Keep Your Eyes off the Prize: There Was a Rich Feast on Offer-But the Top Oscar Went to the Wrong Film

Article excerpt

How you regard 2006 in cinema depends largely on whether you think of your bucket of popcorn as being half empty or half full. The year started, as usual, with the Oscar for Best Motion Picture going to the wrong film. And it ended with the death of Robert Altman, the most adventurous American director of the past 40 years (his final film, A Prairie Home Companion, will be released on 5 January). That's about as half empty as it gets. On the other hand, Tom Cruise was finally shown the door by the head of Paramount, who accused the star of being "embarrassing", "costing us a lot of money" and "having a gormless smile" (OK, I made the last one up). So it wasn't all doom and gloom.

It would be overstating the case to say that the Academy Awards ceremony was the Hollywood equivalent of Al Gore's defeat in the 2000 Florida elections. All that happened, after all, was that one of the best American films in recent memory (Brokeback Mountain) lost out to one of the worst (Crash). Brokeback Mountain demanded something of its audience: it unspooled at a lolling pace and asked for our engagement with its sometimes unsympathetic gay hero. Crash, on the other hand, flattered viewers into believing that they had helped make the world a better place simply by watching this tale of racial tensions in LA. Serious film-making has no business encouraging such complacency. Whether or not you were engaged by the global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth, or by Offside, Jafar Panahi's football comedy-with-a-kick, at least those films displayed a faith in cinema's capacity to effect change.

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The viewing choices made by British audiences were often surprisingly daring. It would have been nice if this had been the only country to turn its back on The Da Vinci Code and Pirates of the Caribbean: dead man's chest, or to snub the depressing trend of horror sequels and remakes--but let's not expect miracles. Michael Haneke's intractable Hidden, a mystery without a solution, was one of the year's more heartening successes, and I say that as someone who wasn't taken with its tone, which left the viewer feeling admonished. But it joined the elite club of foreign-language films that have grossed more than [pounds sterling]1m. And the heated discussions it prompted in cinema foyers suggested a throwback to the days when people were forever challenging one another to duels over the meaning of Last Year in Marienbad.

Another unexpected hit was The Squid and the Whale, in which the divorce of a New York literary couple is seen through the eyes of their wounded children. In a year that brought Match Point, another nail in the coffin of Woody Allen's reputation, The Squid and the Whale delivered a pure fix of the kind of urbane, scathing wit that once came so readily to him. Thanks to its young hero, whose overactive hormones turned the Dewey decimal system into the Gooey decimal system, it also ensured that you'll never pick up another library book unless you're wearing Marigolds. …