Iremember being infuriated by a teacher in film school who used to say that she only liked “independent and foreign films.” To which I always felt like responding, “Even the lousy ones?” It’s the same gut reaction I feel to this day when someone asks me if I ever watch a movie “just for enjoyment,” or when I receive an angry e-mail from a low-budget indie filmmaker about a negative review, as if to suggest that limited means are an excuse for incompetence. There have, after all, been great movies made for $3,700 and $37 million — terrible ones too. There are good foreign films and bad foreign films. And I know of nobody — film critics included — who goes to the movies hoping for anything less than an enjoyable experience, though there are an infinite number of ways to define what that means.
I say that to preface the following disclosure: Of the more than 500 new feature-length motion pictures released in Los Angeles (and reviewed in these pages) over the past 12 months, among the very best of them — at least according to this paper’s two house critics and the results of the L.A. Weekly’s First Annual Film Poll — were a 37-year-old French wartime drama (Army of Shadows) never before distributed in the U.S. and a three-hour-long Romanian gallows comedy (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) that grossed all of $80,000 during its North American theatrical run. Such statistics will, I fear, do little to disabuse people of the idea that movie critics are elitist scum fatally out of touch with the concerns of the general moviegoing public. But remember that these same critics have rallied en masse behind Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and a little comedy called Borat — both of which rank among the most commercially successful studio releases of the year. And, if you peruse the full results of the Film Poll (available on our Web site), you’ll find strong support for other popular favorites (including Casino Royale, Little Miss Sunshine and, yes, even, Jackass Number Two) mixed in with lots of movies that the casual filmgoer won’t have heard of. Actually, we’re living in such dire times for the commercial viability of foreign and truly independent American films at the nation’s art-house theaters that even the serious cinephile can easily miss out on a masterpiece if he happens to be otherwise engaged for the one night (or, if you’re lucky, one full week) that it plays at a local venue. Sure, there’s always DVD, but theatrical distribution remains the best way to raise awareness of a given movie’s existence. Which is another way of asking: Would you rush to pop The Death of Mr. Lazarescu into your Netflix queue if you handn’t ever heard of it in the first place?
That, I would argue, is where critics come into play. As the great critic Manny Farber once said: “The last thing I want to know is whether you like it or not . . . I don’t think it has any importance; it’s one of those derelict appendages of criticism. Criticism has nothing to do with hierarchies.” And while that probably means that Farber (still alive and kicking at 90, God bless him) would take little interest in the ranked lists that follow, it’s a reminder that the true function of criticism, at least as this critic sees it, is less to pass irrefutable judgment on a given movie’s worth or lack thereof, but to say to the reader, “Here’s what this movie was trying to do and here’s how I think it did or didn’t succeed at it, and maybe if that sounds interesting to you, you should check it out.” You, the reader, may not always agree with us, but it seems to me that a film review is where the discussion about a movie should begin rather than end. I would further propose that it is the critic’s job to be omnivorous in his or her appetite, to not rule anything out on principle, and to be as willing to exult in the pleasure of Helen Mirren’s command performance as HM QEII as in the sight of tap-dancing penguins filling the Panavision frame or of Will Ferrell stripping off his racing suit, begging the spirit of Tom Cruise to extinguish the imaginary fire engulfing his body.
And so to the poll: While only I can take credit for the Top 10 list — well, make that 16, with an eye towards future DVD double features — that follows, the Film Poll (see sidebar) represents the cumulative opinion of 72 film critics (including all regular Village Voice Media contributors) who span the spectrum of print, broadcast and online journalism. In compiling the invite list, I was driven by an admittedly selfish goal — to poll those writers who strike me as having the most open-minded approach to their work, regardless of the size or importance of their venue or what they think of me personally. (One participant, the critic N.P. Thompson, is on record as calling yours truly one of “our cultural mafia’s current ruling elite.”) The most notable thing about their consensus is the absolute lack of one, suggesting that if 2006 was a good vintage for movies, few can agree as to why. Nearly 150 separate films were mentioned in the Best Film category alone, with the winning film (Army of Shadows) listed on just 33 of the 72 ballots. Meanwhile, only Mirren’s performance in The Queen was cited by more than half of those surveyed. Some performers (including Robert Downey Jr., Meryl Streep and Ray Winstone) did so much good work in the past year that they found themselves competing against . . . themselves. Others, like An Inconvenient Truth’s Al Gore and United 93’s Ben Sliney, received votes for playing themselves. Still others were mentioned in both lead and supporting categories for the same performance, suggesting that the importance of a given role is very much in the eye of the beholder (and not the Oscar campaign strategists). It seems fitting that our list of the year’s best unreleased films is bookended by the two latest films from Chinese director Jia Zhangke — Still Life and Dong — which are as interconnected in their way as Clint Eastwood’s dueling Iwo Jima movies, and it should be seen as a challenge to our local festivals and cinematheque venues that only four of the top ten vote getters on that list have to date had so much as a single Los Angeles screening. Finally, it’s worth noting that, of the 41 films that received votes for Worst Film of 2006, more than half also received votes for best film or performance. Proof that when it comes to the past year in movies, one man’s junk truly was another’s treasure.
(1) Army of Shadows Call it the little movie that could. Four decades late, Jean-Pierre Melville’s ascetic depiction of the French Resistance movement — a story of the underground told as though it were about the underworld — captivated not just critics, but audiences too. (It ran for six weeks at one Santa Monica theater, and re-opens this week in New York.) In an age when many neglected careers in cinema have been restored to their proper glory by way of revivals and restorations, the past decade has been particularly good to Melville, and Army of Shadows may be his crowning achievement.
(2) Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima Clint Eastwood’s mirror-image Iwo Jima movies mark a nearly unprecedented achievement in American cinema, not because they depict World War II from both sides of the frontline, but because they deconstruct notions of heroism and villainy in “the good war” as effectively as Unforgiven imploded the myth of the classical Hollywood Western. A hellish double bill if ever there was, Flags and Letters show us that the ugliness and barbarity of modern warfare cut across all barriers of nationality and language — which is exactly what makes these movies unpopular but essential viewing as we prepare to enter our fifth year in Iraq.
(3) United 93 Like Eastwood, and most emphatically unlike Oliver Stone, the British director Paul Greengrass refused to paint the events of September 11, 2001, in shades of good and evil, to mine inspirational uplift from the ashes of tragedy, or to turn the passengers of United Flight 93 into anything more than exactly who they were — ordinary people trying to get from one place to another. In the process, Greengrass restored something that is all too often lost in the transmission of moving pictures, be they those of a Hollywood movie or of the evening news: the felt value of a single human life.
(4) The Death of Mr. Lazarescu A journey not through the nine circles of hell, but rather deep into the purgatory that is the modern health-care system, as the eponymous old man navigates overcrowded emergency rooms where all patients, regardless of what ails them, are uniformly bandaged up in red tape. For all its bilious critiques of a society insufficiently equipped to care for its people, Cristi Puiu’s extraordinary sophomore film is ultimately an absurdly funny and unbearably tragic human comedy — maybe the human comedy — about the indignity of old age, and how we are so often alone in this life but for the kindness of strangers.
(5) L’Intrus and Inland Empire The two living directors with the most unbridled sense of the possibilities of narrative and the moving image — France’s Claire Denis and America’s David Lynch — emerged this year with two of their most innovative and personal ventures, one made with the full resources of a 35 mm film production, the other on mini-DV with its director doubling as cameraman and sound mixer. In L’Intrus, which made an even briefer appearance in local theaters than The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (and signaled the demise of the enterprising indie distributor Wellspring), a grizzled recluse (69-year-old French actor Michel Subor) travels from a remote French-Swiss border region to the tropical isles of Tahiti in search of a new heart and an estranged son. In Inland Empire, a faded Hollywood actress (Laura Dern in a performance, like Subor’s, that seems confessional in its intimacy) travels from L.A. to Poland in pursuit of a comeback role. The two quests may be but dreams before dying, and the two films, like so much memorable art, seem destined to be underappreciated in their own time.
(6) Happy Feet and Apocalypto If it sounds like a stretch to find common ground in George Miller’s animated penguin musical and Mel Gibson’s blood-drenched Mayan epic, consider the following: Both are allegories about once-great civilizations confronting famine and climate change; both draw their inspiration from Joseph Campbell’s archetypical hero’s journey; and both feature tense scenes in which our intrepid hero, having marched a great distance, is presented before a high tribal priest. The only difference: In one movie, the priest wants a pebble for his thoughts, and in the other, he wants your head on a plate.
(7) Climates and Miami Vice I doubt many moviegoers saw both Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s chronicle of a divorce foretold and Michael Mann’s invigorating stripping-down of his kitsch 1980s television series, but those who did caught the two films most responsible for restoring a sense of adult sexuality to movies in what have been exceptionally chaste times. They also witnessed two of the movies’ most visually ravishing filmmakers experimenting boldly and beautifully with the latest generation of high-definition video cameras.
(8) Children of Men and L’Enfant Two breathless, edge-of-your-seat thrillers about the value of a child in a hostile world. The first, Alfonso Cuarón’s all-too-plausible adaptation of P.D. James’ novel, unfolds amid a futuristic London devastated by war and infertility. The second, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s drama about a wayward young couple who ill-advisedly sell their newborn baby on the black market, takes place in the present, though the backdrop — an impoverished Belgian factory town — is no less forbidding. It too is a kind of war zone — an economic one.
(9) A Prairie Home Companion Some movies (Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, Huston’s The Dead) seem unusually prescient of their makers’ mortality, as if their directors had one foot in the grave while they were directing them. And so it was with Robert Altman’s elegiac, yet joyous, swan song — a spirited tribute to performers and performing and to all things past their time, but not their prime. As the movie nears its end, Altman keeps coming up with ways of postponing the inevitable — additional scenes, codas — as if, like Ionesco’s 400-year-old King Berenger, he were about to cry out, “Why was I born if it wasn’t forever?”
(10) Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Jackass Number Two As much as I admire the chutzpah of Sacha Baron Cohen and Borat, for me the year’s two highest achievements in American screen comedy were Adam McKay’s dadaist mock NASCAR biopic (with co-writer/star Will Ferrell in a performance of improvisational brilliance) and “director” Jeff Tremaine’s orgasmically funny cavalcade of stupid human tricks featuring Johnny Knoxville and company. Some will dismiss these movies as lowbrow juvenilia, but to do so is to miss the razor-sharp intelligence lurking behind every one of Ricky Bobby’s absurdist gestures, and the sheer hilarity of seeing Chris Pontius slip his sock-puppeted dick into a hungry snake’s lair.