Not Coming to a Theater Near You | 2006 in review

by Chiranjit Goswami

As the year draws to its eventual end, I detest having to state that 2006 was a disillusioning year in many ways, not only in terms of my estimation of the various films I watched throughout the year, but also for my overall level of interest in global cinema. While the routine reaction of film critics is to state that this type of disenchantment is due to a severe decline in overall quality of filmmaking, I highly doubt my own reaction is correlated with any drastic deterioration in the general level of achievement within the craft of filmmaking. Truthfully, despite the sensation of disappointment that annually contaminates my mind, there certainly is a wealth of worthy films clamoring to be considered on any annual summary. However, though accomplished in certain aspects, the filmmaking displayed in 2006 left me uninspired for the most part, which probably translated into a crippling stretch of bland, dreary, and lackluster writing on my part.

With a dismal disposition I arrived at the Toronto International Film Festival in September hoping to revive my enthusiasm for global cinema in a similar manner as provided by the prior year’s festival. I began by surfing through the pandemonium created by Sacha Baron Cohen, who showed up at the premiere of Borat completely in character. Unfortunately, I wasn’t privy to the chaos that commenced inside the theatre soon afterwards, as I refused to fork over the $250 that scalpers were demanding for tickets. Alas, the steep prices started making some small measure of sense after I was repeatedly thwarted from entering subsequent screening of Borat throughout the week. The rest of my 2006 TIFF adventures consisted of moderate peaks and shallow valleys, predictably amassing into a lukewarm reaction. Regrettably, my appreciation of each film’s accomplishment seemed to be accompanied with a small degree of critical concession when confronted with some glaringly evident flaw. Truthfully, the bulk of the films I watched at TIFF failed to motivate me to frantically type away on my keyboard as I did the year before.

Even the occasional interactions with filmmakers were spoiled by distressing incidents displaying hubris. It seemed as if for every moment with Guy Maddin cheerfully conducting his silent film circus with an enjoyable measure of mirth, or Alexander Payne charmingly recounting various anecdotes from his directing duties and acting activities in Paris, I was subjected to the frustration of having to endure not only the ego of a filmmaker whose name I will withhold, but also the snippy attitudes of his obsequious devotees (who apparently objected to cell phone text messaging during TIFF Motorola commercials). With the aid of his faithful comical troupe, who were his guests at the question & answer session that followed the screening of his latest film, the filmmaker successfully delivered yet another droll, though somewhat sour, piece of satire, which contains the year’s funniest line delivered straight from the mouth of Ricky Gervais. Unfortunately, during the ensuing Q&A session it became disturbingly apparent that the director had somehow convinced himself that his spoof of award season antics was a truly novel concept, apparently representing a rare instance of a filmmaker criticizing the Hollywood Studio System in the director’s mind. The troupe’s commander quickly bristled at the suggestions by a few audience members that filmmakers have been critiquing Hollywood – often while applying comedy – in recent years, pompously dismissing Team America: World Police as far too lowbrow for using puppetry, before smugly snubbing Robert Altman’s The Player as being far too ancient to be relevant to the discussion. I assume such a condescending stance implies that filmmaker would also discard admirable works such as Mulholland Drive, Adaptation, Ed Wood, and Barton Fink and that he might even consider classics such as Sunset Boulevard, Sullivan’s Travels, and The Bad and the Beautiful as unworthy of his attention. Perhaps more exasperating was the laughter provided by his admirers when the ensemble’s leader spouted his snarky comments. The director’s supporters were apparently too sophisticated and clever to realize the irony of watching a man sternly critique clueless, insecure, Hollywood actors for craving praise while being perfectly content to consume all the adulation he receives from his loyal followers. A director displaying arrogance at his own exploits isn’t exactly shocking, but witnessing the entire scenario didn’t stir my sympathy towards the director, no matter how much I’ve enjoyed his previous films, and I’ll fully admit I wasn’t particularly upset when his latest project only received a mild amount of praise upon its opening.

Fortunately, such haughtiness was balanced by Jia Zhang-Ke’s modesty. Thanks to the aforementioned text message, I was lucky enough to attend the only TIFF screening of Jia’s exquisite new film, entitled Still Life. The single screening served as the zenith of my expedition to TIFF, but also derailed my health for the next two weeks as I suffered through a debilitating cold that I contracted from an audience member sitting a few seats away. The sickness was almost worth suffering through in order to witness the extraordinary nature of Still Life, but the virus made watching Jia’s associated documentary, Dong, slightly tiresome due to the film’s meandering arrangement. Afterwards, Jia was confronted by an audience member who grumbled about the director’s decision to include staged footage within his documentary, since Still Life and Dong briefly share a few easily recognizable scenes. Jia calmly addressed the young man’s misguided advice to exclude such footage in the future by mentioned that his films purposely straddle the boundary between reality and fiction and that the scene that was specifically sited was captured as a result of serendipitous circumstances. However, it was refreshing to hear Jia confess his own limitations as a filmmaker. While Still Life is astonishing for many reasons, a few the film’s most startling moments arise from Jia’s calm inclusion of close-up framing for his characters. Close-ups have mostly been absent from Jia’s previous films and the prevailing critical assumption seemed to indicate that Jia had a severe distaste for such an ubiquitous creative crutch, particularly since the technique’s value had severely diminished with excessive use in Western cinema. Surprisingly, Jia offered a completely different rational, stating that he had simply not been comfortable with the practice and admitted he never quite understood how to properly use the technique. Such honesty was comforting to witness and displayed Jia not only to be reassuringly humble, but also to understand the inherent significance of the close-up.

Jia’s Still Life remained one of my few highlights from TIFF. In fact Still Life clearly demonstrates the overall concern that Asian filmmakers hold for the lives of the impoverished people set adrift by Asia’s recent economic boom. Similarly, Tsai Ming-Liang situated his latest exploration of the intrinsic human longing for connection, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, in the economic bust of Malaysia. Based on Tsai’s comments, his latest film seemingly seeks to investigate the dreams and desires of an immobile coma victim stranded in the care of a kind young woman. Conceivably Tsai creates a complicated metaphor for a society content to remain inert, especially considering how much the Asian auteur dwells on both drowsy immigrant workers starving for physical contact amidst metropolitan pollution, as well as stagnant pools of motionless water collecting within urban decay that no one seems willing to rectify. Unfortunately, I was disappointed that Tsai kept his characteristically peculiar humor to a minimum within his latest soporific existential setting, which resulted in a film that I found to be less engaging than his previous work.

However, the notion of stasis lingered throughout the two elder American independent films I became fixated with after my return from TIFF. Indeed, upon receiving my DVDs of Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming and Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, I soon recognized just how my lethargic attitude had crippled my critical perspective. While Linklater’s affectionately equitable depiction of the high school hierarchy and student struggles against authority always comforts with its nostalgically paralyzing snapshot of adolescent atmosphere, Baumbach’s compassionate critique of insular college graduates satisfied to remain dormant in hopes of avoiding responsibility and delaying maturity was particularly poignant and equally distressing in its familiarity.

Of course, while I was distracted by my stationary status, the North American political climate began to noticeably shift. Sweeping alterations occurred in the US and Canadian governments, in marginally divergent ideological directions, but producing the same unstable results ripe for political compromise. With both countries now further entangled in Middle Eastern conflicts, unable or unwilling to understand the opposing culture, it felt as though filmmakers were fascinated with our misguided attempts to gain further knowledge of our enemy in order to defeat our opponents. Hence, 2006 consistently featured filmmaking concerned with characters within law enforcement willing to work undercover, with specific attention towards the notion of masculine performance. Hell, this was even the year we witnessed a broken-hearted super-spy named James Bond quiver at the notion of lost love while attempting to maintain his macho dignity in front of a female supervisor.

The trend may have begun with Rian Johnson’s Brick, in which a normally aloof student named Brendan found it necessary to infiltrate his high school’s underworld, seeking to uncover a conspiracy that victimized his former flame. Brendan’s strategy consisted of impressing the very same crime-lords he sought to expose and eliminate. Unfortunately, though his permanent impression of a shrewd consigliere convinced all parties, Brendan remained unsuspecting of his own youthful foolishness.

Performance and disguise were both important components of Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, in which undercover narcotics officer and disjointed D addict Bob Arctor lost his grip on reality while reporting to senior officers and monitoring his own drug-induced actions. Despite the camouflage provided by his scramble suit, Bob’s performance only succeeded in confusing himself further. Afflicted by lapses in logic and deceived by nearly everyone he knows, Bob served as a sacrifice that bureaucracy was prepared to accept in order to continue waging its endless war.

Meanwhile, the ceaseless drug war of today served as the backdrop to Michael Mann’s update of Miami Vice. Regardless of their intense commitment to their characters or each other, without the protection offered by the glitz of contemporary Miami, detectives Crockett and Tubbs were exposed in the sweltering heat of Central America and found their undercover operation unhinged by their own emotional vices. Mann’s unusual police procedural shared the same pessimistic perspective as his fellow filmmakers, abruptly concluding with his characters sustaining collateral damage, while the wealthy wicked kingpin escaped without remorse.

Finally, Martin Scorsese swaggered into Boston and delivered us The Departed, a remake of Hong Kong’s Infernal Affairs that was positively saturated in masculine morality. While Scorsese’s material within The Departed covered similar terrain as Goodfellas, and though this latest film is by no mean perfect, I remained mesmerized while witnessing gangland fantasies abruptly crumble without warning. Devoting equal parts to the notions of allegiance and corruption, Scorsese’s brazenly brisk film used confused undercover cops and cunningly covert criminals to investigate the limits of masculine performance and behaviour. Embracing the deeds required to both sustain and break the bonds between father figures and their surrogate sons, The Departed demonstrated the futility of fathers demanding their sons follow in their footsteps to finish the battles these patriarchs began to wage against one another years before, and thus in some ways served as a parallel to the pointless conduct of present-day political leaders. Despite protests against its ludicrous body-count, Scorsese’s film concluded by illustrating the logical costs of such generational conflicts, proving very few participants survive when juvenile behaviour reaches such absurd extremes. Perhaps more importantly, watching Scorsese’s whirlwind of lively cinematic techniques within The Departed reinvigorated my enthusiasm for movies and reminded me why I first became fanatical with film, and thus finally made the year feel worthwhile.

With that, I’ll present my Top 10 films of 2006:

1   Still Life
Jia Zhang-Ke

2   The Departed
Martin Scorsese

3   Brick
Rian Johnson

4   Brand Upon the Brain!
Guy Maddin

5   Miami Vice
Michael Mann

6   The Science of Sleep
Michel Gondry

7   A Scanner Darkly
Richard Linklater

8   Marie Antoinette
Sofia Coppola

9   Borat
Larry Charles

10   Inside Man
Spike Lee

Honorable Mentions

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone
Tsai Ming-Liang

Big Bang Love: Juvenile A
Takashi Miike

When the Levees Broke
Spike Lee

A Prairie Home Companion
Robert Altman

Rescue Dawn
Werner Herzog

For Your Consideration
Christopher Guest

Genuine Entertainment

Mission: Impossible 3
JJ Abrams

Casino Royale
Martin Campbell

The Prestige
Christopher Nolan

Finally, my favourite performance of the year was Aaron Eckhart as tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor in Jason Reitman’s Thank You For Smoking.