Thursday, December 28, 2006

2006 Review - Part One

There’s something about the first couple of months in the year, when the disparity between UK and US release dates floods Britain with quality films, that always raises one’s hopes for the prospects of the cinematic year. January, February and March tend to be the months in which the high-profile Oscar contenders and prestige movies from the tail-end of the previous year make their presence felt, and the first quarter of 2006 saw a particularly interesting bunch of films arriving on these shores - they included Brokeback Mountain, Caché, The New World, Capote, Munich, Grizzly Man and the George Clooney double-bill of Goodnight, and Good Luck and Syriana. Not all of those films lived up to the high expectations which preceded them, but they were intelligent and daring efforts which seemed to bode well for the year ahead.

A number of these pictures were in contention at this year’s Oscars, and there was much talk about the film industry growing up with their Best Picture selection. “Look at us” the Academy seemed to scream, “we’ve nominated a film about a gay love affair, another about a gay writer, a film about McCarthyism and a picture about the Israel/Palestine conflict!”. Unfortunately, while the Academy recognised Brokeback Mountain and Capote in various categories, they then proceeded to undo their good work by handing the big prize to Crash, a simpleminded and dumbly contrived take on race relations in contemporary LA. So much for a new maturity at the Oscars.

Of course, the rest of 2006 couldn’t really live up to the benchmark set by a couple of those films and it quickly settled into the standard formula: a few gems poking their heads above the surface in a vast sea of mediocrity. When I Looked back at the films I saw this year, I was astonished by how many pictures I barely remember. In trying to recall films like My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Pavee Lackeen, Romance and Cigarettes and Lemming, I can only grasp a few minor details, and sometimes it’s hard to remember whether I liked the picture or not. I even had to go to the IMDB to check out a film called Love + Hate, as my mind drew a complete blank at the title (it turned out to be a dull interracial romance drama set in Blackburn - well worth forgetting).

In some ways, anodyne pictures like that which fail to provoke a strong reaction one way or another are almost worse than the films which inspire outright disdain - at least those efforts make their mark on the viewer. That’s one of the pleasures of doing a review of the year like this, it offers the chance to take a second look at the films of the previous 12 months and perhaps reassess the initial reaction they received. I’m sure I underrated some of the pictures I criticised during the course of the year (United 93 and Munich are possible entrants in this category) and there were other occasions when I got a little carried away and perhaps overpraised a particular film (Miami Vice, stunning visuals and great action aside, hasn’t really stayed with me at all). It’s also a chance to study some of the prevalent themes which occurred during the cinematic year, and finally to look ahead at the months to come, to see what delights and disasters may lay in store for us there.

One of the big stories of 2006 was the sight of Hollywood finally getting to grips with the events of September 11th 2001, with no less than two pictures tackling the subject head-on. First off the runway was Paul Greengrass’ United 93, an austere and serious account of events inside that doomed flight. Greengrass has already shown himself to be an intelligent and talented filmmaker, and his take raw, edgy take on that fateful day was a compelling and respectful tribute to the bravery of the passengers on board United 93. I didn’t find the picture quite as powerful as many did, but it’s impossible to deny the integrity and skill of Greengrass’ work - and it looks like a masterpiece next to 2006’s second 9/11 film. Oliver Stone’s World Trade Centre was everything United 93 wasn’t - overblown, manipulative and riddled with clichés. There were cries of “too soon” when these pictures were announced, but it’s never too soon as long as the treatment is right, and now that Hollywood has finally broached the subject let’s hope future films on 9/11 are closer in spirit to United 93 than World Trade Centre.

It wasn’t just those films which bore the shadow of September 11th though, many other pictures also dealt with the issues arising from that day in a less explicit fashion. Films like Munich and Jarhead may have been set in a particular period, but they were made with a very clear post-9/11 sensibility and the filmmakers obviously had one eye on reflecting contemporary events. Elsewhere, films as diverse as Syriana, Caché, Inside Man, Shortbus, Paradise Now, Children of Men and American Dreamz all attempted - to differing degrees - to encapsulate something about our relationships with one another in the uncertain times we live in today. 9/11 is an event that has completely changed the world we inhabit, and we will be feeling the effects and consequences from it for years to come, so it will be interesting to see how filmmakers rise to the challenge of depicting the changing shape of our environment in future films.

Summer is traditionally the time when Hollywood gets a headache from thinking about serious themes and takes out its biggest and brightest toys instead. This year’s blockbusters were a disappointing batch, though. Bryan Singer’s decision to leave the X-Men franchise for Superman Returns was a brave one, and the resulting attempt to resurrect the Man of Steel was admirable in many ways, but it was also a crazily inconsistent and unsatisfying experience. In his absence, the lethal Brett Ratner took the reins on X-Men: The Last Stand, and in doing so he managed to follow two thoughtful, ambitious comic-book pictures with a ugly, soulless collision of ropey special effects and incoherent action. In fact, few of this summer’s event movies managed to deliver the requisite thrills; Cars felt like a lazy effort from the usually peerless Pixar, and The Da Vinci Code was a laughably cack-handed attempt to translate Dan Brown’s bestseller to the screen. Tom Cruise did deliver plenty of fun with the snappy and exciting Mission: Impossible III, but it seemed as if the star’s off-screen antics had deterred some of his usual fans, and the film was ultimately considered something of a box-office disappointment. I thought that was a shame; because no matter what you might say about Tom Cruise’s personal life, the man is a true movie star - one of the few we have - and he produces the goods more often than not.

In contrast, the bloated sequel Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest became one of the highest-grossing films of all time, raking in the cash even while it received mediocre notices from the critics. The same “bad reviews = big money” paradox occurred with The Da Vinci Code, and perhaps 2006 was the year in which the role of the film critic was brought into question like never before. New Line Cinema tried to cut out the reviewers completely on their way to the multiplex with Snakes on a Plane, the title of which inspired hordes of internet fans to do the company’s marketing for them; and an increasing amount of pictures - including the deeply unnecessary remakes of The Wicker Man and The Pink Panther - cancelled pre-release press screenings completely in the hope of avoiding bad reviews. Even the directors started to give critics a good kicking, with Bob Balaban’s film reviewer coming to a grisly end in M Night Shyamalan’s witless fairytale Lady in the Water.

The critics were in tune with the audience on one occasion though, with Borat’s adventures in America becoming a huge hit as well as being one of the best-reviewed films of the year. I still can’t get my head around the reaction to this one; I found Borat crude, mean-spirited and only intermittently funny, but I’m definitely in the minority on this subject, and Sacha Baron Cohen certainly seems to have found the secret to striking gold with a cheaply-made picture - just make ‘em laugh.

Another British creation made a big impact in 2006 - his name was Bond, James Bond. The ailing franchise was given a much-needed boost by Casino Royale, a film closer in spirit to the stories created by Ian Fleming than the empty blockbusters the series has given us recently. Daniel Craig confounded the naysayers with a display of depth, strength and sensitivity, and for the first time in a long time the words “James Bond will return” don’t cause the heart to sink. There were plenty of reasons for heartache elsewhere in the world of film this year, though - notably the death of Robert Altman in November at the age of 81. Altman had a ridiculous amount of ups and downs during his long and eclectic career, and he went out at the top of his game; directing a big-name ensemble in the warmly received A Prairie Home Companion. Altman was one of a kind - innovative, single-minded, reckless and brilliant - and his passing leaves a huge void in the cinematic landscape which is unlikely to be filled by any of his imitators.

In the last few months of the year one’s thoughts tend to drift towards the various films which will be vying for attention at next year’s awards ceremonies, and 2006 is notable for providing some particularly strong roles for women. The Best Actress Oscar will probably go to Helen Mirren for her bravura performance in the intelligent and witty The Queen, but she might face some competition from Penélope Cruz for her role in Almodóvar’s terrific Volver; from Meryl Streep, who turned a cartoon harridan into something memorable in The Devil Wears Prada; and from Kate Winslet who again showed why she is one of the best actresses around with her emotionally complex turn in Todd Field’s uneven Little Children. The early buzz all seems to be surrounding Clint Eastwood’s brace of Iwo Jima pictures and Bill Condon’s musical Dreamgirls, but elsewhere there’s little consensus on where the prizes will be going which seems to indicate an unusually open field. Perhaps The Departed will finally win a statuette for Martin Scorsese, and I’d love to see Children of Men and Pan’s Labyrinth among the awards. Any nominations for Christopher Guest’s For Your Consideration would also add a pleasingly ironic twist to the proceedings; but the film which really thrilled me towards the end of 2006 is one which won’t be anywhere near the Oscars. Paul Andrew Williams’ debut film London to Brighton displays a verve, intelligence and skill which is all too rare in British cinema, and it again proves that sheer ability and passion can make something genuinely special on a miniscule budget.

2006 will ultimately go down as a decent year for films; no more, no less. The high points may have been fewer and further between than in some years, but the good films were of a particularly strong standard; and it was a pleasure to see so many excellent movies coming from some of our more established filmmakers - with Scorsese, Malick, Haneke, Herzog, Lee (Ang and Spike), Almodóvar and Frears all delivering some of their best work. Next January we’ll start the whole process again; we’ll take a look at an early schedule which includes The Last King of Scotland, Bobby, Dreamgirls, Letters From Iwo Jima, Notes on a Scandal, The Good Shepherd, The Fountain, The Good German, Zodiac and The Science of Sleep, and we’ll be salivating yet again for the prospects of the year ahead. This time next year, I’ll probably be complaining once more when nothing matches the standard set by the films released in January, February and March. Everything changes, and everything stays the same.

Have a great new year, everyone.