Just to make this list more balanced, based on my woefully inadequate attendance of films in 2006, I've placed a qualifying set of films at the end that I still need to see from last year. Come on HBO, Aaron needs a new pair of shoes!
10. Mission Impossible 3 - Action films are supposed to excite. This one did. Casino Royale is far more realistic and gritty, so it makes the upper tier of my list, but J. J. Abrams nailed the "spy" portion of this film and made the much maligned Tom Cruise look good.
9. Down in the Valley - Tragedy is what you make it, and this bleak film about modernity, love, and acceptance was Norton's chance to take on Taxi Driver. It's not stylized enough to do so, but it certainly has its moments, and the acting is top-notch.
8. A Scanner Darkly - Linklater's application of Waking Life to a trippy Philip K. Dick novel (I know, that's repetitive) works so well because the cast is outstanding. The film actually comes off as a comedy before it spirals into a bad trip, and Woody Harrelson and Robert Downy Jr. wholly steal this film (not that it's hard) from Keanu Reeves.
7. The Prestige - Christopher Nolan knows how to make a thriller: Memento and Insomnia, even Batman Begins, they've all led him to the perfectly paced period piece that is The Prestige. Though some may disagree with the third act of this film, there are few who can argue it isn't exquisitely performed by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman.
6. Lady Vengeance - Not nearly as good as Oldboy or Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, but Park-woo makes better films than Americans while sleeping. The past scenes, set in a favor-driven jail, are filled with humor and cheer; the present revenge plot is dark and violent. The execution of both is well-done.
5. Manderlay - Where were you when Dogtown came out? Manderlay, a self-contained sequel, is a wonderful period-piece done with only the essentials of scene-work, is like a staging of Our Town, minimal, but rich and deep. Exploring class issues, revenge theory, and the slave mentality, Lars von Trier draws so many parallels to today's culture than his film is almost required viewing, although it's granted that his chalk-outlined sets will seem a bit too artsy for those who don't understand that it only makes the storytelling more focused and the acting more intense.
4. Babel - Though it's certainly been overhyped, that doesn't mean that it deserves backlash. Inarritu's latest might not be better than Amores Perros, but it's a step up from 21 Grams, and it's a rare film that isn't just relevant but is also just a little bit timeless, too. The film manipulates emotion too much, but the festival scene, the desert exodus, and other spectacular scenes justify all of the off-kilter segments in Japan.
3. Casino Royale - Gritty. Violent. Pulse-pounding. Exciting. For a film that spends most of its time sitting around a poker table, Martin's managed to cram a lot of thrills into this latest James Bond flick, and his choice of leading man, Daniel Craig is a bold bet that beats all the odds. The film meanders toward the end, and there's too much pleasure taken in unimportant details, but the strangling grip of tension, bustling through the plot, keeps us paying rapt attention.
2. Children of Men - Speaking of tension, Cuaron has made one of the most atmospheric parables of all time. His film, which uses long, unbroken, shaky camera work to force us deeper into this great escape, doesn't have a dull moment in it. That's because he's brought surprise back to the theater and refused to yield to the easily optimistic ending. Very similar to 28 Days Later in scope, but more realistic, sans zombies. Well worth your time.
1. Pan's Labyrinth - Whether or not fantasy's your thing, Pan's Labyrinth is the film to see in 2006. It's the best-looking thing out there, the most elegant parallel for the unsubtle brutality of the world, and a fantastic (and epic) through-the-looking-glass adventure. Vibrant, excellently paced, even better acted, and horrifying blunt for a film that is built on escapism, Guillermo del Toro is an example of why movies like Blade 2 are such wastes of time.
Biggest Disappointment of 2006:
The Fountain - Darren Aronofsky took six years after the perfect Requiem for a Dream to make this much-cut and compromised film. The idea is epic, but the tangled story doesn't live up to it, and for all the lush visuals and good acting, the pacing is too slow for me to care.
Most Overhyped of 2006:
Brick - If you don't like noir, this modern translation will miss every mark it sets. It's a beguiling indie film that doesn't have much going for it beyond its gimmick, and the parallels don't work nearly as well as in the cinematographic violence of Sin City. The cartoon quality made the blood more realistic there; here, it's just callous and empty.
Blood Diamond, Borat, Clerks II, Flags of Our Father, The Good German, The Last King of Scotland, Letters from Iwo Jima, Little Miss Sunshine, Rocky Balboa, The Science of Sleep, Shortbus, Volver.
[First posted to Film Monthly on 1/29/07]