It seems that almost everyone else has already unveiled their year-end retrospectives for 2006. I may be late to the party, but I hope to pinpoint a few fine items that have not received their deserved attention elsewhere.
FILM - THE YEAR OF THE LITTLE GUYS
First up: movies. 2006 was not a strong year for major releases in the fantasy, horror, mystery, and science-fiction categories. The year was not terrible, and there were many films worth watching, but most of them demanded a certain amount of tolerance from viewers, who had to overlook the flaws and/or turn off their brains in order to enjoy the crowd-pleasing moments (think of SUPERMAN RETURNS and X-MEN: THE LAST STAND).
With that in mind, I had to reach down into the more obscure titles to come up with a decent Top Ten list. Per my usual custom, for a film to qualify, it must have screened at least once in Los Angeles at an event open to the general public (i.e., press screenings and cast-and-crew screenings do not qualify). Fortunately, fantasy-oriented film festivals provided some cool independent titles that balanced out the weak Hollywood offerings.
- CHILDREN OF MEN, with its glossy production values and star actors is clearly no small independent movie, but it has almost been treated like one: given a brief exclusive release before rolling out to more theatres. Its story (about a future on the brink of extinction thanks to infertility) may seem dreary, but the film is ultimately a testament to Hope, played out like an exciting action thriller far more exciting than dumbed-down summer blockbusters like MISSION IMPOSSIBLE III.
- STRANGER THAN FICTION failed to find favor at the box office, despite a brilliantly clever screenplay that takes a surreal look at the relationship between fact and fiction, between art and reality. The film is filled with fascinating ideas, but what's truly impressive is that it never degenerates into a dry lecture. It's funny, witty, romantic, charming, sad, and uplifting.
- CASINO ROYALE probably should have been titled "Bond Begins Again:" like BATMAN BEGINS, the film jump-starts the franchise by reintroducing the character as a young man on the verge of becoming the familiar figure we know so well. Daniel Craig is brilliant as Bond, and it's amazing how much juice the film delivers not by abandoning the formula but by treating the familiar elements like something new. Freed from the tired contraints, the new 007 film emerges as one of the best in the series.
- THE OTHER SIDE. This may be the EL MARIACHI of horror films: a brilliant low-budget effort loaded with visual style, it is intended to launch a franchise, hopefully with a bigger-budgeted follow-up. The film screened at Hollywood's Shriekfest film festival in September, and it's incredible to think that no distributor has stepped foward to snap up the rights. Given half a chance, this could be a major cult hit.
- FEAST. This furiously funny and outrageous horror film appeared in R-rated form at a handful of midnight screenings and in unrated form on DVD. The unrated version must be seen to to believed. It's not really that gory, but it is plenty incredible, with high-octane action and a witty regard for genre conventions - which it consciously plays with, in order to set up and then undermine audience expectations.
- ISOLATION made its West Coast theatrical debut at Screamfest film fesival in Hollywood this October. This dank and dreary horror film from Ireland has been dismissed by some as "Alien with Mad Cows," which admittedly does not sound auspicious. But the conviction of the performances, the isolated setting, and the believability of the scenario create a little genre gem.
- HATCHET: This ode to "Old School American Horror" is supposedly set for theatrical release in 2007, so it may be premature to honor it here, based on its series of festival screenings that culminated in Screamfest. Still, it's so much fun that I couldn't resist. Clever writing and performances make this retro-slasher effort entertaining even before the characters end up stranded in a swmap and stalked by a mad killer. Once the horror kicks in, the film really delivers: even if you're not a slasher fan, you may find this one worth watching.
- THE DESCENT is writer-director Neil Marshall's follow-up to DOG SOLDIERS. While not as amusing as that eariler effort, it is incredibly suspenseful; in fact, the descent into dark unexplored caverns will have you on the edge of your seat long before the monster appear. Ultimately, the film's bleak vision is not entirely satisfying, but it is undeniably effective.
- V FOR VENDETTA has a lot going for it, including a disturbing vision of a future world overrun by facism, where a masked man inspires the population to rebel by carrying out insurgent attacks on the government. The film deals with some uncomfortable issues (such as when violence is justified), and for the most part if avoids comic book simplicity. It might have ranked higher, but it is slightly flawed by its love of phony movie violence (e.g., V's slow-motion knife attack on the police near the end is all way-cool MTV style that undermines the serious intent of the rest of the movie).
- PAN LABYRINTH may be a victim of its own hype: it was so eagerly anticipated and so highly praised that one was inevitably disappointed when the film turned out to be less than perfect. Although marred by a slow first half and a structure that waits to long to tie together its parallel story threads, the movie ultimately pays off in a way that makes you eager to forgive your critical quibbles. This is sophisticated fantasy - mixed with grim reality t- create a moviing work of art.
- AUTOMATON TRANSFUSION is another winner that made, essentially, its theatrical debut at Screamfest. Shot on digital video, the film is so extremely low budget it almost demands you cut it some slack. With that handicap in mind, I'll tag this on to my Top Ten list as a sort of bonus entry. Given the benefit of the doubt, this zombie flick emerges as an ultra-cool cult movie, full of graphic violence but also featuring some strong performances and some genuine suspense, even pathos. Crude, gutsy, and effective, it constantly reminds me of John Mendelsohn's review of the Who's album MY GENERATION: "Raw, shoddily produced, and utterly stupendous."
So much for new movies. How about revivals and re-issues? The revival house is almost dead, thanks to the advent of home video, but some classic films still get the royal theatrical re-release treatment, usually as a prelude to a collector's edition DVD release. Hollywood has several theatres and/or organizations that present this type of screening, often not merely resurrecting old titles but presenting them in newly restored form. So, what were Hollywood's best "Revival Movie" events of 2006?
- BEST SPECIAL EDITION OR REVISION: Tim Burton's THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS in Disney Digital 3D took the familiar Christmas classic and added a new depth of dimension that made the stop-motion models seem even more animated than before.
- BEST DOUBLE BILL: The American Cinematheque's British Horror festival this summer paired up THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL and THE GORGON - two '60s Hammer horror films not available on DVD, both featuring Christopher Lee in atypical, sympathetic performances. The prints were great, the movies looked like new, and it was wonderful to see DR. JEKYLL in widescreen, not pan-and-scanned or letterboxed on a TV tube at home.
- BEST POST-SCREENING Q&A SESSION: Tough call. Director Guillermo Del Toro was great in between a recent double bill screening of CRONOS and THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE "(Who's the audience for this movie? Fuck you is the audience for this movie!"). Screenwriters Zak Penn and Simon Kinberg were refreshingly honest about their diffcult experience on X-MEN: THE LAST STAND - after a screening on the 20th Century Fox lot, no less. It was great to hear stop-motion master Ray Harryhausen discuss his 1953 classic THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. But Ronald Shusett had so many in-depth stories about the making of ALIEN that I'll give him the nod. You can read his comments here.
LEGITIMATE THEATRE - ZOMBIES RULE
There were several interesting stage productions in 2006, including two inspired by movies (NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, respectively); however, the best of the bunch was THEY'RE NOT ZOMBIES, a clever reworking of the George Romero mythology that was both scary and funny. It played for only a few weeks in a small Hollywood theatre during October and November, but those lucky enough to see it will not soon forget the experience.
EXHIBITIONS & OTHER EVENTS
There were several fascinating photographic exhibitions in 2006 that delt with horror and/or the supernatural. IMMATERIAL WORLD was an interesting collection of allegedly real spirit photographs, but the images were mostly unconvincing. NEVERMORE was a colorful collection of posters and stills from Roger Corman's horror films based on the writing of Edgar Alan Poe. But I have to tip my hat to HAUNTED HACIENDA, if for no other reason than that the Mexican horror genre has not been overdone to death, so seeing the wonderful selection of artwork from those neglected movies was a fresher experience.
Universal's Halloween Horror Nights was ridiculously oversold, resulting in a two-hour wait just to get through the gate. But once inside, it was worth the time spent, thanks to the spectacular backlot tour that included a walk by the Bates Motel and an excursion through a zombie-infested neighborhood. See a video of the event here.
Well, so long to 2006. Here's hoping 2007 can be at least as good - and hopefully a little better - at delivering high-quality fantasy films, mystery movies, Halloween horror & sci-fi cinema events in Los Angeles.
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