If it weren't for the confetti, the champagne and the off-key choruses of "Auld Lang Syne," it'd be pretty hard to tell where one year ended and the next began -- at least as far as the movies are concerned.
The first two months of any calendar year are generally when studios release their tax write-offs, but recent times suggest that some companies have figured out that even this dead time of year can sustain one or two moneymakers. The summer is when the heavily hyped, ultra-pricey blockbusters are usually uncorked, but studio suits have lately taken to jumping the gun and letting these behemoths out during all manner of months. And while we can pretty much expect to see the Oscar contenders packed into the last few weeks of December, there are always those occasions when award-bait titles arrive early and arrive often (three of last year's Best Picture nominees were released before December, with eventual winner Crash having initially hit theaters the previous May).
So maybe that's why there's a sameness to the past few movie years. None have stood out as a time of exemplary cinema, nor have any made their mark as particularly wretched stretches of time-wasting film fare. That's not meant as praise or criticism, just an observation that we seem to always be getting a standard mix of movies that inspire cheers, jeers or simply shrugs.
Out of the 154 motion pictures I screened over the course of the past 12 months, I saw enough that excited and engaged me -- and made me remember why I love this job. And even with the expected glut of garbage, my enthusiasm wasn't dimmed in the least (well, OK, there was a 20-minute stretch during You, Me & Dupree that had me questioning my career trajectory up through that moment, but luckily it faded).
Coming up with the top eight films for my 10 Best list was easy; choosing among four worthy titles for those final two slots was painful. So even though they head my 10 Honorable Mentions, I'd like to pay extra tribute to Todd Field's Little Children, an alternately tough and tender drama that finally opens locally this Friday, and Martin Campbell's Casino Royale, which is merely the best James Bond flick in at least a quarter-century.
And now, on with the show.
THE 10 BEST
1. UNITED 93 (Paul Greengrass). The best picture of 2006. It's hard to imagine a less sensationalized 9/11 film than British writer-director Paul Greengrass' superb docudrama focusing on the morning when all hell broke loose in the U.S. -- and specifically zooming in on the tragic yet inspiring saga of the one hijacked plane which did not reach its intended target. Greengrass repeatedly refuses to take the bait of making a picture that can be tagged as exploitive, propagandistic or too political. Yet his restraint can only shelter us for so long: Ultimately, there's no defense against our own humanity. Forget all that nonsense about whether it's "too soon" for a motion picture to tackle this open wound of a subject. Art doesn't exist in a vacuum, and its vitality in civilization demands that it be allowed to take root according to its own schedule. In the case of United 93, it's an important film that cries out to be seen now.
2. A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (Robert Altman). Robert Altman's best film in over a decade -- a delightful adaptation of Garrison Keillor's long-running radio show -- manages at once to be a joyous celebration of life and a glorious primer on raucous show biz shenanigans. Mostly, though, it's a pensive meditation on death -- how it hovers around us, how it haunts us, and how it can inform our every move. The fact that Altman passed away a few months after the film's release adds a grace note of finality to this bittersweet exploration of Americana and the arts.
3. THE QUEEN (Stephen Frears). Even those generally bored to tears by anything having to do with Great Britain's royal family (raising my hand here) will enjoy this majestic entertainment that centers on the monarchy's stiff-upper-lip reaction to the death of Diana back in 1997. Helen Mirren (as Queen Elizabeth II) and Michael Sheen (as Prime Minister Tony Blair) both deserve Oscars for their astute characterizations in this exquisite film that deftly avoids dreary sensationalism every step of the way.
4. THANK YOU FOR SMOKING (Jason Reitman). Offering more laughs per square minute than any other film this year (including Talladega Nights and Borat), this lacerating adaptation of Christopher Buckley's 1994 novel is blessed with a smart premise, killer quips and a marvelous supporting cast. Its primary asset, though, is lead Aaron Eckhart, whose terrific turn as the tobacco industry's shrewd spokesman should pave the way for more juicy roles.
5. LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA (Clint Eastwood). Flags of Our Fathers, the first of Clint Eastwood's two 2006 releases about the crucial World War II skirmish, wasn't bad, but it's Letters from Iwo Jima that's clearly the masterwork. Whereas Flags told the tale from the American point of view, Letters puts us in the trenches with the Japanese, in effect humanizing them as frightened and conflicted men whose hopes and worries were no different than those of anybody trapped in a war beyond their understanding.
6. PAN'S LABYRINTH (Guillermo del Toro). Deep, dark and disturbing, Guillermo del Toro's fractured fairy tale is decidedly not one for the kids. Set amidst the fascism of 1944 Spain, this wildly imaginative film centers on a little girl who escapes the horrors of the everyday world by retreating into a fantasy realm that may or may not only exist in her mind. This is a mesmerizing movie that demands multiple viewings.
7. THE DESCENT (Neil Marshall). Gory horror flicks are as ubiquitous as Republican scandals, but good ones are a rare commodity indeed. That makes the very existence of The Descent a minor miracle in itself: One of the best horror films in many a moon, this British import, centering on a spelunking expedition in the Appalachian mountains, offers genuinely menacing monsters, dashes of intriguing psychological subtext, and six memorable women whose messy dilemmas allow them to alternate between heroines and villains, survivors and victims, wallflowers and warriors.
8. DELIVER US FROM EVIL (Amy Berg). This proved to be a choice year for documentaries, as evidenced by the presence of five nonfiction titles in my Top 20. The best of this banner crop is this deeply disturbing piece about Oliver O'Grady, a priest who over the course of three decades sexually molested countless children throughout the state of California. Amy Berg's movie is as ambitious as any I've seen this year: Not satisfied to merely expose this monster, she also goes after the Catholic Church superiors (some still in power) who covered up O'Grady's crimes. Clearly, even eternal damnation isn't punishment enough for some people.
9. LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris). A Sundance hit that later emerged as an unlikely summertime sleeper, Little Miss Sunshine is at its best when screenwriter Michael Arndt sets his sights on that American grotesquerie known as the children's beauty pageant. Yet even the more familiar aspects of the tale -- dysfunctional family, road trip woes -- seem fresh thanks to Arndt's clever way with words and the efforts of an excellent ensemble cast.
10. SHORTBUS (John Cameron Mitchell). New Yorkers grapple with common issues involving intimacy, yet what makes this "feel-good" frolic unusual for an American movie is that it isn't frightened of sex, it doesn't reduce the act to insensitive frat boy gyrations, and it doesn't employ it as a bludgeoning weapon. Shortbus isn't physically stimulating so much as it's mentally and emotionally arousing -- it considers the brain and the heart the true erogenous zones, and it morphs from a celebration of sex into a celebration of those most inalienable of American rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The Next 10 (Honorable Mentions): Little Children; Casino Royale; The Prestige; Children of Men; An Inconvenient Truth; CSA: Confederate States of America; Willie Francis Must Die Again; Wordplay; Shut Up & Sing; V For Vendetta
Best Actor: Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland; Aaron Eckhart, Thank You For Smoking; Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan; Matt Damon, The Departed and The Good Shepherd; Toby Jones, Infamous
Best Actress: Helen Mirren, The Queen; Sook-Yin Lee, Shortbus; Maggie Gyllenhaal, Sherrybaby; Judi Dench, Notes On a Scandal; Natalie Portman, V For Vendetta
Best Supporting Actor: Michael Sheen, The Queen; Ray Winstone, The Proposition; Jackie Earle Haley, Little Children; Sergi Lopez, Pan's Labyrinth; Simon McBurney, Friends With Money and The Last King of Scotland
Best Supporting Actress: Emily Blunt, The Devil Wears Prada; Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls; Rinko Kikuchi, Babel; Catherine O'Hara, For Your Consideration; Cate Blanchett, Notes On a Scandal and The Good German
Overrated: Apocalypto; Babel; Happy Feet; Over the Hedge; World Trade Center
Underrated: The Good Shepherd; Hard Candy; The Holiday; Infamous; The Last Kiss
Disappointments: American Dreamz; Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus; Nacho Libre; Night Watch (Nochno Dozor); The Notorious Bettie Page
THE 10 WORST
1. YOU, ME & DUPREE Hollywood's favorite character type of late -- the immature man-child who refuses to grow up -- could be found in a wide range of 2006 releases, including Failure to Launch and The Break-Up. Nowhere, though, was he more irritating than in this unwatchable comedy about an obnoxious house guest (Owen Wilson) whose presence threatens to destroy the marriage of the two dolts (Matt Dillon and Kate Hudson) who invited him in the first place.
2. ALL THE KING'S MEN Writer-director Steven Zaillian's perverse take on Robert Penn Warren's classic novel is an unmitigated disaster, choked by miscast actors, suffocated by illogical editing, and drowned by a choppy script that offers no real sense of period and no clear delineation of its central themes. As Willie Stark, the boisterous Huey Long stand-in, Sean Penn delivers one of the worst performances of his high-profile career.
3. TRUST THE MAN Which man? Certainly not David Duchovny or Billy Crudup, who signed up to play loathsome New Yorkers putting their significant others (Julianne Moore and Maggie Gyllenhaal) through the emotional wringer with their juvenile antics. And certainly not writer-director Bart Freundlich (a.k.a. Mr. Julianne Moore), who's given us a Big Apple production that's rotten to its core.
4. BASIC INSTINCT 2 Sharon Stone can still pleasantly surprise us -- her poignant turn in the otherwise negligible Bobby represents that film's finest acting -- but in this wretched sequel to the 1992 smash Basic Instinct, she's simply awful, replacing the sexy insouciance from the first film with a beady stare that would seem more appropriate coming from a dead codfish than a calculating nympho adept at playing twisted mind games. In short, this movie's about as erotic as the dry heaves.
5. THE SHAGGY DOG Disney robs its own cemetery again with this updated melding of 1959's The Shaggy Dog and 1976's The Shaggy D.A.; here, a lawyer periodically turns into a canine after being bitten by a 300-year-old sheepdog. I don't know what's more disturbing, this film's ugly CGI effects or the sight of Tim Allen lifting his leg while using a urinal -- which, come to think of it, is where this film's negative belongs.
6. MAN OF THE YEAR Which year is never made clear, since the arsenal of moldy jokes employed by an increasingly tired -- and tiresome -- Robin Williams (as a comedian who runs for president) seem to predate even the vaudeville era. Apparently, director Barry Levinson knew the laughs weren't there, as the second hour inexplicably turns into a tepid thriller involving Diebold-style voting machines.
7. THE WILD The glut of animated features this year included the good (Cars, Monster House), the bad (The Ant Bully, Over the Hedge) and the downright ugly. The Wild is a glaring example of the latter, a toxic Madagascar wanna-be featuring the most loathsome cartoon character (Eddie Izzard's Nigel the koala) to disgrace the screen since Martin Short's insufferable robot B.E.N. in Treasure Planet.
8. RUNNING WITH SCISSORS A godawful adaptation of Augusten Burroughs' best-selling memoir about growing up surrounded by loonies, this surreal eyesore is alternately grating and boring, as deadly a combo as one could imagine sitting through for two unendurable hours. Most of the big-name performers (Annette Bening, Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, among others) are either mishandled or miscast.
9. DECK THE HALLS Christmas With the Kranks may forever reign as the worst picture of the 21st century (I'll get back to you in the year 2100 to confirm), but there's still plenty of room in the Hall of Shame for this Yuletide stinker. It's yet one more holiday hack job that champions cynicism and mean-spiritedness before tacking on a phony redemptive ending meant to fool us into believing that we actually sat through something of value.
10. ERAGON Derivative movies can be fun when packaged right (see Independence Day), but this fantasy yarn is so threadbare beyond its plagiaristic tendencies that there's no joy to be found anywhere. George Lucas should sue. So should J.R.R. Tolkien's estate. So should the makers of Dragonheart and Dragonslayer. And while we're at it, so should any moviegoer who appreciates quality cinema.