Judi, Judi, Judi! I’ll Take Notes

I know that they’ve been sleeping. I know they’re not awake. But I hoped in the year-end glut of holiday movies that the Hollywood Santa would be good for goodness’ sake. Instead of a turkey with trimmings, we got a bag of stale Chicken McNuggets. When the people who make movies yelled “It’s a wrap!”, they were not talking ribbons and bows. In the dozens of films I have seen in the past weeks, I have still seen nothing better than Babel and nothing worse than Borat. In keeping with past history, a mediocre year ended with some distinguished performances in films of little or no consequence. In this final column of 2006, here is the residue, followed by my annual choices of the Best and Worst of what happened in the last 365 days at the movies.

Notes on a Scandal wins my prize for the best acting of the year. It’s a film of scalding intensity, with a hypnotic, detailed, three-dimensional performance by Judi Dench that is positively historic! Yes, everyone knows she is arguably the greatest actress alive today, but nothing she has ever done will prepare you for this. In a role unlike any she has ever tackled, Dame Judi plays Barbara Covett, the antagonist of Zoë Heller’s acclaimed novel What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal, a lonely, repressed, aging and embittered veteran history teacher with lesbian tendencies who lives an isolated and barren existence with only her sick cat for company. Barbara yearns so desperately for companionship that when a new arts teacher—a feisty, attractive free spirit named Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett at her best)—joins the faculty, Barbara likes what she sees and spins a deceptive web of seduction that takes both women to places dark, dangerous and beyond imagination. Let the emotional fencing begin.

The doughy, cynical spinster’s infatuation with the tweedy blond novice progresses gingerly at first, as Barbara weaves Sheba into her counsel, pouring tea and dispensing advice on everything from choosing the right friends to classroom strategy (“Teaching is crowd control”). Analyzing everyone within spitting distance with one withering glance, Barbara is so humorous and bitchy that the naïve Sheba becomes disarmingly friendly and candid, unloading her intimate feelings to Barbara too fast, unaware that her new mentor is writing it all down in a journal. Sheba is married to a gregarious lawyer (Bill Nighy), the mother of a son with Down syndrome, and too vulnerable for her own good. When she makes the mistake of having a secret sexual affair with one of her 15-year-old students, Barbara seizes her moment of superiority. First threatening, then protecting her younger friend by not telling the authorities, Barbara cleverly places Sheba in her debt. It proves to be the ultimate tool that a masterful control freak dreams about. By the time Sheba finally ends the affair for good, she’s totally under the influence of “trusty old Barb.” Under the guise of friendship, Barbara maps out her plans for a final sexual conquest like a general strategizing a battle, and extends her power to poisoning Sheba’s marriage, alienating her loyalty to her children and destroying her life, career, reputation and self-esteem. The result is as much a thriller as it is a character study. The finale will turn your knees to jelly.

Greatness informs every scene. The brilliant screenplay is by Patrick Marber, who wrote Closer. The sensitive, illuminating direction is by Richard Eyre, the former head of the National Theatre and one of the world’s leading theater and film directors. (He directed Stage Beauty and Dame Judi in Iris.) The camerawork by the legendary Chris Menges captures a mood of suspense that is visually unshakable. And the performances boil the blood in your veins and freeze the breath in your throat at the same time. Watching Judi Dench orchestrate the ultimate downfall of another human being with diabolical cruelty and endearing charm is devastating. Ms. Blanchett holds her own, building to the explosion within her heart with a rage that is shocking. The internal complexity of their performances will leave you shattered. In a weak year, everything about Notes on a Scandal is electrifying.

Army Surplus

To my surprise, nobody went to see Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers. Who do they think they’ll attract with Letters from Iwo Jima, the same director’s take on the flip side of the coin from the Japanese point of view? I admire the technical efficiency and well-intended sense of fairness that went into this black-and-white epic, but two and a half hours of Japanese mortar fire and hand-grenade explosions with English subtitles for a work that isn’t even a Japanese movie in the first place is just not my cup of combat duty. Mr. Eastwood shows the Japanese soldiers digging their trenches and wondering aloud if those trenches will be their graves. They say, “Damn this island—the Americans can have it!” They suffer the same hardships as the American G.I.’s, though with fewer men and less artillery. But they do have a kind and humane commander in Imperial Army Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, played by the excellent Ken Watanabe, who stole The Last Samurai right out from under Tom Cruise. They also have a former gold-medal-winning horseback-riding champion from the Los Angeles Olympics. Their fleet has been destroyed, their remaining fighter planes ordered back to Tokyo. Some choose an honorable death by suicide, while others opt to survive—even though it means admitting a crushing defeat. Mr. Eastwood shows the courage and the carnage, and implies that the Japanese had a stronger compassion and sense of justice than the Americans, especially in their treatment of prisoners, and both films chronicle the dehumanizing effect that all wars have on the men who fight them. Still, I found Letters from Iwo Jima more bloodless and stagy than Flags of Our Fathers. And what, in the big picture, is the point?

I question the need for two World War II movies in the same year when most people don’t even want to see one. Young audiences don’t know what Iwo Jima was or what happened there that cost the lives of about 7,000 Americans and 20,000 Japanese. Anyone who cares, or anyone who remembers 1945, or anyone who lost a relative in the Pacific, doesn’t give a royal flying fig about anything concerning the Japanese point of view, and that is going to be the biggest problem in marketing this film. The wonderful acting, the human endurance test the Japanese went through, the letters they wrote home (yes, they had wives and children, too), and the fact that there are decent and humane people on both sides of every conflict are strong factors in selling both the movie’s value and Mr. Eastwood’s importance as a responsible filmmaker. Critics and historians will give the film high marks, but will the public care? Flags of Our Fathers had more action, and more of a narrative that followed those boys back to the American home front. Letters from Iwo Jima doesn’t have the same scope, or the same sense of excitement in the trenches, and there is no shameful postwar file about what the survivors went through after they got home. It is a noble attempt to tell the truth about a war that Hollywood has always mythologized, but I still think it is too long and too slow. Both films attempt to do for the battle of Iwo Jima what Saving Private Ryan did for the invasion of Normandy, but the quality and passion are continents apart.

Dopey Damon

Clocking in at nearly three hours, The Good Shepherd is a numbing history of the C.I.A. that leaves you Novocained. Jumping around in time like a frog with hiccups, it opens with the 1961 Bay of Pigs disaster, when preppy secret agent Edward Wilson, played by Matt Damon, learns that Fidel Castro was tipped off by an informer inside the C.I.A., which J.F.K. vows to break open in a house-cleaning purge. In the time it takes Mr. Damon’s character to find out who the spy is, you could read a book, call your mother, finish your crossword puzzle, do all of your Christmas shopping and pay the first installment on next year’s estimated income tax.

From Cuba in the 1960’s, flash back to the 1930’s, where Matt Damon sings and dances in drag in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta at Yale. Government creep Alec Baldwin approaches him to spy on his poetry professor, Dr. Fredericks (Michael Gambon), so Fredericks can be turned in to the F.B.I. for his Nazi sympathies. Cut to 1940, where Wilson runs into his pals at Yale at a Skull and Bones retreat, meets a powerful O.S.S. general named Bill Sullivan (played by Robert De Niro, hamming it up shamelessly by hobbling around with gout), who offers him a spot on the ground floor of a new top-secret government intelligence organization called the C.I.A. Wilson then knocks up the daughter of a U.S. Senator (a hopelessly miscast Angelina Jolie), followed by a shotgun wedding. As the story drags through the years in a trance, Mr. Damon’s Wilson just gets weirder and weirder. By the 1960’s, he doesn’t look a day older than he did in the 1930’s , although he does have a different hair color every year. Still haunted by the suicide of his father (Timothy Hutton), he loses himself in his work, lands in London in 1941 posing as a civil servant and stays for six years, becoming a total stranger to his wife and son. By 1946, he’s in Washington, gathering information on subversive operations among the Russians, destroying lives and trusting nobody, all in the name of patriotism and democracy. In the 1950’s, he has a reunion with a counterespionage agent (Billy Crudup) that he befriended in England, and the deaf girl (Tammy Blanchard) he deserted to marry his wife, who in the meantime has turned gray-haired and miserable (probably from the torture of tattoo removal). Through an interminable gallimaufry of internecine deals, double crosses, favors owed and refused, and a lot of time spent parking cars and unlocking doors, Mr. Damon’s character becomes a metaphor for all of the cold, heartless, secretive, clandestine and cadaverous people who work as U.S. surveillance operatives, security experts, prison wardens and Pinkerton guards, as well as the spooks in suits who work for the F.B.I., C.I.A. and Secret Service. I guess the movie means to show how shallow and uninteresting their lives are, without realizing that dull, gray people make for dull, gray movies. Reducing the value of human life to rote indifference, their betrayals and counter-betrayals bring nothing but grief to the ones they pretend to love the most. To make a short story long, by the time that Wilson finally uncovers the true identity of the mole responsible for the Bay of Pigs, it impales him on the horns of his life’s first dilemma, but I doubt if anyone will still be awake enough to care.

In addition to overacting, Mr. De Niro’s directing is a sloppy, truncated mess. The man simply doesn’t know the meaning of “less is more.” Anyone who knows anything about filmmaking can point out at least a dozen superfluous scenes that should have been cut for length and coherence. Eric Roth’s screenplay isn’t especially incoherent, but it does seem longer and less fluid than Mein Kampf. And Matt Damon never manages to look any older or bigger in stature than a high-school shortstop.

Venus Rises

Peter O’Toole is one of the last dinosaurs surviving the crunch, and Venus, a vehicle generating Oscar buzz for the indestructible septuagenarian, is his own personal Jurassic Park. Don’t be fooled by furtive sighs, hesitant steps or teeth that look like the apple won’t bite. He’s still got fangs.

In the delightful Venus, Mr. O’Toole plays Maurice, a second-tier old veteran actor in his “golden years” who is too old for Hamlet and too young for the cemetery. Maurice had a few good seasons, but now he ekes out a retirement income doing bit parts on trashy British television series. That is, when he’s lucky. Most of the time he hangs out with his two best pals, Ian and Donald (Leslie Phillips and Richard Griffiths), a pair of gay blades from the good old days who know where all the bodies are buried. This trio of semi-ancient old hams is set in their ways, but the banter between their daily breakfast ritual in a neighborhood café and their nightly alcoholic stupors in London pubs is an indication of how loyal, devoted and inseparable they are. Until, that is, the arrival of Ian’s niece’s teenage daughter Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), a slovenly country bumpkin utterly ignorant of all things cultural, who comes to London to take care of her uncle and shows no eagerness to leave. The old-maidish Ian is mortified that this cheeky, chip-munching tart has been dumped on his doorstep, but Maurice senses a revival of forgotten sensual pleasures undreamed of since Omar Khayyam. If she prefers MTV to Bach’s Passions, it’s only a temporary snag for Maurice, who may be old and gnarled but still is randy enough to smell an April-October romance when he sniffs one. To his friends’ dismay, Maurice is suddenly too busy to read the obits and get his prostate checked. He stops talking about his blood pressure, takes Jessie to the theater, and nicknames her Venus because she reminds him of the Velázquez painting in the National Gallery, while Jessie drags him to pop clubs and rekindles old lusts and longings he’s long since outgrown. Age introduces youth to the things it knows, and youth responds to the knowledge so joyfully shared. Then things get complicated when a single friendship moves up a notch to the double bed, and Venus becomes a pitiful portrait of a sad and lonely old has-been trying to recapture the essence of passion when the mind says yes and the body says no.

Vanessa Redgrave adds a glow of her own as the ex-wife that Maurice abandoned years earlier with three children to raise on her own. She, above all, understands his search for pleasure above responsibility. Their scenes together have real magic. Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) and the sophisticated screenplay by Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Launderette) beautifully balance lighthearted insouciance with a vein of deeper feeling, and Peter O’Toole gives the kind of beautifully measured performance—funny, charming, biting and achingly sad—that cements his stature as one of the most beguiling of the acting profession’s great icons.

The 10 Best Films of 2006

1. Babel

2. Notes on a Scandal

3. The History Boys

4. The Painted Veil

5. The Queen

6. ‑Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima

7. The Illusionist

8. Infamous

9. Dreamgirls

10. Volver

Honorable Mentions: Water, Scoop, Find Me Guilty, Deliver Us from Evil, The Last King of Scotland, Kinky Boots, Our Daily Bread


1. Borat

2. The Fountain

3. Apocalypto

4. Lucky Number Slevin

5. The Black Dahlia

6 All the King’s Men

7. Lady in the Water

8. Brick

9. Inland Empire

10. Fur

Extra hisses and boos to: The Da Vinci Code, A Prairie Home Companion, Déjà Vu, The Prestige, Rumor Has It, Freedomland, For Your Consideration, Perfume Judi, Judi, Judi! I’ll Take Notes