2006 was the year of the sequel and the remake. With this in mind you'd think that it was a pretty poor and unoriginal year, but as 2007 arrives I look back on what I personally feel was one of the best years for a while.
The start of the year saw the usual glut of high profile, thought-provoking cinema. True-life stories, official biographies, and gay cowboys all strutted their 'For Your Considerations'. For me, the stand-out movie during this time was Walk the Line. While it only covered the period up to the 1970s, it was a tour de force for both Joaquin Pheonix and Reese Witherspoon. Capote provided Philip Seymour Hoffman with a thoroughly deserved Oscar, but the film itself was surprisingly dull. Brokeback Mountain was a brave and thoughtful adaptation which captured audiences hearts and awards for fun. Particularly impressive was Heath Ledger, playing the tortured Ennis Del Mar with the kind of subtlety his previous performances lacked.
The Curse of Summer
As is common, most of my favourite movies could be found in cinemas during early Spring, Autumn and Winter. Summer has become the property of the popcorn blockbuster, and while lots of eye-candy was on offer I felt myself continually frustrated by a raft of movies were story had been usurped by stunning visuals and thrilling set-piece action scenes. MI:III was probably the best example of this; a good, fun action movie. However, it was totally soul-less and could have easily been a vehicle for any action hero.
Superman Returns was great fun and probably one of the better summer films. Sadly, it suffered from poor casting (Superman aside) and a rather simplistic plot. On the flip-side was Pirates of the Caribbean 2. Now this wasn't a bad film, but in comparison to the first of the franchise it was severely lacking. The main problems stemmed from a convoluted plot and a pointless middle third. Thankfully, the comedy was still reasonably sharp and the film was saved by a thrilling final act.
X-Men 3 and Cars complete the big 5 summer movies (the least said about Poseidon, the better!). Cars lacked the originality of some of its Pixar predecessors (see Incredibles and Monsters Inc.) while X-Men 3 suffered from losing Bryan Singer at the helm. I'd probably post the latter, mutant infested final battle, as my favourite flick of the summer, despite the tagged on multiple endings.
It's almost become the fashion for movies to explore the way the World has changed since 9/11. Some offer us pointers to previous times of upheaval (Good Night, and Good Luck); others use the subsequent War on Terror as foreshadowing for the destruction of our modern way of life (V for Vendetta). For the first time since the events of September 11th, two movies arrived in 2006 that depict the attack from standpoints of people involved. I avoided both United 93 and World Trade Center at the cinemas and it was only recently that I sat down to watch the former. I can safely say I've now been put off watching Oliver Stones story of courageous fire, police and port authority crews forever.
United 93 is a strange film; the directors decision to play the events onboard the doomed airliner in almost real-time results in the now popular documentary style drama. However, it also means that little or no time is spent dealing with the background of any of the real life characters.
If the director was trying to shock us and make us aware of the panic and confusion a hijacking can cause, then he succeeds only in covering old ground. There are distressing moments and it is hard not to be moved by some of the later scenes, but in many ways it is only because we already know how it ends. It's for this same reason that I don't need to see World Trade Center. Unlike the events in World War 2 or the Kennedy assassination, 9/11 played out live in front of a worldwide audience. I maintain that there is nothing quite as shocking as re-watching the original news footage from the day. The panic, the heroism, the tragedy and the fear can be seen throughout the faces of the news-teams, fire crews, politicians and most importantly the normal people trapped in the two towers and fleeing the scenes of devastation.
A movie that just illustrates the days events with actors playing out the roles is of no use whatsoever, unless it deals with the causes, motivation and history behind them. My advice would be to avoid United 93 and WTC and go onto youtube and watch the news reels from the day. You'll find them more shocking and informative than anything Hollywood can produce.
A Good Year for Britain
2006 was a surprisingly good year for British movies. While I accept that we Brits may excel at producing exciting London gangster flicks (Lock Stock, Snatch), grim up north gritty dramas (Billy Elliot), or classy period dramas (anything written by Dickens, Shakespeare, Austen etc), it is nice when a few films come along that avoid these stereotypes.
Children of Men gave us a chilling vision of future in which the World had fallen into anarchy. With superb performances from Clive Owen and Michael Caine, it was the only film I went back to the cinema to see a second time this year.
History Boys and Starter for Ten jumped us back in time to the roaring 80s. Thankfully, they both avoided falling into that classic trap of showing us how grim life was in the 1980s and they are the better for it. History Boys in particularly stood out as one of the best adaptations of the year.
The Queen looks destined for Oscar glory, and while it is slow in places, it really puts that crazy week in 1997 into perspective, when it felt like I was the only one in my home town who wasn't crying their eyes out over some women I'd never met.
Even American films like V for Vendetta managed to take the original source material (by Alan Moore) and produce a film that was still, at its core, about a Fascist Britain. After the Wachowskis total failure with those sci fi sequels that shall not be named, V for Vendetta was a startling come-back.
Michael Caine had a very busy year and proved that the later years can often produce some actors best work. His performances in Children of Men and The Prestige were stunning for a man famous for being great at playing Michael Caine. The latter film was yet another triumph for Chris Nolan, who is fast becoming one of my favourite directors.
The year ended with that icon of Britishness returning in a new guise. Casino Royale could, as my friend George pointed out, have been titled Bond Begins, as it really felt like a totally new beginning for the tired old secret agent. The plot may have stuttered (particularly in the final third), but it was by far and away the best Bond movie in my lifetime. All those Daniel Craig haters look pretty damn stupid now!
The last time Britain had a year this good in the movies, a crazed lunatic was running the White House and we had a Prime Minister who ignored everything that anyone else said. Coincidence? I think not!
The Top 10
And so, after all that we come down to my top 10 of the year. In reverse order,
10) V for Vendetta
Alan Moores comics are notorious for being ruined by the time they make it the screen, but the Wachowski brothers manage to update the story for a more modern setting without belittling the plot. Despite the film being brought down a few pegs by the poor performance of Natalie Portman and an odd love-twist, it survives to have the anarchist within us all cheering at the end!
9) The History Boys
Adapted for the screen from the award winning play by Alan Bennett, the story of a group of boys all vying for a place at Oxbridge was one of the surprise comedy hits in a year filled with all-American romcoms. Some fantastic performances (Samuel Barnett steals the film) and lots of witty dialogue makes History Boys one of the best growing up movies in a long time.
8) A Scanner Darkly
Keanu Reeves is another of those acting anomalies. Derided for being wooden, he still manages to pull off some fantastic flicks. A Scanner Darkly is mesmerising, partly for the beautiful use of rotoscoping, but also for the performances of Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr, and Woody Harrelson. It's also a very faithful adaptation of the original Philip K Dick
An indie film that is destined to become a classic, some called Brick this years Donnie Darko, and I tend to agree. The story of a high school kid immersed in the mystery of his missing former girlfriend, Brick is both dark and witty. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (3rd Rock From the Sun) is fantastic in the lead role and shows maturity far beyond that of his previous work.
Ignore the hoopla about United 93 and see Syriana. Without needing to directly reference 9/11, this movie does more than any other to educate the population about just how the major players work in the Middle East. George Clooney had a great year and proves that his model of film-making (make a big budget blockbuster to fund the films he really wants do) truly works. Alexander Siddig, meanwhile, proves that it is possible to escape the stigma of being in Trek to become a recognised serious actor.
5) Stranger Than Fiction
Will Ferrell is a lot like Jim Carey. He did a lot of slapstick comedy with very mixed results before using an off-beat comedy-drama to prove he can be taken seriously. It worked for Carey with Truman Show and I believe the same can be said of Ferrell in Stranger Than Fiction. The dialogue is brilliantly scripted and it could be argued that Emma Thompson steals the limelight with a wonderfully neurotic performance.
4) An Inconvenient Truth
Al Gore (aka most boring man ever to run for President) + A powerpoint slideshow about global warming = The biggest documentary movie of the year. Say what? An Inconvenient Truth has captured the publics imagination, not just by informing about the causes of global warming, but by empowering ordinary people. The message here is that we can make a difference; all of us. Do not wait for your government to do something when you can make a start yourself. An Inconvenient Truth is a well-researched, scientifically sound movie that, despite having Al Gore speaking over it from start to finish, is tremendously entertaining and very very frightening.
3) Pan's Labyrinth
Oh if only more mainstream fairy tales were like this. Pans Labyrinth is the story of a young girl who escapes from the horrors of the Spanish civil war, only to find herself immersed in the dark and scary world of monsters and fauns. Guillermo del Toro doesn't hold back in showing the true horrors of war, while the performance of the young Ivan Baquero is far beyond the current crop of Hollywood children, whose ability seems rated solely on how cute they can look on camera!
2) The Children of Men
So good I saw it twice, this is British dystopian sci fi at its best. Ill never understand how the Brits, when compared to their American counterparts, seem to excel at sci fi in the movies but struggle when it comes to the same genre on television. Children of Men is shot with the kind of raw flowing style that I could watch over and over again. The final dash through the ruined streets of a refugee camp is scarily realistic and had me on the edge of my seat.
1) The Prestige
Chris Nolan, Christian Bale, Michael Caine; when these three get together, good stuff really does happen. After the magnificent Batman Begins, Nolan continues his fine directing form with a movie about rival magicians a century ago. The Prestige jumps around the timeline (a Nolan trademark), while still withholding enough twists and sub-plots to make the final reveal compelling. Hugh Jackman proves there is life in him beyond X-Men, while Bale simply re-affirms his place as one of the finest actors of his generation.
And that, as they say is that. There were plenty more good movies that could have had a mention (Good Night, and Good Luck, Inside Man, Ice Age 2 to name a few), and plenty more movies that are best forgotten (Miami Vice, Slither, The Sentinel et al). However, in the end I feel that 2006 has been a decent year for movie-lovers.
I'm off to contemplate a world in which I could choose two movies with Michael Caine in them as the best of the year!