2009 Year in Review

When 2006 had bypassed its half way point without a single masterpiece and only a handful of truly enjoyable ones, I began to suspect that it might have been one of the worst years in recent film history. However, as the year came to an end, it became more apparent that it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been.

Taking a look back at the year, I’m hard pressed to find more than a dozen films that are worthy to be included in this year-end review. I have managed a top ten that is likely to change as the summer fades and many of the films I never got a chance to see make it to DVD. However, for now, let’s rewind the clock and examine the best of 2006.

You can’t cite the best work without acknowledging the worst. 2006 certainly featured some doozies. I started the year with a rather bleak outlook for the future. The animated film Doogal managed to be the worst I’d ever seen of the genre (and that’s including many of the short-film-filled pictures Walt Disney released in the 1930s and early ’40s). The script was so bad that even a friend of mine who loves everything cute, cuddly and animated, felt it was the worst film of the year.

Ranking slightly above that mélange of pop culture references are two films that some of my friends actually liked but for reasons that are unfathomable to me. The Covenant was far worse than Underworld in that it took itself so seriously that its campy attitude felt forced and the finale was as ludicrous as anything Ed Wood ever envisioned. By its side was the dragon pic Eragon. Even the costuming and set design failed to impress in this overblown hodge podge of fantasy literature.

These three films are emblematic of the dumbing down of American culture. That they were box office failures is a ray of hope in the abysmal darkness that the general public can spot turkeys and may be more discerning than previously suspected.

Before we set off into the ten best films of 2006, let’s take a look at four films that were entertaining but not good enough to place in the end-of-year best list.

Early in the year, the heist genre received a welcome shot in the arm as Inside Man opened our eyes to the psychology and intelligence of the style. Unlike many of the same types of productions, Inside Man relies not just on the standard last-act “twist” but also explores the psychological motivations between all parties involved in the event. It was a fun and intriguing take on the long-abused storyline that felt fresh and involving.

As the year progressed and we bypassed the worst of the year’s animated productions, we finally received the welcome entertainment we deserved. Cars, though not Pixar’s best entry to date, is an enjoyable look into the lives of race cars and the disappearance of the small town west.

When November arrived, we received the twenty-first installment in the James Bond franchise, Casino Royale. As an audience, we had fun. It was a new twist on the genre eschewing gloss and spectacle for intimacy and darkness. We finally got the style of Bond we’d never known we were missing until Daniel Craig put on the legendary tux.

Appearing not long before we got Bond’s rebirth, Martin Scorsese had a resurrection of sorts. After years of Academy bait pictures, Scorsese returned to his roots and developed a cop and gangster pic. Though The Aviator and The Age of Innocence are far better films than The Departed, we can’t help but be excited that Scorsese’s back to what he did best and can hope that The Departed is merely the first chapter of a new era for the famed director.

As we often do, we begin at the bottom of this year’s top ten list with the film that will likely earn Forest Whitaker an Oscar as the horrendous dictator Idi Amin. The Last King of Scotland takes us into the brutal regime of the now-exiled dictator as a young doctor played by the sublime James McAvoy tries to find his place in the world while trying to escape the duplicity and violence surrounding him. Whitaker is terrific and McAvoy even more so and together they guide a rather simple vision of history towards and intriguing and satisfying conclusion.

Thank You for Smoking skewered the alcohol, tobacco and firearms industry with its unabashed look into the life of a PR rep for big tobacco played intriguingly by Aaron Eckhart. The film is consistently funny and, although you disagree with the tactics of the corporations displayed, you can’t help but empathize with Eckhart’s character.

Soon to be a camp classic ala What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Notes on a Scandal features Judi Dench as a strict high school teacher who falls in lust with and blackmails a new art teacher played by Cate Blanchett who has fallen into an affair with an underage student. The film is certainly entertaining and features two amazing performances from Dench and Blanchett.

The talented actor Ryan Gosling earned his first Academy Award nomination for his tortured performance in Half Nelson. The film follows an inner city teacher with a drug addiction trying to make a difference in kids’ lives but failing in his own. When the talented Shareeka Epps’ student gets close to him, he shies away not knowing for certain how he should teach her when he cannot avoid his own demons.

Finishing out the first half of my year-end top ten list is the post-apocalyptic tale of V for Vendetta. The film examines how fear can keep the public in check while the government runs rampant over their civil liberties. Hugo Weaving succinctly provides the voice of the masked rebel who hopes to encourage and embolden the populace into standing up against the corrupt government of England and fight for a new day. All this is done through a cog in the machine played by Natalie Portman.

The top five features films that each received a four-star rating. With so many at hand, it’s hard to think of 2006 as a lackluster year. Kicking off this final section of the list is United 93. The film carefully, emotionally and concisely examines the events of the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001. More specifically, the film focuses on the doomed United Airlines Flight 93 which crash landed in Pennsylvania after passengers rebelled against their hijackers. While it is not likely to be the definitive film on the subject, it is so well put together and involving that you can’t help but be blown away by its efficiency.

In the fourth position is the quiet and unassuming picture The Queen. Feature an amazing performance by Helen Mirren and a wonderful perf from Michael Sheen, The Queen explores the dynamic events following the death of Princess Diana. It’s hard to imagine those events took place nearly ten years ago but this film’s exploration of the private struggle behind closed doors of a queen forced to realize that the long traditions of the crown must be adapted in order to survive in the modern world.

After the success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, many films have tried to capitalize on that success in a rebirth of fantasy filmmaking. Few films succeed but Guillermo del Toro’s exploration of innocence, imagination and mortality certainly does. Pan’s Labyrinth is a dual-natured film examining the life of a young girl torn from her life by a vile soldier who marries her mother for the sole purpose of having a male heir who is bent on rooting out rebels in the nearby hills.

Ivana Baquero delivers the year’s best juvenile performance as Ofelia whose imagination sparks a quest to return to the kingdom to which she is destined. Del Toro has suggested that the film can be interpreted in two ways. Ofelia is either imagining the events as a form of escapism or they are actually happening. It’s up to the viewer to decide and the film will easily encourage debate on its complex and dark themes.

If you had asked me at the beginning of the year what film I was looking most forward to, I would have said Dreamgirls. It wasn’t because I adored the musical, much of the music of the original stage production was irritating and though there were several powerhouse songs, it was the attachment of director Bill Condon that got my interests piqued. What Condon does with Dreamgirls is amazing. Through repackaging the music, paralleling the film to actual historical events and enlisting some of Hollywood’s top talent, Condon crafted an intensely enjoyable and entertaining film.

That it comes in second to my favorite film of 2006, is a testament to Condon’s vision. His past work has shown signs of great growth and deep perspective. Both Gods and Monsters and Kinsey are equally engaging and, matched with Dreamgirls make a case for a very intriguing catalog of films.

Now, at last, we come to the end of this year’s list. In most years, there is one film that stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of story, performance and execution that it’s impossible to deny the film top honors. Children of Men is such a film. Director Alfonso Cuaron takes us into a dark and problematic future where society has become infertile. Women, unable to have children are torn apart as time passes while the youngest adults on the planet (now in their twenties) are slowly killed off and society has begun to destroy itself.

Clive Owen must guide a young pregnant woman across England to deliver her safely to a human rights group. The film explores the dark theme of societal breakdown when hope is lost. Coming to grips with ones own imminent mortality often brings out the best and worst in people. Children of Men makes a compelling argument about human nature and its naturally violent tendency. There are few genuinely honest and compassionate people who will risk their lives in order to save society from itself. Children of Men presents such a bleak outlook at our future that it is impossible not to be moved by how unrelenting and honest the film is. And through this darkness, hope emerges.

With that, another year is inked into the history books. The political themes of this year’s crop of films help push the industry in a new direction. During a time of war, studios would often put forth overwhelmingly positive and pro-government films in order to placate the masses. As films like V for Vendetta and Children of Men prove, this is no longer the case. These films show society for what it is and, underlying each is parallel to our current situation. They only show us how similar our present is to our past and how those same mistakes we made then are being made now. These filmmakers serve us proudly by refusing to bow to pressure and involving the audience in understanding and helping to rescue our pending future.

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