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V For Violence

From Al Basrah to the AMC, 2006 meant war

We may be living in a national Green Zone, but for all the pious post–9-11 bushwa about kinder, gentler, more civil modes of entertainment, last year's movies weren't buying it. George Bush hasn't directly impinged on most American lives, but you didn't have to look too hard to find a most Baghdadian measure of blood and chaos at the multiplex.

Two rapturously received Oscar front-runners, Martin Scorsese's The Departed and Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, practically sprayed the audience with gore. Iraq itself was largely present in docs and quasi-docs (James Longley's Iraq in Fragments, Michael Winterbottom's The Road to Guantánamo), while the war was allegorized in Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men and, if we are to believe its maker, Apocalypto. Big Two is not yet played out: Clint Eastwood released a pair of combat epics, the disappointingly conventional Flags of Our Fathers and its far superior dark shadow, Letters From Iwo Jima (a movie that lacks only a measure of sardonic humor to rival Sam Fuller's down-and- dirty Korean War flicks). The last "good" war was also present in Steven Soderbergh's The Good German and a trio of critically acclaimed foreign-language releases, Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows, Lajos Koltai's Fateless, and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth

More relevant, perhaps, were those movies that dramatized our own era's foundation myth: Paul Greengrass's impressively experiential United 93 (as poorly attended as it was well reviewed) and Oliver Stone's ponderously reverential World Trade Center. Less reputable 9-11 movies were the Wachowski Brothers' pulp provocation V for Vendetta and the widely misunderstood Death of a President—a fable that, while hardly profound, did vividly demonstrate how a national tragedy might be manipulated as the basis for an even greater political tragedy.


Life did seem fleeting outside the Green Zone. Small wonder that the year's most critically acclaimed foreign movies were Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu—like United 93, a participatory trip to a foregone conclusion—and the 1969 Army of Shadows, which, at the New York Film Critics Circle, beat Lazarescu and Volver as the year's best foreign-language film. By some standards—see the 10 Best lists that follow—Melville's grim, fatalistic tribute to the French resistance was the movie of 2006. Which was more discomfiting: the spectacle of a great movie unexpectedly emerging from the mists of time, or the dramatization of an insurgent war without a conventional battle-field? Pentagon strategists were studying The Battle of Algiers in 2003; perhaps they should ponder Army of Shadows in 2007.

Melville's posthumous triumph was only the most extreme example of a year that smiled on veterans—Eastwood and Scorsese repositioned themselves as reigning old-school directors. The venerable James Bond was pressed back into service in a new adaptation of Ian Fleming's first Bond novel. Dreamgirls—an '80s musical about '60s music—was remounted for the '00s. Seasoned actresses Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren gave the year's most triumphantly imperious performances. (A movie that matched the latter's ice queen Elizabeth against the former's frosty fashionista editrix would be a whole other sort of combat movie.)

Things were quieter in the alt sector. While critical favorites included two bold experiments by sometime studio directors—Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly and David Lynch's Inland Empire—a pair of observational, character-driven micro-indies, Andrew Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation and Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy, were gratefully appreciated for their small-scale human values. Somewhere in the middle was Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep.

For my money, though, the year's most experimental, least classifiable movie was Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. It's also the movie that received the most violent reception—observable audience hysteria, mad critical enthusiasm, and more pundit commentary than United 93, World Trade Center, and Death of a Presi dent combined. Borat, too, was a movie about that thing that's happening.

Early in 2006, Albert Brooks's overly tame but not entirely inconsequential Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World staked out a position as the most self-reflexive of post–9-11 movies by wondering just what exactly the patriotic entertainment industry can do to help make things right. Enter Borat, who brought the war home—most spectacularly when Sacha Baron Cohen stood before a Virginia rodeo and sang the praises of George Bush's "war of terror," not to mention the "Kazakh" version of our national anthem. Angry columnists are still complaining that this British actor has made a career out of hoaxing the good-hearted, well-meaning American people. Imagine that! It was while we were at the movies this year that Bush's war in Iraq surpassed the total running time of America's involvement in World War II.

 
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