The Ten Best Films of 2006
2006 was the year of the DVD. Perhaps just living in Juneau, Alaska made it impossible to enjoy some of the year’s greatest treasures in the movie theaters (though we have two good commercial theater houses and two fantastic indie cinemas). The DVD has increasingly revealed its ability to make smaller, independent films readily accessible for filmgoers; with invaluable markets like Netflix and Blockbuster.com, our dependency on them to provide us with the newest, little-seen masterpieces enhances daily. Ironically, I went to the movies this year over twice as much as I did the year before, yet all but three of the films in my top ten reached me in the form of a disk. This is a sign of the rising value of (and our reliance on) home theaters.
2006 was also a rather bleak time for those of us on the movie beat. Robert Altman, who only a year ago received the lifetime achievement award at the Oscars, released his last film, A Prairie Home Companion, a reflection on death that sadly turned prophetic. We also lost a number of beloved character actors; indeed, the list is nearly too painful to write: Shelly Winters, Anthony Franciosa, Don Knotts, Dennis Weaver, Darren McGavin, Richard Bright, Red Buttons, Mako, Bruno Kirby, Jack Palance, Peter Boyle. Beloved screenwriter Arthur Hill was among those who ascended into the undiscovered country. Film critic Roger Ebert has also spent at least half the year in isolated recovery from a surgery, and his witty recommendations have been sadly missed, not least of all by this reader.
Due to a varietly of personal complications, my website was also out of commission until mid-September, and I appreciate all the emails and feedback from readers who asked for my return (I didn’t realize I was that well-read; it’s really quite flattering). But I’m happy to have bounced back with several articles for the last several weeks out of the year, and just because I quit writing for a time certainly didn’t mean that I quit watching. It would take more than buying a house and writing a novel to keep me away from Film as Art indefinitely. While we’re on that topic, let’s just jump to the goods:
1. Beowulf & Grendel, directed by Sturla Gunnarsson. This is the most thoughtful, visually arresting film I have seen in quite some time—a flawed, beautiful masterpiece that beats with the same mad pulse that brought to life Apocalypse Now and other great works of feverish cinematic vision. Shot in the barren, icy wastelands of Iceland, the film is less of a reinterpretation of the poem and more of a conversation with the ancient text, poking and prodding its simply story of heroism and violence in order to understand its deeper nuances and motivations. The poem drew a line in the sand between good vs. evil without pretending to create characters that existed beyond the archetypes that they helped establish; the film subsequently takes a rake to that line and creates a chilling, witty, clever, and finally desolate examination of human expression weighed against our savage, collective ego. The chaotic locale is perhaps the film’s greatest masterstroke, as it literalizes humanity’s inescapable, deep-seeded weathering away from compassion and decency and into violent depravity.
2. The Proposition, directed by John Hillcoat. Here is the greatest Western since Unforgiven—a brutal, unflinching tale of revenge and bloodlines set in the oven-baked Australian Outback, which apparently substitutes for Hell. The plot is simple and familiar, as in most Westerns; far more compelling is the visuals, particularly the contrast between the semblance of society versus the order of the lawless, and the soundtrack, which provides running commentary for the characters a la McCabe and Mrs. Miller. The acting is among some of the best of the year—particularly Ray Winstone as a hard-boiled sheriff determined to “civilize this land.” The film weaves through carnage, torture, and human suffering and boils down to a final shot that is among the most hauntingly poetic of all Western films.
3. The Queen, directed by Stephen Frears. Has there been a more loving portrait of a strong woman since Robert Altman’s Nashville? Helen Mirren is such a compelling embodiment of Queen Elizabeth II that we are incapable of taking our eyes off her. It is absolutely the best female performance in recent memory—at least since Charlize Theron’s turn in Monster. The storyline, which concerns the Royal Family’s response to the death of Princess Diana, is a compelling web of politics and public perceptions of royalty, but it is really all just setup to celebrate Mirren’s performance, which is a portrayal of deeply fascinating person whose world is swept from underneath her as events unfold that expose her disconnect with the country she cherishes so much. Often heartbreaking, often revealing, often moving, always triumphant.
4. Hard Candy, directed by David Slade. The year’s best thriller, not only for its tightly-told story and endlessly hair-pulling plot twists, but also for the moral implications that its characters force us to consider. The plot involves a thirty-year-old man who might be a child molester at the mercy of a fourteen-year-old girl who has decided to take justice into her own hands. What follows is a taunt, psychological power play between two clever and resourceful minds, and as we watch the truth slowly reveal itself, the morality found in the choices that they make grow more and more muddled. Is justice taking place here, or is it only grisly vengeance? Is either appropriate? The film is brilliant in the way that it approaches this issue and ultimately leaves it up to the viewer, who is by the end rattled to the point of desperation, to decide. Desperation is the point.
5. The Prestige, directed by Christopher Nolan. Christopher Nolan’s slight-of-hand here left many critics and filmgoers scratching their heads, often complaining about his bizarre tone and an ultimate plot twist that was surprising in its lack of surprise. But this twist is Nolan’s great meditation on the magic of cinema: Instead of trying to outguess thrillers in a post-Sixth Sense world, why not instead simply allow a film’s style, energy, and storytelling to take you on a journey in which you can never predict the outcome? And make no mistake: This is a film with style, energy, and storytelling to burn—it is an engrossing mystery-thriller that tells multiple stories at the same time, often with the past and present intersecting simultaneously with one another, yet it never grows tiresome or muddy. Nolan, whose films are increasingly compelling, tops himself here.
6. A Prairie Home Companion, directed by Robert Altman. Altman’s last film is a prophetic rumination on death and saying goodbye; it’s probably impossible to know whether or not the great American director knew that this would be his last film (he was in pre-production for another at the time of his death), but as it stands, this was a powerful note to end on. An adaptation of Garrison Keillor’s beloved radio show, the film weaves a fictional story about its hypothetical last episode around a series of improvised conversations from the cast that quickly develop into vintage Altman. Major stars dance about the film, engaging in some lovely duets (both metaphorically and literally), yet never does their star power overshadow the depths of this film’s theme, which is learning to say goodbye to people and places that you love dearly. “The death of an old man is not a tragedy,” the Angel of Death tells a cast member. Perhaps not, but that doesn’t mean we won’t deeply, painfully miss him.
7. The Wild Blue Yonder, directed by Werner Herzog. Here is a brilliant continuation of the science-fiction/apocalyptic films combining fictional narrative and documentary footage that Herzog began with Fata Morgana (1970) and Lessons of Darkness (1992). With this third part to his trilogy, Herzog finally reaches a sense of closure to his seeming obsession with the chaos of the universe: Perhaps the chaos ultimately achieves a type of harmony. The revelation is a long time coming in Herzog’s career, and its deeply enduring images from space and the Antarctic Ocean certainly earn a spot among the great director’s most fascinating combinations of fact and fiction to achieve an ultimate truth. Brad Dourif’s turn as a demented alien holding the fictional narrative together adds to the film’s bizarre nature.
8. Deliver Us From Evil, directed by Amy Berg. What a fascinating, disturbing, terrifying man this Oliver O’Grady is, a Catholic priest notorious for his molestation of countless children during his thirty-year career in Northern California. Now exiled to Ireland, O’Grady lives a quiet, passive life and speaks openly about his past with director Amy Berg, who combines chilling interviews with this unquestionably human monster with painful reflections from some of his victims. What’s particularly horrifying is O’Grady’s nonchalant tone in his recollections; he is a man who can confess to sodomizing nine-month olds, and then simply move on from the memory with a “no hard feelings” shrug. Berg provides a heartbreaking, old photograph of the priest standing among some children; she blurs the children’s faces so that they are anonymous, and this cinematic act becomes a powerful, albeit subtle, condemnation of this twisted, deeply troubled man. This is a difficult film to watch, but it is perhaps essential, both as an unsettling meditation on pure evil and for the equally disturbing methods that the Church utilized to cover for O’Grady that it reveals.
9. An Inconvenient Truth, directed by Davis Guggenheim. You’ve already heard all the “Al Gore talking about the environment” jokes, so I’ll spare you. I’ll also spare you my opinion on the information presented here—if you are reading this list, you already have an opinion about Al Gore, Global Warming, and its repercussions, so nothing I could add is going to change your mind. I will say that this documentary provides the definitive defense for activists advocating for change in our living habits, and it does so with easy-to-understand information and a surprisingly compelling lecture from Al Gore, whose slides and personal energy make this a riveting film that rivals any apocalyptic scenario envisioned by Werner Herzog. What’s particularly striking here is how Gore reveals the polarized conditions of the country, and how by turning every issue into a political issue, the sheep on both sides of the party lines immediately fall into place with their own scathing opinions without ever investigating the facts on their own. One wonders, had the Right embraced this issue instead of the Left, if Dan Quayle would have been hosting this lecture. In any case, it’s a great documentary, shot with skill and care. Roger Ebert famously said that you owe it to yourself to see this film, and I’m not going to tell him that he’s wrong.
10. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, directed by Cristi Puiu. This product of Romania is a moving chronicle of a destitute man’s slow death, as he jumps from hospital to hospital and is unable to find the proper care that will save his life. The film is unquestionably a critique of the health care system, but I prefer to look at it on a much simpler level: It is the story of a lonely man’s final hours—a reminder that we are ultimately all human and deserve respect for this reason alone. Puiu films with a good eye for details, including other faces in the various hospitals. This tragically suggests that the death of Mr. Lazarescu is merely one sad story among many. Ion Fiscuteanu is also touching in the lead, gaining our sympathy by simply reacting passively to the world taking place around him.
(in alphabetical order)
Babel: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s follow-up to 21 Grams is a fascinating ensemble piece set in Morocco.
Borat: Among the funniest movies ever made, and also terrifying in its indictment of American bigotry, which is evidently more common than most of us would like to believe.
Casino Royale: The best action film of the year, and the greatest Bond since Sean Connery.
Children of Men: A morality tale disguised as science fiction about a sterile humanity that is rapidly becoming extinct. Excellent performances.
The Departed: Hailed as the second coming of Martin Scorsese. I’m not sure he ever left, but it’s still damn fine filmmaking.
Half Nelson: A wonderful performance by Ryan Gosling as a drug-addicted middle-school teacher.
Inside Man: Spike Lee’s best film in years—a taunt thriller with some genuinely interesting plot twists and a rich understanding of the public’s perception of violence in a post-9/11 world.
Jesus Camp: The best horror film of the year? A very important documentary about Fundamentalist Christianity’s indoctrination of young children.
The King: A psychological drama that continues to prove why William Hurt is the greatest living actor.
Letters from Iwo Jima: A marked improvement over the disappointing Flags of Our Fathers, with a clearer sense of direction and more compelling characters.
Pan’s Labyrinth: Dreamy, ethereal visuals that are both creepy and absorbing. Lewis Carroll would be delighted.
Stranger than Fiction: Unique storyline about a tale-within-a-tale; Will Ferrell establishes himself as a wonderful dramatic actor.
3 Needles: An eye-opening meditation on the AIDS epidemic in its various global forms.
United 93: A surprisingly non-exploitive hypothesis on the doomed but heroic passengers on the plane that crashed on 9/11. Terrific performances from a cast of unknowns.
Volver: Likely to win Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. And that’s fine—it’s a wonderfully unique story, with a charming cast and clever dialogue.
When the Levees Broke: Spike Lee’s documentary about Hurricane Katrina reveals, quite sadly, how racism is still alive and well in America today.