Movies looked good last year. Really, really good. From the grainy texture of Michael Mann’s gritty “Miami Vice” to the soft pastels of “The Painted Veil’s” Chinese highlands to “The Good German’s” glossy black-and-white Berlin, 2006 offered a wealth of eye-popping visuals. But with the camera technology and computer graphics available today, such quality images have come to be expected, and whatever leaps and bounds the movies might have made in 2006 towards developing pageantry seem somewhat hollow next to the year’s overall lapse in bare storytelling. The demand for both style and substance is age-old, but 2006 largely forgot how to strike a balance.

Christina Choi
He would probably look great in a Borat speedo. (Courtesy of New Line)

Even Pixar tripped up, and how it did so is indicative of so many other near-misses. Although the animation giant’s playpen-colored “Cars” featured the rounded edges and celebrity cast of its usual winning formula, its stick-with-your-friends message came in an unusually mundane story arc with disappointingly stock characters. After all, Pixar’s “Toy Story” crew may learn the same moral by the end of that movie, but they at least have to overcome a shockingly sadistic next-door neighbor to make it there. “Cars” does present new vistas of CGI possibility with several stunning sequences of the American desert, and it has its fair share of cute visual puns. What it lacks, however, is the final satisfying rush of a work like “The Incredibles,” whose end builds not only from a continuous stack of visual surprises, but from a message that is knit into every plot twist and character rather than tactlessly pasted on.

Visual playfulness is, of course, a worthy attribute in itself, and even with CGI kids’ movies aside 2006 was a year for color. “Little Children’s” deep palette offered nighttime shadows as lush as the red of Kate Winslet’s bathing suit, “Babel” color-codes the rich landscapes of its various story lines and Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver” is practically a paint-by-numbers done in highlighter. Even the darkest movies offer an opulent gloom, with “Children of Men,” “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” all as lavishly high-contrast as they are grim. Ingenuity wasn’t absent either. For all the wasted potential of “Stranger than Fiction’s” meta-literature concept, director Marc Forster successfully included a series of quick diagram-like pop ups which sporadically appeared onscreen like the scribbled notes of a TV football commentator.

If only such style had worked to emphasize an underlying substance, rather than smothering it completely. Take, for example, “Marie Antoinette,” the ultimate lesson in hollow-headed fluff. With director Sofia Coppola’s sharp eye for composition, “Marie” boasts cinematography so wispy and light-suffused you’d think you could float through it — not to mention the movie’s impressive array of Barbie-fantasy ballgowns and delicate pastries straight out of a confectioner’s wildest dreams. But, like Yimou Zhang’s similarly overlong palace-drama “Curse of the Golden Flower,” Sofia’s royal treatment doesn’t dig beneath “Marie’s” luxurious surface in any meaningful way. Even Kirsten Dunst’s lead performance as the young queen is left solely visual. When she opens her mouth, it’s without the barest attempt at a French accent.

The year’s profusion of other period pieces further played up this image-oriented trend. Isn’t the venerated “Dreamgirls” as much a candy-colored fashion tour of twentieth-century style as it is a musical? But dressing characters like mannequins emphasizes their look over their humanity, and “Dreamgirls’s” leads end up feeling like types rather than people. Ditto for Outkast’s “Idlewild,” for though it revels in the dapper 20s style of its Prohibition-era South, even Andre 3000’s flash and bravura can’t cover the fact that the film’s potential goldmine of a concept is directed with the subtlety of an after-school play. “The Black Dahlia” suffers the same woeful curse, depending so heavily on its sumptuous noir setting that it entirely overlooks such measly details as a semi-logical plot. Sure, Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank recall the glamorously wavy-haired starlets of early Hollywood, but that doesn’t explain why on earth this movie turns unbearably loony in its final third.

There was more to 2006 than just looks, of course, though many trends were simply continuations of long-term tendencies. There were more increasingly insipid college-audience offerings (“Employee of the Month,” “Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj”), and more quiet, underloved indies (“Half-Nelson,” “Conversations with Other Women”). Samuel L. Jackson continued his ascent to Christopher Walken-like cult-status (“Snakes on a Plane”). And our cultural move towards increasingly graphic violence was never more apparent than in this year’s updated (for better or worse) James Bond, “Casino Royale.” Gone are the days when 007 dodged a henchman’s theatrical punch or patiently waited while the latest villain intoned an obviously hollow promise of impending doom. Now James demonstrates an unheard of athleticism chasing a parkour expert through a construction site. Now James ends up captured and made to suffer a beating so unspeakably below-the-belt that it’s impossible to picture Sean Connery ever submitting himself to it.

Many other mini-trends came in pairs — we got two sets of magicians in turn-of-the-century Europe (“The Illusionist” in Vienna, “The Prestige” in London), two based-on-a-true-story tales of murderous Hollywood folklore (an infamously slain prostitute in “The Black Dahlia,” the mysterious death of old TV star George Reeves in “Hollywoodland”), two awkwardly-executed improv-heavy comedies (Christopher Guest’s disappointing “For Your Consideration” and the Will Ferrell feature “Talladega Nights”), two Matt Damon films that ran a half-hour two long (Scorsese’s slightly bloated “The Departed” and Robert de Niro’s unnecessarily sprawling “The Good Shepherd”), as well as a second telling of Truman Capote’s investigation of Holcomb, Kansas (“Infamous,” following Philip Seymour Hoffman’s triumphant turn in last year’s “Capote”).

If only style and substance could have composed another trendy pair. Why pull them apart when they complement each other so well? Consider the car-ride scene in Alfonso Cuaron’s impressive “Children of Men,” a single-shot sequence that builds beautifully upon moment after moment of unpredictable action, only to breeze movingly over its final emotional consequence and segue on into the next scene. It’s an expert demonstration of what a movie can truly achieve — edge-of-your-seat suspense and honest engagement with the action and characters onscreen. By comparison, the merely visual of 2006 isn’t enough. We may have been awed, but we want more to be moved.

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