In recognition of 21st-century reality, I might say that the best new film I saw in 2006 was Hou Hsiao-hsien's Café Lumière, the Taiwanese director's centenary tribute to the inimitable Japanese master, Yasujiro Ozu, albeit in his own, no less distinctive style. To try to tighten my grip on reality, though, I would have to say that that was the best new DVD I saw. (To tighten my grip still further, I should say the film was new in 2003.) But that's how we see things now. We program our own. And I elected to watch and write about Café Lumière in the midst of a drowsy summer. By the rules I observe on Prize Day -- all contenders must have premiered in a San Diego theater between January 1 and December 31 -- it is strictly ineligible. Hou's newer film, Three Times, did in fact have a premiere at the San Diego Asian Film Festival in October, but it, while it has placed on other critics' lists around the country, was to me a sizable letdown. Which is not to take away any credit from the festival for showing it.
By default, then, the blue ribbon this year goes to Flags of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood's tormented war film (and, still tormented, postwar film) on the faceless flag-raisers of the Battle of Iwo Jima. Most, if not all, of the critics I have unscientifically sampled seem to give the edge to his Japanese-language companion piece, Letters from Iwo Jima, including those critics in the San Diego Film Critics Society who voted it the best film of the year and who clearly play by a different set of rules from mine. (Abruptly moved forward from its nationwide opening date next February -- apparently because Flags wasn't generating the anticipated Oscar buzz -- it is now scheduled to open locally on January 12.) Inasmuch as I was out of town on the day of its single, spur-of-the-moment press screening, and inasmuch as I was utterly unaware of its existence when I was seeing Flags, I remain unswayed by it. I am judging Flags only in relation to the other 248 films I saw in the past year. Undeniably, it was something of a dud at the box-office, the mass audience declaring itself unwilling to follow this once popular and still venerated filmmaker down the path of anguish he has lately chosen to explore. I can't really blame them, though I can't help but feel they are missing out on a remarkable spiritual odyssey. Maybe they'll catch up on DVD.
The red ribbon goes to Looking for Comedy in Muslim World, Albert Brooks's return to somewhere close to peak form. Close enough, anyhow. The film dates from way back in January (when it began a good long run at a single theater, Pacific's Gaslamp), yet it still seems nearer in time and fresher in mind than such fast-fading midyear releases as Mission: Impossible III, The Da Vinci Code, X-Men: The Last Stand, Superman Returns, and so on, or even such final-quarter releases as The Prestige, Infamous, Running with Scissors, Marie Antoinette. A "personal" film par excellence, pitilessly self-deprecating in its appraisal of Brooks's standing in our popular culture (in a word, he's unpopular), it no doubt told us much less about the Muslim world than about the comedian himself. But anyone who knows his work, regardless of how well he or she likes it, could have expected nothing else.
And the white ribbon goes to Shut Up and Sing, Barbara Kopple's (and Cecilia Peck's) documentary on the burst bubble of the Dixie Chicks after an ill-timed wisecrack, by their lead singer, about the warmongering President of the United States. It tells a story better than most fiction films tell one, and it tells a better story, too. You could argue perhaps that such documentaries as An Inconvenient Truth and Deliver Us from Evil had more urgent stories to tell, or more urgent information to impart, but that wouldn't make them into better movies. (And I'm not altogether sure about the greater urgency, either.) In view of our current inundation with documentaries, Kopple's narrative freedom, more specifically her freedom from narrator and interviewee, merits special commendation.
With that, I am fresh out of ribbons. Just to carry on and close out the topic of documentaries, my Honorable Mentions, in no particular order, might start with 49 Up, Michael Apted's dutiful continuation of his unique series on an arbitrary assemblage of same-aged but otherwise dissimilar Brits; Unknown White Male, Rupert Murray's provocative rumination on the question of identity, centered around a case of amnesia which demands to be either updated in a sequel or unmasked as a hoax; and Wordplay, Patrick Creadon's engaging group portrait of the oddish devisers and solvers of crossword puzzles.
To extend the honors: Woody Allen, on a prolonged sojourn in England, had a fruitful year with the reputedly darker, weightier Match Point (behind the camera only) and the reputedly lighter, slighter Scoop (behind as well as in front of it), pretty much a toss-up in my book. Terry Zwigoff, reunited with his Ghost World writer, Daniel Clowes, bounced partway back (from the bad Bad Santa) with Art School Confidential, a largely ignored but strongly motivated lampoon of artistic and academic types, when it wasn't getting sidetracked on a time-killing serial-killer subplot. Jason (son of Ivan) Reitman made a notable directing debut, if not necessarily for his actual directing, in the take-no-prisoners political satire, Thank You for Smoking. And the middle-of-the-road Frank Marshall supplied good old-fashioned survival adventure, canine-variety, in the undervalued but unforgotten Eight Below.
The French-language cinema comes in for its usual, unfair share of mentions, for Michael Haneke's unsettling Caché, Dominik Moll's unnerving Lemming, Laurent Cantet's disquieting Heading South, Emmanuel Carrère's disconcerting La Moustache, François Ozon's slick and sentimental Time to Leave, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's unslick and unsentimental L'Enfant, and Olivier Assayas's untidy Clean. Other mentions for other tongues should go to Zhang Yimou's sumptuous and smoldering Curse of the Golden Flower and to Manuel Martín Cuenca's densely woven Malas Temporadas, the latter from last spring's San Diego Latino Film Festival, always a dependable source for at least one mention.