After looking at the Top 10 list I've compiled for 2006, I noticed that "conflict and survival" had become my main themes of interest. I'm already pretty cynical, but I think my favorite movies this year have exposed an even deeper cynicism I wasn't aware of. Normally, this side of me counterbalances my idealistic side -- I find hope in the possibilities of humanist attitudes and in the possession of empathy for those who are different from ourselves. The human capability to care is, I believe, the key to our ongoing survival as a race of intelligent beings.
But I also believe that, at our core, we look for our own individual survivals first before the survivals of others. It's a primal instinct, and when we abandon reason we fall back on these instincts. And, lately, perhaps I've seen too much evidence of this -- in the news, in the lives of those I know, from stages global to local. One particular story I followed this year involved North Korea's refusal to cooperate with the U.S. and several powerful Asian nations regarding the dismantling of its nuclear program. The U.S. held fast to a hard line which only seemed to strengthen the resolve of the North Koreans to be defiant. Each side, not understanding what the other side is afraid to lose, could only see the danger to themselves.
I'm reminded of a lesson imparted in The Fog of War: "Empathize with your enemy." That's excellent advice -- but not easy to follow because it's against our nature. Seeing something from the other side isn't feasible for someone trying to survive, so we fiercely guard ourselves, defend ourselves, many times at the expense of others' well-being.
And perhaps I like watching this situation enacted in cinema because it's a truth that needs to be confronted, again and again. We like to think of ourselves as rational beings, and we're complacent with that, but when it comes right down to it, we're animals when we're protecting ourselves. This can be good, but many times it also creates undesirable consequences; it creates conflicts where neither side may want to back down. When aggression leads to more aggression, we may end up destroying each other; we should take a closer look at this situation to understand it, and possibly look for alternate paths using reason and empathy.
1. The Queen. Which leads to my number one film, which is a model example of a conflict of wills that somehow reaches a beneficial compromise. Here is a perfect confrontational situation, pitting tradition vs. modernism, and personal interests vs. public interests. Queen Elizabeth II's (Helen Mirren) natural instincts would be to stick to her guns, and in the end her attitudes may not have entirely changed regarding Princess Diana's death and funeral service; instead, she adapts to the circumstances, a necessary move to ensure her survival, as Michael Sheen's Tony Blair points out. It's unreasonable to expect one side or another to simply give in when faced with such a situation -- people are too proud to ever expect this. But this particular situation eventually forces the Queen's hand just enough so that she gives in without really "giving in" -- without feeling that she's completely sacrificed her principles. Peaceful resolution often involves somehow giving everyone a piece of what they want after they all realize they can't have everything they want.
2. Casino Royale. The best James Bond movie since the early Sean Connery films offers us a version of the secret agent possessed mostly of animal instincts disguised under a thin veneer of sophistication. Here, the conflict is internal, but it has all to do with survival -- in order for Daniel Craig's Bond to survive emotionally, he has to cut his emotions off. Meeting Eva Green's Vesper Lynd tests this, and, without giving away specifics, the test ultimately fails. The new Bond is cold and brutal, and no one is likely to change his mind anytime soon about adjusting his character -- he will be the way he will be in order to survive.
3. The Prestige. This one's the example of the destructive conflict, where two rivals compete against each other so obsessively that they forsake everything else, morals, ethics, and all. Well, maybe not quite. The winner here is the one who has a shred of humanity reserved for a family member. But it isn't necessarily that shred that allows him to come out on top -- he owes this more to his willingness to sacrifice certain valuable relationships. The Prestige acts as a direct metaphor for the emptiness certain conflicts achieve after the stakes have been raised too high. Both parties want to bask in the "prestige," an abstract concept referring to the part of a magician's act when he receives the audience's applause. In other conflicts, the prestige equals profits, power, or just plain bragging rights. How many morals, ethics, and relationships have been sacrificed already for the prestige?
4. The Science of Sleep. This quirky movie may not easily fall into my theme of conflict and survival, but I found myself endeared to it because its primary drama comes from the protagonist's internal battle between what he ideally hopes will happen and what in reality life is like. The movie presents a fight between dream and reality, and although dreams are what we aspire to achieve, they can be destructive if we ignore the factors of reality. Hence, Gael García Bernal's Stephane can't really find peace unless he can start to believe that not everything should conform to what he feels is right or just. This is a common journey for the young educated man -- finding out that you can't necessarily change the world, and that it's better to adapt. The hard part is gaining that willingness to adapt -- I believe many people still lack it, no matter how old they get, and that is a primary source of conflict.
5. Curse of the Golden Flower. Zhang Yimou's latest period piece is another example of destructive conflict, this time played out within the chambers of a ruling body. It shows how a powerful organization destroys itself from within thanks to petty personal politics. And one of the fascinating aspects here is how the participants' prides are so strong that there was probably no way to achieve a peaceful resolution. Curse of the Golden Flower's story starts at the point where it's too late for any of the characters to turn back; the conflicts are in motion, their paths are inevitable, and wholesale destruction ensues. It works well as a warning to remain vigilant against the point of no return (which is reached here after an extreme amount of power is achieved at the cost of ruining many lives; it also suggests that ambition for power and rational wisdom can not co-exist).
6. United 93. Were the passengers of United 93 fighting for their country or just fighting for their lives? United 93 makes it fairly obvious that it's all about personal survival at that point. This is one of those instances, however, where the instinct for pure animal survival created a heroic act to rally around. If the terrorists were hoping to destroy both property and morale with their plans on Sep. 11, 2001, they only half succeeded, for they obviously did not take into account that primal instinct of human nature -- that if one side believes it's right, it can not be scared into believing it should reconsider. Strong aggression, in this instance, only led to returned strong aggression.
7. Letters from Iwo Jima. "Empathize with your enemy." Clint Eastwood may not have been doing it here to search for the solution on how to resolve conflict, but in creating a movie that does empathize, he reminds us of how important this idea is, just to be able to know and understand the opposition. On the most basic level, Letters from Iwo Jima laments the loss of human lives at the ground level, but equally as importantly it (and Eastwood's companion piece, Flags of Our Fathers) shows us that wars are mainly conflicts of ideologies belonging to people who will never likely see the ground level. In any case, war itself seems the most obvious stage to watch conflicts played out, but Eastwood's movie holds its hands out to the countless lives who are sacrificed in the name of the deadliest form of conflict.
8. Children of Men. Children of Men is on my list mainly for its technical bravura, but perhaps it's no coincidence that it also features a pessimistic outlook on the very essence of human nature. In this near-future world, a biological crisis has turned all of humanity into savages. What is Alfonso Cuarón trying to say here? That when the chips are down and hope is being drained from our lives, only the worst of our natures emerge? Not only might the answer be a solid "yes," it's frankly very easy to believe, and that's what makes the scenario so alarming.
9. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The more we're insulated, the harder it becomes for us to see things from the other side. Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat may have caught more than a few innocent bystanders off guard, but with those he gets his most priceless reactions from, from the frat boys with their casual misogyny to the Muslim-hating rodeo manager to the fevered Pentecostals, he reveals how easy it still is to be complacent with one's inherent intolerances. The us vs. them mentality is what we're likely to grow up learning and harboring; will there ever be a day when such attitudes will become looked down upon as angrily as the way some people today look down upon others outside of their own race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation (and, for that matter, social and economic classes)? We can only hope -- and hooray to Baron Cohen for striking a few early blows.
10. Dave Chappelle's Block Party. Finally, I felt I had to include at least one positive, optimistic display of humanity and community. This film makes two movies on my list from director Michel Gondry (the first was The Science of Sleep), and to the degree that Science's Stephane is rather unrealistically hopeful, Block Party cements hope on a real-life foundation of good will. Dave Chappelle wanted to have this celebration just because he could afford it with the money he made from his TV show; he invited his performing friends, who were all more than happy to make an appearance for a cause no more special than celebration for celebration's sake. Throughout the movie, Chappelle and his friends emit a warm, positive energy with their bawdy humor and colorful music; barriers are broken and everyone is invited. In the face of the world's horrors, humanity's hopes may well rest on inclusive community attitudes such as this.
The list was very hard to trim down to 10 this year. In keeping with my theme of being drawn to conflict/survival movies, here are other films that almost made the cut: The Departed gives us another contest of oneupmanship in which everyone is likely to lose; The Descent watches a group of tough girls break down when faced with life-and-death situations, mainly due to a harbored competition between the two leads; The Death of Mr. Lazarescu frighteningly warns us that in the eyes of those who are meant to save our lives, all men are not necessarily created equal; Three Times observes a contrast between the ideals of the past and the callousness of a me-first present; Inland Empire expresses concerns over the everpresent biases that actresses must overcome in Hollywood; The Devil Wears Prada reveals that it's every woman for herself in the fashion rat race; and The Proposition shows us the very thin line between man and beast, with a fragile morality being the only thing man has to cling to.
For more positive views of humanity: The Heart of the Game gives us hope with an against-the-odds sports drama; The Painted Veil illustrates that people can come around to finding their better natures if they just locate the will to try; Neil Young: Heart of Gold offers us reflections of the warmth we'd like to remember from our lives, and how we hope others might remember us; and A Prairie Home Companion goes one step further, facing death itself with the strength of always looking forward to tomorrow, never even ackowledging the end (and Robert Altman did just that, may he rest in peace).
Once again, thanks for reading and have a happy new year.
(Posted also at www.windowtothemovies.com.)