Before I landed the stable, glamorous and lucrative job of film critic, I lived in a small town (population about 4500) with two movie screens (the theater expanded to a whopping five screens in the spring of 1985). As of the fall of 1984, I was already a movie nut. Over the course of the year, my parents drove me to see Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins, The Karate Kid, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Starman and Dune. But it was in December that I saw the light. On their TV show, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert counted down their lists of the ten best films of 1984, which contained many titles that I hadn't seen and many others I hadn't heard of: Once Upon a Time in America, Amadeus, The Cotton Club; Paris, Texas; Love Streams, Stranger than Paradise, Secret Honor, This Is Spinal Tap, The Killing Fields, Choose Me, Entre Nous, A Passage to India, Micki & Maude, The Natural, and -- oddly -- Purple Rain. I scribbled down the titles and spent the next several months hunting for them on video, feverishly watching them on my family's primitive, but then brand-new, VCR.
Nowadays, with the Internet and all, people can look up dozens (hundreds?) of ten-best lists, and unless you have a favorite critic, the result is going to be more or less a consensus of all those lists. Sadly, that generally singles out the lowest common denominator choices, the films that have been specifically created, screened and promoted as award contenders. (In other words, the films that wound up on Richard Roeper's list.)
Frankly, I miss the idea of critics' lists supporting small, unknown movies with no awards-season budget. Siskel is gone, and Ebert has not been himself lately (he wasn't able to compile a list this year due to his lengthy medical leave). Though I have but a microscopic fraction of their audience, I hope my own list will open some eyes. On my list, I included Amos Gitai's Free Zone, which received the cold shoulder from its distributor, after a disappointing run in New York. Natalie Portman co-stars as an American woman who, after a painful breakup, finds herself accompanying her Israeli driver to collect a debt from a Palestinian woman. The movie is full of Gitai's long, poetic takes, notably the opening shot with Portman gazing out a car window and weeping. If some kid in some small town rented that movie because of my list, I would be thrilled.
I also chose Terry Zwigoff's savage comedy Art School Confidential, which is just crying out for a second look on video after nearly every critic on the planet misunderstood it. And where Siskel and Ebert once introduced me to the cultish pleasures of Stranger than Paradise and This Is Spinal Tap, I'd be grateful if that small town kid rented and enjoyed Brick as much as I did.
Some of my picks and runner-ups are still playing in the less-than-400 screen range. Claude Chabrol's The Bridesmaid is still hanging around on one lonely screen, despite the fact that it has appeared on no other ten-best list except mine. I can't comprehend why more people don't like this sexy, sinister film with its brilliant visual twists and ever-deepening dilemma. Small town kid, if you're out there, you'll want to see this one. But maybe while you're waiting for it to turn up on video, you'll want to check out a few other Claude Chabrol films, like Les Bonnes Femmes (1960), Le Boucher (1969) or La Ceremonie (1995). This is a master filmmaker who has been at it since before most movie buffs were born.
Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows (5 screens) turned up on many critics' lists as one of the best films of the year, and they were right. But even though this 1969 film made its official American theatrical debut in 2006, I chose not to include it on my 2006 list. Still, it's certainly not a film that would have turned up at my little hometown theater, and it's a film I would have enjoyed discovering on video. (Incidentally, if you have a multi-region DVD player, both The Bridesmaid and Army of Shadows are currently available as imports.)
Kelly Reichardt's remarkable Old Joy (10 screens) made my runner-up list, and it's definitely a movie that needs word-of-mouth promotion. Happily, I found it on almost a dozen ten best lists (including that of my friend Dave Fear, critic for Time Out New York magazine). This film, about two friends going on a camping trip, might play well on the small screen with its intimate dialogue. But its lazy, looking-out-the-window shots may well deserve a look on the big screen.
Finally, Guillermo Del Toro's quasi-fairy tale Pan's Labyrinth (44 screens) is getting plenty of promotion, but, due to its subtitles, it never would have turned up in my small town movie house, so it's a film I would have needed to seek out on video. When you rent this, small town kid, hang onto it for an extra day. You'll want to see it again. And when you ask for it at your local video store, give them my regards.