2006's Top Ten Films
“That’s a good problem to have” is a line noteworthy because very few problems can be considered good. How often do you hear “Two gorgeous women want to date me on the same night” or “I can’t find enough stocks to invest my millions?” Not many people have the “good” problems, but this past December and January, many filmgoers did. There were too many excellent movies playing. Even I, who have more free time than most, found it difficult to see all of the worthwhile films. This “problem” exemplifies that 2006 was, by all accounts, a strong year in movies.
Does that mean that most films that came out last year were worth seeing? Not by a long shot. As always, theaters were filled with mindless action flicks, insipid comedies, and stupid horror films. But more often than not, well-crafted, superior films were available not only at art-house theaters, but even your neighborhood multiplex. Over time, the drivel is forgotten. When we look back at 2006 we will remember the many times we left the theater feeling glad that we came. That was certainly true with my “Honorable Mention” list (in alphabetical order):
Catch a Fire
Children of Men
The Good Shepherd
An Inconvenient Truth
The Last King of Scotland
Thank You for Smoking
My top ten list illustrates the fine choices that 2006 offered. It’s a diverse, eclectic group. There’s really no common thread except intelligence and going beyond the tried and true to present something unique and daring.
10. Notes on a Scandal (dir. Richard Eyre) – With all due respect to Sacha Baron Cohen, no performance last year was as much fun as Judi Dench’s in Notes on a Scandal. She projects her usual air of fierce authority, but adds a delicious menace. As Barbara Covett, an angry, jealous teacher, Dench schemes and seethes. She skewers everyone around her with her contempt and her biting wit. Cate Blanchett, as Sheba, the object of Covett’s fixation, plays well off Dench. Sheba’s weakness plays into Barbara’s predatory intentions. Patrick Marber’s script, based on the novel by Zoe Heller, fits the two actresses perfectly. It presents the story from Barbara’s point of view, making you sympathize with her even as you realize that she’s deranged. Eyre’s direction makes the most of Dench’s and Blanchett’s chemistry, providing ample time to explore their characters, while also keeping the story moving. A slight misstep at the end does not detract from a sinfully enjoyable film.
9. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (dir. Larry Charles) – So much has been written about how Borat exposed Americans’ prejudices and hypocrisies, how it caught people off guard, and whether or not it treated its subjects fairly. Most people know about the lawsuits filed against the filmmakers. (My personal favorite is the fraternity brothers claiming they were “coerced” into getting drunk and being stupid. For everyone knows that frat guys would never do that on their own.) But the bottom line is that Borat is very, very funny. Much of the humor comes from star Sacha Baron Cohen’s total commitment to his character. It’s also that Borat himself is not trying to be funny. Cohen never lets you know that he is in on the joke. As such, his subjects take him seriously, adding to the laughs. Since most of the people in the film are not acting, you could claim Borat is really a documentary. Whatever it’s labeled, it works. The film excels both with its outrageous moments and the smaller ones, and is hilarious throughout.
8. The Queen (dir. Stephen Frears) – Humanizing public figures is extremely difficult, especially someone like Queen Elizabeth II. She’s seen more as a symbol than a real person. Frears, screenwriter Peter Morgan and star Helen Mirren pull off this task. Mirren’s beautifully modulated performance lets you gradually see the woman behind the title. However, the film is much more than a character study. Morgan and Frears present the days following Princess Diana’s death as an illustration of changing times. The “stiff upper lip” royal tradition must give way to the “I feel your pain” 1990s, capably represented by Michael Sheen as Prime Minister Tony Blair. Frears has excelled with stories of the poor and others on the fringes of society. Here, as he did 18 years ago with Dangerous Liaisons, he shows the same touch with the upper class. He trusts his actors to tell the story while also keeping the film from dragging. No sex, no violence, very little action. Mostly actors sitting and talking, but somehow it’s one of the most engrossing films of the year.
7. Letters from Iwo Jima (dir. Clint Eastwood) – It’s impossible not to compare Iwo Jima to Flags of Our Fathers, which depicted the American soldiers who raised the flag in that famous photograph. Flags constantly goes back-and-forth from the battle to the war bond drives back home, diluting the film’s power. Iwo Jima has a much firmer sense of place, drawing you into the Japanese side of the battle. Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis based their brilliant screenplay on the letters from Japanese soldiers that were found many years later. Iwo Jima explores the uniqueness of the Japanese warrior culture but also the common elements that bond all soldiers together, no matter what the side. Eastwood slowly builds the sense of dread, as the soldiers realize that there is no way out and that defeat is inevitable. You quickly see these soldiers not as the enemy but as men with hopes and dreams that died in the brutal battle. Eastwood draws out some fine performances from his cast, in particular Ken Watanabe as the lead general. Clint’s son Kyle contributes a mournful, evocative score that adds to this powerful elegy.
6. Deliver Us From Evil (dir. Amy Berg) – I’m sure this is not the first film to examine child abuse by the priesthood, but it may be the first to do it so completely. Berg talks with the victims of Father Oliver O’Grady and their parents. Their hurt and anger is heartbreaking, especially as you realize that the pain caused by O’Grady stays with the victims and their families forever. Berg also talks to O’Grady himself, now living in exile in Ireland. O’Grady’s interviews are especially chilling, not because he appears malevolent but because he seems so benign. His Father Flanagan demeanor makes it easy to see why he was trusted. He understands that he did something wrong, but doesn’t seem to comprehend the damage that he caused. The real villain of the film is not O’Grady but his superiors in the Catholic Church, who moved him from parish to parish even after they knew he was committing these ghastly acts. Berg shows video from court testimony where Catholic hierarchy refuse to acknowledge that these crimes happened. She also follows O’Grady’s victims as they try to deliver a message to the Pope. Berg herself stays in the background and offers little in the way of editorial comment. She doesn’t have to. It’s the victims and O’Grady himself that make Deliver Us From Evil emotionally gripping and infuriating. You leave the theater angry that those who supposedly answer to a higher power allowed a pedophile to prey on the trusting and vulnerable.
5. Babel (dir. Alejandro González IZárritu) – Babel was definitely the most ambitious film of 2006, stretching across countries and continents. Yet while the film had a global scope, it never loses its intimate focus. The common thread, as the title indicates, is people who can’t communicate with each other and how that can lead to tragedy. The layered, textured script by Guillermo Arriaga advances the plot while also leaving room for the characters. IZárritu deftly moves among the different storylines, managing to give enough time to each. He once again uses a handheld camera, but this time tones down the movement just enough not to distract from the stories or characters. While Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are moving as a couple facing grave danger, it is Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi who steal the show. Barraza shines as a maid desperately trying to hold on as things fall apart around her. Kikuchi conveys so much with just her face as a deaf teenager searching for a connection and intimacy. Hers might just be the bravest performance of the year.
4. Pan's Labyrinth (dir. Guillermo del Toro) – The dazzling visuals alone make Pan's Labyrinth worth the price of admission. Del Toro, who also wrote the film, creates an intricate, enchanting but scary fantasy world for young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero). Still it’s safer than Ofelia’s real world, post-Civil War Spain. Del Toro effortlessly blends reality and fantasy together. Through it all he builds up the suspense as Ofelia tries to save her mother and little brother. Baqeuro shows a maturity that belies her young age. Mabriel Verdú also stands out as a housekeeper that befriends Ofelia. But it’s Sergi López who leaves the lasting impression. As Captain Vidal, he personifies evil and cruelty. With a shocking and touching finale, Del Toro shows that he is willing to tread in places many filmmakers would never go. Pan's Labyrinth is one of the few films that’s daring both in imagery and in storytelling.
3. Little Miss Sunshine (dir. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris) – A mismatched, quirky family goes on the road trip from hell. Sounds like it could be a funny comedy. Little Miss Sunshine is very funny, but there’s also a dark undercurrent that gives it an uncommon depth and resonance. All of the characters have their own issues. The obstacles they face in getting to the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty pageant become a metaphor for their larger struggles. The talented cast featuring Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carrell, Paul Dano and the great Alan Arkin work very well together and it’s their chemistry that draws you into the film. Abigail Breslin, as young Olive, gives a fresh natural performance devoid of the tricks and mugging you often see from child actors. You would never know that this was Dayton’s and Faris’s first feature film. Working off a clever script by Michael Arndt, Dayton and Faris have a steady hand, skillfully blending the humor and pathos.
2. United 93 (dir. Paul Greengrass) – This had to be an impossible task. How do you tell the tale of United 93 and do it justice? Greengrass, who also wrote the screenplay, did this by staying as close as possible to the reality. For the scenes on the plane, this meant hiring all unknown actors, so that you accept them immediately as the passengers, crew, and hijackers. For the scenes on the ground, this meant hiring many of the real people who were involved that day. Ben Sliney, who was the FAA’s national operation’s manager on September 11, is one of many that plays himself. Greengrass strips away any Hollywood artifice. The camerawork is very natural, as though you were eavesdropping on what happened that day. The acting and dialogue also feel truthful. As such there is nothing to take you out of the moment, to remind you that this is only a movie. The emotions come through naturally and are earned, not forced. The dread gives way to fear, but, strangely enough, the fear gives way to inspiration. You cannot help but be moved by these people who, thrown together in this real-life nightmare, did what they could to save lives. Audiences may not have been ready for United 93. For many, maybe it was too soon. But when that changes and more people are willing to revisit 9/11, United 93 will be there waiting for them.
1. Little Children (dir. Todd Field) – While Little Miss Sunshine could have been a routine comedy, Little Children could have sunk to cheap melodrama. But the clever writing and superb acting take it to a much higher level. Kate Winslet may be the most versatile actress working today. This is the best performance in her storied career (Five Oscar nominations in twelve years of film work). As Sarah, a bored housewife and mother, Winslet conveys her character’s emptiness and inner life. Her work in a scene where Sarah analyzes Madame Bovary is extraordinary. Winslet, in her eyes and expressions, draws the parallels between the novel’s heroine and Sarah. The adulterous affair Sarah embarks on with the equally bored Brad (Patrick Wilson) is borne more out of frustration with life than desire for each other. The subplot is equally compelling, as a released sex offender, beautifully played by Jackie Earle Haley, tries to rebuild his life. Haley makes his character both creepy and sympathetic. The other supporting characters are so interesting and complex that a separate movie could have been made about any one of them. Field, who also co-wrote the script with Tom Perotta (based on Perotta’s novel) uses a third person, all-knowing narrator. It’s a risky choice, but one that adds depth and nuance to the story. As he did with In the Bedroom, Field excels in contrasting what you see with the subtext bubbling underneath. Everything falls info place, as Little Children succeeds from start to finish.
February 15, 2007