1 . THE PRESTIGE (Christopher Nolan, 2006)
On the surface Christopher Nolan's tale of dueling magicians appears to be a clever, highly entertaining film and nothing else. Ah, but as we're instructed at the beginning, watch closely. Like any good magician, Nolan makes his cinematic sleight-of-hand in THE PRESTIGE look effortless, but it takes a lot of skill to create a film that is not only a joy to watch but also a deep exploration of the costs of dedicating oneself to a craft. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman give terrific performances, the greatness of which are more apparent on a second viewing of this layered film. Supporting performances by Michael Caine and David Bowie as Nikola Tesla are little treasures to be found while sorting out this puzzle film.
2. THE DEPARTED (Martin Scorsese, 2006)
THE DEPARTED is no departure for Martin Scorsese, whose signature work finds him in the back alleyways with criminals and a taste for violence. This crackling crime film with hard-boiled wit is one of the director's funniest movies in recent memory. Screenwriter William Monahan demonstrates an aptitude for hard-bitten, vulgar, macho language similar to that of David Mamet. Monahan also keeps the pretzel twist of a plot clear, which is a big accomplishment for a film both confusing and straightforward.
3. UNITED 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006)
Director Paul Greengrass' masterful look at the events of 9/11 is difficult to watch, but this overview of what happened makes for some of the most gripping viewing you'll come across even though the end is known before the film starts. A gut-wrenching recreation of the day's confusion, UNITED 93 gains power from its fly on the wall perspective in the air traffic control rooms and doomed plane.
4. BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN (Larry Charles, 2006)
BORAT is the rare comedy that operates without a safety net. Star Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles’ film provides constant laughter and surprises while daring the viewer to be rightfully offended. Cohen’s total commitment to the character and control is astonishing. While Cohen’s portrayal of the fictional TV reporter may not typify what gets classified as outstanding acting, this is a great performance. In our daily lives we’d find Borat detestable, but on screen, even when being actively mean to undeserving folks, he’s completely likable.
5. THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE (Mary Harron, 2005)
THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE may be the sweetest movie ever made about pornography. Featuring Gretchen Mol's outstanding performance as the pin-up queen, the film sparkles with a frothy pop sensibility while also providing a serious examination of Bettie's Christianity. The unironic portrayal of her faith adds depth to the lighthearted film and builds to a touching affirmation of her beliefs. Visually THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE is a knockout with silky black and white cinematography accented by a few scenes in sumptuous color.
6. A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (Robert Altman, 2006)
A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION is a joyous celebration of homespun Midwestern wit and wisdom and a eulogy for it as well. The show itself is a glorious blend of rootsy music and cornpone humor that induces groans and laughs. Accompanied by live sound effects, Keillor’s extended ad libbing to fill time while his shuffled script is put back in order is hilarious, not to mention an impressive feat by people at the top of their craft. At the age of 81, it is understandable that mortality was on Robert Altman’s mind for what proved to be the director's last film. He doesn’t grapple with death, which is personified in the film, but comes to terms with it. The veteran director has long been a critical success but found commercial acceptance more fleeting. Yet A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION finds the maverick at peace with his accomplishments even if he wasn’t ready for it all to end.
7. CHARLOTTE'S WEB (Gary Winick, 2006)
CHARLOTTE'S WEB is a beautiful tale of friendship that spoons out the virtues of kindness and generosity without a medicinal taste. The characters and the film are invested with common decency, but the film is anything but stodgy. There are many funny moments that lighten the heavier themes. The voicework is first-rate, particularly Roberts' sensitive embodiment of Charlotte. She delivers her lines with quiet, dignified grace, transforming the creature with a scary exterior into something extraordinarily lovely because of what's inside. CHARLOTTE'S WEB has heart and intelligence, qualities that combine for a transcendent time at the movies.
8. NEIL YOUNG: HEART OF GOLD (Jonathan Demme, 2006)
If only all concert films could be as perfect as this document of Neil Young's two nights performing in Nashville's legendary Ryman Auditorium. NEIL YOUNG: HEART OF GOLD finds the rocker in excellent form. Director Jonathan Demme and editor Andy Keir sculpt each song to maximize the impact of the performance. It is also beautifully shot in golden tones by Ellen Kuras.
9. TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY (Michael Winterbottom, 2005)
Michael Winterbottom distills Laurence Sterne's comic experimentation with the rules and shape of the novel and translates it into a lark on filmmaking form and technique. What is in essence a plotless film circles around itself and turns it into one of the funniest movies of the year. The versatile director playfully experiments in the making of this period piece, and star Steve Coogan fools around with and deconstructs his image. Coogan plays himself as an insecure nitwit to hilarious effect.
10. THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP (Michel Gondry, 2006)
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman tended to get the lion’s share of the credit for ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP shows that director Michel Gondry’s contributions were equally important to that film. Gondry’s whimsical and surreal visual style is perfectly suited for bittersweet stories about love and relationships. He makes churning, outsized emotions tangible through the fantastical images his characters occupy and create. Here Gondry plumbs the depths of emotions in endlessly imaginative ways. The director renders complicated primal feelings as fanciful, childlike creations, a technique that highlights a sense of wonder and a limited understanding of what is really at play.
Best Moviegoing Experience of 2006
Without a doubt, the midnight screening of SNAKES ON A PLANE ranks as some of the most fun I've ever had at the movies. The unpretentious B-movie isn't anywhere close to being the greatest achievement in cinema but so what? Seeing this goofy action-comedy with friends and and an enthusiastic crowd was what going to the movies should be.
I think it's easy for my critical judgment to become compromised when seeing a lot of movies in a condensed period of time, especially if I've gone through a particularly bad stretch. Here are some of the best I saw at festivals in 2006:
-ADAM'S APPLES (ADAMS ÆBLER) (Anders Thomas Jensen, 2005)
A marvelous dark comedy about evil and faith. Wrestles with religious conviction in a way not usually seen.
-THE BOW (HWAL) (Kim Ki-duk, 2005)
-FACTOTUM (Bent Hamer, 2005)
-MEASURES TO BETTER THE WORLD (WELTVERBESSERUNGMAßNAHMEN) (Jörn Hintzer and Jakob Hüfner, 2005)
If THE DAILY SHOW were a German film composed of sketches.
-THE MIGHTY CELT (Pearse Elliott, 2005)