Craig's Best of '06

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Best Films of 2006
Baker's Dozen Best of 2006

By Craig Phillips

I always like to preface these sorts of lists a disclaimer - I haven't seen every film I wanted to see (never mind every film released) - and others I saw so close to "press time" that I still hadn't formulated a confident opinion about them - and, thus, over time I may at least mentally revise this list slightly. But I'll gladly go to bat with any of the films below. It was a diverse year for cinema with few absolute, clear-cut classics, but a host of very fine movies regardless. My criteria is usually based on my own biases, if not always in this order: Which films had the tightest screenplays; which let the actors really act; which stood apart in terms of creativity and originality; which gave me distinct pleasure? That last one is important to me perhaps more than it is to some critics, because there are finely crafted films that I can admire but hardly sit through. At any rate, herewith is my own list of favorites, and near-misses.

Army of Shadows

Army of Shadows: Made in 1968 but never officially released here until this year, Jean-Pierre Melville's haunting and brilliant Army of Shadows (L'Arm;eacute&e des ombres), arrived in '06 restored and looking as fresh as it must have in the Sixties. A story of men and women working in the shadows for the French resistance during WWII has plenty of suspense, but Melville was less interested in building tension in the traditional rote Hollywood sense than he was in focusing on the characters own psychological torment and in building a mood of despair and paranoia. Precisely crafted from the very beginning and filled with unforgettable moments and characters - including Lino Ventura's bedraggled engineer-turned-resistor and Simone Signoret, absolutely empathetic as the matron Mathilde - in this chilling masterpiece Melville proved finally, after all these years, that he deserves to mentioned with other great 20th century filmmakers.

When the Levees Broke: Spike Lee's magnum opus, this beautifully crafted, incredibly moving documentary on the wake Hurricane Katrina's left in New Orleans' path - and the people left behind through government neglect and incompetence - was shown on HBO but is about as good a four hours of film as you'll see this year. A significant achievement and a poignant reminder of the devestating loss - and hopeful rebirth - of a great American city. (It also offers up a look at the two guys, god bless 'em, who told Dick Cheney what he can do to himself during an infamous press conference.)

Letters from Iwo Jima: Clint Eastwood's beautifully crafted Japanese POV follow up to the more erratic American side (Flags of Our Fathers) starts with that present day framing device common to many a lesser WWII picture, but it works because it's not sentimental - it's anthropological. The film very rarely missteps and, like Paths of Glory and even All Quiet on the Western Front before it, becomes an utterly humanist depiction of the insanity (and inanity) of war, with a grunt on the ground (an extremely likable Kazunari Ninomiya, a pop singer in Japan) questioning why they're there at all and a general (Ken Watanabe) recognizing the futility while at the same time the need to maintain a code of honor. The film perfectly captures how Japanese soldiers were taught to never surrender, to die "with honor," even if that meant by one's own hand (I think there are more suicides depicted in this film than in any in recent memory outside of the Jonestown documentary) The shit pot sequence is one of the more memorable moments in film this year and I couldn't think of a more symbolically appropriate anti-war statement than that one. Eastwood's cool, unshowy direction, with Tom Stern's cinematography shot in greys, browns, suiting the bleak landscape, gives us one of the more moving anti-war films of this or any era.

The Queen: Considering the subject matter - Britain's Royal Family and Princess Diana - was of little interest to me, the fact that I found this near flawless film fascinating throughout is a testament to terrific storytelling and acting. Stephen Frears is always above par with performers and in The Queen, Helen Mirren is superb as the monarch, giving depth and emotional weight to a previously enigmatic icon, while Michael Sheen makes us wish he really was Tony Blair. Very fair-minded in its depiction of that awful time around Diana's death, and lovely to look at.

A Scanner Darkly: Those walking into this one, given Philip K. Dick's pedigree, expecting a purely sci-fi film might have been disappointed. But Richard Linklater's spot-on adaptation of the author's drugged out Orwellian tale works quite well as a black comedy, thanks to the amusing script and great performances by Robert Downey Jr and company. It's also difficult to picture the film without the animation overlay, which adds to the disconnected feelings, the paranoia, the surreality.

Old Joy: Kelly Reicherdt's film has a plot that is hardly enough to hang one's hat on - two old friends connect for an overnight camping trip and a search for a hidden hot springs - but needless to say, the plot is not the thing here. The men's conversations together as they wander around the Cascade Mountains serve as the spine of the film, and within the confines of the story comes an intimacy rarely achieved; even rarer, for American films at least, to see that intimacy expressed between two men. While it's of that uniquely American genre, the road movie, Old Joy is more European in sensibility. It may seem unambitious to some, but in its sweet 73 minutes Old Joy accomplishes much more spiritually than any American film this year. As we all wander through the darkness in the shadow of 9/11, that's no small thing.

Brick: Rian Johnson's Brick is a super debut, a bravura film that pulls off the pretentious set-up: a Raymond Chandler-esque mystery, replete with its own hardboiled slang, set in the modern adolescent world. While it stumbles here and there (comes close to going on too long somewhere in Act III), and it is occasionally hard to catch all the hyper-teen-noir slang (a glossary is provided on the official web site), the film is nonetheless a highly original treat. Brick is also arguably the best film set and shot in California's Orange County; it certainly captures that overdeveloped, under-souled landscape with eerie precision. Why did no one think of an OC-noir before?

The Departed: This may not be consensus opinion but I think Scorsese's reworking of the Hong Kong crime story Infernal Affairs improves on the original in psychological acuity, character expansion and with Scorsese's trademark touch of black humor. (There's also a knowing wink at the end). DiCaprio, in particular, is electric here, but the whole film is a powder keg on the verge. It's essentially a damned entertaining crime flick, but look for Scorsese to be an Oscar bridesmaid once again.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance: Park Chan-wook's third part in his "Revenge" trilogy (which includes Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy) is officially my favorite. As expected for Park, visually striking at every turn, with something new cinematically around every corner; Darkly funny. If anything it moves a little too fast at times but less so as it goes along and the last act is unforgettable.

L'enfant: As with previous efforts by the Dardenne brothers, this neo-social-realist film is deceptively simple on the surface, but remarkably complex emotionally, leading up to a shockingly suspenseful finale. Graceful, fluidly shot, and that, along with the superb performances - particularly Jérémie Renie as Bruno - help soften the blows of the story. Harrowing, utterly believeable, but also with a surprising - for the Dardennes at least - amount of action.

Tristram Shandy: Which had its U.S. premiere early in the year, is a delightfully meta-tation on Laurence Sterne's seemingly unfilmable novel, a post-modern work from the pre-modern era. Droll Steve Coogan plays both the titular character, an 18th Century Englishman with a bawdy life (and tangential narration style), and a modern day actor haplessly attempting to play him in the film-within-a-film portion. Michael Winterbottom effortlessly shifts from one era to another and somehow manages to keep us involved throughout. What could have been a pretentious muddle ends up a erudite, impish delight.

Borat: Say what you will about some questionable filmmaking ethics, there's no denying the often spasmodically funny effect that Sacha Baron Cohen's mock-doc has - or at least, had on me - as well as how effectively it rips into the underbelly of America. Kazakhstan may not attract an influx of tourists after this, either, but Cohen (along with a host of co-writers and director Larry Charles) give us a wayward road trip through a bizarro world of characters that is our country, right or wrong. Cohen's performance is a thing of mastery, too; you'll be hard pressed to find a better comic performance in recent memory.

The Science of Sleep: While the screenwriter in me wished for a bit more of a narrative flow and satisfaction at the end, do dreams ever provide with enough of either? Michel Gondry's playfully surrealist film is a waking life love story with strikingly realized sets and beautifully imagined dreams. If a little of it sometimes goes a long way, it's hard to fault one of the most original visions of the past year.

Honorable Mention:

Guilty pleasure:

Fine Films Seen After I Made This List:

  • Children of Men: This one now makes my Best of '06 list as a late addition - brilliantly crafted, striking direction and editing, Clive Owen and the rest of the cast are terrific and the whole exercise is consistently chilling. A near-masterpiece.
  • Little Children
  • Mutual Appreciation
  • The Death of Mr Lazarescu
  • Pan's Labyrinth
  • The Good Shepherd (not to be confused with The Good German, or The German Shepherd)
  • Volver
  • All the other films I missed on Dennis' and Jonathan's lists, among others.

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