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Three Times

I'm making two lists this year. Here's the first: my favorites movies released in US theaters in 2006. It's a couple of days early, but I'll update it if I catch something noteworthy before the bell peals. Also, note that it might look like several lists, but it's not. It's just one. It can't easily be numbered from one to thirty-three, but that's no cause for alarm.

Proceed calmly.

Top 3, in no particular order

Iraq in FragmentsHalf NelsonThree Times

Next 8, in no particular order

realism with a conscience
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and
The Child (L'Enfant)

documentaries of passion and urgency
The War Tapes,
An Inconvenient Truth, and
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts

indie minimalism with a bead on the zeitgeist
Mutual Appreciation and
Old Joy

inquisitive, reverent archeology
Letters from Iwo Jima

Next 10, in no particular order

instructive, reverent archeology
United 93 and
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple

understated performances in stories I thought I knew
Requiem and
The Queen

survival and companionship
The Secret Life of Words and
Be With Me

childhood refashioned for adults
The Science of Sleep and
Pan's Labyrinth

audacious and under-appreciated
Battle in Heaven and

Also These 4

America through the eyes of newcomers
God Grew Tired of Us

strong performances in over-the-top stories
Babel and
The Last King of Scotland

a formal examination beneath a didactic veneer
Fast Food Nation

8 Guilty Pleasures

Isild Le Besco is almost famous when she goes...

literate dialogue with humor and panache
Brick and

laughing with 500 other people when I didn't expect to
Clerks II and

but I still prefer...
For Your Consideration and
Little Miss Sunshine

probably the closest I need to get to American Idol

Some Notes Plus a Snotty Anecdote

All of these films deserve further discussion, but I'll save the detailed commentary for another time. The overall strength and diversity of what made it into theaters surprised me once I gathered them into a pile. Genre films, political films, and films about science, culture, romance, immigration, wars of the past, and wars of the present. Of the 33 movies listed above, 21 are nominally American films, but the geographical lines are not always distinct. Two of those 21 (Iraq in Fragments and Letters From Iwo Jima) take place in other countries and use only native dialogue. The Secret Life of Words is from Spain but it stars a Canadian and an American, both speaking English. Borat stars a prominent British comedian pretending to be visiting the US from Kazakhstan. And Manderlay features a large cast of American actors in a story about slavery in the South, but it was made by a Dane who has famously never been here.

In fact, as a product of a globalized world, I continue to be fascinated by films with deliberately hazy cultural boundaries, and I think nearly every movie on this list shows a curiosity about the way people with differences connect to each other or tragically fail to. It's the stuff of comedy and the stuff of drama, the focus of chroniclers and problem-solvers alike. I suppose people in contrast have always been the drivers of narrative — Felix and Oscar, Ollie and Stan — but perhaps more than ever before those contrasts are falling naturally out of our need to peek outside of our borders just to understand what is happening to us, or what is happening to other people because of our actions.

The world is shrinking, and cinema, it seems to me, is particularly well suited to examine the phenomenon. Pictures. Sounds. You know.

Like everyone else — even the most ardent cinephiles and dedicated film critics — I missed far more movies this year than I saw. Oh, I saw plenty, don't you worry. But the world of film cannot be experienced in full by a single person (let alone a married one — ba-DUM-ting), so as I bounce among the web sites, newspapers, and magazines to read the end-of-year lists, my favorites are the ones that overlap with mine a bit but also recommend a bunch of movies I haven't seen. Nothing makes me more excited to see a movie than a strong recommendation from a friend. No amount of vacuous, anonymous Oscar buzz can pique my interest as much.

So I'll end with an anecdote.

Snotty Anecdote

One afternoon at Sundance '06 I saw a terrible film whose name I will not mention. The well-known lead actress flounced around the screen pretending to be an abused ex-con while the camera pawed at her like a drunk. With dubious depictions of the so-called cycle of dysfunction, the film pandered to audiences that seem pre-programmed to respond in kind, and its lack of insight into abusive relationships — cue the tears — left me disgusted.

But if you leave a movie like that and hear fellow critics (whom I don't know personally) sniffling and talking about awards, you begin to wonder if you live in a bubble, if your armor is just too thick. I sniffle at the movies all the time. But at this one I just clenched my jaw. I'd have been out the door at the half-hour mark except that I can't really write a review of a film that I haven't seen completely (lest I disclose that fact in the review). But, oh, the minutes of my life that I'd have saved from the teeth of the machine if I'd pulled the rip cord.

I guess it also irks me that some critics love to raise the value of the industry's currency by acting as if the epitome of artistic expression, in fact the reason for art in the first place, comes down to a simple statuette. [Filled with chocolate.] It's bad enough when these folks kick into action for a mediocre film, but when they do it for a bad one, you feel like throwing your notebook into the snow and reading a novel instead of trudging to the next screening.

But here's what you do instead. You step out of the theater into the bitter Utah cold to walk between snow drifts, across the recently shoveled parking lot, and wonder how many of the filmmakers who brought films to this festival are striving to do whatever this film has done. You find yourself in a mass of humanity pushing and shoving to get into the next film. You step back and try to form a line with those around you. You settle into place, you close your eyes, you brace against the bitter cold. Then two soft-spoken critics behind you begin to talk about the state of cinema as summarized by the Sundance program, and when they start to talk quietly about the last film, the way the camera salivated over its tightly-wrapped star's body, a cloud lifts and a ray of sanity warms your wind-whipped face.

And when those two men — whose names I never caught — start talking about a different film, one they loved, one that does not seem to have been mentioned among the festival "buzz" that's so eagerly devoured and shat back toward distant editors, you turn— I turned— and asked them if they were talking about a film at this year's festival. Yes, they said. It's called The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierez, a documentary by a German filmmaker who tells the story of the first US soldier killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and does so with great skill and compassion. Sensing an affinity, I went into my carefully constructed schedule like a brick through a window and made a date with the second screening of Heidi Specogna's documentary about Gutierez, a remarkable little film, sparsely attended at Sundance but worth all the scheduling adjustments it required.

My faith was restored and remains intact, even though the film has yet to find distribution in the States while the hideous movie that I won't name was nominated for a Golden Globe.

Goes to show you: there are pockets of sanity out there, but sometimes the quiet qualified voice is more reliable than the noisy mass of kleenex toters. The trick, as always, is to find them.

Well let me be of service, kind and patient reader. You could start here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here ...

Update 2006-12-31: I've continued adding to the heres above as my favorite film folks submit their wrap-ups. I'll probably stop doing this now, but don't consider it a slight if yours isn't there. I just get overwhelmed by long lists, which is why my list of links in the Errata sidebar is slim and rarely changes.

3 Films Requiring Further Research Before We Can Determine Whether They Are a) Lovely Sapphires That Ring When They Catch the Light or b) Curb Vomit

Is it Vertigo cleverly rejiggered or just hokied-up?
The Illusionist

Can it really be as dumb as it seems; is it Todd Solondz lite or a Todd Solondz take-down; is it a PT Anderson wannabe or a PT Anderson parody?
Little Children

Can the exposition really be so clumsy when everything else is so elegant; is the delivery of the digital baby inspired by Gaspar Noé?
Children of Men

3 Undistributed Films Seen in 2006

The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierez

constructive and good-natured documentary on a loaded topic
Flock of Dodos

weird, sweet, stunning
Syndromes and a Century


It's only fair to mention that several of my favorite films of the year — about nine of the movies on this list — premiered at Sundance. It's a good fest, even though it also generates a lot of noise over practically nothing, making it harder to separate the wheat from the chaff. But it's in there, all the whole-grain goodness. I keep a little baggie with me at all times, filled with brown sugar. Mmm. And little pats of butter pressed firmly into a survivalist tube. A half pint of milk, chilled and thermosed. Vietnamese cinnamon in a salt shaker with a cotton ball stuffed into the top like it's protecting a vial of headache powder. And a spork, tucked into a loop meant for pens.

This analogy cannot be salvaged. End of transmission.


I want to say that I have not seen The Good German nor The Good Shepherd, but personally I think dog lovers should be able to get a special double-feature ticket that lets them into both films for the price of one. Too bad this idea will never see the light of day, it having been expressed past the end of the post.

Posted by davis | Link
Reader Comments
December 30, 2006, 09:34 AM
Doug Cummings

So glad to see your ambiguous appraisal of Children of Men, Rob. It was without a doubt technically accomplished, but not more so than, say, the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, and the film ultimately has about as much depth as Spielberg's film. Every positive review I've read mentions the long takes and the performances. Okay, check. Anything else? Not that I'm aware of. Any readings of its political references are entirely muddled or outright dismissive, and anything else derives simply from its premise and nothing it actually does with it. I was quite disappointed.

December 30, 2006, 10:36 AM

Rob, I appreciate your acknowledgment of what is the driving import behind these end-of-the-year lists; the chance recommendation from a friend you trust about a movie you haven't seen. As I review the glut of films I've seen this year, some of my favorites would not have blipped on my radar had it not been for the heads-up of writers like you, Doug, Darren, Girish, David.

Your qualified approach to listing likewise amuses. I'm glad to see Half Nelson in your top three. Had I not purposely dodged the task at hand, it would probably have been in my number two slot after Pan's Labyrinth.

As for the "reverent archaeology" of Letters From Iwo Jima, I concur with the import of revealing these variant perspectives about a region of WWII I know little about, though the clumsy spilling of letters at the end of this film begs some true archaeology. It was a visual flourish that snubbed its nose at the intelligence of its audience.

I'm so pleased to see Requiem on your list. I'm intending to write this one up in the next few days. Stellar performance. And I'm also quite pleased that you mention Manderlay which I caught at an advance screening in Paris in September 2005 so that it doesn't even register as a 2006 film; but, I was impressed with the film's purposeful contrivances and felt it was pettily dismissed.

As mentioned, your jury-is-still-out responses to The Illusionist, Little Children, and Children of Men is both amusing and fair. The Illusionist didn't do much for me; in fact it did very little. Little Children frustrated me because I kept wanting to like it as much as so many other critics seem to but I'm afraid I like it for all the wrong reasons (the laundry hump scene; some of the best softcore porn I've seen in ages). I will be seeing Children of Men tomorrow and am so grateful for both your and Doug's reservations. It inspires a vigilant eye.

As for The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierez, I respect so much how you champion this film. This is a case in point where someone's recommendation encouraged me to catch a screening. It's part of Berlin & Beyond this year, projected in 35mm, and I'm hoping to catch it one more time since the dvd projection at the Galeria left something to be desired. It also looks like I get to interview the cinematographer, who I understand has some wonderful stories to tell about the military's on-again/off-again romance with the project. Anything you'd like me to ask?

Also, Syndromes and a Century has been picked up by Strand Releasing for distribution and will be part of this year's Asian-American.

December 30, 2006, 01:47 PM

I can't think of when I've had the pleasure of coming across an end-of-year film summary that's more fun to read.

It's nice to hear that, ludicriously early-bird Oscar prognosticators aside, Sundance is "a good fest". I don't know if I mentioned to you that I'll be dipping my toe there this year for the first time. I'll try to whip up a batch of your recipe (it sounds ideal for something to bring on a snow-camping trip).

December 30, 2006, 02:19 PM
Doug Cummings

Fantastic news about Syndromes, Michael--thanks! I'm actually quite shocked...

December 30, 2006, 08:25 PM

Marcus Hu over there at Strand Releasing has his head screwed on straight. They picked up Tropical Malady as well, if you recall. It's good to know there are some entrepeneurs who are creative at both exhibition and distribution.

December 30, 2006, 10:40 PM

Doug, I honestly haven't made up my mind about Children of Men, but I share your concerns. I saw the movie in a particularly bad mood, and I want to read some reviews to see if maybe I just wasn't in the right frame of mind. I appreciated some aspects, cringed at others, and in general haven't really taken much away from it. Your comparison to Spielberg is apt.

Maya, I know what you mean about the letters at the end of Iwo Jima. Scenes like that are why I've never really warmed to Clint Eastwood as a director. I know many others who hold him in high regard, but I seldom like his films. Maybe those low expectations are what made Letters From Iwo Jima such a pleasant surprise for me. I like how every action in the film requires a moral choice and raises the question of where loyalty ought to lie. And the spilled letters aside, I felt like Eastwood was uncharacteristically restrained.

Funny that you saw Manderlay in Paris in '05. I saw Dogville in Paris! At Studio 28. I have a review of Manderlay that I'll post eventually, but I agree -- I think to some people it looked like von Trier was treading water, but a number of reviews completely misread the film, in my opinion.

I'm glad I was able to point you to The Short Life.... I didn't know that it'll be showing at Berlin & Beyond, but I may try to catch it again. (Thanks for posting an overview.) And this is another nice example of the cross-cultural exchange that a lot of my favorite films have going on this year. Is it the only film to play at both the Latino and German fests in SF? Must be.

I heard about Syndromes and a Century getting picked up by Strand, and I couldn't be more pleased! It may be my favorite film seen this year, but that'll be another list. ;-)

Brian, that's great. Let's definitely plan to meet up. I'll drop you a line.

January 4, 2007, 04:25 PM

"Every positive review I've read mentions the long takes and the performances. Okay, check. Anything else?"

For Cuaron, it was much more than a technical exercise. Feeling disillusioned, cynical, and despairing about his own generation's attempts to fix the world... and the fact that many attempts have seemed to make it worse... he wanted to express his passionate hope in "the next generation." (At least, that's what he told me when I met him in downtown Seattle a couple of weeks ago.)

I asked him how he felt about P.D. James's Christian worldview, since it seemed he had gone to great lengths to push that aspect aside. He responded by saying he didn't mean to "take God out of the equation," but to instead emphasize that the world is "the apartment building that God gave us, and we've made a mess of it." He said we shouldn't think of God as "the super," and go running to him crying for help, but that we should get busy fixing what we've broken, or hope that our children will do that after us.

This was not a conversation about thrilling one-take chase sequences.

If you read my positive review, Doug, (and according to a conversation we had elsewhere, I thought you had), you'd have read that I was impressed by much more than its technical mastery. I was moved by the way it worked as a visceral story of willful hope; of carrying on against all odds; and of cherishing life in the middle of a world that seems determined to devalue and to crush it. And I was both broken-hearted and inspired by the conclusion.

No, it's not a politically eloquent film or a sophisticated commentary on poverty or anything of the sort -- Cuaron's collage of global crises is rather haphazard.

But by compressing so many traumas and tribulations into one concentrated sequence of scenes, he connects on an emotional level with viewers who are bombarded by bad-news headlines from around the world every day. (I felt almost in a dream-state during the film.)

In the film, London becomes a microcosm of the whole world's problems, and through this labyrinth of destruction, one man must pry himself from the chilling grip of apathy and play a most unpleasant part in saving the world.

I found that inspiring. Sure, the technical virtuosity was astonishing. But I love the film much more for its heart than its special effects.

Anyway, I'm not insisting that you come around to my perspective. Your experience of it was your experience of it. But I did want to speak up and say that, for some of us who love the film, it's not just about great tracking shots.


January 4, 2007, 04:49 PM

Thanks for your comments, Jeffrey. It seems like they may be the continuation of a conversation going on elsewhere, but I'll add them to what's rolling around in my head. Some of my favorite film folk are praising Children of Men (Keith Phipps, Manohla Dargis, J. Hoberman, David Edelstein, Jonathan Rosenbaum), so I think you're in good company. (And since you didn't provide a link to your own review, I Googled it. I hope that's the one you're referring to.)

I'd like to see the film again. Thankfully, I won't need to come up with a written response to the film now or ever. Ah, luxurious indecision.

January 5, 2007, 09:19 AM
Doug Cummings

Wow, I wouldn't have wanted to graft our previous coorespondance on this thread, but I did notice Rosenbaum reviewed CoM today and I wouldn't say he's exactly "praising" it:

"For better or for worse, del Toro and Gonzalez Iñarritu seem to have fulfilled their potential working within their chosen genres. I don't think the same can be said of Cuaron. Genre seems to get in the way of his best impulses, as it does in Children of Men, which steadily devolves as he moves from thoughtfully suggestive dystopian science fiction to relatively thoughtless and childish action-adventure to even more mindless war movie. . . . Not surprisingly, most critics, including me (I wrote a Critic's Choice for the film two weeks ago), are obsessed with how adept Cuaron is at handling long takes and a complicated mise en scene -- we're celebrating the technique and minimizing the banality of the story."


January 5, 2007, 09:41 AM

I mentioned before that I have not yet read in-depth on this film. But I read Rosenbaum's capsule, and that's what I was referring to above. (The capsule has since moved off of the critic's choice page that I linked to, but you can find it here.)

This sentence is praise by any definition: "But the filmmaking is pungent throughout, and the first half hour is so jaw-dropping in its fleshed-out extrapolation that Cuaron earns the right to coast a bit."

However, I look forward to reading his longer comparison to Pan's Labyrinth. And I appreciate that his view is evoloving, and that this film is hard to pin-down.

January 7, 2007, 04:34 PM

Here's an examination of a scene in the film by M. Dargis at the New York Times.

January 9, 2007, 03:27 PM

Rob, I've been meaning to comment on how much I enjoyed your year-end piece. Both insightful and delightful, which is an exceedingly tricky combination. How nice when it comes together, as it so often does in your writing.

I see there are already attempts to sway you on Children of Men, so I'll leave that to abler folk. But if I might push you on the other Children, don't be moved by the New Age mush or the acting pyrotechnics. Maya's thoughtful reservation is right on target. The love for that movie and Babel is somewhat baffling to me.

If I might throw one request out there, I'd love to read your reviews of Three Times and Jonestown. The former because I know we disagree on that film, and I'd love to hear why you like it so much. The latter because I know we agree on that film and I want to compare notes. I'll put up my Jonestown review this weekend. I don't know if I'll ever write up a Three Times review, as I might get thrown out of the Meditative Asian Movie of the Month club. And I wouldn't want that.

January 14, 2007, 11:57 PM

Thanks, J. Robert. I actually have been thinking of posting something on Three Times, so maybe we'll be able to discuss the film in more detail. I've had lots of things rolling around in my head, but I've never put anything down on paper.

Which reminds me, as you've been posting your end of year reviews, I've thought of a few more that I could post to join the discussion. I have a backlog of reviews that were written for Paste but never posted here (e.g. Bubble). I'm gradually clearing the queue.

By the way, I think Babel is a lot more interesting that the other films those guys have made -- I know Amores Perros and 21 Grams are highly regarded by some, but I don't care for either one. (Their fractures are so showy, as if such things have never been done before. Resnais had a purpose for his fractures. Those two films are games by comparison.) But I think the characters in Babel are larger, finally, than the structural games, and I liked some of the cross cultural echos, even though they're somewhat simple. E.g. the different ways guns are used.

January 19, 2007, 05:09 AM

Nice to see you picked two of my favourites, Three Times and The Death of Mr Lazarescu. Two very different films in style and content, but both equally memorable. Three Times is my favourite Hou film, along with The Time to Live and The Time to Die.
I saw L'Enfant but wasn't all that impressed. I thought Rosetta and Le Fils great films and are still my favourites by the Dardenne brothers.
On a lighter note, I enjoyed Walk The Line.

July 12, 2007, 10:40 AM

Hey, Peter, sorry I'm a little slow in responding(!).

I don't think L'Enfant reaches the heights of Le Fils, which is one of my all time faves, but I do like it. As is often the case with the Dardennes, the title is mysterious. Asking who, exactly, is the child in each scene can be quite telling. I also like the comparison of the motorcycle with the pram.

I enjoyed Walk the Line as well.