2006: Good Movies (20-11)

Because I live in New Zealand, and better yet, in the South Island, I get to see most films between 3 months to a year after their original US/UK release. As a result, several films on this list appeared on many US critics’ 2005 lists, and the films appearing on their 2006 lists will have to wait until next (this) year for me.

Not that I’m complaining. I saw more movies last year than probably any other year in my life, and I enjoyed a great many of them. For the first time, I kept records of what I saw, which ended up tallying around 150; between 30 and 40 of these were at the movies. For me, there’s no better way to spend my disposable income than to go to the cinema, and I am totally unrepentant about that.

On with the list, anyway. I saw enough to have a top 20 instead of a top 10 this time, so I’m splitting in half to make it more digestible. Also, I’m counting down rather than up, because I find that reading someone’s top choice first renders the rest of their list less interesting. Part 2 will appear sometime in the next couple of days.

20. Manderlay – Lars von Trier
More straightforward and less challenging than its predecessor, the excellent Dogville, von Trier’s latest brash critique of human nature is still a difficult film to wrap one’s head around. Like all his films, it is designed to bring about a reaction in the viewer, be it positive or negative; he wrings this from us not with subtlety, but with tremendous insight. Many would consider this a pack of lies and a waste of time, but I think he got it right again: we are weak in more situations than we are strong, and racism, especially views of one’s own race, does not die out.

19. The Aristocrats – Paul Provenza
Dozens of comedians tell their own variations of the world’s filthiest joke, and in doing so provide us with a few of the mechanics of what makes something funny, and/or offensive. I expected a good laugh, and it gave me that (once I’d settled into the baseness of it all), but there was also a strong awareness that most of these people were very intelligent as well as highly amusing. They knew exactly where to insert beats, when to take it further, when to cut it off. A fascinating and hilarious film.

18. L’Enfant – Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
Silly young Bruno deserved none of our sympathy, but the Dardennes forced it from us without resorting to any kind of cheap cinema trick. He’s just a kid, after all – a kid who went out into the world too soon, who had a child too soon. This Palme d’Or winner at Cannes in 2005 is an intimate, unsentimental account of one very naughty boy’s actions and desperate attempts to make amends, and I was moved by its simple truths.

17. The Queen – Stephen Frears
Frears has directed a great variety of good films over the years, from to My Beautiful Laundrette to High Fidelity to Dirty Pretty Things. He did it again here, but Helen Mirren was the reason for going with her pitch-perfect performance. All the sternness and unshakeability was there, but in the film’s best scenes, so was a vulnerability we couldn’t imagine HRH QEII displaying in public. In particular, the scenes involving the stag stood out in a film that did the basics right – a good (but not great) script, adequately directed, with fine acting across the board.

16. Darwin’s Nightmare – Hubert Sauper
Helplessness was the key word here in one of the most depressing, spirit-crushing films ever to be made. It is important that people see films like this to have their eyes opened to the horrors still going on in parts of the world – things we can’t imagine in our First World cocoon – but when it ended, I felt impotent. What could I do to help someone like Eliza, the prostitute servicing foreign fish-plane pilots (who are often violent) for a dollar a trick? What could I do to give the fish-frame sellers a better go at life? Sauper wisely doesn’t offer up any solutions, because no doubt he’s just as clueless; still, he’s getting the word out there.

15. An Inconvenient Truth – Davis Guggenheim
For the first time in nearly 40 years as a movie reviewer, Ebert told his readers “you owe it to yourself to see this film”. And he’s right. Half of it may be a vanity project for Al Gore, but the other half is so vital and surprising that if you do not see it, or are not aware of the things it discusses, then you are taking the future for granted when you should not be. The effects of global warming are real, and we have to start doing something about it, now. Gore is a good speaker, and his high-budget presentation is worth every penny if half the people that see it change their views.

14. Out of the Blue – Robert Sarkies
I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that I only got to two New Zealand films this year, skipping River Queen, No. 2, and Sione’s Wedding among others. This was the second, a vast improvement on Sarkies’ earlier Scarfies, and a solid entry in the Paul Greengrass-led documentary fiction genre. Through a few brilliant shots, Sarkies shows how much of a wake-up call the Aramoana massacre was, subtly embracing the bigger picture while carefully portraying the events in chilling fashion. Non-professional Lois Lawn gave one of the performances of the year as 73 year-old Helen Dickson, one of the heroes of the real event; Karl Urban was bloody good too, showing there’s life after Doom.

13. The Proposition – John Hillcoat
The best Western in years, driven by Nick Cave’s poetic screenplay and music, and by Guy Pearce’s typically excellent less-is-more performance. The film meanders aimlessly at times, but that is offset by the impressiveness of some scenes, and by the overall look and feel Hillcoat and his team achieve. Its stripped-back nature worked in its favour, keeping things unmuddied by unnecessary plot elements, but always retaining a sense of something extra going on (as indeed is revealed in the final scenes). Also, it represented the beginning of my fascination with Danny Huston, who seemed to pop up in every other film I saw last year.

12. Miami Vice – Michael Mann
If your name is Michael Mann, you don’t need a good script. Collateral had an okay script which Mann enlivened with his new-found love for digital video and general badass-edry; Miami Vice was a shitty, even awful script which he managed to fashion into one of the most intriguing and thrilling films of the year. Again using Dion Beebe’s incredible DV, he crafted a lengthy atmospheric piece that barely hung together plot- and character-wise, but when the atmosphere is that thick, I don’t care what’s going on. It was a true triumph of style over substance, like Kill Bill, or as I will discuss in part 2, Children of Men. In particular, it had the most artful violence of the year.

11. Brokeback Mountain – Ang Lee
A fine tragic love story, free of pretension or sentimentality (apart from an occasionally grating score). Heath Ledger’s performance won all the plaudits, and excellent though he is, I say don’t overlook Jake Gyllenhaal. Both commit themselves to their roles completely, and their scenes together (of which there are less than I expected) are by far the strongest in the film. Rodrigo Prieto provides his usual high standard of cinematography, but it’s very much Lee’s film with its careful compositions and thoughtful, meditative pace. You think you ain’t never goin’ to see a movie about no queers? Watch this, and be surprised at how much you care.

Brokeback Mountain (2005) (R)

IMDb / Ebert / Cale
Written by Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana
Based on the short story by E. Annie Proulx
Directed by Ang Lee

Ennis: “I figure we got a one-shot deal going here.”
Jack: “It’s nobody’s business but ours.”
Ennis: “You know I ain’t queer.”
Jack: “Neither am I.”

I want to say these are two simple, uncomplicated men, with simple lives and simple desires, but it just isn’t true. To say that would confound us all as being simple. We reach for simplicity, for plain happiness and peace of mind, but the reality is never quite like that, and the case of Ennis and Jack is no different. Love isn’t ever straightforward, and it can become so complex that it rips you apart. You will have heard Brokeback Mountain described as ‘that gay cowboy movie’, but to be honest, sex/gender is irrelevant to a large extent. It’s about two people who long for and love each other, and how no matter how strongly their love is tested, it will not die.

This is a film remarkably free of pretension or obviousness. The direction is careful and restrained, as one expects from Ang Lee; working in tandem with one of my favourite cinematographers, Rodrigo Prieto, he crafts stunning compositions that are truly beautiful to behold. From a wide shot of sheep being herded through a valley, to a tight closeup of an actor’s pained performance, to one of the best final shots I’ve seen in a film, he uses the full frame superbly to extract the most out of every scene. Everything is placed perfectly: the actors, a campfire, a pack of cigarettes, a bottle of beer. It all adds up to some of the most impressive images in recent memory, particularly as most of the subjects are everyday things that one wouldn’t normally give any thought to.

In the steady hands of an assured director, all the actors shine. Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway are good as the wives of Ennis and Jack, and Linda Cardellini and Anna Faris offer good support in brief roles. However, the movie is about the characters played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, and they absolutely nail their roles. Ledger is garnering most of the praise in the press for his subdued, grunting performance, and I can understand that as it is some distance away from his real-life persona. For me, though, Gyllenhaal’s turn is marginally more impressive. He shows sensitivity, fragility, strength, and a deep sadness and regret; I’d be quite happy to see him take him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. They both are really very good, though. Their scenes together, right from the film’s opening, are compellingly well-acted and affecting.

I wonder how people are reacting to this film. I’ve read about religious zealots condemning the film (and in a couple of cases refusing to screen it), but I’m not interested in them. I want to know what the average male cinemagoer feels when a movie gets him to care strongly about – and love – two male characters. Has it provoked angry reactions, or maybe rethinks of personal philosophies? Personally, a heterosexual, I welcomed the opportunity to empathise with gay men in a film, as it challenges me and forces me to consider things I would otherwise avoid. Anyway, as stated earlier, gender was pretty much stripped away by the sensitivity of the portrayal. That’s the way it should be. It’s love, just as we know it – intoxicating, difficult, impossible to predict or prevent. There are significant elements in the plot concerning homophobia and the concealing of the relationship, but they are an aside, rather than the crux of the story. The focus is on the struggle of two people, and the effect their struggle has on the people close to them.

Overall, it loses a couple of points for covering a long period of time in too short a time-frame and for being a little episodic. Brokeback Mountain isn’t a great film, but it is a very good one – a serious, thoughtful, mostly subtle exploration of the Greatest of All Things. It deals with homosexuality in a very mature manner: while it plays an integral role in the characters’ lives, it isn’t what defines them. Their love for each other is what defines them, and ultimately, what destroys them.