To repeat what I wrote two years ago as the preface for a similar countdown: Compiling a list of the year's ten best films is a task I approach with a fair share of ambivalence. Because, let's face it, what I'm really doing is announcing my favorite films of the past 12 months.
Indeed, I have to admit that this year, for a variety of reasons, I feel all the more self-conscious about the sheer arbitrariness of it all. For openers, I’m painfully aware that I simply missed some films that made only fleeting appearances here in Houston, and lacked timely access to others that have figured prominently on the lists of some more geographically fortune critics. (Of course, there will always be worthy movies that I will never see. As critic Adam Balz recently noted: “No matter how long we live, we will never see one-tenth of one percent of all the films ever made.”) At the same time, though, I’m sorely tempted to rebel against the traditional rules of the game, in order to be, if not more compete, then certainly more inclusive.
I mean, why shouldn’t I list one of 2006’s very best films – Bong Joon-ho’s The Host, a startlingly poignant family drama that also happens to be a tremendously exciting, smartly subversive and often explosively funny horror flick – simply because this South Korean production, a monster hit throughout Asia, won’t open in the United States until March 2007? Come to think of it, why shouldn’t I also include another worthy movie I caught at last November’s Denver Film Festival – Mike Akel’s Chalk, an insightfully funny, entirely improvised mockumentary about stressed-out high-school teachers that will generate jolting shocks of recognition among educators everywhere -- simply because, even though it was showcased at many other festivals during the past year, it hasn’t yet gotten a theatrical release of any sort?
And even if I accept, reluctantly, that I must stick to movies that played in North American theatrical release during 2006: Why should I limit my list to ten titles?
Sorry, I couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer to that final question. And so, this year, I’m going to borrow a page from Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, and give you ten pairs of favorites. Yes, I know that’s something of a cop-out. But you know what? It’s my list, so I get to make at least some of the rules.
10. Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble and Michael Kang’s The Motel: Folks on the socioeconomic fringes are rarely depicted, and hardly ever respected, in mainstream Hollywood fare. Thank God, then, for indie moviemakers (or at least indie-spirited moviemakers) who are neither condescending nor romanticizing as they plumb the lower depths. Soderbergh’s audacious experiment is a mesmerizingly stripped-to-essentials drama about stunted lives and homicidal urges in a dead-end corner of Middle America. Kang’s debut directorial effort is a sharply observed coming-of-age dramedy about a precocious Chinese-American youth whose family operates a sleazy roadside motel in upstate New York.
9. Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation and Susan Buice and Arin Crumley’s Four-Eyed Monsters: More moviegoers should have had the chance to see these two quirky and captivating no-budget indies about slackerish twentysomethings beset by romantic and professional quandaries while in the process of inventing themselves. I don’t know whether Bujalski, Buice and Crumley would be amused, confused or appalled to learn that a fiftysomething critic was so impressed and engaged by their more-than-merely-promising work. But I was. Honest.
8. Mary Harron’s The Notorious Bettie Page and Billy Kent’s The Oh in Ohio: Two very different but equally enjoyable films about women who empower themselves by refusing to be defined by oppressive male expectations or guilt-tripping societal pressures. As ‘50s pin-up icon Bettie Page, Gretchen Mol gives a performance of such uninhibited grace and verve that it’s easy to accept Harron’s central conceit of a naughty imp who’s both innocent and knowing. And as a sexually unfulfilled woman who’s driven to extremes by not-so-quietly desperate yearning, the ever-amazing Parker Posey suggests a soft-core Lucille Ball with her gift for physical comedy while tracing an arc from uptight denial through lusty excess to serene self-confidence.
7. Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth and Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts: Two urgent, insightful and purposefully infuriating documentaries that managed to be… Well, OK, I know this will sound borderline-sacrilegious, given the serious intent of both movies, but they managed to be as entertaining – in terms of grabbing and sustaining intense interest while intelligently generating emotional response -- as any dramatic feature of 2006. (Yes, I know, When the Levees Broke premiered on HBO. You have a problem with that? I don’t.) And please spare me the jokes about Al Gore’s being stiffly professorial in Inconvenient Truth. Those are the kinds of comments made by cynics who smugly cling to outdated clichés rather than opening their eyes to observe evolutions.
6. Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion and John Lasseter’s Cars: Altman’s swan song is a clear-eyed, hard-edged but generous-spirited celebration of professional entertainers who, unfortunately, no longer entertain nearly enough people to satisfy the unsentimental bean-counters; Lasseter’s Pixar-produced animated feature is a humorous but heartfelt tale about anthropomorphic autos in a once-thriving small town that was left behind to wither when an Interstate passed it by. Each film, in its own unique, utterly beguiling fashion, speaks eloquently and affectingly about things (like, a sense of community, or pop culture ephemera) we usually never appreciate until we recognize – belatedly – that they’re lost.
5. Wim Wenders’ Don’t Come Knocking and Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Little Miss Sunshine: In a country where winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing, can a fading-into-twilight Western movie star or an underdog children’s beauty pageant hopeful find a way to avoid being labeled a loser? Perhaps. But each must rely on the mixed blessings of family ties, whether those familial bonds evoke regretful melancholy (Wenders’ criminally under-rated road movie) or raucous comedy (Dayton and Faris’ seriously funny dramedy).
4. Bryan Barber’s Idlewild and Manu Boyer’s I Trust You to Kill Me: With all due respect to a certain overbearing (and, with the exception of an electrifying eruption by Eddie Murphy, curiously unjoyful) Oscar contender, these are the best two musicals of 2006. Barber’s collaboration with Outkast is a visually stunning, emotionally thrilling and kinetically exhilarating extravaganza that nominally is set during the Prohibition Era in small-town Georgia, but substitutes and/or intermingles throbbing hip-hop melodies with the more period-appropriate sounds of jazz, swing, soul and blues. Boyer’s sly and skillful rockumentary about rockers Rocco DeLuca and the Burden – and, just as important, Kiefer Sutherland, who signed the group to his indie record label, then joined them for a promotional concert tour – is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at what any band (even one backed by a high-profile celeb) must endure to make that first lunge at the brass ring.
3. David Christensen’s Six Figures and Jason Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking: Yes, Virginia, you really can make a successful movie – at least, an artistically successful one – in which the lead character is not merely a lovable cad, but a self-serving sociopath, or perhaps worse. Reitman’s razor-sharp satire (adapted from Christopher Buckley’s novel) showcases Aaron Eckhart’s ferociously funny and fearless performance as an amoral PR spinner who adamantly refuses to change his wicked ways when it comes to defending death-dealers. Christensen’s unsettlingly ambiguous drama (released in Canada during 2006, but so far lacking a US distributor) is even more impressive, artfully balancing mystery and specificity while considering whether a financially stressed family man is responsible for the attempted murder of his conspicuously more successful wife. I can’t think of any other actor this year who overshadowed the achievement of JR Bourne, who plays the prime suspect as somehow simultaneously sympathetic and threatening. You’re left with the impression that, even if he didn’t do it, he knows, deep in his heart of darkness, that he could have done it.
2. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel and Martin Scorsese’s The Departed: Two absolutely terrific ensemble casts, two world-class filmmakers at the top of their games, two immensely satisfying tales of random fates and interlocking destinies. Sorry, but I cannot understand what the nitpickers are complaining about. Just what more do those people want?
1. Marc Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction and Stephen Frears’ The Queen: How difficult is it to remain graceful under pressure while fulfilling the demands of the roles you are assigned in real-life dramas? In Forster’s exquisitely spare yet emotionally resonant fantasy about a man who gets a last-chance opportunity for spiritual rebirth, buttoned-down IRS agent Harold Crick (a personal-best performance by Will Ferrell) rebels against typecasting after he learns he is the fated-to-die protagonist in a long-delayed work by a noted novelist. In Frears’ smart and subtle study of a tradition-bound monarch who reluctantly realizes that she must respect the unfathomable grief of her subjects, Queen Elizabeth II (the great Helen Mirren) must rely on the advice of a possibly supportive, probably opportunistic prime minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen). It’s altogether gratifying that, in each scenario, the lead character enjoys something like a happy ending.
A dozen runners-up: Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale, Spike Lee’s Inside Man, Patrick Creadon’s Wordplay, Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, Tony Scott’s Deja Vu, Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering, Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus’ Al Franken: God Spoke, Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa, David Frankel’s The Devil Wears Prada, and Michael Mann’s Miami Vice.
Guilty pleasures: Jeff Tremaine’s jackass number two, James Gunn’s Slither.