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The Films of 2006: A One and a Two…

by William Goss

Sure, it was.

A good year for film, I mean.

It’s usually the very first question to precede many a best-of list, and an early indicator of which way the author’s wet finger faced. As this is mine, I find my indulgent expansion of films selected for honorable mention enough of a gauge to answer this question. I could’ve just as easily split hairs over the worst, of course, but if matters came down to the recommendation of five stunners or the loathing of five stinkers, I’d much rather recommend away.

It wasn’t just a good year, it was a good year for harsh times in particular. My top four picks all deal with nothing less than the futility of fighting that certain fate of death, whether with a lover, a brother, or a stranger. However, bleak need not be bad. No, this is not bad. Only serious.

As a matter of perspective, feel free to click here for a list of every new release I did manage to cram in, quite the reflection of my severely increased viewing habits this past year. Those left unseen include: 49 Up, American Hardcore, Ask the Dust, Battle in Heaven, Come Early Morning, Days of Glory, Iraq in Fragments, Man Push Cart, Mutual Appreciation, and What The Bleep!?: Down the Rabbit Hole (with its predecessor having conjured within me a level of spite previously unknown, it would only be fair to acknowledge this as well).

Especially more so than in recent years, a sense of duality began to emerge from the year’s motion pictures. Sure, it may have began with the easy-to-peg pairings of the 9/11 movies or Clint’s Iwo Jima films or those two magician mysteries, but soon, greater uniting themes grew harder and harder to ignore.

The grand vengeance-driven odysseys of The Proposition and Lady Vengeance, the intimate relationship pieces of Americanese and Conversations with Other Women, the contagious exhilaration of Dave Chappelle’s Block Party and Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That!, the acute satire of Borat… and Idiocracy, the glorious recklessness of Running Scared and Crank, the identity issues of The Departed and Miami Vice, the looming dystopia of Children of Men and V for Vendetta, the free-speech rallying cries of This Film Is Not Yet Rated and Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing, the she-centric suspense of The Descent and Hard Candy, the maladjusted adolescence of Brick and Little Children, the infuriating disclosure of Jesus Camp and Deliver Us From Evil, the humor-laced role-playing of Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story and The Queen, all begging to be paired in an age when the good old double bill has all but disappeared. Hell, the more adventurous cinephiles can link the hoax-errific The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things with the surprisingly relevant insights of The Night Listener, or compare and contrast the equally ineffective high-/low-brow hijinks of arrested development with Trust the Man and You, Me, and Dupree, with perhaps The Last Kiss worming its way in between.

On either end of the spectrum, such plentiful symmetry almost seeped in as a buffer of sorts: match the right two movies, and one could have a viewing experience greater than the sum of its parts. A hard concept? No. A new one? Of course not, yet of recent years in cinema, 2006 seemed nearly primed for pairs, and maybe even better off because of it.

The Best of 2006

1. Children of Men
After directing that one subtitled sex movie and that one wizard sequel, Alfonso Cuarón has crafted a viscerally compelling and technically impressive vision of a world in despair and disarray, as the infertility of women goes unsolved nearly two decades hence and a melancholic Clive Owen suddenly finds himself charged with the protection and salvation of one miraculously pregnant woman. Thanks to Cuarón's bravura establishment of environment, Emmanuel Lubezki's crackerjack cinematography, and pitch-perfect performances by Owen and affable hippie Michael Caine, Children of Men is finely calibrated filmmaking fused with wholly immersive storytelling, a motion picture that manages to be utterly exhilarating in a manner that's all too rare in recent cinema.

2. United 93
"Let's roll" as a remark made in passing. A momentary glimpse of the Towers outside a window. "We just flew out of Newark and the weather was beautiful." Director Paul Greengrass' thankfully impartial treatment of the fourth plane hijacked on 9/11 could only have been crafted and watched with hindsight, but that makes matters all the more compelling and inevitably devastating, as Greengrass and his inconspicuous ensemble elevate such palpable adversity from the level of an American tragedy to a chiefly human one.

3. The Fountain
Part of me pines for that daze that lingered after the first viewing, of being utterly captivated regardless of ultimate comprehension. However, with repeat viewings, Darren Aronofsky's three-fold tale of devotion sinks in on levels both grand and intimate thanks to the poignant and versatile performances by Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, bound to go unnoticed as they may be, Matthew Libatique's hypnotic visuals, and Clint Mansell's haunting score.

4. Pan’s Labyrinth
Guillermo del Toro complements his historical fable, The Devil's Backbone, with another impeccably acted and imaginatively told clash of innocence and evil amidst the bloody backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, where monsters lurk in both fantasy and reality.

5. Little Miss Sunshine
A game ensemble, especially the supporting trifecta of Alan Arkin, Steve Carell, and Paul Dano, elevates this typical-on-paper comedy of a dysfunctional family on the road into an understated and genuinely endearing commentary on how, in a society steeped in an all-or-nothing mentality of winning, the dismissed and the jaded may just have to redefine their American Dream in order to achieve it.

6. Thank You For Smoking
Just as Ivan Reitman appears to be steadily losing his grip on humor, son Jason unleashes his directorial debut, a steadily incisive satire of spin in today's culture with a satisfying ensemble (even Katie Holmes doesn't suck!), led by a never-smarmier Aaron Eckhart (also solid in the little-seen Conversations with Other Women) in what's most likely the role he was born to play.

7. Letters from Iwo Jima
A companion piece to his flawed-but-fascinating Flags of Our Fathers (see below), Clint Eastwood's somber portrait of the doomed Japanese occupation of Iwo Jima is helped by a more judicious inclusion of flashbacks and the particularly striking performances of Ken Watanabe and Kazunari Ninomiya. Taken overall, in a genre that has been all but exhausted, the willingness of an aging filmmaker to bring a fresh perspective to what is arguably the most glorified conflict of our time over the course of two films is nothing less than exemplary.

8. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Politically incorrect, morally askew, and simply too damn funny to hold its guerilla tactics against it, Sacha Baron Cohen exhibits razor-sharp comedic dexterity and admirable stamina, but however lowbrow the humor, it's his astonishing cultural insights that prove to be most formidable.

9. The Queen
From director Stephen Frears comes a docudrama of impressive tact and surprising humor, and as much Michael Sheen and company try to match her, Helen Mirren's rightfully lauded performance is one of truly majestic grace under pressure.

10. Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story
Michael Winterbottom's meta-farce winks and nudges at its own giddily madcap nature - right in line with the essence of the unfilmable novel on which it's based - with Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, and Gillian Anderson engaging in plenty of good-natured self-deprecation along the way.

11. The Lives of Others
Strip away the potent political themes regarding Stasi surveillance in East Germany and you're left with an impressively rewarding human drama, as a playwright and his girlfriend find themselves manipulated by the (literal) man upstairs. As the consequences of his actions come to pass, the subtlety with which Ulrich Mühe's officer thaws is a marvel of minimalist acting.

12. Brick
13. Little Children
One film has teens behaving with all the gravitas of adults, while the other demonstrates how most adults fail to shed their more juvenile tendencies. Rian Johnson's directorial debut is an ardent exercise in noir by way of the matters-of-life-and-death drama of high school, while Todd Field's follow-up to In The Bedroom casts light on the judgmental nature of suburbanites. Each boasts a stellar cast, especially respective leads Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Kate Winslet, as well as gifted writing and direction, but most of all, both prove that growing up has nothing to do with age.

14. Over the Hedge
In a year where Pixar misses its mark, it was left to Dreamworks Animation to step up their game and provide a back-to-basics cartoon, fleshed out with a lively cast, a jaunty soundtrack by Ben Folds, and a sheer comedic momentum worthy of classic Looney Tunes. As animated features grow increasingly commonplace, each bogged down with tepid tunes and mawkish lessons, it's refreshing to see a cartoon that's just plain fun. (And how!)

15. (tie) The Descent and Hard Candy
Whether attacking beneath the surface or below the belt, these lady-led thrillers managed to push just about every psychological, moral, and visceral pressure point in sight with precise direction, astute performances (particular props to the scary-good likes of Shauna MacDonald and Ellen Page), and the most effective sound design in ages.

16. V for Vendetta
The Wachowski Brothers' adaptation of the celebrated graphic novel alternates between political agenda and popcorn thrills with admirable ease and the audience's intelligence in mind, the result being a surprisingly satisfying call-to-action flick.

17. Charlotte’s Web
Save for the occasional fart joke that has regrettably become incorporated into the criteria for modern family fare, this take on E.B. White's classic is pure and simple, wholesome with nary a moment of pandering or preaching. With a prime voice cast, no pesky songs, and effects that even make Dakota Fanning look lifelike, Web is never anything short of a delight.

18. Running Scared
How's that tune go? I saw Mommy shooting Mrs. Claus... In perhaps the most undervalued performance of the year, in perhaps the most gratuitous scene in a movie that was nothing if not superfluous, Vera Farmiga takes out a pair of pedophiles, one of whom is Elizabeth Mitchell of Lost and the Santa Clause sequels. In a year filled to the brim with mind-numbing mediocrity, perhaps it was out of little more than a sense of desperation that I found myself increasingly fascinated by Wayne Kramer's overzealous thriller since its release last February. Here's a film that goes so far over the top, it could very well be that Paul Walker gives the best performance of his career in it. However, it's that very approach of extravagant depravity, such pulpy excess, that has grown so endearing in the damnedest possible way.

19. (tie) Dave Chappelle’s Block Party and The Heart of the Game
20. (tie) Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing and This Film Is Not Yet Rated
21. (tie) Street Fight and Deliver Us From Evil and Jesus Camp
Let's call this the doc block: two documentaries took subjects in which I have no interest - hip-hop and girls' high school basketball - and made them two of the year's most joyous and lively viewing experiences out of them; two preached to the choir in most entertaining and insightful fashion; and yet three more proved that maybe I'm not so jaded when I exclude myself from politics and religion. Personally, I take a good amount of comfort knowing that a) a rural Ohio high school marching band can be ambushed during a hot morning practice and suddenly swept off to perform in NYC on behalf of a most humble celebrity; b) those cowards at the MPAA can - and will - be called out, whether they like it or not; and c) even a cynic such as myself can feel compelled to vote after ninety minutes of evidence that, if anything, reinforces the notion of even the most eager participation failing to make a real difference and yet also reignite the passion to try anyway.

22. District B13
The year's best straight-up action movie, B13 was marvelous not only because of its leads' awesome physical deftness, but because of director Pierre Morel's breakneck pace, which doesn't stop for synapses, let alone a breath. It's a kinetic powerhouse that's fast, fun, and not nearly as insulting as it should be.

23. Manderlay
Ah, yes, another setless screed by Lars von Trier, part two of his "Land of Opportunities" trilogy, a 'series of sermons on America’s sins and hypocrisy,' in which the idealism of young Grace (played by Nicole Kidman in 2003's Dogville, now played by Bryce Dallas Howard) in 1930's America goes awry - as it often does - when she tries to liberate a rural plantation seventy years post-emancipation, only to discover that the slaves are rather content with their current lifestyle. Sure, a drawn-out stage allegory on liberal guilt and the spread of democracy isn't exactly a welcome mat, but thanks to solid performances (notably Howard), the ever-eloquent narration of John Hurt, and unforeseen relevance in the wake of Iraq and Katrina, it makes for rather potent drama, no matter which bold lines one decides to read between.

24. (tie) The Illusionist and The Prestige
Two magician mysteries: the former, a spellbinding, if simply told, tale of romance and mystification; the latter, an intricate, if calculated, story of deception and arrogance. The equivalent of warm and cold taps, each proves clever and compelling on its own terms.

25. Monster House
Remember that whole bit about how it's refreshing to see a cartoon that's just plain fun? Feel free to chalk up Gil Kenan's imaginative and decidedly old-school haunted-house flick, whose spirit evokes the eighties, but could only be brought to such vivid life thanks to today's motion-capture technology. It also doesn't hurt that adults are liable to get as much - or maybe a bit more - of a kick out of it than the kiddies (One of my favorite lines of the year has to be Chowder's oblivious report that "my dad is at the pharmacy and my mom is at the movies with her personal trainer.")

26. Notes on a Scandal
Even if its elements of adultery may feel too familiar, the performances of Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy, and a positively wicked Judi Dench make this melodrama all the more enthralling, as a sly Dench manipulates a vulnerable Blanchett into being buddies, if not something more. Philip Glass' aggressive score, like the film, manages to be just sensational enough without overwhelming the proceedings.

27. Shortbus
In his portrait of a community seeking connection through copulation, writer/director John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) brings to life an explicit yet surprisingly earnest realm of sexuality that's more tender than taboo.

28. Flags of Our Fathers
Underneath its clumsy flashback-laden narrative is a fresh, disheartening perspective on WWII that proves to be more relevant about today's heroes than most would be comfortable admitting.

29. Idiocracy
Mike Judge's vision of the dumb to come is a bleak, but astute satire of American culture (not to mention it's got electrolytes), and its botched release by Fox was a travesty to say the very least. Regarding both the film and its distribution, it seems most fitting to quote that other Luke Wilson vehicle that Fox did see fit to put on 2000+ screens: you gotta laugh to keep from crying.

30. Venus
Should this turn out to be Peter O'Toole's swan song, good luck finding a higher note for the man to go out on.

The Worst of 2006

1. (tie) The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things and Lady in the Water
Oh, the perils of misguided convictions. On one hand, Asia Argento writes, directs, and stars in the exceedingly unpleasant story of a child put through the ringer once his birth mother (Argento) yanks him out of the hands of his foster family and proceeds to inure him to a lifestyle of drugs, drinking, prostitution, and the occasional beating or act of sodomy. On the other hand, M. Night Shyamalan writes, directs, and stars in the exceedingly untenable story of a child staring at cereal boxes once a, um, water nymph appears to enlighten a young writer (Shyamalan), whose book is destined to save the world following his martyrdom, as the entire apartment complex - save for that one sardonic film and book critic - helps everyone's favorite narf hitch a ride back home on a giant eagle. The only thing worse than trying to endure either film is to comprehend how they've managed to make their way to a screen of any size. Heart is based on the (oops, fictitious) autobiography of the same name, while Lady happens to be based on a bedtime story that M. Night's children were allegedly subjected to. Whether inane or inhumane, these instances of grand delusion are unremittingly, unforgivably insufferable.

2. (tie) Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector and Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj
There are terminal illnesses more entertaining than either of these gems, one being the epitome of laziness, the other being the nadir of comedy itself.

3. (tie) BloodRayne and Madea’s Family Reunion
Perennial worst-of denizens Uwe Boll and Tyler Perry make their requisite appearances, courtesy of a genuinely moronic video-game adaptation and a thoroughly bromidic farce/melodrama.

4. (tie) Just My Luck and Material Girls
Remind the people at Merriam-Webster to redefine 'puerile' in their next edition.

5. (tie) Doogal and Arthur and the Invisibles
Not once, but twice this year does The Weinstein Company hijack lackluster animation from overseas, whittle down the running time, and cram the poor English dubbing full of feeble puns, dopey pop culture references, and Jimmy Fallon. As studios churn out shoddier animated fare at a remarkable rate, these two mark a new low.

6. (tie) Deck the Halls and The Pink Panther
From Hollywood's hacks for hire, John Whitesell (the barely omitted Big Momma's House 2) and Shawn Levy (the positively mediocre Night at the Museum), come one of the most putrid holiday films and one of the most driveling remakes of the year, and likely the decade. Keep up the good work, boys.

7. (tie) The Break-Up and Click
Both were mismarketed as comedies when they were a) dreadfully unfunny and b) unexpectedly dramatic, or at least some petty equivalent.

8. (tie) Black Christmas and Stay Alive
Leave it to Dimension Films and their Buena Vista compatriots to do what they do best: hack away at horror movies that weren't the least bit scary to begin with, particularly in hopes of milking PG-13 ratings and unrated DVDs for all they're worth. (It should go noted that Pulse also falls under this mindset, but I can only list so many at a time.)

9. (tie) The Holiday and Hoot
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the very archetypes of ever-pandering rom-coms (as lengthy as Apocalypto) and loathsome family fare.

10. (tie) Freedomland and Date Movie
Joe Roth's uncouth drama of race relations features the single worst female performance of the year, an especially shrill tantrum by the otherwise dependable Julianne Moore that doesn't make you feel quite so bad about Edie Falco in The Quiet after all. Meanwhile, the single best female performance in an awful picture has to be Alyson Hannigan's remarkably compliant work in this trifling would-be parody.

11. Zoom
Of the three family films Tim Allen subjected audiences to this year, the least watchable of the lot is a day-late, dollar-short story of a superhero school would still be brutally uninspired, from its Smash Mouth songs to its product placement, even if Sky High hadn't already beaten it to the punch. Don't forget to kiss goodbye whatever crumbs of credibility Chevy Chase and Courtney Cox were clinging to.

12. The Benchwarmers
Happy Madison Productions insists on churning out the most callow of comedies, and between Click, Grandma's Boy, and this oft-homophobic marathon of sophomoric groin-and-gas gags - of which Nick Swardson is the arguable highlight - this may be worth mistaking for a banner year.

13. Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties
In all fairness, Bill Murray had been eyeing that new grill for quite some time.

14. Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School
Just barely beating out the eye-rolling blunder of Conversations with God is the gag-inducing treacle of ...Charm School (a.k.a. John Goodman Must Die), a shoddy and stubbornly predictable mess of lessons on loving-to-live and living-to-love into which a cast including a perpetually perishing Goodman, Robert Carlyle, Marisa Tomei, Mary Steenburgen, Sean Astin, Adam Arkin, and Danny DeVito all find themselves out-humiliated by a gratingly flamboyant Donnie Wahlberg.

15. You, Me, & Dupree
As if it weren't already bad enough wading through the clichés of at least a dozen other wacky-pal comedies without even so much as a single laugh accidentally making its way into the proceedings, it just so happens that Dupree made the Wayans' latest mildly amusing by comparison alone. Had I seen them in reverse order, I just might have rearranged matters, but at this point, Dupree merits a spot on the bottom solely for keeping Little Man off the list.

Most Unsung Performances
-Jodie Foster’s well-oiled bitch in Inside Man
-Kevin Kline’s bumbling sleuth in A Prairie Home Companion
-Gretchen Mol’s remarkable finesse as The Notorious Bettie Page
-Julia Jentsch’s subdued courage in Sophie Scholl: The Final Days
-Frances McDormand’s tightly wound suburbanite in Friends with Money

Best Animated/Family Film: Over the Hedge / Charlotte’s Web (runners-up: Monster House, Flushed Away / Lassie)

Best Foreign Film: Pan’s Labyrinth (runners-up: The Lives of Others, District B13, Lady Vengeance, The Aura)

Best Documentary: The Heart of the Game (runners-up: Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, Street Fight, Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Jesus Camp, The War Tapes, An Inconvenient Truth, Who Killed The Electric Car?, Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That!)

Best Direct-To-Video Release: When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (runner-up: The Woods)

Worst Direct-To-Video Release: American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile

Biggest Guilty Pleasure: Crank (runners-up: Final Destination 3, Snakes on a Plane, The Protector, Slither)

Best Car Chase: Children of Men (runners-up: Déjà Vu, Renaissance)

Best Entrances: David Bowie (The Prestige) and Jane Lynch (For Your Consideration)

Best Scare in a Non-Horror Movie: Eight Below – the seal attack (runners-up: Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr. get intimate, Shadowboxer; likewise with Jurgen Prochnow and Mo’Nique, Beerfest)

Best Laugh in a Non-Comedy: The Omen – Mia Farrow + sledgehammer + pouring rain = giggles (runners-up: Tom Hanks has to get to a library FAST, The Da Vinci Code; the entire last reel of The Wicker Man)

Best/Worst Poster: (ties) Hard Candy and V for Vendetta / The Descent and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

Worst Release: Idiocracy (runners-up: Lassie, Feast, Bandidas)

Most Essential Props: Mickey Rourke’s purple eyeshadow (Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker), Will Smith’s hippie magnet (The Pursuit of Happyness), Guy Fawkes mask (V for Vendetta)

Most Unsung Score: The Fountain (runners-up: The Descent, Mission: Impossible III)

Tonal Whiplash: (tie) Down in the Valley, Happy Feet, Man of the Year

Characters I Wouldn’t Mind Interrupting Most Any Other Movie
-sneering critic Harry Farber (Bob Balaban), Lady in the Water
-chatty hooker Oana (Vera Farmiga), Breaking & Entering
-raving Ramona Linscott (Fiona Shaw), The Black Dahlia

Reasons To Bring Back Arrested Development: Arthur and the Invisibles, The Break-Up, Click, The Da Vinci Code, Deck the Halls, Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector, Let’s Go To Prison, RV, She’s The Man, Unaccompanied Minors, You, Me, & Dupree

Future Drinking Games: Basic Instinct 2 (“Risk addiction!”), Mission: Impossible III (“The Rabbit’s Foot!”)

2007 Films I Can’t Wait To See
-The Bourne Ultimatum: Paul Greengrass’ conclusion (?) to one of the more reliably thrilling franchises of late
-Funny Games: Michael Haneke’s English-language remake of his own agonizing thriller
-Hot Fuzz: Edgar Wright’s cop comedy reunion with Shaun of the Dead stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost
-Paris, Je T’aime: the collaboration of several international filmmakers and stars in their grand ode to the City of Love
-Sunshine: Danny Boyle’s sci-fi thriller sends Cillian Murphy and company to save the sun

'07 Films I Can’t Wait To See Again
-Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon: Scott Glosserman’s magnificently sharp deconstruction of slasher films
-Chalk: Mike Akel’s all-too-genuine teacher mockumentary
-The Host: Joon-ho Bong’s peculiar yet entertaining hybrid of creature feature and dysfunctional family dramedy
-Rescue Dawn: Werner Herzog’s clear-cut and commanding POW drama, featuring – of all things – Steve Zahn’s first great performance
-The Trials of Darryl Hunt: Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s stirring doc of wrongful conviction and pervasive injustice

link directly to this feature at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=2046
originally posted: 01/05/07 23:56:17
last updated: 12/31/08 10:35:32
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