Film: Year in Review 2006

Film: Year in Review 2006
1. The Departed
2. Borat
3. Thank You For Smoking
4. L’enfant
5. Little Miss Sunshine

The question I’ve been asked to answer is, "how did movies matter in 2006?” It’s a difficult query — movies have scarcely mattered less then they did in 2006. Though box office returns bounced back slightly after their nadir in ‘05, it wasn’t enough to make a substantial difference. With new media slicing up the market and patrons increasingly turning towards home entertainment, movie-going as a social practice seems doomed to extinction and the feature film seems desperate for new avenues of distribution. As such, movie studios were predictably playing it safe. The number one box office film of the year (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest) was a sequel to a film already based on a theme park ride, with the ride metaphor extended (as usual) to a variety of entertainments more tailored towards repetition and anti-intellectual sensation. Aside from the ignominious Hostel, the horror film was once again reduced to the parade of sequels (Saw III), remakes (The Omen) and sequels to remakes (Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning) that have bedevilled the genre for several years now.

Still, a few diehards tried to slip in resonant material. The comic book movie produced overt sedition in V for Vendetta, the wobbly but effective adaptation of Alan Moore’s terrorist series, while the third X-Men entry again produced its crypto-queer subtexts despite the direction of ever-cretinous Brett Ratner. Even Superman, that square representative of truth, justice, etc., had to earn his reputation back after deserting Earth and allowing certain international disasters to occur. The film wasn’t exactly a success, but it was a compelling phenomenon to report. The interesting fact is that a medium responsible for hyperbolic unreality produced better impressions of the world outside the theatre than most "realistic” studio product.

A couple of comedians also showed greater self-awareness than is normally warranted. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby was praised in some quarters for its skilful playing of red state/blue state prejudices off of each other, with Will Ferrell serving as the unlikeliest of olive branches between the two contingents. And of course there was the juggernaut of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, whose trashing of American condescension attracted the highest-browed fan-club of any comic since Chaplin (or at least Monty Python). These two suggested, however intermittently, that the art of satire was not dead and that comedy was perhaps worth more of a look than usual — even, in that last case, a lawsuit or two.

The documentary, having emerged from obscurity a couple years ago to become part of mainstream taste, kept fighting a battle with itself not to become irrelevant. The likes of Wordplay and Who Killed the Electric Car? showed that docs could be just as innocuous or cutesy as studio schlock, even when the subjects were serious; however, Into Great Silence proved that the silent contemplation of religious practice could produce huge artistic dividends while Deliver Us from Evil could articulately map the cost of sexual abuse (and church silence on same) with hurricane force. I can’t comment on the big title of the year, An Inconvenient Truth, but all reports seem to suggest a down the middle approach between accessible and articulate.

One would hope that the studios’ quality divisions would try to up their ante, but they too simply repeated old formulas. The Magnolia-style multi-character crazy quilt returned in the form of Babel and Little Children, with the former seeming coldly exploitative and the latter hilariously silly; as per genre usual, they tried to seem like so much while making so few connections. And more than a few grimaced over the runaway success of Little Miss Sunshine, to some the kind of quirk machine that has given the Amerindie a bad name since its absorption by the studios in the mid-‘90s. Only John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus was suggesting that the indie sector was still about experimentation, and many were even decrying its fumbling towards a thesis rather than decisively seizing it.

Still, a handful of foreigners dared to tell the truth in strange and powerful ways. Michael Haneke’s Cache was the surprise art house hit that dealt with racial antipathy and denial in France; there was also the Romanian triumph The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and its harrowing odyssey through the local health system. And though Hou Hsaio-hsien’s Three Times made many (though not me) swoon with its three-part dissertation on love, it was the Dardennes’ L’enfant — with its feckless hustler who refused, until the end, to accept the enormity of his acts — that made the greatest bid for the sense that maybe it wasn’t curtains for the art form of the 20th century after all. These were the movies that showed us the things that matter, and perhaps moved us to greater understanding of how to matter ourselves.