One last chance for our writers to herald those films in their top tens of the year that, for whatever reasons, didn’t end up in the cumulative Reverse Shot top ten. Special shout-outs also go to those others that almost squeaked in or got several mentions: Climates, Requiem, Fast Food Nation, The Black Dahlia, The Descent, Iraq in Fragments, and Our Daily Bread.
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
Uh, it’s nice and all to see Idiocracy getting rediscovered on DVD and dumpster-diving think-pieces, but one end-of-year disc release gave us another look at a dystopian crisis that’s cruelly real, immediate, and ongoing: When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. In August, Spike Lee’s documentary of the manmade devastation exposed and enacted again by Hurricane Katrina aired on HBO to some acclaim, perhaps garnering a greater viewership on cable than through a small theatrical release. But it’s hard not to feel that the movie and more importantly the event—the people, the city, the history, the culture, the America—that it strives to chronicle are getting swept aside and forgotten. Lee’s heartwrenching masterpiece was a feat of control and consideration equally marked by sorrow, exhaustion, decency, bottled-up rage, and dignified eloquence. The fully realized formal ambitions come through in the subtitle, expressing the film’s subtle musicality—not a march to the storm, but more the slow heaving of shared sighs, of a minor-key note held—and the catharsis that still hasn’t come. Ringing out over official silence, Lee’s polyphony comes from the voices of survivors, montages of graffiti and signs, and the testimony of the dead who live in images and memory. Here is a genuine span of human experience, of the sort that critics always pretend to search out for some grand statement (besides dreck like Babel, it’s a terrible irony, as if confirming a sentiment in the film, that Iraq in Fragments gets more attention). If you’re looking to “catch up” on something from 2006—and 2005—this one should be heard loud and clear. —Nicolas Rapold
Battle in Heaven
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and L’Enfant earned the top two spots on Indiewire’s 2006 Critics’ Poll. No travesty, that—even if neither film found a place on my own list, I acknowledge their status as arguably excellent films and feel no spite toward the many critics whose enthusiasm placed them at the head of the cinematic pack. And yet I couldn’t help feeling a sense of helplessness for my own cause, Battle in Heaven, if only because as a fellow foreign import Carlos Reygadas’s tremendous sophomore effort stands as the antithesis to Mr. Lazarescu and L’Enfant’s sober realism, and consequently has received fewer accolades. I say “consequently” because I think those two facts are directly related.
Both Lazarescu and L’Enfant examine the external manifestations of physical and spiritual suffering in late capitalist marketplaces that devalue human relationships for modern efficiency, gain, and survival, and they each do so in ways that greatly follow through on their artistic aims. And they’re perfect causes for celebration during the current craze for Bressonian aesthetics, at least among a relatively small circle of critics and moviegoers. In a review of the revived Pickpocket and Mouchette in October of 2005 J. Hoberman—the preeminent critic of his generation and still the voice of the Village Voice—all but confirmed the infallibility Bresson has achieved more than twenty years after the release of his final film: “[E]veryone’s got an opinion, and if it weren’t for bad taste, many folks would have no taste at all. But I reach the edge of my tolerance in the case of Robert Bresson.” With a statement like that setting the tone for a present appreciation of Bresson’s work, is it any surprise that Lazarescu and L’Enfant, films clearly inspired by the rigorous causality and poetry of Bresson, should be vaulted far past a messy amalgam of observation and subjectivity like Battle in Heaven? And is it any surprise that in this climate—which has also seen the reemergence of Ozu, another “transcendental” director—foreign films like The World, Cache, Goodbye Dragon Inn, Crimson Gold, and the incredibly Bresson-inflected The Holy Girl should in recent years place in the top ten in the Critics’ Poll? It seems we like our foreign entries to express and represent their subjects resolutely from the outside—even exceptions like 2046 and Tropical Malady, films that capture their protagonists’ sensorial experiences, display a cool restraint that possible American counterparts like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The New World, and Inland Empire unabashedly forgo.
I do not intend to hastily rope together disparate films under an arbitrary label of my own convenient devising—I really do see a pattern here. And I can’t grasp how a critical community open enough to embrace and reward the stylistic explorations of Malick and Lynch should accord to Battle in Heaven—wholly original, innovative, and acute to the strangeness of life—far less praise and attention than it deserves. Sure, Battle in Heaven got noticed (including by Hoberman) and ranked eighteenth in the Poll—nothing to scoff at, especially considering that a film opening with an unsimulated blowjob might not be for everybody. But the penetration so prevalent in Battle in Heaven is also an apt metaphor for Reygadas’s directorial approach, in his ability to enter and inhabit his confused protagonist’s consciousness confused by familial, sexual, societal, and religious demands: Reygadas ratchets up environmental sounds to almost unbearable levels; fills in sequences with ludicrously epic musical accompaniment to Marcos’s fantasies of heroism, consummation, and redemption; and, most striking of all, and surely unlike anything anyone else is currently practicing, employing creepily invasive tracking shots to view his characters from the outside in, sociologically, and the inside out, almost physiologically. This is exciting stuff—coarse, exposed, and beautifully imperfect—and given that Reygadas is just as concerned with bodies, transcendence, and redemption as Lazarescu and L’Enfant, oversight of its brilliance might very well be attributed to how its methods of internal investigation are as of now unfairly out of fashion. —Michael Joshua Rowin
Has ever the line between the high- and low-brow been so winningly blurred as by Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (the subtitle itself an exercise in incisive comedy)? Performance art, reality show, and road film in one, Sacha Baron Cohen's film says more about the state of the nation with its character's riotous fumblings—in a year that saw the release of two big-deal 9/11 narratives and a slew of documentaries about the American experience in the Iraq war—than movies with blatant agendas. Inspired, natch, by Pamela Anderson’s unnaturally buoyant breasts after catching an old episode of Baywatch in his hotel room, California-dreaming Kazakh journalist Borat decides to head out of his NYC landing spot only to discover the ugly underbelly of the “U. S. and A.”
Though road movies often possess a political dimension, this tends to be the case with dramatic rather than comedic variations (check out the cultural emptiness of, say, Road Trip or RV); Borat exploits this loophole to become a subversive original. Embodying ignorance, yet somehow maintaining air quotes around his persona, Baron Cohen’s brilliant brand of silliness—which echoes the no-shame antics of Tom Green and various other jackasses but pushes the envelope further with spot-on observations—activates political incorrectness and forces the spectator to intellectually engage in the implications of the funny-ha-ha moment. This recognition comes alive in the theatrical setting as you sense the audience self-consciously shifting, tittering, fluctuating from guffaw to stunned silence with the fresh revelation of each joke intertwined with the inevitable racist, sexist, or homophobic slant (does laughing make you complicit? or a sophisticate?).
To those wagging their fingers at a British outsider for daring to mock the decent folk of this fine country: Yeah, Baron Cohen targets and has a talent for bringing out the latent idiocy and assholish behavior of people primarily residing in the red states (read the subtext: how else could we have elected Bush to a second term?), but his xenophobe incarnate seeks to hold up a mirror to the less savory aspects of our supposed melting-pot rather than simply jest. And besides, Borat also—almost sweetly—captures the generous flipside, portraying numerous individuals willing to humor an oddball tourist so as not to offend his cultural sensibilities. You have to wonder about detractors now claiming they were duped into appearing in the film—obvious reasons aside, don’t they realize they’re helping Baron Cohen extend his examination of “America” beyond the confines of the screen? First the mainstream media hype machine and now the whiplash backlash set in motion by—what else?—frat boys, among others, further perpetuating stereotypes by suing Baron Cohen for misrepresentation (using none other than the Mel Gibson “I was drunk” defense, of course). It just doesn’t get more apple-pie American than that. —Kristi Mitsuda
The Spike Lee purists would tell you that Spike did not write this film and, therefore, it’s not one of his major works. Whatever. The marriage between Lee and screenwriter Russell Gewirtz proved to be a perfect match: both a perfectly woven genre piece and a heartfelt and humorous tapestry of contemporary New York that captures many of its readily available organizing structures. Lee’s rise to the forefront of contemporary American cinema since the late 1980s was based on a triple merit. First, his masterful use of the tools of the cinematic craft to compose highly aestheticized hyper realistic mise-en-scenes that boosted the emotional weight of a varied set of social microcosms. Second, his ability to render African Americans beyond their previous clichéd typecasting and one-dimensional identities. For, Lee’s films—from Do the Right Thing to 4 Little Girls to Crooklyn and Jungle Fever—look at American racial politics through the prism of black identity politics and offer a spectrum of voices that cannot be encapsulated by a roster of prefabricated personalities. Finally, and perhaps most remarkably in relation to Inside Man, Lee is along with Jim Jarmusch and Martin Scorsese the greatest cartographer of New York City. His films map out its diverse and irreducible components by resorting to a collection of familiar characters his camera painstakingly interrogates and evaluates. Forget about the exploitative pseudo-verite “realistic” thriller of United 93 or Oliver Stone’s sappy and contrived World Trade Center: it was Lee, with 25th Hour, who painted the definitive canvas of the 9/11 milieu and the city’s traumatic aftermath. The merit of Inside Man is that, while deploying step by step the generic staples of the heist film to perfection, it’s able to map out New York within a single location. If the opening montage brings us from Coney Island via the BQE and the Lower East Side to Downtown Manhattan with surgical accuracy, the rest of the film creates a microcosm of New Yorkness inside the financial-district bank that Clive Owen’s gang has seized, from the downtown cops to the higher spheres of the New York economic elite—please, Spike, make a movie about Jodie Foster’s Ms. White! In the process of accomplishing that endeavor, please, welcome three acting powerhouses—Denzel Washington, Owen, and Foster—at the height of their craft, employed as perfect hinges of a tightly woven machine that delivers from beginning to end. Period. —Vicente Rodriguez-Ortega
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
After a string of trite kiddie fare (Kicking and Screaming), middling meta TV remakes (Bewitched), and serious “stretches” (Winter Passing), I was starting to think I needed another Will Ferrell movie like a hole in the head. But thanks to the madcap direction of Adam McKay (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy), I welcomed back Ferrell, and the attendant holes in my head, with his uproarious NASCAR comedy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Gloriously moronic buddies Ricky Bobby (Ferrell) and fellow race-car driver Cal Naughton Jr. (a surprisingly hilarious John C. Reilly) rise to the top of the NASCAR pyramid only to be challenged by the über-French and gay Formula One driver Jean Girard (pre-Borat Sacha Baron Cohen). After a horrific crash on the track, Ricky finds himself paralyzed by the fear of driving and Girard overtakes his number one spot. So there are only two things Bobby can do: reconnect with his long-lost daddy, and get back in the driver’s seat so he can become number one once again—preferably with a live cougar as a passenger.
Unlike other comedy directors who coast on cheap laughs, director Adam McKay really utilizes the comedic talents of his actors. Talladega Nights, in an oddly meandering two hours, seems to come from the completely insular world of its creators—as if we’re watching a home movie made by a bunch of friends rather than a studio film with big stars. The result is an improvisational sensibility that feels organic instead of scripted, self-sufficient rather than honed through focus group screenings. There is a shabby funkiness in the comedy here that can be traced back to McKay’s early forays with Ferrell on SNL (if you haven’t seen “The H is O” I’d recommend looking it up on YouTube right this second). But unlike so many comedies today that seek laughter through crassness or shock value, there is a surprising dignity to the characters in Talladega Nights. Particularly, the southern and gay characters, types they may be, are treated with refreshing respect. For all its silliness, the warmth and good humor of the film sets it apart from stunted fare like The Forty Year-Old Virgin and Wedding Crashers. At the end, as Ricky Bobby and Jean Girard passionately lock lips I felt myself moved to tears by the odd sincerity. Talladega Nights pulls off a rare feat by balancing bawdy humor and sweetness, without losing its edge. While Borat was 2006’s biggest comedy, in terms of sheer joy, for me Talladega Nights was the comedy of the year. —Danielle McCarthy
A Scanner Darkly
Using the technique he pioneered with Waking Life, Linklater shot and edited the production as though it were a regular film, then handed it to digital animators, who recreated every frame with CGI brushstrokes. The finished “rotoscoped” product is a painterly simulacrum that conforms to the colors of reality but is continually oscillating, as though charged with nervous energy. But where in Waking Life the camera was essentially static, in Scanner it’s largely unfettered. As Linklater tracks through space, objects move in all sorts of obtuse and unpredictable ways, as though sliding on tracks and disconnected from the world around them. Spatial relationships that are normally understood as fixed relative to one another suddenly become variable. Deployed this way, rotoscoping is a perfect aesthetic correlative to the aura of unbalanced discomfit that pervades the film. Physical reality becomes an unpredictable and ultimately unknowable commodity because, perforce, it can only be experienced through the remove of sensory perception. A Scanner Darkly is surely erudite, but it’s hardly staid or clinical. As with all of Linklater’s work, (yes, even School of Rock), the drama is mordant, funny, and humane, all of this with the express purpose of bucking contemporary science fiction. —James Crawford
4's meaning is universal, but it's firmly, deeply set in contemporary Russia. The first half takes place in a Moscow populated by a prostitute (Marina Vovchenko), a piano tuner (Sergey Shnurov), a meat vendor (Yuri Laguta), and hoards of stray dogs. The latter appear intermittently to scavenge and yelp, giving voice to the hurt and helplessness that pervades the film, but which is rarely articulated by those with the power of speech. The prostitute, the piano tuner, and the meat vendor meet in a bar late one night to indulge in fantasy: the meat vendor claims to work for the Kremlin, the prostitute claims to work in advertising, and the piano tuner claims to be a genetic engineer.
Like trying to comprehend that you just got punched in the gut, watching Ilya Khrzhanovsky's 4 requires that you live with it for a while in order to let the feeling sink in. This film does not imitate life, it creates it—it lives and breathes a little different from anything you've seen before, and yet the result is somehow painfully recognizable. By turns profound and profane, 4 will make you want to cry and vomit, sometimes at the same time and always with equal parts intellect and reflex. Khrzhanovsky's film demands nothing less than a genuine confrontation with what it means to be a human in an inhumane world, which is what makes its fascinating filthiness necessary. —Lauren Kaminsky
A Prairie Home Companion
Though Altman often has been accused of condescension in previous films, A Prairie Home Companion has an enveloping sweetness and gentleness, and with the help of cinematographer Edward Lachman (Far from Heaven), Altman achieves a visual texture that lulls us further into its embrace. The film is bathed in rich, vivid color and sharp, crisp shadows. The camera navigates the space of the theater with expert grace. It's immediately clear that we're in the hands of a master at the very height of his craft; all that's left for us to do is to give ourselves to it. How appropriate that Robert Altman should follow his honorary Oscar, and unknowingly conclude his career, with a film like this. Career achievement awards usually invite a sanctification of a body of work and a sensibility, and Prairie Home is itself a kind of grand summary: there's something quintessentially Altmanesque in its sprawling cast of characters, its regional and musical milieu, the overlapping dialogue, and the wandering, zooming camera, and the film's preoccupation with death and the passage of time that feels grand and conclusive. But A Prairie Home Companion is also a kind of rejoinder to this brand of late-career sanctification. When great directors are feted for the entirety of their oeuvre, the rough edges are often smoothed over, the missteps ignored--how about the conspicuous absence of Dr. T. and the Women from that Oscar clip reel? anyone?--and the work itself sanitized, stripped of its lowbrow trappings as it is elevated to the level of great cinematic art. Surely, Robert Altman is a great artist, and A Prairie Home Companion is a lovely piece of cinema, but it is also bawdy and crass, messy and brimming with life. It is, in short, perfectly Altmanesque in every sense of the word. —Chris Wisniewski
Letters from Iwo Jima
Letters from Iwo Jima, playing along two parallel tracks simultaneously, creates an odd narrative schism: both that of the outsider, the American, looking at the enemy with narrowed vision, discernment, and most problematically, curiosity; while at the same time, the actors, the setting, and the sensitivity of the script coax something remarkably genuine, and even at times authentic out of material that in other hands could have been hopelessly exoticized. Letters from Iwo Jima can be written off as neither “wholly Japanese” nor tritely “universal”—sure, it’s humanist, but in that limited, Fordian, classical Hollywood mode. What’s most impressive, even devastating, is that the clarity of vision is nearly crystalline as it shines through the dangerous, crisscrossed layers of representation and historical preconceptions. Like The Thin Red Line, it’s a war film that views the rupture of violence from a godly remove—Eastwood accomplishes this not through omniscient narration or traditional distancing effects, but rather through a finely modulated outsider’s point of view. Though completely spoken in Japanese (with English subtitles), and even if the Allied troops are rarely shown as more than a shadowy blur or a dark blot on the horizon, Letters from Iwo Jima is inescapably, fascinatingly, first and foremost, an American film. —Michael Koresky
Based on Joseph Conrad’s long story “The Return,” Gabrielle details the emotional and intellectual fallout when a society wife, the titular Gabrielle Hervey (Isabelle Huppert), leaves her husband of 10 years for another man via letter in the afternoon, only to return home later that evening. The husband, Jean (Pascal Greggory), ranks among that breed of emotionally deadened, supremely confident, and narcissistic males who so often inhabit these landscapes. Do Gabrielle and Jean ever really elevate to the level of characters deserving of our empathy? Not necessarily, but that’s not Chéreau’s aim. Unlike his last film, Son frère, (which was, shockingly, produced for television), an underseen modern masterpiece in which his camera and editing were tightly synched to its quiet human tragedy, Gabrielle’s form-first approach pits his performers against his direction as they simultaneously spar with each other. Gabrielle is certainly more than a worthy entry into that field of obsessive domestic fictions of which perhaps the quintessential example is Proust’s The Captive, but it does feel a hair transitional, almost as if Chéreau’s testing new waters before leaping off into further, even more radical explorations. That said, it’s a brisk 90 minutes and flush with ideas; who am I to complain in the face of a period film made for adventurous audiences that still retains enough of the genre trappings to keep the elder set awake…and perhaps only mildly alienated? —Jeff Reichert