Five or six years ago, I dreamed up what I’d consider to be an ideal class on moviemaking. The course would be taught by one of my favorite directors—Steven Spielberg, Hayao Miyazaki, Spike Lee, Clare Peploe, Stan Brakhage, Woody Allen, Akira Kurosawa, Kryzsztof Kieslowski, René Clair, Preston Sturges, Pedro Almodovar, Robert Altman, take your pick.
The class (no more than 20 students) would meet three times a week, for eight weeks. Each week would be devoted to a specific aspect of the filmmaking:
sound & sound design (this includes music)
mise-en-scene (décor, set design, costumes)
Each Monday, we’d watch a film of the director/teacher’s choosing that he thought best exemplified the element under discussion, and that which influenced his use of that particular aspect. (He couldn’t choose one of his own movies.) On Wednesday, he would present a lecture on how the element was used within the movie, and how that element exposed the movie’s thematic, aesthetic, and moral vision as a whole. On Friday, we’d have a discussion about the film, led by the teacher. Here’s the trick: the group conversation (and a subsequent four-page journal entry due the following Monday) could only focus on the element under that week’s discussion. If, say, this week’s element was sound and the movie viewed was Jacques Tati’s Playtime, a student couldn’t opine about its meticulous set design or Tati’s magnificent performance as Mr. Hulot or its long, unbroken takes—unless she could relate these elements directly back to the movie’s sound design.
This, I thought, would lead to two things: 1. The class would become hyper-aware of the individual components of film; and 2. it would realize that the best movies intertwine all these elements so well that you can’t rightly discuss one element to the exclusion of others. Also, the class would get a deeply personal, opinionated history of filmmaking from a master of the form. After all, the movie of the week doesn’t have to be a great movie, just great at one particular element. (Can’t you just see Lars Von Trier—not that I’d choose him for my teacher—deciding to perversely force his class to watch terrible crap that nonetheless had, let’s say, amazing lead performances? I mean, isn’t that basically a good definition of his oeuvre?) Ideally, though, we’d be watching masterpieces. And masterpieces are those in which the above elements interplay, weave around each other, and yet are distinct enough so that we can single them out for attention. Great cinema brings all these together to form a single, unified vision.
Furthermore, and this is perhaps a corollary of #2, you’d get a sense of how nebulous these discrete categories are. When discussing the lighting of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, would the conversation fall under the movie’s photography or mise-en-scene? And why? Does “visual effects” deserve to be its own category or is it, as in Star Wars, the driving engine of the movie’s mise-en-scene? As critics, how do we decide these things? As filmmakers, how do we judge how to interweave or separate these aspects?
Driving home to Dallas for the Christmas holidays, the “master class” idea came back to me. I hadn’t thought of it in years. But that six-hour stretch of I-20 is beyond dull. I was mulling over how disappointing and/or saddening 2006’s movie culture seemed to me. Several of our most interesting directors—Michel Gondry, Sofia Coppola, Steven Soderbergh—made fascinating failures, but failures none the less. Robert Altman died. Two of the most hyped “independent” movies of the year—Borat and Little Miss Sunshine—were underwhelming. Woody Allen, my old on-again/off-again girlfriend, made yet another dispiriting mediocrity. Old favorite Christopher Guest started, finally, showing his age—For Your Consideration pales in comparison to his previous comedies.
It wasn’t all bad, of course. Spike Lee had a one-two punch with Inside Man and When the Levees Broke, two movies that—in terms of subject—couldn’t be further apart but which clearly come from the same visionary. His 2006 rivals Zhang Yimou’s 2004 or Steven Spielberg’s 2005 (or his 2002, or his 1993; Spielberg’s had several two-fer years). Though Gondry’s foray into writing his own films yielded a mess (The Science of Sleep) that’s too clever by half, his “trifle” is lots of fun. It’s proof that it’s best not to leave him to his own devices for too long; he needs a blueprint that’s not drawn by him.
Still, of what I saw (and I’ll mention at the end the stuff I missed), only a few films blew me away. We’ll get to those. Even in disappointing years and deeply flawed movies, there are gems. What I thought might be more interesting, though, would be to discuss the gems within movies. I saw few movies that were spectacular all the way through, but I saw lots of films in which there were spectacular elements, lovingly emphasized and manipulated.
So, without further adieu, welcome to Quiet Bubble’s Master Class of 2006.
Photography: I’m no professional photographer, but I know enough to realize how hard it is to create golden glows, a razor-sharp depth of field, and the crisp outlines of clouds if you shoot outside, in the perennially overcast Pacific Northwest. That alone makes Broken Trail’s deep focus and breathtaking vistas worth noting. The TV movie, directed by Walter Hill, is a classic Western, stunningly acted, well-paced, and written with depth and a cockeyed understanding of 19th-century American history. It’s the movie’s miraculous vision, though, that make it an overlooked marvel. Hill treats his landscape, animals, and actors with reverence, framing them in elegant long shots but also in crackling, fire-lit close-ups. The colors dazzle; each cloud is distinct, even in gray skies; ponds and rivers sparkle. The movie is mesmerizing. If there’s ever a Walter Hill retrospective, I hope this one gets to be seen on the big screen.
Sound & sound design: Monster House knows that the best horror movies affect us more by what we hear than we see. The best comedies—well, best made since the advent of sound—know this, too. Until the final 15 minutes, which are just a slam-bang orgy of explosions and sentimentalism, Monster House successfully combines the two because of its brilliant sound design. In this computer-animated gem, two boys and a bossy Girl Scout decide to check out the neighborhood haunted house. Every floorboard creaks just as it should. Every breath is muffled just behind us. Every blade of grass and crack in the wall seems to have a distinct, menacing sound around it. The voice actors are strong—the smart jokes zing us because of their delivery, but the screams and whispers (coming from all directions) get under our skin. The visuals are lush and moody, but it’s the way that we can locate almost every sound in the movie’s space—the monster’s closer! No, it’s farther away! No, it’s AAAAAHHH!—that engages us. And then fools us. And then scares us. And then makes us laugh. Often, it’s all at once.
Editing: In November 2004, the Beastie Boys held a homecoming concert at Madison Square Garden. They wanted to document it. Instead of handing over the project to a professional film crew, they gave 50 ardent fans a DV camera and a quick tutorial, and unleashed them into the crowd. The result is a concert documentary with the world’s most perfect title—Awesome! I Fuckin’ Shot That!. The camerawork is, of course, shakier than The Blair Witch Project on a rollercoaster, but the quick cuts and rhythms give a great sense of what it’s like to see a concert from a variety of vantage points—front row, the nosebleeds, backstage, the restroom (one cameraman takes a pee break during “Gratitude”—smart man), near the soundboard. We see the concert as a fan would, from between someone’s outstretched hands, next to a couple making out, from odd angles. Some fans are more interested in the bouncing crowd than anything onstage. Some camera operators have great eyes for composition; some stay still enough to capture the images with sharpness instead of blur; a few never quite figure out how to turn the damn thing on. Director Nathaniel Hornblower (okay, okay, it’s really MCA) edits the movie so deftly and quickly that the different viewpoints reflect the music that’s booming onstage. DJ Mixmaster Mike’s quick cuts, cross fades, and great samples are mirrored by the rhythms and ever-changing camera perspectives. It’s actually thrilling that the camerawork is inconsistent—sometimes cruddy, sometimes luminous, depending on how drunk the fan is by that point—as it captures (as well as can be) the motormouth, reference-laden elocutions of the Boys. Edited and directed by a Beastie Boy, shot by the band’s fans, with oddball effects added post-production, Awesome! is a tribute to both fan interaction and the DIY aesthetic that the Beasties have brought to hip-hop since the 1980s. And it must be said that the concert—full of big hits, welcome obscurities, audience interaction to the nth degree, girls (not onstage) flexing and throwing up signs to “Paul Revere,” and green-and-gold Adidas uniforms—is itself fuckin’ awesome.
Writing: Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is very sharply written. I’m serious. Most American comedies are basically a concatenation of skits, and that’s certainly true of Ricky Bobby’s strange tale, but the segments here don’t feel discrete but instead tied together by a singular, satirical, but deeply affectionate vision of NASCAR culture. It follows the strands of a formulaic sports saga, and proceeds to skewer its conventions with every line. The actors—Will Farrell, Sacha Baron Cohen (funnier here than in Borat), Leslie Bibb, Gary Cole, Jane Lynch, Amy Adams, and John C. Reilly—deliver each line as if it’s their last and they’re gonna go down enjoying their jobs. The dialogue, running jokes, endless product placement, wild slapstick, and sports-announcer patter all ring true, like just slightly heightened versions of modern consumer culture. That’s really scary, in a way, but it’s also hilarious. I can’t think of another comedy made in the last five years that’s made me laugh so hard, and so often.
Acting: Most of Find Me Guilty takes place on the most important, but most pedestrian, of all stages—the criminal courtroom. Twenty defendants, veterans of the Jersey mafia, are accused of conspiracy and so many other crimes that the trial takes a year and a half to complete. Sometimes, it seems like Sidney Lumet’s taking that long to tell his story. Still, he gets across his main point—that trials are often decided by who tells the best story, who has the best acting, not by who has the most incontrovertible evidence. Lumet scores the music with bouncy Italian jazz-pop and directs Find Me Guilty like a screwball comedy, which is unsettling, considering that these jovial comic caricatures are murderers, extortionists, and thugs. Vin Diesel’s performance leads the crew of mugs—he’s got nuance, a low-toned voice that’s seductive as hell, and a goofy chuckle that disguises how smart he is. Peter Dinklage, Ron Silver, Alex Rocco, Annabella Sciorria, and others round out the cast of attorneys, judges, miscreants, and aides. Each character is vivid and deeply drawn, even those that only appear in a scene or two. Lumet’s movie is a showcase for actors, which he finds is part of the problem with the American legal system. A problem for us, sure, but not for the performers.
Mise-en-scene: Marie Antoinette was a languorous piffle, but Sofia Coppola knows how to set a mood and sustain it. Its dreamy, voluptuous tone was defined by those piles of cakes, dresses, and hairdos—so much so that, by the middle of the film, it was hard to tell the difference between the three. The pastel colors, jewel-drenched costumes, and generally mad opulence of Versailles glowed on Kirsten Dunst’s face and sharpened our sense of a protagonist who only knows pleasure, and who therefore has trouble grasping real pain. For three movies, Coppola has gotten by on creating environments so rich you can taste them, on atmospheres so delicately rendered that you can feel them quiver. I’m less and less convinced that there’s anything beneath the mood—even Dunst, who’s terrific, sometimes seems like a prop in Coppola’s elaborate set design and polished floors. That may be part of Coppola’s point, that Marie was overwhelmed by the royal apparatus around her. But the point is only vaguely constructed, as if Coppola was herself overwhelmed by all the historical apparatus around her heroine.
Visual effects: Takashi Miike makes a near-great movies every four pictures or so, which means he makes one about once a year. In 2006, it’s The Great Yokai War, a fable that’s supercharged with modern pop culture. I can’t call it a kid’s flick—it’s scary, it’s gross, there’s some blood—but it is a coming-of-age tale. A city kid moves to the country (the result of a divorce), is pronounced the village’s protector despite the fact that he’s not fitting in, and promptly has to save the world from Japanese demons. His entrance into the myth-world is paved by the film’s CGI effects, stop-motion animation, and panoply of odd spirits (yokais). The effects feel clunky and handmade—the greenscreen effects and matte paintings are obviously that—like a fantasy world made by children. Indeed, through this kid, we see contemporary Japan and its relationship to the old, god-filled days. Because we see this collage of ancient life and Internet age through a product of the latter, it should cheer us that the movie’s lens is made of found materials, of a kid making do with what he is. The movie reminds me of P.J. Hogan’s marvelous 2003 adaptation of Peter Pan, in that the effects reflect the protagonist, not the director.
My favorite five movies of the year, in order:
#1: Children of Men, directed by Alfonso Cuarón. I’ve said more than enough about this one. A sci-fi dystopia that doesn’t so much ignore politics as transcend them, Children of Men creates a believable, horrifying near-future that gets redeemed (maybe) by grace. It’s a story of salvation on several levels, but it never veers into sap, and it dares to present a specifically Christian, specifically Leftist, vision of the world instead of feel-good mush or moral wishy-washiness. Technically flawless, with performances by Clive Owen and Claire-Hope Ashitey, it’s the one movie I saw in 2006 that stayed with me for weeks afterward.
#2: Volver, directed by Pedro Almodóvar. It’s a gently perverse movie—as are most of Almodóvar’s deceptive day-glo confections. We find ourselves sympathizing with a murderer, a prostitute, a ghost, and a woman who’s willing to cover up a killing. The master filmmaker gives his characters depth and wit, and asks us to accept—if not embrace—them. Volver is genre-less in a way that can only be described as Almodóvaresque—full of deep shadows; reveling in noir lighting and plots; dark humor that makes you laugh out loud at the most awful things; histrionic characters who reveal themselves to be complex creations just when we think they’re turning into stereotypes; color schemes, push-up bras, and set designs that Liberace might have found too loud. Almodovar’s films are, if you can believe it, are humanistic cartoons—the greatest of oxymorons. Volver is woman-centered, and the actresses are brilliant. Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas, Blanca Portillo, Yohana Cobo nearly steal the show from the outlandish colors. But nobody can steal it from Penélope Cruz, who pretty much defines impetuousness for this young century. Cruz’s Raimunda is a demanding role, requiring the ability to flail, crack wise, flash fangs, rein in a wayward daughter, and yet crumple at the sound of a particular person’s voice. She nails it. We get swept up in her emotional tornado as the plot pings from one juicy revelation to the next, because she plays it straight, so it all seems natural rather than over-amped. The movie subdues Almodóvar’s sexual force, but only slightly—the camera moves as slinkily as Cruz in her tight dresses.
#3: Inside Man, directed by Spike Lee. As with Children of Men, I’ve said my piece. Spike Lee uses the heist genre as a disguise. Really, he’s doing what he’s always doing—taking the temperature of American culture. The surprise is that Inside Man finds that the country’s in decent shape. In the worst of circumstances, interesting characters from a variety of races and ethnicities converge and band together. Instead of society falling apart in a crisis, it comes together—if nothing else, that’s more encouraging than Do the Right Thing. Of course, I was too riveted by the nailbiter plot and tense, ferocious performances to consider any of the above until after the credits rolled. Inside Man pulls you into its jazzy, funny motions; only later do you realize how much “message” it’s getting across. It’s incisive social commentary hidden in plain sight.
#4: The Illusionist, directed by Neil Burger. It’s class struggle, trickery, historical drama, and a swooning love story, all in less than two hours. The Illusionist’s magic unfolds nimbly, without fanfare. Warm, ochre tones and understated camerawork help the movie’s ever-more-confusing plot glide by, in a manner that seems simple. The film’s a polished wooden table—but when you look to see your reflection, you see something else entirely.
#5: Duck Season, directed by Fernando Eimbcke. Duck Season essentially never leaves the apartment in which it’s set. Despite the cramped set and the four characters, the movie’s never less than fully absorbing. The pitch-perfect teen dialogue is great—the kids have just discovered the f-word, but not really what it means. So are the fumbling gestures of these lost souls. Once everyone gets stoned and start trashing the place, Duck Season’s tone moves from melancholic wit to slapstick farce, and then back again. Crisply shot in black-and-white, Eimbcke keeps the angles fresh and the pace brisk. His characters—two teenage friends home alone, their neighbor who wants to bake a cake in their oven, and a grad-school flunkie who delivers the pizza—almost move against the rhythm of the editing. The actors reveal their depths slowly, in odd syncopation with the cinema. There’s enough meat in the screenplay, and naturalism in the performances, that it works beautifully. Rarely has so much been made of so little.
Because it’s only fair, here are ten movies I didn’t see in 2006 that might have changed the nature of this list: Apocalypto, Babel, Curse of the Golden Flower, Flags of Our Fathers, Half Nelson, Inland Empire, Letters from Iwo Jima, The Queen, United 93, and World Trade Center.
Finally, if I were teaching the master class, here are the masterpieces that I would subject my students to:
Photography: The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998)
Sound & sound design: M*A*S*H (Robert Altman, 1970)
Editing: Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998)
Writing: Yi-Yi (A One and A Two) (Edward Yang, 1999)
Acting: The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)
Mise-en-scene: Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975)
Visual effects: Le Million (René Clair, 1931)
What would you choose?