Films Review of the Year 2006

These are the biggest moneyspinners, those movies with the most anticipation, huge Hollywood cash cows. Featuring the biggest names, fastest cars, lavishest budgets and most explodingest of explosions, they are huge shots of celluloid directly and unashamedly targeted at the pleasure centre of the brain.

In recent years a lot of these have consisted of franchises. Trading off past successes, most of the PR work is already done.

At their best they can be fantastic – fulfilling instalments in a much loved series, with opportunities for character development and story telling that normal movies just don’t get (see the first Star Wars trilogy for details). At their worst they can be cynical cash-ins, horribly ill-advised returns to the scenes of former glories, forever sullying in the minds of a movie going public a previously glorious history (see the second Star Wars trilogy for more details).

With no Harry Potter, no Lord of the Rings and, thankfully, no more Star Wars, this year there was room for other franchise names to flex their muscles. Superman flexed some big steel ones in his enjoyable Return – lit up by a superb turn from Kevin Spacey. It was also aided by the comfortable direction of Bryan Singer, who made way for Brett Ratner at the helm of X-Men: Last Stand. Ratner did a fine job as well, and Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen were both top notch as the leaders of two bands of mutant superheroes – even if Ian did look a bit silly in his helmet.

Away from all things super it was more of a mixed bag. Johnny Depp couldn’t rescue the second Pirates of the Caribbean from sinking into mediocrity, and Tom Cruise’s return as agent Ethan Hawke of the “Impossible Mission Force” (yes – it really was called that) in M:I-3 was even absurder than the previous outing – $150 million spent on making things go “kaboom” and decidedly less spent on writing a decent script.

It wasn’t all about the explosions of course – nor was it all about franchises. Relatively little blew up as Tom Hanks and Ian McKellen dashed around in the adaptation of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code – perhaps that was why it left a lot of people cold. And explosives weren’t missed at all in the highly succesful and surprisingly likeable The Devil Wears Prada, featuring a fabulously bitchy performance from Meryl Streep.

A reasonable year for blockbusters – all things considered – was rounded off in style just a few weeks ago when Daniel Craig gave Bond a much needed shot in the arm. Looking like he could kick the christmas stuffing out of a few supermen, he added a delightful bit of grit into the blend of girls and gadgets in Casino Royale. The last big one of the year, and OMH’s favourite.

Early contenders for this slot next year: Could the Rocky Balboa, the sixth Rocky movie, really be the best one since the original? Could Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto really make people forget about a certain drunken outburst?

The arty stuffClive Owen
Children of Men: Not much to look forward toOf course a lot more came out of the film industry this year than pure popcorn cinema – and a lot of it was highly watchable.

Oscar success deservedly followed Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, and made big names out of Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal; many merrily proclaimed it the film of a year only six days old.

Gyllenhaal then starred in an even better, if much less appreciated, film a week later: the funny and tense Gulf War movie Jarhead.

The rest of the year was a feast of cinema. There was a lot of overt politics in Good Night, and Good Luck and a lot of thinly veiled politics in Manderlay. There were hard and gripping thrillers like Antibodies and London to Brighton – the former surely the best German movie of the year, the latter surely the best British one.

There were political thrillers in the shape of Syriana and The Wind that Shakes the Barley – brilliant efforts both. There were impassioned dramas from first timers, like Dominic Savage’s Love + Hate, and old masters, like Pedro Almodovar’s Volver. The succesful combination of teen drama and noir crime thriller in Rian Johnson’s Brick was weirdly brilliant – while Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth was brilliantly weird.

In short, there was a huge amount of great stuff from a large bunch of talented people to watch – and plenty to pick up on DVD for some late Christmas presents. OMH’s favourite however, combining politics, thriller, and weirdness – though fortunately not teen drama – has to be Children of Men a simply unforgettable vision of a bleak near future Britain.

Early contender for this slot next year: Forest Whittaker shining – and hopefully picking up an Oscar – in Last King of Scotland.

Documentaries & BiopicsHelen Mirren
Helen Mirren: Not built like a brick shithouseWhile most film rightly restricts itself to the realms of pure fantasy, some prefer to cover that which is stranger than fiction.From those which are merely “based” on a true story to those which actually do contain bits of truth, there was plenty of entertainment in what loosely be described as cinema’s non-fiction aisle.

2006 was the year the industry got serious about committing September 11th to film. Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center surprised everyone by being quite good – its thunder was stolen though by United 93, which was even better.
Famous persons covered included Truman Capote, brilliantly played by the now firmly A-List Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Johnny Cash, featuring an also superb Joaquin Phoenix. John Lennon starred as himself in The US vs. John Lennon, which was rather good, and Zidane starred as himself in A 21st Century Portrait, which made film critics rave and audiences yawn.

Borat stretched the term documentary – and my ability to watch – to breaking point: Sacha Baron Cohen’s ability to get away with saying things such as “throw the Jew down the well” perhaps more remarkable than the amount of laughs he got doing it. From the other end of the spectrum, Al Gore popped up to soberly remind us that we’re all going to die in An Inconvenient Truth (thanks Al).

Despite all these efforts, musicOMH’s best piece of film based on real life this year was Helen Mirren’s superb performance as HRH – she somehow managed to look more like the Queen than the Queen does.

Early contender for this slot next year: Renee Zellwegger starring as the famous children’ books author Beatrix Potter in Miss Potter.

The Animated AvalancheMonster House
Monster House: you’ll be seeing a lot more like it next yearThe flood has been coming for a while. Animated movies are becoming easier and easier to produce cookie cutter type tools can increasingly be used to produce any type of location and describe things from anyone’s wildest imagination – all from within a nice warm studio.

Costs are easy to predict, schedules easy to stick to – and so far younger audiences have been lapping them up, even if the critics haven’t. In short animated movies represent a decent way to make a living – and it’s no surprise that a lot of studios want in on the action.

There were more animated features this year than any previous year – and almost all of them were computer generated. True, you could say the same about any previous year – but will 2006 be the year people remember as the one when the dam finally burst?

Increase in quantity has unfortunately not been followed by an increase in quality, rather real imagination and invention seems to be spread much thinner in the only genre where literally anything is possible to film. Chicken Little got us off to a solid if dull start – empathising with the plight of a chicken is rather difficult it turns out, even if he does have father son issues. The Wild was equally uninspiring, its only point of curiosity the fact that the koala had an English accent. Ice Age 2, Over the Hedge and Cars were a little funnier – even if they were just as predictable. Happy Feet I was happy to steer clear of.

musicOMH’s favourite is a little difficult to pick out of this relatively tame herd; but is just edged by Monster House, an animated Goonies for the noughties.

Early contender for this slot next year: The Simpsons finally makes it to movie format – how will it fare?

And a special mention for…Monster House
Tony Jaa: Would you steal this man’s elephant?Decent films are produced in all corners of the world by all kinds of people. Unfortunately they’re also usually ignored by all kinds of other people who are on their way to see movies about tapdancing penguins.

Therefore, despite all the places that fall in the area of “world cinema”, it is Asia that really deserves a mention this year, not so much for making decent movies as for being impossible to ignore any more. China, Japan, Korea and Thailand especially are all having a massive impact on the market both here in the UK and everywhere else in the world. And this is a very good thing.
It’s not been all about slick action movies either. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance proved a great follow up to Oldboy and a brutal ending to Chan-wook Park’s vengeance trilogy. Rising star Shu Qi excelled in Huo Hsien-Hsangs superbly crafter drama Three Times, Wang Xiaoshuai took a poignant and gripping look at China’s Cultural Revolution in Shanghai Dreams, and seven year old Gol-Ghotai proved that there’s more to Asia than, well, East Asia, in the achingly beautiful Stray Dogs.

But it is still mostly about slick action movies. Election was a decent effort if overburdened by characters – we are expecting great things from the follow up. Initial D: Driftracer and New Police Story were overburdened by nothing – plot, characterisation and dialogue cheerfully thrown out of the window for more superb action sequences. Did I say they were slick already? Tsui Hark’s cheerful blend of swords and ancient adventures just about worked in Seven Swords – and Takashi Shimizu somehow wrung some more life out of his Grudge series with Ju-On: The Grudge 2, even if the American remake fell flat on its face a few months later.

But all of the above has to stand back for musicOMH’s unashamedly lowbrow Asian movie of the year – Tony Jaa’s bonecracking, death defying, elephant chasing return to action Warrior King. Sorry, it was just too much fun.

Early contender for this slot next year: Welcome to Dongmakgol should be a hit with the critics if it can finally make it to these shores two years after its initial production – expect a small scale February release.

And that’s it!

And with that, it’s all over. Many thanks to all our readers and all our writers – looking forward to seeing everyone in 2007.

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