The Mid-Year Top 10

July 03, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

This is something I have been doing for a few years: selecting a Top 10 for the January-June period. Since a majority of entries in the end-of-the-year Top 10 are released in November and December, presenting a mid-year list allows me to highlight some very good movies that will be overlooked in six months' time. It's hard to say how many of the following ten films will survive to land in this year's final Top 10. However, based on history, I would guess two or three. #1 is a sure bet. After that, it depends on how good the late autumn crop is. Here's how I see things for the first half of 2006 (in reverse order):

#10: Winter Passing
Winter Passing is an example of a film in which a great performance elevates an otherwise average motion picture. The reason to see the movie is Zooey Deschanel, who brings such power and passion to her role as Reese that we are drawn into her world, almost against our will (it's not a nice world). Supporting roles are filled by the likes of Ed Harris, Will Ferrell, and Amy Madigan, but this is Deschanel's movie from start to finish. It's already available on DVD, so it's easy enough to find.

#9: The Proposition
The Proposition is the kind of "modern" Western that makes John Ford's contributions look tame. That's to say it's grim and gritty, and overflowing with nihilism. Despite taking place in Australia, this is a story that could easily unfold in the more cinematically familiar Old West. There's some action in The Proposition, but this film is more about moral conundrums than shoot-outs.

#8: Running Scared
Running Scared is a lot of fun - a fast paced action thriller filled with twists and odd tangents. It also shows a side of Paul Walker we're not used to seeing. The film is violent in a Tarantino-inspired way, and features a child in danger. For whatever reason, Running Scared failed to find an audience when it arrived in theaters. It's on DVD now, giving viewers another chance to catch what it has to offer.

#7: Art School Confidential
With Art School Confidential, Terry Zwigoff has aimed his satirical camera at slightly older individuals than the protagonists of his earlier Ghost World. With winning performances from Max Minghella and Sophia Myles, the movie takes aim at the college experience in general and art schools in particular. The first half is better (funnier, more incisive) than the second half, when things become more serious, but there's plenty to like about the production as a whole. The biggest hurdle faced by this movie is that it never opened wide so, for those who wanted to see it, the search became a challenge.

#6: The Notorious Bettie Page
As bio-pics go, this is one of the better non-epic ones. Although it doesn't offer anything new or challenging, it's an engaging look at one of the 20th century's memorable pin-up girls. As played with considerable daring by an uninhibited Gretchen Moll, Bettie comes across as a mixture of frankness and naivete - an odd melange considering her job. Well acted and beautifully photographed, this one is worth a look when it arrives on DVD. (It's currently in the limbo that exists between theatrical showing and home availability.)

#5: Lucky Number Slevin
I liked this film better than most because I thought it succeeded in doing what director Paul McGuigan intended. McGuigan surprised me on at least two occasions - not an easy thing to do - and he succeded in getting the audience to root for what would normally be considered an unsympathetic character. Lucky Number Slevin also allowed me to understand the appeal of Lucy Liu - something that had previously eluded me.

#4: V for Vendetta
The first 3 1/2-star movie of 2006, this one had me exhaling deeply the moment the end credits rolled: So studios can still make good films. Entertaining and intense, V for Vendetta takes viewers along for the ride with a Phantom of the Opera-inspired vigilante who has something to prove. The story is delivered with flair and there's some good acting to be found. It was a box office disappointment, but will probably do well on DVD. Maybe it was too intelligent for the target teenage audience, or maybe the release strategy was badly executed.

#3: Hard Candy
With its controversial subject matter, Hard Candy became a love it or hate it kind of film. Put me in the former category. I like its twisted world view, the manner in which it turns morality on its head, and the way it makes the audience squirm. I appreciate movies that push the envelope, and that's what this one does. Is it perfect? No - the last act drags and there are logical flaws with the resolution. But watching Hard Candy isn't an experience I'm likely to forget. It stays with you and, if you're honest, forces you to confront questions you might prefer not to think about.

#2: Superman Returns
Superman Returns has received its share of mixed reviews, but I stand by my opinion of it, and that's after seeing it a second time. Unlike others, I don't think there's a problem with the pacing, because I see it as much a love story as an action/adventure film. If you want non-stop superhero kick-ass action, the third X-Men film is still out there. Superman Returns is something altogether different. It's character-based, not stunt-based, and that makes it a rarity in the genre. It's either the best or nearly the best superhero movie ever to reach the silver screen.

#1: United 93
United 93 is a near-perfect retelling of some of the events of September 11, 2001. By using the same pseudo-documentary approach he employed for Bloody Sunday, Paul Greengrass brought home the intensity of what may have happened on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. He also offers a window into the chaos that enveloped NORAD and flight control towers on that day. In the end, the picture painted by United 93 has a powerful and lasting impact. Not only does it bring back events with unexpected force, but it tells a story that is simultaneously tragic and heroic.