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The Year in Film – 2006

Oh, 2006, you were such a scrappy little year. Despite a few hits (the #1 grossing film of the year was the sequel to a movie based on an amusement park ride), record high ticket prices, and the largest number of releases in cinema history (600!), you’re ending up with a total box office take barely above that of 2002. That smarts, but you have only yourself to blame: You put out a bunch of crummy movies this year.

But we’re here to celebrate the winners, not the losers. Dig around a bit, they’re out there. And in fact, lucky reader, unlike most years, Oscar bait didn’t really pan out in 2006: Some of the year’s best films are ready and waiting for you to check out on DVD. Oh, and when you figure out the high-def DVD format war, give us a call.

Meanwhile, here are some top ten lists, which you must have been expecting…
— Christopher Null, Editor-in-Chief

Christopher Null

1. Little Miss Sunshine – Until its final sequence, I thought Little Miss Sunshine was a good, maybe great, little movie about family dynamics in an age of rampant uncertainty and emotional paralysis. Then the movie delivers its payoff, and if you’ve seen the film, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, go rent it now. I watched the film, having climbed in bed early one night while my wife was still working downstairs. My laughter was so loud she had to come up to make sure I wasn’t dying. Which I almost was. It’s a new classic comedy that will define its decade.

2. Inside Man – Spike Lee goes Hollywood, sort of, with this intelligent heist flick, easily his best movie in a decade and arguably his best movie ever. You have to give him props for casting some of the industry’s best players, both young and old: Denzel, Clive, Jodie, and Christopher (Plummer). And though I’m unclear what Miss Foster was really supposed to be doing in the film, it’s nonetheless a throat-grabbing adventure from start to finish as we are drawn into the story of a bank heist that ends with no money stolen and no perpetrators to apprehend. How’s that? Trust me, it’ll all make sense in the end.

3. Thank You for Smoking – I’m glad to see that critics’ groups have taken to this film, which I figured would vanish without a trace thanks to its extremely un-PC message. Of course, if you look beyond the surface, the film’s satire is biting and quite funny. If it weren’t for Little Miss Sunshine, it’d be the best comedy of the year. Aaron Eckhart has never been better; this is the perfect role for him.

4. Notes on a Scandal

5. Little Children

6. Art School Confidential – Terry Zwigoff’s latest is not a perfect film by any stretch, but it does feature a glimmer of the genius he showed off so well in Ghost World and Crumb. Jim Broadbent steals the show as a washed-up artist (or is he?), whose commentary on the realities of how art is created and subsequently valued is as biting as anything produced this year.

7. Babel – Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest is Oscar bait, but I’m a sucker for Oscar bait. The film will be as divisive as Crash was last year, what with its topical (and surprisingly similar) themes, the blatant use of children to tug on heartstrings, the bouncy structure, and big stars slumming it in small roles — but that doesn’t make the movie less good. Iñárritu is a master craftsman behind the camera, and his casting here is perfect, even if the script’s detour to not-quite-relevant Japan weakens the affair.

8. Hard Candy

9. Wordplay – Who knew crossword impresario Will Shortz would be so engaging? I loved Wordplay, more than all the recent documentaries about spelling bees, Scrabble, poker, and other questionable sports, but I am nonetheless ready to declare a moratorium on movies about things people do at the kitchen table.

10. Factotum – In general, filmmakers have had good luck in adapting Bukowski to the screen, but Matt Dillon outdoes Mickey Rourke even as alter-ego Hank Chinaski, as he works his way through a series of increasingly menial jobs. There’s not much of a point here aside from lambasting the culture of the working man, but as a centerpiece for Dillon’s acting, it’s a winner.

Least convincing on-screen couple: Colin Farrell and Gong Li, Miami Vice
What was all the hubbub about, again?: Snakes on a Plane
Best infomercial to encourage people to read a book instead of watch a movie: The Da Vinci Code
Questions still unanswered: Who Gets To Call It Art?, Who Killed the Electric Car?
Best film with the worst title: Trust the Man (shouldn’t Bernie Mac be in a movie called this?)
Least subtle satire: Idiocracy
Most rapidly worn-out genre ever: Documentaries about Iraq
Second-most rapidly worn-out genre ever: American remakes of Japanese horror movies
Most bizarre cinema news: Uwe Boll physically beats up critics in a boxing match
Worst film of the year: Pulse

Sean O’Connell

1. United 93 You will not see a more courageous, harrowing, or emotionally devastating picture this year. Unless, of course, you choose not to see it. Some argue that it’s still too soon to watch precise recreations of September 11 on screen. Others say they only go to the movies to be entertained. Both are valid stances. But when you are ready, find United 93. Paul Greengrass’ depiction of United Airlines Flight 93’s final crossing on September 11, 2001 was the first mainstream movie to address our nation’s most recent tragedy, and it immediately staked its claim as a proud memorial to those that lost their lives that day. It is the best picture of 2006.

2. The Fountain Three connected subplots feed one heart-wrenching love story in Darren Aronofsky’s hopelessly romantic experiment about a scientist (Hugh Jackman) racing the clock to cure the cancer that’s ravaging his beloved (Rachel Weisz). The story can confuse as it leaps from past, present to distant future, but Aronofsky’s groundbreaking visual effects and Jackman’s raw turn — in three wildly different roles — keep the movie from floating too far into the stratosphere. Those with patience and an appreciat
ion for avant-garde storytelling will discover a masterpiece.

3. Little Miss Sunshine

4. Shut Up and Sing A few documentaries climbed to the top of this year’s very strong field. The entertaining and eye-opening Shut Up and Sing showed the Dixie Chicks transitioning from talented performers to vital artists as they dealt with the aftermath of singer Natalie Maines’ candid comments about President George W. Bush’s home state. From its vantage point in the middle of a media tempest, Sing makes powerful comments on censorship and freedom of speech without glorifying the Chicks or deliberately demeaning their opposition.

5. The Prestige Christopher Nolan’s hot streak continues (the director’s inspired Batman Begins landed at No. 2 on my list last year). The Prestige details the lethal duel between competitive magicians at the turn of the century. A virtually airtight script, adapted from Christopher Priest’s novel, has me breathlessly guessing right up until the film’s final scene, when the ultimate sleight-of-hand is revealed.

6. Children of Men

7. V for Vendetta Inventive siblings Larry and Andy Wachowski, co-creators of The Matrix trilogy, adapt Alan Moore’s politicized graphic novel into a timely rebellion against society’s close-mindedness. Hugo Weaving’s poise and self-assurance permeate the Guy Fawkes mask he’s forced to wear throughout the picture. And the fact that Natalie Portman’s name isn’t in the Best Actress Oscar discussion is a joke.

8. Monster House Don’t be deceived, parents. Gil Kenan’s creature feature may be animated — and the stop-motion techniques used to paint the landscapes are breathtaking — but this terrifying campfire tale is the stuff of nightmares, not dreams. As curious kid heroes D.J., Chowder, and Jenny investigate the neighbor-devouring suburban abode, Monster House channels the giddy thrills of Gremlins, The Goonies, and Ghostbusters (probably because Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis serve as executive producers).

9. The Good German Two features proved that film noir is alive and well, when handled properly. And yet, The Good German approaches noir conventions from remarkably different avenues but achieve the same level of success. German director Steven Soderbergh drizzles Chinatown deceptions over a bombed-out, post-WWII Europe — the technical gem benefits from a spot-on George Clooney and Cate Blanchett.

10. Hard Candy If you want gore, rent Hostel or Saw. For genuine, squirm-in-your-chair fear, sample Hard Candy — a taut and relentless psychological head game waged between a chat room troller (Patrick Wilson) and the vindictive little girl (the amazing Ellen Page) he brings home for not-so-innocent fun. Over the course of an afternoon, tables are turned, upper hands are exchanged, and a lengthy surgery scene will have you sprinting for the nearest sink or garbage pail.

Wish I’d seen: Manderlay, Old Joy; L’Enfant; Army of Shadows; Inland Empire
Most overrated film: The Departed
Most underrated film: Infamous
Biggest surprise (in a good way): Casino Royale
Biggest surprise (in a bad way): All the King’s Men
Most misleading title: A Good Year
Biggest disappointment: Superman Returns
Guiltiest pleasures: Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby and Mission Impossible III (tie)
Much better the second time: The Break-Up
Not as good the second time: World Trade Center
Worst film of the year: Marie Antoinette

Don Willmott

1. Notes on a Scandal – Judi Dench doesn’t need any more awards, but let’s hope she collects a few for her tour de force depiction of an aged, closeted lesbian driven to madness by toxic loneliness and her dangerous crush on her co-worker, the equally excellent Cate Blanchett. Lurid fun. Judi, you can lure me into your demented blackmail trap anytime you like!

2/3. Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima – Clint Eastwood has gotten sentimental in his old age (Million Dollar Bathos, anyone?), but this one-two punch is a clear-eyed and angry look at war, patriotism, propaganda and blind loyalty that will haunt you. Of the two, Letters packs the bigger wallop. Keep your eye on Kazunari Ninomiya, a young Japanese pop idol who acts with the big boys and turns in a heartbreaking performance.

4. Shortbus ‘We all get it in the end.’ How true. This is perhaps the most honest discussion, and depiction, of sex in mainstream cinema ever. Fun, sad, thought-provoking, and sentimental in all the right ways. Get past your embarrassment and see it.

5. Volver You know the drill: Pedro Almodóvar loves women and makes them shine like no other director can. Like All About My Mother, this is one more minor masterpiece celebrating the fairer sex in all its glory. Sheer pleasure.

6. The Queen

7. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu It’s a surprise to see this film show up on so many best-of lists. Talk about obscure. It’s from Romania! But
seek out this story of a man suffering a life-threatening illness who’s driven from hospital to hospital in an ambulance searching for someone, anyone, who will help him before it’s too late. He finds kindness and cruelty and everything in between. It’s life’s rich pageant. Death’s too.

8. L’Enfant A gritty story from the mean streets of a downtrodden Belgian city, where a troubled young hood is callous enough to sell his and his girlfriend’s new baby to a black market adoption ring to get some quick cash. From that shocking act comes remorse and then a fast-paced and moving trip toward redemption. Up-and-comer Jérémie Renier is outstanding.

9. Borat

10. Little Children

Worst film of the year: Scoop wasn’t all that bad, and I haven’t quite given up on Woody Allen as a writer and director, but he should never ever step in front of the camera again. By bringing that same old neurotic New Yorky shtick to an aristocratic British setting where it has absolutely no business being, the 71-year-old (!) Allen comes perilously close to destroying his own film. Luckily he doesn’t make any moves on Scarlett Johanssen. That would have been positively vomitous.

Norm Schrager

1. The Queen – There are too many ways to screw up a portrayal of current political figures. Stephen Frears avoids them all, delivering behind-the-scenes dirt with a refreshing, refined British style. It would have been easy to write off Queen Elizabeth’s response to Princess Diana’s death as ‘cold’ but The Queen doesn’t judge. Instead, it dissects the delicate dialogue between the venerable royal and the newly elected Tony Blair as both attempt to faithfully represent their nation. Michael Sheen is perfectly metered as Blair, and Helen Mirren’s titular performance is thrilling. Quiet, humble… and one of the most exciting films of the year.

2. Borat

3. Children of Men – With this relentless look at a disastrous future, director Alfonso Cuarón becomes one of the most versatile filmmakers alive. A former activist (Clive Owen) attempts to guide the world’s last pregnant woman (Claire-Hope Ashitey) to safety, navigating a hateful disintegrating England. It’s as if Cuarón combined the indie style of his Y Tu Mamá También with the exhaustive attention to detail required for The Prisoner of Azkaban. Efficient storytelling, with vérité violence that’s shockingly real. Includes the most jaw-dropping action sequence of recent memory.

4. Friends with Money – I still love Nicole Holofcener’s ability and courage to make female characters feel uncomfortable. Here, she adds wealth and homosexual tendencies into the relationship dynamic, again wondering how and why people remain friends. There’s an angry bite, but not without love and hope.

5. United 93

6. The Departed – Every second of Martin Scorsese’s remake of the Chinese Infernal Affairs is wholly, insanely entertaining. It’s like Goodfellas with punchier wit and an even muddier vision of right and wrong. A killer cast brings the gritty goods and Scorsese wraps it up with a balls-to-the-wall finale that chuckles at so many weak, false crime films.

7. Water – With the final entry in her ‘elemental’ trilogy, Deepa Mehta depicts an insular, suppressed society of widowed Indian women — and girls — with a beautiful blend of hopeless resignation and dramatic waves of change.

8. Akeelah and the Bee – Man, am I a sucker for this one. It’s derivative all over the place (an up-from-the-ghetto spelling bee movie!) but it just feels satisfying. The performances are admirable, especially Laurence Fishburne’s, and the story is sincerely uplifting.

9. Little Miss Sunshine

10. The Prestige

And these are also really good: Brick, Half Nelson, Inside Man, Poseidon, The Great New Wonderful, Thank You For Smoking, Chalk
Overrated: The Devil Wears Prada
Disappointing: Cars
Dreadful: Keeping Up with the Steins
Enough already: Lady in the Water
Sweet and charming: The Holiday
Great free-running stunts: District B13, Casino Royale

Peter Croatto

1. United 93 – Director Paul Greengrass has made the perfect movie profiling the events of September 11, 2001: No high concept plot, no big-name stars, no overwritten scenes, no jingoism. With a sparse, leisurely script that thrusts us into the mindset of the ill-fated flight, he’s created a jolting, unforgettable movie. But he has also made a moving tribute of what average people can do in extraordinary circumstances, something our country can’t soon forget. Beat that, Toby Keith!

2. Little Children – A sweltering summer brings together a disillusioned young mother (Kate Winslet), her hunky, confused neighbor (Patrick Wilson) and a emotionally crippled pedophile (Jackie Earle Haley). Like Tom Perrotta’s terrific novel, director Todd Field keeps the suburban circus under control and demonstrates how people imprison themselves to the point of madness. It’s a moving, haunting, funny movie, and the perfect creative playground for Winslet to demonstrate her talents (again).

3. Brick – Director/writer Rian Johnson’s film noir is set, in all places, a suburban California high school, where a student (Joseph-Gordon Levitt) investigates the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend. Those who harp on the cuteness of the concept are missing the point: It’s about the frustration of going to high school — the cliques, the double talk — and how exhausting it is to master. Throw in a plot that unfolds without frustration and a smart anti-hero and you have to get excited for Johnson’s future.

4. Neil Young: Heart of Gold – An understated beauty. Closing in on 60 and having recently suffered a brain aneurism and the death of his father, Young is no longer a model of rock star invincibility as he performs at a 2005 co
ncert. There may not be too many left, so every song from Young feels like he’s reviewing his life, for better or for worst. Props to director Jonathan Demme for staying out of the way, and in the process portraying the artist as an old man.

5. Stranger than Fiction – Charlie Kaufman could take a lesson or took from Zach Helm. The latter’s script for this winning, stirring comedy/drama about a man whose life is narrated by a famous author (who wants to kill him) is inventive without being exhausting or reveling in the idea’s creativity, and it’s emotional payoff is well worth the journey. Oh, and so is Will Ferrell, who puts the screaming on hold as the doomed working stiff.

6. Little Miss Sunshine

7. Borat – Say what you want about this cross-country mockumentary — to me it spent a little too much time picking on rubes and morons — but Sacha Baron Cohen’s improvisation was fearless, synapse-quick, and pretty much the movie’s content. Its staggering success, in addition to the number of complaints from its mortified, duped victims, is the ultimate testament to Cohen’s abilities.

8. Invincible – Mark Wahlberg’s best work (Three Kings, Boogie Nights) features him as someone thrown into a situation he’s ill-prepared for. It’s the same thing in this true story, where he plays Vince Papale, a 30-year-old bartender who survived common sense and a lack of experience to make the Philadelphia Eagles in 1976. The story is inspiring, the sports scenes are well-filmed, and the acting (especially from Elizabeth Banks) is terrific. Football fans and non-fans alike will enjoy it.

9. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby – My God, it was a bad year for comedies. Here’s one that made me laugh like a five-year-old on a sugared cereal and cartoon binge.

10. Casino Royale – My God, it’s been a bad couple of years for action/superhero movies. Here’s one that grabbed my attention and, God willing, will revive a once great franchise that had lapsed into irrelevance.

Worst of the year: Date Movie, End of the Spear, Trust the Man
Pleasant surprises: Rocky Balboa, The Benchwarmers, The Holiday, Jacinda Barrett in The Last Kiss, Amy Adams and John C. Reilly in Talladega Nights
Unpleasant surprises: The Fountain, The Departed, Miami Vice (especially any scene with Gong Li and Colin Farrell), Daniel Craig’s swimsuit in Casino Royale
Best commercial (movie theater): Sydney Pollack’s Cingular ad. ‘I’m sorry, is my directing bothering you?’
Worst commercial (movie theater): Anything involving Fandango. It’s time to cram those paper bag puppets into the nearest recycling bin.

Chris Barsanti

1. Three Times – Hou Hsiao-hsien’s dazzling triumph is a triptych of ruminations on love that challenges assumptions about everything from the nature of cinema to that of romance itself.

2/3. Inside Man and Children of Men – Two of the year’s greatest films had several things in common: intensely innovative stories that still worked within the confines of their particular genres (heist thriller and dystopic sci-fi epic), inventive master directors at the top of their games (Spike Lee and Alfonso Cuarón), and, of course, the great Clive Owen in a starring role. These films represent mainstream Hollywood at its best.

4. Brick

5. Pan’s Labyrinth – A potent mix of fairytale and war story. A lost girl, underground lairs, a demonic army officer/father figure, partisans hiding in the dark, dark woods and a fairy kingdom lurking just below the surface of reality. Shiver-inducing.

6. The Proposition – Like Sam Peckinpah with a heart. Emily Watson, Ray Winstone, and Guy Pearce stand out amidst a crowded and talented thespian backbench in this thoroughly gorgeous and disturbing allegory for the vile price of civilization.

7. United 93

8. Volver – Like most of Pedro Almodóvar’s other films which celebrate the strength of women and a tragically comic view of the universe, only even better.

9. A Scanner Darkly – Paranoid druggie sci-fi as seen through a watery Impressionist filter. It’s almost a new way of looking at film.

10. The War Tapes – A viciously honest documentary about National Guardsmen fighting in Iraq that has something in it to offend all political persuasions — the hallmark of truth.

Most overrated: The Illusionist
Most underrated: Don’t Come Knocking
Worst films of the year: Tideland, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Babel

BONUS: 10 Top Tens — “clip ‘n’ save”

Christopher Null
1. Little Miss Sunshine
2. Inside Man
3. Thank You for Smoking
4. Notes on a Scandal
5. Little Children
6. Art School Confidential
7. Babel
8. Hard Candy
9. Wordplay
10. Factotum
Sean O’Connell
1. United 93
2. The Fountain
3. Little Miss Sunshine
4. Shut Up and Sing
5. The Prestige
6. Children of Men
7. V for Vendetta
8. Monster House
9. The Good German
10. Hard Candy
Don Willmott
1. Notes on a Scandal
2. Flags of Our Fathers
3. Letters from Iwo Jima
4. Shortbus
5. Volver
6. The Queen
7. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
8. L’Enfant
9. Borat
10. Little Children
Norm Schrager
1. The Queen
2. Borat
3. Children of Men
4. Friends with Money
5. United 93
6. The Departed
7. Water
8. Akeelah and the Bee
9. Little Miss Sunshine
10. The Prestige
Pete Croatto
1. United 93
2. Little Children
3. Brick
4. Neil Young: Heart of Gold
5. Stranger than Fiction
6. Little Miss
7. Borat
8. Invincible
9. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
10. Casino Royale
Chris Barsanti
1. Three Times
2. Inside Man
3. Children of Men
4. Brick
5. Pan’s Labyrinth
6. The Proposition
7. United 93
8. Volver
9. A Scanner Darkly
10. The War Tapes
Jay Antani
1. The Ground Truth
2. Little Miss Sunshine
3. Water
4. Conversations with Other Women
5. Cavite
6. Changing Times
7. Casino Royale
8. The Death of Mr. Lazerescu
9. Thank You for Smoking
10. The Last King of Scotland
Joel Meares
1. The Departed
2. Casino Royale
3. The Descent
4. Monster House
5. Pan’s Labyrinth
6. The Hills Have Eyes
7. V for Vendetta
8. The Queen
9. Slither
10. United 93
Jesse Hassenger
1. Brick
2. The Departed
3. The Prestige
4. Children of Men
5. Inside Man
6. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
7. A Prairie Home Companion
8. Strangers with Candy
9. Superman Returns
10. The Fountain
Blake French
1. The Devil Wears Prada
2. V for Vendetta
3. The Departed
4. Apocalypto
5. Mission Impossible 3
6. Black Christmas
7. The Hills Have Eyes
8. She’s The Man
9. An Inconvenient Truth
10. Saw 3
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