Note: This is an expanded version of the article that appeared in "The Star" newspapers in December.
I've been reviewing since my college days in the early '80s, and I've been doing top 10 lists since 1987. This may be the worse year in film I have ever experienced as a critic. Many of the films on my top 20 list would not have made it into my list on previous years. The quality of big Hollywood pictures has declined, and the scripts have been so dumbed down so much that they often make TV sitcoms look good in comparison. The independent films were also less bold and ground breaking. There was no "sex, lies and videotape," "Memento" "Donnie Darko" or "Pi" this year. It shouldn't come as a surprise that no American films won at Cannes Film Festival this year.
But two actors (Clint Eastwood and Isabella Rossellini) stepped up to the plate and hit home runs. They both demonstrated that they may be even more gifted at writing and directing than acting.
"Letters from Iwa Jima" has more dramatic weight than other film this year, and it rivals the best WW II films of the past (such as "The Big Red One" and "Saving Private Ryan") for power. When "Flags of Our Fathers" came out earlier this year I was slightly disappointing, but it gains in power when you see it back to back with "Letters from Iwa Jima." Eastwood proves once again that he is one of the best genre film directors since John Ford. Now, if he would only make another Western!!!
Isabella Rossellini (best known for "Blue Velvet") proved her great skill as both a witty script writer and accomplished actress-playing multiple characters in Guy Maddin's wonderfully quirky short, "My Dad is 100 Years Old." She also works well with the experimental film maker, Guy Maddin who somehow makes films which look old and feel new at the same time.
It was also a great year for the Brits. Many of the best performances of the year were by British actresses. "Little Children" has a great ensemble cast, but British born actress, Kate Winslet is particularly impressive. "Notes from a Scandal" features a devastating performance by Judi Dench as a sinister teacher, and Helen Mirren is so good as Queen Elizabeth that you may confuse her with the real thing. The British born Peter O'Toole and Leslie Phillips had terrific chemistry in "Venus," as a seventy something man and a female teen who become unlikely friends. And the year's most critically acclaimed British film of the year, Ken Loach's "The Wind that Shakes the Barley," which won the Palm d’Or at Cannes this year has not even been screened in Chicago yet.
For some reason there were many fine films about educators this year. "Half Nelson" featured Ryan Gosling playing a crack addicted history teacher in one of the year's most engrossing performances. "The History Boys" was bright and inspiring, although its nonchalant attitude toward teacher/student relations made me slightly uncomfortable; and then of course there's the before mentioned "Notes of a Scandal" about a teacher who completely crosses the line with a student.
There was an abundance of top notch comedies. After several years of disappointing features, Kevin Smith came back strongly with "Clerks 2" which was less original, but just as amusing as the first one. "For Your Consideration" featured some of the wittiest banter and best dry humor since the original SCTV show went off the air (many of the cast members came from the show). "Borat" contained some of the best belly laughs in years. But the dysfunctional family road movie "Little Miss Sunshine" had the cleverest script, the best characters, and made a profound message on the phony ideal of beauty in America and the artificiality of beauty contests. Now, the disappointments.
Two of the best American directors, Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, made glossy, expensive films in 2006 ("The Departed" and "The Inside Man"). They were both watchable and stylish, but they were also shallow and impersonal compared to their previous efforts. They also recently each made a TV miniseries ("No Direction Home") and "When the Levee Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts") that were far more substantial.
Other big films that do not quite live up to the advanced hype include "Marie Antoinette," " World Trade Center," "Blood Diamonds," " Babel," and "Bobby." "The Devil Wears Prada" was a ordinary film that was not quite redeemed by Meryl Streep's stellar performance. Most of the other big films were even more forgettable. Although it was not a great year for films, the very best films would have been good in any year.
Now here's my top 20. I left out a few important films such as "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" and "The New World," because they opened in other states last year. I wanted to concentrate on this year's releases, as well as preview films that haven't opened yet. There are also a few of the year’s most critically acclaimed films (such as “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”) that I haven’t been able to see yet.
1.) Letters from Iwa Jima-Clint Eastwood’s masterful companion piece to "Flags of Our Fathers" tells the story of Iwa Jima from the Japanese side. This film treats Asian culture with a respect, reverence, and sensitivity that is rare for an American film, and the action scenes are horrifically effective. In Japanese with English sub-titles.
2.) My Dad is 100 Years Old- Guy Maddin's surrealist short is a remarkable tribute to the Italian Neorealist master, Roberto Rossellini. His daughter Isabella wrote the script, and she does hilariously broad caricatures of Federico Fellini, Charlie Chaplin (who talks briefly in captions before flying away on angel wings), and Alfred Hitchcock (a puffed up Isabelle shown in silhouette like Hitch in the opening of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents) talking about the cinematic legacy of her dad. Her chronically overweight father is portrayed as a talking belly.
3.) Water-Controversial and socially conscious film about the plight of widows in India is well acted and beautifully shot. It's a part of a trilogy along with "Fire" and "Water" which are also excellent. In Indian with English sub-titles. To see my interview with the director go to In Indian with English sub-titles
4.) Little Children-Scathing satire of suburban life stars Kate Winslet (even greater than usual) as a bored and well read housewife who jeopardizes her safe married life by having an affair with a married neighbor. In one of the film's high points she talks about Madame Bovary, and she isn't completely aware of the parallels in her life and the main character's The film's three main plotlines criss cross and come together in an unexpected way in the end.
5). INLAND EMPIRE- David Lynch's latest effort is bizarre even for him. It was shot on digital video and features Laura Dern playing an actress who sometimes turns into the people she portrays. There's also a dysfunctional family of human sized rabbits doing comedy scenes on stage while an audience laughs loudly. On top of that, there's dramatic scenes in Polish, and a chorus of prostitutes which comments on the action and sings "The Locomotion." It's not consistently absorbing as " Mullholland Drive," but it contains some of most wonderfull weird scenes of the year. Lynch himself showed up on a January 27th screening at the Music Box (Note: the title is supposed to be in capitals.)
6.) Notes on a Scandal-Blistering and powerful portrayal of a mixed up high school teacher who has an affair with a student. Both Blanchett (as the teacher) and Judi Dench (as her manipulative friend) are superb. Dench is deliciously evil in one of her best roles.
7.) United 93- Tense documentary like drama about 9/11 makes great use of handheld camera, and includes convincing performances by little known actors. Viewers will actually feel like they are on a hijacked plane during the film.
8.) Little Miss Sunshine-Delightful comedy about a dysfunctional family that goes on the road so that their plane Jane daughter can enter a beauty contest. The film sends up the American beauty contest views on beauty, and has some great situational humor.
9.) The Queen-Helen Mirren is completely convincing playing the reactionary queen who insists on living in the past, and she completely underestimates the importance of Diana's death. A noble Tony Blair tries to drag her into the 21rst century. The same director, Stephen Frears, also made a companion peace which includes a much less flattering view of Tony Blair and deals with his downfall.
10.) Borat-Wickedly hilarious mockumentary about a fictional immigrant inspired the most laud belly laughs of any film in years, and it does a great of exposing American bias. This was the only hit film that lived up to its hype, and Sacha Baron Cohen proves he’s a comic genius.
11.) Manderlay-Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron’s daughter) stars in the third part of a Lars Von Trier's "American trilogy" as a gangster's daughter who condescendingly tries to liberate some African-Americans that are still treated like slaves. Controversial film masterfully deals with the psycological consequences of slavery, and it takes some deserving shots at both racists and overly optimistic liberals. Like its predecessors in the trilogy ("Dancer in the Dark" and "Dogville"), it also takes minimalism to a whole new level.
12.) The Dead Girl-Darkly poetic film tries to solve the puzzle of a serial killing, and involves five plot lines involving five very different women converge. With two very different and beautifully done character portraits (Toni Collette as a tortured daughter and Brittany Murphy as a drug addicted victim.) It may take a few viewings to get all the plot intricacies, but its well worth the effort.
13.)Sorry, Haters-Tense tale of a filthy rich and psychologically unsound woman (Robin Wright Penn), and her uneasy relationship with a Middle Eastern cab driver. This brutal, unflinching look at race recalls Fassbinder's classic "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul."
14.) Volver-Pedro Almodvar's magical realist film about a mother who returns from the dead to help her daughters in their times of need features Penelope Cruz's best ever performance (she is made up to recall Sophia Loren), and great supporting performances particularly by Carmen Maura. Not quite up to the standard set by "All About My Mother" but it comes close. In Spanish with English sub-titles.
15.) Pan's Labryrinth-Exquisite Spanish film combines scenes of social realism with whimsical fantasy. The film looks at Franco era France from the point of view of a creative girl who escapes into fantasy. It contains some of the best special effects and greatest sets of the year. This film does everything that Terry Gilliam's "Tideland" tried and failed to do.
16.) The History Boys-A maverick school teacher tries to prepare some rough students for going to good universities. The instructor clashes with the administration over his policies (he actually puts learning above preparing for test scores). Alan Bennett's play is successfully translated to the screen with most of its cast, wit and poignancy intact. Although it was slightly cut, it still retains most of its charm. The plot is predictable but the acting and performances are delicious.
17.) L'Enfant-Tale of a free spirited but troubled welfare mom with an immature hustler boyfriend. The scene involving the baby sale is one of the most powerful of the year, and the two lead performances are riveting. The Dardenne brothers’ bare bones directorial approach is ideal for the material. In French with English sub-titles
18.) Venus-Charming update of "Pygmalion' features Peter O’Toole as the older mentor role and Leslie Phillips (in one of the year's freshest performances by a new comer) as the rough pupil.
19.) Friendly Fire: Exposing Gulf War Syndrome-The year's best documentary (sorry Al Gore) deals with the horrific ailments that are being contracted by the Iraq War vets and the disgracefull way that the government is dealing with them. I'm not sure whether it was ever released, but it's too powerful to ignore.
20.) Sherrybaby-Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a recently released inmate who struggles to adjust to life outside prison. Gyllenhaal, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for this performance shows once again that she is one of the most underrated actresses around (also see the wickedly effective S and M romance, "Secretary.') . The director, Laurie Collyer, also shows she has great promise. Gyllenhaal's performance was at least as good as most of the best actresss Oscar nominees (In a perfect world she would have replaced Meryl Streep as an Oscar nominee.).
21.) Who Killed the Electric Car?-Mesmerizing documentary examines the forces and circumstances that ended the production of an energy efficient type of vehicle. The film shows the down side of corporate culture. Featuring interviews with Robert Redford, Mel Gibson, and other former electric car users.
22.) Children of Men- Bleak but fascinating sci-fi film about a future soceity in which sterility reigns, and a man tries to save the last baby.
23.) The Painted Veil-Visually sumptous adaptation of a W. Summerset Maugnam book features fine lead performances by Naomi Watts and Ed Norton who also served as co-producers.
24.) The Last King of Scotland-Forest Whitaker (magnificent as Idi Amin) takes a young doctor under his wing. The doctor betrays him and must suffer the consequences.
25.) Totsi-Tough and moving tale of a street hood in Johannesburg whose life takes an unexpected turn when he starts taking care of a baby.
40 Honorable mentions
The Ant Bully, Babel, Battle in Heaven, Casino Royale, Curse of the Golden Flower, Days of Glory, Delwendi, The Departed, Fateless, Family Law, 51 Birch Street, Flags of Our Fathers, For Your Consideration, The Fountain, Holy Modal Rounders: Bound to Lose, Holllywoodland, Honey and the Pig, The Illusionist, The Intruder, Iowa, Jet Li's Fearless, The King, Lemming, Lunacy, Neil Young: Heart of Gold, The Night Listener, The Notorious Betty Page, Perfume, A Prairie Home Companion, Pusher III: Angel of Death, Sex and the Celts, Shortbus, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, Shortbus, Strangers with Candy, Thank You for Smoking, This Film Has Not Yet Been Rated, Three Times, Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
Other worthy 2006 releases
American Hardcore, Beowulf & Grendel, Blood Diamond, Catch a Fire, Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing, Factotum, Hoodwinked, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, Once in A Lifetime: The Story of the New York Cosmos, V for Vendetta
Best Picture (American)-Letters from Iwa Jima
Best Picture (foreign)-Water
Best Undistributed Picture-Day Night Day Night (from the Chicago International Film Festival)
Best Documentary (political)-Friendly Fire: Exposing Gulf War Syndrome
Music Documentary (music)-Holy Modal Rounders: Bound to Lose
Director (American)-Clint Eastwood
Director (foreign) Deepa Mehta
Original Screenplay-Karen Moncrieff (The Dead Girl) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine)
Adapted Screenplay-Little Children (Todd Field)
Cinematography (in an English language film)-Mott Hupfel (The Notorious Betty Page) and Matthew Libatique (The Fountain)
Cinematography (in a foreign language film)-Jose Luis Alcaine (Volver)
Set Design-The Fountain
Actor (English)-Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland
Actor (Foreign)- Marcos Hernandez ( Battle in Heaven)
Actress (English language)-Helen Mirren (The Queen) and Kate Winslet (Little Children) tie
Actress-foreign language film- Julia Jentsch (Sophie Scholl: The Final Days) and Penelope Cruz (Volver) tie
Supporting actor-(tie)Austin Pendleton (Dirty Work which played at the Midwest Independent Film Festival) and Michael Sheen (The Queen)
Supporting Actress-Rosario Dawson (Clerks 2)
Best Comeback Performance-Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine)
Most promising actor/actress-Vera Farmiga (The Departed) and Shareeka Epps (Half Nelson)
Most promising comedian-Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat)
Best avante/garde experimental short -My Dad is 100 Years Old
Best avant-garde/ experimental feature-INLAND EMPIRE
Revived or restored film-Flowers for Saint Francis (Music Box)
Spoken Word Video-J.J Tindall's "Art Film" (on youtube)
Best trailer-Turkeyman with Kevin Suscavage (on youtube)
Best Commercial-Orbit featuring Snoop Dogg and Vanessa Branch
Best Music Video-Stop Wearing Purple by Gogol Bordello and Dayvan Cowboy by Boards of Canada
Special Effects-(too many people to mention) Casino Royale
Soundtrack-The History Boys
Original Score-Gustavo Santaolalla ( Babel) and Phillip Glass (Notes on a Scandal)
Asian Action-Fearless (long cut) and Curse of the Golden Flower
Comic or Graphic Novel Adaptation-V for Vendetta
Horror Film-English language-Severance (Chicago International Film Festival)
Horror film-Foreign language-The Host (Chicago International Film Festival)
Animated Feature-The Ant Bully
Comedy-Little Miss Sunshine
Overlooked treasures-Sorry, Haters and Sherry Baby
Breakout talent-Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat)
Best incomprehensible film featuring human sized rabbits-INLAND EMPIRE
Worst films-The Da Vinci Code, The Spot, Soul Kicking, Tideland, Poseidon, Zerophilia
Best comic male- performance- Will Ferrell in Winter Crossing
Best comic female performance-Catherine O' Hara (For Your Consideration)
Worst/most disappointing sequel-Basic Instinct 2
Most incompetent direction: Matthew Barney (Drawing Restraint 9)
Best comeback-Kevin Smith for Clerks 2
Best musical cameo in a mediocre movie-K. D. Lange in Black Dahlia
Worse video in a good film-Melissa Etheridge’s artless and preachy "I Need to Wake Up" on the An Inconvenient Truth DVD
Best places to see great free (and often obscure) films in Chicago-Hotti Biscotti (see www.hottibiscotti.com) on Saturdays; the Version and Select Media Festivals (see http://versionfest.com/version06/festival ); and the Midwest Independent Film Festival on every first Tuesday at Landmark Century Cinema (see www. midwestfilm .com)
Vittorio Carli teaches at Moraine Valley Community College, Richard J. Daley College, and Morton College. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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