Ten Best of 2006
Babel is a brilliant, richly textured film that weaves four provocative stories. Its vision is both ironic and humanistic. Arrestingly written by Guillermo Arriaga with potent direction by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Babel stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. It has especially moving performances by Rinko Kikuchi as a troubled Japanese young woman and Adriana Barraza as a desperate Mexican nanny. Babel’s vision — that we are all caught in the human condition, buffeted by fate and trapped by cultural myopia and deafness — is compelling and universal.
2. Letters From Iwo Jima
If Babel is the best film of the year, Letters From Iwo Jima is the most important film of the year. It is an extraordinary achievement. While most directors his age coast — if they make films at all – Clint Eastwood, who is 76, is committed to making films that challenge and break new territory. Eastwood is a 76-year old explorer. Letters is a film in subtitles about Iwo Jima from the Japanese point of view. Ken Watanabe portrays General Kuribayashi with strength and dignity. At this present time of ironclad jingoism, Eastwood’s has the “traitorous” vision that war is hell for both sides, and both have human beings. Where many filmmakers are provincial and parochial, Clint Eastwood is a citizen of the world.
3. Thank You for Smoking
In a year of a lot of lame dialogue, Thank You for Smoking had the snappiest speeches of the year. Directed and adapted by Jason Reitman from Christopher Buckley’s novel, it spoofs and satirizes American culture — its indulgences, addictions, and hypocrisies. Aaron Eckhart winningly portrays the enthusiastically amoral Nick Naylor, a smooth-talking lobbyist for Big Tobacco. It’s great black lung humor.
4. Flags of Our Fathers
Flags of Our Fathers — based on the best-selling book — makes a vivid companion piece to Letters From Iwo Jima. Released before Letters, it’s about the raising of the American flag over Iwo Jima and the subsequent push to use the iconic photo of the event to sell the war. The three survivors of the flag raising are sent back to the states to raise money. Eastwood – who knows a thing or two about it — shows the manipulation of celebrity status and its cost on those being manipulated. War is not always hell; for some it’s limbo.
5. Miss Potter
Every year I try to find a movie I can recommend to almost everyone. This is it. Except for a few curmudgeons, I assume everybody will delight in the inventive Miss Potter. Directed by Chris Noonan — who directed Babe — Miss Potter has flair, style, and humanity. Renee Zellwegger only simpers occasionally in her forceful, tender performance as Beatrix Potter, the writer of children’s books and creator of Peter Rabbit. Miss Potter is brisk, lovely English tea rather than treacle. And Peter never looked better.
6. Superman Returns
Bryan Singer, a Jewish, gay director, portrays the man of steel as an outsider. Singer, who created TV’s House and directed the first two X-Men movies, gives us a personal look at Superman, the comic book hero he loves. Brandon Routh is a surprisingly fitting follow-up to Christopher Reeve.
7. Shut Up and Sing
The documentary of the year shows the music, familial love, and indomitable spirit of Dixie Chicks. It’s smartly directed by award-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck (Gregory’s daughter). This is a paean to free speech, no matter how many want it to be “Shut Up Anybody Who Disagrees With Me.”
8. Talledega Nights: the Ballad of Ricky Bobby
This is a movie that works engagingly on many levels. It’s fun, but also takes some sly, clever slaps at convention. Will Ferrell and director/co-writer Adam McKay make it work. John C. Reilly is terrific as the loyal sidekick. Ferrell and Sasha Baron Cohen shared the kiss of the year. Cohen went on to mass fame as Borat. Subversive entertainment.
9. V for Vendetta
Natalie Portman can do no wrong, can she? This movie, set in future fascist England was based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. (Moore in pique took his name off the film.) Hugo Weaving plays the porcelain-masked V. The movie was produced by the Wachowski Brothers (The Matrix). Director James McTeigue concocted a vivid version of the corrupt future and a romantic terrorist.
In 2004 Peter O’Toole refused an honorary Oscar because he still wanted to win his first one for a performance. (O’Toole ultimately did accept the honorary award.) O’Toole certainly will be nominated for his masterly performance in Venus. He may even win. He plays a worn-out, aged actor who veers to the edge of perversity in his infatuation for a young woman (Jodie Whittaker) he names Venus. It is a bravura performance gleaming with daring and melancholy. Although he seems even older, O’Toole is 74. Henry Fonda won his Oscar for On Golden Pond at age 74. May 2007 be golden for O’Toole — and the rest of us.