"Seen any good movies lately?"
It's a sign of 2006's artistic timbre that this was probably the most flummoxing question I heard all year. Inevitably, the answer was either, "No, not really," or, "Well, such-and-such was decent, I guess…" Even when I did see a film that impressed me, I'd often have to qualify it somehow. I still get funny looks when I tell people my favorite film of the year.
That's the kind of year it's been – not necessarily terrible, just plum weird. Thus, my picks for the year's finest cinematic achievements are a mixed bag: a couple expected choices, a couple obscure ones and at least two that seem to invite a response of "You're kidding, right?" So it goes.
(And yes, this is version one. I'm still catching up — I haven't yet seen, for instance, A Scanner Darkly, Old Joy, Little Children, Notes on a Scandal or either of the films Clint Eastwood put out this year — so, as always, I won't feel completely satisfied with this until mid-March. But people just think you're off your nut if you wait that long.)
10) Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro) and Tideland (Terry Gilliam)
Unlike, say, Kenneth Turan, I'm not generally the type to shoehorn two films into one slot and call it kosher. I can't deny, though, that Pan's Labyrinth and Tideland are kindred spirits. Both are dark little fairy tales (heavily indebted to tropes identified with the Grimm Brothers) wherein little girls escape/deny adverse living conditions by receding into an imaginitively-rendered fantasy world, and both have singular lead performances from their youthful charges. Del Toro's film is one of the best reviewed of the year; Gilliam's is one of the worst. Go figure – I think they're equally excellent. Labyrinth, a gorgeous and gruesome Gothic phantasmagoria, allows its heroine to live on a separate track from the rest of the world around her until reality cruelly crashes in on the fantasy; the heroine (and, by extension, director) of the eye-poppingly mordant Tideland doesn't allow that such a separation exists, deciding instead to shape reality in her head. Which, in the end, is more frightening?
9) Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (Tom Tykwer)
I continue to suspect that Tykwer is only as good as the sum of his influences on any given project, but he's at least chosen some fine influences here. Through careful editing and expressive cinematography, he manages to convey a reasonable impression of scent, that least cinematic of senses, while also staying fairly faithful to the tone of Patrick Süskind's novel (which I'm currently reading). He saves his most impressive material for last, though; in rendering Süskind's grandly insane climax, Tykwer gets closer to the rude, earthy mastery of late-era Pier Paolo Pasolini than anyone since Pasolini himself.
8) Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles)
The political significance of Borat has been overstated; the effectiveness of its humor has not. Jesus Christ, this film's funny. Despite the real-world sheen, the film boils down to Sacha Baron Cohen understanding and exploiting to the hilt one of the oldest and truest maxims in the comedy game: Humor is most effective when it comes from within a character as opposed to merely happening to a character. The joke's on us, the joke's on Borat, the joke's on everyone. Is nice!
7) Down in the Valley (David Jacobson)
It's all make believe, isn't it? Set in Los Angeles, where urbania conquered the desert sprawl of the West, Jacobson's undervalued drama centers on the relationship between a teenage girl (Evan Rachel Wood) and an impossibly polite older man (Edward Norton) who fancies himself a modern-day cowboy. She wants to believe that he's come to save her from her tumultuous home life, and he desperately needs to believe that she needs saving. What then starts as a tentative and sensitive look at an oddball May-December romance takes a hard left halfway through and mutates into a dark treatise on mythmaking and modern life.