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The Year of Film in 2006 – Part One: The Films

United 93 - Best Film of 2006
by Jason Whyte

Wow, what a busy year. Every time I turn my head, there appears to be yet another movie that I have to run out and see, and right around this time of year I go crazy busy seeing every movie possible to put my year-end recap up on This was another great year for movies; many bad and not-so good films on the radar, but a lot of good ones that have been listed here.

This year, I will be bringing you two parts to this yearly recap. Part one, which you’re looking at, will feature the top films I’ve ranked over a year of intense screenings, film festivalgoing and watching screeners in my house at 4:00am. In a few days I will be posting the second part which is devoted to the performances, moments and other various oddities that made 2006 such an interesting year, movie-wise.

There are still a few to see so this list may be updated in the coming week or so, but otherwise, here we go!

Top 10 Films of 2006

#1. United 93 - Ever since I saw this film in the cinema in April, the sheer emotional devastation of “United 93” has refused to let go. The history of that horrible day is still fresh in our minds, and this film commands our respect and admiration, right down to its brutal, horrifying final fifteen minutes, where tragedy may have occurred but heroism was victorious. This is an unflinching and bone-chillingly real account of what took place on Flight 93 the day of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Director Paul Greengrass has the audacity to show, as simply and honestly as possible, what happened on board the day the passengers decided to overtake a hijacked plane en route to Washington. The only point it makes is what it shows, on that day, and leaves it up to the viewer.

#2. The Departed – This was the first “regular” film that I viewed after taking in 122 films at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, so my “critique” of the film was a bit wandering at first. I adored much of the film but I was too busy getting over having seen so many films at the festival. A second viewing a few weeks later easily opened up my feelings to Scorsese’s masterpiece about double and triple crossings involving the mob and Boston Police, and just thinking about the film makes me want to see it again (and I will in a few weeks, when the film is re-released for the Oscar run. Great chance to see the film if you haven’t!). The film is so utterly complex and layered, yet Scorsese keeps the audience involved right at the instinctive level of the characters to the point where we are as emotionally in sync with these flawed individuals. Add to that, Michael “Goodfellas” Ballhaus’ cinematography is a sight to behold.

#3. The Proposition – Loved by many critics and indie/foreign audiences, and I’m hoping with the recent DVD release it can find the audience it deserves. John Hillcoat’s Aussie-answer to the western features a 19th century uncivilized land where the only language is brutality. Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Emily Watson and John Hurt all offer excellent performances as per usual, but it’s Danny Huston who amazes as wanted killer Arthur Burns, with his dead stares and bizarre wisdom in this forgotten land.

#4. Neil Young: Heart of Gold – My heart leapt while watching Jonathan Demme’s beautiful concert film of Neil Young’s Nashville performance of his Prairie Wind tour. The idea is simple: to completely document the experience of looking at the stage as Mr. Young performs. Demme’s camera, which carefully watches, never panders to backstage theatrics or reaction shots of the audience, makes us believe that this is the only way these films should be done. This will make a great double bill with “Stop Making Sense”, Demme’s other great concert film, which utilizes the same long takes, proper framing and careful lighting. (See part two for an additional note on the film’s cinematographer, Ellen Kuras.)

#5. For Your Consideration – Whilst everyone was laughing up “Borat” to a grand box office success, Christopher Guest’s new comedy about the film industry had me laughing more than any movie this year, last year, the year before that…heck, just as much as his 1997 gem “Waiting For Guffman”. Guest’s film makes pointed commentary about the Hollywood system told through the view of Guest’s usual repertoire of actors, all of which are funnier than the next. From the exasperated director to the inept press agent, the lesbian lover to the aging actor reclaiming his past glory, the movie rolls one big, belly-aching laugh after another; so much so that my viewing companion and myself at a recent screening were turning heads due to the sheer volume of laughter that the film forced out of us. That alone makes “FYC” the funniest film of the decade, and one of the funniest films ever made.

#6. A Prairie Home Companion - The news of Robert Altman’s passing is one that is going to take some time to truly get over. I am thrilled, however, that Altman didn’t have something like Billy Wilder’s remake of “Buddy, Buddy” as his swan song and instead gave us a wonderfully entertaining (and fictional) take on a real radio show run by the inimitable Garrison Keillor who values the old-fashioned, simple way of Heartland living in his home town of St. Paul, Minnesota. Featuring Altman’s famous long, sweeping takes and overlapping dialogue, it is a film that left us with tears of laughter and appreciation for the joy of performance, and how we should appreciate it whether it is our first or last.

#7. Little Children – Amazingly, Todd Field’s brilliant follow-up to his equally great “In The Bedroom” was overlooked at the cinemas this year. Grossing hardly over $2 million so far (“Bedroom” did well over $30m), hopefully the award consideration bestowed upon Kate Winslet’s amazing performance as a bored suburban housewife will get a few butts into seats. The dark comedy of suburbia, book-like narration and the great acting work by all involved should have been a big hit, and shame on New Line for not getting this movie out on a wider release to find its audience.

#8. The Good Shepherd – A headlong look into the birth of the CIA, the film marks a truly wonderful directorial turn from Robert DeNiro and a great lead performance from Matt Damon who plays Edward Wilson, one of the frontrunners of the Central Intelligence Agency. Running nearly three hours and spanning three decades of American history including the Bay of Pigs invasion, WWII and the start of the cold war, the film does not paint American politics in a kind light and is a telling reminder of our political stance today. Add to that, it’s just a really well made film that entertains as well as provokes thought.

#9. Manderlay – Damn you as always, Lars von Trier! You have yet again earned a spot on my Top 10. Trier turns his patented Dogma 95 rules on its head and installs more sets, more effects and camerawork that automatically demerits its Dogma status…as well as he should, because he has still made a great film. The second of his trilogy following “Dogville”, this follows Grace (now Bryce Dallas Howard) as she escapes the previous city and winds up in the city of the film’s title and again winds up leaving her mark on the town. Significantly shorter than “Dogville” (this 140 minutes to the first’s 180) but just as haunting, Trier’s take on Americana is as harsh and unforgiving. Let’s see where Grace goes next.

#10. L’enfant (The Child) – Hanging onto my Top 10 list all year long, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Palme D’Or winner at Cannes in 2005 finally made its way to cinemas in 2006 and, not surprisingly, didn’t do well. Its bleak story of a couple who give up their child and the husband who has second thoughts is a grueling yet emotionally powerful story of redemption, and the Dardenne brothers utilize their traditional hand-held, over-the-shoulder photography to bring us right into the situation.

Jury Is Out Awards: Presented here are the two runner-up films to this list, along with a selection of other films that just made the Top 10.

#11. The Prestige – Just missing the list, here is some of the most fun I’ve had at the movies this year. It is no surprise coming from deeply gifted director Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, Memento) who has a lot of fun with a story of the essence of trickery and what makes it tick.

#12. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu – Hardly has a film made me more angry at the medical industry, especially the hospitals that treat everyone like a number. Cristi Picu’s story of an aging man on his last breath and he is carted around from hospital to hospital in Romania is deeply harrowing.

Other great films worth mentioning:

An Inconvenient Truth – If anyone is paying attention to the weather these days, I’m sure you can agree that Al Gore is right. A big success this year, here is a filmed performance of one of his global warming speeches, interspersed with clips of his life as he has devoted himself to turning the planet back on itself. An important and gripping film.

Babel – The last of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s personal trilogy (following the great “21 Grams” and “Amores Perros”), here Inarritu jumps all over the world to follow multiple stories revolving around a rifle. Special mention to cinematographer Rodrigo Preito for using different film formats for each story to give us a unique visual identity to the settings.

Dave Chappelle’s Block Party – Michel Gondry’s docu about a hidden concert put on by Dave Chappelle in Brooklyn in 2004 is a lot of fun featuring great music, funny interludes and footage of putting this concert on. Understandably, the film goes on a different tangent than “Heart of Gold” and it cuts to the audience, cuts away from songs and even the time frame, but the subject matter is so good that the haphazard nature is forgivable.

The Descent – One heck of a scary British import about a group of women who get stuck in a cave and can’t get out. Oh, and there’s “something down there”. Great, scary fun that reminded me of the original “Alien” and Neil Marshall’s direction is extremely dark, using only the available lights on the characters. Recently released on DVD, the film is great to watch after midnight with all the lights out. Best of luck getting to sleep afterwards.

Half Nelson – Ryan Gosling gives one of the best performances of the year as a kind high school teacher who is battling a drug addiction, and the relationship that develops between a student and him. Featuring a great independent spirit and a terrific soundtrack by Broken Social Scene, this film is worth seeing just to see a young, Brando-esque acting work by Mr. Gosling.

Idlewild – Although disliked by many, I found this Outkast-inspired musical-slash-comedy-slash-prohibition-drama a boatload of fun and admirable for trying a style of cinematic changing gears that is going for something new instead of all the same. Andre Benjamin is also amazing in this flick; with a great physical presence and singing chops to match, he entertains right until the rousing “PJ and Rooster” song over the film’s end credits, which was enough to make two groups at a fall screening dance in the aisles.

Le Neuvaine – I am somewhat sad that this small Quebecois film has not received the attention that it deserves. Hitting a few festivals in Canada in 2005 and with a slight, quiet release in a handful of cinemas this year, it is a haunting story of personal loss that reminded me of “The Barbarian Invasions” from a few years ago.

Little Miss Sunshine – A rousing crowd-pleaser of a movie which is best thought of as a dysfunctional road movie involving a family that is just so different from one another. The family is on a road trip to put the young daughter Olive (wonderfully played by Abigail Breslin) in a beauty competition, but everyone is at a wit’s end about their own personal demons that it takes a ride across country and one hell of a scary beauty pageant to bring them all together. Funny and endearing, it also features one of the best soundtracks of the year.

Old Joy – Unfairly compared to “Sideways” and “Brokeback Mountain” by a heck of a lot of festival descriptions and reviews, I found Kelly Reichardt’s latest film a deeply unique look into an old friendship of two different people in the mountains of Oregon. We’ve seen these friendship studies before but never like this, where two both deeply different people have different outlooks on life and where their paths will take them next. Quiet and at a quick 73 minutes, “Old Joy” is a difficult film to watch, as quiet as it all is.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer – Patrick Suskind’s famous book about the French teenager who has an uncanny gift of smell and murders his way through Europe as he gathers the scents of beautiful young women has at long last been brought to the screen by German uber-director Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”, “The Princess and the Warrior”). Frank Griebe’s cinematography is lush and expansive, even if the interiors are so drab and ugly, and the film climaxes on images so unforgettable and timeless.

The Science of Sleep – Michel Gondry’s latest film (hey, didn’t I just write about another film of his?) is a Paris-set love story where Gael Garcia Bernal is having problems separating his dreams from reality, and also falling in love with the beautiful girl next door (Charlotte Gainsbourgh) isn’t helping matters much. Reminiscent of Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” with his trademark visuals and set pieces but with more of a French sensibility.

Thank You For Smoking - A comedy for the strong anti-smoker (read: me) that works both as a satire on the dangers of smoking as well as Big Tobacco that has a lot of topical information, but is also funny as hell as it argues the personal ethics of all its characters. Aaron Eckhart’s great performance as Tobacco spokesperson Nick Naylor blindsided me just as much as Eckhart did nearly 10 years ago with his star-making role in Neil Labute’s “In The Company Of Men”. Director Jason (son of Ivan) Reitman nicely balances the satire and the comedy while still making some strong points about the failing tobacco industry.

Tom Yum Goong – A big pile of nonsense involving a stolen elephant who is taken from Thailand to Australia to be killed in a restaurant specializing in endangered animals, the film gets its entertainment by us watching “Ong Bak’s” Tony Jaa as he goes down there and battles a whole army of people to get his prized elephant back. A silly story that makes no sense, yet the amazing fight sequences (including a four-minute, one take fight scene on a staircase that is an instant classic) and choreography make it a great ball of fun. See if you can get your hands on the original, 110 minute version of the movie instead of the Weinstein Company’s 82 minute version which makes all the mayhem even more unintelligible.

Other very good films this year include: Sasha Baron Cohen’s wickedly Borat which needs no further explanation, the twisted Brick about young teenage life in suburban Los Angeles, the dark and powerful Casino Royale which is the best Bond film in nearly two decades (Daniel Craig rules!), the equally powerful Fast Food Nation which has one hell of a horrifying finale, Darren Arnofsky’s long-delayed The Fountain which covers a 1000 year chase for the fountain of youth, the surprisingly underrated The Last Kiss which painfully (although realistically) traces an engaged couple in decline and the people around them, the horrifying and powerful Omagh about a terrorist bombing in Ireland that killed 23 people, the indie-drama One Last Thing about a terminally ill teenager who makes a wish to date a celebrity, Helen Mirren in The Queen who just owns the screen as Queen Elizabeth, Scoop from Woody Allen who provides a wickedly funny British tale of a serial killer, the endlessly creative Stranger Than Fiction featuring the winning Will Ferrell and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Superman Returns which may be the best “big blockbuster” of the year and Pedro Almodovar’s Volver which is a complex and layered drama featuring the stunning Peneolpe Cruz.

The Five Worst Films of 2006:

#1. The Nativity Story – If there was a god, he’d hate this lifeless, wandering adaptation of Mary and Joseph as they travel to Bethlehem to birth out the Jesus. This year I have never seen a movie more dull and uninspired, never more bored by a motion picture; its director, Catherine Hardwicke, has made good films (Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown) yet seems to be under the spell of the studio to cash in on “The Passion of the Christ”. Kind of offensive, no?

#2. Edison Force – Filmed over two years ago, this shot-in-Vancouver cop drama is not a drama set in the rainy city, but rather the fictional town of Edison where crime runs rampant and a special police force is the lone party in solving it. Inexplicably, Justin Timberlake is a news reporter, Morgan Freeman his boss and Kevin Spacey a cop with a hairpiece. Somehow, this lousy action picture closed the Toronto Film Festival in 2005.

#3. The Promise – Who knew that director Chen Kaige (“Farewell my Concubine”) would think “Well hey, ‘Hero’ made a ton of money at the box office, so why not have my own stab at it?” This eyesore of a motion picture pits over-digitized effects and an incomprehensible storyline (mostly involving warring cultures and forbidden love) makes it about as emotionally involving as a Bollywood movie.

#4. Date Movie – The continuing of a spoof movie series (“Epic Movie” is slated to hit theatres in the new year), this movie rests in the “Scary Movie” formula where you simply take a scene from a famous recent film and put a fart gag or someone getting hit by something. Already dated, the film is not even funny by accident.

#5. RV – As much as I like Robin Williams (he is making me laugh a lot these days), he’s squarely to blame for this train-wreck (or RV wreck, if you want) involving a cross-country trip in a rented motor-home with predictably disastrous results. Also featuring Kristin Cheonweth who is lovely but annoying as nails, and singer Jojo who annoyed me so much I wanted to punch her in the teeth.

Also bad: The Grudge 2, Basic Instinct 2, The Long Weekend, Firewall, You Me and Dupree, Big Momma’s House 2, The Black Dahlia, When a Stranger Calls, Stormbreaker and Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny.

Watch in a few days for Part Two of my year-end recap featuring my favorite performances and moments from 2006.

Jason Whyte,
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originally posted: 01/01/07 14:32:49
last updated: 01/01/07 17:37:50
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