counting down the best films of 2006: No. 2, ‘Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan’

WHY IS THIS ONE OF THE BEST FILMS OF THE YEAR?: Even moreso than the TV version of Borat pushed TV boundaries, this film challenges our perceptions of what a film can do, what a film should do. In an arena in which art is necessarily secondary to commerce, Sacha Baron Cohen proved that making art — and not just any old art but genuine, provocative, paradigm-smashing art — and making money — and not just a coupla bucks but oodles of smackeroos — were not mutually exclusive. And he did it by taking enormous risks like we rarely see Hollywood take.

BUT ISN’T THIS JUST JACKASS WITH A FUNNY ACCENT? Borat is to Jackass what, say, Johnny Knoxville is to a Shakespearean fool. Baron Cohen doesn’t merely appropriate the in-your-face outrageousness of the likes of Jackass, he takes the structures of reality TV and turns them on themselves, forces them to become commentary on a culture that would take Andy Warhol’s prediction about everyone being famous for 15 minutes and turning in into a commandment. Western entertainment has descended to a nonstop barrage of letting everyone have their 15 as long as they’re willing to do something idiotic — eat a bug on a game show, have a family meltdown on Jerry Springer — and doing so without any sense of shame. Borat put the shame back into reality … as all the lawsuits against the film prove.

CAN BARON COHEN DO THIS AGAIN? OR IS THIS A ONE-SHOT DEAL? It’s hard to imagine Baron Cohen being able to pull off something like Borat again — too many people are wise to him … though it would be a wonderful joke if he could still make it work. If this is a one-time-only success for Baron Cohen, that doesn’t lessen its triumph at all. But I suspect he’s got plenty more up his sleeve. He’s a trickster, and trickster are good at coming at you from angles you were never expecting.

[Check out my full review of Borat here.]

[See the whole best-of list for 2006 here.]

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