Now that all the 2006 Hollywood hype is over, it’s clear that last year, like most recent years, was another weak one for films. Looking back, many critics have tried to put a good face on things, but they’ve still struggled with their ten-best lists, surely aware that very few films made last year will be watched a decade from now. Personally, I’ve found it impossible to create a top-ten list for 2006, but I’d still like to cite some noteworthy achievements.
United 93. The best movie of the year was the one no one wanted to see. United 93 deals with the events of 9/11, specifically those occurring on the flight from Newark that ended in a remote field in Pennsylvania. Quite reasonably, many people questioned the timing of the film (“Is it too soon?”) as well as its motives (“Will it exploit the victims?”). The film’s trailer, which made the film seem like a conventional Hollywood disaster- thriller, was actually booed in many theaters across America. But when the film finally opened, it proved to be something quite different.
Shot in a documentary, “fly-on-the-wall” style, United 93 meticulously follows the terrible events of that day as they gradually unfold. Director and writer Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, 2002), who began as a documentarian for the BBC, consistently strives for verisimilitude, effectively using the factual information collected in the 9/11 Commission Report, as well as his consultations with the victims’ families. His goal is to give the viewer, as much as possible, the sense of actually being there—without directorial commentary or manipulation.
As a result, the film doesn’t focus on any of the individual participants. No one in the air (passengers, pilots, or flight attendants) or on the ground (air-traffic controllers or military personnel) is portrayed with any dramatic specificity. They have no backstories, and their conversations are fragmentary and seemingly overheard. Even the famous “Let’s roll” is delivered with effective understatement. Everything in the film focuses on the present, as the people involved gradually realize that this is no ordinary hijacking, and the passengers on flight 93 aren’t really hostages. Eventually, the passengers realize that their aircraft is about to be used as a weapon.
The film’s almost matter-of-fact approach to the events of 9/11 is further emphasized by its lack of Hollywood special effects and big-name stars. The entire cast consists of un-known or little-known actors, supported by many non-actors (traffic controllers, government personnel, and military officers) who actually took part in the events of 9/11 and portray themselves in the film. Thus Greengrass tries to remove any possible distractions from his retelling of the story. There’s no main character and no individual hero. Instead, all the men and women who did their best on that in-comprehensible day, especially those who stormed the cockpit on flight 93, are revealed as collective heroes.
United 93 is a remarkable achievement. It’s also heartbreakingly painful to watch and definitely not for everyone. Despite the fact that we know the fate of flight 93, the suspense is relentless and terrifying. This is a film of remarkable integrity, with no political axe to grind, that reveals how everyday Americans, in impossible circumstances, did their heroic best. It also rather subtly shows the face of the enemy—mostly sweet-faced young men, frequently praying to God, who set out to maliciously slaughter innocent men, women, and children.
Akeelah and the Bee. It’s not often that Hollywood makes a film that praises academic excellence and the pursuit of knowledge. In his first film, writer-director Doug Atchison tells the story of Akeelah (Keke Palmer), a precocious but underachieving eleven-year-old from southern Los Angeles who struggles against great odds to compete in the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. The film is formulaic, often cliched, and full of supporting-role stereotypes. It also has some unfortunate language and a bit too much political correctness. Nevertheless, Akeelah and the Bee is both moving and exciting. The natural suspense of the competition (so well-captured in Jeffrey Blitz’s 2003 documentary Spellbound) is fully exploited, and Laurence Fishburne’s presence as the no- nonsense Dr. Larabee adds a natural gravitas to the narrative. But it’s the marvelous performance by young Palmer that truly illuminates the film. She’s charming, flawed, believable, and engaging; and her story reminds us that language, learning, and knowledge can have efficacy and power.
Mission: Impossible III. If you have a taste for jet-propelled action with a decent story line, forget the latest James Bond and see the third and by far the best MI. It’s a white-knuckle ride from beginning to end, but debuting director and co-writer, J. J. Abrams, the creator of television hits Alias and Lost, has also given Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) more depth and higher motivation than in the earlier films (1996 and 2000). Hunt has now given up field work for training new M:I recruits and is engaged to a lovely nurse (Michelle Monaghan) who thinks he works for the Virginia Department of Transportation. But evil arms dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoff-man) turns up looking for the “rabbit’s foot” weapon and forces Hunt back into action. Cruise, who spent much of 2006 making a public fool of himself, is perfect as a far more serious and intense Hunt, and the special effects are truly exceptional.
Rocky Balboa. Yes, Rocky’s back, and his swan song is reminiscent of the original Rocky (1976), which was masterfully written and performed by Sylvester Stallone and directed by John Avildsen. In Rocky Balboa, the former champ is back home in Philadelphia, living a seemingly unproductive life in the wake of the death of his beloved wife, Adrian. Stallone perfectly captures the depth of Rocky’s sadness, his good nature, his honesty, and his love for his son. As always, the boxing scenes are extremely violent, but the film, which emphasizes a decent Catholic man trying to deal with his present situation in life, has a natural charm and appeal.
Charlotte’s Web. For adults, the celebrity voices are very distracting (even when you’re looking at the spider, you know it’s Julia Roberts talking), and there’s some unnecessary barnyard crudity in the film. Yet Charlotte’s Web still captures much of the essence of E. B. White’s classic story about the charming pig named Wilbur who, with the help of the spider Charlotte, teaches both the animals and the humans a thing or two about kindness and friendship.
Lassie. The eleventh version of Eric Knight’s classic novel, Lassie Come Home (1940), was surprisingly greeted with uniform acclaim from the critics, but then it seemed to get lost in the year’s endless rush of hip, hyperkinetic animated films. This new adaptation of the novel is a potential classic, and certainly the best version since the original 1943 MGM adaptation starring Roddy McDowall. The new Lassie comes from England, directed and adapted by Charles Sturridge, and it returns to the pre-war origins of the novel in Yorkshire as the working-class Carraclough family is forced to sell their loyal collie to a local duke. Eventually, when the duke takes the dog to his estate in northern Scotland, Lassie escapes and makes a 400-mile trip to reunite with her beloved master (Jonathan Mason), the endearing nine-year-old Joe. The film is realistic, moving, carefully paced, and perfectly acted (with the one exception of the overdone kennelsman).
Although Oscar predictions are always foolhardy, here goes: At the end of February, amid much ballyhoo, Hollywood will give the undeserving Martin Scorcese his long-awaited best director award for The Departed; the always excellent Helen Mirren will win best actress for The Queen; the talented Jennifer Hudson will win best supporting actress for Dreamgirls, and Babel and Eastwood’s Iwo Jima films will collect a number of gold statues, maybe even the big one. But when all the hoopla is over, 2006 will still be remembered as another weak year for films, with few notable exceptions.