Even in a year that found him phoning in a comfortably numb remake, Martin Scorsese couldn't help remaining near the heart of what we call The Movies. For me, the year in film, 2006, began at the end of the old Oak Street's life with the theater's late-January run of Scorsese's The Last Waltz, an old movie about the passing of an era—which, for those sitting in the soon-to-be-former rep house, felt like the era of old movies. And '06 might as well have ended for me with the dull bang of The Departed, Scorsese's depressingly impersonal concession to corporate marketplace demands for a minimum of style and no discernible substance, particularly not of the cinephilic variety. "We're all on the way out," jokes Jack Nicholson's unwatchably hammy heavy in the film's one resonant zinger. "Act accordingly."
Granted, film isn't exactly dying, not even as it comes to us increasingly on video. But, provided we could see them in what little remains of our alternative cinemascape, the year's most indelible movies seemed to be about The End in one way or another; the happiest of them were about the relative pleasures of barely surviving. Ponder the myriad reasons for such inconvenient truths while perusing this aptly diminished installment of our annual year-in-film roundup—grist for your Netflix queue if nothing else.
1. Army of Shadows
Made in 1969, Jean-Pierre Melville's devastating drama of French resistance fighters struggling to live underground was itself in hiding, unreleased in the U.S. for 37 years. A week at the Edina back in August is woefully insufficient for a movie that reconfigures one's sense of war, of film history, of Melville's fatalistic tough-guy cinema, of what constitutes a "thriller." Oak Street, are you still there?
2. Iraq in Fragments
Still unscreened in Minnesota, James Longley's award-winning doc from last year's Sundance fest is a one-man production of startling audacity and aesthetic provocation. It isn't just that Longley (Gaza Strip) worked unembedded in Iraq for two years after the start of the war, gaining access to the stories of Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds in wartime and risking his life at almost every turn. It's that he used this occasion to make an art film—framing fact as if it were fiction, digitally flaring colors in defiance of vérité and every preconception of a ravaged country, shocking us first with the beauty of Iraq and then with the recognition of why we're almost never allowed to see it that way. Oak Street, are you...?
3. A Scanner Darkly
What is wrong with me? Is it the drugs? Is it my job? My friends? My isolation? My good sense to be pissed? Is it my bosses? Are they out to get me? Or am I paranoid? What can I take for that? And why does everything look like a psychedelic cartoon?
4. Old Joy
Two guys (Will Oldham, Daniel London) at the tail end of a beautiful friendship take one last trip into the Oregon mountains, whose beauty is also fading. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there... (Whew: Opens next week at Oak Street.)
5. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
Seems the movies are still a way to learn about what lies ahead: Here the great unknown comes both disturbingly and exhilaratingly close, as a 62-year-old Romanian man (wrenchingly played by Ion Fiscuteanu) spends his last hours at the mercy of doctors with divided attention (and us, with only our sympathy—and morbid curiosity—to offer). The Parkway—on its last legs, too, it seems—gave the movie a well-deserved run in the dead of summer.
6. Neil Young: Heart of Gold
Rock-doc as intimate melodrama, Jonathan Demme's gorgeously elegiac film of Neil Young's Prairie Wind concerts in Nashville is no less about human fragility than Lazarescu—and even more poetic.
7. Children of Men
Every studio thriller has the Fate of Humanity hanging in the balance; this one, feverishly directed by Alfonso Cuarón, imagines worldwide infertility and war in such vivid detail that you feel the weight of extinction in your bones. (For more on Cuarón and the film, which opens Friday, see Jim Ridley's piece on p. 42.)
8. Woman is the Future of Man
The maker of romantic comedies both entertaining and thoroughly believable (i.e., their male characters are jerks when not merely immature), South Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo favors uncomfortably familiar studies of twentysomethings who drink and screw their way to ruin—with redemption, maybe, to follow. This two-guys-and-a-girl soaper, Hong's fifth movie, isn't even his best and it's still superb. (On DVD in March.)
9. Sweet Land
Set mostly in rural Minnesota circa 1920, this gorgeous romance's penny-pinching period re-creation convinces so fully that writer-director Ali Selim seems to turn back the clock on the regional Amerindie, too. And yet the film's tale of economic stratification and postwar intolerance—and the struggle against them—is nothing if not timely.
10. The Science of Sleep
I saw it only once, almost a year ago, and still its woozy romantic screwball feels like last night's dream. Might Michel Gondry's sunshine be even more eternal without Charlie Kaufman?
Honorable Mentions (in order of preference): The Outsider; L'enfant; Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan; Half Nelson; Three Times; Volver; A Prairie Home Companion; Art School Confidential; A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints; Jackass Number Two.
Not Just Awful (and Acclaimed), But Downright Dangerous: Babel and Jesus Camp.
Best Rationale for Scrapping the Only-in-Theaters Premise of Year-End Film Lists: When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.
Worst Rationale for Scrapping the Only-in-Theaters Premise of Year-End Film Lists: "Watching a movie at home is the same as watching it in the company of strangers, only more convenient."
R.I.P.: Film at Asian Media Access, Intermedia Arts, City Club Cinema, Red Eye Cinema, and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. (Or are these warrior reelers merely MIA?)