Film buffs will be gnawing on the leftovers of 2006 for months yet, with awards season upon us and a veritable Mariel boatlift of interesting new movies dumped in the New York and Los Angeles markets over the last two weeks of the year. So far, the box office winners look like Zhang Yimou's spectacular historical epic "Curse of the Golden Flower" and "The Painted Veil," the lush, slightly swampy Somerset Maugham adaptation starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton. It's too early to be sure about "Perfume" or "Pan's Labyrinth."
I spend so much time pursuing the rarest and weirdest forms of insect life in the indie jungle that I've got plenty of 2006 Hollywood homework to catch up on: Clint Eastwood's Iwo Jima doubleheader, Alfonso Cuarón's "Children of Men," Steven Soderbergh's "The Good German" and Robert De Niro's "The Good Shepherd." (Are they going to make a joint sequel and call it "The Good German Shepherd"? I'm only asking.) Then there's something about a television reporter from Kazakhstan that I gather is causing quite a stir. They just can't make too many Kazakh movies for me!
The annual Village Voice film critics' poll, a must-read for every obsessive moviegoer over the last eight years, is no more, thanks to the enlightened leadership at New Times, the Phoenix-based middlebrow mega-alt publisher that recently absorbed New York's venerable weekly. (I was once fired by New Times from the editorship of a San Francisco weekly, so my perspective on this issue is as biased and unneutral as it gets.) But wait! Former Voice film editor Dennis Lim has taken the poll online with him, to IndieWIRE, and maybe it should have been there all along.
Even to the glazed-over eyeballs of those of us who fritter away our lives watching too many movies, Lim's poll is always full of surprises, and this year they start at the top. The clear winner of '06 was Romanian director Cristi Puiu's "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," which made the top-10 lists of 54 out of the 107 critics polled. (I voted in the poll, but "Lazarescu" did not make my list, much as I admired it.) Puiu's mordant film about an aging alcoholic's all-night journey into medical purgatory, which seemed to channel both Dante and Kafka, was a festival fave-rave but played only a few big-city venues in the United States and grossed a paltry $80,000. Lim says that makes it the least financially successful winner in the poll's history. The top 10 choices are an invigorating, discordant list, from foreign-language auteur films ("L'Enfant" at No. 2, Hou Hsiao-hsien's "Three Times" at No. 6) to big-budget Hollywood sizzle ("The Departed" at No. 3, "United 93" at No. 8) and classic Amerindie earnestness ("Old Joy" at No. 7, "Half Nelson" at No. 10).
Despite that variety, Lim tentatively concludes that 2006 was an "annus horribilis" for independent cinema, based, I guess, on the fact that several of the highly ranked films were actually a year or two old and just now reaching our benighted land. (In the case of Jean-Pierre Melville's French Resistance drama "Army of Shadows," which came in at No. 5, the gap was 37 years.) I don't really agree, but it takes a leap of faith to decide you just don't care about your fellow countrymen's tastes and opinions, at least not on a mass scale. If you live in a major metropolitan area, and/or you can wield your Netflix queue as a finely tuned instrument, it's a great time to be obsessed with strange, off-the-radar motion pictures. Let the neighbors be damned as they watch "Underworld" for the 400th time, home-theater subwoofers rattling the floorboards. People like us, fueled with enough fair-trade coffee, can make it all the way through "Inland Empire" (No. 4 in the critics' poll, which is at least a little surprising). And, hey, the mall theaters aren't all bad -- the seating is awesome, and that Kazakh documentary proves that the American people are eager for educational fare, doesn't it?
With almost nothing new being released in early January, while the holiday releases percolate through the marketplace, it's time to look forward as well as back. Sundance will be upon us in exactly two weeks, and I'll pay attention to that high-elevation celebration of self-importance and inflated expectations when we get there. (Hell, I'll admit it: I'm totally psyched to be going.) In the meantime, let's make another list! This one collects the 10 films I'm most excited about in the first half of 2007, some premiering at Sundance and some not. (OK, there are actually 11. I have the excuse that one or two may not open until later in the year.) In constructing it, I have relied on the most highly developed skills of entertainment journalism: guesswork and bullshit.
I'm deliberately excluding films I've already seen and already covered (even briefly), along with those I'll probably be featuring in the next couple of weeks. So lots of noteworthy winter and spring releases aren't here, from the lost early-'60s black comedy "Mafioso" to the nutso Korean horror flick "The Host," from Sarah Polley's much-anticipated Alzheimer's drama "Away From Her" to Ken Loach's Palme d'Or-winning "Wind That Shakes the Barley" and the Cold War-era German thriller "The Lives of Others." Instead, the criteria here are 1) I haven't seen it; 2) not too many other people have either; 3) for reasons I may or may not be able to articulate, it sounds awesome. I've tried to give extra points for oddness, obscurity and absence of hype, but whenever that noble principle gets in the way of my laser-precise application of guesswork and bullshit, I've chucked it aside. (These are alphabetical, and not otherwise ranked.)
"Black Book": Sorry, haters, but the atrocity that was "Hollow Man" (a terrible movie, much as it pains me to admit it) did not bring an end to Paul Verhoeven's career. Maybe it ended his Hollywood career, but I suspect that can only be a good thing. He's gone back to the small, flat film economy of his small, flat homeland (the Netherlands), and there produced an epic-scale World War II Resistance thriller reputed to have all the skin, violence and moral ambivalence of his finest work. (No, I'm not a "Showgirls" cultist, but you don't want to get me started on "Starship Troopers.") Dutch starlet Carice van Houten is Verhoeven's latest ice-blond goddess, playing a sultry Jewish woman planning elaborate revenge against the Nazis who murdered her family. I so totally cannot wait. (Scheduled to open in March.)
"Black Snake Moan": OK, so Craig Brewer's follow-up to his 2005 breakout, "Hustle & Flow," is anything but unhyped. From the deliberately ludicrous title to the premise (white-trash Southern slut redeemed by resentful but respectable black bluesman) to the sleazoid "Mandingo"-style graphics and the cast (Christina Ricci, Samuel L. Jackson, Justin Timberlake), everything about this picture is constructed to generate publicity. Well OK, count me in. Brewer has proven that he can handle racially and sexually charged material with grace, and it's frankly exciting to have an ambitious personal film on the way that all kinds of regular people will be clamoring to see. (Will premiere at Sundance and open in late February.)
"Finishing the Game": Don't expect too much subtlety from this '70s-flavored mockumentary, which purports to detail the frantic search for a "new Bruce Lee" after the original's untimely death in 1973. Instead, you can expect a full-throttle satirical attack on the period, the movie biz, America's slow-evolving attitudes toward Asians, and the Asian propensity for self-stereotype. Taiwanese-American director Justin Lin, who made "Better Luck Tomorrow" in 2002 and then got lured into a terrible "Fast and the Furious" sequel, has been a filmmaker on the verge of a breakthrough for several years, and maybe this is it. Personally, I think the mockumentary wore out its welcome a couple of iterations ago. But at least Lin isn't trying to fool anybody, and if this is as hilarious as claimed, who cares? (Will premiere at Sundance and open in late spring.)
"Interview": It's been alleged in some quarters that star and director Steve Buscemi is remaking Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh's celebrity-journalism satire only because van Gogh was murdered by an Islamic nutjob in 2004 and became an international martyr. Actually, the deal was in place before van Gogh's death, but the frisson of actual murder and possible social relevance certainly adds to the film's allure. In a culture increasingly fascinated by celebrities and the media that inflates and then devours them, "Interview" is bound to be among the year's talking points. Buscemi has burnished his directing skills on TV in recent years (his debut at the helm was "Trees Lounge," in 1996) and this should be worth watching, at the very least. Sienna Miller plays the soap star whom Buscemi's disgraced journalist is forced to interview. (Will premiere at Sundance, with no theatrical opening set.)
"Jindabyne": Five years ago, Australian director Ray Lawrence emerged from total invisibility with the tremendously atmospheric and evocative murder mystery "Lantana." (He hadn't made a film in 15 years.) That was a tough act to follow, and Aussie reviews have been mixed for Lawrence's follow-up. In some ways "Jindabyne" does sound like a repetition of formula: Take an intriguing, not-quite-A-list pair of actors (Barbara Hershey and Anthony LaPaglia in "Lantana," Gabriel Byrne and Laura Linney here), add a murdered woman, a mystery and some closely guarded personal secrets, then unspool meticulously. Hey, you know what? If it's "Lantana 2" I'll probably love it. Adapted from the Raymond Carver short story "So Much Water So Close to Home," this is bound to be one of the season's prestige films. (Scheduled to open in April.)
"Paprika": Summaries of Japanese anime plots always sound like a hyperintelligent child telling you his dreams, and word on the street is that Satoshi Kon's new animated film is more hallucinatory than most. Let's see: There's a machine that lets therapists enter their patients' dreams, but it gets stolen by "psycho-terrorists." (Or several of them do, I'm not clear on this.) There's a kind of superhero-shrink named Paprika, actually the sexy alter ego of a serious, buttoned-down female psychiatrist, who must fight the evildoers. Lots of crazy Dr. Seuss-on-acid dream sequences and outrageous action. Also dancing kewpie dolls, a mini-Statue of Liberty and, in general, the trippiest stuff seen on screen since Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away." It's either your kind of thing or it's not, and I know I'll be there. (Scheduled to open in May.)
"Regular Lovers": A few weeks ago I wrote a short item about the Jacques Rivette retrospective touring the country, and suggested that he was the greatest French director to be almost unknown in America. Well, where does that leave Philippe Garrel, who's made two dozen movies in 30-plus years and is totally unknown in America? Garrel's "Regular Lovers" will get a brief theatrical release this month (his first ever in the U.S.), and by all accounts this idealistic, romantic epic about the Parisian near-revolution of 1968 is one of those movies cinema freaks go nuts for, and other people are insanely bored by. Look for three hours of luscious cinematography, beautiful faces (the director's son, Louis Garrel, is the star), inscrutable imagery and dense conversation, and not much in the way of linear plot or coherent action. Still, if you're one of those people who've sat through the collected works of Rivette, Tarkovsky and Kiarostami -- and I see a few of you out there, waving your hands -- of course you won't want to miss this. (Will open in New York on Jan. 19. Other cities may follow, with DVD release scheduled in May.)
"Smiley Face": If there's a filmmaker anywhere in the world positioned to make a stoner comedy that's actually funny, that filmmaker is Gregg Araki. An indefatigable veteran of the alt-indie scene who spent years making marginal movies for marginal audiences (and I say that with the profoundest sense of personal identification), Araki has finally become a name-brand director after the unexpected success of "Mysterious Skin." I miss the personal notes Araki used to send to critics entreating them to watch his films, but on the other side of the coin there's the delicious-sounding "Smiley Face," in which Anna Faris plays a young actress who mistakenly scarfs her roommate's pot brownies and then has to face her busy day, completely zonked out of her mind. I'd have to say, out of everything on this list I'm the most impatient for this one. (Will premiere at Sundance. No release date is set.)
"Still Life": Chinese director Jia Zhangke's last film, "The World," set in and around a surreal world-landmarks theme park on the outskirts of Beijing, marked him as contemporary cinema's finest chronicler of anomie and dislocation, and also as a dramatist with a keen and sympathetic eye. With "Still Life," Jia's focus is still on the disorienting speed and dehumanizing costs of China's frenzied development. This time the setting is not the reconstruction of the Chinese capital but the construction of the enormous (and, as many believe, ruinous) Three Gorges dam project on the Yangtze River. Jia has never directly addressed political issues in his films, and isn't likely to here. But I think it's safe to assume that his wistful, ironic and almost elegiac sensibility, when applied to modern China's biggest and most controversial construction project, won't endear him to the authorities. (U.S. distribution is still uncertain.)
"Year of the Dog": I still hold out hope that Mike White will turn out to be more than just a medium-hip TV writer and a quirky character actor. I just do, I don't know why. He's written several scripts before, from "Chuck & Buck" and "Orange County" to "Nacho Libre," but "Year of the Dog" marks his directing debut. Maybe this is a companion piece to Araki's "Smiley Face," where the life-changing event is not an unexpected infusion of mind-altering substances but the demise of a beloved pet. Molly Shannon plays a secretary who embarks on a series of adventures after her dog dies; I think we're talking an early-midlife crisis movie, something like a younger "Sideways," or "Shopgirl" without the creepy, plastic-y older dude. Large and intriguing supporting cast includes Laura Dern, John C. Reilly and Peter Sarsgaard. (Will premiere at Sundance and open in April.)
"Zidane: A 21st-Century Portrait": Ninety minutes, 17 cameras, one guy. That guy is Zinédine Zidane, the now-infamous French soccer superstar who ended his playing career with that head-butt in the World Cup final. Directors Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, and cinematographer Darius Khondji, follow Zidane over the course of one game (a 2005 Spanish League match between his Real Madrid team and Villareal, if you care), in real time, in what is reportedly the most amazing sports film ever made. (It's also been called an intimate study of man in the workplace.) I missed this at Cannes, and boy, do I feel dumb about that now. People keep saying that "Zidane" won't play in the U.S., but now that every American sports fan knows who he is, I'm betting that's not true. "Zidane" plays at Sundance later this month; look for it in a theater near you by the time the weather warms up enough for beach soccer.