The Best and Worst Films of 2006

1. Children of Men - Criminally and inexplicably overlooked by the year-end award shows. A powerful, tour de force story of a sexually-sterile future world plagued by terrorism and totalitarianism (two sides of the same coin) that’s all too easily imaginable. Clive Owen’s strong as a reluctant hero dragged into an underground rebellion and asked to smuggle the world’s only pregnant woman. But it’s the filmmaking razzle-dazzle (courtesy director Alfonso Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) that grabs your attention, particularly two incredible long-take fight sequences that drops you in the middle of the action in ways guaranteed to make your palms sweat.

2. Pan’s Labyrinth – It’s easy to dismiss this as an esoteric fantasy, one of those weirdo foreign films that appeal only to film snobs. Don’t make that mistake. It’s easily the best-written film of 2006, writer-director Guillermo del Toro cleverly and lyrically interweaving a complex, dangerous fantasy quest (or is it real?) of a young girl with the bloody, oppressive reality of her life with her ruthless Franco fascist stepfather. The political metaphors and fairy tale symbolism are piled on, giving the film a vividly literary – practically mythic – sensibility.

3. Casino Royale – We’ve already rendered a verdict on this one. The best James Bond film in 40 years thanks to a grittier, more down-and-dirty approach to the character and the world of espionage. Here, a clenched fist gets you farther than some expensive gadget and you’re always one wrong step (or drugged drink) away from certain death. Daniel Craig is the perfect Bond, steely and dangerous in a way none of the others have been, including – dare we say it – Sean Connery. Rebooting the series and going back to 007’s origins, which includes a look at the doomed romance that paves the way for Bond’s hard heart, was a stroke of genius.

4. Borat – Don’t let anyone suggest this film is anything less than a masterpiece of satire. Yes, it’s packed full of fearlessly crude and outrageous moments (perhaps you’ve heard about the nude male wrestling) that leave you cringing even as you laugh out loud. But the real power of the film is that it's a hidden-camera social experiment – “Punk’d” with a PhD. Sasha Baron Cohen’s Borat character is a racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, homophobic, horny moron (surely a reflection of America’s raging xenophobia), but he’s so slyly sweet about it that his on-camera American citizen “co-stars” put up with for him far longer than they should. And it’s his search for the line of decency – that crass moment when Borat’s co-stars finally put their foot down (or should but don’t) – that makes the film so fascinating.

5. The Prestige – Writer-director Christopher Nolan has a thing for nonlinear narrative puzzles. He first strutted his backwards stuff with Memento and then with last year’s Batman Begins. The story here of two dueling illusionists (goody-goody Hugh Jackman and brooding Christian Bale) desperate to one-up the other by any means necessary is likewise told out of order. But because Nolan has immense respect for the audience, there’s no hand holding. You have to put the pieces together yourself, which is well worth the effort. As you slowly make the connections and realize the truths, everything builds to a final series of money shots that is as audacious and astonishing as anything you’ve seen. Seriously satisfying.

6. Little Miss Sunshine – The little, yellow, clutch-less bus that could. A perfect blend of gold-star acting, writing (Michael Arndt), and directing (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris). What could have been a throwaway festival film about a crazy dysfunctional family’s crazy dysfunctional road trip winds up instead the Oscar-nominated, feel-good film of the year thanks to the sheer force of its effortless charm. It knows when to push the quirkiness and when to pull back, when to go for the sarcasm and when to go for emotion. Best of all is the hilarious and heartwarming ending – when we finally see little Olive on stage seeking the Little Miss Sunshine crown – which brings down the house.

7. United 93 – It’s probably not as harrowing or as tough as you may have heard, but it’s certainly a wrenching experience. Director Paul Greengrass creates a vivid “you are there” urgency and realism to this story of September 11, focusing on two stories: on the ground we have the bureaucratic confusion and decision-making vapor-lock in the military and FAA; in the air we see the goings-on in the cabin of United 93, the last plane to crash that morning following a hostage mutiny. The handheld camera, the no-name actors, the overlapping dialogue. It all feels very real, reopening old sorrow and outrage. Powerful and important, if not exactly “entertaining” in the usual sense of the word.

8. V for Vendetta – Another gripping, dark parable for these uncertain times. In a daring twist, however, this film – dynamic and eye-popping just as we’d expect from the director, Wachowski Brothers protégé James McTeigue (the Brothers wrote the script) – actually urges us to root for the terrorist to succeed. It’s a curious experience and an unsettling reminder that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. It’s a variation (as is Children of Men) on George Orwell’s dystopian 1984, a bleak world of martial law and paranoia in which blindly following sheep (here, civilian Natalie Portman and cop Stephen Rea) slowly wake up to the evil lies of the government. Good stuff.

9. The Departed – Did director Martin Scorsese deserve an Oscar for this? Probably not. It’s not as operatic and scary as GoodFellas. This is much more of a shoot-em-up cops-and-robbers thriller. But it’s a very good one thanks to the high-concept premise of two moles (one in the police, one in the mob) trying to ferret one another out. The cast is outstanding, particularly Mark Wahlberg and Leonardo DiCaprio. Wahlberg gets all the good lines (and the best exit) while DiCaprio finally shakes loose that whiny man-boy thing he’s been hamstrung by for so long. The shocking ending is worth discussion if only because it almost derails everything. It’s not what happens so much as how it happens – one can imagine Scorsese rubbing his hands together in geeky anticipation of sucker-punching the audience. Some people love the ending. Maybe you will. But it’s a big reason why this film fell so far in this list.

10. (tie) The Devil Wears Prada and Apocalypto – For every polished popcorn audience pleaser like The Devil Wears Prada, there’s an equally twisted and misunderstood lump of coal like Apocalypto. These two films are the yin and yang of 2006, the witty, sophisticated Ambitious-Girl-Seduced-by-Fame urban comedy and the violent, primeval extremely-period Hero-Must-Save-His-Family action film. Both are worth a look. In Prada, we get not only Meryl Streep vamping it up in a deliciously acid role as a fashion mag editor but also the emergence of a possible successor to the Julia Roberts/Reese Witherspoon throne in bright-eyed Anne Hathaway. This is a writer’s film (thank you, Aline Brosh McKenna and the many script doctors
) – the juice comes from the dialogue. Apocalypto, however, is very much a director’s film. It’s visual storytelling at its very best. Say what you will about Mel Gibson’s loony-tunes personality and outlook on life, the guy can direct the hell out of a movie. Yes, this film continues his strange obsession with dead languages and humanity’s cruelty. But it’s a rousing, if needlessly gruesome, ride.

Honorable Mention: 16 Blocks, Cars, Dreamgirls, An Inconvenient Truth, Inside Man, Invincible, The Lake House, Little Children, The Queen, Rocky Balboa, Stranger than Fiction, Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, X-Men: The Last Stand.

Click – The problem with this movie was the misleading ad campaign, so maybe the real blame rests with the studio marketing executives. Audiences were promised a typically screwball Adam Sandler comedy about a guy who can control his life with a remote control. That’s high-concept comedy gold. The movie starts out that way, sure, but then it get deeply dark (and deeply weird) as the Sandler character fast-forwards through his entire life and winds up all alone... in a sci-fi future... in old age makeup. No way this gets made if it’s anyone but Sandler.

The Da Vinci Code – Now you know what they mean when they say “That novel’s unfilmable.” The Dan Brown book was poorly written (surely he’s the most successful hack of our generation), but at least the guy did his research. The bare-bones plot was padded out with plenty of fascinating history lessons and arcane trivia, more textbook than novel. But put that on a movie screen and you’re stuck with two hours of endless, blathering exposition. Never has Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, and Ian McKellen been so utterly boring. Unwatchable.

Flags of Our Fathers – It’s hard to believe Clint Eastwood directed this. It’s that muddled and unsatisfying. There’s the confusing, disjointed battle scenes that never come close to replicating the horror of a Saving Private Ryan (or even a Children of Men); the cardboard performances of C-level actors like Jessie Bradford and Ryan Phillipe; the unexpectedly leaden script that keeps hammering home its Big Ideas about Heroism; and last, but not least, the excruciatingly long running time.

Freedomland – This is one humorless, depressing movie. The whole thing was shot in grays and browns. Julianne Moore, all tears and whines, is supremely annoying. And the movie puffs itself up with delusions of grandeur, believing this ham-handed story of a race riot (caused by a Susan Smith-style fake kidnapping in a fictionalization that feels very “Law & Order”) has Important Things to Say. As if. Consider yourself warned.

Superman Returns – We’ve already covered this film’s sins in a previous post. No need to rehash it. More than likely a casualty of a studio system that locks in a release date and then forces the filmmakers to work backward from there, whether there’s enough time to make a quality product or not.


Don't cry for me, Sanjaya.

If you're a regular viewer of the Idol (obsessives drop the American and add a "the"), you witnessed this week the curious scene of a hysterical, sobbing tweener girl acting like she was at The Ed Sullivan Show circa 1963. Even more curious is that she seemed all atwitter over the incredibly untalented contestant Sanjaya. Who was this girl? Surely she wasn't for real. Well, it wasn't exactly a plant, but it wasn't exactly spontaneous, either.


It's like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife

Like poor Winona Ryder in Reality Bites, we find "irony" to be an elusive term. You probably think you know it when you see it. But how do you spot it?

Last month John Winokur wrote a column for the Los Angeles Times:

When it was revealed in 2003 that William J. Bennett, author of "The Book of Virtues," had a secret gambling habit, more than one commentator termed it a delicious irony, and it was indeed a pleasure to see a sanctimonious scold get his comeuppance. But it wasn't irony, just hypocrisy.

It was ironic when, on "The Daily Show," Jon Stewart commended Bennett for his indignation, and for "standing up to the William Bennetts of the world."

Here's another example of irony: the 1959 episode of "The Twilight Zone" titled "Time Enough at Last," in which Burgess Meredith plays Henry Bemis, a bookish bank teller with thick glasses and an insatiable appetite for reading. One day, knocked unconscious by a giant explosion, he awakens to find that he's the last man on Earth.

Wandering the desolate city, overwhelmed with loneliness, he is about to kill himself when he notices the ruins of … a library! Cut to: stacks of books piled high on the library's steps and Henry, giddy with joy. But as he settles down on the curb with the first book, his glasses fall off and shatter on the ground, trapping him forever in a blurry world.

Now that's irony.

Irony is one of the most misused words in the English language. Much of the confusion comes from the existence of several distinct forms of irony. Verbal irony is the act of saying one thing but meaning the opposite with the intent of being understood as meaning the opposite, as in, "Nice weather we're having" on a rainy day.

Cosmic irony involves quirks of fate, as when a UPS driver on his way to deliver parts to a hospital has a serious accident, is taken to the same hospital by ambulance, but the hospital can't perform necessary tests because one of its machines is down and the parts to fix it are in the driver's wrecked van.

Socratic irony is a strategy for refuting dogma. In the Platonic dialogues, Socrates assumes the role of the eiron, a sly dissembler who feigns naivete by asking seemingly foolish questions that gradually hang his opponents by their own admissions. A modern practitioner is Sacha Baron Cohen, whose characters Borat and Ali G expose pomposity by pretending to be stupid.

Irony is about the interplay of opposites, not the random proximity of events. It's ironic that Beethoven was deaf, but merely coincidental that Brad Pitt tore his Achilles tendon while playing Achilles in Troy. People miss the distinction and say "ironic" when they mean "coincidental," an abuse encouraged by Alanis Morissette's 1996 hit single, "Ironic," in which situations purporting to be ironic are merely annoying ("a traffic jam when you're already late, a no-smoking sign on your cigarette break").

It is ironic that "Ironic" is an un-ironic song about irony. Is that perfectly clear?

In case you're confused, here are some more examples of irony:

• Brewing heir Adolph Coors III was allergic to beer.

• County supervisors in Pima County, Ariz., held a closed meeting to discuss Arizona's open meeting law.

• U.S. Border Patrol uniforms are manufactured in Mexico.

• When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, so many visitors were taking souvenir pieces that a protective fence was installed, so that, yes, the Berlin Wall was guarded by a wall.

• Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's 2005 state of the nation address, in which he promised to remedy his country's chronic electricity shortages, was blacked out by a power failure.

• A 17-year-old Amish boy was electrocuted by a downed power line that became tangled in the wheels of his horse-drawn buggy.

• The "Marlboro Man" died of lung cancer.

• A 2001 Father's Day tribute on ESPN featured "How Sweet It Is (to be Loved by You)," sung by Marvin Gaye, who was shot and killed by his father in 1984.

• Entries for the Florida Press Club's 2005 Excellence in Journalism Award for hurricane coverage were lost in Hurricane Katrina.

Geico cavemen are people, too

Slate's Seth Stevenson takes a look at the genius of the Geico Insurance cavemen ads, which may be turned into a television sitcom this fall. The therapist-speakerphone spot is good, as is the balcony party spot ("Tina's here - we're getting back together"), but the best is surely the moving-airport-sidewalk spot.