The 10 best films of 2006
After the over-publicized attendance slump of 2005, Hollywood executives must be thrilled to hear that 2006 was a financial improvement. Yet most moviegoers still only visit the theater a handful of times each year. One of their most frequent complaints "there’s nothing good to see."
Glance at this year’s box office chart, however, and one discovers that Americans are choosing such cinematic treasures as "The Da Vinci Code" and "Click" over more challenging fare like "United 93" and "Babel."
Not to cast doubt on the likelihood that Adam Sandler’s magnum opus will be studied for its mise-en-scène in cinema classes for decades to come, but 2006 had so much more to offer than just typical popcorn fare. Here’s what we liked.
1. United 93
The partisan maneuvering and sectarian violence of Iraq often obscures the events from which the last five years have descended, but here they are shown so simply, so flawlessly, that their power and terror cannot help but be newly revealed.
Using relative unknowns as actors and a wary, distant camera poised on the edge of disaster, director Paul Greengrass pieces together a portrait of Sept. 11 by illuminating the ways in which communication, in chaotic times, can be nearly impossible to establish.
By the end of the film, however, the failure of our military and political leaders – seen through the brilliant tactic of giving the characters information and then, just as quickly, stripping it away – fades into the background. In its place rises an organic heroism, emerging from the American, and human, heart: unplanned and unwanted, but deeply held, the pure and not-so-simple decision of the passengers to act becomes a model not only for situations of great fear, but a guidebook for unvarnished, unpoliticized bravery.
2. Children of Men
Depicting the putrescence of seething modernity, Alfonso Cuarón’s aesthetic masterwork, at once bleak and grimly humorous, ties an apocalyptic vision of infertility, fascism and xenophobia to the political catchphrases – "illegal immigration," "Homeland Security" – of today. Flickering delicately throughout this utterly convincing wasteland, however, is the hopeful chant of T.S. Eliot’s poem: "Shantih, Shantih, Shantih," like the gentle lilt of a child’s cry amid pounding gunfire, forms a call in the dark for "the peace which passeth understanding."
3. The Departed
In a dazzling return to form and to his roots, director Martin Scorsese pits a charmingly vile Matt Damon (in the most underrated performance of the year) against a darkly heroic Leonardo DiCaprio. Sparking and glinting like a newly lit fire, this cat-and-mouse game of espionage and murder captures Boston and its troubled police history with precision and near perfection, all the while maintaining a tension that could only be described as operatic.
4. The Queen
British monarchism, upper lips properly stiff, collides with the modernizing influence of the media in Stephen Frears’ film about the controversy surrounding the royal family’s reaction to Princess Diana’s sudden death.
Delicate, funny and fine, the film is anchored by Helen Mirren in the performance of the year: Her queen, composed and tough, is also gracefully human; facing the winds of change, she amends her ways and, with great poise, leads the nation anew.
5. Sophie Scholl: The Final Days
This quiet German film about a dissident in Nazi Germany consists mainly of its title character, played by the mesmerizing Julia Jentsch, facing interrogation.
Across desks and courtrooms, her diminutive frame and voice, matched by a barely visible grin, hold ground against the violence of authoritarians.
The film acquires, in this simplicity, the weight of parable. Standing poised amid a building "storm of steel," unwavering in her commitment, Sophie exerts the strength of empire.
6. Little Miss Sunshine
America may be a nation of winners, but the most cheery thing about this delightful film is its embrace of total, utter and complete failure – in itself a kind of victory against homogeneity.
A brilliant ensemble cast elevates the simple road narrative into a paean to familial disaster and in the process reaffirms the charm and humor of imperfection. The gloriously blemished finale registers as the happiest unhappy ending of the year.
The polyglot landscape of the global village, from the Moroccan desert to flashy Tokyo, looms in "Babel" like the Biblical tower, casting a shadow of incomprehension, fragmentation and great suffering on its characters. Yet, from these tragedies shattered humans, so easily broken, are gradually, gropingly repaired. The smallest gesture of goodwill – money refused, tenderness offered, hands held – marks the most fragile and tenuous of connections, a fabric of beautiful moments that, in the end, is just enough.
8. An Inconvenient Truth
Al Gore’s return to the national stage presents a slide show about rising temperatures, melting glaciers and carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Soft-spoken, folksy and, in his own way, quite brazen, Gore enrages, challenges and galvanizes the viewer on behalf of a world long forgotten by our government’s vested interests, a world suffocating by our own decree. In short, he’s made what may turn out to be the most important political film of our lifetime.
9. Flags of Our Fathers
Clint Eastwood’s sorrowful film about the Battle of Iwo Jima, washed out and pallid, resembles the skin of a corpse, or, alternately, the flash of a camera’s bulb.
When the eyes adjust, two contrasting images of war are revealed: the scarred earth of the battlefield, black and gray and brown like a rocky scab of rising ash, and the iconic photo of a fluttering flag, raised, as the bright propaganda posters said, "Now all together."
10. A Prairie Home Companion
The late, great Robert Altman ended his career with a tender showbiz picture, a film as quietly hopeful for art’s sake as his masterwork, "Nashville," was most certainly not.
The crooning voices of the easygoing cast, led by the wistful storytelling of Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep, sing and laugh with equal parts pain and joy; they celebrate and lament at once, as we do for the director himself, the end of something wondrous.
A second look at the year’s ten best films.
1. Pan’s Labyrinth
Guillermo del Toro’s films have always shimmered with majestic images, regardless of whether he was working for the Hollywood machine by fashioning pulp horror flicks like "Hellboy," "Blade II" and "Mimic," or passionately chasing his own demons with little productions such as "The Devil’s Backbone" and "Cronos."
These movies earned del Toro a following among comic book and fantasy geeks – the kind of people one discovers roaming the bowels of the "Ain’t It Cool News" website. But the director’s newest picture, "Pan’s Labyrinth," should extend his fan base to all cinema lovers.
"Labyrinth," which follows the vivid imagination of a young girl who is transplanted to northern Spain after Franco’s Civil War, is part historical drama, part fairy tale and all magical realism. Del Toro constructs this heartbreaking yarn with a breathtaking amount of visual grace, and by the last frame it’s obvious he has matured into a master storyteller.
2. United 93
The media cried "too soon," and judging by its box office, many Americans felt the same way about the first Hollywood Sept. 11 movie. Yet, unlike Oliver Stone’s attempt to mold that tragic day into a conventional character-driven structure, Paul Greengrass was content to observe.
The film recalled the day this nation came under attack, and how one group of passengers nervously devised a plan to reclaim control of their hijacked plane. It’s an emotionally ravaging piece of art that’s respectful in every way.
3. The Prestige
Movies are rarely as much fun as "The Prestige," a spellbinding puzzler that deceived viewers by not deceiving them, only to reveal that they were being tricked the entire time. Christopher Nolan modeled his script on the three-act sequence of a magic trick, resulting in a narrative that playfully zigzagged through time.
Along with its sumptuous production design, the film showcased two juicy lead performances by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale.
4. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
By far the funniest movie of year, "Borat" worked on many levels – as a satire on America’s ugly intolerance; as an endearing study of a foreigner’s attempt to pursue the American Dream; and as an extended documentary on naked hotel wrestling.
Sacha Baron Cohen deserves kudos (dare one say an Oscar nomination?) for his absolute devotion to inhabiting this naive Kazakh journalist.
French director Jean-Luc Godard famously said the best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s "Babel" takes every element of last year’s Oscar-winner "Crash" and accomplishes it with more insight, dignity and elegance.
A global investigation into the barriers between people, "Babel" charts how one hasty decision can catapult the status quo into chaos. The film’s centerpieces are two searing performances by Rinko Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza.
6. Children of Men
Alfonso Cuarón is the most exhilarating chameleon in Hollywood. Here’s a director who has tackled everything from sexually explicit road movies ("Y Tu Mamá También") to fantasy blockbusters ("Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"), and now he has moved on to apocalyptic science fiction with one of the most formally inventive films in years. Just wait for that eight-minute continuous shot that occurs during a military assault.
7. The Queen
When Princess Diana died in 1997, the British people demanded some sign of public mourning from their queen, Elizabeth II. The Queen, however, would first need some persuasive counseling from Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Helen Mirren, the clear front runner for this year’s Best Actress Oscar, owns this movie. Her portrayal of Elizabeth II is spot-on, and she adds a remarkable measure of sympathy to the otherwise glacial woman.
8. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
A film about filming the unfilmable novel, "Tristram Shandy" is analogous to Federico Fellini’s "8 1/2" on British comedy steroids. Steve Coogan plays himself playing the title character, and very little of the actual book ends up being filmed.
In one scene, Coogan boasts about the pedigree of the novel, "It was No. 8 in the top 100 books of all time!" Another person replies, "That was a chronological list."
9. Thank You for Smoking
Aaron Eckhart is an absolute delight as a spokesperson for Big Tobacco in this insightful, hard-hitting satire. It’s such a relief to watch a comedy where the jokes actually have bite, and where the filmmakers aren’t afraid to venture into politically incorrect waters.
Plus, this flick contains a brilliantly over-the-top (and perhaps frightfully accurate) portrait of a Hollywood movie agency that is required viewing.
10. Notes on a Scandal
An obsessive drive is often considered a beneficial trait, but when that obsession turns to obtaining the sole "ownership" of another person, watch out. And when that aggressor happens to be played by the incomparable Judi Dench, you’ve got one insatiable vixen.
Dench’s object of desire is Cate Blanchett, who delivers an equally delectable performance in this irresistible cat-and-mouse drama.
© Copyright 2007 Daily Trojan