I don't know how many times I've seen critics' year-end wrap-up pieces griping about the quality of films/albums/books/etc. released in the previous 365 days. Often I disagree. I'm singing a different tune when it comes to 2006, though. More often than not I felt like I failed to be wowed. Independent and foreign films left much to be desired. The big studios' awards contenders left me mostly cold, yet somehow I've been unable to pare my honorable mentions down to the traditional ten. Go figure.
AKEELAH AND THE BEE (Doug Atchison, 2006)
Between the solid documentary SPELLBOUND and the fictional glop of BEE SEASON, hadn't we had enough movies about spelling bees? Probably. Nevertheless, AKEELAH AND THE BEE is a small charmer about an eleven-year-old girl who rises above her circumstances to find her strength and intelligence and inspire her community.
BRICK (Rian Johnson, 2005)
BRICK, a cinematic mash-up of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett detective stories with a contemporary high school drama, seems like a better idea as a stylistic stunt, but writer-director Rian Johnson’s film works quite well. This isn’t an exercise in playing dress-up. The characters inhabit a place where disappointment and pain lurk around every corner, something all too familiar to teenagers. Johnson’s sources of inspiration for BRICK put forth tough dicks and dames in a cold, uncaring universe. Glum teens are a clever and natural evolution for the genre.
CARS (John Lasseter, 2006)
Pixar's track record of extraordinary animation and smooth storytelling continues with CARS. The studio's films have always demonstrated a fondness for classical narrative virtues while using the latest technological advances to bring them to life. That philosophy finds a perfect vehicle in CARS, which boasts state of the art animation for its story reminding viewers not to discard what they have for the latest and greatest. Told with heart and wit, director John Lasseter offers a lesson in appreciating simple pleasures and slowing down in life. Larry the Cable Guy provides delightful voice work as the buck-toothed tow truck Mater. CARS is entertaining for kids and adults but doesn't strain to be hip.
CHILDREN OF MEN (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)
CHILDREN OF MEN asks the intriguing question of how we would go about our lives if we knew that humanity was on the brink of elimination. In this dazzling piece of filmmaking, Alfonso Cuarón's deft direction and Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography drop us into an immersive dystopian atmosphere. Invigorating in its ideas and style, CHILDREN OF MEN seeks hope in a world full of fear and tragedy, a place perhaps not as foreign to us as the film's future.
CLEAN (Olivier Assayas, 2004)
Maggie Cheung's exceptional performance highlights CLEAN, essentially a grittier TV movie-of-the-week about a woman fighting to overcome heroin addiction. Cheung brings heartbreaking humanity to the self-destructive rock and roller who has to get her act together if she wants her son back. Nick Nolte is very good as her father-in-law and her son's caretaker. He plays the part tenderly and sternly, communicating both his understanding of the challenges she's trying to beat and concern that she can become a responsible parent when he is unable to watch over the boy.
DAVE CHAPPELLE'S BLOCK PARTY (Michel Gondry, 2005)
Although not a concert film in the traditional sense—the activity before the event and offstage are as important as the performance itself—DAVE CHAPPELLE’S BLOCK PARTY captures the energy and excitement of people gathering to put on and watch a show. Chappelle rounded up a who’s who of hip-hop stars and let them tear up the stage with their mixture of big beats and socially conscious lyrics. Chappelle’s comedy deals in race issues, but BLOCK PARTY is a uniting work. Chappelle laughs at and makes fun of society’s hang-ups, but it’s done in a way that allows people to be drawn together than driven apart. He’s an edgy comedian, but his purpose with the concert and film is to make a diverse crowd feel comfortable with one another. More than any message, that effort is likely to be remembered.
THE DESCENT (Neil Marshall, 2005)
Six women explore a system of caves in the West Virginia mountains and find more than they bargained for in THE DESCENT. This terrifying, claustrophobic trip underground makes one glad to return to the daylight outside the movie theater. Director Neil Marshall makes excellent use of the stifling space, frequently painting the screen with cavernous darkness except for the light around the characters.
THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON (Jeff Feuerzeig, 2005)
This documentary about the cult singer-songwriter finds the glimmers of beauty in the artist's idiosyncratic work without lionizing him as a troubled genius. The manic-depression that drives Johnston's art and songs is a terrible burden for him, his family, and friends. THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON is a penetrating look at how art can provide an expressive release but cannot fix problems that run deep in this tortured man.
DREAMGIRLS (Bill Condon, 2006)
This whirlwind Broadway tour of Motown works its tail off to please, please, please. Edited for maximum momentum, DREAMGIRLS has nothing greater in mind than entertaining. That it does. The film trots out several showstopping numbers and sparkling performances from Eddie Murphy and newcomer Jennifer Hudson.
L'ENFANT (THE CHILD) (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 2005)
Another social realism stunner from the Dardenne brothers. Although it's unexpected in a Belgian art film, it features one of the best chase scenes in any movie last year.
FLUSHED AWAY (David Bowers and Sam Fell, 2006)
Good, silly fun with rats trying to outsmart a maniacal frog who wants to flood the sewers during the World Cup. Singing slugs have never been so cute.
INSIDE MAN (Spike Lee, 2006)
With INSIDE MAN director Spike Lee takes a break from social commentaries to put forward a highly entertaining and unexpectedly funny genre film. It’s the most commercial movie he’s made, but the accessibility isn’t a negative. Rather, having a skilled director helm a standard thriller livens up what might have otherwise been an unremarkable heist film. First time screenwriter Russell Gewirtz stays a couple steps ahead of the audience and keeps plenty of surprises and twists in reserve.
JESUS CAMP (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 2006)
A remarkable, even-handed documentary about an evangelical Christian children's camp.
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, 2006)
Making middle class existential fears into a lovable comedy isn't the easiest thing to do, but LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE finds the humor in aiming to be the best and falling flat on your face.
THE QUEEN (Stephen Frears, 2006)
The public management and mismanagement of the royal family's response to Princess Diana's death makes for riveting viewing in THE QUEEN. Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen turn in terrific performances that find the humanity in Queen Elizabeth II and Tony Blair.
RUSSIAN DOLLS (LES POUPÉES RUSSES) (Cédric Klapisch, 2005)
Cédric Klapisch's sequel to L'AUBERGE ESPAGNOLE captures the humor and pain of becoming responsible in young adulthood.
SCOOP (Woody Allen, 2006)
An ambitious student journalist and a magician are an unlikely team seeking to uncover the identity of a London serial killer in the Woody Allen comedy. To an extent, SCOOP is the lighter side of MATCH POINT, Allen’s thriller about the evil people are capable of doing. The move across the pond seems to have reinvigorated the director, who follows up a strong drama with one of his funniest and most effortless films in some time. SCOOP finds Allen in a playful mood that brings back the magic in his funnier work.
STRANGER THAN FICTION (Marc Forster, 2006)
Each of us is the protagonist in our own story. For IRS auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) in STRANGER THAN FICTION, the problem is that he's the main character of someone else's story. Ultimately the film is about fully embracing life rather than staying locked in our habits and comfort zones, hardly a new moral to the story in the history of cinema, but STRANGER THAN FICTION brings vitality to the shopworn message. The film has an inventive framing device that makes the tone hard to pin down at first, but in the end, it's nice to watch a well-told story whose finish can't be predicted at the outset.
SWEET LAND (Ali Selim, 2005)
Beautifully photographed by David Tumblety, SWEET LAND is a love story not only between two people but also humanity and nature. The golden tones of the fields and crisp blue skies reveal the glory of creation and what it provides. The film breathes when the characters are on the gorgeous natural stage and clenches when manmade obstructions interrupt it. SWEET LAND values interconnectedness--in a couple, among a community, with the land, and with ancestors--and powerfully illustrates it within the story's emotional and visual content.
V FOR VENDETTA (James McTeigue, 2006)
Politics and comic book action mix to terrific effect in this adaptation of a graphic novel.
THE WAR TAPES (Deborah Scranton, 2006)
It's hard not to be filled with righteous anger after seeing THE WAR TAPES, a documentary that allows soldiers in Iraq to tell their stories directly via the digital camcorders with which they were provided. Sad, infuriating, and sometimes funny, these first person accounts are bracing reminders of the personal costs of war.