The 10 Best Films of 2006

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Article by Mark Dujsik

This past year will be remembered as a weak one in cinema, and I have no problems with that. The theme of 2006 was hype, and it's kind of sad when a movie about snakes on a plane was one of the few that actually lived up to its hype. The tide is turning, and the studios and publicists seem to be winning the war for the heart of cinema. Still, out of the disappointment, a handful of films emerged, and for the most part, they weren't the ones everyone hyped to the ends of the earth. There is only a pair here that will undoubtedly stand the test of time—one a piece of cinematic mastery, the other a quintessential document of recent history—but the others are ones to value as well. Now, my list of the ten best films of 2006:

10. The Proposition
A bold and ruthless Western, The Proposition takes a decidedly American genre and story and transplants it to Australia (Does that make this an Outbacker?). John Hillcoat's direction and style are reminiscent of the works of Sergio Leone, John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, and more recently Clint Eastwood, but he makes it all his own. Filmed in harsh lighting and saturated film stock, the landscapes are desolate, lonely, and cruel—a place where flies cover everything from food, animals, and people. There are very few action sequences, but this is still a bloody, gory, and gruesome film. The screenplay by Nick Cave is a gem that adjusts conventions, is more concerned with characters, and contains more than enough moral quandaries and ambiguity. The story's conceit is a great one: An outlaw played by Guy Pearce has nine days to kill his older, cold-blooded brother or his younger, naïve brother will be executed. Pearce is strong in a relatively silent role, and Danny Huston is frightening as the psychotic murderer. What sets the film apart is the way the story's hero subtly shifts as it progresses. A fantastic Ray Winstone plays the captain who starts off as typical villain but turns into our protagonist.

9. Clerks II
Writer/director Kevin Smith returned to his roots to remind us what a knack he has for rich, pop-culture infused dialogue. Dante and Randal return for an update on what they've been doing for the last ten years, and besides Randal burning down their convenience store of employment and moving up into the world of fast food, it's not been much. Clerks II doesn't recapture the magic of the original, but that's way too much to ask in the first place. What the film does is push the envelope of decency to the breaking point (not quite as much as another comedy this year, but we'll get to that later) and gives our slacker heroes a further level of humanity. For all its blatant sexual discourse and its gut-busting climax that plays out like an X-rated episode of "Three's Company," the film has a genuine heart about friendship and finding one's place. The cast is strong, spurting Smith's complex dialogue out with ease, and a pair of new cast members adds laughs and some bite. Trevor Fehrman makes a satirical role believable, and Rosario Dawson is a triple threat of sexiness—attractive, intelligent, and cynically vulnerable. I'm also pleased to report there was no unrated DVD edition, keeping Smith's spot-on power of suggestion during the climax intact.

8. V for Vendetta
When was the last time a major studio release earned the very large majority of its thrills with ideas instead of action and special effects? Masquerading as a comic book action film, V for Vendetta is a thought-provoking piece of unabashedly anarchistic filmmaking with so many ties to our current political climate the question isn't how far away we are from such a society but how far removed we are from it. The Koran is outlawed, homophobia is state-sanctioned, and the totalitarian party in power makes a lot of money off of tragedy they started. The screenplay by Andy and Larry Wachowski overlaps the bigger ideas with the personal history of its central heroes, giving both higher stakes. Hugo Weaving—hiding behind a mask the entire film—makes V the vigilante more than a faceless concept with his vocal and physical performance, and Natalie Portman's transformation gives the film's thematic developments a human face. The first feature from director James McTeigue, who has a keen eye for simple but effective shot compositions, the film has the power to trigger debate about the rightness of its revolutionary hero's actions, and with its overt political motifs, there is a palpable sense of revolution.

7. Pan's Labyrinth
One of the more unsettling films of the year, Guillermo del Toro's mixture of the wonderful horrors of fantasy and the all-too real horrors of fascism is certainly the year's most visionary piece of filmmaking. A little girl named Ofelia, played by Ivana Baquero in a heartbreaking performance of childhood innocence, is taken by her pregnant mother to live with her new stepfather in rural Spain in 1944. He is Capitán Vidal, and he is played by Sergi López in a performance of pure, cunning, heartless evil. As Vidal helps Franco's fascist regime hold a stronghold in northern Spain, a group of resistance fighters hides in the hills, and Ofelia meets a mythical faun who helps her grow up with a series of tasks. Billed as a fairy tale for adults, del Toro juxtaposes Ofelia's fantasy world with Vidal's growing paranoia, and when the two meet, the results are tragic. There are already discussions about whether the fantasy scenes are real or just the imaginings of a young girl, but the only thing that matters is that they are real to her. The production design is astonishing, mixing visual effects, makeup, and bizarre sets to create the disturbing world of child's imagination heavily influenced by the real world she is forced to occupy. In spite of its wondrous look, this is a dark, creepy, sad tale of incorruptible innocence and ultimate sacrifice.

6. The Prestige
Filled to the brim with deception and misdirection, The Prestige is a story about magicians that is magic trick itself. Part homage to the art of performance, part admiration of science and technology, part unexpected turn to science fiction, and total mind-melting madness, Christopher Nolan's film is one to dissect, turn over in the mind, and still come up short of just how many levels on which it works. Divided into three acts that coincide with the three acts of a magic trick, the screenplay by Nolan and his brother Jonathan (based on the novel by Christopher Priest) slowly reveals the nature and extent of a rivalry over a single trick between two illusionists played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale. Both Jackman and Bale handle the descent into obsession with ease, and as each begin to show their dedication to their art over everything else in their lives, the Nolans' script raises philosophical quandaries about the nature of self and the role of science in the modern age. The editing is masterful, weaving in and out of the story's timeline, and Nolan's direction of the chronological mishmash is equally skilled. The supporting cast, including Michael Caine, Andy Serkis, and an almost unrecognizable David Bowie, is just right, and Rebecca Hall's vulnerable turn as one of the magician's wives is quite affecting. If you're willing to go along with the story's reality, some of the film's revelations are horrific to consider.

5. The Departed
Martin Scorsese's thriller of duality is like a sucker punch to the gut, and I do mean that as a compliment. The Departed is a Hollywood remake of the 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs, but Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan have fleshed out the gimmick of two opposing moles—a cop undercover in the mob and a mobster undercover within the cops—into a brilliantly succinct piece of storytelling. Playing out at the level of a modern morality play, there are double- and triple-crosses galore, and even fans of the original film will find some surprises in Monahan's screenplay. His command of dialogue is near Mamet-like, and the film's wicked, macabre sense of humor keeps the proceedings on the edge. There's also some playing with thriller conventions, and the incorporation of modern cell phone technology into the narrative is noteworthy in that it never becomes an annoyance. Meanwhile, Scorsese plays with the theme of duality and concentrates on how the betrayals and backstabbing affect the central characters' psyches. The film is an ensemble piece all the way, with Scorsese getting great performances from Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, and especially Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, and Leonardo DiCaprio. I have seen the film a couple more times since first reviewing it, and each and every time, the film's climax still feels like as much of a gut-punch as it did the first time around. That is one of many reasons that Scorsese is one of the American masters.

4. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
In my review, I said Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan might be the funniest film in the last thirty years, but that might be a bit much. Twenty years, on the other hand…  This is, without hyperbole, one of the funniest films I've ever seen. Sacha Baron Cohen gives the performance of the year as the incredibly misogynistic, appallingly anti-Semitic, and completely oblivious Kazakh journalist who makes his way across the U.S. and A. to learn how the people of Kazakhstan can culturally improve themselves through a movie-film about America's progressive social policy and culture. The film is hilarious throughout, even when Borat isn't conversing with average Americans. Director Larry Charles manages to keep the pace and tone consistent during interactions between Borat and his producer Azamat (played by Ken Davitian), and their bickering leads to the funniest fight scene ever captured on film. The genius of the film, though, rests in Cohen's Happenings—guerilla theatre at its finest. When he manages to find people's prejudices and push their limits, it's amazing what people will say and put up when the camera is rolling and your interviewer doesn't seem to know his ass from a hole in the ground. Yes, the film is a riot, but it's also disconcerting and a tad frightening. People in America today, not too surprisingly, aren't quite as progressive as Borat first thinks; they're just a bit less hateful than our hero. I like. I like very much.

3. Letters from Iwo Jima
When combined with its companion piece Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima is an ambitious attempt to flesh out one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, but Clint Eastwood's account of the Japanese side of the Battle of Iwo Jima stands apart and on its own as a multifaceted view of men in combat. While the film has a lesser scope of story than its predecessor, it far surpasses its companion in emotional scope. Eastwood's strength as a director is his humanity, and it is in full force here. These are lives interrupted, and amidst the viciousness and inhumanity of war, there are people with families, hopes, and fear. The human connection comes from a young, married soldier with an expectant wife played by Kazunari Ninomiya, who, like all the other 22,000 soldiers on the island, must face the cold inevitability of an imminent death. Ninomiya is instantly sympathetic as the young soldier Saigo, giving a human face to our old enemy. There is also combat, though, and Eastwood attempts to demystify the apparent insanity of banzai charges and mass suicides, torture and executions. In one of the most horrifying scenes ever captured on film, a group of soldiers commit suicide by grenade, and it is physically painful to watch. Ken Watanabe plays General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, commander of the Iwo Jima defenses who sees the senselessness of death before any form of dishonor. Watanabe's dominating screen presence is of utmost importance for the role, and it's a performance of quiet ferocity and surprising compassion. Through it all, the film's thematic center is no less than the human experience when faced with inescapable death, and the fact that, despite cultural boundaries and international conflict, there are universal truths to our existence as human beings.

2. Children of Men
By the time an extended, brilliantly edited sequence of urban warfare hits the screen, Alfonso Cuarón has announced himself as a leader in the new vanguard of modern filmmakers. Children of Men is a cinematic powerhouse, a film of simple power and powerful simplicity. An immersive, transporting experience, the film is the best kind of science fiction in that it doesn't consider itself science fiction and instead concentrates entirely on the human elements of its story. Thematically simple but poignant, it creates an inspiring but haunting and completely believable futuristic society twenty years from now in which women are infertile and chaos and terrorism rule. Cuarón shows himself a master storyteller here, creating a film that is emotionally, intellectually, and viscerally exhilarating. The screenplay by Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby (based on the novel by P.D. James) weaves contemporary ideas into the narrative and bends the clichés formulas of a standard thriller just enough to give the sense that anything could happen. And it does, from the jolting opening tracking shot and the shocking ambush on a car to a chase involving a car that won't start and that astounding scene of urban battle. Clive Owen is the film's emotional center, slowly dropping a shield of apathy as the world goes further to hell.

While Cuarón's technical mastery in composing these images, choreographing organized chaos, and creating this world is astounding, it's his ability to elicit deeper significance and emotional weight out of these elements that remains long after the film is over. A scene of a complete standstill in the midst of total bedlam is overwhelming in its emotional impact, and the lasting impact of the film, hope in the face of utter despair, may sound clichéd but is wholly tangible. It's still early in Cuarón's career, but Children of Men could end up being his masterpiece.

1. United 93
The film carries the heaviest of burdens: to try and do justice to the darkest day the United States has ever seen only five years after September 11, 2001. Paul Greengrass' United 93 is an act of mourning, over the lives lost, the moment our denial ended, and how quickly we do forget. It is not a commentary but a document, trapped entirely in that moment of terror and disbelief. People wondered if it was too soon to make a movie about 9/11, but Greengrass, who wrote and directed the film, respects those who were directly affected by not downplaying the horror in the slightest. That Tuesday morning quickly became a rallying cry without any time to mourn, and Greengrass' film is a reminder of the actual cost of that day. It is not an easy film, but it is a necessary one. Greengrass and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd shoot the film entirely handheld, giving the film immediacy. Unknown actors play the passengers, crew, and hijackers aboard the doomed flight, and some of the actual participants play themselves on the ground. There's an incredible verisimilitude to the performances, and Greengrass is not afraid to spend time revealing information as it occurs in near real time, even though we already know everything that happened. The scenes on the ground, showing the elevation of urgency at the FAA, NORAD, and various air traffic control sites, parallel the stunned reaction of a nation, and the scenes on the plane show normal people in the direst of circumstances reacting as heroes.

In the film's climax, Greengrass makes definite decisions as to what actually happened during the flight's unclear final moments, some of which have been rebuffed after analysis of the plane's black box, but they are sound choices nonetheless. This is an absolutely devastating experience, but one that needed telling. United 93 is a vitally important film—one for the ages, lest we do forget again.

Honorable Mention:

Curse of the Golden Flower, The Last King of Scotland, Mission: Impossible III, Monster House, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, Thank You for Smoking

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.