2006 was a dark year at the movies. Almost everything had a faint veneer of glumness, from the art house classics to the big blockbusters to the kiddie flicks. This may just be continued despondence over world events, which is understandable, but surely in such times escapism is also sorely needed. Probably explains why that CGI penguin movie made so much money. But it was a good year, one without many dry spells, which is rare. And now that I've seen almost everything I'm supposed to see, here comes the list.
1. CHILDREN OF MEN. By far the most passionately life-affirming film to come out this year. Despite a bleak setting full of war and violence, it focuses on just how amazing the fact of living is, and how humanity needs to do whatever it can to hang onto it. Alfonso Cuaron brings a rich, sensual quality to the story alongside a bit of technical wizardry, including a long unbroken shot that almost passes unnoticed. Quite possibly a new masterpiece of science fiction cinema.
2. AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH. Al Gore's strangely riveting presentation on the threat posed by manmade global warming is given a modest but effective cinematic treatment. The science is clear, the pace is fast, and the added insight into Gore's past and what led him to this crusade adds a necessary human side. Throughout, one is struck by the man's moral clarity and strange optimism that, as dire as the looming catastrophe is, we have the power to stop it, and without even giving up our cars. A must see.
3. PAN'S LABYRINTH. A complex blend of the fantastic and the real, in which a little girl finds herself in the midst of a moral maze. Guillermo Del Toro's visual style is wonderfully inviting, and the story is downright tearjerking, featuring some incredible performances alongside cool imagery and a subtle religious allegory.
4. A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION. What Robert Altman knew would be his final film, despite never telling us, this cracking ensemble comedy is not only a great screen translation of Garrison Keillor's still-running radio series, it's also a nice meditation on death itself, both its inevitability and the way that life continues. A neat fusion of Altman and Keillor's sensibilities, it's both poignant and funny, a fitting capstone to a great career.
5. SUPERMAN RETURNS. No, he doesn't punch anyone. He doesn't have to. The Man of Steel's return is a lush and vibrant spectacle, gorgeous to look at and full of wit and sophistication. It builds on the legacy of the first two Superman spectaculars by Messrs. Donner and Lester, but Bryan Singer adds a distinct retro-pop visual style and some very dark exploration of Superman's alienation and distance from the people he protects, making his journey to reconnect with them the central struggle. In the meantime he saves airplanes and lifts an island out of the ocean. So you can, in fact, have it both ways.
6. A SCANNER DARKLY. The first truly dedicated adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel, and though fidelity to the source isn't really an aesthetic virtue in and of itself, it's nice to see the distinct vibe of PKD's works finally captured on film. A low-key science fiction drug narrative, marked by a subtle sadness, Richard Linklater's latest uses the animation technique pioneered in WAKING LIFE to add life to drab surroundings and make us increasingly unsure of the reality of anything. Powerful stuff overall.
7. THE DEPARTED. Don't call it a comeback. Scorcese's latest may not be the most ambitious film he's ever done, but we don't judge movies by their aspirations, but by how well they do what they set out to do. (Well, I judge them like that. You may decide otherwise.) It's a scorching, cynical, and hugely entertaining remake of the HK police drama INFERNAL AFFAIRS, featuring what may be the best performance of Leonardo DiCaprio's career, and equally solid work from everyone else in the cast. The violence is shocking, the atmosphere lurid, the streets grimy, and the characters untrustworthy to a man. Nobody does this kind of thing better.
8. CARS. What would have been Pixar's last film for Disney took some flack for being too slow and too small, but that's sort of the point. An elegy for a very specific slice of American arcana- the "Route 66" experience and the days when driving was about the journey as much as the destination- this bright and funny animated fable also moves to a more general illustration of the virtues of slowing down and retaining a connection to the past. It's also very, very pretty.
9. V FOR VENDETTA. Two British films set in the near future featuring fascist governments in the same year- I wonder if this is a sign. Anyway, this radical adaptation of the Alan Moore comic isn't as purely anarchic as the source material, but adds a strong central plotline along with a polished post-millennial aesthetic. The politics are unremarkable; the imagery is astounding, with large compositions and small details combining to create a melodramatic symphony of rebellion and revenge. Hugo Weaving turns in a great performance despite being deprived of his face.
10. INSIDE MAN. Spike Lee dips his toe into mainstream waters with a sharp bank heist drama carried by amazing performances. Denzel Washington has never not been a good leading man, and Clive Owen (bookending the list along with co-star Chiwetel Ejiofor) demonstrates remarkable magnetism as well, but good performances abound, and Lee brings a sense of reality, even occasional mundanity to the proceedings which helps make the "thriller" bits work better. That Lee may also know New York better than any human being on the planet helps too. A caper film which not only holds together (a rare feat, or so it seems sometimes), but lets us connect to the characters as people rather than as playing pieces.
LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA
Performances which impressed me (an annual list that I don't bother subdividing):
Clive Owen, CHILDREN OF MEN
Michael Caine, CHILDREN OF MEN
Claire-Hope Ashitey, CHILDREN OF MEN
Chiwetel Ejiofor, CHILDREN OF MEN
Doug Jones, PAN'S LABYRINTH
Meryl Streep, A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION
Lily Thomlin, A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION
Kevin Spacey, SUPERMAN RETURNS
Parker Posey, SUPERMAN RETURNS
Leonardo DiCaprio, THE DEPARTED
Hugo Weaving, V FOR VENDETTA
Stephen Fry, V FOR VENDETTA
Kelsey Grammer, X-MEN: THE LAST STAND
Johnny Depp, PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN: DEAD MAN'S CHEST
Bryce Dallas Howard, LADY IN THE WATER
Amy Sedaris, STRANGERS WITH CANDY
Most Underrated FIlm of the Year:
LADY IN THE WATER. A strange, unique fantasy story that may just have been too unironic for its own good (and that the critics seemed to take the unkind fate of Bob Balaban's character as a legitimate reason to dislike the film didn't help.) We have an original fantasy, told with a strange intimacy and featuring a truly eclectic cast of characters, setting down its own rules and demanding we pay a bit more attention than usual; the "twists", this time, constitute the architecture of the myth.
SNAKES ON A PLANE. A fun monster movie which met an unusually fierce bit of backlash from the mainstream press, which downright revelled in its disappointing box-office take and pointed to it as proof that internet buzz could never ever ever supplant traditional publicity. Maybe they're right, but this is still fun.