All good news in 2006 was tainted by the evaporation of Wellspring, the art-house distribution company whose adventurous acquisitions proved an evergreen irrigator of my Top 10 lists for the past few years. Reduced by their new owners (those fallen cinephiles, the brothers Weinstein) to a home video company, Wellspring leaves behind great memories, a glorious legacy, and a gaping hole in the local film culture.
Fears that New York screens will go without the latest Apichatpong Weera-sethakul or Tsai Ming-liang, however, are premature. The ever invaluable Strand Releasing picked up the latest from both of these masters for upcoming theatrical release; keep an eye out for Weera-sethakul’s Syndromes and a Century, far and away the best film I saw in 2006 and sure to head my 2007 Top 10 list. This year, Strand threw its weight behind the wildly talented, weirdly underrated João Pedro Rodrigues ( Two Drifters), proof positive that commitment to the brightest lights on the international scene glimmers on.
Elsewhere, IFC kept Hou Hsiao- hsien ( Three Times) in sight, Tartan Films took a stand for the insanely uncommercial The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and Magnolia Pictures not only continues to rescue causes célébres from the Weinsteins’ vault (first Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s diabolical Pulse, next the forthcoming Tears of the Black Tiger), but will soon unleash Korean monster-movie smash The Host on local audiences. And then there was L’Enfant, 4, Clean, The Ister . . . The art house is dead; long live the art house!
Inland Empire [David Lynch, U.S.A.] At last, the first film. Or make that “film.” Forever turning his back on 20th-century cinema, Lynch beat a termite path through labyrinths of the digital landscape that the rest of us barely knew existed—even as we daily traverse their broadband corridors. The maestro isn’t crazy when he claims it all makes perfect sense. Repeat viewings will give plot wonks plenty of positions to argue (the whole thing is being imagined by a Polish whore in a hotel room!) and clarify the film’s coherence as cautionary tale. Once Inland Empire reaches home-viewing formats, where it properly belongs, Lynch’s defense of its beauty will also be vindicated. I, for one, saw no more gorgeous film all year with the exception of the ridiculous but ravishing Miami Vice. Over the dead body of 35mm, make no bones about it: Home is where this heart of darkness is. Less a movie than a YouTube nightmare, Inland Empire speaks to (and of) the fragmentation and isolation of the mass media audience. No wonder it’s as obsessed with questions of identity as that other post-cinema paradigm, Russian Ark. But Lynch goes much further than Sokurov by embracing the future of movies as the opposite of collective experience. Cinema is dead; long live cinema!
Army of Shadows [Jean-Pierre Melville, France] Torture film of the year. Every supporting actress on the planet must be relieved that Simone Signoret is dead.
A Scanner Darkly [Richard Linklater, U.S.A.] Widely misunderstood, Linklater’s tricky Dick flick is no more about drugs than Naked Lunch. The controlling theme is the control of consciousness, whether through substances, media, language, or the state. Mind-spinning, heartbreaking, rotoscopically sublime—but retro only if we date it to 2000 and take it for a motion picture analog of Radiohead’s Kid A.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu [Cristi Puiu, Romania] Hurts so good: The Passion of the Christ for secular humanists.
Jackass Number Two [Jeff Tremaine, U.S.A.] Braver than Borat, funnier than Talladega Nights, more cathartic than United 93, crazier than Apocalypto, and gayer thanAnother Gay Movie, the studio film of the year is also the best documentary and features the best ensemble performance. Buñuel smiled down from heaven on the leech applied to Steve-O’s eyeball; I haven’t laughed harder in public since the first Jackass.
Two Drifters [João Pedro Rodrigues, Portugal] Ten years from now, everyone will be talking about this brazen Portuguese cineaste. For now, the freshest voice in highbrow faggotry finds his cult slightly engorged with this uncompromisingly ambivalent metaphysical melodrama. Motored by paradox, discomfiting sincerity, and a ferocious performance by Ana Cristina De Oliveira, this odd saga of hysterical pregnancy and the transmigration of souls bitch-slaps Almodóvar for the timid bourgeois he’s become.
The Departed [Martin Scorsese, U.S.A.]/Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, U.S.A.] Hollywood is dead; long live Hollywood!
Mutual Appreciation [Andrew Bujalski, U.S.A.] Bujalski may be one step away from his backlash, but those who hated on his sophomore triumph don’t have ears in their head. Dude can write like the devil, and how he gets his beyond-naturalistic performances is one of the wonders of Amerindie cinema. There’s more truth and self-awareness in any given scene of this Brooklyn comedy of mannerisms than all of Little Miss Sunshine and Little Children combined.
Dave Chappelle’s Block Party [Michel Gondry, U.S.A.] No moment of the filmgoing year topped this for sheer bliss: grooving with a multiplex audience in Times Square as Ohio’s Central State University marching band strutted into Bed-Stuy laying the beat for Kanye West’s “Jesus Walked.” Joy pure and simple, here was the antidote to everything cynical, pessimistic, and mean-spirited in the culture. It’s the only movie in ages that made me proud to be an American, and the only Michel Gondry joint I haven’t found insufferably calculated.
The Descent [Neil Marshall, U.K] With the lone exception of Alexandre Aja’s sly, stylish remake of The Hills Have Eyes, the return of hardcore brutality to the horror film has been an ugly, dispiriting affair. If every era gets the fright flicks it deserves, I suppose we were asking for crass, corporate torture porn. But then along came the spelunking lovelies and albino freakazoids of Neil Marshall’s lean, mean, claustrophobic knockout. Fiendishly engineered, fabulously lit, metaphorically pregnant, and scary as fuck, The Descent made for pure horror uplift.
Coming in from the farthest margins of film culture, two of the very best films I saw this year would rank high on my list had they received any sort of extended play in New York. Luther Price’s Nice Baskets continues his astonishing series of found-footage montages assembled from a series of identical prints, discovered in the garbage, of a faded documentary about poor African Americans in the rural South.
Commissioned for his marvelous, maddening exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, Jean-Luc Godard’s latest, Vrai Faux Passeport, is a dialectic essay on, well, whatever Uncle Jeannot’s thinking about these days (terrorism, tennis, The Brown Bunny). What’s exciting here is the relaxing of his hyper-sophisticated montage techniques, resulting in an enigmatic simplicity and clarity of line reminiscent of a late Braque bird canvas. His installation was pissed-off and punk rock, but his cinema continues to advance the assured, serene harmonics of Notre Musique.
Coming in at 11 through 20 are, in no particular order: Children of Men (for its urgency, insurgency); Borat (for its rage as much as its humor); Clean (dirty pretty things); Three Times (or at least the first two); Shadow: Dead Riot (best zombie flick set in an experimental women’s prison ever); 4 (Russia is crazy, man); Inside Man (see 7, above); An Inconvenient Truth (I switched my ConEd account to Green Power—did you?); Stick It (a teen comedy that nailed it); Superman Returns (all downhill from the credit sequence, but still).
Performances of the Year
Ensemble (Jackass Number Two)
Ensemble (Dave Chappelle’s Block Party)
Laura Dern (Inland Empire)
Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat)
Al Gore (An Inconvenient Truth)