Rewinding 2006: The Top 10

December 30, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

Like all lists, Top 10s are extremely personal. I would be surprised if anyone else (critic or otherwise) has an identical Top 10 list to mine. But therein lies the enjoyment of examining individual Top 10 lists: they provide insight into the mindset of the one who has assembled them. It doesn't matter whether one agrees with their choices or not; that's irrelevant. It's about learning something about a person through the movies they like. I don't like "group" lists. To me, they are valueless - a generic popularity contest that reveals nothing.

Readers are welcome to send e-mails complaining about my Top 10 choices. Feel free to voice your outrage or agreement. I'll read them all. Generally, though, I don't respond - not because I'm thin-skinned but because, really, what's the point of arguing about what should or shouldn't be on a Top 10 list? (If an e-mail raises an interesting point, that's another matter.) This is all it boils down to: these are the ten movies released during the calendar year 2006 that I liked the best. Attempts to attribute other significance to the Top 10 would be fruitless. My opinions are what they are. Use this list, if you will, as a window into my mind. (Presented in reverse order, with the best last.)

Honorable mentions: Dreamgirls, The Good Shepherd, Pan's Labyrinth, V for Vendetta

10. Superman Returns: If I was running a popularity contest, Superman Returns wouldn't be near the top. This movie was reviled by many in fandom and received in a lukewarm fashion by the movie-going population in general (if a domestic box office total of $200 million can be considered "lukewarm"). However, I think it's a brilliant compromise between re-inventing Superman and remaining faithful to the Donner/Lester films of the late '70s and early '80s. To me, this is a movie about frailties and longing, with the action/adventure sequences coming in a distant second, although there is at least one great one. Of all the popcorn movies of 2006, this is one of the few that made me feel something. (See also #8.)

9. Stranger than Fiction: Underrated and largely unseen, Stranger than Fiction deserved better because the screenplay teeters on the brink of brilliance. It's a fable that postulates what might happen if an author's fictional character is walking the streets of this world, dancing like a puppet on a string yet developing independent thought. The movie is funny, romantic, and poignant by turns. It's the first time I have seen more than a manic comedian hiding beneath Will Ferrell's skin, and it features a winning supporting performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal as the woman who hates Ferrell's tax collector then falls in love with him. Stranger than Fiction also makes me wonder why Emma Thompson doesn't do more narration.

8. Casino Royale: The decision to re-boot Bond couldn't have come at a better time. With Casino Royale, we get a Royale without cheese. Not since On Her Majesty's Secret Service has a Bond story been told this straight, but this time we have a lot better actor in the lead role. In another unusual twist, Bond really, truly falls in love - something he has done only once before. This movie feels more immediate and the character is more human, and that leads to a fresh wind blowing through the campy stagnancy that has permeated the series for decades. This is not your father's Bond, but it may be your grandfather's.

7. Hard Candy: A lot of people hated this movie, and it's not the kind of film that's easy to like. Do you sympathize with the pedophile victim or the would-be victim turned tormentor? The film is designed to make viewers squirm, and squirm they do (especially males). Yet it also asks a lot of provocative questions and keeps the tension high. The ending is drawn-out and the final resolution is unconvincing, but in the wake of such an eye-opening motion picture, it's easy to forgive those problems. Hard Candy is a shot to the system with an uncomfortably compelling portrayal by Ellen Page.

6. 49 Up: Michael Apted returns with the seventh chapter in his on-going chronicle of the lives of 12 real people. As with the other Up movies, this one works best when one has familiarity with the characters, but Apted's recaps are sufficient to introduce newbies without confusion. It's a brilliant documentary study of real life and continues what could be considered the most ambitious cinematic project ever embarked upon.

5. Deliver Us from Evil: For those who think Hard Candy is disturbing, Deliver us from Evil will be harrowing. This documentary turns its unblinking camera iris at the Catholic Church sex scandal and provides both sides of the story. In addition to recording the testimony of several adults whose childhoods were rent by a faithless priest, the filmmakers were able to track down the victimizer and capture him on camera. Not only does he admit his infractions but he opens up in ways that are shocking because of his matter-of-fact tone. The documentary is brilliant and tough to watch, yet it deserves to be seen, especially by those who have a tendency to plant their heads in the sand.

4. Little Children: As a follow-up to In the Bedroom, Todd Field could not have chosen a more affecting tale. His movie looks beneath the superficiality of life in the suburbs to uncover the boredom, repression, and frustration that drive simple people to impulsive and sometimes desperate acts. Without demonizing any of the protagonists, Field offers a character study of two adulterers, a pedophile, and a man seeking an outlet for his anger. Brilliant acting complements the incisive, insightful script. In particular, Kate Winslet (as a bored housewife) and Jackie Earle Haley (as the pedophile) stand out.

3. Babel: The concluding chapter in Alejandro González Iñárritu's trilogy about coincidence and misery, Babel tones down the interconnections between characters in order to emphasize the theme of how poorly human beings communicate. The film transpires in three locations - Morocco, the Mexican/United States border, and Japan - and encompasses four stories. It's brilliantly composed and acted, with cinematography that conveys the director's vision. The movie feels like it's depicting a few slices of life and like life, the resolutions aren't necessarily clean or happy (although the film is not as bleak as either Amores Perros or 21 Grams). Babel is a powerful and compelling motion picture and shows how small actions by one individual can have surprisingly significant repercussions half-a-world away. It's the Butterfly Effect applied on a human scale. The film is both intimate and global.

2. United 93: A 9/11 motion picture could easily be exploitative, but that's not a word to use for Paul Greengrass' United 93, a narrative film based on actual events that uses a documentary-style approach to depict the confusion and heroism of September 11, 2001. The film is divided into two pieces. During the first half, Greengrass takes us into the control towers in the New York area, illustrating the mounting confusion and frustration that leads to mistakes and slow action. It's a "you are there" approach. The second half takes place aboard United 93 and mixes established events with imagined ones. Greengrass does not employ cheap melodramatic tactics like so-called "character building." He also mostly eschews incidental music. The film is stark in its approach and the expected ending is simultaneously uplifting and upsetting. The only ones I would not recommend United 93 to are those whose lives have been wrenched by 9/11 and are not ready or able to once again confront that day.

1. The Departed: With The Departed, Martin Scorsese proves that it is possible to craft a superior remake. The source material, a Hong Kong film called Infernal Affairs, is a good movie, but Scorsese has improved upon it in nearly every way imaginable. He has transformed the material into vintage Scorsese, bolstering characters, expanding the plot, and adding a twist ending. My definition of a great remake is a movie that retains the essence of the original while changing it in ways that make it a unique production and give it its own identity. The Departed accomplishes this. It's the director's most successful movie in more that 10 years and it is one of the first triumphant motion pictures since The Return of the King. This is masterful cinema in every way from the manner in which it is shot to the impact of performers like Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson. It's hard to imagine that Scorsese won't win that elusive Best Director Oscar. The Departed stands on its own, apart from Infernal Affairs, and is the best film of 2006.

Bring on 2007...