The Best Films of 2006
An article by: Witney Seibold
I know it’s already February, this list usually due out at the beginning of January sometime, but thanks to a particularly backended year, it’s been tough to see all of the potential great films. I’m actually lucky that I did, as there were some real gems right up at the end there.
2006 was a good year for great directors making very good films that weren’t quite as good as their previous films. “A Scanner Darkly,” for instance, was good, but wasn’t as good as Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life.” “Art School Confindential” was good, but wasn’t as good as Terry Zwigoff’s “Ghost World.” “Lady Vengeance” was good, but wasn’t as good as Park Chanwook’s “Oldboy.” Heck, even “Drawing Restraint 9” was fascinating, but didn’t match the epic bizzarity of Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster 3.”
But then we had some truly great films by some truly great directors, as well as some wonderful films by some first-timers.
Here then are the best films of 2006, listed alphabetically:
Army of Shadows: Admittedly, this one is kid of a cheat, as the film was actually made in 1969, but Jean-Pierre Melville’s harsh and tense story about French resistance fighters during World War II, only now getting a stateside release for the first time (and if 3-to-5-year-old kung-fu flick can be counted as new, why not a 40-year-old one?), is one of the master’s best, worthy of being listed alongside his noir classics like “Bob le Flambeur” and “Le Cercle Rouge.” The story moves like a spy: swiftly, silently, and hiding out in the places it needs to. The cobalt blues give the war a bleak and unromantic feeling, making the characters all the more desperate and sympathetic.
Art School Confidential: Terry Zwigoff’s cheeky romance/crime thriller is admittedly a little scattershot, but I think that was supposed to be his approach. It’s a films that is deftly simultaneously immature and profound. It plays like a cynical version of a 1980s teen sex romp, but with more substance, and actual skill involved. The young artist in the lead (Max Minghella) is inspired by love, but is too interrupted by wanting to become a Great Artist to seek the object of his affection/inspiration. It points out the folly of the Art World without giving up its comedy. It also features one of Jim Boradbent’s best performances as a squalor-dwelling cynic.
The Departed: Boston. White hats, black hats. Cop undercover as a criminal. Criminal undercover as a cop. Martin Scorsese ditched some of his bloated heavier personal projects (and I’m thinking of “Gangs of New York” here, which was fine, but top-heavy), and delivered a taut, solid, very good crime epic. Its story is twisty (taken from the 2002 Honk Kong film “Infernal Affairs” which I saw some of, and was much shorter and much less comprehensible), but easy to follow. It also features some awesome performances by Leonardo DiCaprio, Alec Baldwin (who seems to have escaped from a Mamet play), Mark Wahlberg, Jack Nocholson (who chews less scenery than usual here, and just plays an outright bastard), and, most notably, by Matt Damon who rides the line between squeaky clean and murderous asshole.
Half Nelson: The finest drama I have seen in a long while, this story of a heroin-addicted teacher, and the at-risk girl he tries to save, is a moral tale of rich human complexity, and stark, hard-to-swallow reality. Ryan Gosling wants to protect a young girl in his class from her drug-dealing “uncle,” but is really, unable to do much about it, as he himself is a drug addict, and is having far too much trouble keeping his own life in line. The characters are not types. It is not melodramatic. It is hard, it is dirty, it is real, it is glorious.
House of Sand: A little-seen Brazilian film, “House of Sand” told the story of three generations of women who are trapped in a desert, and the relationships that must develop out of necessity in such a desperate situation. Husband buys a patch of sand in the middle of nowhere. In fact, it takes months of travel with a guide just to get there. Husband promptly dies, and the wife and mother left behind must wait. Fernanda Monetenegro gives a wonderful performance as the mom, her own daughter, older, and even granddaughter, older. It was reminiscent of Teshigahara’s “Woman in the Dunes.”
Idiocracy: When one looked up this film on Moviefone on opening day, they would find this film listed as “Untitled Mike Judge Comedy.” What an insult by Fox. They were big enough to list Mike Judge by his name, but then not give us the title of his new film. This is one of those are comedies that starts not with a “funny” actor (which can work, but not if the comedian of the day is Will Ferrell), or and arch gimmick, but with a funny idea. It’s brief and amusing. It’s one of the funnier films I’ve seen in recent years. The recent DVD release is equally frill-free, and even gets the film’s running time wrong. Buy it, see it. Defy the marketing bastards, and enjoy a funny film.
Little Miss Sunshine: How is it a film about a family of the most profound bunch of losers can be so light-hearted and funny? How can a tragic story about death, suicide, and a misguided dream of competing in a creepy children’s pageant be so inspiring? “Little Miss Sunshine” manages to be all those things, and through its trials and deaths, through its cynicism and vitriol, manages to be funny, and still leaves us with the message that a family can love and help each other no matter what. Nicely done. Oh, and good job, Alan Arkin.
The Lives of Others: Can you observe a person without becoming a part of their life? Can a government really control the thoughts of an entire nation? Are artists more vital to subterfuge and open-minded political thinking than we think? Is it possible to affect someone’s life without them ever finding out? This story of the Stasi in East Germany in 1985, and centering on one particular agent assigned to spying on a suspected playwright and his girlfriend, is a brilliant look at all of these questions. It only recently hit theaters here, so you still have a chance to catch it.
Pan’s Labyrinth: Guillermo Del Toro’s film achieved what many recent fantasies have failed to do: strike the tragic balance between real-life horror and the escape of childlike wonder. A young girl is callously transported to the base of her Franco-loving tyrant/new stepfather. Luckily, there are faeries, magical artifacts, and one huge creepy-looking faun to help her escape from this world to her rightful place in the faerie world. Or perhaps she is just horrified by the random killings, torture, and rebellious political subterfuge that were regularly right outside her door, and was escaping the best way she could. Fantastic.
Shortbus: A film about sex, pain, relationship drama, and the ways that they are all inextricably linked. John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) has made a fun, funny, sad, tragic, and deeply moving film that never once leans toward sentimentality or saccharine cheap shots. A sex therapist, herself unable to achieve orgasm, finds friends and other lost (and found) sexual souls at a New York underground sex club called Shortbus. A lot was made of the fact that the sex in the film is unsimulated, but the film never feels prurient or dirty. It’s lovely.
Thank You for Smoking: When I saw this film for the first time, about a Big Tobacco spinman (Aaron Eckhart) talking his bosses out of tight spots, I felt that the tone was too light for its own good, and its own brightness undercut the intended satire of the piece. I was still drawn back to it, and when I saw it a second time, I realized just how solid it really is, and how fun. The comedy is still a little overplayed, but it made the film work. It tackles an important issue with joy, and gives us a morally reprehensible character that we love. That’s no easy task.
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story: O.k., so someone made a film of Laurence Sterne’s comic rigmarole The Life and Opinions of Tristram Sandy, Gentleman. What’s next, a film version of Proust? A TV miniseries of Finnegans Wake? But director Michael Winterbottom decided to take an odd route and tell the story of the making of the very film we are watching, and, as a result, were given the true comic sublimity of Sterne, while making a funny and interesting drama in the process. It is weird and fun, and captures the arborous storytelling spirit of the novel.
United 93: Paul Greengrass has made one of the most taut thrillers in years. This is odd, as he does not speak in the language of the action thriller. In fact, it’s a testimony to realist filmmaking and the power it has to cover so much sticky emotional territory. It’s not a jingoistic piece of heroism. In fact, the people on that plane who were able to take it back from its hijackers never came across as extraordinary. But, sometimes, we do extraordinary things…
Volver: Not up to par with Pedro Almodóvar’s “Talk to Her” or “All About My Mother,” but still bursting with warmth, macabre humor, and the secret society of women in Almodóvar’s hometown in Spain. Penelope Cruz is wonderful as a young put-upon mother who must suddenly deal with death in two extrodinary ways: the accidental death of her overbearing husband, and the strange possible reappearance of her dead mother. It’s sweet and wicked. Almodóvar is always welcome.
– “Inland Empire” showed David Lynch cutting loose for the first time since “Eraserhead.” It’s an odd love letter to acting, and to Los Angeles. Long and opaque and undeniably unique.
– “The Last King of Scotland,” if only for Forest Whitaker’s amazing performance as Idi Amin.
– “A Scanner Darkly.” Visually beautiful, paranoiac, and even a bit fun, Richard Linklater’s sci-fi anti-drug film should be given a once-over.
– “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.” Tommy Lee Jones directs this Lynch-meets-Peckinpah headtrip western.
– “The Queen.” Or; “Please Give Helen Mirren her Oscar Now,” Stephen Frears gives us an intriguing look at some recent British history.
– “Clerks II.” Don’t give me grief, o.k? Kevin Smith, accused by some critics of stagnation by making a sequel to his original 1994 hit actually made a film about… not stagnating.
– “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things.” I have seen few more unpleasant films. Despite the JT LeRoy controversy, this film is an accurate portrayal of a certain kind of madness.
– “Cars.” Halcyon and cute.
– “The World’s Fastest Indian.” Sweet, fun, innocent.
– “Drawing Restrain 9.” Weird, fascinating, good music.
– “Miami Vice.” Dark, gritty, great modern noir.
– “The Oh in Ohio.” Orgasm jokes, sweet romance, non-clichéd.
– “Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont.” Winsome, honest, good acting.
– “Lady Vengeance.” Horrific, harrowing, gorgeous.
– “V for Vendetta.” A bit corny, but good-looking, and just thoughtful enough to be interesting.
– “Inside Man.” Spike Lee covers his interests while making a decent little thriller.
– “The Beach Party at the Threshold of Hell.” A low-budget sci-fi epic with the lost descendent of JFK, robots, immortal bikini teens, and a blind prophet destined to rule a post-apocalyptic world. Freaky and fun.
And what list would be complete without the worst films I saw in 2006?
– “See No Evil.” Features a post-credit “zinger” of a dog pissing in a corpse’s empty ocular cavity. It’s that kind of film.
– “Nacho Libre.” Awkward, unfunny, just plain stupid. And validated me on my relatively low opinion of “Napoleon Dynamite.”
– “You, Me, and Dupree.” Sweet Lord, can’t a film make up its mind? Were there any good characters at all in this travesty? Ew. Ew. Ew.
– “Peaceful Warrior.” Almost the cheese classic of the year, but just too awful. Although it might be worth it to see Nick Nolte as a mystical, superpowered sensei-type gas station attendant. The year did need a good cheesy movie, and I was disappointed by “Snakes on a Plane” and “The Quiet.” This one might be it.
– “An American Haunting.” From the director of “Dungeons & Dragons.” ‘Nuff said.
– “She’s the Man.” Although it made me want to go bowling with Amanda Bynes, it was long and forced, and not the least bit witty.