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Tuesday, December 12

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Before I joined the Gapers Block staff, I had a newsletter (coincidentally called Steve@theMovies) that went out to 200-plus people every week. It essentially served the same purpose as this column by providing reviews of the current week's releases, many of which I didn't bother to review on Ain't It Cool News. At the end of each year, when I unveiled my "Best of the Year" list, I'd hold a little contest to see if readers could guess how many films I saw in theatres that year (new and old, but not including DVD releases). The prize was always a chance to see a preview screening with me of a movie of the winner's choosing (provided I could secure a pass and that the film even screened early—not a safe assumption these days). The primary reason I haven't held the contest since joining Gapers Block is that now that I've become a critic that actually gets invited to press screenings by publicists, I can't usually bring a guest, and I assumed people wouldn't be interested in the contest without the prize factor.

Apparently, I was wrong, since I've been getting e-mails from people asking about the contest. Fair enough. So, with no prize to offer other than brief Internet glory, anyone who feels like e-mailing me their guess and your name at steve@steveatthemovies.com can enter the "Guess How Many Movies Steve@theMovies Saw in 2006" contest. Here are the number for the past few years: In 1998, I saw 375; 1999—369; 2000—390; 2001—375; 2002—405; 2003—430; 2004—418; and 2005—439. Guess away!

So here is the Best (and Worst) of 2006 list, followed by reviews of four films opening this week.

Best of 2006

This list wasn't nearly as tough to pull together as I thought it would be. There were many standouts this year, but these 30 films hit me the way no others did in 2006. I deliberately did not include things I saw at Butt Numb-a-Thon 8 (films like Black Snake Moan and 300, both of which undoubtedly will hold special places on next year's list), but I did include things I saw at the Chicago Film Festival, a couple of which may not open until 2007. With limited commentary and no apologies, here's my list:

1. Children of Men—The ideas contained in its plot and director Alfonso Cuarón's visual style still haunt me. I can't wait to see this film again.

2. Babel—Many of the same things said about my top choice can be applied here, with the added thank you to writer-director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for reminding us that Brad Pitt can act.

3. Letters from Iwo Jima—Somber, gut-wrenching tale of men sent into battle to die. It just so happens that 60 years ago these men were the enemies of the United States. Eastwood gives them a fitting remembrance as heartfelt as any film about American soldiers, and one even finer than the tribute he pays in Flags of Our Fathers.

4. United 93—TOO SOON!! Okay, maybe not, but I had to say it. No film in 2006 filled me with more mixed emotions, anxiety, heart-pounding fear and pure sadness than this one. Bravo to director Paul Greengrass, who chose to tell the story without hero worship or dramatic license.

5. Pan's Labyrinth—Our three friends from Mexico took my breath away in 2006. Guillermo del Toro's goals were not as lofty or grand in scale as Cuarón's or Inarritu's, but his work about the horrors of the real world and the horrors of a child's fantasy dreamscape ended up being the most emotionally satisfying of the three. See the full review below and visit Ain't It Cool News to read my interview with Sr. Del Toro.

6. Apocalypto—Mel Gibson gives us a thrilling chase movie, buckets of blood and a valuable history lesson. The most visually awe-inspiring work of the year.

7. The Departed—Every so often, a super-sized ensemble cast pays off, and often they do so in the hands of Martin Scorsese. A lot of attention was paid to Jack Nicholson's performance, but you can't discard DiCaprio and Damon either. Both give split-personality performances that are as impressive as Nicholson's flashy villainous work.

8. The Queen—This simple, quiet telling of recent historical events features far and away the greatest female performance in a decade by any actress. Helen Mirren's portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II is riveting as she personifies a shift in power and popularity that has never been regained. With the exception of Babel, this was my favorite script of the year.

9. Little Children—Another testament to how fine writing and flawless acting can make a movie great. Kate Winslet has never been better, and director Todd Fields needs to make more movies.

10. The Proposition—Also known as "that violent Australian cowboy movie." If you missed this one in the theatres, it's on DVD already. Seek it out, and don't eat two hours before viewing. The blood is simply spectacular.

11. Little Miss Sunshine—Maybe not the funniest film of the year, but certainly the one that made me laugh the hardest without resorting to cheap gags, dumb jokes, putting things in asses or Jewish jokes. This is more a family drama filled with humor.

12. Half Nelson—An crack-addicted teacher befriends one of his young students. It sounds wrong, but it's actually one of the most intriguing and enlightened character studies I've ever seen. This is the one Kevin Smith said was the best film he'd seen in five years. Take that for what it's worth.

13. Casino Royale—Best Bond ever. Best Bond movie ever. There, I said it. Kiss my ass! The most fun I had in a movie all year with my pants on!

14. The Host—Technically a 2007 release, but I saw this South Korean monster movie at the Chicago Film Festival, and it will kick you square in the ass with its sickeningly squishy giant monster and loads of scary tricks up its sleeve. You will love this.

15. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer—I'm pretty sure this film counts as a 2006 release. Tom Tykver (Run Lola Run) delivers a new twist on the serial killer genre (thanks to the best-selling novel that served as its source material). Here, the killer isn't particularly terrifying or evil, he just likes to smell nice things and distill the essence of the female scent in a liquid form. Did your stomach tremble just then? The last 20 minutes of this film are some of the most bizarre I've ever seen. I'll have my full review next week.

16. Blood Diamond—Leonardo DiCaprio gives a better performance here than in The Departed, and the story deals with the more serious and troubling issue of conflict-diamond harvesting. A rough and violent run through the African jungles courtesy of director Edward Zwick.

17. The Good Shepherd—A cool, almost emotionless look at the birth of the Central Intelligence Agency through the eyes of a man (played by Matt Damon, in his best-ever role) who helped invent tactics that are still used today. Torture, anyone? Another great ensemble piece, this time from director Robert De Niro.

18. Volver—If Pedro Almodovar makes a movie, it's more than likely going to land in my top 20. I just dig the guy's style. But Penelope Cruz propels this work into the stratosphere with a no-holds-barred portrait of a confused, conflicted and driven woman. And she's never been sexier.

19. Borat—This is the film that made me laugh the loudest and hardest this year.

20. Day Night Day Night—Another film I saw at this year's Chicago Film Festival (it played at Cannes, Telluride and Toronto as well) about a young woman of unknown ethnic origin known only as She (first-timer Luisa Williams) going through the paces of preparing for a suicide bombing mission in Times Square. The movie is quiet and foreboding. Deliberately paced tension slowly builds through its brief running time. Quite disturbing and unpredictable. I have no idea whether it's scheduled for release in 2007, but it should be. High marks for first-time feature filmmaker Julia Loktev.

21. Notes on a Scandal—Pure, high drama, with an acidic performance by Judi Dench.

22. House of Sand—An erotic Brazilian melodrama set in the desert concerning a mother, daughter and granddaughter who live their lives in desolation. Unsettling and poignant.

23. A Scanner Darkly—Philip K. Dick done to perfection. Remember how, at the beginning of 2006, this was the film everybody was excited for? Don't forget how much you liked it.

24. The Descent—Scary shit about women (grown women, not college girls) trapped in a mineshaft. I saw this once at BNAT 7 at the end of 2005 and again in Chicago several months later (and with a slightly different ending), and it scared me both times.

25. Dreamgirls—The music holds up 20-some years later, and the entire experience is exhilarating from top to bottom.

26. Monster House—Hands down, the best animated film of the year because it manages to appeal to kids without pandering. Oh, adults will probably love it more than the little ones.

27. Superman Returns—I know I'm in the minority on this one, but I truly did love this one. Director Bryan Singer captures everything I admired about the first two Superman movies and gives us a great story to boot. But my gut tells me the sequel will be better and more universally accepted.

28. Edmond—Look for the DVD because it's more than likely this film never made it to a theater near you. William H. Macy does what he does best: act in a David Mamet piece. And this one is a doozy. Edmond is a bigoted, middle-aged man who cracks and commits violent acts. You've never seen Macy be this good or edgy.

29. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu—A painful and timely film from Romania about an ailing elderly man who makes the mistake of getting put into the health care system, where he is prodded and shifted from hospital to hospital like some kind of object rather than a human being. As he is moved from hospital to hospital, his health continues to get worse. This film is agonizing to behold because it feels all too real.

30. Thank You for Smoking—Note-perfect dark and biting comedy about the world of a lobbyist for Big Tobacco (played to perfection by Aaron Eckhart). A fine debut from director Jason Reitman.

Best Documentaries of 2006

This was another great year for high-profile documentaries. And it was nice to see that, in a year without any major political docs, filmmakers were able to come up with a whole slew of interesting subjects to inform and enlighten the masses. It seems the most popular topic of 2006 was the Iraq War (I can think of a half dozen I saw this year, two of which are on my list). If you've never heard of these films, look them up. They're all worth seeking out.

1. Shut Up & Sing
2. Jesus Camp
3. I Trust You To Kill Me
4. 49 Up
5. Who Killed the Electric Car?
6. Dave Chapelle's Block Party
7. This Film Is Not Yet Rated
8. Wordplay
9. Deliver Us from Evil
10. Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
11. Summercamp!
12. The Devil and Daniel Johnston
13. Once In a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos
14. The Bridge
15. The Ground Truth
16. Metal: A Headbanger's Journey
17. Why We Fight
18. Iraq in Fragments
19. Our Brand Is Crisis
20. Neil Young: Heart of Gold

Worst of 2006

The most painful movie I sat through this year was Deck the Halls, a misguided, unfunny, poorly conceived, horribly acted piece of holiday shit that nobody went to see, so why am I talking about it? The rest of the worst (in alphabetical order, with no real surprises in the bunch) were: Basic Instinct 2; Bloodrayne; Employee of the Month; Eragon; Fur; Garfield 2: A Tale of Two Kitties; The Grudge 2; Let's Go To Prison; Little Man; The Pink Panther; Pulse; RV; The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause; Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning; Turistas; Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj; When A Stranger Calls; The Wicker Man; and You, Me & Dupree.

Please note how many of these titles are sequels, prequels or remakes. And now, a few reviews of films opening this week.

Pan's Labyrinth

I became borderline obsessed with Guillermo del Toro after seeing two of his oldest films, Cronos and Mimic. There was a gooey, rustic quality to his films that that made you want to deny your eyes the ability to blink for fear of missing some rich aspect of his visuals. While he went on to direct the more straightforward, mainstream comic book films Blade II (which I love and is the only one of the series I own) and Hellboy (which I appreciate with due respect but was never able to recommend to people), my absolute, hands-down favorite Del Toro film is 2001's The Devil's Backbone. This stunningly effective work braids the ghost story genre with a dark period in Spanish history, and the results are devastating, darkly beautiful and absolutely terrifying.

With his latest, Pan's Labyrinth, Del Toro returns to life in Spain just a few years after the timeframe of The Devil's Backbone in the early years after Franco's victory. The first thing you must understand about this film is that Del Toro cares as much about the historical drama of fascist military men and the rebels who defied and fought them as he does about the fantastical horror elements. The reasons for the film's R rating have to do more with the violence carried out in the very real world, and not the grotesque creatures that inhabit the world of the young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), who is forced to move with her pregnant, ill and recently remarried mother (Ariadna Gil) to live with her new husband, the brutal Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez of With a Friend Like Harry).

Del Toro always leaves the option available that most of the otherworldly creatures and places Ofelia sees and visits are strictly figments of her wild and troubled imagination. She is absolutely miserable living under what is essentially military rule with a man who cares nothing for her or her mother, and only about the unborn child (which he assumes—demands—is a son). The only part of the grounds where they live that interests her is an elaborate, rundown labyrinth.

One night while she is sleeping, an insect-like creature visits her, turns into a creepy looking fairy, and leads her into the maze of bushes and trees. Deep in the labyrinth, she meets a faun named Pan (Doug Jones, Hellboy's Abe Sapien), a gigantic half man-half buck creature with ornamental horns and coverings that appear to be made of trees, dirt, and all things of nature. He tells Ofelia that she is the reincarnation of a long-dead princess, but to prove this she must engage in three dangerous tasks. Ofelia is so intent on not simply being a part of what's going on in her new home, she gladly accepts her new identity and the tasks with little question.

But Ofelia has more to deal with than just these tasks. She discovers that her stepfather's head servant, Mercedes (Maribel Verdu from Y Tu Mamá También), is actually the sister of the leader of the rebellion, and she has been stealing supplies from the Captain's household to fortify the rebels. Also teaming with her is the Captain's personal physician (Alex Angulo), who sneaks Mercedes medical supplies whenever possible. Ofelia hates the Captain so much, there is never any danger of her turning in these two conspirators, but the added tension fuels her adventures to become a princess.

Some may find Del Toro's emphasis on the more conventional portions of his story to be aggravating, since he's not spending every precious moment with hideous creatures scaring the little girl, but that's not what he has ever been about. Even in his comic book films, he always took the time to let the camera linger and the pace to slow down just enough to make the action that much more intense and explosive.

But, when he does enter the alternate universe of Pan's making, he creates visions that are deeply frightening, visually awe-inspiring and imaginative beyond belief. I will never forget the image of an Ofelia coming face to face with an enormous toad with an equally enormous (and sticky) tongue. The Pale Man (also played by Jones) in the banquet table sequence will give you nightmares. By setting the monstrous in the real world, Del Toro shows us what it is he does best. While he is regarded as a great director of horror and fantasy, what he is never given enough credit for are his abilities as a master storyteller and writer.

But the writer-director's subtext about the places children's imaginations take them when fear and anxiety dominate their world is what makes Pan's Labyrinth so powerful. And the lovely Ivana Baquero absolutely owns every scene she's in. There is absolutely no hint of her playing to the camera or falling into any of the trappings that so many young actors do. I was also impressed with Lopez as the Captain. You can see him trying to be accepting of his new family, but his life is so dominated by killing and aggression that his emotions tend to carry over into his personal life. He is most definitely the villain of this piece, but he's not without his qualities.

Pan's Labyrinth is both sensitive and shocking, as all great fairy tales are; and let's face it, that's what this film is. There are few characters whose lives Del Toro believes are precious enough to have to survive until the end, and that's all I'm saying about that. More than a collection of memorable visuals and far more than a simple historical drama, Pan's Labyrinth transcends the genres it wholly embraces by giving us some of the most undeniably gruesome, startling and sometimes magical images in recent memory. It's a film I'm desperate to see again with a less anticipatory mind and just enjoy the beauty and terror of this remarkable film. Plus, read my exclusive interview with Del Toro at Ain't It Cool News.

Notes on a Scandal

Battles of the mind rarely have a clear winner, especially when one of those battling isn't even aware she is the fight to begin with. This is the driving theme behind the powerhouse drama Notes on a Scandal, a film about the power of seduction, the rules of attraction and the misguided desires of the desperate. Judi Dench has made a name for herself playing women who are not afraid to speak their minds, but her role as British high school teacher Barbara Covett may top everything she's done in recent years. Barbara's journal writings serve as the narration for the film and allow us to glimpse into her warped perception of reality. She is a lonely older woman, to be sure, but her approach toward finding new connections in life is to lock onto a target and systematically eliminate all other "distractions" in that person's life, leaving only herself as a place to turn. Barbara doesn't use violence or anything quite so movie-conventional; she uses veiled threats of humiliation and boatloads of guilt.

As the film opens, a new teacher comes to Barbara's school. The absolutely glowing Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) joins the staff as an art teacher, and her beauty seems to have the male teachers in a tizzy. Barbara is cautious in her praise of the naïaut;ve younger woman, who seems to have taken up teaching because she can't find anything else to do with her life. Still, Barbara senses a connection between the two and the possibility for a friendship that could turn into something more serious, despite the fact that Sheba is married with children. Several months into the term, Barbara discovers Sheba is sleeping with one of her students, 15-year-old Steven (newcomer Andrew Simpson), and something in her brain just snaps. She confronts Sheba with her discovery and threatens to expose the relationship to Sheba's husband (played by the always reliable Bill Nighy, in one of the most down-to-earth roles he's ever played) unless she ends the affair immediately.

Not surprisingly, Sheba does try to end the affair, but something about Steven's straightforward sexual advances appeals to her, probably because it stands in direct contrast to her much older husband's more casual nature. Based on the novel by Zoe Heller and adapted by Patrick Marber (Closer), Notes on a Scandal isn't about a teacher sleeping with her student. In fact, what the film is really concerned with is Barbara's misguided longing for Sheba. She's not upset about the affair because it's with a student; she's hurt that it isn't with her. Her diary entries are fiercely judgmental, bordering on cruel, and sometimes not even bordering. Her observations on her first meeting with Sheba's family (which includes a son with Down Syndrome, whom Barbara refers to as the family "court jester") clearly reveal that she views them as a distraction to be dealt with. Dench's ability to say more with a look or a simple vocal inflection than most actors can say in an entire two-page monologue fuels the film's success as high drama.

To say more about where the film goes once Sheba and Steven rekindle their affair would be criminal. But as Sheba learns more about Barbara's past from some of her fellow teachers, a clearer view of her sinister personality comes to light. Director Richard Eyre (Stage Beauty; Iris) never wants us to feel sorry for Barbara, but he's not content to have us see her as simply a villain or predator either. The character is much too complex to be pigeonholed so easily. Notes on a Scandal is drama at its most pure, in that you feel every pain, every guilty pleasure, every betrayal right along with these characters. And to have our point of entry into the story be the writings of a woman so clearly warped by her own emotional shortcomings makes the whole film seem all the more decadent. What more could you ask for?

The Painted Veil

In something of a throw back to the period films featuring white characters in far away exotic lands like Asia or Africa (I'm not sure if there were enough of them to constitute a genre or even sub-genre), The Painted Veil features the kind of story in which the whites must assist the indigenous population with a troubling issue while working out their less important personal dramas. Despite a couple of strong performances and some beautifully filmed location work, I confess to being less than impressed with story here.

Based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, the film concerns a young British doctor named Walter (a suitably awkward Edward Norton), who falls in love with and proposes to a woman in a class higher than his, Kitty (played by Naomi Watts). Her parents disapprove of the match, but almost as an act of defiance rather than love, Kitty agrees to marry the good doctor whose specialty is bacteria. When Walter accepts a position in Shanghai and takes Kitty with him, it doesn't take long for Kitty to grow bored with the marriage, and she begins a heated affair with the English Vice Counsel (played by Liev Schreiber). Walter discovers the affair and accepts a position in a disease-ridden remote village deep in China, dragging Kitty with him, to avoid a scandal. One almost suspects Walter is hoping Kitty will catch the disease plaguing the town (in this case cholera).

It's clear from the beginning that Walter considers this assignment a prison for Kitty for her behavior. He shows no signs of wanting to work things out, and seems content harboring a festering hatred toward her. The couple's sole source of amusement is the local Deputy Commissioner, played by the highly amusing Toby Jones (who recently played Truman Capote in Infamous). Again out of boredom, Kitty wanders around the area, and stumbles upon a small school run by missionary nuns, where she volunteers to help with the children. The townspeople and the military types who have the community in lockdown until the epidemic is dealt with see the presence of whites as bad luck, despite the doctor's helpful work.

As the source and means of ending the cholera epidemic make themselves clear, both Kitty and Walter find a greater purpose in their existence and begin the process of healing their relationship, which is, of course, all that really matters to any of us. People may complain that Watts and Norton don't have chemistry, which is silly because they aren't supposed to. They are a bad match that may or may not grow to love each other through mutual respect and admiration rather than wild chemical monkey lust. Director John Curran (who made the vastly superior 2004 film We Don't Live Here Anymore) seems to be having a tough time deciding which crisis means more to him: the couple's fractured marriage or the village watching its population becoming extinct. Clearly one of the catastrophic events is more important, but they are given equal weight, and it leaves a weird, unpleasant taste in the mouth. Norton and Watts certainly keep the film from getting too precious or pretentious for its own good, but the unbalanced story leaves an uneven final product. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Family Law

Argentina's official entry for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar is this deceptively tranquil story about a Jewish attorney whose life appears to be very good. And the reason for that is because his life is, in fact, pretty good. Is it possible to make an interesting movie about a guy who's existence is relatively problem free? Writer-director Daniel Burman proves it is.

Perelman Jr. (Daniel Hendler) narrates Family Law with a dispassionate tone that is neither overly dramatic or humorous. He's just telling us his story. Rather than go into the private practice his father, Perelman Sr. (Arthuro Goetz), runs, Jr. decides to become a law school professor, and he appears to be a passionate about. He meets the woman of his dreams, a pilates instructor (Julieta Diaz) who had been a student of his for a short time. With no real obstacles, this relatively handsome, shy man marries this great beauty and they have an adorable son.

So when does the other shoe drop? That's just it: it doesn't, even though opportunities arise that in any other movie would lead to great mysteries or deceitful behavior. In Family Law, filmmaker Burman makes the ordinary extraordinary by making us truly like these characters. Jr. gets some time off from work, but doesn't tell his wife. Instead, he makes an effort to hang out with his son a bit more than his job normally allows him to. And he spends some time with his father, meeting some of his oddball clients and watching how passionate Sr. is about his work. Jr. experiences mild jealousy about the physical nature of his wife's work, but she never cheats on him. He suspects his father and his long-time secretary are working a little too close, but that turns out to be a baseless concern as well. Some of means his father uses to in his practice to give his clients an edge are a little unethical, but none of this comes back to haunt anyone later.

Family Law is about a common man who wants to make small adjustments in his life. He's uncomfortable with the distance he feels to members of his family, and he strives (and for the most part succeeds) to bridge these gaps. The film has its small dramas, but as most of us do, we only need the small ones to keep us busy and entertained. This is an endearing effort that somehow manages to keep from being dull simply by finding the soul of its characters. It sounds easy and obvious, but it's rarely done so well. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.

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