1. Children of Men
Gloriously crafted and affectingly acted, Alfonso Cuaron's warning shot of a thriller takes on the pressing issues of the day -- immigration, the environment and globalization in 2027 London -- without resorting to either didactic heavy-handedness or detached irony. Don't listen to those who criticize its ambiguous ideologies; that ambiguity is exactly what the film gets so achingly true about contemporary existence.
2. A Scanner Darkly
Richard Linklater's latest rotoscoped wonder is a remarkably faithful adaptation of Philip K. Dick's prophetic, surveillance-infested mindfuck of a novel about drugs and consciousness. The effect is colorfully surreal without being completely foreign, perfect for Dick's paranoid world of shifting realities, a world that's coming to fruition by the day.
3. Three Times
Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien's hypnotic triptych -- which features segments set in 1911, 1966 and 2005 -- transports viewers across time in an effort to illuminate his home country's evolving political and social mores. It's also the most beautifully photographed film of the year, a radiant creation that deepens with each viewing.
4. Pan's Labyrinth
Essentially a fairy tale for grownups, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro's textured, gothic-tinged film focuses on precocious Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a young girl who combats the harshness of her surroundings -- it's set amid Franco's dictatorship in 1944 Spain -- by creating elaborate fantasies that del Toro renders with whimsical yet compelling results.
5. United 93
A deeply distressing portrait of our convoluted bureaucracy, Paul Greengrass' piercing re-creation is both troubling and oddly uplifting. The straightforward, unobtrusive cinéma vérité approach leaves one wracked with tension despite knowing exactly what's to come, a colossal achievement no matter the subject at hand.
6. The Science of Sleep
Michel Gondry's crafty, endlessly imaginative visions make for a playful and surprisingly touching tale of a man (a stellar Gael Garcia Bernal) struggling to connect with a girl (and everyone else). Science of Sleep is yet another of the year's films dealing with our Zeitgeist of the moment -- the varying states of reality in our fast-paced, ever-more fractured world.
7. Old Joy
Spare and melancholic, Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy dissects a variety of relationships with subtle effectiveness: man to man, man to nature, man to community. And who knew Will Oldham could not only act but also do so with such affecting grace?
8. Miami Vice
Forget the fuzzy plot and Colin Farrell's ineffective mutterings and annoying mullet; Michael Mann's atmospheric, visually sumptuous big-screen version is another of the director's deft investigations of men who are slaves to their jobs and the fallout it causes in their personal lives. This sleek, Asian-influenced spectacle is a feast for the senses.
So real it's beyond fake. French filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's tale of a young, street-wise couple dealing with a newborn child is a simple yet profound portrait of lives on the brink of oblivion.
10. Borat and Half Nelson
Sacha Baron Cohen's ribald satire thrives due to his seamless immersion into his Andy Kaufman-esque creation's illusion of authenticity.
Likewise, Ryan Gosling's raw-nerved performance lifts the otherwise skeletal Half Nelson into something close to vital. The two best screen performances of 2006.
1. The Queen
Fascinatingly, believably speculative about how Queen Elizabeth II felt about (former) Princess Diana's death and about how Tony Blair nudged her into putting aside her abhorrence of public emotional displays to comfort her "subjects" (and maybe save the monarchy), director Stephen Frears' and writer Peter Morgan's film benefits from one of the finest performances of 2006 by Helen Mirren as the queen.
One of the best screenwriters working, Hanif Kureishi, turns the "dirty old man" cliché of Lolita upside-down in this elegiac and wise story of an aging actor whose desire for a young woman is both carnal and idealized. Peter O'Toole's marvelous performance deserves the Best Actor Oscar; Jodie Whittaker as the initially trashy young woman he likes is also excellent.
3. Little Children
Todd Field's tough yet tender dissection of suburban angst might lack the visionary cinematography and transcendent ending of American Beauty, the film it most closely resembles, but it also lacks that film's somewhat dated ironic distancing. And it features the best single scene in a movie this year, when panicked moms and kids flee a swimming pool as a convicted child molester (played memorably by Jackie Earle Haley) arrives for a dip. There's also fine acting by Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson.
4. Old Joy
Kelly Reichardt's mysterious, minimalist road-trip movie, in which two young men use an overnight camping trip as a chance to talk (and not talk) about the things separating them, is a thing of quiet cinematic beauty. And Louisville singer-songwriter Will Oldham's turn as Kurt, the aging "lost soul" trying to somehow remain true to himself, is wonderful. This is the year's best American pure art film.
5. United 93
Director Paul Greengrass returned to the riveting vérité-style, handheld-camera approach of his Bloody Sunday for this exciting yet sobering, inspiring yet tragic fact-based account of what happened in the air on 9/11. Its refusal to traffic in melodramatic sentimentality about either the victims or the hijackers is brave, gutsy filmmaking -- the famous "Let's roll!" comment is a throwaway line.
6. Half Nelson
Ryan Fleck's low-budget indie isn't quite as fully formed a story as one would like -- it peters out in ambiguity -- but Ryan Gosling's soulfully dynamic performance as a drug-addicted inner-city schoolteacher who tries to help a vulnerable student (a fine Shareeka Epps) is salient and thrilling. The film refuses to be pat about its characters' lives.
7. Letters from Iwo Jima
And how about 76-year-old Clint Eastwood choosing to make a Japanese-language war film, told from the Japanese viewpoint, about a key World War II battle between Japan and the U.S.? Combining poetic imagery with terrifying combat footage, it's too long at two-plus hours but also haunting and his best film about the painful, tragic consequences of violence since Unforgiven.
8. An Inconvenient Truth and Who Killed the Electric Car?
It was a good year for environmental documentaries, as director Davis Guggenheim brought cleverly theatrical production values and Al Gore brought his matinee-idol charm (yes, he's indeed charming!) to Truth's engrossing introduction to global warming. Chris Paine's Electric Car -- cleverly framed as a murder mystery about the suppression of California's budding electric-car market by the oil and auto industries -- surprised everyone by playing so well nationally.
9. Sophie Scholl: The Final Days
This German film by Marc Rothemund about the underground anti-Hitler student movement and its martyrs not only worked as a tense Z-style thriller but also matter-of-factly depicted what writer Hannah Arendt has called the "banality of evil" in the way the Nazis were capable of codifying and bureaucratizing (and thus justifying to themselves) their savagery.
10. Neil Young: Heart of Gold and Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man
These two concert-oriented films both were about iconic (for Boomers) singer-songwriters looking backward with wisdom and forward with wry thankfulness. Young, recovered from a brain aneurysm, stages with director Jonathan Demme a special concert in Nashville. Director Lian Lunson's film intercuts a revealing interview with the reflective Cohen with a tribute concert staged in Australia. At the end, he and U2 perform "Tower of Song" -- in its way as cool a 2006 movie moment as Jennifer Hudson belting "And I Am Telling You" in Dreamgirls.
1. United 93
Paul Greengrass' gut-wrenching take on 9/11 stands above the rest of this year's releases. Its first hour calls into question what it means to be safe and secure on the ground or in the sky, and its second half locks audiences into the final moments onboard with a band of citizens who became larger than life. The film's power is revealed in the sense that it needs to be seen only once.
2. Children of Men
The perfect Christmas Day release, but who actually goes to the movies on Christmas Day? Forget all of the talk about this dystopian look at the future being too bleak: There is more hope and humanity in this sci-fi nativity than in a thousand consumerist celebrations or the empty heroics of CGI-filled blockbusters.
3. The Fountain
Time will bear out this choice. At the moment, The Fountain seems too vague and too full of pretense to make for an enjoyable viewing experience. Discerning filmgoers will likely say they need to see it again for things to become clearer. How often do you get the feeling that you want to see something more than once?
4. Half Nelson
The one film that I can't quite escape. Throughout all of the year-end considerations, I've kept coming back to Ryan Gosling's performance, which never settles on the typical pendulum swinging in his addict's behavior, and the sad beauty of Shareeka Epps, who should have a stranglehold on a nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu finds a way to translate the biblical notion of miscommunication into our current state of information overload and renders his audience mute in appreciation. And as good as its famous faces are -- Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt are marvelous -- the real grace notes come from those we are less familiar with, which possibly allows us to listen and observe more closely.
6. An Inconvenient Truth
Forget all the talk about how wooden Al Gore is. I've seen the man in person working a crowd, and his intelligence wins people over. Now combine that with his passion for the environment, and this man is nothing short of the truth. He and his PowerPoint presentation are the real deal.
7. The Pursuit of Happyness
No one wants to believe Chris Gardner's life was this extreme. It sounds like a movie pitch, but Will Smith and his son Jaden allow audiences to feel the connection and quite possibly believe in this Pursuit despite our jaded notions about the true definition of happiness.
Loss hovers around the corners in Pedro Almodóvar's latest, but it's how his women deal with death that matters. Penélope Cruz should consider returning home more often: She's such a natural performer in her native tongue. None of the acting effort shows, which makes her beauty less obvious.
9. History Boys
As one of the students in Nicolas Hynter's adaptation of this acclaimed stage show reminds us, "History is just one fucking thing after another." But thanks to the marvelous supporting turn by Richard Griffiths, this lesson will likely stay with audiences a bit longer than most.
The rare movie musical that works both as a feature film and a rousing musical revue. Bill Condon stirs the soul with both the narrative and the show tunes, but it's Jennifer Hudson who will be remembered as the film's heart and soul. Whether or not she's ever able to repeat at this level, she lives the dream here. ©