Doom, gloom and zoom

A year in film
January 16, 2007 11:05:45 AM

INLAND EMPIRE: Laura Dern in a dazzling cinematic fugue.

Given the past year’s headlines, it can’t come as a surprise that some of the best films of 2006 had an edge of darkness to them. (Not that I’d rank it one of the best, but is it any wonder that a film called Apocalypto took first place at the box office its opening weekend?) Thus my Top 10 this year might appear even bleaker than usual. The films run the gamut from individual insanity (Inland Empire) to universal extinction (Children of Men). I did enjoy the postmodern high jinks of Tristram Shandy and indulge in the redemptive fantasy of Superman Returns. Otherwise, it seems a case of tough times making for great cinema.

1. Inland Empire | Here’s something you can watch over and over until the next David Lynch film comes out and never plumb its depths. Or is it all surface? As with Mulholland Drive, the initial premise involves an actress — Laura Dern in perhaps the best performance of the year — seeking a role. That bare plot line doesn’t last long as the story doubles back on itself at least three times and the characters (most of them played by Dern) shed and regrow identities. By the end, all sense of “before” and “after” has been replaced by a dazzling cinematic fugue.

2.  The Death of Mr. Lazarescu | Retired engineer Dante Remus Lazarescu (his brother-in-law’s name is Virgil) wakes up feeling under the weather; from there he descends through the circles of the Romanian health-care inferno, as an ambulance takes him to a series of hospitals where he is treated with contempt, annoyance, and indifference but also compassion. Cristi Puiu applies Frederick Wiseman’s style to a Kafka-esque parable and triumphantly turns the banal into the mythic.

3.  Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story | For a refuge from the contemporary nightmare of his The Road to Guantánamo Michael Winterbottom turned to Laurence Sterne’s sui generis, allegedly unfilmable 18th-century novel. The result might be the most ingenious and hilarious adaptation ever made. The novel about the impossibility of writing a novel becomes a film about the impossibility of making a film, with Steve Coogan archly tragic as both the hero who finds it difficult to get born and the actor who plays him.

4. The Queen | Every tragedy reaches a point where mourning turns to kitsch. For Princess Di, this fate came quickly. As the piles of flowers grew around Buckingham Palace after her death, it marked the end of genuine grief and the triumph of self-indulgence. Not so for Queen Elizabeth II, who held out for royal detachment and dignity until it was too late to defrost her image. In Stephen Frears’s meticulous account, Helen Mirren gives HRH her due, proving that sometimes taste is more important than popularity or power.

5.  Batalla en el Cielo|Battle in Heaven | Some might not get past the opening blow job, but for those who do, Carlos Reygadas’s hallucinatory film will offer unsettling rewards. Chauffeur Marcos and his wife have kidnapped a baby. The baby dies. So much for plot. It all takes place in a closely observed, uncomprehended world of rituals, ticking clocks, serene landscapes, mindless debauchery, bodies and faces. Reygadas is obscene in the way only the most religious filmmakers can be. He doesn’t shrink from looking, because he knows that what he sees are shadows of something beyond, an inhuman battle in Heaven.

6.  United 93 | United 93 treads the line between catharsis and exploitation, between the manipulation of an agenda and the illusion of objectivity, and achieves the most faithful memorial to 9/11 that commercial cinema is capable of. Paul Greengrass employs real-time cinéma-vérité to re-create the confusion, the horror, and the resolve. His camera serves as a participant, thrusting you into the point of view, as much as can be imagined, of those involved. If only to honor their heroism, and inspire our own, this film must be seen.

7. El Labarinto del Fauno|Pan’s Labyrinth | Guillermo Del Toro tells fairy tales the way they were intended, not the G-rated way — which means lots of blood, pain, death, bugs, monsters, and all of it experienced from the point of view of a tormented innocent child. Here it’s 12-year-old Ofelia, who has the misfortune to be the stepdaughter of a sadistic Fascist officer assigned to mop up Republican guerrillas in the Spanish hinterlands in 1944. Ofelia’s fantasy life is grim, though it does offer a refuge: the maze of the title, where she meets a sinister faun and learns her true identity as Princess of the Underworld. Complex, but unfolded in astounding and limpid images. (Opens in Boston January 12.)
Watch the trailer for Pan's Labyrinth (QuickTime)

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