* These lists were made at the close of 2006, and since Eric saw “Pan’s Labyrinth” in January of 2007, it didn’t make the list. Technically, it was rated as high as “Children of Men” and “Borat,“ so it should be #3!!!
- Children of Men : Alfonso Cuaron’s sci-fi drama has in spades what many of its contemporaries lack—immediacy. This comes partly from an apocalyptic setting that’s 20 years in the future and bears a remarkable resemblance to our present political climate, and is also partially due to the most amazing action scenes in years. Cuaron’s single-take, single-camera point of view during two amazing sequences will keep you on the edge of your seat while the movie will keep you thinking about where the world is headed today. The human race’s sudden, unexplained infertility is the device used to plunge the world into chaos, but its just a more aggressive extension of today’s issues. In the midst of all the chaos, Cuaron manages to make “Children of Men” a plea for rational thought and hope against all odds.
- Borat : I read an article about the poor box office showing of the Tenacious D movie this year that called it the first victim of a post-”Borat” world, and immediately knew that it was dead-on right. “The Pick of Destiny” was the first comedy I saw after seeing the hilariously satirical “Borat,” and I remember thinking to myself that it wasn’t horrible—it just wasn’t “Borat.” Any film that changes the cultural landscape that quickly is destined to become a classic, and the utterly fearless performance by Sacha Baron Cohen rewrote the book on what is expected of an actor (to include putting yourself in life-threatening situations). By combining a dash of the current reality-TV craze with a barbaric sense of humor that pokes more fun at the U.S. than at an already pissed-off Kazahkstan, Cohen hit the cultural zeitgeist. Today’s audiences are so naturally savvy about how their media is created that they immediately got the joke, despite its complicated set-up.
- The Science of Sleep : The reason Michel Gondry’s visionary film has been overlooked on many Best of 2006 lists is simple. People like a clear narrative, and this movie does not provide one. It is about dreams, after all, so what did they expect? Rather than using dreams as a cheap shorthand to draw a straight line through a murky screenplay, Gondry revels in the exploding id of his childish main character. As a romantic comedy, it never gets off the ground, which is perfect. The movie is about how real connections with people are way harder to complete than surreal dreamworlds, and the director’s singular artistic vision is unlike any other ever captured on film.
- The Departed : A near-perfect blend of psychological thriller and cop movie, Martin Scorsese returned to the criminal element he knows so well this year in spectacular fashion. This Hong Kong re-make throws a winking sense of humor into a movie with an impossibly unlikely premise, and ends up with remarkably believable performances by Matt Damon and especially Leonardo DiCaprio. William Monahan’s urgent screenplay spreads the attitude around, giving Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg all the good lines that a fiesty Jack Nicholson doesn’t have. Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s opening hour montage is a tour-de-force of desperate energy and layered soundscapes, without ever sacrificing an ounce of character work.
- The Black Dahlia : Brian DePalma’s hugely theatrical adaptation of James Ellroy’s dark novel is one of the most criminally misunderstood movies of the year. Advertised as a film based on the real-life events surrounding L.A.’s most notorious unsolved murders, audiences and critics were instead treated to the pulpy, operatic descent into darkness of two L.A. cops in 1947. Flamboyant camerawork and extravagant set design apparently weren’t enough to clue people in that this was meant to be a lusty and overheated soap opera set against the backdrop of a sick and twisted Hollywood. This is black noir the likes of which have never been seen, and the exaggerated acting by all involved is just part of the fun. This one is destined for a re-evaluation on DVD.
- United 93 : The most visceral film of the year is Paul Greengrass’s stirring recreation of the terrorist attack on the U.S. that took place on 9/11/2001. Centering mostly on the air traffic controllers and the commercial jetliner that crashed in Pennsylvania, “United 93” has a sense of dread from its opening moments that no other film this year can match. It then uses our knowledge of the tragedy against us, getting in close with hand-held camera shots and an alarming air of authenticity. Far from exploiting the victims of that day, it honors them by giving us a perspective on what it could have been like to witness the drama firsthand.
- Letters From Iwo Jima : Director Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers” is a meditation on the nature of a hero and why society needs them. His second movie this year set around the decisive battle in the Pacific theater is a straight-up old fashioned anti-war film, and a very powerful one at that. What separates it from other films of its kind is an honest examination of the Japanese mindset during World War II. Besides suffering a far greater amount of casualties than the Americans, Japanese soldiers knew from the outset that fighting on Iwo Jima was a suicide mission. “Letters” is a Japanese story told through a classic style of American filmmaking, and speaking with a clear voice that is, above all, very humanistic.
- The Prestige : Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale breathe life into to a twisty tale of obsession between two magician rivals at the turn of the century that could have been silly in lesser hands. Instead, it is visionary suspense filmmaking at its finest. Director/co-writer Christopher Nolan sets up the movie just like a magic trick, with the requisite amount of misdirection and a time-shifting narrative that leads to an unusual emotional payoff. Like “Memento” before it, Nolan makes sure that the labyrinthine plot will hold up to scrutiny. More important, however, is the emotional toll that naked desperation takes on its main characters.
- Inside Man : Spike Lee’s delightful caper flick showcases the best and worst of New York City. Denzel Washington is hilarious and riveting as a egotistical cop on his last legs in the department. Fueled by a solid supporting cast, Lee exposes both the dirty old money and the racial unease at the heart of America’s greatest melting pot. The city’s power lies not just in the financial district, but also in a spirit of unity through diversity. Surprisingly, it is all wrapped up in one hell of an entertaining and lighthearted package. Please let “Inside Man” be a shining example of how to make a mainstream Hollywood heist movie without resorting to tired cliché.
- The Fountain and Superman Returns : Here are two more examples of directors whose distinct creative visions didn’t quite match up with what the public wanted. Bryan Singer gave audiences a somber superhero, elevating Superman to divinity and illustrating his conflicted soul more clearly than had been done in the past. The film also sported an impressive and elegant look. Also visually stunning was Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain,” which took a chance that audiences would be content to draw their own conclusions from his interweaving portrait of life, death, and rebirth. Both were considered box office letdowns (despite the fact that “Superman” made almost exactly $200 million in its long summer run), and both deserve to be seen again, with new expectations.
Eric’s Runners Up: Brick, V for Vendetta, The Queen, Flags of Our Fathers, Half Nelson, Slither, Casino Royale, The Proposition, C.S.A. Confederate States of America, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, A Prairie Home Companion, Mission: Impossible III
- V for Vendetta : “V for Vendetta” is the only film on my top ten list of 2006 that I’m all that interested in stomping my feet about. 2006 in retrospect has been cinematically anemic and often disappointing. While this year has served up a handful of moderately great films, none are as exceptional as “V”. The feature film interpretation of feisty British author Alan Moore’s (“Watchmen”) graphic novel is topnotch all the way around. A timely and unapologetic allegory, “V” is dangerous and purposeful and its indictment of the current state of things places it alongside “An Inconvenient Truth” as this years most rebel-rousing films. “V” delivers a superb story and vibrant characters and performances from Natalie Portman, a masked Hugo Weaving and Stephen Rea. First-time director James McTeigue stepped out from behind the Wachowski Brothers in one fell swoop and Alan Moore fans once again got their little plastic comic book sleeves in a bunch. “V” was a success on all fronts. “V for Vendetta” remains my only top pick for 2006.
- For Your Consideration : The style of this film feels the same as director Christopher Guest’s string of “Mockumentaries” beginning with “Waiting for Guffman.” “Consideration” switches up his patented formula slightly with a straight narrative and no clever interviews. The cast makes this film work. In addition to the usual names like Levy, McKean, Balaban and Posey, Ricky Gervais of the “real” British “The Office” is a welcome new player in Guest’s witty jab at Hollywood and all those who would presume to be part of it. Catherine O’Hara is remarkably funny as aging actress Marilyn Hack, her performance alone catapults “Consideration” onto this list.
- An Inconvenient Truth : This will come off as preachy, but its unavoidable so here it is…”An Inconvenient Truth” is the only movie in 2006 that every American should see. Former Senator and Vice-President Al Gore has put his considerable political weight and time behind the issue of global warming and “Truth” is the culmination of several decades of work on the lecture circuit attempting to educate people classroom by classroom. The story is frightening and the presentation sometimes verges on self-aggrandizing, but Gore’s intention and message are clear. Despite needing to locate your pants after having them scared off, the encouraging part of the film is the solutions Gore articulates alongside the notion that Greenland could have slipped off its bedrock and into the ocean in the last two hours and Arkansas is fixing to put up signs selling beach front property.
- The Fountain : “The Fountain” is a bold meditation or maybe film poem about love and death from “Requiem for Dream” director Darren Aronofsky. For fans of the mind-blowing opening sequence of “Contact,” “The Fountain” is this year’s winner for most spectacular visual film making. Steeped in a deep and challenging melancholy “The Fountain” is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of movie, the narrative is elusive and time and intention are slippery. There are few recent films that leave so much interpretation to the audience and for that reason alone “The Fountain” is a breath of fresh air.
- The Science of Sleep : I walked out of the theater scratching my head and spent the next two weeks realizing how deeply in love with this film I had become. Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) cannot be accused of dialing down his overly imaginative style. Not since Tim Burton has a director connected his imagination with what we see on screen. The art direction and story are in perfect agreement as the film’s main character Stephen bounces in and out of dreams and reality. For anyone who has struggled to understand the brilliant minds of the painfully artistic people they encounter every once in a great awhile “Science of Sleep” is as much insight into the unbridled imagination as Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity” was the primer for the male music snob in the midst of mid-life crisis. “Science of Sleep” is profoundly beautiful and unlike any other film.
- Little Miss Sunshine : “Little Miss Sunshine” is on my list because it is funny, it has a stellar cast and story and bares the quirky, slightly off center soul of a film that acknowledges that real life is funny and there is incredible wealth to be had in dragging it out and having a look. However, the real reason “Sunshine” is on my list is Paul Dano, who plays “Little Miss Sunshine” Olive’s older brother Dwayne. Dwayne has sworn a vow of silence, dealing out his disdain for both his parents and the cruel, cruel world on scraps of paper torn from a memo pad. He has a tapestry of Friedrich Nietzsche hanging on his bedroom wall and his gay uncle who just tried to commit suicide is his new roommate. Dano creates a riveting and honest portrayal of teen-angst the likes of which has rarely been seen before.
- Letters from Iwo Jima : “Letters from Iwo Jima” is the second release from Clint Eastwood in 2006, the other being the companion piece “Flags of Our Fathers” about the American side of the battle for Iwo Jima. The fact that Eastwood made both films simultaneously, is one of the truly inspired brainstorms in cinematic history. While “Flags” told an American perspective dealing with the machinery in the States to sell the war back home, “Iwo Jima” is a much more intimate portrait of the day in and day out experience of war. The film has a decidedly pro-American slant, with many of its main characters recognizing themselves in their American soldier counterparts. “Iwo Jima” is quality film-making and the entire project from Eastwood serves to raise his level of work across the board.
- The Queen : “The Queen” tells the story of the weeks before and after Princess Diana’s death for the Royal Family and incoming Prime Minister Tony Blair. Most of the attention given to this film has focused on the always remarkable Helen Mirren, but the great surprise is the performance by Micheal Sheen who plays Blair. Sheen goes toe-to-toe with Mirren in a career performance, his work will likely be over-looked come Oscar time, but it is as worthy of recognition as Mirren’s. Directed by Stephen Frears (“High Fidelity”), “The Queen” is an intriguing peek inside the modern soul of Great Britain.
- United 93 : “United 93” utilized mostly unknown actors to tell the tale of the passengers of United flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001. The film’s only flaw may have been to have cast a few familiar character actors to throw in the mix. That faint recognition became the only distraction to the frantic, real-time presentation of all those on the flight including the hijackers and of the multitude of people on the ground trying to sort out what was happening. “United 93” is one of those films that I will never feel the need to experience again, but will always haunt me as both a unique and magnificent film and a historical document about the national tragedy that defines so much of the current American identity and political landscape.
- Half Nelson : There are lots of drug stories and lots of teacher stories, they usually don’t collide. “Half Nelson” has two unbelievably good performances from Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps and tells a gritty lifelike tale that emits tragedy and humanity like an episode of A&E’s “Intervention.” Gosling does something remarkable – and often lost in portrayals of drug addicts – by telling the story of a drug addled character, rather than perform the experience of drug use and its effects. Independent film making can be daring and take risks that most studio pictures can’t begin to touch, this is a great example of a little movie that defies convention and shines for it.