Best Films of 2006 (In No Order That Makes Sense, With Liberal Cheating)
(1) Army of Shadows France’s checkered history with the Nazis shows its heroic side in Jean-Pierre Melville’s brilliant 1969 story of a Resistance fighter, played with minimalist finesse by the hatchet-faced Lino Ventura, trying to keep himself out of the hands of the Germans. A masterpiece of stylish fatalism, Army of Shadows has a bravura barbershop scene so quietly terrifying, it would have given Hitchcock the shakes.
(2) Old JoyHardly anything happens in Kelly Reichardt’s quietly ecstatic account of two old friends on an impromptu camping trip in the Pacific Northwest — unless you count a profound study of the terrible, beautiful inequities of human love.
(3) The QueenStephen Frears roars back, at last, with a cheeky, witty and wise homage to HMQ (brilliantly played as a witty sourpuss by Helen Mirren), rising above her annus horribilis and her 10th prime minister.
(4) Iraq in Fragments and Our Brand Is Crisis I can’t think of two documentaries (and Lord knows, they’ve been legion this year) that capture more incisively, or with more heartbreak, the unintended consequences of current U.S. foreign policy: James Longley’s lyric essay on what it’s like for three very differently situated Iraqis to get through the day in a de facto civil war; and Rachel Boynton’s blow-by-blow tracking of how a well-intentioned Democratic political consulting firm tried to engineer American-style market democracy in Bolivia.
(5) The Death of Mr. Lazarescu The appearance on numerous Top 10 lists of this obscure black comedy, running almost three hours, about a dying man being dragged through hair-raisingly dysfunctional Romanian hospitals, is as gratifying as it is improbable. Writer-director Cristi Puiu has made a sly anti-ER infused with shocking existential clarity about the loneliness of dying.
(6) Family Law Argentine filmmaker Daniel Burman continues his warmly ambivalent homage to the Jewish family he either has or longs for.
(7) Venus and 49 Up Two British films with nothing else in common confront with candor and guts what it means to grow old. In Roger Michell’s Venus, Peter O’Toole, who should know, demonstrates the tragicomic magnificence of desire outrunning the decaying body. In the latest bulletin from his ongoing documentary project, Michael Apted explores the responses of diverse Brits as they tip over into middle age, and discovers to his evident surprise, if not theirs, a new elasticity in the English class system.
(8) LassieandMonster HouseHardly anyone went to see Charles Sturridge’s beautiful, unhurried, unrepentantly effects-free treatment of the original novel of Lassie; I’m holding out for the movie’s future life as a DVD classic. At the other end of the kid-pic scale, hip newcomer Gil Kenan made a CGI-animated horror movie for kids so funny, skillful and touching, it failed to traumatize even my family of wimps.
(9)FatelessHungarian director Lajos Koltai’s extraordinary story of a boy’s tenacious struggle for survival through a series of Nazi concentration camps contains an image I’ll never forget, of a group of inmates, forced to stand upright through a freezing night, swaying gracefully back and forth so as to avoid falling asleep and getting bludgeoned to death. Based on a philosophically acute novel by Imre Kertész, Fateless is fueled neither by uplift nor despair, but by the saving grace of having seen the worst that man can do to man and still endure.
(10) Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of KazakhstanTransgressive . . . mumble, mumble . . . radical . . . blah, blah . . . offensive, lawsuits . . . yeah, yeah . . . intertextual . . . yawn. The big, bad fun of Borat is its blithe crossing of every imaginable taste boundary, and then some. For many reasons, the year’s guiltiest pleasure, with the acid test being Israeli audiences, who went wild over Borat speaking, not in Kazakh, but in polished Hebrew.
Mutual Appreciation; Letters From Iwo Jima; Little Miss Sunshine; 51 Birch Street; Darwin’s Nightmare; A Lion in the House; Pan’s Labyrinth; Climates; Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple; Deliver Us From Evil; A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints; L’Enfant; The History Boys; My Country, My Country; A Prairie Home Companion
TURKEY OF THE YEAR
The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things
GREAT MOMENTS FOR GREAT DAMES (AND DAMES IN TRAINING)
Simone Signoret registers with a flicker of her eyes that she’s done for in Army of Shadows; Helen Mirren pats down Tony Blair in The Queen; Meryl Streep, channeling Anna Wintour, destroys her new assistant merely by eyeballing her wardrobe; Penélope Cruz sniffs for the farts of her ghostly mom in Volver; Luminita Gheorghiu wordlessly reaches the end of her rope as the doggedly protective paramedic of Mr. Lazarescu; Charlotte Rampling, wordlessly reaching the end of her rope in Heading South; Shareeka Epps calls time on her crackhead teacher in Half Nelson; Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett face off persuasively in the unpersuasive Notes on a Scandal; Ashley Judd realizes she’s not cut out for love in Come Early Morning; Frances McDormand cuts a bitchy swath through the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market in Friends With Money; Emily Blunt makes life miserable for Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada; Catherine O’Hara lifts her face and stays home for Purim in For Your Consideration.
Neil emerges from mental illness with the help of God and a butterfly in 49 Up; Simon McBirney (gay? not gay?), Joan Cusack and (yes) Jennifer Aniston in Friends With Money; Chalo González, the fledgling gay Latino in Quinceañera; Marianne Faithfull, looking and acting her age as the conniving mom in Marie Antoinette; Diana Rigg, ditto as a disillusioned mother superior in The Painted Veil; Philip Davis as a dorky teacher besotted with Cate Blanchett in Notes on a Scandal; Brad William Henke as Maggie Gyllenhaal’s supportive brother in SherryBaby; Emily Watson, upstaging Renée Zellweger in Miss Potter; Anthony Mackie as a drug dealer in Half Nelson; Viola Davis as a tenacious inner-city activist in The Architect; Will Oldham and Daniel London in Old Joy; Dyan Cannon in the otherwise execrable Boynton Beach Club;Rachel Clift as the maybe/maybe not girlfriend in Mutual Appreciation; Emmanuelle Devos as an apparently docile spouse in Gilles’ Wife; Sergi López and Maribel Verdú, facing off over the future of fascism in Pan’s Labyrinth; Stanley Tucci as the gay design director in The Devil Wears Prada; Jackie Earle Haley swimming with tots in Little Children; Gerald Alexander Held as the interrogator in Sophie Scholl: The Final Days; Sandra Bullock as a quietly forthright Harper Lee in Infamous; Matt Winston as the crazed master of ceremonies in Little Miss Sunshine. And last, but very much not least, the wheezy old yellow van that carried Abigail Breslin to rather novel stardom in Little Miss Sunshine.