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Best Movies of 2006

By Rob Vaux

Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times summed it up best: for the first nine months of 2006, movie audiences were starved for great films, only to be "force fed like foie gras" during the final three. The early months at the theater were particularly harsh, even by the normally lax standards of that season. Garbage flowed at us in an unending river, producing inexplicable "hits" whose shortcomings tested even the most indulgent filmgoer. March stretched into April with no end in sight; a few forgotten art-house movies, the odd children's film or two, and then nothing but bare parched sand.

Then one evening, a little girl with smoldering dark eyes stared down at us from an extreme close-up, surgeon's scalpel clasped in one hand. "Everyone will be safer if I do a little preventive maintenance," she mused quietly. And the healing began.

Hard Candy was unjustly overlooked -- for some reason, an online-pedophile revenge flick didn't scream "fun Saturday night" -- but its heroine's prophetic words marked the first steps in that long slow climb out of the muck. The number of notable films picked up, first a drip and then a trickle. Summer came with its usual bombast, but at least the blockbusters were heartfelt, and their entertainment value stretched further than most. Unexpected surprises cropped up more and more often, from genre quickies to the artiest of art houses. And come October, we were lousy with them, good films and great ones shoving each other out of the way in an unstoppable deluge.

Hollywood, of course, was happier than a pig in shit. After declining ticket sales, the box office firmly rebounded amid pompous statements about a "return to quality." Never mind that the biggest film of the year was a sequel sporting mixed reviews, or that the gold rush in December was nothing more than the usual scramble for meaningless awards. Dollar signs were bigger, so everyone was happy. And for all that, there was quite a bit to like out there. True greatness rarely appeared, but the number of good, solid, respectable movies raised the average well above most years. In the beginning we needed to look harder for them and by the end they were kicking down our doors, but they were always there, ready to remind audiences why that ten-dollar ticket price can still be worth it sometimes.

The best of it? In the eye of the beholder, of course. Here's what my eye saw, and what made my heart race a little faster these last twelve months at the movies.

10. Pan's Labyrinth. A neck-and-neck battle with The Descent and The Queen for the #10 spot ends because I just can't say no to Guillermo del Toro's brilliant, bloody fairy tale. If the movies do nothing else, it's show us the fantastic in everyday life. Del Toro blends the two so completely as to be indistinguishable, never losing character and plot amid all his fantastic imagery.

9. A Scanner Darkly. Richard Linklater finally cracks Philip K. Dick's code with this supremely challenging ode to drug-fueled paranoia. A weak year for animation makes his rotoscoping technique stand out all the more, while brilliant, addled performances from Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr. suggest that this particular future may be a lot closer than we think.

8. The Prestige. The most flat-out enjoyable film of the year returns moviemaking to its vaudeville roots, transforming the complicated story of two vengeful illusionists into the best piece of cinematic sleight-of-hand in quite some time. Christopher Nolan reaffirms his status as the medium's premiere conjurer of dark visions, while the script (co-written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan from Christopher Priest's novel) proves that entertainment and intelligence need never be mutually exclusive terms.

7. Little Miss Sunshine. Once again, the world is made a better place through the miracle of Rick James.

6. Little Children. Todd Field revisits the bitter suburbia mined so potently in Sam Mendes' American Beauty, but with infinitely more compassion. Absurd moments of reflective humor frame a landscape of delusion and desperation, where the American Dream sinks into soul-numbing demagoguery. Another brilliant turn from Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson's second meaty role this year still take a back seat to Jackie Earle Haley's sad and frightening pariah, and Phyllis Somerville's fiercely protective mother.

5. Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. Technically a 2005 release, Mark Rothemund's anti-Nazi polemic didn't reach U.S. screens until this year. With the stark simplicity of a two-man play, it recounts the Munich student whose pro-resistance leaflets made her the target for the Gestapo in 1943. The bulk of the film follows Julia Jentsch's Sophie as she quietly challenges the bureaucratic inhumanity of her captors, looking the Devil in the face so she can spit him in the eye.

4. The Proposition. While Mel Gibson's Apocalypto exploited violence at its most salacious, John Hillcoat used the same intensity to much more profound effect in his depiction of the Australian west. With sharp turns from Danny Huston, Ray Winstone, Emily Watson, and Guy Pearce, and music from screenwriter/Bad Seeds frontman Nick Cave, Hillcoat exposes the bloody roots at the base of our hard-won civilization. If the western is dying, The Proposition ensured that it won't go without a fight.

3. Hard Candy. Helen Mirren is great and Kate Winslet is long overdue, but for my money, the best actress of the year was Lilliputian dynamo Ellen Page, whose merciless Hayley Stark left an indelible impression that dozens of more prominent performances couldn't match. First-time director David Slade delivers an unspeakably intense battle of wits between an overconfident child molester and his would-be prey. Some called it exploitation, but the questions it poses go far beyond mere button-pushing, and the two characters it depicts are anything but empty ciphers. Hitchcock would be proud.

2. Children of Men. The best science-fiction film since The Matrix also proves to be the most technically brilliant of the year (all without spaceships or ray guns). Alfonso Cuarón plunges us into the dystopia of 2027, as humanity watches the sands in the hourglass slowly running out. Doomsday scenarios are a dime a dozen in sci-fi, but few approach it with such intelligence, such captivating sadness, or such profound insight into human nature -- at its best and worst.

1. United 93. Yeah nobody saw it, and why would they want to? It asks troubling questions. It points out uncomfortable truths. It shines a light on just how badly we were caught with our pants down that morning and just how little we've learned in the interim. Way to kill the buzz on our overwhelming victory in Iraq, guys! Paul Greengrass expertly uses these harsh realities to color and accentuate the genuine heroism that took place on 9/11, and to remind us of our obligations -- as yet unfulfilled -- to those who died. They will never have a more fitting memorial than this film.

Honorable mention goes to Babel, Brick, Casino Royale, The Departed, The Descent, Half Nelson, Letters from Iwo Jima, The Painted Veil, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, and The Queen.

"Are you watching closely?"
--Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), The Prestige

Article published 01.01.2007.

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