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.

Out of the Blue (2006) (R)

IMDb / Wong
Written by Robert Sarkies and Graeme Tetley
Directed by Robert Sarkies

I couldn’t find a still of the image I wanted to run with this review, so I’ll describe it. Helen Dickson, 73, sits quietly in her kitchen under a duvet as David Gray, 33, stands outside her window holding a rifle. She’s cradling an injured dog, and she grips her hand around its mouth to stifle its whimpers. David can be seen through a chink in the curtains, and for a second or two, he thinks he hears something and peers around into the house. His gaze is pointed directly down the camera at the audience. That moment is a metaphor (and I’m speaking for New Zealand residents here): we’re in that kitchen with Helen, hoping that this evil outside won’t notice us and come in to destroy us. It’s done all sorts of evil deeds elsewhere, but surely it’s not going to get us – is it?

I might be stretching things, but it’s a great moment – one of several in a quality film. Our national psyche might be a bit more wary now, but in 1990, we knew we were cut off from much of the world and the bad things that can happen. Then Gray lost his mind, and we wondered about that strange guy down the street in our town or suburb. I’m not old enough to remember exactly the strength of the impact this massacre had on our society, but Out of the Blue, despite a few loose treatments of the truth, suggests that it opened many of our eyes to nastiness.

The film is at its best when it follows Nick Harvey (Karl Urban) and his fellow frightened cops as they vainly attempt to neutralise the threat posed by Gray. The nervous behaviour of men on both sides rings completely true. Gray doesn’t really have a plan, he just wants to stay alive as long as possible; the policemen fear for their lives, and lack the grit (and training) to do him in. It’s appropriately shocking at times, too: the first killing is hand-over-the-mouth brutal, and a half-second shot where Gray appears in the distance behind someone is genuinely scary.

However, points are lost during the early scenes with Gray. He is filmed mostly in pointed close-up to emphasise how alone he is, which is okay up to a point, but starts to become forced; then we see how out of step he is with the rest of the world, as schoolkids on the bus laugh at him, and starts yelling in a bank (a scene so out-of-synch with reality I couldn’t help but smile). Matt Sunderland is impressive all the way through, though – it must have been an extremely difficult role to play, and I think he got it absolutely right.

Urban is good, too. He’s doing all right for himself over in the States, and that’s because he can play any part with strength and sensitivity. He has to carry large portions of this film almost single-handedly, and he manages that easily. The real diamond here, though, is Lois Lawn as Dickson. A non-professional, there isn’t a single second of her performance that doesn’t feel like documentary. The way she speaks on the phone, the fearful but pragmatic look in her eyes, her final glance at the bedsheets fluttering in the wind – it’s all perfect, and she ought to win awards.

Sarkies has taken a few cues from Paul Greengrass (United 93), but with a few cinematic additions, such as a complex sound design (sometimes overly so) and occasional shots of calm amidst the insanity. If there are missteps, they are over-balanced by even more impressive points in the film’s favour. And as the obligatory roll of names and ‘what happened next’ info came up before the final credits, I suddenly became choked up. They’re all real people, you know? Dickson really did crawl home twice; Chiquita Holden really did get shot and see her father die. Out of the Blue doesn’t function as entertainment; it’s a warning, a reminder of what could be just around the corner, and of what happens if we neglect the marginals of society.

(What most disappoints me is that the title of this film makes me think of that horrific Delta Goodrem song about Mark Philippoussis, which has been running through my head since I left the cinema. But I’m sure I’ll be all right.)