Film-Forward Review: [THE BEST OF 2006]

Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Documentaries reigned in 2006, even without a galvanizing blockbuster to lead the trend like in previous years. There was something for everyone out in theaters: the political and persuasive Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers and The War Tapes; the frivolously fun Wordplay; the pop culture asides This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Who the $#%& Is Jackson Pollock?; and what use to be the standby, the concert film (Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, Shut Up & Sing). So it’s only appropriate docs comprise nearly half of the list. Fortunately, many of the following films have more than received press attention and accolades (and in one case, great box office), but they’re several here that were released in only a handful of markets and that more than merit added attention, which brings us to the first on the list.

A'la (Babak Ansari) walks Firoozeh (Taraneh Alidoosti) home
Photo: Sheherazad Media International

Largely unseen, this absorbing Iranian kitchen sink drama has not been chosen for obscurity’s sake. Its inclusion is a tribute to the remaining repertory and non-profit theatres throughout the country that offer films off the beaten path. (This film was screened exclusively at New York’s Film Forum.) A’la, an ex-con petty thief, seeks to save a friend from execution, asking clemency from the victim’s obstinate father. Capital punishment, drug and spousal abuse are touched upon, but the tentative relationship between A’la (the charismatic Babak Ansari) and his friend’s sister, a resilient single mother, is the most romantic and bittersweet of the year, with not a kiss in sight. Kent Turner

This film humorously documents cross-cultural entrepreneurship centered on the universal urge to feel attractive. Intrepid U.S. and U.K. volunteers, including expatriate translators, teach hair styling in a three-month “Beauty without Borders” curriculum in post-Taliban Afghanistan. The teachers flaunt their independence, and when they stop trying to change the culture and focus on imparting skills, they are effective. Having endured the harsh Taliban laws, the hard-working students gently push back when the Westerners, whom they question for being single and childless, force their New Age-y philosophy. The film intimately personalizes a culture in the news that we rarely get to see this close-up, and the difficulties and potentials of one-on-one outreach. Combs and brushes can be revolutionary instruments. Nora Lee Mandel (available on DVD, Docurama)

This is a thoroughly researched, passionate investigative journalism about sexual abuse of children and the Catholic Church’s complicity. Amy Berg knits a narrative of one priest’s destructive path through California. The centerpieces are Berg’s interviews with avuncular defrocked Oliver O'Grady in Ireland, where he was deported after prison. Seeing this genial old man enjoy watching children play is disturbing after police records, correspondence, and filmed depositions from the 1980’s lay bare Father O’Grady’s crimes. Families detail how he honed in on trusting parishioners to gain access to their sons and daughters, and the lingering damage he wreaked. Their wrenching pain and guilt contrasts with O’Grady’s affability. NLM

Flea (L) from Red Hot Chili Peppers &
Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, wearing a T-shirt with a Daniel Johnston design
Photo: Kevin Mazur/London Features

This film is an in-depth and literal inside look at the devastating impact of mental illness on an individual and within his family. Johnston’s home-made archive as a musician and visual artist provides the extraordinary audio-visual time-lapse documentation of a self-destructive creative life overwhelmed by inner demons. His odd odyssey from late adolescence in the confines of fundamentalist West Virginia is traced through his minor celebrity status in the alternative music and art scenes of Austin, MTV, and New York City. Heartbreakingly misunderstood by his parents, pharmacologically treated by doctors, and with his counterculture days behind him, Johnston, now bloated and sadly inarticulate, supports Robert Frost’s: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there/They have to take you in.” NLM (DVD, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

49 UP
The ”Up” documentaries, highlighting the drama of ordinary life, poetically meditate on human existence, following a group of British citizens from a variety of backgrounds. Beginning in 1964 when they were seven years old, director Michael Apted checked in every seven years to capture their progress (or lack thereof). At times, the journey has been harrowing (one of the subjects, Neil, underwent a nervous breakdown); at others, delightful (incredibly, Neil has recovered). This latest installment shows the films’ increasing self-awareness of the direction which the series has inevitably and unpredictably headed. It raises essential questions of people’s genetic predisposition juxtaposed with environmental influence and other concerns such as the impact of race, class, sexuality; ponders the mystery of life itself; as well as touching on mortality. Actually, there might be no better commendation for this film than to just declare: I can’t wait for the next “Up” doc. Reymond Levy (DVD, First Run Features)

Jalil Lespert as Antoine
Photo: Cinema Guild

This is the cop film of the year, less an investigation of the murder of an undocumented worker than a convincing and quietly moving character study. Alcoholic Chief Inspector Caroline returns to her Parisian crime unit, working with and gently guiding a young tenderfoot, Antoine, fresh from the academy. One of a spate of minimalist dramas (Man Push Cart, Old Joy), this French film has a fully realized script, where the precinct banter – at times crude, sexist, and racist – flows freely, never hammering the audience to make a point (unlike The Departed.) With its somber tone and methodical pace, cowriter/director Xavier Beauvois has set his own terms, and Nathalie Baye’s meticulous and understated lead performance ranks her among her contemporaries, Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep. KT

A film that hardly needs more publicity, but the in-sync ensemble – led by Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, and Steve Carell – enrich an already layered script. Emphasizing the brittle family dynamics, the actors easily lose themselves in their characters. What could have become caricature-ish becomes unfeigned, with the audience as eavesdroppers. And what better way to satirize the American drive for success than a kiddie beauty pageant? KT (DVD, 20th Century Fox)

A real feat of cinematic storytelling, this peculiarly enchanting work builds more and more with momentum. Set in 1940s Spain, adolescent Ofelia has no other choice but to go into the realm of her imagination when she and her mother come to live with her new stepfather, the fascistic Captain Vidal. One of the greatest villains in recent memory, Vidal is a force of cruelty for anyone who doesn't obey him. Part of the film’s greatness – aside from the tremendous technical accomplishments on all fronts (cinematography, production and creature design, special/visual effects) – is that we really care about Ofelia's struggle. Through the violent bleakness surrounding her, one can see how fantasy is not just a sweet desire, but a necessity in youth – one might want it as an adult as well. It’s a real marvel of "magical realism," as it's been dubbed by various critics, and is surely Guillermo del Toro's triumph so far. Jack Gattanella

Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II
James Cromwell as Prince Philip in the background
Photo: Laurie Sparham/Miramax

In its opening moments, Queen Elizabeth II, while posing for a portrait, turns to face the audience. Her unflinching eyes, rigid posture, and perfectly placed accessories (all carried with bewildering ease by the much-heralded Helen Mirren) tell us that this moment, like the rest of the film, is simply none of our business. Sharply observed, Peter Morgan’s script wonderfully translates a national tragedy into a multi-layered family drama. With understated direction from Stephen Frears and a solid supporting performance from Michael Sheen, who presents Prime Minister Tony Blair as an optimistic politician learning how to use his charm and charisma, The Queen has the year’s two most revealing character studies. Michael Belkewitch

In his reenactment of the airliner hijacked on 9/11, filmmaker Paul Greengrass bypasses sentimentality, reminding me of what the critic André Bazin wrote about Roberto Rossellini, that he was “directing the facts.” Melodrama is stripped from the script, and Greengrass presents some of the most masterful scenes of the mundane, meticulous occurrences that might have happened that day. The film’s power is intensified by seeing his version of what could have happened with a cast of unknowns, the camera always hand-held, and the tension gripping like a vice, not just for the passengers but for the audience. Aside from intercutting to air traffic controllers, the audience is as trapped in the plane as much as the passengers are. Alongside such films as Schindler’s List and Cries and Whispers, it’s a masterpiece of harrowing human emotions. JG (DVD, Universal)


The Best of 2005

The Best of 2004

The Best of 2003


Archive of Previous Reviews, 180 Thompson Street, New York, NY 10012 - Contact us