BY DAN BUSKIRK, FILM CRITIC
APOCALYPTO (2006, directed by Mel Gibson)
CASINO ROYALE (2006, directed by Martin Campbell)
DEATH OF LAZARESCU (2005, directed by Christi Puiu, Romania)
DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2006, directed by Amy Berg)
THE DEVIL & DANIEL JOHNSTON (2006, directed by Jeff Feuerzeig)
I AM A SEX ADDICT (2006, directed by Caveh Zahedi)
THE KING (2006, directed by James Marsh)
LITTLE CHILDREN (2006, directed by Todd Field)
MUTUAL APPRECIATION (2006, directed by Andrew Bujalski)
WASSUP ROCKERS (2006, directed by Larry Clark)
Is not gloom in the very air we breathe, or am I seeing the world through woe-colored, globally warmed, post-9/11 glasses? With “United 93” and “World Trade Center,” the long hard Rumsfeldian slog has finally SURGEed into the fictional worlds of the megaplex and it seems like the hellfire of sex, sadism, and the Apocalypse has burned even Hollywood raw. Let’s just say it was a bad year for frivolity.
It is as if the images from Abu Ghraib and reality TV have upped the level of stimulation needed to fuel our cinematic nightmares. How else can you account for the torture-porn like “Saw” being a franchise picture, and films like “The Hills Have Eyes” being elevated out of the grind house and outfitted with even more graphic mayhem? Comedy has been taken to extreme sport level, whether it is the horse jism subtlety of “Jackass 2” or stirring a stick in the gooey psyches of Fox Americana in “Borat.”
Looking over my favorite films of 2006, I felt sheepish at their glaring morbidity, but I’m not sure whether I’m helping drive the trend or if we’re just living in a more grotesque world these days. Heck, even Will Smith is sleeping on a men’s room floor this season…
In “Little Children,” director Todd Field gives us the quaintest-looking small town since Blue Velvet’s Lumberton, where evil lurks in the guise of a recently released sex offender (played with a sad creepiness by long-absent child star Jackie Earle Haley), while the quietly frustrated parents are in danger of spinning out of control by chasing their own tempting demons. Filled with sharp writing and crisp performances, “Little Children” is like the best episodes of “Six Feet Under,” with its witty way of rubbing our noses in a very contemporary strain of ennui.
Tragedy dangles around the households of “Little Children,” while not really striking them. In “The King,” the prodigal son returns in hellbent rampage and actually claims what is his. The lost son is the strikingly handsome Gael Garcia Bernal, and the Biblical damnation he brings down on the father who abandoned him (William Hurt in his best role in years as a hip evangelical preacher) is presented in an understated, Terrence Malick-like style that leaves the catastrophe seeming as much preordained from God as conceived by man. Waifish newcomer Pell James is blankly amazing, doing that spooky young Sissy Spacek thing as the incestuous daughter.
Not since a boozy Robert Mitchum chased kids around the marsh in “Night of the Hunter” has there been a more blatantly villainous man of the cloth then Father Ollie, the focus of the documentary “Deliver Us From Evil.” Father Ollie’s genteel manner as he discusses his serial molestations sends a chill on par with cinema’s most monstrous psychopaths. Director Amy Berg transforms what could have been just a catalog of cruelties into a building tide of unfiltered emotion that convincingly pleads to change the politics of one of the world’s most unchanging institutions.
God and the Devil figure prominently in the legend of songwriter and artist Daniel Johnston, and his feature-length profile “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” tells the saga of his near mythological travails with unnerving intimacy. “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” joins recent docs like “Capturing the Friedmans” and “Tarnation,” where the subjects themselves had begun documenting their lives long before the film projects began. Having access to Daniel Johnston’s films, drawings and extensive audio journals gives the viewer a chance not just to recount a life but to be a voyeur present during a lifetime of ups and downs.
Caveh Zahedi is looking for that kind of intimacy and more in his autobiographical confession “I Am A Sex Addict.” Sex addiction is shown to be much the same as any old addiction, but for the added benefit that a blow job is inherently funnier than a beer. Zahedi, who resembles a bug-eyed and horny young Don Knotts, is an admitted egotist nut, but he’s a philosophy buff as well and seems to sincerely be seeking The Truth of his actions while fancifully recreating them, recasting a porn star as his wife.
Andrew Bujalski’s “Mutual Appreciation” is also obsessed with intimacy, stealing the 16mm black-and-white style that brought added immediacy to the French New Wave films of the 1960’s. Bujalski’s subjects are post-grads of today however, and these very recognizable white bohemian twentysomethings lack the sort of decisive personal momentum to cut an iconic image into the screen. “Mutual Appreciation” exploits their awkward indecision for all its humorous potential, making every thwarted romantic gesture carry the real-life sensation of humiliating dorkiness. What would make a better youth film — it’s like watching Truffaut direct “Napoleon Dynamite” through a night at the Khyber, but sadly, when I caught it at the Ritz there were only a couple of senior citizens present to relate.
“Wassup Rockers” is the most carefree film on the list, as well as the least angst-ridden of Larry Clark’s filmography. With “Kids” and “Bully,” Clark seemed like he had to fabricate some life-and-death scenario to justify his interest in hanging around a bunch of teenagers. But here, he seems happy just to quietly observe the comradery of his skateboarding gang of Latin punks. I can’t blame people for getting a little twitchy when confronted with Clark’s frankly sexualized teens, but here he is at his best catching this posse of sweet-hearted youth in that blissful, untethered teenaged moment that lingers like a mid-air 360 in the idle memories of oldsters.
The skateboarders of “Wassup Rockers” are shown being taunted by movie cops, meanwhile the real L.A. cops had to face the drunken Christ-complex rantings of Mel Gibson. It’s a shame Sugar Tits distracted people from what a primal thrill Gibson’s “Apocalypto” was once it arrived. Only a director coming off a monster hit would be able to fund an Inca-language period piece with no stars. But far from being a mad folly, “Apocalypto” is a mad delight, a timeless tale of enslavement and escape that is as crudely expressive and mesmeringly action-driven as the silent classics at the birth of cinema. The repentant Gibson tried to draw allegories between the fall of the Inca civilization and the America empire, but he was just blowing steam; he isn’t really concerned with politics. Instead, the Oscar-nominated director has created another heady and phantasmagorical tale that is his most concise telling to date of man’s brutal struggle to transcend life. Large sections of the film cruise along with the brilliant natural precision of “Jaws”-era Spielberg.
The viciousness of the year even reached the untouchable Bond franchise, with the scaled-down hero suddenly self-conscious about his status as a government hit man, finally realizing there may be a downside to traveling to beautiful locales, meet new people and murder them at his government’s behest. I’m enough of a film snob to admit it hurts a bit to have a Bond film in the Top Ten. Even at its best the series often gleams emptily like the juvenile fodder for Playboy readers that it is. But “Casino Royale”‘s small and large pleasures unfold with such elan and the elevation of Daniel Craig from solid film actor to bona fide movie star is a once-in-a-career transformation that is thrilling to witness. Craig creates a prickly, cocky and aloof Bond, radiating an efficient sense of earthy, man’s man cool like no actor since Steve McQueen.
Although Bond gets poisoned, smacked in the Royal jewels with a carpet beater and made to endure a theme song sung by Chris Cornell, you never feel the sensation death breathing down your neck like you do in the Romanian import “The Death of Lazarescu.” Here, you spend 2 1/2 hours with a senior citizen who sits slumped in assorted hospital waiting rooms, coughing away and getting sicker, being lectured about his sinful life and left rotting forever until the paperwork clears. There’s something oddly life-affirming about the little bits of black humor that arise along the way — the title makes us painfully aware that these are Lazarescu’s final minutes on earth, and he’s spending them listening to nurses gripe about their pay. The world continues on monotonously, all the way to the final curtain.