Stuart Rachels


2006 Movie Round-Up





Top 10 Flicks of 2006 (in order)

In discussing these movies, I won't give away anything.

1.  Over the Hedge


I enjoyed this movie the most. It is the animated story of some animals who confront a suburban neighborhood that was thrown up during their hibernation. I did not find the celebrity voices distracting, even though there are a lot of them: Bruce Willis's, Garry Shandling's, Steve Carell's, Wanda Sykes's, William Shatner's, Nick Nolte's, Thomas Haden Church's, Allison Janney's, Eugene Levy's and Catherine O'Hara's.

This movie got to me emotionally, in the same way that the Toy Story movies did. It's very subjective. I was transfixed by the animals' sense of wonder and fear as they encountered that most mundane form of life, the newly-minted subdivision (the kind of place where, had you moved there in the 80s, you would have been issued a copy of Rumours). Most of my friends preferred Cars, another animated 2006 movie with a heart. However, that story didn't do much for me, and Owen Wilson's voice (as the main character, Lightning McQueen) kept making me think of Shanghai Noon (2000). Not good.

2.  Alpha Dog



This is a smart movie about some bad kids--or rather, some immature young adults--who impulsively decide to kidnap the younger brother of a rival who owes them money. Their leader is Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), and the rival is Jake Muzusky (Ben Foster). The kidnapping itself is not scary or violent (nothing like the abuduction of, say, Jean Lundegaard in Fargo), and the abduction becomes hard to classify as the kidnapee declines an opportunity to be set free and increasingly enjoys his time in captivity. The movie has a great ensemble cast, and the whole thing feels real. Justin Timberlake has got it, like so many other singer-actors. The script is based on the true story of Jesse James Hollywood, but in watching the movie I was never reminded of all the times I had seen Hollywood profiled on America's Most Wanted.

3.  The Prestige

Another masterpiece from Christopher Nolan, following his memorable work in Following (1998) and Memento (2000). It's the story of two rival nineteenth-century London magicians played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman. The sets, as well as the story-line, are dark. According to the movie, "the prestige" is the name of the final part of the magic act, in which the magician makes the disappeared thing reappear. The Oxford English Dictionary gives this obselete defintion of "prestige": "An illusion; a conjuring trick; a deception, an imposter." Not quite what the movie says, but a cool title.

Like Memento, The Prestige takes mental effort to follow. You might say there are three levels of film comprehension: there is my girlfriend Jill, who saw the ending coming; there is my mom Carol, who did not anticipate the ending but understood it once it happened; and then there's me, who turned to Carol after the movie was over and said, "What the hell was that?"

David Bowie's performance as Nikola Tesla, the real-life inventor, again proves that entertainers can interchangeably do anything. On this note, if you don't believe that Phil Collins can act, check him out as a San Francisco bathhouse proprietor in And the Band Played On (1993). And if you say Madonna can't act, you're just saying something that sounds true, like "Jimmy Carter was a bad president" or "David Letterman and Jon Stewart weren't funny when they hosted the Oscars." See, for example, Madonna in The Next Best Thing (2000). Actually, she has always been good. My theory is that, early on, she played a ditz in Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), and people mistakenly thought she was being herself. So if she's a ditz, obviously she can't act; and if she's a ditz playing a ditz, that's not too hard, is it? First impressions matter.

4.  Thin


Another triumph for HBO. A rehab facility in Florida for anorexics and bulimics let Lauren Greenfield in with her camera, and this fascinating documentary is the result. The rehab place is like a prison, in which the inmates can earn greater freedom through good behavior (or complete freedom by getting tossed out). You come to like both the patients and the staff as you watch the counselors and the doctors struggle to see through the lies they know they're being told.  If you are at all familiar with anorexia, then the main themes of this movie won't surprise you, but it is something else to see them in practice. I didn't find the movie to be disturbing, though some of my friends did.

5.  Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan



Borat comes to America to learn from our culture but unwittingly exposes our country as being even more backward than the place he's from. Most of the people in the movie are not actors; they're just people who think that Borat is an anti-semitic journalist from Kazakhstan rather than a Jewish comic from England. These real-life encounters are so funny that the scripted stuff seems tame by comparison, but the script is necessary to thread together a plotline. According to the Internet Movie Database, the police were called in 91 times during the making of Borat.

The star, Sacha Baron Cohen, reminds me of my hero, Andy Kaufman. Both delight in using odd characters to break norms and create zany situations that rely on innocents not only being fooled but caring. Despite my love of Kaufman, Harold Ramis made an insightful observation on Ebert and Roeper (filling in for Ebert) when he said that he prefers Cohen to Kaufman because Kaufman's art wasn't about anything. Cohen is exposing the foibles, prejudices, and arbitarities of American society; Kaufman was just weird.

Remarkably, Sacha Cohen doesn't recycle any jokes from The Ali G Show in this movie. Neither Beavis and Butthead nor South Park can boast the same for their movie. Oh, one final joke on America: Borat's whole schtick relies on our ignorance of Kazakhstan. It's not just that Kazakhs don't marry their sisters and let horses vote: it's that Kazakhs are Asians, whereas Borat is clearly meant to be from Eastern Europe. In the movie, the scenes set in Kazakhstan were actually filmed in Romania, where the locals could not reasonably be mistaken for Kazakhs.

6.  United 93


This is the first big movie about the 9/11 attacks. Specifically, it's about the plane that went down in Pennsylvania. United 93 is an adult movie: it is mature, factual, nonexploitative, and apolitical. Todd Beamer's famous line, "Let's roll," is delivered undramatically in the background (twice I saw the movie, once I missed the line). I had worried that United 93 would be unpleasant to watch, but the only difficult moments (for me) were when the plane actually crashes. Much of the film is set in air traffic control centers, where some actors play themselves. It's touching that each passenger on the plane is played by a specific actor, and so each victim is listed in the credits. Also, it showed good taste that no trailers were shown when the movie was in theaters.

Oliver Stone's World Trade Center (2006) was also good, especially for an Oliver Stone film. (Have you ever noticed that the first half of Scarface (1983) was great, but the second half had "Oliver Stone wrote me" tattooed all over it?) The high point of World Trade Center was the amazing sequence when the towers fall: you feel like you're right there with the firemen, as the world collapses. This was the best disaster scene since the plane crash in Tom Hanks's Cast Away (2000).

7.  Apocalypto

Apocalypto is Mel Gibson's thriller set in the Mayan jungle. My subjective clock hadn't run so fast since I saw Raider's of the Lost Ark in 1981: Apocalypto goes on for 2 hours and 19 minutes, but when it ended, I thought there was still an hour to go. This must be the best measure of a good thriller.

Naturally, I cannot share Borat's admiration of "anti-Jew warrior Melvin Gibson." However, Gibson's drunken remark did not bother me, because I don't care what Mel Gibson thinks. Is he your world historian?

8.  Wordplay

This is a documentary about crossword puzzles and the people who solve them with amazing speed. There are some celebrity interviews (Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart not at his funniest, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, etc.), but those aren't the film's high points. What made this movie better than, say, Scrabylon (2003) (a documentary about Scrabble) is that its primary focus is on the activity itself. It's not a movie that says, "Hey look, some nerds are solving crossword puzzles!" but rather, it's a movie for lexophiles that teaches you about puzzling. Also, there is a great climactic scene at a championship tournament.

I went to college with one of the stars of the movie, Trip Payne. One day Trip wandered into my dorm room and said something like, "I heard you won the U.S. Chess Championship. I've got my thing too--I'm a crossword puzzler." And he told me a bit about that. At the time, I was interested but not especially impressed. Now I'm impressed.

9.  Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny

Why didn't this movie get nominated for Best Picture?

WelI, I thought it was really funny. I love Jack Black's childlike enthusiasm for whatever his character cares about. I was charmed throughout.

10.  Rocky Balboa

Have you seen Rocky (1976) recently? It might surprise you to watch it again. It is not an action movie; it is a feel-good chick flick. (Incidentally, Stallone's original script was edgy: his trainer Mickey is a racist and Rocky is bribed into throwing the climactic fight.) Rocky Balboa is every bit as good as Rocky. In fact, I liked Rocky Balboa more, since it is funnier and has more boxing stuff in it. Also, I enjoyed all the good-hearted references to earlier Rocky movies. The only stains on the movie are Burt Young's relentlessly negative character and Rocky's dweeby son (compare Paul Newman's dweeby son in Nobody's Fool (1994)).

Honorable Mentions: The Queen; This Film Is Not Yet Rated; Letters from Iwo Jima; Little Miss Sunshine; An Inconvenient Truth.


The Academy's Picks for Best Picture

None of my favorites got nominated, though most of my alternates did.


The Departed (which won Best Picture)


This can't be a great movie, since I didn't love it, even though it's a violent mob film with a stellar cast. Now I don't remember much about it, except that Mark Wahlberg was especially funny in a smallish role (which Denis Leary turned down). Perhaps The Departed won Best Picture as a sort of lifetime achievement award for its director, Martin Scorcese. Scorcese has made several films worthy of Best Picture: Taxi Driver (1976), The King of Comedy (1983), Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995). (I've never cared for Raging Bull (1980).) This film's winning was a bit like Einstein's getting the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the photoelectric effect. (Hello? Theory of Relativity??) Perhaps the Academy was trying to right the injustice of Taxi Driver's losing out to Rocky. Or maybe the triumph of Dances with Wolves over Goodfellas. However, I haven't seen Dances With Wolves. Of that movie, my dad once said, "You know what the American Indians were really like in the nineteenth century? It turns out they were just like us, only nicer." I guess he didn't find the film to be historically accurate.

Babel

Long and emotionally manipulative, with shocking, implausibly interwoven plotlines set in desolate locales, this movie stinks. Okay, it wasn't that bad, but I could have spent those 143 minutes exercising and shaving, or memorizing suit combinations. For me, good acting and nice scenery can't save a bad script. I will say this: if you loved Magnolia, you'll like this one.

The Queen

A good lightweight movie, about Queen Elizabeth II's cold reaction to the death of the People's Princess, Diana. Helen Mirren is outstanding as The Queen, and Michael Sheen is just as good as Tony Blair. Despite having lived in England for two years, and despite my love of House of Cards, I still cannot muster one iota of interest in the royal family. This is why I call the movie "lightweight." However, as a cultural phenomenon, it is certainly real.

Letters from Iwo Jima

Originally titled, "Red Sun, Black Sand," this movie tells the story of Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective. The soldiers on the island know the military situation is hopeless but feel honor-bound to fight and die. If I had better taste, I would have included this movie on my top ten list, since it is perfect for what it is (though "what it is" is rather bleak). Clint Eastwood, who was born in 1930, directed it. 'Clint Eastwood,' by the way, is an anagram for "Old West Action."


Little Miss Sunshine


A lot of movies fail to do what Little Miss Sunshine does: assemble a collection of misfits who are funny together. The movie is relentlessly negative but still enjoyable (though no Tenacious D). Did you notice the homage to Fargo (1996)? Early on, Greg Kinnear is talking on the phone to "Stan Grossman," which is also the name of Wade Gustafson's assistant ("We're not a bank, Jerry"). Alan Arkin's performance as a cranky grandfather was unremarkable, but I was still glad to see him win Best Supporting Actor. (I know I'm getting soft.)


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No other thoughts, except that the Academy's picks for Best Actor (Forest Whitaker) and Best Actress (Helen Mirren) were spot-on. Whitaker was mesmerizing as Ida Amin in The Last King of Scotland. There's another movie that could have been on my top ten list.