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The Best and Worst of 2006

Now for the official releases of 2006. Let me begin with the honorable mentions, the films that just missed making the Top Ten. Karen Moncrieff's The Dead Girl examines violence against women without making an issue of it. The film also uses a cleverly crafted narrative structure to hook viewers. From Asia also comes the exceptional personal journey of a father in Zhang Yimou's Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles ; the vivid pop fable of Chen Kaige's The Promise ; the final chapter of Park Chan Wook's Revenge Trilogy, Lady Vengeance ; and the elegantly simple portrait of a nomadic family in Byambasuren Davaa's Cave of the Yellow Dog . France served up some unnerving and unexpected thrillers in La Moustache, Lemming and The Bridesmaid. The indie spirit was alive and well in films such as Brick and Brothers of the Head while the mainstream Superman Returns displayed a surprising charm. Albert Brooks shined in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World but couldn't carry the high level hilarity all the way through to the end. And just missing that tenth slot on my list is the Wachowski Brothers' V for Vendetta , a Hollywood backed film that daringly presented an anarchist/terrorist as its hero. Based on a graphic novel that was written as a criticism of Margaret Thatchers England, the Wachowskis turned the book into a not so subtle indictment of George Bush's America. The film also had the best tagline of year with: People should not be afraid of their government, governments should be afraid of their people.

Now to the top ten of 2006. Coming in at number ten is a film that I have to include for very personal reasons. As someone who grew up watching and loving Sean Connery's James Bond, I have spent the last 40 years suffering through Roger Moore's cartoonish embodiment of the famous 00 agent and then Pierce Brosnans smug and wooden impersonation. So when I saw Casino Royale with Daniel Craig as 007, the film reminded me of how much fun those films could be and what it felt like to once again look forward to a Bond movie. Casino Royale reignites, reinvents and reinvigorates the franchise and for that I am grateful. It's not a perfect film but as an avid Bond fan, it's like manna from heaven. Craig is easily the best Bond since Connery. And it doesn't hurt that he's absolutely hot.

At number nine is the period western The Proposition from Australia. The proposition at the heart of John Hillcoat's film involves a deal offered by a British officer to an Australian outlaw: kill your brother and you can go free. Director Hillcoat also has a proposition for the audience: Suppose he were to examine notions of civilization, and suppose he were to do so in a western about British colonization. Hillcoat serves up two morally compromised men as his protagonists, and then explores empire building and the way empires try to export their own notion of civilization into worlds that are radically different from their own. Navigating an ambiguous moral landscape is what The Proposition is all about. In that respect, it recalls such 70s westerns as The Wild Bunch and McCabe and Mrs. Miller . It also shares a poetic sense of sadness with those films.

Lightening the tone is a pair of clever comedies: Little Miss Sunshine and Thank You For Smoking. Don't let the title and the sunny images fool you. Little Miss Sunshine is a brightly packaged dark comedy about being a loser in a success-obsessed society. Little Miss Sunshine is a sharply written and smartly directed first feature. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris manage the difficult balancing act of having compassion for their characters while skewering them. They find both sadness and hilarity in their pain and suffering. But its a credit to the filmmakers that they deliver such dark-edged humor without ever sending the audience into depression. They pull this off in two ways. One, their film is so refreshingly well made that it keeps the audience in buoyant spirits. And two, they show how its societys perverse obsession with winning, with being successful and with fitting in that's making the main characters feel so inferior.


Aaron Eckhart as Nick Naylor in Thank You For Smoking.

Thank You For Smoking is a crisply executed comic portrait of a man who simply loves to spin. And by the end of the film, Aaron Eckhart's Nick Naylor almost has you convinced that spinning is a noble profession. Jason Reitman keeps his satire moving at a brisk, crisp pace, and delivers a consistently hilarious film chock full of pitch-perfect performances.

The title Shortbus refers to an underground salon where one can find art, music, politics and a wide array of sexual activity. It's also where a group of native and adopted New Yorkers converges on a weekly basis to explore their sexual curiosities and try to work out their problems. For his first film, Hedwig and the Angry Inch , John Cameron Mitchell placed himself at center stage and savored the spotlight. For Shortbus , Mitchell stays behind the camera and generously turns the focus on an ensemble of young actors. Mitchell collaborated with his cast to create the script, essentially allowing each performer to craft a character and then shape his or her fate. What they come up with is a group of flawed, damaged, funny and very appealing characters who win us over almost immediately. The film works best through humor, finding insights in a highly entertaining manner. This is a smartly crafted ensemble work that explores the relationship between sex and love, and does so with humor and compassion. The surprising conclusion it reaches is that the characters just want to have sex with someone they love. What a concept!

Turning to more disturbing fare, there's Tom Tykwer's film version of the bestselling novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. The film centers on a young man, Jean-Baptiste, who has an overdeveloped sense of smell but no scent of his own. One day he catches a whiff of a young woman and the scent so captivates him that he spends his life trying to capture it in a perfume so he can remember it forever. Unfortunately the obsession prompts him to murder a series of young women in order to get their smell. Film does not seem like a good medium to convey smell but Tykwer finds a visual style that sweeps us up in Jean Baptiste's world. Ben Whishaw delivers an amazing performance as the introverted Jean Baptiste. In contrast to most performances in which the actor tries to draw attention to himself, Whishaw displays the sublime ability to almost disappear in a scene. This is important to the character and explains how he can get away with murder for so long.

After being severely disappointed by Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers , I did not have high expectations for the companion film that he shot back to back with it, Letters from Iwo Jima . But Letters from Iwo Jima not only surpasses Flags of Our Fathers but turns out to be one of the best films of the year. The film presents a Japanese perspective on the battle of Iwo Jima, and delivers a quietly compelling and elegiac film. Eastwood doesnt really say anything new with his film. He suggests, like many have, that war is hell and we should avoid it at all costs, and that no matter what side you are on, soldiers are all just human beings that share universal qualities. But the film is rendered with such care and grace, and with the novelty of having an American director offering a Japanese perspective that it merits praise and attention.


Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth

Now to the diverse trio that essentially tie for the top slots on my list. Guillermo Del Toros Pan's Labyrinth is a visually stunning fairy tale for adults. His latest film, Pan's Labyrinth, serves up a dark fairy tale set against the postwar repression of Franco's Spain. The film taps into some of the same historic and moral themes Del Toro tackled in his Spanish Civil War ghost story, The Devils Backbone. But despite the period setting, Del Toro says that part of the inspiration came from present day politics in America under George Bush. He says his film is about choice and disobedience, and how choice defines who we are. Like the best fairy tales, Pan's Labyrinth is a mix of beauty and horror, fantasy and reality. It also boasts spellbinding performances by Ivana Baquero as the young Ofelia and Sergi Lopez as the storys big bad wolf.

Boasting the years two best performances by actresses is Richard Eyre's Notes on a Scandal. Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett are riveting as a pair of schoolteachers whose relationship takes a very strange turn. The savage script by Patrick Marber is razor sharp and you find that you simply cannot look away from the screen. The music by Philip Glass elevates what could have been a standard melodrama into almost Grand Guignol horror.

And finally Paul Greengrass' United 93. As with Greengrass' Bloody Sunday, United 93 raises questions about how best to revisit a volatile real life event. The answer Greengrass has arrived at is to treat it as if you were making a documentary, and as if the events were unfolding live before your eyes. This insures that scenes wont play out with the portentous weight of history and hindsight bearing down on them.

Greengrass manages to take us back in time to remind us of a state of innocence America had. People had almost forgotten what hijackings were and nobody could comprehend the magnitude of what was about to happen. It was a moment in time when America and Americans simply could not conceive of something like 9/11 happening. And that's part of the tragedy that Greengrass capturesnot just the loss of innocent lives but also a certain loss of innocence. Paul Greengrass United 93 respects the memory of those who died and creates an understated film that conveys the deep, scarring tragedy of what occurred.

And finally some additional best of categories:

BEST ACTOR

Forest Whitaker- Last King of Scotland

Peter OToole- Venus

Daniel Craig- Casino Royale

Aaron Eckhart- Thank You for Smoking

BEST ACTRESS

Judi Dench- Notes on a Scandal

Maggie Cheung- Clean

Meryl Streep- The Devil Wears Prada

Helen Mirren- The Queen

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Sergi Lopez- Pans Labyrinth

Ray Winstone- The Proposition

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Cate Blanchett- Notes on a Scandal

Rinko Kikuchi - Babel

Charlotte Rampling- Lemming

Ivana Baquero- Pans Labyrinth

Best Reissue: Army of Shadows, Fanfan La Tulipe

Best Action: District B13, Jet Lis Fearless

Best impersonation of a real person: Toby Jones as Truman Capote in Infamous and Gretchen Mol as Bettie Page in the Notorious Bettie Page

Best Ensemble: Shortbus, Little Miss Sunshine

Best accent: Gael Garcia Bernal, The King

Best documentary: Shut Up And Sing

Best musical: Idlewild (yes there was something besides and better than Dreamgirls )

Guilty pleasures: Slither, Snakes on A Plane

Biggest disappointment: The Departed

Most overrated: Borat

Worst Films: Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Mans Chest, Poseidon, The Covenant, The Omen

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