The Top Ten Movies of 2006 January 31, 2007 – Posted in: Film Reviews

The Top Ten Movies of 2006

By Mercurio D. Rivera

More than any other year I can remember, the first half of 2006 was a veritable wasteland for movie-goers. Fortunately, the second half came through big-time, led by a triumvirate of Mexican directors (Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Fernandez Inarritu, and Guillermo del Toro) who left their mark on American cinema with three truly outstanding films (more later). This past year also saw Hollywood’s first attempts at tackling the subject of September 11th with the release of United 93 and World Trade Center, two very good movies that straddled the line between honoring and exploiting the heroes of that day. As a New Yorker who works across the street from Ground Zero, I can only say that, for me, it was still too soon. We also saw dueling movies about late-Victorian era magicians, The Illusionist and The Prestige, which provided solid—if not top-ten worthy—entertainment (the former a much better film than the latter). Other notable critics’ favorites that didn’t make my list include the flawed Flags of Our Fathers, which suffers from a lack of narrative drive and an unfocused viewpoint; Spanish director Pedro Aldomovar’s average-fare Volver, which can’t decide whether it is a realistic drama or a foray into surrealism: characters react to the return of their dead mother as casually as if they’d had a letter returned for insufficient postage; Will Smith’s vehicle, The Pursuit of Happyness, an uplifting but formulaic tale of the American dream, which makes for an excellent rental; and Borat, which provided a few good belly laughs, but which ultimately—like much of reality TV—I just didn’t trust; I couldn’t tell whether reactions were real or scripted.

Blow the trumpets, unfurl the banner and release the doves; here are the best movies of 2006:

10. Happy Feet. Moulin Rouge meets March of the Penguin and hatches a gorgeous, breathtaking animated adventure superior to either of those films. The protagonist, a young Emperor penguin (voiced by Elijah Wood), finds that he can’t sing the traditional mating call or “heartsong” of other penguins—but boy can he tap dance! When a fish drought is attributed to his un-penguin-like ways, tribal elders cast him out of the community, sending him on an odyssey to meet the “aliens” (human beings) who have been over-fishing the waters. With stunning, magnificently realized frozen landscapes, dizzying chase scenes, a wonderful score, and the traditional theme of individuality versus conformity—combined with modern lessons in global environmentalism—Happy Feet is the best computer-animated movie since Toy Story 2.

9. Dreamgirls. Bill Condon’s electrifying adaptation of the Broadway musical shows us the rise of the faux-Supremes girl-group, The Dreamettes, and the member they cast out along the way, played, ironically enough, by American Idol cast-off Jennifer Hudson in a bring-down-the-house-and-vaporize-the-rubble vocal performance. (When I caught a late-afternoon showing of Dreamgirls in a near-empty theater, the man sitting in front of me gave her performance of “And I’m Telling You, I’m Not Going” a standing ovation.) When she’s not singing, Hudson’s acting is so average it seems unfair she’s the favorite for this year’s Oscar for best supporting actress. Beyonce, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx also shine, and while it doesn’t quite have the razzle-dazzle of Chicago, Dreamgirls is still wildly entertaining.

8. Apocalypto. Say what you will about Mel Gibson (he’s an anti-Semitic zealot with a drinking problem; there, I said it), the man is a master filmmaker and storyteller. This audacious epic, set during the decline of the Mayan empire, dares to tell us a story from the perspective of a young hunter in a rain forest community of hunter-gatherers whose bucolic existence is shattered when marauding tribesmen from the capital city, on the prowl for human sacrifices, decimate his village. When our protagonist and his tribesman are captured and transported to the city, he must find a way to escape and find his way home to rescue his pregnant wife and young son. Despite the boat-loads of blood and gore, this pulse-pounding adventure accomplishes what only the very best movies do: it transports us to an utterly alien world and makes us care.

7. Notes on a Scandal. Judy Dench plays an obsessed lesbian stalker and Cate Blanchett a pedophile who’s the object of her twisted affections in this delicious British melodrama. Densch’s character, a battle-hardened London schoolteacher (who also serves as the film’s unreliable narrator), slowly finds herself smitten by the young Bohemian art teacher who joins the faculty. When she catches her in a compromising position with a 15-year-old student, blackmail ensues, along with twists and turns and reversals galore that keep the audience spellbound as both ladies ignite the screen in a showdown for the Oscar.

6. The Last King of Scotland. An adventure-seeking Scottish doctor travels to Uganda where he winds up treating and befriending the country’s charismatic leader, Idi Amin (Forrest Whittaker in a sure-bet Oscar-winning performance) in this pulse-pounding drama. Seduced by the luxurious, hard-partying lifestyle of those in power—even winding up in a dangerous romantic tryst with one of Amin’s wives—the young doctor abandons his fellow aid workers (including a superb, unrecognizable Gillian Anderson) and becomes Amin’s personal physician and adviser only to realize, slowly, to his horror, that his patient is a bloodthirsty, psychopathic despot. I expected a political drama and instead enjoyed one of the year’s best thrillers.

5. Letters From Iwo Jima. Clint Eastwood’s deeply affecting war movie chronicles the lives and death of Japanese soldiers on the ultimate suicide mission: defending the island of Iwo Jima from U.S. forces. Unlike Flag of our Fathers, Letters hones in on the viewpoint of a few compelling characters, including an Olympic equestrian gold medal winner, a dashing general (Ken Watanabe), and most compellingly, a young baker aching to return home to his wife and baby. Eastwood uses their letters to loved ones as a dramatic device to humanize enemy forces like never before.

4. Babel. Alejandro Fernandez Inarritu’s brilliant 21 Grams and Amores Perros, which made my lists in 2001 and 2003, respectively, explored the theme of fate versus chance through splintered, non-sequential, intersecting storylines. This year’s ambitious follow-up, Babel, employs the same filmmaking techniques and tackles the same theme—along with the basic idea that most conflict arises from miscommunication—when a Japanese man’s gift of a rifle to his Moroccan tour guide triggers three suspenseful, globe-spanning stories set in Japan, Morocco and the U.S./Mexico. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are outstanding as a couple who travel to Morocco to try to salvage their marriage after the death of their baby, but the real standouts are Rinko Kikuchi as a troubled, deaf Japanese teenager and Adrianna Barraza in an Oscar-worthy performance as a Mexican nanny who brings along the two little American children she cares for to her son’s all-night wedding in Mexico with disastrous consequences.

3. Children of Men. Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron’s bleak vision of the future stars Clive Owen as a Londoner trying to save the human species from extinction after a plague has rendered all women infertile. In the year 2027 no child has been born on the planet for twenty years, governments across the globe have collapsed, and London has become a chaotic police state plagued by terrorism, religious cultists, looters and illegal immigrants (“fugees”) who are kept in cages on the streets prior to deportation. When Owen’s character encounters a pregnant African fugee, he embarks on a hellish journey to transport her to the fabled “Human Project,” humanity’s last hope to propagate the species, along the way meeting memorable characters like an unforgettable Michael Caine as a futuristic drug-using hippie. What makes this dystopian futureworld so frightening is that it’s only a slight extrapolation of present-day concerns about terrorism, government fascism, and environmental catastrophe. Intelligent and moving, this one is destined to become a science fiction classic.

2. Pan’s Labyrinth. The third consecutive movie on my list by a Mexican director is Guillermo del Toro’s unforgettable hybrid of political drama and dark fantasy. Set in 1944 Spain, Franco’s fascistic regime has taken over, and a young girl must cope with her pregnant mother’s marriage to a sadistic general looking to stamp out the final resistance fighters. It also happens that the young protagonist may be an amnesia-stricken princess of a fantastical mythological underworld who must complete three tasks given to her by a faun (half-man, half-goat) to regain her memories and take her rightful place in the royal pantheon. Grim, violent and imaginative, this poignant film stays with you long after the credits roll.

1. The Departed. Martin Scorcese is back in his element in this brilliant, brutal crime drama, his best since Goodfellas, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon as flip sides of the same counterfeit coin: one an undercover police officer in the Irish mob, the other a mob-connected cop on Boston’s police force. The labyrinthine plot explores the theme of identity, what makes us who we are, our beliefs or our actions, and has so much ramped-up suspense that you’re guaranteed to wear out the edge of your seat. Featuring a veritable who’s who of tough-guy actors (Alec Baldwin, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen) playing tough-guy characters, Jack Nicholson out-toughs them all as a mob kingpin with a penchant for dildos and threeways. Somebody please hand Scorcese the Oscar he deserves: he directed the year’s best movie.

The near-misses include at least three movies that might have cracked the list any other year: 11. Little Miss Sunshine (oddball comedy about a quirky family’s Vacation-style road trip to a child beauty pageant—with the funniest ending of the year); 12. The Queen (Helen Mirren captures the essence of Queen Elizabeth II in this compelling drama imagining the behind-the-scenes reactions of the Royal Family to the death of Princess Diana); 13. Little Children (dark drama starring Kate Winlset as an unsatisfied suburban housemom who, on a dare, kisses a stranger in a park, and the consequences that follow); 14. An Inconvenient Truth/Who Killed the Electric Car? (Two documentaries guaranteed to educate and infuriate: Al Gore’s lecture on the looming threat of global warming, and Chris Paine’s account of the fate of electric cars that would feasibly reduce our dependence on foreign oil); 15. The Devil Wears Prada (entertaining chick flick about a young assistant’s experience in the fashion industry, with a sensational Meryl Streep as Cruella de Ville with depth); 16. Casino Royale (a terrific character-focused Bond film that almost manages to escape its spy-film genre boundaries); 17. Snakes on a Plane (a hilarious celebration of the B-movie and future audience-participation cult classic); 18. Slither (touch-in-cheek horror movie about parasitic alien slugs who transform ordinary Joes into flesh-hungry zombies); 19. Curse of the Golden Flower (China’s Tang dynasty meets Aaron Spelling’s Dynasty in this visually breathtaking martial arts soap opera).