To the discerning eye, this list is going to appear a little odd. At first, you see films that typically make most end of the year inventories – movies like The Queen and The Departed. These are the quality efforts that many critics recognize as stellar filmmaking, flawlessly executed. But about halfway through, things start to shift wildly. Before long, outright genre efforts - and even a film unseen by most of the movie-going public - are taking the place of other, overly praised efforts. This is done on purpose. Here at SE&L, we sing along to our own inner soundtrack and praise the movies that we feel best fulfilled their cinematic promise. A great film doesn’t have to meet a journalist-mandated set of standards, nor does it have to be a true fan favorite. Like humor and taste in music, what zaps a cinephile’s aesthetic is individual and unique. One man’s Trash is another man’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre, so to speak.
So behold, the first ever PopMatters Film Blog Top Ten. Frankly, it was a fairly easy list to compile. Take the movies seen throughout the course of 2006, rank them in order of personal preference, and write up some blurbs. Certainly, there will be choices that people point to (Letters from Iwo Jima, Dreamgirls, Little Miss Sunshine) that aren’t represented here, and again, that’s intentional. If we enjoyed a slice and dice bit of slasher superiority from the guy who created Cabin Fever over a no nonsense reminder of 9/11 heroism, so be it. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, even if it promotes a certain storyline featuring motherf*cking reptiles on a motherf*cking airliner. So get out your poison pens and prepare to pick apart the choices. Here are Short Ends and Leaders picks for the Best Films of 2006:
1. The Prestige
If films are supposed to make you forget your troubles, whisk you away to worlds and places unknown, and deliver the kind of insightful, absorbing entertainment that only great art can accomplish, then The Prestige is definitely cinema at its most amazing. No other movie in 2006 was as painstakingly creative and visually arresting as Christopher Nolan’s take on Christopher Priest’s battling magicians novel. Much more than The Illusionist, which couched its pretty prestidigitation in a setting of pure old fashioned romance, The Prestige played with notions of obsession, dedication and deception. It remains a dark and dazzling work of masterful manipulation with an ending more saddening than shocking.
2. The Fountain
When you tear away the artifice, when you understand the links between the three arcane storylines (Conquistador, Contemporary, Cosmic) as well as the couple at the center of this staggering drama, you realize just how deep Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain really is. A magnificent meditation on how we accept death, and our inner struggle over demands of immortality, the Requiem for a Dream helmer describes love and loss, science vs. the spiritual, and hope against horror, all in the eyes of his two desperate leads. Dismissed by most critics who couldn’t wrap their brain around the unusual narrative structure, this is a film destined to grow in stature and significance in years to come.
3. The Queen
They say that famed British actress Helen Mirren stars in this unusual docudrama on the events surrounding the death of Princess Diana. Unfortunately, all one witnesses in this magnificent bit of motion picture imagining is her Royal Highness herself, Queen Elizabeth II. So effective is Mirren in drawing us into the world of the socially sheltered monarchy that we never once doubt we are watching the real Windsor clan reacting to a troubling, traumatic event. Michael Sheen is equally amazing as Tony Blair, the newly elected Prime Minister forced to face off against Her Majesty when the country’s grief grows too powerful. Together they show how power blurs the edges of one’s humanity, and how hard it is to get it back.
4. The Departed
Martin Scorsese and crime seem to be synonymous, but for many, The Departed marked a transitional moment for the American auteur. While this good cop/bad cop game of double crosses contained the essence of the Hong Kong hit Infernal Affairs in its narrative basics, the man behind such masterpieces as Goodfellas and Raging Bull reconfigured the story into something deeply personal. All three main characters, and the actors who embodied them, come across as worn and worked over, tired of constantly having to stay one step ahead of each other. Add in a superb supporting cast, an enigmatic Boston location, and a barrel full of Scorsese’s standard directorial brilliance, and you’ve got one of the year’s best, most accomplished films.
5. Clerks II
Kevin Smith can claim a great many things, but making one of the best movies of any year is not really one of them. Oh sure, his fans in the View Askew universe recognize that anything he does is brilliant, but that doesn’t mean that the far more condemning critical community follows suit. For 2006, things have changed. By revisiting his past, Smith has expanded his generational language, doing for maturity and moving on what the first Clerks did for sublime slackerdom a decade before. With its biting dialogue, insightful humor and smidgen of open-handed heart, what we wind up with is a wonderful dissertation on arrested adolescence and adulthood.
Some find Eli Roth repugnant, the founding father of the new fangled ‘horror porn’ ideal. Anyone dismissing Hostel like this obviously has no movie macabre credentials. Doing for the genre what the Texas Chain Saw Massacre did in the ‘70s, and Evil Dead did for the ‘80s, Roth reinvents the scary film, taking it to levels both extreme and easily identifiable. Many people failed to see the cynical commentary on American nationalism and even fewer missed the swipes at the softcore sex farces that made up the majority of the early home video catalog. The results are dark, disgusting and definitive. Like The Fountain before, this is one that will age well indeed.
7. Snakes on a Plane
All right, complain all you want. Declare this a clear case of Internet hype failing to fulfill its promise, but dammit, Snakes on a Plane was a blast. People constantly comment on how the web-based ballyhoo didn’t translate into massive box office dollars, but the truth is that for anyone who grew up in the 1970s, SoaP was a terrific throwback to the original concept of a blockbuster. As the missing badass cousin of the kitschy Airport films, it’s a perfect example of the Zen popcorn experience, offering as much goofball yin as cinematic yang. Sure, it barely transcends its b-movie trappings, but for pure uncomplicated entertainment, you can’t beat these sensational serpents.
8. Silent Hill
Creepy can be its own virtue, and no one did disturbing better than Brotherhood of the Wolf director Christophe Gans. Given the charge of bringing to life the popular video game, the French filmmaker turned Hill‘s horrible imagery into a metaphor for life under the threat of constant upheaval. Few cinematic sequences were more compelling this year than the moments when the town’s ‘dark’ alarm sounded off, its baneful wail reminding all who hear it of the days when US Civil Defense used the same signal to announce an imminent nuclear threat. Between the dread-inspiring creatures and the brilliant visual flair, this was one spine-tingling take on terror.
Mel Gibson may be as mad as a hatter – and a regular racist fool – but he sure can make magnificent cinema. Using a digital set-up to increase the realism and a measured approach to both history and histrionics, this old fashioned action romp rides the fine line between period piece and sci-fi spectacle. By taking us into the tale end of a corrupt Mayan culture, and watching the weird, sometimes contemptible way in which they held onto their power, we are literally whisked away to places afar and unknown. By grounding all the gore and gratuity, this tale of a kidnapped tribesman desperate to get back to his family proves a prolonged chase can carry with it more than just filmmaking panache. There can be heart and humanity as well.
It’s the best movie of 2006 that no one saw – and that was on purpose. Fox, feeling let down once again by Mike Judge’s slanted satirical eye, relegated this 2004 futuristic farce to a high shelf in their direct to DVD release schedule. Then, feeling considerable pressure from the filmmaker, dumped it in a few theaters during the end of the Summer, signaling their overall contempt for the title. It makes sense, once you’ve seen the film. The very demographic Fox was wagering would fill the Cineplex were the very target of Judge’s derisive skewering. A movie that makes the bold prediction that our country is getting stupider every year, here’s hoping it finds an knowing audience on home video.