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Friday, Jan 5, 2007


Nominees, Best Actor: 2006
Sacha Baron Cohen for Borat
Matt Damon for The Departed
Leonardo DiCaprio for The Departed *
Ryan Gosling for Half Nelson
Ray Winstone for The Proposition


Other notable performances:
Edward Norton for Down in the Valley, The Illusionist, and The Painted Veil
Patrick Wilson for Little Children


The Best Actor races of awards seasons past have been really heating up in the past few years. 2006 is turning out to be more of a lean race for the men, where it’s really anyone’s guess as to who will take home the Oscar at the end of all of the pre-awards lunacy, but the same few names keep popping up as being “in the running”.


In his last two outings with Martin Scorsese, Dicaprio was either not the focus of the attention (he was far out-classed by Daniel Day Lewis’ Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York; wearing a horrible fright wig and saddled with the wooden Cameron Diaz as a co-star), or he was passably functional but not “classic Scorsese” great (as Howard Hughes in The Aviator, he had some terrific moments, but for my money was miscast). Third times a charm, it seems: Leo has finally given us a “classic Scorsese” performance with The Departed. Filled with rage, youthful macho abandon, and the expertly shaded heroics of Scorsese’s pack of anti-heroes of past awards seasons his character really stacks up favorable next to some of Robert DeNiro’s early work with Scorsese (the rawness in Mean Streets for some reason comes to my mind). DiCaprio has finally delivered fully on the promise everyone has been talking about for years now. We get it; you’re a very serious actor, Leonardo.


Co-star Matt Damon would be an equally compelling choice as actor of the year for his stellar, similarly surprising turn in Scorsese’s film; it seems as though Damon just gets better and better with age. In a cast that is filled with knockout turns, Damon fits perfectly. With strong performances in diverse lead and supporting roles (from tortured gay misfit in The Talented Mr. Ripley to the sublime action of the Bourne films franchise) for more than ten years now, Damon’s collaboration with Scorsese makes perfect sense. It will be very exciting to see his next move after the third Bourne installment this year.


While comedy doesn’t really play well with most film critics organizations that dole out awards (generally to the most austere dramatic performances), Sacha Baron Cohen’s skilled portrayal of a hapless, hysterical Kazakhstan-born reporter is not only one of the best comedic performances of this year, but of any in recent memory. Tackling the outrageous physical demands of the part without any vanity, Cohen has seen his name popping up on year-end “best actor” lists all over the country. He shared the Los Angeles Film Critics award for Best Actor this year with Forest Whitaker’s ferocious characterization of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland (talk about an odd couple), and snagged a Golden Globe nod the same week. His is a performance so buzzed about, that at this point he might be considered a favorite for an Oscar nomination, provided of course, they can look past the whole testicles-in-the-face scene (or the anti-Semitism, or the sexism, or the… well you get the point).


Two men flying under the radar of everyone this year, are Ryan Gosling for his searing, natural work in the indie drug-addiction drama Half Nelson and Ray Winstone as a English lawman in lawless Colonial Australia in Nick Cave’s revisionist western The Proposition. Both turned in career-best work that is shamefully going unnoticed by the predictable critic’s groups, mainly because everyone is so obsessed with Whitaker’s role in a shamefully by-the-numbers biography film. I guess original characters aren’t interesting to watch anymore?



Nominees, Best Actress: 2006
Penelope Cruz for Volver
Laura Dern for Inland Empire *
Kirsten Dunst for Marie Antionette
Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls
Kate Winslet Little Children


Other notable performances:
Judi Dench for Notes on a Scandal
Cate Blanchett for Little Fish
Fernanda Montenegro for House of Sand


In the category of Best Actress this year, the only name anyone seems to be able to say is: Helen Mirren. Mirren has been fantastic consistently for so long that her sweep of critic’s prizes (and it’s very likely she will take the Oscar too) doesn’t seem particularly gratuitous, even though it sort of is. She is good in The Queen as Elizabeth, but she has been so much better elsewhere that it seems a little insulting that this sort of stock (at times boring) impersonation is being heralded as her career-best when there are so many other more interesting options in this race. Like in the case of Best Actor and Actress winners of the past (and the list is long), playing a real-life character will likely be Mirren’s ticket to a clean sweep of acting prizes this year.


Nothing any other artist, male or female, will pull off this year will top the experimental Laura Dern/David Lynch alliance in Inland Empire. It’s the kind of performance that will be talked about for years to come and will be properly understood sometime in the future, too late. Dern has been kicking ass and taking names since 1985 (with the underrated teen drama Smooth Talk, which was immediately followed by her first Lynch outing, 1986’s Blue Velvet) and this is he best work to date. As she’s gotten older, her acting choices have become some of the most interesting of any woman in the industry: another Lynch turn in 1990 with Wild at Heart, her Oscar-nominated Rambling Rose, the razor sharp Citizen Ruth, and the searing relationship drama We Don’t Live Here Anymore offer a mere sampling of her film work; while her small screen work has been equally effective (just check out 1998’s The Baby Dance, in which she goes toe to toe with the formidable Stockard Channing, if you don’t believe me). Lynch’s film could very well turn out to be one of the worst-reviewed of the year, but even the critics who hate the film couldn’t help singling out the brave performance of Dern.


Another revelation this year is Penelope Cruz, working again with director Pedro Almodovar on Volver (the two last worked together in 1999 for All About My Mother, in which Cruz played a pregnant nun with AIDS). It’s probably a sound bet for any actress to take even the smallest part with Almodovar, who is so famous for drawing out unique, memorable women but never has such a familiar actress caught me this off-guard: I am not at all a fan of Cruz’s technique, but found her utterly compelling here. When she is performing in English, I always feel like something is missing or something isn’t really connecting properly. In her native Spanish, she comes across deadly sexy, fiercely intelligent and totally committed to her material; it’s like we are watching a completely transformed woman. Though she continues to churn out misfire after misfire in the US (my apologies if anyone was really into her “performance” in Sahara), Almodovar continues to see something exceptional in Cruz, which is lucky for fans of great female acting everywhere in the world.


Left out of every major critical outing this year (unjustly) is Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antionette, but specifically the deviously girlish performance of Kirsten Dunst, who like Cruz, sometimes has trouble connecting to characters that are perhaps outside of her range or experience. As the young queen, Dunst was able to register on screen like she never had before: she was appropriately beguiling, and eventually commandingly tragic. It’s another case of an actress really hitting her artistic stride alongside a favorite director (2000’s The Virgin Suicides was their first successful match up), which looks to be the most surefire way to achieve a modicum of artistic merit this year.


Little Children was one of the best films of the year that, unfortunately, no one saw. Kate Winslet can apparently not give a bad performance, audience or not: her turn as a bourgeois suburbanite mother whose life is uproariously stirred up by a neighbor is one of the most introspective and well-thought out pieces of acting she has done to date (think American Beauty meets Madame Bovary, and you’ll get the idea of where she is coming from). Considering the career that Winslet has nurtured over the years, it’s a bold statement to call this her best work, but it is clear that she wholly identifies with the material and connects with it on a very important level, being a young mother herself in real life. Playing a woman who isn’t concerned with appearances at all, and who also might not be a great mother, Winslet is able to speak volumes with the most seemingly insignificant gestures and looks; but also with a singular lack of personal vanity. In Little Children Winslet’s beauty is presented as many things other than just physical: it’s empowering, tragic, and even stoic.


And lastly, we have the biggest, boldest hype of the year: Jennifer Hudson. She of the mega-buildup, she of American Idol fame has had a maddening amount of buzz being spilled her way for her tour-de-force debut performance as the now-mythical Broadway character Effie White in Bill Condon’s adaptation of the musical Dreamgirls. It is the only time in recent memory I can confidently say that the performance lives up to the hoopla: Hudson is flat-out astonishing. At the end of her huge diva number that closes the first act, prepare to be amazed at her skillful combination of real, gritty emotion (that isn’t glam in the least), theatricality, and vocal prowess. The audience I saw this scene with, outside of Detroit, erupted in thunderous applause and cheers in the middle of the film, after this scene (something I have not seen with any other performance, in any other film).  Hudson is charming, and it is refreshing to see a real woman like her run away with show. She may not be as skinny as co-star Beyonce Knowles or as popular, but she is way, way cooler.


Hudson’s off-screen persona compliments her character’s transition from nothing to star to has-been and back again perfectly and naturally. The only issue I have with her performance is that she is being promoted (and winning) supporting actress honors all over the place, when really she is the lead of the film: she has more screen time than her co-stars and is so expressive that when she is not onscreen, you are still thinking about her and hoping she will be back soon. Like her character in the film, she is being screwed out of what is rightfully hers just so Knowles, who is more of a supporting character in the story than Hudson, can be primed to take a spot in the lead actress categories. At least losing gracefully this time will likely result in an Hudson getting Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, rather than an insult from Simon Cowell. Thanks, J.Hud for taking one for the team, a classy, winning move indeed.


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Wednesday, Jan 3, 2007


Nominees, Best Supporting Actor: 2006
Jackie Earle Haley for Little Children*
Garrison Keillor for A Prairie Home Companion
Eddie Murphy for Dreamgirls
Jack Nicholson for The Departed
Mark Wahlberg for The Departed


Other notable performances:
Danny Huston for The Proposition
Paul Dano for Little Miss Sunshine
Brad Pitt for Babel


With ease, I would give Supporting Actor of the year honors to the comeback of the year: Jackie Earle Haley for his creepy, dryly funny characterization of a sex offender living in the most judgmental of all suburban enclaves in Little Children. Most film lovers will remember the former child actor from his work in the 1970s in popular films like The Bad News Bears, Breaking Away or perhaps as the unstable, feminine child star that causes complete, unhinged pandemonium at the end of The Day of the Locust (a truly delirious, weird performance). No matter what sort of disturbing or popular work he’s done in the past, Haley’s current work as a man struggling to keep his urges in check while living with his understanding mother is the most solid, original supporting turn this year.


Speaking of comebacks, where in the hell has Eddie Murphy been hiding? His performance as the James Brown-esque singer in Dreamgirls is a stunning, virtuoso turn that showcases Murphy’s versatility in a fresh new way. While the performance has a few comedic elements to it, Murphy highlights the more dramatic moments of James Thunder Early in addition to his electric musical numbers. It’s a dynamic, show-stopping performance filled with energy, wit and pathos that no one has been able to ever capture from Murphy until now. It’s a revelatory, surprising take on a man who could have descended very easily into parody (especially given the entire film was basically filled with stunt casting). Hopefully this serious attention will translate into Murphy making better movies in the future.


The men of The Departed should maybe have their own special award this year. Martin Scorsese brings the best out of everyone he casts: veteran Jack Nicholson finally gets to go to “Marty school” (to terrifying and humorous result as a very bad man), while Mark Wahlberg (who has flown disturbingly under the awards radar despite such ace performances in films like Boogie Nights, Three Kings, and I Heart Huckabees; any of which he could have feasibly been Oscar-nominated for) gets to make the most out of his relatively limited role infusing his Boston cop with cynicism and humor. It’s clear both actors are having the time of their lives working with the director that most living actors would likely cite as the director they most wanted to work with. Uber-star Brad Pitt (who gave a surprisingly tender and focused performance in Babel), seems poised to steal some awards thunder from the Departed guys, but let’s all remember, he is also doing double duty this year as a producer: on The Departed!


One interesting, less-talked about performance that will likely breeze through the whole hoopla leading up to the Oscars is Garrison Keillor, who stars as a version of himself in Robert Altman’s home spun A Prairie Home Companion. He helped adapt the script, he sings, he jokes, and he finds the heart of, well, himself. It’s a clever, tender performance given he is playing opposite such heavy-hitters as Kevin Kline, Lily Tomlin, and Meryl Streep. The collaboration between Altman and Keillor brings a bittersweet end to the maverick filmmaker’s career, with all of the radio show’s sweet witticisms fitting perfectly within the filmmaker’s signature frenetic, kaleidoscopic-cast vision of Keillor’s fantasy life.



Nominees, Best Supporting Actress: 2006
Adriana Barraza for Babel
Rinko Kikuchi for Babel
Frances McDormand for Friends with Money
Meryl Streep for A Prairie Home Companion *
Emily Watson for The Proposition


Other notable performances:
Jodie Foster for Inside Man
Jessica Lange for Don’t Come Knocking
Carmen Maura for Volver


Fabulously over-crowded with amazing women this year, I find myself scratching my head at my personal choice for Supporting Actress: Meryl Streep for A Prairie Home Companion. I think the woman is vastly overrated (and I think The Devil Wears Prada, for which she is getting an obnoxious amount of awards attention, is one of the worst movies of the year), but I will be damned if she hasn’t returned to top form in a role that requires her to cast all “Streep-isms” aside and actually act. She is funny, poignant, and she sings like an angel (the actress has never found a more appropriate vehicle for her talents to merge within). If you are not moved to tears by the end of the musical number “Goodbye to Mama” (in which Streep and co-star Lily Tomlin sing lovingly about their dead relatives and how much they miss them), chances are you might be a robot or dead inside. In a fitting tribute to the late Robert Altman, in what will be his last film ever, Streep reinvents herself and proves her credibility yet again. Which sadly makes the fact that she is getting all the press for Prada so infuriating: she is being remembered this year for the wrong film!


Last year quintessential character actress Frances McDormand received a rather gratuitous Oscar nomination for the absolute dreck that was North Country (playing a woman with Lou Gehrig’s disease—a sure-fire way to get Academy recognition). It is a crying shame that this year she will be sitting it all out on the sidelines after turning in a superior performance in Nicole Holofcener’s Friends with Money. Opposite co-stars Jennifer Aniston, Joan Cusack, and Catherine Keener, McDormand is the clear cast standout. It’s a great contemporary female role (Holofcener is getting really good at being the go-to director for this particular milieu), and McDormand infuses it with everything we have come to expect from her: daffy grace, biting wit, and pure heart as a fed-up working mother who has a potentially gay husband.


Emily Watson is the sort of magnetic presence that sets the tone for any film she graces. This year, in Nick Cave’s bold re-visioning of Colonial Australia as a lawless pseudo-western, Watson was able to play a “wife” role with heart and grace that lends the brutally violent, macho film an ethereal, womanly air each time she appears. Opposite Ray Winstone (as her rigid law man husband), Watson finds a perfect balance between the times: she is neither an inappropriately anachronistic woman ahead of her time, or a wilting flower yielding to every paternal command. Leave it to Watson, the only major female in the film, to leave the biggest impression with only a few key scenes. Her talent for scene-stealing is exciting to watch.


Two of the year’s most persuasive, original characterizations came from the women of Babel, Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi. The two couldn’t have possibly played characters more different from each other: Barraza was an illegal immigrant nanny involved with bad decisions at the US/Mexico border, while Kikuchi was a Japanese girl dealing with the recent death of her mother and her distant father who also happened to be a deaf/mute. Each woman perfectly captured a different feeling of dissociation, and the effects of being undone by one’s own sadness; but the most interesting thing, I thought about Babel‘s two stand-out cast members was that the script allowed both women (who are separated by many years in age, and many miles in geography), to explore their characters’ sexuality in everyday manner. Barraza’s examination was admittedly only a small part of her story but the detail was a rich one in a story so filled with politically charged injustice and fear. Kikuchi’s overt sexuality (as well as her sexually lashing out towards others), was more on display and more of a fundamental part of her character, but was so startlingly frank that it is bizarre to think that there has never been another character like hers on screen who has looked at sexuality in such a unsentimental, almost dangerous manner. Both women turn their seemingly ordinary characters into almost mythological women.


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Tuesday, Jan 2, 2007


While you were sitting around celebrating the holidays, SE&L was busy compiling its lists of the year’s best (and worst) releases. Focusing on the unique and the illogical, the routine and the outrageous, each assemblage attempted to address both the standard and the strange, releases everyone had heard of and efforts nobody knows.  Beginning with our look at Christmas; Naughty and Nice up and including yesterday’s unusual take at the Best DVDs of the Year, it’s time to play a little collective catch up. As we prepare to unveil a few new features for 2007’s version of the blog, this is an excellent chance to see where we’ve been in the last five months. Thankfully, the road ahead is looking even more remarkable. Enjoy!


Naughty and Nice: The Top 10 Christmas Movies of All Time


The Top 10 Criterion Releases of 2006


The Top 10 Films of 2006 That You’ve Never Heard Of


The 10 Worst Films of 2006


The 10 Worst DVDs of 2006


The 10 Best Films of 2006


The 10 Best DVDs of 2006


 


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Monday, Jan 1, 2007


Double takes are perfectly acceptable. Indeed, this is not your run of the mill Best of list. Look around the web (or in any of the still viable print publications) and it’s a safe bet that many, if not all, of these unusual titles fail to make the Top 10 grade. As a matter of fact, you could probably look from #11 to #100 and not find a single one mentioned. The reason why remains rather simplistic. SE&L is not overly impressed with pure technical merits. A stellar picture and perfect surround sound might be amazing, but when wrapped around the latest lame-ass Hollywood hack job, who gives a digital dung heap? No, what we like is quality – in presentation, in packaging AND in product. That’s why our 2006 tally of the best the home theater medium has to offer is just a wee bit…eclectic. We’d rather celebrate the unknown film in a barebones version than a tricked out work of limited likeability.


Truth be told, this list could be a lot bigger. As sales slack off and marketers grow manic over the lack of blockbuster sales, the smaller companies in the distribution game – Troma, Synapse, Subversive and Anchor Bay – have gone out of their way to track down obscure entries, flesh them out with an amazing array of contextual content, and provide them at a price that both aficionado and novice can support. Sure, some big league studio releases turn up here, but you probably won’t recognize the films featured. That’s the great thing about DVD – within its practical and portable format, a wealth of cinematic knowledge and appreciation can be gained. So get out your guidebook and be prepared to jot down a few of these filmic travels for future reference. After you’ve finished with that regular Tinsel Town treat, you can give one of these experimental excursions a try. You won’t be disappointed:


1. Tromeo and Juliet: 10th Anniversary Edition
Marking the second DVD go-round for this beloved Troma title, this double dip is still a significant improvement over the original digital presentation. As before, the Bard’s basic story of star-crossed lovers is fused with a scatological punk rock sensibility to create the first ever gross out version of a Shakespeare play. Perhaps more amazing than the awkward performances, bizarre-world found locations, plentiful gore, and abundant nudity is the number of unknown actors and crewmembers who went on to become famous fixtures in both Hollywood and the Indie film scene. Along with the typical Kaufman crew, screenwriter James Gunn (Scooby-Doo, Dawn of the Dead) Will Keenan (Operation Midnight Climax) and current reigning b-movie scream queen Debbie Rochon all found celebrity inside this insane iambic pentameter.


2. Street Trash: Special Two Disc Meltdown Edition
It is, perhaps, the most unlikely subject matter for a horror film ever devised. A group of homeless winos, led by an ex-Vietnam vet who takes his frequent homicidal flashbacks out on the surrounding populace, begin drinking a new cheap hooch that’s hitting the street. Unfortunately, one of Tenafly Viper’s liquor-laced drawbacks is the unfortunate side effect of personal putrescence. That’s right, one sip and you start to ‘bleed’ out in a multi-colored array of bodily fluids. A masterpiece made by fright film fans for fright film fans, Trash has long been unavailable on DVD. Last year, Synapse Films promised a new, fully tricked out edition, and they weren’t lying. This is, hands down, one of the best movies of the late ‘80s, given a proud near perfect post-millennial package.


3. Christmas Evil
Overlooked upon initial release, Lewis Jackson’s You Better Watch Out is actually a minor masterpiece. Audiences were stunned when they learned that this holiday horror film – later re-titled with the far more lurid Christmas Evil label – featured an unstable man who took the notion of “playing” Santa to uncomfortable extremes. The seedy subtext involving children and random carnage made even the most magnanimous macabre fan a tad queasy. Too bad, since their ready dismissal prevented them from appreciating a truly remarkable movie. More a character study than a standard slice and dice, Jackson’s journey into the mind of a morally misguided man is an unusual artistic triumph. Besides, it’s John Waters’ favorite holiday film. You can’t ask for a better vote of creative confidence than that.


4. Cemetery Man
Cemetery Man is a most unusual horror film. Actually it’s not really a horror film at all. Certainly, it has nods to the normal macabre ideals—zombies and murders and the foul stench of death. Still, this is not really a chiller. Instead, it’s a thriller, in the most soul-uplifting definition of the word. It is a movie so bafflingly beautiful that it argues for its acceptance as art. Anyone coming to this movie hoping to continue their fascination with flesh-eating corpses will have to get their Romero/Fulci fill elsewhere. In the hands of the amazing Michele Soavi, this is poetry, cinema as a stunning visual feast. It remains one of the most important fantasy films ever made, one that shows the true power inherent in thoughts and imagery.


5. The Green Pastures
The Green Pastures is a misunderstood movie, but not like Song of the South is misunderstood. Disney’s dilemma remains that, no matter how personable Uncle Remus is as a character, he is still subjugated by a segregated South. No such distinction exists in The Green Pastures - at least, not outwardly. This is a fantasy world composed completely of black people—from the biblical characters to the individuals spinning the yarn. Made in Hollywood, notorious for its mesegenistic view of minorities, one can read all manner of sinister significance in this portrayal. But there is also a strong undercurrent of grace and devotion that constantly countermands the cruelty. It delivers the film and its prejudicial facets out of the realm of repugnance into a region both sublime and subjective.


6. Ganja and Hess
Call it voodoo done right or exploitation gone artsy, but true aficionados find this relatively unknown horror film hard to forget. Playwright Bill Gunn had high hopes for his literate look at vampirism and ancient curses. Sadly, after a less than impressive Big Apple play date, distributors eviscerated Gunn’s original cut and re-released it as Blood Couple. Long out of print, Image Entertainment gets substantial genre props for revisiting Gunn’s version, including the incorporation of additional footage not found in other DVD versions. With a wealth of supplemental information, including commentaries and making-of documentaries, this presentation practically revives Ganja and Hess to its prerelease glory. With all manner of movie macabre clogging the airwaves and retail outlets, this is one unknown quantity worth checking out.


7. The Loved One
Back in 1965, a movie focusing on death in such a callous, cold-hearted manner, vilifying religion with hints of unethical behavior and business-oriented obsessions, and tweaking artists, the English, the Hollywood studio system, and freaked-out fey momma’s boys, was scandalous stuff. Able to make any movie he wanted after Tom Jones’ Oscar wins, British bad boy Tony Richardson was itching to bring Evelyn Waugh’s mortuary satire to the silver screen. Mimicking fellow auteurs like Stanley Kubrick (borrowing Strangelove‘s look and placing comedic star, Jonathan Winters, in a diabolical dual role) and Orson Welles (playing with depth of field and focus), he took pot shots at several “isms”—racism, materialism, populism, commercialism—creating a comic masterwork more or less unseen until this DVD release – 41 years later.


8. The Addams Family Volume 1
It goes without saying that The Addams Family is a product of its time. Viewed some 40 years later, the show is nothing short of luminous. It is superbly cast, brilliantly acted, and rebellious to a fault. What was weird and eccentric in 1964 is now nice and normal, the family’s main mantra of individualism and being true to oneself a coveted current cultural directive. It is easy to see what ‘60s audiences eventually dismissed about this wonderfully inventive comedy. The Addamses were radicals, rocking the boat of suburban conformity with their love of all things dark and dour. Thanks to MGM, and their initial DVD offering of the original black and white episodes, we can experience just how immensely entertaining this sadly underrated series actually is.


9. Wonder Showzen: Season 1 & 2
At one time, Wonder Showzen was the new “it” phenomenon – a corrupted kid-vid concept brilliantly realized and abstractly insane. It was Pee Wee’s Playhouse if that magnificent man-child Paul Reubens’ porn store persona had run the show, a sensationally sick perversion turned into a proto-pedophilic playtime. After a brilliant first season, some feel that creators Vernon Chatman and Johnny Lee went overboard in series two with their unabashedly political take on Hee Haw, Horse Apples. But the fact is that no other recent series has taken on the sacred cows and untouchable taboos of our pro-child society as astutely and caustically as this definitive dada-esque satire. Get both DVD sets now before some state wises up and bans this genuine genius effort all together.


10. Dust Devil: The Final Cut
In 1990, Richard Stanley’s Hardware was a heralded event in genre cinema. It had all the trappings of a classic. However, it was merely a minor success, earning little more than a considered cult following among rapid fright fans. As a result, Stanley found it difficult to get his next film off the ground; the metaphysical spree slaughter South African epic Dust Devil. Miramax promised all kinds of support, but after seeing a work print, they chopped it up and dumped it onto home video. There, it died a completely undeserving death. Thanks to an amazing new box set from Subversive Cinema, we finally get a chance to see Stanley’s visionary work, as well as a chance to visit his career since the entire Devil debacle.


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Sunday, Dec 31, 2006


To the discerning eye, this list is going to appear a little odd. At first, you see films that typically make most end of the year inventories – movies like The Queen and The Departed. These are the quality efforts that many critics recognize as stellar filmmaking, flawlessly executed. But about halfway through, things start to shift wildly. Before long, outright genre efforts - and even a film unseen by most of the movie-going public - are taking the place of other, overly praised efforts. This is done on purpose. Here at SE&L, we sing along to our own inner soundtrack and praise the movies that we feel best fulfilled their cinematic promise. A great film doesn’t have to meet a journalist-mandated set of standards, nor does it have to be a true fan favorite. Like humor and taste in music, what zaps a cinephile’s aesthetic is individual and unique. One man’s Trash is another man’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre, so to speak.


So behold, the first ever PopMatters Film Blog Top Ten. Frankly, it was a fairly easy list to compile. Take the movies seen throughout the course of 2006, rank them in order of personal preference, and write up some blurbs. Certainly, there will be choices that people point to (Letters from Iwo Jima, Dreamgirls, Little Miss Sunshine) that aren’t represented here, and again, that’s intentional. If we enjoyed a slice and dice bit of slasher superiority from the guy who created Cabin Fever over a no nonsense reminder of 9/11 heroism, so be it. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, even if it promotes a certain storyline featuring motherf*cking reptiles on a motherf*cking airliner. So get out your poison pens and prepare to pick apart the choices. Here are Short Ends and Leaders picks for the Best Films of 2006:


1. The Prestige
If films are supposed to make you forget your troubles, whisk you away to worlds and places unknown, and deliver the kind of insightful, absorbing entertainment that only great art can accomplish, then The Prestige is definitely cinema at its most amazing. No other movie in 2006 was as painstakingly creative and visually arresting as Christopher Nolan’s take on Christopher Priest’s battling magicians novel. Much more than The Illusionist, which couched its pretty prestidigitation in a setting of pure old fashioned romance, The Prestige played with notions of obsession, dedication and deception. It remains a dark and dazzling work of masterful manipulation with an ending more saddening than shocking.



2. The Fountain
When you tear away the artifice, when you understand the links between the three arcane storylines (Conquistador, Contemporary, Cosmic) as well as the couple at the center of this staggering drama, you realize just how deep Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain really is. A magnificent meditation on how we accept death, and our inner struggle over demands of immortality, the Requiem for a Dream helmer describes love and loss, science vs. the spiritual, and hope against horror, all in the eyes of his two desperate leads. Dismissed by most critics who couldn’t wrap their brain around the unusual narrative structure, this is a film destined to grow in stature and significance in years to come.



3. The Queen
They say that famed British actress Helen Mirren stars in this unusual docudrama on the events surrounding the death of Princess Diana. Unfortunately, all one witnesses in this magnificent bit of motion picture imagining is her Royal Highness herself, Queen Elizabeth II. So effective is Mirren in drawing us into the world of the socially sheltered monarchy that we never once doubt we are watching the real Windsor clan reacting to a troubling, traumatic event. Michael Sheen is equally amazing as Tony Blair, the newly elected Prime Minister forced to face off against Her Majesty when the country’s grief grows too powerful. Together they show how power blurs the edges of one’s humanity, and how hard it is to get it back.



4. The Departed
Martin Scorsese and crime seem to be synonymous, but for many, The Departed marked a transitional moment for the American auteur. While this good cop/bad cop game of double crosses contained the essence of the Hong Kong hit Infernal Affairs in its narrative basics, the man behind such masterpieces as Goodfellas and Raging Bull reconfigured the story into something deeply personal. All three main characters, and the actors who embodied them, come across as worn and worked over, tired of constantly having to stay one step ahead of each other. Add in a superb supporting cast, an enigmatic Boston location, and a barrel full of Scorsese’s standard directorial brilliance, and you’ve got one of the year’s best, most accomplished films.



5. Clerks II
Kevin Smith can claim a great many things, but making one of the best movies of any year is not really one of them. Oh sure, his fans in the View Askew universe recognize that anything he does is brilliant, but that doesn’t mean that the far more condemning critical community follows suit. For 2006, things have changed. By revisiting his past, Smith has expanded his generational language, doing for maturity and moving on what the first Clerks did for sublime slackerdom a decade before. With its biting dialogue, insightful humor and smidgen of open-handed heart, what we wind up with is a wonderful dissertation on arrested adolescence and adulthood.



6. Hostel
Some find Eli Roth repugnant, the founding father of the new fangled ‘horror porn’ ideal. Anyone dismissing Hostel like this obviously has no movie macabre credentials. Doing for the genre what the Texas Chain Saw Massacre did in the ‘70s, and Evil Dead did for the ‘80s, Roth reinvents the scary film, taking it to levels both extreme and easily identifiable. Many people failed to see the cynical commentary on American nationalism and even fewer missed the swipes at the softcore sex farces that made up the majority of the early home video catalog. The results are dark, disgusting and definitive. Like The Fountain before, this is one that will age well indeed.


7. Snakes on a Plane
All right, complain all you want. Declare this a clear case of Internet hype failing to fulfill its promise, but dammit, Snakes on a Plane was a blast. People constantly comment on how the web-based ballyhoo didn’t translate into massive box office dollars, but the truth is that for anyone who grew up in the 1970s, SoaP was a terrific throwback to the original concept of a blockbuster. As the missing badass cousin of the kitschy Airport films, it’s a perfect example of the Zen popcorn experience, offering as much goofball yin as cinematic yang. Sure, it barely transcends its b-movie trappings, but for pure uncomplicated entertainment, you can’t beat these sensational serpents.



8. Silent Hill
Creepy can be its own virtue, and no one did disturbing better than Brotherhood of the Wolf director Christophe Gans. Given the charge of bringing to life the popular video game, the French filmmaker turned Hill‘s horrible imagery into a metaphor for life under the threat of constant upheaval. Few cinematic sequences were more compelling this year than the moments when the town’s ‘dark’ alarm sounded off, its baneful wail reminding all who hear it of the days when US Civil Defense used the same signal to announce an imminent nuclear threat. Between the dread-inspiring creatures and the brilliant visual flair, this was one spine-tingling take on terror.


9. Apocalypto
Mel Gibson may be as mad as a hatter – and a regular racist fool – but he sure can make magnificent cinema. Using a digital set-up to increase the realism and a measured approach to both history and histrionics, this old fashioned action romp rides the fine line between period piece and sci-fi spectacle. By taking us into the tale end of a corrupt Mayan culture, and watching the weird, sometimes contemptible way in which they held onto their power, we are literally whisked away to places afar and unknown. By grounding all the gore and gratuity, this tale of a kidnapped tribesman desperate to get back to his family proves a prolonged chase can carry with it more than just filmmaking panache. There can be heart and humanity as well.



10. Idiocracy
It’s the best movie of 2006 that no one saw – and that was on purpose. Fox, feeling let down once again by Mike Judge’s slanted satirical eye, relegated this 2004 futuristic farce to a high shelf in their direct to DVD release schedule. Then, feeling considerable pressure from the filmmaker, dumped it in a few theaters during the end of the Summer, signaling their overall contempt for the title. It makes sense, once you’ve seen the film. The very demographic Fox was wagering would fill the Cineplex were the very target of Judge’s derisive skewering. A movie that makes the bold prediction that our country is getting stupider every year, here’s hoping it finds an knowing audience on home video.



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