Filmmaking by its very nature is a purely aesthetic gamble. No matter how certain you are of the results, or the material (script, actors, crew) that you put into a project, the final product is still very much undecided. With factors such as critical reaction and audience acceptance in the balance, movies are a wager between art and commerce, emotional resonance and the all important business bottom line. On occasion, both can come together to create a universally considered classic. On the other hand, reviewers can champion efforts ignored by the general public, while the masses can elevate the most mediocre movie to blockbuster status. In general, 2006 was a year of such enormous prospects. A certain man of steel made his way back to theaters, while a director known for his sly twist endings delivered an adult fairy tale that was more flawed than fascinating. Sequels spun out of control while prestidigitation argued for its place as part of the cinematic canon. With gore-filled genre turns combating yet another attempt at making the musical a viable commercial creation, it was indeed another divergent display of talent and tenacity.
For many of the movies on PopMatters’ 2006 list of the year’s best films, it is clear that a heavy personal and professional stake was riding on the final product. Not just a threat to an individual’s reputation or bankability, but a real life bet between capability and execution. How else would you explain ideas as diverse as a film noir set in high school, an insider look at the death of Princess Diana, a cosmic love story centering on immortality, or a crazy Kazakhstan reporter deconstructing the still ugly American bias? Between serious science fiction, shot on digital experimentation, and references to something called “Pillow Pants”, the past 12 months saw crime, punishment, corruption and heroism all extolled through clever dialogue, gorgeous vistas, directorial prowess and acting excellence. While the risks were indeed large, it was nothing but jackpots for viewers lucky enough to witness these ongoing games of chance. What the pay off will be in the long term cannot detract from the 20 examples of excellence listed here.
Therefore, from 20 to 1, PopMatters presents its picks for the Best Films of 2006:
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
Ion Fiscuteanu, Luminita Gheorghiu, Doru Ana, Dana Dogaru
(Tartan Films; US theatrical: 26 Apr 2006 (Limited release); 2005)
Romanian director Cristi Puiu’s film follows a dying old drunkard, the aptly-named Dante Lazarescu, on a long night’s journey through the inferno of contemporary health care, misdiagnosed and dismissed, shuttled from hospital to hospital, with only a lone, crabby EMT looking out for him. The miracle of the film is that a journey towards death breathes with so much cinematic life—the constant overlapping dialogue, rich with a uniquely Eastern European sense of dark humor; the long-take verité scenes, stunningly choreographed and acted; the Frederick Wiseman-level view of social institutions and how they so often fail those they are supposed to serve. In telling the story of one man, Puiu captures a fleeting portrait of a whole society in tragicomic flux.
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Sacha Baron Cohen, Kenneth Davitian, Pamela Anderson, Luenell, Pat Haggerty, Daniel Castro
(20th Century Fox; US theatrical: 3 Nov 2006 (General release); 2006)
Ricky The Office Gervais was recently asked whether he worried about his jokes involving racism and the handicapped being misconstrued. He replied that modern humor is different in that where once we were asked to laugh AT the taboo, today we mock the ATTITUDE towards the taboo. No better distinction can be offered for Sacha Baron Cohen’s brilliant and controversial creation, Borat Sagdiyev, the anti-Semetic/anti-Gypsy Kazakh telejournalist with the Harry Reems moustache. Sent to the “US and A” to report on lifestyles abroad, Borat is so politically incorrect that his targets easily lower their guard to reveal their ignorance. This is biting satire on the level of Twain, Swift and Bierce, only sold in a package resembling Jackass. The only downside of Borat‘s success(!) is that his fame unfortunately insures his extinction. Once this thing hits DVD, there won’t be a racist, misogynist or bigot left to fool.
Laura Dern, Jeremy Irons, Justin Theroux
(Absurda; Very limited release: 2 Dec 2006; UK theatrical: Unavailable; 2006)
This year’s great leap in artificial intelligence comes from David Lynch’s latest, a bulbous brain constructed from celluloid. Inland Empire is an EEG of a deteriorating personality tuned to the comic absurdities, emotional pivots, rambling thoughts, leaps of logics, and murky back alleys of the unguarded mind. Moment to moment its labyrinthine logic can be maddening, but the overlying arc of Laura Dern’s—its search for a workable whole is forcefully clear with an unexpectedly poignant finish. Despite the flat rendering of the digital video images, no film this year felt as fascinatingly and cinematically three-dimensional.
Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael García Bernal, Rinko Kikuchi, Kôji Yakusho, Adriana Barraza, Elle Fanning
(Paramount Vantage; US theatrical: 27 Oct 2006 (Limited release); 2006)
The third collaboration between writer Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Babel is more ambitious than Amores Perros or 21 Grams, and not as strong or cohesive as either. But even as it overreaches to intertwine its disparate stories, the movie also achieves thrilling highs. With a narrative that ranges from a man trying to help his critically wounded wife while stranded in Morocco to a deaf Japanese teenager desperate to lose her virginity, Arriaga and Inarritu lay it on a bit thick in themes and dramatic histrionics. But it doesn’t really matter when the director can turn simple acts, like a difficult phone call and a drug-fuelled club entrance, into some of the year’s most indelible cinematic images.
Ray Winstone, Guy Pearce, Danny Huston, Emily Watson, John Hurt, Richard Wilson
(First Look; US theatrical: 5 May 2006 (Limited release); 2005)
Worthy of being considered alongside the work of Ford and Peckinpah, John Hillcoat’s Australian Western presents a moral dilemma of Shakespearean richness: in order to save his innocent younger brother, bandit Guy Pearce must track down and kill his older brother, a vicious murderer and rapist. Everything in the film is suffused with ambiguity: the sheriff (Ray Winstone), determined to “bring civilization to this land,” risks losing his own humanity in the process; the villain (Danny Huston) is a courtly, literate, sentimental gentleman who’s loyal to his family; the attempts to mete out “justice” result in wasteful slaughter (this is the true History of Violence); and surrounding everything is the raw beauty of the Australian landscape, soaked in sun, dust and blood, refusing to be civilized.
Children of Men
Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine
(Universal Pictures; US theatrical: 25 Dec 2006 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 22 Sep 2006 (General release); 2006)
With the dearth of serious science fiction in today’s cinematic stratagem (it’s all Star Wars and/or Trek for anyone considering a speculative epic) the biggest surprise with Alfonso Cuaron’s adaptation of P.D. James future shock novel is how immediate it all feels. Clive Owen steals center stage as an unlikely hero coerced into helping humanity, the apocalypse not achieved through weapons or war, but the lack of fertility. Part cautionary tale, part critique on current world events (including the US involvement in Iraq and terrorism) this amazingly effective thriller is as thought provoking as it is action packed. A particular sequence, shot in one continuous take, represents the year’s best edge of your seat moment.
Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Chiwetel Ejoifor, Willem Dafoe
(Universal; US theatrical: 24 Mar 2006; 2006)
Somehow, the words “Spike Lee” and “commercial hit” don’t seem to belong together. Though he’s had his fair share of cinematic success—She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X—his name is just not synonymous with mainstream acceptance. But with this perfectly plotted heist flick, navigated brilliantly by stars Denzel Washington, Clive Owen and Jodie Foster, Lee learned his kinetic film style could actually translate into big time box office receipts. Along with his devastating documentary on Hurricane Katrina (When the Levees Broke), it’s been a banner year for one of film’s fiercest—and most profound voices.
The Science of Sleep (La Science des rêves)
Gael García Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jean-Michel Bernard, Emma de Caunes, Alain Chabat, Stéphane Metzger, Miou-Miou
(Warner Independent Pictures; US theatrical: 15 Sep 2006 (Limited release); 2006)
Over the course of the last couple of years, French filmmaker Michel Gondry has become the king of comedic quirk, translating two of arcane scribe Charlie Kaufman’s more inventive scripts—2001’s Human Nature and 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—into amazing flights of fancy. Now, working from his own story, he gives us The Science of Sleep an amazing effort of visual astonishment and emotional whimsy. This unusual little fable, about a man who can’t tell the difference between dreams and reality, features inventive cinematic cues so clever that they, initially, look completely illogical. But Gondry finds a way to make them soar.
Brian O’Halleron, Jeff Anderson, Rosario Dawson, Trevor Fehrman, Jennifer Schwalbach, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith
(Weinstein; US theatrical: 21 Jul 2006 (General release); 2006)
Many may marvel at the inclusion of this title on a year-end list, but there is much more to Kevin Smith’s solid sequel to his original indie effort than dirty jokes about bestiality. As he did a decade before, Smith speaks for a generation unstuck in time, a group growing up not understanding their part in the overall scheme of society. While dialogue has always been his forte, Smith the director finally delivers scenes of pure cinematic sparkle—a moving montage to the Smashing Pumpkins “1979” and a throwback musical number to the Jackson 5’s “ABC” mark the two emotional extremes this fine film goes through.
Little Miss Sunshine
Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Alan Arkin, Abigail Breslin, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Paul Dano, Greg Kinnear
(Fox Searchlight; US theatrical: 26 Jul 2006 (Limited release); 2006)
“Not F**cking fried chicken again!” roars an incredible Alan Arkin in the year’s best tragic comedy. Tragic in it’s most cosmic definition as life just keeps beating down on an ordinary American family who are certainly no better than any other. In many ways they are worse; a fine collection of depressed losers spinning their wheels in the fast lane of the middle class. This is a fine film that might end up a victim of going from underrated to overhyped after the Awards season. Tell us all to shut the hell up and watch what wonders can be done with a VW van and a little determination. Dreams are shattered one by one and the only thing the Hoover family can do is to make do. You’ll be surprised how much you come to care about them all.