War Stories: Top 12 Films of 2006

Iraq in Fragments

You hardly needed to duck into theaters to see war images this year. And yet, there it they were. War stories made for some of the most gripping, provocative, and outraged offerings of 2006.

You hardly needed to duck into theaters to see war images this year. And yet, there it they were. War stories made for some of the most gripping, provocative, and outraged offerings of 2006. While some delved incisively into longstanding cultural battles, many others took up war literally, as documentaries or fictional meditations, looking back or ahead, pondering the terrible effects of war, as practice or philosophy. In all cases -- even when aggression and conflict lurk beneath surfaces -- these war stories comprise a poignant, critical, and resolute resistance to business as usual.

Both lyrical and hectic, James Longley's Iraq in Fragments observes the disintegration of Iraq into pieces, while also weaving together stories from three areas (the Kurdish north, Sunni center, and Shiite south), with children at the urgent center. It forms something of a companion piece for Laura Poitras' My Country, My Country. More conventional in form (following one Sunni Ara doctor as he runs for office in the January 2005 elections), this film also details breakdowns of infrastructure and hope.

Michael Winterbottom's The Road to Guantanamo reveals such destruction by way of a kind of formal deconstruction, slipping between interviews with the Tipton Three (British Muslims held by the U.S. without charge for some two years) and reenactments of their experiences at Guantanamo. Its complex structure is at once dramatic and provocative, interrogating the slippage and fictions practiced by the U.S., in terms of language, ideals, and conduct.

Another sort of collapse appears in The War Tapes. Directed by Deborah Scranton, edited in large part by Steve James, and shot entirely by New Hampshire National Guardsmen in Iraq, the documentary illustrates the patterns of destruction, and lack of clear mission and foundation that characterize the U.S. endeavor in post-Saddam Iraq. Repeatedly, the men note the same dangers and failures facing them again and again. Feeling abandoned and confused, the troops seek moral grounding in day to day interactions with a population increasingly distrustful of them.

Fury and disappointment also drive Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. Verging on monumental (at four hours), the film shows that individual errors and systemic shortcomings created the tragedy of Katrina. At once sweeping and specific, it argues that racism and classism, those twin pillars of U.S. economics and politics occasioned the storm's effects. As it shows what continues to go wrong in a rich, distressing array of images, Levees won't let you forget that the cluster of events and ignorances called "Katrina" is political in the most significant sense.

Ward Serrill's The Heart of The Game is not a war movie per se, but it is an intelligent, pointed examination of ongoing struggle. Tracing the Seattle high school basketball career of the insanely gifted and hardworking Darnellia Russell, the film exposes ongoing inequities of high school sports with regard to women players. Heart considers issues specific to girls, including a sexually abusive coach one player hires to improve her personal game and the subtle and unsubtle ways that misogyny still shapes expectations for women athletes and girls with ambitions.

Another girl is the focus of 2006's best fiction feature, Guillermo del Toro's WWII fairy tale, El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan's Labyrinth). It follows the imaginative adventures of 12-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), as she and her pregnant mother Carmen attempt to make a new life in the North of Spain, 1944. Right away horrified by her stepfather, the fierce and fascist Capitan Vidal (Sergi Lspez), Ofelia discovers that she herself may be a long-lost princess, destined to complete a series of tasks laid out by a faun (Doug Jones, Abe Sapien in del Toro's Hellboy

The warfare in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette is less obvious but central to the plot so many viewers derided as "apolitical." Kirsten Dunst's teenaged queen learns to survive in a devastatingly foreign land, where her primary mission in life to produce an heir with Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman). While she indulges in costumes and sugary foodstuffs (and eventually does seduce her husband), Louis's support of American Revolutionaries adds to France's financial demise, leading to the French Revolution and the royals' executions. Leaving these well-known results offscreen, Coppola's film instead observes causes and contexts, namely, the ruling class' excess and intransigence, its utter inability to see beyond itself.

A similar theme laces through Mary Harron's brilliant The Notorious Bettie Page. Dissecting a peculiarly U.S. postwar cultural schizophrenia -- the much discussed combination of titillation and prudery that shaped the '50s -- the movie takes the perspective of Bettie, the ambitious, eager-to-please pin-up girl, here played by Gretchen Mol. An anti-biopic in the best sense of the term, it breaks down conventions of storytelling as well as sexual and religious representation. This is a movie with almost too much on its mind, making repeat viewings rewarding.

Indigènes (Glory Days), directed by Rachid Bouchareb, reflects on the indignities and irrationalities of war away and at home. Set during World War II, it follows four North African Arabs who enlist in the French army to "liberate" France from the Nazis. Along with battles in which all men look either miniscule against the explosive and scarred landscape, or horrifically close as they bleed and die in front of their fellows, the Arabs also confront overwhelming racism and religious persecution among their European compatriots (as well as the occasional civilian). Made in part to shame the French government into reinstating pensions cut when Algeria was finally freed of colonial rule, the film's fury is palpable, as is its profound appreciation of the generous, often astounded soldiers.

Another contemplation of oppression and loss emerges in Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly, the "war on drugs" comes under scrutiny, as agents in "scramble suits" and addicts of all kinds literally lose themselves, their identities shattered as surely as if they'd been blown up by bombs. The state remains intact by turning victims and aggressors against one another in endless cycles of self-definition. This very idea is made visible in Linklater's further experimentation with rotoscoping. The familiar stars -- Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr. -- here slip in and out of view, their animated bodies shimmering and shifting, their pasts and presents unfixed, their addictions all that makes them mean anything.

Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima looks at loss in war, and worse, the anticipation of loss. On one level, this means defeat, as the Japanese soldiers will be overcome after a brutal 36-day battle with the Americans. Letters indicts the ideological and political structures that support war as systems of destruction. Knowing he and his troops will fall, General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) understands his mission in terms of the future, an effort to ensure that "our children can live more safely for one more day." The rationale for war is always the future. This is precisely what's lost to those who fight, whether they come back with devastating memories or don't come back at all. The movie makes clear the circularity of the problem, beginning and ending with a young soldier, Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), on the beach. At first he's digging trenches, and by film's end, he's swinging his shovel at U.S. Marines, that is, at the air.

And a special mention to Neill Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon's Cavite (made in 2005, but released this year). Awkward, low-budget, and occasionally grinding, it follows Adam, a just-getting-by, Filipino-American security guard (Gamazon) as he is forced to commit a terrorist bombing in the Philippines. Filmed with one camera and a minuscule budget, the film sucks you into Adam's immediate, impossible experience, revealing at once the most crass and banal means and motives of seeming "terrorists."

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