Did 2006 feel to you like one of the most significant movie years in recent history? It did to me, but paradoxically or not, that didn't have a tremendous amount to do with the films that came out. Quality-wise, artistic achievement-wise, I'd call it an average year, perhaps a bit below.
What made it significant was the sense that the entire cinematic context was changing, gradually but decisively, the ground shifting beneath our feet in a way that clearly signals the onset of new realities.
In the film industry, these changes were usually discussed in terms of technology and business models. As innovations came into play, old practices and procedures simply dissolved or got pushed aside. Movies were increasingly downloadable, viewable on iPods and cell phones. In the summer, Steven Soderbergh's quirky little gothic soap opera Bubble was released simultaneously to TV, on DVD and in theaters. In December, David Lynch bypassed all the usual distributors to self-release his phantasmagoric, three-hour Inland Empire—which in part seems to concern our rapidly changing media-scape.
In a feature in last week's edition of The New Yorker, David Denby surveys this flux and discusses it with various movie-biz people, from studio chiefs to exhibitors to filmmakers. They convey the sense of a business caught between the excitement of new opportunities and modes of expression and "delivery" on one side, and anxiety over how the revolution is going to play out in the long run on the other.
Denby cites my 1999 prediction that, once digital projection predominates, movie theaters will be showing lots besides movies, everything from sports events to concerts to religious revivals. But digital projection has been far slower to arrive than most experts foresaw seven years ago, and it's now expected to be several more years before the majority of U.S. theaters are converted.
What we're dealing with currently is not that still-pending sea change, but what might be called the "digital interlude," the effect on traditional movie practices of all sorts of other technical and business factors, from Netflix to YouTube. The technology of film itself, of course, continues to disappear over the horizon. The past year saw a number of big-budget digital movies, from Bryan Singer's Superman Returns to Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, which effectively prove that digital cinematography can now ape or equal any celluloid image. (Yet I'd wager that Sacha Baron Cohen's shot-on-video Borat offers a better forecast of what movies will increasingly look like in the coming years.)
Aside from considerations of finance and hardware, movie culture is changing in ways that are profound and, from some perspectives, unsettling. For one example, glance at my list of 2006's 10 best films (page 18). You will notice that several have not played the Triangle. Two of these, Volver and The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, are "in the pipeline" and should open within the coming weeks. But my choices for the year's best film (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) and the best American independent (Sweet Land) have not played the area and may not. In the quarter-century that I've been publishing a 10-best list, that has never happened before.
In case the film that tops my list seems eccentric—it's from Romania, of all places—go to indiewire.com/critics2006 and check out the results of the nation's largest film critics poll (conducted by the Web site indieWIRE, it replaces one published till this year by The Village Voice). The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is at the head of that list, named the year's best film by "107 of North America's leading film critics."
So how does the year's best film miss the Triangle entirely? Don't look at us. When Cristi Puiu's movie was released in the spring and drew near-unanimous raves, we at the Independent urged local independent theater owners to book it. There were no takers.
I'm sure this story was played out in other areas of the country as well. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu was as commercially unsuccessful as it was critically lauded. Does this mean that critics are a perverse bunch, acclaiming an obscure foreign film simply for the sake of being different? I would say, instead, that it points to a widening gap between serious cinematic art and what moviegoers—even many who consider themselves cinephiles—are interested in seeing, and what many "art houses" are interested in playing.
That may be the most perplexing of 2006's notable trends, but it's one that has been building for a while. Variety recently quoted an unnamed industry observer saying, "There is no traditional art house audience anymore. There is only an adult audience."
That remark points to an important shift. As the major studios have increasingly ignored adult audiences, the slack has been taken up by smaller companies—including subdivision of majors like Sony Classics, Fox Searchlight, Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent—which grew out of a time when independent distributors searched the world for the best international cinema. No longer. Now many of these companies either produce slick, star-driven pseudo art films like Paramount Vantage's groaningly pretentious Babel, or they go to festivals looking to acquire the latest Napoleon Dynamite or Little Miss Sunshine, TV-style sitcoms of little cinematic merit or interest.
These companies and the films they back have had the effect of pushing much of the really interesting cinema out of the art houses, and of converting art houses, so to speak, into niche-market divisions of the majors. As a result, many of the best films are handled by very small, truly independent distributors which don't have the clout or the advertising budgets to reach beyond the nation's larger markets. That's why a Death of Mr. Lazarescu—to cite only one example of many noteworthy films that missed the Triangle in 2006—will play New York and Chicago but not North Carolina.
Currently, this area has one independent theater that's acting more like a big-city arthouse and bringing in some of the more offbeat and challenging fare that other local theaters ignore. That's the Galaxy in Cary, which offers the latest Bollywood favorites as well as a diverse slate of other foreign and independent films. We salute the Galaxy's efforts and we would urge them to improve their operation in one significant way. Too often they decide on Monday to open a given film on Friday, which doesn't give us at the Independent time to arrange a review to appear before opening, with the result that the film doesn't do as well as it might. If the Galaxy would help us let readers know what they're showing, maybe we all could look forward to an improvement in the current situation, where many of the best films are in danger of going unseen.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, Romania)—An ailing man's final trip to the hospital provides the unlikely premise for the year's most striking European film, a deadpan Kakfaesque odyssey that writer-director Puiu, in his sophomore outing, turns into a stylistic tour de force of astonishing rigor and originality.
United 93 (Paul Greengrass, U.S.A.)—Intrepidly tackling the endlessly delicate subject of 9/11 five years on, Greengrass provides a bracingly unsentimental, unsensational vision of people caught in the snares of history, acting not so much bravely as believably; its documentary-like naturalism anchors the film's vaunting of humanity over rhetoric.
Sweet Land (Ali Selim, U.S.A.)—Made by a Minnesota commercials director of Egyptian ancestry, the year's most impressive—and surprising—indie debut is a tale of immigration and marriage in the Midwestern farmlands of a century ago that recalls Terence Malick's Days of Heaven in its visual raptures and narrative richness.
Superman Returns (Bryan Singer, U.S.A.)—At once moody and playful, Singer's idiosyncratic resuscitation of the Man of Steel franchise doesn't so much avoid superhero-movie conventions as it does imaginatively expand them via intimations of both post-9/11 moral quandaries and Superman's own pop-culture evolution.
An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, U.S.A.)—Al Gore, the unlikeliest of movie stars, serves up a passionate lecture on the perils of global warming, and the polemical force and eloquence of his presenta tion, aided by Guggenheim's fluid visual sense, make for a model of engaged advocacy filmmaking, a caveat demanding attention.
Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan) The legendary Hou reflects on a century of Taiwanese cultural change by examining romantic interactions in three different eras—the 1960s, the early 1900s and today—coming away with a bittersweet sense of time's paradoxes; features terrific performances by leads Chang Chen and Shu Qi.
Iron Island (Mohammad Rasoulof, Iran)—The latest salvo from Iran is a witty portrait of a community in transit, a group of people who've made a home on an abandoned oil tanker in the Persian Gulf and now face eviction; like many Iranian films, it blends sharp social observation with satire, mysticism and poetic ambiguity.
The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros (Aureas Solito, The Philippines)—Filmed in the slums of Manila, this no-budget drama about a 12-year-old gay boy who develops a crush on a young policeman combines a compassionate social vision recalling the Italian neorealists with its own sense of wit and irreverence.
Old Joy (Kelly Reichart, U.S.A.)—Two Portland, Ore., longtime friends and a dog head into the woods for a short getaway and encounter a realm where gorgeous natural surroundings seem to summon the most inexpressible of feelings; a poet of visual moods and oblique emotions, Reichart here delivers a small gem of independent film craft.
Volver (Pedro Almodovar, Spain)—After the ungainly Talk to Her and Bad Education, Almodover returns to form with this intricately shaped comedy of death, deception and an apparent supernatural visitation, all of it centered on an ensemble led by the dazzling Penelope Cruz.
A short list of honorable mentions: David Lynch's Inland Empire, Ramin Bahrani's Man Push Cart, Robert Altman's Prairie Home Companion, Adam McKay's Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Joey Lauren Adams' Come Early Morning, Robert De Niro's The Good Shepherd, Jason Reitman's Thank You for Smoking, David Frankel's The Devil Wears Prada, Martin Campbell's Casino Royale, Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, Jonathan Demme's Neil Young: Heart of Gold, Lian Lunson's Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man, David Leaf and John Scheinfeld's The U.S. vs. John Lennon, Patrice Chereau's Gabrielle, Xavier Beauvois' Le Petit Lieutenant, Daniel Ross and David Barison's The Ister, Doug Block's 51 Birch Street, Kevin Macdonald's The Last King of Scotland, Amy Berg's Deliver Us from Evil.