The Best and Worst Films of 2006
by Phil Boatwright

Best Films of 2006

I have listed titles of artistic winners at the end of this column, their full critiques can be found on previewonline.org. Please check their content in my reviews to make sure they are suitable for your family’s viewing. Here I would like to focus on films that especially moved me with spiritual or uplifting themes. CLICK ON THE FILM'S NAME TO SEE THE PREVIEW REVIEW IN A NEW WINDOW.

TSOTSI

Traces six days in the life of a young gang leader who steals a woman’s car – unaware, in his panic, that her baby is in the back seat. A gritty contemporary portrait of ghetto life set amidst the sprawling Johannesburg townships, this affecting story is ultimately a redemptive tale of hope and the triumph of love over rage. It’s a parable, a story about the seeking and finding of redemption. Though this young thug is full of rage and insecurity, enough to beat up an ally, threaten an old man in a wheelchair and shoot a hijack victim, he is mysteriously moved by this infant. And the longer he is around the baby, the more he opens up his heart. He even comes to an awareness of the need for forgiveness and salvation. I won’t give the ending away, but the last shot is a symbolic illustration of a man surrendering his life. We know as we leave the theater that a miraculous change has occurred and we realize on the drive home that indeed, “A child shall lead them.”

Caution: It’s replete with violent imagery and mood, plus around 30 harsh curse words. But keep in mind; different audience members have different sensibilities. While some won’t be reached by the film’s message due to the objectionables, there are those who will relate to the harsh realities portrayed and see past the brutality. As for those who don’t have to struggle with poverty, ignorance and daily danger, well, maybe it will remind them to be compassionate and patient. It helped me in that area.

BEYOND THE GATES OF SPLENDOR

Based on a best-selling novel, Beyond the Gates of Splendor premiered on DVD October 4, 2005 from Fox Home Entertainment. I mention it because this past year a dramatic version of the story was released called End of the Spear. I personally found the earlier documentary version a more powerful film. It also recounts the chronicle of those five missionaries and their families, but this documentary is more successful at capturing the faith, forgiveness and cultural boundaries. Narrated by the son of one of the couples, it uses historical footage and personal insights to reveal how the two groups came to understand then embrace each other.

The documentary catches the spirit of people who trust so much in God that they are willing to sacrifice their lives in order to follow His will. Beyond the Gates of Splendor is a moving testament to those who have taken Christ’s teachings to heart and given all in order to save the soul of man. It is an emotional journey that will give you new insight concerning foreign missions and a deepening respect for missionaries.

CHARLOTTE’S WEB

What an incredible film, one loaded with life lessons for children and reminders for adults. Not only have Walden Media and Paramount Pictures done justice to the book, they have given families a flawless film. I was completely charmed and that’s saying something because I am not a fan of films with talking animals. Perhaps my objection to talking-animal movies rests in the fact that they usually say nothing worthwhile. Here, they do.

FACING THE GIANTS

A down-and-out coach and his beleaguered high school football team are regenerated when they are inspired to give God glory in all things. Financed on a shoestring budget, with Associate Pastors Alex and Stephen Kindrick acting as an artistic and technical two-man army, the issues of faith and fear have been addressed within a satisfying sports movie. Oh, there are the usual filmmatic shortcomings associated with well-meaning religious storytelling. This awkwardness is seen especially in the opening scenes, where both actors and introductory dialogue are clumsy and forced. But within minutes, something special begins to happen. Suddenly, the story kicks in. Now, story, for you younger readers, used to be a main ingredient in the filmmaking process before special effects and cartoonish concepts became cinema kings. Here’s a nice narrative, one that provides positive answers to nagging spiritual questions.

THE NATIVITY STORY

Though missing some of the grandeur we would love to have seen when the angles proclaimed the birth of the baby Jesus, the film successfully fleshed out Mary and Joseph, making them real people and clarifying their love and devotion to God and to one another. It’s a love story in so many ways.

PEARL DIVER

It had a limited release, but I’d suggest you keep an eye out for this one. It will show up in either art houses or on DVD this coming year. The story concerns two sisters dealing with the twenty-year-old murder of their mother, and what happens when a farming accident rips away the layers of secrecy surrounding that night. Well, that sounds like a lot of fun, I know, but this film moved me more than any other this year. I was very affected by the sacrifices portrayed and amazed at how this incisive film reminds us that no sacrifice ultimately goes unrewarded.

AKEELAH AND THE BEE

Smartly written, uplifting and charming, a great film that reminds viewers of the obligation we have concerning the maintenance of language. The film has several positive messages, including caring and sacrificing for others. It also reminds each of us that while there are dark valleys we must go through on our travels through life, green pastures also lay ahead.

UNITED 93

For me, this was the best film of the year. The day that changed the modern world hits home and testifies to the fact that this war will be unlike any other. (How do you defeat zealots willing to kill themselves and innocent bystanders for a cause they believe is just?) Though our country is at odds with its involvement in Iraq, the film makes it clear that we face an evil masking itself as righteous. It is a film that will touch you, move you and make you think. United 93 is the most powerful film I saw this year!

Other well-made films with positive messages: Bobby, Cars, Curious George, Deliver Us from Evil, Eragon, Everybody’s Hero, Flags of Our Fathers, Flicka, Glory Road, How to Eat Fried Worms, Ice Age: The Melt Down, The Illusionist, Invincible, Jet Li’s Fearless, Lassie, Letters From Iwo Jima, Mission Impossible, Miss Potter, Over the Hedge, The Pursuit of Happyness, The Queen, Stick It, Take the Lead, Thank You For Smoking (extra caution – make sure you read the review/content before viewing), We Are Marshall, A Prairie Home Companion.

Worst Films of 2006

Each year I see about a dozen films that defy comprehension as to how they got made in the first place. Some are featured below. Most, however, have been forgotten. Thank you, Jesus.

Topping the list – DECK THE HALLS, which starred Danny DeVito and Matthew Broderick as quarreling neighbors, each bent on being the town’s number one Mr. Christmas. The first joke had to do with the chief of police being a cross-dresser. This was a surprise as the film was touted as a family film. I visualized parents throughout America’s dimmed movie theaters having to respond to, “Daddy, what’s a cross-dresser?”

Sprinkled throughout this yuletide nonsense was the inclusion of several sexual innuendoes topped off by three 15-year-old girls gyrating in abbreviated Santa suits on a public stage as if performing a holiday-themed pole dance. Of course, this is played for laughs, as the two leads view it while hurling sexual entendres, unaware that the three mini-skirted Santa’s helpers are their daughters. Next scene, the men are standing in a church, washing out their eyes with holy water, one proclaiming, “I’m going to Hell.”

Well, maybe not hell, but those involved deserve time in purgatory for giving us a Christmas goose. I’ve said it a hundred times: no one sets out to make a bad movie. But every time I generously offer up that statement, a film like Deck the Halls comes along to challenge the theory.

One of the other worst movies of the year also happened to do with Christmas – SANTA CLAUSE 3: THE ESCAPE CLAUSE. This is a perfect example of producers going to the well once too often. The third installment had Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) battling wits with Jack Frost (Martin Short) who was determined to take over Santa’s job. I can barely remember the film, let alone anything funny in the film. Sadly, what does haunt me is Martin Short’s horrendous parody of Liza Minnelli singing “New York/New York.” Ms. Minnelli should sue.

BASIC INSTINCT 2 also makes my list. In this sexually fueled thriller, best-selling crime novelist Catherine Trammel (Sharon Stone) once again finds herself on the wrong side of the law. The film’s theme, I guess, has to do with obsession, but the final cut leaves audiences with little more than a voyeuristic slasher thriller starring a 47-year-old actress who mistakenly believes she can still go braless.

Anybody see THE BLACK DAHLIA? At first, this screen version of the infamous murder case reminded me of a classic film noir, with its bluesy background music and stylized art and set design, which effectively captured ‘40s Los Angeles and an opening narration that captures the noir of those Raymond Chandler/Philip Marlow crime dramas. But, suddenly, The Black Dahlia becomes a mixed-up mess. The story, which actually has little to do with the poor girl who was viciously murdered, becomes convoluted to the point of parody. Director Brian De Palma’s fictionalized twist of the Dahlia’s story becomes more and more ludicrous with its bizarre subplot twists and it array of freaks more suitable to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill.

If you’ve read other critiques of the Black Dahlia then you may recall even harsher details concerning performances, cheeky characters, and rhythmless direction and the need for the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Suffice it to say, this Dahlia deserves a quick death.

BORAT. Now this is a clever, funny movie, it did exceptionally well at the box office and was praised by countless critics. However, it further desensitized audiences already bombarded by numerous movie comedies that lean heavily upon crudity and vulgarity.

Sacha Baron Cohen - star of HBO’s hit comedy Da Ali G Show, takes his outrageous Kazakstani reporter character Borat to the big screen.  Borat travels from his primitive home in Kazakhstan to the U.S. to make a documentary. On his cross-country road trip, Borat, from a small backward former Russian state, is so oblivious to modern facilities, such as the use of a commode, and social behavior (sexual customs in his country evidently allowing for public masturbation), that he manages to insult every American with whom he comes in contact. The visuals come so quickly and are of such antisocial behavior, such as chasing an obese man through a hotel, both completely naked, that the mind’s first reaction is to laugh at the unaccustomed conduct in public. But the tacky humor doesn’t stop with the character’s rude deportment. Mr. Cohen also treats other taboo subjects with an absurdist view. At one point, his down-on-his-luck character wanders into a Pentecostal church meeting. I don’t know how he managed to do this, but it seems to be a real worship service. While its practitioners are expressing their praise and worship by dancing in the aisles and speaking in tongues, Mr. Cohen takes full advantage of the charismatic approach to worship and praise to poke fun at Christian beliefs. No matter your view of this religious practice, the Charismatic movement has become comic fodder for Hollywood. I felt extremely uncomfortable during these scenes. While his character is honestly trying to understand and seek the help of “Mr. Jesus,” the presentation comes very near blasphemy while also ridiculing that particular denomination.

Now, here’s another one that will cause debate among my colleagues in criticism –
THE BREAK-UP. Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston starred in this tale of a man and woman who quickly fall in love and move in together. But reality quickly shatters their rose-colored, opposites-attract story. Without much ado, they break up (hence the clever title). The quarreling twosome is suddenly at war over the shared condo, and when neither is willing to move out, the only solution is to continue living as antagonistic roommates until somebody caves. 

I suppose it can be argued that the story is a cautionary tale for young lovers who decide to cohabitate; but is anybody really going to learn life lessons from this clumsy attempt? It’s not satire or parody or drawing room witty. It’s a film for those who think Larry the Cable Guy is high art. I take that back. At least Larry has some original observations. The Break-Up doesn’t.

CLERKS 2 was another comedy built around absurd and deviant behavior, much like Borat. One character wears a t-shirt inscribed with Got Jesus? Understand, he’s a cretin who sells dope and can’t complete an entire sentence without using the f-word, but he also quotes scripture – well, an out-of-context, paraphrased version of scripture. At first, I wondered if this excessive humor was a way of reaching stoners before submitting a spiritual message. Over an hour into the production, however, I realized that no matter what possible uplift the filmmakers could bestow upon its numbed audience, it wasn’t worth my wait. After a bombardment of crude sexual riffs, an endless stream of obscenity and profanity, and the comic introduction of bestiality as a sort of bachelor party send-off, I’d had enough. So, after nearly 19 years of reviewing some 3,000 films, I walked out on my fourth or fifth screening.

DATE MOVIE: Unwary audiences throughout the land flocked to megaplexes during its opening weekend in order to see this putrid parody. Those poor souls became sacrificial lambs at the altar of mediocrity. Several romantic comedies, as well as action thrillers, were spoofed, but while each comic setup was a pop culture salute, the execution of same was generally clumsy and vulgar. It’s difficult to find just the right comic tone and sensibility when approaching comedy, so funny filmmakers often settle for the cheapest, easiest way to exude a laugh. Like the pie fights of days gone by, bodily functions are now the sauce of screen humor.

THE DAVINCI CODE. Oh, it’s already been said.

RUNNING SCARED. Paul Walker plays a low-level mobster who, in order to save his family, must recover a gun used in a mob hit before it’s found by his bosses or the cops.   A mishmash of subplots that included drug warfare, domestic unrest, child abuse, abusive pimps and their abused inventory, abusive cops, abusive crooked cops, abusive language that utilized one particular swear word nearly 300 times, and abusive brutality that included enough beatings and shootings to make Kill Bill look like an episode of Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood. To top it off, there was a loving couple who abducted children in order to make pornographic films with them before chopping them up.

God understands that this is my work and He shelters me, protects me from the damage that can be done by viewing such content. But I found myself saying, “Jesus, I’m sorry I brought you here.”

Oh, I can’t help it, I will say something about THE DAVINCI CODE. It is compiled of cheesy prose, implausible situations, one-dimensional characters and the absence of even one well-turned phrase. One can only assume that it found its way to the cinema screen because some thought it might smear Christianity, while others just thought “Ca-ching!”

Believe it or not, Phil Boatwright loves movies.