By: Arnav Sheth

Differing from its fairly unproductive younger sibling 2005, this past year saw a tremendous influx of fine examples of film-making. While I have not had a chance to see every good movie released this year, here are six of the more notable ones I have seen, in order of their release in the US. Of the six, four of have a common thread amongst them - they are their respective directors’ takes on various versions of Orwellian regimes. It is not for me to say whether the current political environment has inspired their creation, but they certainly are brilliant works of art.

Imagine you never know the real identity of the people you work for, or even what they look like. Imagine you are forced to interact with people who are your ideological opposites to the point where you must bunk with them. Imagine your every move is monitored and recorded on scanners that exist almost everywhere. And imagine if you are perpetually under the influence of an addictive, consciousness-altering substance. Paranoia reigns supreme, reality begins to change dynamically every time you look over your shoulder and life converges to nothing more than a vague blur. While this sounds scary enough, it is just another day in a Phillip K. Dick novel.

Undercover police officer Fred (Keanu Reeves) is deeply embedded in a cell of drug users (Robert Downey, Jr., Woody Harrelson and Rory Cochrane) as Bob Arctor in an attempt to ascend the chain of users and dealers and ferret out major sources of “Substance D,” a mind-altering drug, analogous to LSD. When he is Fred, he must wear a “scramble suit,” as must all narcotics agents. This conceals their true identity to each other, with the purported objective of preventing corruption and collusion. As a result, he never knows his coworkers’ or his boss’s true identity. When he is Bob, he can look like himself. And perhaps it is this extra degree of freedom that gets him addicted to “Substance D,” something which the Agency monitors regularly through psychological and physical tests. Perhaps also, it is this freedom which prevents him from avoiding emotional involvement with Donna (Winona Ryder), a member of the drug user cell. Ultimately, he loses track of whether he is Fred acting as Bob or vice versa. Substance D will do that to you. The movie follows Fred through a series of twists and turns, until we finally realize what is really going on. It suffices to say, it’s not paranoia when they’re really after you.

Director Richard Linklater shot in the animation technique known as rotoscoping, in which animators trace over the live-action images of the performers. That said, this movie is probably the closest Hollywood will ever get to translating Dick’s vivid imagination on to film. The technique allows for bright colors, an other-worldly feel and characters that are physically amoebic, not unlike their mental state. Reeves, with his own surreal, stoner-like persona is perfect as Fred/Bob, and Rory Cochrane excels as Freck, a volatile character, the extent of whose dependency on Substance D is rivaled only by his behavioral excesses. This movie gets in the ‘Best of’ list for its excellent meandering plot and an excellent use of rotoscoping.

This is technically a 2005 film, but it was released throughout most of the world (including the US) in 2006. Shot completely in black and white, this French debut by Georgian director Gela Babluani is sharp, cynical and sadistic. It tells the story of a 20-something Georgian immigrant, Sebastien (Georges Babluani, the director’s brother), who must support his family by doing odd jobs, the latest of which is roofer at Godon’s (Philippe Passon) house. Godon is a morphine addict and he dies of an overdose before Sebastien’s job is complete. Completely broke, his wife dismisses Sebastien without pay. While on the roof though, Sebastien gets wind of a high-paying job (we don’t know the details) that Godon was supposed to do. Sebastien steals an envelope which Godon received, that apparently contains instructions for the job. When he opens it, he finds that the envelope contains a train ticket, a hotel reservation and a token with the number 13 on it (tzameti means ‘13’ in Georgian).

For the first half of the movie, we follow Sebastien with bated breath as he goes into the countryside, following instructions from anonymous callers to get to this mysterious job. When Sebastien finally figures out what the job is, he tries everything in his power to get out, but it is too late. The job is a deadly game that involves what is possibly the most primal aspect of humanity. Without revealing more, this movie is similar to to Pan’s Labyrinth in that it explores the more cynical side of human nature. But it is diametrically opposite since it does so from a very adult perspective. There are no child protagonists here and we can take comfort in this, because this movie is disturbing enough as it is.

The black and white only enhances the tension and the suspense as we encounter some extremely interesting characters, each portrayed splendidly. The outcome of the game turns out be what we expect it, but the twists will leave you reeling. Ultimately, do not be surprised if you have ripped holes in the arms of your seat. This thriller is definitely one of the high points of the year.

Here’s an interesting recipe. Combine: (1) a failing motivational speaker, Frank (Greg Kinnear); (2) his heroin-addicted father, “Grandpa” (Alan Arkin); (3) his Nietzche-obsessed step-son, Dwayne (Paul Dano); (4) his chubby, prepubescent, Miss America-wannabe daughter, Olive (Abigail Breslin); (5) his weary wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette); and (6) her brother, a suicidal Proust scholar, Frank (Steve Carell). Throw them all into a beat-up, banana yellow VW van, get them on the road, and keep it going for over an hour and a half. What you’re left with is a satirical, but warm look at dysfunction in suburbia, created by the husband-wife team of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, who graduate from music videos to their feature film debut.

In an excessively individualistic culture, a cohesive family unit finds it difficult, if not impossible, to actually converge on anything. Yet, in what might be one of the greatest ironies of them all, they are stuck with each other. By creating as diverse a set of characters as these, and by putting them into a van for an extended period of time, Faris and Dayton create a petri dish, as it were, for classic family dysfunction. The movie has some incredibly hilarious moments, such as in one of the opening scenes when Sheryl goes to bring Frank home from the hospital after his suicide attempt:
Sheryl: I’m so glad you’re still here…
Frank: Well that makes one of us.

There even seems to be a message at the end of the movie about the culture of “Number One” in America - where you don’t matter unless you’re the best, or the most beautiful. Appropriate to the metaphor of the beauty contest, the message is succinctly wrapped up in something that Dwayne, the Dano character says,
You know what? Fuck beauty contests. Life is one fucking beauty contest after another. School, then college, then work… Fuck that.

By constantly competing, by striving endlessly to become “more beautiful,” each of the characters is either heading towards disaster, or is already there. Olive, chubby and bespectacled, is only setting herself up for disappointment by competing in this regional beauty pageant. In an attempt to win over the most “beautiful” student, Frank ends up attempting suicide. Richard, in an attempt to help others succeed and, at the same time, succeed himself, ends up doing nothing more than making us laugh. Dwayne, strives to be an ubermensch, but is nothing more than a rebellious teenager. Grandpa, who says it like it is, and doesn’t give a damn, is the happiest (and the funniest) of them all.

Faris and Dayton took five years to make this movie, from start to finish, mostly due to financial reasons. At the end of it, they create a highly entertaining feature. Although the warmth of the movie takes the bite out of the satire, and the message makes the dark comedy a little less dark, there are enough funny moments in there to make it quite watchable.

Idi Amin was a sociopath, to put it mildly. It is said that he decapitated the dissidents of his coup, placed their heads around the presidential dining table and lectured to them, frequently taking bites of their flesh. Nicholas Garrigan, on the other hand, is rich, young, and charming. Fresh out of medical school in Scotland, he wants what every male youth wants – to annoy his father. So Nicholas goes to Uganda where, through a series of fateful events, he ends up being asked by Idi Amin to become his personal physician. In some perverse way, it’s almost as if Garrigan and Amin were made for each other. Both are charming, and both are deluded enough to believe in Amin’s goodness. Whereas Amin was quite real, Garrigan however, is a fictional character created by Giles Foden, who wrote the book on which the movie is based. Used by Foden to represent the naïve Westerner, he is used by the filmmakers to highlight Amin’s insanity and ground the viewer as Amin moves further away from reality as the movie progresses.

The director, Kevin MacDonald, has a knack for creating docu-dramas, and though he doesn’t delve too much into the history of Uganda or its complicated relationship with the British, he focuses on the more interesting relationship between Garrigan and Amin. By doing this, he doesn’t create a documentary, but a taut thriller, ably helped by cinematographer Anthony Dodd Mantle (known for his work in Lars Von Trier’s recent films), who creates an extraordinarily realistic feel throughout the film.

While Garrigan is played ably by James AcAvoy, it is Forest Whitaker’s performance as Amin that is superlative. Whitaker spent several months in Uganda, talking with relatives and victims of Amin. He learned enough Swahili to adlib with the local cast and even ate the local food to get a “eucharistic” understanding of the culture and its peoples. He completely immersed himself in the role. Whitaker is afflicted with a condition called strabismus, commonly (but incorrectly) known as ‘lazy eye.’ Even this biological affliction comes across as part of Amin’s mania as one eye roves wildly across the room, while the other rests lazily on Garrigan. Whitaker’s ferocious vitality in his portrayal of Amin’s resounding laughter, his energy and his love for wine, women and food make him come across like everybody’s favorite uncle. But his paranoia and his subtle but menacingly exploitative dialogues are delivered with a frightening realism which even Whitaker apparently found hard to rid himself of, after shooting ended during his days on the set. This is, by all accounts, an exceptional portrayal and certainly Oscar-worthy, despite what one might think of the film overall.

The Last King of Scotland is a study in reality. It strives to be the über-documentary, encompassing everything a good action film should have, while contrasting the stark reality of Amin’s mental and physical atrocities, his own deluded sense of reality, and the blatant disregard for reality by Garrigan. The direction is good, the cinematography great and the acting superb. Although it has been accused of being lengthy, it is, in reality, fast-paced. Whether it annoys for its superficiality or exhilarates for its thrills, it is worth watching for Whitaker’s excellent portrayal.

Like The Last King of Scotland, this is another novel-to-screen (from P.D. James’ novel of the same name) adaptation, but this is a work of art independent of the book, not unlike Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Cuaron has created a masterpiece with this tightly shot film which is, by far, the best movie of the year, from a cinematic perspective.

It is 2027 and all women have become infertile. No children have been born for 18 years. The last child that was born has just died. With the loss of children comes a loss of hope and a general malaise to follow any rules of civility. Governments have lost control of their populations and terrorism and unrest is widespread. People hurl objects at trains, bombs explode periodically and an over-the-counter suicide medication, Quietus (with reference to Hamlet), is sold so that “you decide when.” Countries don’t exist anymore, only Britain does, just about, because of its island-nation status, and the government proudly proclaims, “The world has collapsed. Only Britain soldiers on.” The use of “soldiers” is not accidental – an authoritarian regime exists, in which all immigrants are rounded up and taken into internment camps by “Homeland Security.” If the world outside these camps is a nightmarish version of the world we live in, then the world inside these camps is a nightmarish version of the world outside them. There is physical torture, executions at will and overall rampant lawlessness in extreme living conditions.

In this world, Theo (Clive Owen) is a bureaucrat working for the government. Like Winston Smith from Orwell’s 1984, when the movie starts he is a nobody, just following the rules - not because he believes in them, but because he has to, and he wants to be left alone. Mostly to be able to smoke pot with his friend Jasper (Michael Caine), a retired political cartoonist who lives in the middle of the woods, grows his own weed and likes listening to loud music. Theo’s ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore, in a thankfully brief role) though, is a leader of a group of rebels who call themselves ‘The Fishes’ (Chiwetel Ejiofor, amongst others) and want to protect the rights of immigrants. Dragged unwillingly to meet with Julian, Theo is asked, in exchange for money, to help her procure papers for an immigrant named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) to escape to ‘The Human Project.’ This is a half-mythical organization of benevolent scientists who research the reversal of the infertility, and who exist far away from London providing the only hope in this otherwise desolate world. After some thought, Theo agrees to do it. And then he realizes Kee’s significance – she is pregnant. Even as his journey to ‘The Human Project’ throws Theo into a hell within hell, Kee transforms his desolation and despair to hope, finally giving his life some meaning.

Shot exquisitely, with beautifully choreographed battles, an attention to detail that borders on the obsessive and subtle symbolism throughout the film, Alfonso Cuaron creates a masterpiece of cinema. There is a lack of clarity about the details of the plot, but this is an almost-deliberate attempt to disorient the audience, so they can empathize with the protagonists’ confusion and despair. The exceptional direction can be seen in the cinematography as it subtly reflects Theo’s despondency turning to joy. The soundtrack displays Cuaron’s love for progressive rock as it is put to excellent use. The acting is superlative with Clive Owen completely foregoing Clive Owen, The Star, to become Theo, The Nobody. Michael Caine shines as Jasper, and Pam Ferris is excellent as Miriam. There is also extensive use of dogs throughout the film – almost every scene has one, either in the foreground or the background, perhaps as a symbol for the spirit in every human which can either reduce them to shamelessly execute or allow them to battle all obstacles to do the right thing. Or perhaps it is because Cuaron just likes dogs. Also look out for the direct reference to the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals, which is itself a tribute to Orwell’s anti-totalitarian novel, Animal Farm.

El Laberinto del Fauno
You may read elsewhere that this movie is categorized as a drama, a thriller, a fantasy film or even science fiction, but one crucial component is left out from all these labels – political film. Guillermo Del Toro creates the perfect vehicle for political propaganda by creating a child protagonist at the center of the film. We see the entire movie through the eyes of a little girl, and her pure emotions color everything into black and white - into good and evil. The film is made so well, that the task of taking sides becomes easy. Of course, life is never that simple. And perhaps this is less a political film, and more a fairy tale. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. You be the judge.

In post-Civil War Spain, in 1944, a little girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), the daughter of a widowed tailor, moves from the city to the countryside with her mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), to live with her step-father, the despotic and sadistic Captain Vidal, played to evil perfection by Sergi López. The army has been posted at this remote location in the mountains to eliminate cells of the Republican militia that have been gaining some momentum there. Ofelia’s mother is pregnant with Vidal’s child, and she has come there to deliver the baby. Vidal shows distaste for Ofelia at their first meeting itself – while he needs her mother to bear his offspring, he has little or no desire for her. The autocratic Vidal, we learn early on in the film, shoots first and asks questions later. He will destroy anything that gets in the way of what he wants, including Ofelia, and he makes no attempt to hide it.

With her sick mother and domineering step-father, Ofelia is mostly left to her own devises. When she discovers a small maze on the premises, her obsession for fairy tales and her vivid imagination lead her to a faun at its center. This faun tells her she is a lost princess and can reclaim her title if she opens a portal (a series of spiral groves at the base of the labyrinth), which can only be done by completing a series of tasks. While Ofelia is busy completing her tasks, Captail Vidal is busy hunting down Republican rebels and her mother is getting increasingly sick as she gets closer to her pregnancy. The story mainly follows these two extremes of innocence – Vidal, who is devoid of any mercy or emotions, and Ofelia, a child, who is totally immersed in her emotions. As Vidal gets more merciless in hunting down the rebels, Ofelia goes deeper into her imaginary world, losing herself to the faun, the fairies and her mission. The question then becomes which one is more real? Vidal’s world or Ofelia’s?

With one of the most imaginative uses of magical realism Del Toro creates a visual feast for the eyes. The colors, the texture and the characters themselves are enough to keep you entertained throughout the film. Even the most hardened of cynics will find it hard not to get enchanted with Ofelia’s world, and Del Toro’s creation. You hear its haunting theme (Mercedes’ lullaby) long after the ending credits. Along the lines of Miyazhaki’s Spirited Away, its auteur asks not whether the magic is real or not (this is not the issue) but which world is more interesting and thus, more real to you.



All opinions expressed by Arnav Sheth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.