November 22, 2006

The ten best Hollywood movies of 2006 (pre-holiday/Oscar season edition)

1. The Prestige
2. The Prestige
3. The Prestige
4. The Prestige
5. The Prestige
6. The Prestige
7. Insert other movie here
8. The Prestige
9. The Prestige
10. The Prestige

Screenwriting teachers, this is your new Chinatown.

Maybe that's an overstatement, but find me a finer-crafted screenplay (and film) this year, and I'll gladly watch it a thousand times.

Well, maybe not a thousand times. Like four or so.

Still, before my contact high wears off (I hadn't really read anything about the film other than having seen a preview or two, and my expectations weren't particularly high going in, so I was even more pleasantly surprised), I'd just like to sit here and soak up the feeling of enjoying a film so thoroughly from start to finish, and having been inspired while sitting in the theater, which hasn't happened in a long time for me.

Serves me right for doubting Christopher Nolan (and his brother Jonathan), although I didn't know going in that they'd written the screenplay themselves, instead assuming that the Batman Begins director was merely turning out a project in between Gotham entries (sharing much of the same cast, as it does).

Curious about the establishment's reaction to the film, I looked over the Rotten Tomatoes front page, and I think the reviewers are mostly missing the point. The film isn't about mere magic tricks, and whether or not you figure out the twist early on (I can honestly claim I had it in the first half hour), the subtext stands on its own. For the film's heart, listen again to Jackman's character's final speech. Any movie which tries to walk the tightrope of "give just enough away so that viewers don't feel hoodwinked at the end," and "don't give too much away or everyone will figure it out halfway through"--as a means to an end--is missing the point. Yes, there is cinematic sleight-of-hand, and yes, there are twists and turns and plotpoints and everything else that goes with a mystery yarn, but as with any film, it's what's underneath all the trappings that counts. And I think the critics are largely discussing the accoutrement while ignoring the main course.

But that's why they're critics.


The problem with Rotten Tomatoes is that it only gives critics a thumbs-up or thumbs-down option (often ascribed to the film by the RT staff through a reading of the review, rather than by the critic him or herself, which is another problem in and of itself). Thus films that garner uniformly positive--but lukewarm--critical reactions often end up with the highest ratings.

The Queen, for example, currently has a 98% Rotten Tomatoes rating but is, according to the 18% of my brain that operates as a film critic, only 35% the film The Prestige is. Of course, The Prestige probably cost 289% as much money, but we all know money has little to do with quality, as Pearl Harbor proves (costing 480% as much money as both The Queen and The Prestige put together, yet only garnering 28% the critical approval of the averages of 98% and 74%). 100% of me hated Pearl Harbor, while only 56% cared about The Queen (of that 56%, 38% gave it a thumbs-up); meanwhile I'm 26% certain that 87% of the audience in my 34%-full theater didn't predict The Prestige's twist. 200% of me was attracted to film's hotties (99% each for Piper Perabo and Scarlet Johansson), although, I'll admit, the remaining 2% had the hots for Hugh Jackman.

It's funny because his name is Hugh Jackman.

All mockery aside, The Queen, despite its 98% rating, is not the kind of film that inspires impassioned reactions from audiences (that is to say, it lives up well to its English heritage). Yet the film gets the overall thumbs-up from the critical establishment because Rotten Tomatoes doesn't rate the intensity of clapping: as long as everyone in the audience is cheering, the film garners a 100% rating--even if everyone is merely golf-clapping.

Maybe I should switch to Metacritic.




In The Prestige, the magicians are creating the illusion of something supernatural, something, as Roxy Music sang, "more than this," when ultimately, reductively... there's just nothing there. Their tricks are an intentional lie, and for all their sleight-of-hand, each trick is just an elaborately-constructed set of pulleys and devices to make the audience members believe in something unseen. Even Tesla's cloning device isn't "real" magic--just science.

But what is the price of creating this sense of alleviating wonderment for the masses, which diverts people from their daily toils and troubles and allows them to believe in something otherworldly? Look to our current American pursuit in Iraq, where hundreds are dying every day because of disparate beliefs. What, then, is the cost of believing the trick is real? In the final shot of The Prestige, it's the corpses of dozens of Hugh Jackmans that suffered for the people's beliefs, but it might as well be hundreds of Americans, or thousands of Iraqis.

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