satire and the comedy while still making some strong point about tobacco and politics.

#9. La Neuvaine (Quebec, dir. Bernard Emond) – A film that I have revisited since viewing at last year’s Vancouver Film Festival, “La Neuvaine” is finally getting a limited release in Canada and I hope more people get to see it, as it is one of the strongest French films I have seen since Denys Arcand’s “The Barbarian Invasions” (2003). Both films deal with the notion that death really is a part of life, and shows an amazing friendship that builds between a doctor who has lost her faith and a young, deeply religious grocery clerk who is caring for his dying grandmother. Both characters harbour dark secrets that come to a head in the film’s haunting, powerful final twenty minutes, and it’s nice to see director Bernard Emond using a careful, minimalist approach to the storytelling; the film’s quiet, slow pace is exactly what is needed for this story.

#10. One Last Thing... (United States, dir. Alex Steyermark) – In one of the year’s best and most surprising performances, Michael Angranano (“Sky High”, the young William Miller in “Almost Famous”) plays Dylan, a terminally ill 18 year old who takes advantage of a televised “Make A Wish” foundation before he dies: he wants to spend a weekend alone with model/actress Nikki St. Clair (Sunny Mabrey, coming a long way from “Species 3”). That alone would be a pretty slim romantic comedy, but where the film really shines is the reluctance of Nikki, who is battling personal demons of her own, and how this impacts Dylan who is coming closer and closer to death. The film was made on the cheap (shot in somewhat dim, high-definition tones) but carries a lot of power thanks to Mr. Angranano’s amazing performance, as well as Cynthia Nixon who plays Dylan’s mother. The film is part of the HD-net series, so the film is widely available on DVD as well as playing in some limited art houses, so you have no excuse to check the film out.

And just to keep us all reminded…What to avoid. The worst films of the year to date:

#1. Date Movie: Quite possibly the worst “spoof” comedy I have ever seen, this lame-brained take on romantic comedies (and oddly enough, the “Kill Bill” series) has about five or six actual jokes spread out into an interminable 84 minute running time (that’s 72 minutes, actually, with 12 minutes of end credits). I don’t know whether to be more offended by the boring tone of the film, or the fact Alyson Hannigan signed on to star in it.

#2. Big Momma’s House 2: This should really come as no surprise. Martin Lawrence, a once (very) funny comic has been reduced to sequels to crummy films. There is no real semblance of a storyline or funny characters here, just a bunch of silly jokes involving Lawrence in drag and how nobody really seems to notice.

#3. When a Stranger Calls: I went to see this movie because of the gorgeous Camilla Belle, who wowed me last year in “The Ballad of Jack and Rose” completely holding her own against that force known as Daniel Day Lewis. Clearly she is in “Stranger” for the money, as she doesn’t have to do much but constantly answer the phone and look scared. Amazingly, this movie made money in its theatrical release, mostly by teenagers who go to scream at a “boo” moment, even if you see it coming a mile away.

#4. The Long Weekend: I spent a day on the set of this movie and it sure looked like Chris Klein, Brendan Fehr and director Pat Holden were having fun making it. Lots of laughs and a good energy with the crew, but that’s probably because it was a nice day outside. The film itself is a boring-as-nails sex comedy involving Klein trying to get his dull buddy Fehr to score with the women, and it plods along at a predictable pace.

#5. The Hills Have Eyes: What an ugly, depressing film that is a remake of a Wes Craven film that should have just been left alone, involving a family that gets stuck in the desert with some truly horrific creatures. I saw some style in Alex Aja’s “Haute Tension” from last year but it is sorely missing here.

By Jason Whyte, Feel free to send a comment to Jason or drop on by the forums!

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originally posted: 07/08/06 04:14:39
last updated: 08/25/06 16:06:50
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