Thursday, January 25, 2007

2006 Recap: My Top Films, Part 1 of 3

I know some critics would write pages and pages on what a good year it was for movies, but honestly, I think it was pretty thin. I can usually come up with a list of 20 films a year, no problem, but this year I struggled to put faith in a really good 15. The rest of the films I saw just weren't good enough to be on a year-end list. Now obviously I haven't seen every film, but it works that way every year. So here's what I got for a look back at the my best films of 2006.

15. Stranger Than Fiction [Marc Forster]
Marc Forster as the director for this movie is a weird thing; one look at his resume, and it’s apparent that he usually deals with heavier fare. So it’s nice to know he’s willing to branch out, and to pull Will Ferrell in from the opposite end of the pool. Ferrell mostly avoids his schtick here, not reaching Carrey/Eternal Sunshine heights like some have suggested, but still doing a nice enough job to get you invested; in fact, the schtick he does use is mostly endearing, in a pathetic sort of way, not unlike his turn in Elf…only not mildly retarded. When he freaks out and thrashes his bedroom, it’s not funny, it’s scary. That’s no small feat for a gifted physical comedian - to not be funny. The icing on the cake is the details and quirks that Forster adds - equating Maggie Gyllenhaal’s warmth and charm to her profession (baker), or Dustin Hoffman’s subtly wacky performance, seemingly coaxed out of a Wes Anderson film, or the wonderful visual representation of obsessive compulsive behavior.

14. Brothers Of The Head [Keith Fulton & Louis Pepe]
This film is a contradiction. It's a little monolith. It's such a small film that you could have probably gone through your life never even hearing of it. But if you like music, it will knock you on your ass, flat-out level you, gasping, breathless. Directors Fulton & Pepe are documentarians primarily, and their skills are special; they serve to allow this film to straddle the line between fiction and non-fiction. Is it a documentary, or is it just a good story? Well I don't want to tell you the answer. I want you to see the film. The story is simple - music promoter signs siamese twin brothers to be a novelty act in the 1970's UK glam rock/proto-punk scene. As the brothers' music develops and soars, the rest of their lives spirals hopelessly downward into an abyss of drugs & booze, sexual power struggles, and scary schizophrenic dreams. Making the film even better is the music, totally original and authentic to a time when the Punk idea and aesthetic was still a whisper and a rumor; it's suitably splattered and ripped and seaped into the grooves of this special picture.

13. Inside Man [Spike Lee]
Spike Lee has slowly evolved to a point where he’s split his career into a few parts: films that deal with social issues (Do The Right Thing), experimental little indies (She Hate Me), personal projects (Malcolm X, the superb When The Levees Broke), and films that are good for a bucket of popcorn. Inside Man is all about the popcorn. And though Lee manages to squeeze in a little racial commentary, this movie remains about being super fun; what with a little classic Hollywood twisting and turning, this turns out to be a grade A heist mystery. Denzel Washington storms in doing his best Bogart, and he, Clive Owen, & Jodie Foster devour their scenes, probably because they know they have a winner on their hands. It was great on the big screen, and it’s great on the small, so keep watching the DVD until the sequel comes out.

12. The Science Of Sleep [Michel Gondry]
When I left the theater, I wasn’t sure how I felt about Gondry’s Science of Sleep. I had the same feeling about Eternal Sunshine, but with that film, I simply didn’t love it as much as everyone else did. Science, though, provoked a new confusion, one that echoed the disjointed storyline of the film. Did I love it just for its bonkers creativity, the childlike wonder crafted with stop motion animation? Or did this story, no matter how much it tries to shake the audience off its tail, really resonate in an emotional way? And as I thought about the film in the weeks after I saw it, I came to hold to the latter - this is a piece that portrays the warped imagination of a self-conscience young man, who wallows in his low self esteem, as an escape from the indecision of his everyday life. Not all men are studs or heroes; some guys don’t know how to talk to girls they like, and sometimes that can mess them up.

11. A Scanner Darkly [Richard Linklater]
Richard Linklater is not the first director you'd think of to adapt one of the most famous Sci-Fi novels of the last 50 years. His movies stick to the personal, but in recent years he's shown a voracious appetite for expanding his horizons and growing as a filmmaker. Linklater does a great job of writing and directing this adaptation, and wisely chose to rotoscope it; he's done it before, with Waking Life, to less success. The common complaint is that everything looks too soft, very wavy, constantly in motion. But that, it seems, results from the speed at which you choose to animate. Linklater's crew of animators took a ridiculous amount of time on this film (I think the figure was 350 man hours per minute of movie). The result is rotoscoping that looks absolutely pristine, with depth & detail that sometimes looks real. Of course, all this would be a waste if the movie wasn't great. Well it is, but it's also a bit head-spinning. It splits its time between drug-fueled musings on life and paranoia, and a police investigation thriller. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) has to basically investigate himself, which should be easy, right? But what if, while watching tape of your life later, you see things you don't remember happening, or possibly friends conspiring against you? It's a blacker-than-black comedy & warped thriller & searing social commentary, but it's also a satisfying, scary look at a future that could be next year.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Welcome to the Jungle...

Ah welcome welcome. I'm proud to present my first post on this newly minted blog, so I'm gonna kick it off right with the first segment of my 2006 recap. Let's take a look at the best that TV had to offer last year...

05. Heroes: Part 1 of the 1st Season (NBC)
11 episodes; Sept. 25th – Dec. 4th
Heroes does a lot of things right. First, it moves slowly, giving the audience just enough to keep them coming back, but leaving plenty of time to revel in the real-life details of the characters. Second, it eschews the open-ended multiple storylines of comic books into a viable storytelling style for serialized television, and it manages to populate those stories with mostly interesting and identifiable characters. They haven’t perfected the mix yet – Ali Larter’s split personality narrative is saddled with the weakest three characters and most under-explained superpowers. The rest of the show, however, more than hits the mark. The Petrelli brothers are pitch perfect in their struggle over how to treat the exploration of their powers, while Hiro and Isaac are two of the most interesting new TV presences of the year. Here’s to saving the world.

04. The Shield: 5th Season (FX)
11 episodes; Jan. 10th – March 21st
Forest Whitaker is a great actor that usually flies under the radar, so it might have surprised some people that he got nominated for an Oscar this week, for a movie not too many people have seen. But if they watched season 5 of FX’s The Shield last winter, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all. Whitaker blasted into the show, more than filling the void left by Glenn Close’s departure after the 4th season, and he filled the role of Internal Affairs detective Jon Kavanaugh with overwhelming intensity. The entire season was one long chase, with Vic Mackey and his Strike Team struggling to stay one step ahead of Kavanaugh, and in the end, there had to be casualties. The tragic exit of Lem was by far the most heartbreaking moment on TV in 2006; when you play with fire, you’re going to get burned, but none of the Strike Team expected it to happen literally.

03. The Office: Part 2 of the 2nd Season (NBC)
12 episodes; Jan. 5th – May 11th
It was interesting to see The Office, which started being about an office (duh), return after its holiday break and excel at becoming an interesting comic study of new romances. The show was always funny, what with the struggle between Jim and Dwight, or Michael Scott’s cringe-inducing attempts to be the likable boss. But the second season put the spotlight on the couples; Kelly is the quintessential clingy girlfriend to Ryan, who’d love nothing more than to escape. Michael juggles a secret affair with Jan, his boss, while making a play for happiness with Carol, his real estate agent. Even Dwight woos cold accountant Angela. Of course, it’s really all about Pam & Jim. No really. This stretch of 12 episodes, beginning with the instant classic “Booze Cruise” and ending with the cliffhanging “Casino Night”, was golden all the way through because of the bottomless chemistry and longing of Pam (Jenna Fischer) and Jim (John Krasinski).

02. Lost: Part 2 of the 2nd Season (ABC)
14 episodes; Jan. 11th – May 24th
The best thing about the creative forces behind Lost is that they have no problem killing off main characters. I mean, bodies dropped in the second season, and I think that may be why the show is so addictive. You can have all the nuclear bomb shelters, creepy island natives and smoke monsters in the world, but to make a long-lasting show, you need to get wrapped up in the stories of these characters, because unlike other shows, you feel like there is something actually at stake for them. And the actors play it perfectly, injecting palpable emotion into the true definition of an ensemble, where stars are made from the most unlikely (ie: not pretty) candidates (Hurley? Locke? “Henry Gale”?). It doesn’t hurt that the writers have constructed a massive web of possibly unsolvable mysteries and dozens of hidden clues that take days to sift through, leading to an entire world not even seen on the show.

01. The Wire: 4th Season (HBO)
13 episodes; Sept. 10th – Dec. 10th
The fourth season of The Wire was one of the most superb weekly engagements I’ve ever seen, with layer after layer of deep social commentary spread across Baltimore and the lives of nearly 40 major characters. But it offers
even more questions than it does answers. Will there be a place in the Police Department for the nomadic
Lester & Kima? Will Prez be able to make the transition from being a cop to a teacher? Once Carcetti wins the mayor’s seat, will he be able to navigate the political landmines as a white man running a black city? How will the tragedy of Bodie affect McNulty’s quest to be a detective again? And what will happen with Omar Little, the notorious gay Robin Hood of the ghetto, robbing from Marlo Stansfield and only shooting people involved in the drug trade (“I don’t put my gun on no citizens!!”)? In the end, though, this season is all about the kids: Namond, Dukie, Michael & Randy walk away with the show, all turning in award-worthy performances, showing us the effect of the hard streets and the mismanaged education system on their fragile adolescence. The best show on TV just got better; hopefully we won't have to wait too long for season 5.