"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.
6) Bubble (Steven Soderbergh)
The last time Soderbergh walked away from Hollywood, he unleashed the hilarious absurdist comedy Schizopolis; this time around, he's returned with a starker and quieter but no less off-the-wall film. It's neorealistic yet anti-naturalistic — accomplished amateur performances in service to a tightly controlled and designed directorial style, with every shot set up just so and every cut placed for maximum impact. Some would argue that this makes the film arid; I argue that the aridity is the point. (It's set in a freakin' doll factory, for Pete's sake.) We all live in our own little bubbles, and the smallest disturbance can rupture that. The closing credits, on a second viewing, struck me as the most disturbing thing in any movie from 2006.
5) The Departed (Martin Scorsese)
"I'm gonna go have a smoke right now. You want a smoke? You don't smoke, do ya, right? What are ya, one of those fitness freaks, huh? Go fuck yourself."
4) A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman)
Even before Altman died, I knew this was his last will and testament, the sight of an old man making peace with his mortality. That it manages to be so without becoming depressing – indeed, while remaining a gently boisterous marvel of knockabout entertainment – is what makes it truly special. Plus, any movie that makes Lindsay Lohan look talented deserves as much recognition as it can get.
3) Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón)
Alternately droll and terrifying, this darkly dystopic vision of the near future does its job as efficiently as possible. (No time for tears, gotta keep moving forward.) It's both exciting and understated (Clive Owen's trauma over his dead child is briefly touched upon rather than turned into a clumsy emotional fulcrum), and there's a wealth of tiny details that show someone was thinking every step of the way. Cuarón utilizes handheld cinematography and long takes to give the impression of striding along with the characters and being in their situation, which makes for a chaotic and harrowing experience; yet, in its own tough and unsentimental way, Children of Men shows that hope can still glint in even the darkest times. (Also, I don't care what anyone says – that last cut is perfect.)
2) Duck Season (Fernando Eimbcke)
A magnificent little gem of a movie dedicated to the fine art of hanging out and doing nothing. Eimbcke knows that, much of the time, major change can gradually evolve until one day, with no fanfare, everything's different. Thus, his film becomes a bittersweet paean to the ephemerality of today. You only go around once, so enjoy it.
1) Jackass Number Two (Jeff Tremaine)
The most impressive aspect of this unexpected artistic triumph is the Rorschach reactions it causes. It's malleable enough to be just about anything – it's the ferocious vanishing point of sadistic neo-slapstick; it's a radical queer document on the secret life of male bonding and a joke on its (presumed) fratboy audience; it's a gloriously juvenile ode to the sheer physicality that unites us in commonality (we all hurt when struck and bleed when pierced); it's Johnny Knoxville and company entering into the world of performance art; it's bleeding, screaming raw art-punk terror; it's jes' plain hilarious. You know what? Fuck art, let's dance.
The Worst: For the last few months, I've been on the horns of a dilemma. Is the worst film I saw from 2006 Park Chan-wook's morally rotten Lady Vengeance, as bald and hateful a one-sided valentine to the righteousness of mob justice as I've ever seen? Or is it the agonizing Date Movie, a film so mistrustful of its audience's ability to understand simple pop culture references that all its jokes are theoretical? Ultimately, I think the latter is the worse film – I subscribe to the belief that trying to say something, no matter how off the mark, is better than trying to say nothing – but I wouldn't shed a tear if both films disappeared tomorrow.