The Pay Off

The Best Film of 2006

by PopMatters Staff

10 January 2007


The Pay Off Part 2

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United 93

Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: David Alan Basche, Khalid Abdalla, Ben Sliney, Gregg Henry

US theatrical: 28 Apr 2006

Review [28.Apr.2006]


Easily the most impressive and surprising accomplishment by any filmmaker this year, Paul Greengrass’ account of the hijacked flight that never reached its target on 9/11 is both frightening to the core and entirely tasteful. In lucid, stripped-down style, the movie follows all perspectives, from the passengers to the air traffic controllers to the terrorists themselves. United 93 avoids politics, famous actors, and sentiment, instead choosing to simply place the audience in the moment, with full and startling directness. It’s one of the most uncompromising studio movies of all time. Amos Posner

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Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno)

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Ivana Baquero, Doug Jones, Sergi López, Ariadna Gil, Maribel Verdú, Álex Angulo, Roger Casamajor, Sebastián Haro

US theatrical: 29 Dec 2006 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 24 Nov 2006 (Limited release)


With Pan’s Labyrinth Guillermo del Toro creates a fantasy film as emotionally sophisticated as its special effects and makes Peter Jackson look like last year’s kiddie fare chump in the process. Set during the Spanish Civil War and couched in a traditional girl-princess narrative that builds off European folklore, the story asks tough questions about adulthood, family, courage, and sacrifice.  The resonant earth-toned images produced by Eugenio Caballero’s art direction and Guillermo Navarro’s cinematography strikes the right balance between storybook precociousness and nightmarish terror. Although marred by a smattering of portentousness (a similar affliction of del Toro’s compatriot Alfonso Cuaron) del Toro proves you can have your fairy tale and bloodily deconstruct it too. Michael Buening

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Director: Rian Johnson
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Nora Zehetner, Lukas Haas, Noah Fleiss, Matt O’Leary, Emilie de Ravin, Noah Segan, Richard Roundtree, Meagan Good

(Focus Features)
US theatrical: 31 Dec 1969 (Limited release)


A detective movie transplanted to a modern SoCal high school with neo-noir dialogue intact sounds gimmicky on paper.  But Rian Johnson’s debut feature Brick works not because of novelty (though it certainly has that going for it) or comedy (though it is, at times, very funny) but because its teenage take on kingpins, dames, and class war makes perfect emotional sense, down to the slangy patter and lovelorn hero.  That hero is played with beautiful toughness by former child star Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  He’s grown into one of his generation’s most talented actors; Johnson may achieve the same among directors. Jesse Hassenger

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A Scanner Darkly

Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Rory Cochrane

(Warner Independent Pictures)
US theatrical: 7 Jul 2006 (Limited release)


In blending author Philip K. Dick with the stunning computer generated rotoscoping animation he used in Waking Life, director Richard Linklater has reinvented the visual viability of 2D cartooning. Relying on that time honored plot of a super-addictive drug and the people who use and abuse it, Linklater utilizes his unusual cinematic approach to completely blur the lines between fantasy and reality, making the trials and turmoil experience by our hero—undercover cop Bob Arctor—that much more compelling. Following Dick’s storyline to a fault, Linklater proves that even something written in the 1970s can have cultural resonance today. Along with the trippy pen and ink imagery, Scanner becomes a manipulative mindf*ck, a movie adverse to giving away its secrets and requiring an audience to really think to discover its designs. Bill Gibron

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The Fountain

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn, Sean Gullette, Sean Patrick Thomas

(Warner Bros. Pictures)
US theatrical: 22 Nov 2006 (General release)


Anyone can throw together a science-fiction movie, but it takes a special mind to envision one that spans more than a century while combining conquistadors, cancer researchers, and futuristic space travel. And it takes Darren Aronofsky to weave all that into singularly focused, emotionally heartbreaking story about one man’s struggle to understand death. Adding in a surreal layer of special effects—done not with CG but by zoomed-in photography of chemical reactions—and Hugh Jackman’s heartrending performance, and Aronofsky’s made not just another sci-fi flick, but a film that expertly completes his trilogy of movies about obsessions, disasters, and enduring love. Marisa LaScala

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Little Children

Director: Todd Field
Cast: Kate Winslet, Jennifer Connelly, Noah Emmerich, Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Gregg Edelman, Sarah Buxton

(New Line)
US theatrical: 6 Oct 2006 (Limited release)


As a story of infidelity in a quiet suburb upturned by the presence of a convicted sex offender, Little Children is already a tight, compelling drama with wonderful ensemble performances headlined by Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson. But Todd Field’s adaptation of Tom Perotta’s novel lends great quirk and humor to what might have been a simple domestic dissection. The movie features a detached voiceover that wryly comments and jokes, standing outside the story to poke and laugh at it with the audience. All the usual elements are strong, but it’s the added overlay of surrealism and wit that sets it apart from the year’s other offerings. Amos Posner

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Half Nelson

Director: Ryan Fleck
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Shareeka Epps, Karen Chilton, Nathan Corbett, Monique Churnen, Tina Holmes

US theatrical: 11 Aug 2006 (Limited release)


All I really need to know I learned in Half Nelson. Wisdom for Hegel acolytes is not found in dialectics, but somewhere behind Ryan Gosling’s rakish grin. Other things I discovered: Opposites attract. Crack is whack. A herky-jerky indie with indelible performances can prove more than the sum of its hipper-than-thou cinematography and score. When Ryan Gosling acts like he doesn’t know what he’s doing as a teacher he comes off like the cock of the walk. Ryan Gosling is the greatest actor of his generation. There are other actors in this film, but said performances don’t matter because Ryan Gosling can go on a week-long bender leaving dreams and whores in his wake and still rouse himself from it looking really hot. Teachers, take heart.  And take another, uh, gander. Maureen Miller

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The Prestige

Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Andy Serkis, Piper Perabo, David Bowie

(Touchstone Pictures)
US theatrical: 20 Oct 2006 (General release)


Christopher Nolan has an affinity for trickery and the psychological.  In his elegant adaptation The Prestige, he wields both with a showman’s flair.  Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman play two nineteenth-century magicians determined to out-trick one another.  Bale is the dedicated genius; Jackman is more debonair and personable, but equally obsessive.  Together, they tread the line between science and wonder, fakery and fact.  There are twists, of course, but even if you spot one ahead of time, they’re so thematically rich that you’re still left with plenty to think about.  The Prestige is the kind of perfectly executed film that is often dismissed as an enjoyable exercise at first, only to have its reputation flourish over time—kind of a magic trick unto itself. Jesse Hassenger

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The Queen

Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Sylvia Syms

US theatrical: 30 Sep 2006 (Limited release)


The Cherry Orchard rewritten for the modern age of celebrity. As Elizabeth and Diana engage in a posthumous duel for the public’s affections, we realize we’re also watching a changing-of-the-guard: the personal, candid era of paparazzi fame is ushered in, the older way-reserve, grace, dignity-is booted out. The film, directed by the resourceful and unshowy Stephen Frears, invites us to sympathize with the hard, obdurate monarch, to see the strength and integrity (as well as the foolishness) in her mad resistance to change. Helen Mirren gives a truly cinematic performance: we scan her nearly impenetrable face for signs of the human being inside the figurehead, and in a scene involving a broken-down Jeep, we actually glimpse her soul. Mark Labowskie

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The Departed

Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Anthony Anderson, Alec Baldwin

(Warner Bros.)
US theatrical: 6 Oct 2006 (General release)


It doesn’t seem fair to call his take on the famed Hong Kong crime film a “return to form” for Martin Scorsese. As one of America’s few certified cinematic auteurs, crime and corruption are just two of the several subjects this filmmaker has handled with style and power. But something about this tale of undercover cops playing both sides of the law seems so right in this director’s hands that the results are a pure entertainment delight. A clear favorite of both fans and critics, The Departed threatens to break one of Scorsese’s longest running records. After almost 40 years behind the lens, Oscar may finally have to smile on this gifted moviemaking genius. Bill Gibron

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