It was a grim year at the movies — literally.
War, death, dystopia, and other dark and downbeat subjects filled theater screens in 2006. Jeffrey Overstreet (Looking Closer) called it “the year of the nightmare.”
Outdoing George Clooney’s 2005 political one–two punch of Good Night and Good Luck and Syriana, Clint Eastwood connected with critics and audiences with Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, a pair of bleak World War II films set in the Pacific theater, with Japanese rather than Nazis on the other side.
A pair of 9/11 films, United 93 and World Trade Center, explored one of the darkest days in American history. Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto imagined a nightmare scenario of death and oppression in a fictionalized Mesoamerican past.
On the other side of the pond, The Queen revisited one of the most traumatic events in recent British memory, the death of Diana. Two very different adaptations, Children of Men and V for Vendetta, imagined a dystopic future Britain in the throes of fascism, alone in a world descending into chaos.
In Europe and elsewhere, young people faced dire straits in subtitled films. A courageous German young woman walked a six-day via dolorosa for her opposition to the Nazis in Sophie Scholl – The Final Days. On the other side of the continent, a much younger Jewish Hungerian boy faced an interminable living death at the Buchenwald labor camp in Fateless. Pan’s Labyrinth featured a still younger girl and a newborn baby in grim circumstances in the Spanish Civil War, while infants were exposed to peril by callow young men in L’Enfant and (on another continent) Tsotsi.
Documentaries continued to focus on somber subjects, with Al Gore’s global-warming pitch An Inconvenient Truth added to the ongoing passel of Iraq docs.
Even escapist entertainment was comparatively dark. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest outdid its predecessor in creative energy and slapstick action, but it also went to grimmer places, with a more fearsome nautical villain who does much worse than take no prisoners. Superman Returns brought back the Man of Steel in muted colors, reflecting a level of moral ambiguity and even tragedy in the story, not to mention a darker, less comic take on Lex Luthor.
The year’s best sports film, We Are Marshall, opened with the worst disaster in American sports history, the fatal plane crash that killed virtually the entire football team and sports staff of West Virginia’s Marshall University.
Did I mention the one about the crusty old drunk slowly dying in the back of an ambulance while a nurse paramedic drives him from hospital to hospital, trying to get him treatment? (See the Top 10 below for more info.)
After the previous year’s bumper crop of decent family films, 2006 is something of a disappointment. Only a couple of lesser-seen films, Akeelah and the Bee and Lassie, were really worth getting excited about.
Walden Media, responsible in the previous year for Because of Winn-Dixie and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, followed up this year with a trio of disappointments: Hoot, How to Eat Fried Worms and Charlotte’s Web.
It was a boom year for CGI animated features in terms of quantity, but diminishing returns on quality. Cars, though one of the better efforts, was far from the masterpiece Pixar usually turns out. Monster House offered ’tween-oriented spooky thrills. Over the Hedge, Ice Age 2: The Meltdown and Flushed Away were worth catching at least once. After that, it was basically downhill: Everyone’s Hero, The Ant Bully, Open Season, The Wild, Barnyard.
One popular cartoon, Happy Feet, combined penguin popularity with perplexing jabs at religion, with a superstitious penguin religion dressed up in Christian language of sin, repentance, backsliding and so forth, not to mention a misanthropic depiction of humans as evil despoilers of nature.
The film’s most religion-unfriendly films, of course, weren’t family films. The Da Vinci Code sets a new threshold for sheer anti-Catholic chutzpah and outrageous offensiveness. V for Vendetta worked one of the most egregiously anti-clerical depictions of a corrupt and perverted church prelate into an action film that made affirmation of homosexuality a criterion of moral decency. Deliver Us from Evil turned a jaundiced eye on a vulnerable subject, ecclesiastical handling of sex-abuse charges against priests.
Positive religious themes could be found in theaters, but not to any great effect. The Nativity Story was a fine, family-friendly Christmas story and the first Hollywood feature film to tackle the real meaning of Christmas, but the massive Passion audience didn’t show up, and it disappointed at the box office, barely making back its production budget.
A few less-than-stellar Christian-produced efforts made it to theaters. One Night with the King, a flawed retelling of the Esther story, flopped. The middling sports film Facing the Giants performed decently. The Second Chance, an earnest but unremarkable social drama from Christian musician Steve Taylor, made little impact.
I reviewed fewer films in 2006 than in previous years, and fewer than half of my top 10 films currently have full-length reviews. I hope to rectify that in the months to come — though I still have unreviewed films on my 2005 list as well, alas, so no promises. Note that as last year, the following films are unranked and in alphabetical order.
Akeelah and the Bee
Smart, inspiring, socially aware family film about a gifted young black girl growing up in South Central LA, where school smarts are both ridiculed and punished. Akeelah is wise about the pressures and obstacles faced by promising young children like Akeelah — and about the rewards and benefits of resisting and making good on one’s potential.
Some mild profanity and a couple of crass words; some tense family and social content. Appropriate for older kids.
Death of Mr. Lazarescu, The
“Who is my neighbor?” This stark, devastating film from Romanian director Cristi Puiu tells the story of a crusty old drunk who may or may not be dying, and how various people from his neighbors to various medical professionals respond to his plight.
Obscene and crass language; medical situations including vomiting and loss of bladder/bowel control; medical nudity. Subtitled. Mature viewing.
Hungarian Holocaust film whose protagonist, a 14-year-old Jewish boy from Budapest, is sent to the Buchenwald camp. Though full of atrocity and horror, Fateless suggests that even in a concentration camp life eventually becomes a form of ordinary routine, one that is even not without its small pleasures — which may be even more disturbing than imagining it as hell.
Disturbing Holocaust imagery including nudity; some obscene and crude language. Subtitled. Mature viewing.
This lovely, literate new adaptation is a rare family film that knows that kids live in a grown-up world — that they are not isolated from such realities as unemployment or war, and can relate to the problems of adult characters as well as those of children and animals. When Lassie’s proud but poor Yorkshire owners must sell her, it’s not just young Joe’s sorrow that matters, but also his parents’ — and not only at losing the dog, but at not being able to give their son the one thing he wants more than anything. .
Some depictions of animal cruelty; a brief scene of menace and violence; a scene involving urination.
L’Enfant (The Child)
From the Belgian brothers Dardenne (The Son), whose uncompromising moral vision is never overtly religious but shot through with Christian undercurrents, The Child is an unnerving examination of arrested moral and psychological development. Set against a backdrop of European social decay, the film examines a callow street kid named Bruno whose girlfriend bears his child. Bruno isn’t so much unwilling to be a father as utterly without a clue what a father is, and his journey is horrifying, but not without hope of possible redemption.
Some harsh language; criminal milieu; an infant in disturbing danger. Subtitled. Mature viewing.
Letters from Iwo Jima
The second of Clint Eastwood’s two lopsided Iwo Jima companion films is by far the better, a deeply sympathetic but far from uncritical exploration of the Japanese side of the Pacific battle. The film balances earnest patriotism with blind anti-American prejudice, self-sacrifical valor with misguided suicidal fatalism. Both sides are capable of both noble and ignoble actions.
Intense, graphic battlefield violence; recurring honor suicides; some objectionable language. Subtitled. Mature viewing.
Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont
Utterly charming, droll tale of an unlikely friendship between an elderly widow (delightful Dame Joan Plowright) and a charming young slacker (Rupert Friend). Dan Ireland’s indie comedy is sensitive to the plight of the elderly and neglected, yet suggests that the elderly have as much to offer the young as to gain from them. You’ll be glad you watched it.
Mild profanity and crude language, a couple of brief bedroom scenes (no nudity) involving nonmarital sex.
Sophie Scholl – The Final Days
A riveting portrait of a bright, idealistic young German college student (Julia Jentsch) questioned by a canny Nazi interrogator about her involvement in an anti-Nazi underground resistance movement. Throughout her ordeal, Sophie’s Christian faith remains the cornerstone of her critique of Nazi ideology and a taproot of her moral strength.
Much suspense and intimidation; a sequence of disturbing but implicit violence. Subtitled. Teens and up.
When a young South African thug discovers a defenseless baby in the back of a stolen car, it’s easy to imagine him doing something dreadful — and in a way he does. Tsotsi’s trial-and-error discoveries about responsibility and consequences include nearly unwatchable moments, but the film builds to a final shot of transcendent rightness.
Harsh criminal milieu including brutal violence and deadly menace; obscene and profane language; disturbing treatment of an infant; discreet depictions of breastfeeding. Partially subtitled.
Not to be confused with A&E’s “Flight 93,” United 93 is a work of extraordinary restraint and integrity, low-key, even-handed, unflinching, and deeply persuasive. Shrewdly focusing on the one front on that day of infamy where the terrorists were dealt a decisive defeat, the film resists every temptation to succumb to one agenda or another, to gloss over or punch up any of the possible hot potatoes.
Restrained depictions of strong violence; some profane language and obscenity; realistic depiction of intense terrorist menace. Teens and up.
Babel: González Iñárritu’s tour de force narrative of intersecting storylines explores how poor choices, poor communication and poor luck can lead to situations that spiral alarmingly out of control. At the same time, there’s room for hope against hope, and for the possibility of not suffering the worst possible consequences of one’s actions.
Cars: Pixar’s least successful film since A Bug’s Life is still one of the better family films of the year, heavy on hooey but ultimately genuinely endearing.
Children of Men: Alfonso Cuarón’s fascinating but flawed adaptation of P. D. James’ dystopic fable captures the stunningly topical force of existential hopelessness in a world without children and rekindles wonder at the miracle of childbirth. Bravura sequences don’t prevent the movie from dragging at times, and some of the Christian and pro-life resonances of James’ novel have been subverted.
Monster House: A bracingly icy breath of fresh air, Monster House rejects the kid-culture staple of cuddly monsters that are only friendly and misunderstood, tapping into primal fears of places you don’t want to walk past at night, of dark forces that are not just spooky or macabre, but downright sinister and even vengeful.
The Nativity Story: It’s the classic real-meaning-of-Christmas Christmas movie Hollywood never made in the 1950s, elevated by Oscar Isaac’s charismatic performance as a strong, sympathetic St. Joseph. Persuasive production design and sharply conceived moments help offset some of the film’s less successful elements, from a less than compelling Mary to the misuse of the Magi.
Pan’s Labyrinth: Guillermo del Toro’s bleak but stunningly imagined semi-fantasy film sets a young girl’s excursions into a creepy but compelling fairy-tale world against a backdrop of the Spanish Civil War.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest: The wonderful weirdness of Depp’s Jack Sparrow rubs off on the rest of the production in this exuberantly bizarre sequel, which includes the goofiest action sequences this side of Chuck Jones and the wildest character design this side of Miyazaki.
Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles: Zhang Yimou’s other film this year, The Curse of the Golden Flower, was a lavishly overproduced martial-arts debacle, but Riding Alone shows the director hasn’t lost his touch for intimate character dramas — this one an odd road trip in which a distant father tries to build bridges to his alienated adult son.
Superman Returns: Bryan Singer’s lovingly crafted quasi-sequel honors and builds upon the strengths of its predecessors, the first two Christopher Reeve films, while gracefully minimizing their weaknesses.
We Are Marshall: A rare sports film that’s more about the journey than the destination, We Are Marshall is larger than the clichés of the genre, connecting to larger issues in an emotionally satisfying way.
The Queen: Helen Mirren’s brilliant performance as Elizabeth II anchors a thoughtful exploration of the chasm between tradition and modernity left exposed by the death of the “People’s Princess” who uniquedly bridged the two.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.