A curious form of journalism, film reviewing is highly topical yet essentially timeless. It consists of reporting week after week on out-of-body experiences in a parallel universe—subject to its own laws but intermittently visited by millions of others and filled with references to so-called real life. For this reason, a reviewer’s annual 10 Best list is not just a barometer of taste. It’s an exercise in autobiography (however veiled) and a contribution (however modest) to the history of the present.
From a purely subjective point of view, the film event that affected me most deeply would be the two-day screening of Jacques Rivette’s 14-hour Out 1 at the Museum of the Moving Image. But Out 1 had only a single public show—too few to be more than a personal experience. Similarly, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows might well have been the best movie released last year—but this “new” movie was actually made in 1969. That’s about 32 years too many for me to consider it contemporary. Thus qualified and less than absolute, my 2006 10 Best:
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu [Cristi Puiu, Romania] Coincidentally, Cristi Puiu’s ode to mortality opened at Film Forum the same week Army of Shadows began its run on one of the theater’s other screens, thus establishing West Houston Street as the temporary epicenter of local film culture. Not without a certain grim humor, Puiu takes two and a half hours to tell the tale of a 62-year-old pensioner’s final trip from his smelly apartment to a hellish succession of Bucharest hospitals. A dyspeptic colleague paid me the supreme complement when he attributed Lazarescu‘s enthusiastic reviews to a general “Hobermanian obsession with anything communist and Eastern European.” (As if.) Actually, this astoundingly crafted movie—which both simulates and orchestrates the institutional texture of a Fred Wiseman documentary—is rather more Bazinian. That is, it lends itself to the praise the French critic André Bazin long ago lavished on The Bicycle Thief: “No more actors, no more story, no more sets . . . the perfect aesthetic illusion of reality.”
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan [Larry Charles, U.S.A.] More Hobermania —and every other kind of mania. The year’s most universal release, courtesy of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox, Borat transcended the distinction between fiction and documentary, as well as high and low culture. (“Not since Dylan went electric . . . ” is how Stuart Klawans ended his brilliant Nation appreciation.) Would that Sacha Baron Cohen had brought Borat to the recent Holocaust-denial conference in Tehran— I guess there’s a limit to his physical courage. Incidentally, that funny language that Borat speaks is often Hebrew, something that only Israelis seemed to notice.
The Decay of Fiction [Pat O’Neill, U.S.A.
] Movies are magic. Los Angeles–based special-effects whiz Pat O’Neill uses a combination of 35mm location shooting and digital overlay to transform L.A.’s once grand and now empty Ambassador Hotel into a movie-haunted mansion. Premiered at the 2002 New York Film Festival, this 73-minute wonder received its belated run at Anthology Film Archives. Ideally, it should go into distribution on a bill with Kenneth Anger’s equally wonderful Mouse Heaven—a 10-minute assemblage of Mickey tchotchkes and old pop music that was the hit of the Whitney Biennial.
A Scanner Darkly [Richard Link-later, U.S.A.] The most protean of Amerindie filmmakers turns a late, difficult Philip K. Dick novel into an animated cartoon. There was no overwhelming reason to rotoscope this never-more-topical tale of druggy surveillance and political paranoia, except that you’ll never forget the movie’s look—and it does makes the title literal.
The Science of Sleep
The Science of Sleep [Michel Gondry, France] Music video genius Gondry’s third feature is another animation hybrid, a bit more old-fashioned in its technique than
A Scanner Darkly (and also released by Warner Independent). This one-man show is actually a two-man production: The phenomenally talented Gael García Bernal gives life to Gondry’s story of love and fetishism with a comic, heartbreaking performance.
Climates [Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey] The modernist “art house” cinema of the ’50s and ’60s lives . . . in Istanbul. Confirming his stature as one of the world’s preeminent narrative filmmakers, Nuri Bilge Ceylan wrote, directed, and (opposite his wife, no less) acted in this rumination on the end of a love affair. It’s melancholy yet voluptuously tactile, sensationally shot in high-definition DV. Released by Zeitgeist, Climates opened last October at Film Forum; in a healthy “art house” climate, it would still be running.
L’Enfant [Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium
] If this foreign-language release, courtesy of Sony Classics, was marginally more successful than
Climates, it may be because the movie has something of a brand name. Practitioners of a spiritually infused social realism, the Brothers Dardenne have a style and set of interests as instantly recognizable as any in the film world. Their latest drama of redemption, involving two feckless teenagers and their baby, is an action flick in which every act is shown to have a moral consequence.
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts [Spike Lee, U.S.A.] HBO has no plans for a theatrical run, but this epic documentary will be released on DVD. I’d like to see it as an installation, shown together with James Longley’s doc Iraq in Fragments in a special theater on ground zero. Spike Lee’s tribute to the people of New Orleans illustrates how a catastrophic act of natural terrorism became an ongoing political disaster—the Bushian man- made chaos in which, to one degree or another, we all now live.
Inland Empire [David Lynch, U.S.A.] Shot on amateur DV and self-distributed, this is David Lynch’s most experimental movie in the thirtysomething years since Eraserhead. In movie-ville, it’s also the most controversial film of the year. Manohla Dargis’s gutsy rave was denounced by the National Review; a critic who walked out on the movie congratulated me on my pan. Say what? Seems that when I characterized Inland Empire as a miasma (that is, “a thick, vaporous atmosphere”), it was taken as pejorative. Anyone familiar with Lynch knows that there are good miasmas and bad.
Battle in Heaven [Carlos Reygadas, Mexico] “Just when you thought there might be little or nothing new under the projector-beam sun, Carlos Reygadas’s Battle in Heaven ker-blams into town, discombobulating the small thinkers and smiting the wicked.” So wrote Mike Atkinson when Tartan released it last winter. A Warholian impresario, Reygadas works without a screenplay to create existential situations under which non- professional actors are compelled to expose themselves—sometimes cruelly— on camera. From the opening blowjob to the climactic, equally real religious procession, this movie is a provocation—confrontational even in its tedium.
Ten Best lists are a priori arbitrary; there are a half-dozen other movies that, on any other day, could just as easily have been on mine. Thus tied for 11th place are Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, U.K.-U.S.A.), Fateless (Lajos Koltai, Hungary), Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, Spain), Letters From Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, U.S.A.), and United 93 (Paul Greengrass, U.K.-U.S.A.). These are followed by nine Honorable Mentions: Gabrielle (Patrice Chéreau, France), Lunacy Jan Svankmajer, Czech Republic), Mutual Appreciation (Andrew Bujalski, U.S.A.), Night Watch (Timur Bekmambetov, Russia), The Proposition (John Hillcoat, Australia), Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt, U.S.A.), Our Daily Bread (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Austria), The Queen (Stephen Frears, U.K.), and Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan).
Performances for the ages
Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat)
Meryl Streep (The Devil Wears Prada)
Helen Mirren (The Queen)
Robert Downey Jr. (A Scanner Darkly)
Eddie Murphy (Dreamgirls)