The Top Ten Movies of 2006
1) Pan’s Labyrinth
2) Children of Men
Thanks to blockbuster franchises like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia as well as popular TV-shows like Battlestar Galactica and Heroes, science fiction and fantasy are steadily climbing out of their niche markets and becoming part of mainstream culture. At the same time, a solid block of the general public, not to mention the critical community, still views genre films as kids’ stuff—movies that offer escapism but little more. So it’s only appropriate that the two most politically relevant and socially conscious movies of the year happen to be genre pictures. Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is a potent and deeply emotional argument against blind obedience that’s framed as a gothic fairy tale. It also features one of the most fully realized fantasy universes I’ve ever encountered in a film and one of the few that feels as if it could exist right alongside the real world. Meanwhile, Alfonso Cuaron’s haunting sci-fi drama Children of Men offers the most convincing depiction of a dystopian future since Blade Runner. The film has won well-deserved raves for its technical brilliance–mark my words, those dazzling tracking shots will be studied in film schools for decades to come–but its message of hope in the face of absolute despair is as stirring as the visuals. Together, Pan’s Labyrinth and Children of Men represent a new standard for genre movies and filmmaking in general.

3) The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
Moving from the realm of the fantastic to grim reality, Cristi Puiu’s remarkable second feature charts the title character’s one-way trip through Romania’s bureaucratic health-care system. The power of the movie lies in the director’s unwillingness to divide his cast into clear-cut heroes and villains. True, many of the doctors and nurses aren’t very helpful, but the ornery Lazarescu doesn’t exactly make their jobs easier. Ultimately, this is a film that presents human beings as who we often are–selfish and self-absorbed–rather than who we’d like to be. It’s an undeniably depressing vision, but it makes the small moments of kindness between the characters that much more meaningful.

4) Curse of the Golden Flower
Never let it be said that film critics don’t go to movies looking to enjoy themselves. Zhang Yimou’s lavish wu xia spectacle is the most purely entertaining movie I saw all year. The action sequences are as impressive as always, but what really makes Curse a blast is the juicy melodrama that drives the story. Warring parents, sibling rivalry, incest and, to top it all off, an attempted coup that ends badly…what more could you ask for? I’ve seen the film three times now and each time the credits roll, I can’t wait to watch it again.

5) 49 Up
For four decades, Michael Apted has documented the lives of a group of ordinary British men and women, checking in with them every seven years to see how they have (or haven’t) changed. The seventh installment in this extraordinary series finds Apted’s subjects to be largely satisfied with where life has led them. The uncertainties and doubts they had at 21, 28 and 35 have largely fallen away and for the first time, they seem to be looking forward to the future. In fact, it’s the past that bothers them the most, specifically the past as Apted represented it in the earlier films. Several of them take the director to task for offering what they feel are skewed presentations of who they once were. It’s a conversation that can and should continue in the eagerly anticipated (by me, at least) 56 Up.

6) Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
Forget Borat, Michael Winterbottom’s uproarious adaptation of the famously unadaptable 18th century novel is the funniest movie of 2006. I can’t decide which scene made me laugh harder: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon trading Al Pacino impressions or Coogan putting a hot chestnut down his pants. And then there’s Gillian Anderson’s hilarious cameo, the endless arguments over the budget and the fact that only one person on the entire crew has actually read the book. You know what? The whole thing is freakin’ hilarious.

7) A Prairie Home Companion
In my initial review of Robert Altman’s final film, I complained about Virginia Madsen’s Angel of Death, insisting that her presence “overstates the film’s central theme about the end of things.” With the legendary director’s recent passing, however, these scenes take on an added resonance and clearly suggest that Altman knew something the rest of us didn’t. In fact, his death heightens the impact of the entire film, which was already fairly powerful to begin with. (Just try to watch Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin’s performance of “Goodbye to My Mama” without a lump welling up in your throat.) Now when the cast materializes onstage to harmonize as the credits roll, they seem to be singing to their director as much as the audience. But Companion isn’t all tears and sadness. Much of it is also incredibly funny and sly in classic Altman fashion. All in all, it’s a wonderful capper to a glorious career.

8) The Science of Sleep
Michel Gondry’s bizarro romantic comedy is this year’s I Heart Huckabees. As with that film, it took a second viewing of The Science of Sleep to really appreciate how clever a picture it is. Gondry thinks in images rather than words and the first time around, it’s easy to miss a lot of the visual clues designed to give us further insight into the film’s “hero” (played by Gael García Bernal) and his mixed-up mind. I have a feeling that further viewings will reveal even more details that I initially missed and I look forward to discovering them.

9) A Scanner Darkly
Before Sunset will always be my favorite Richard Linklater film, but A Scanner Darkly is arguably his most ambitious and artistically daring effort to date. Employing the same rotoscoped animation process he developed for Waking Life, Linklater finds the perfect visual complement to Philip K. Dick’s 1977 novel about an undercover narcotics agent in the midst of a mental breakdown. From the scramble suits to the main character’s own wavering perception of reality, this is a story that simply couldn’t have been told any other way. I said it in my original review and I’ll say it again, A Scanner Darkly is a near-perfect marriage of form and content.

10) The History Boys
It’s possible that I’d be less enamored of the film version of Alan Bennett’s Tony-award winning play had I seen it onstage first. But even if the play had never existed, I think I would still love the film and not only because of Bennett’s sparkling screenplay and the wonderful work of the ensemble cast. This is perhaps the only classroom drama I’ve seen that really understands what education is all about. Most films of this ilk generally involve an unconventional teacher delivering impassioned monologues in front of a bunch of slack-jawed youngsters. But here there’s an active exchange of ideas between the students and their instructor and it’s through that interplay that the kids take way their most valuable lessons. When the teacher urges his students to “Pass it on” he’s not just talking about knowledge, but also the sheer joy of learning.

The Next Ten
The Descent
Neil Marshall’s tense, taut adventure/horror hybrid is the best scary movie to come along in ages. Where most American-made horror films have become little more than extended torture marathons, this one remembers the simple pleasures of a good scare. Let’s hope that the next generation of horror filmmakers looks to The Descent for inspiration rather than Hostel or Saw.

A moving story about one woman’s attempts to kick her drug addiction, featuring career-best work by Maggie Cheung and Nick Nolte.

You may be tempted to drink yourself into a stupor after seeing this grim slice-of-life drama from the notoriously dour Dardenne brothers, but that would only be a further testament to the film’s raw power.

Days of Glory/Letters From Iwo Jima
Two conventional World War II movies about unconventional characters. Days of Glory focuses on the North African soldiers that battled the Germans alongside the French, but were never recognized for their contribution to the war effort. Meanwhile, Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima presents the battle for Iwo Jima from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers that fought and died on that island. Both films are sturdily made and, apart from a few clichéd moments here and there, very affecting.

District B13
If you saw the opening sequence of Casino Royale, you got a taste of how cool free-running–or, as it is known in its country of origin, parkour–can be. The French action film District B13 shows off this sport to even greater effect, with the characters hurtling their bodies across rooftops, down stairwells and through tiny window frames. It’s wild and crazy stuff and ten times more exciting than most of the things big-budget Hollywood pictures can dream up.

Unknown White Male
In telling the story of Doug Bruce, a man whose memory was wiped out by amnesia forcing him to construct an entirely new existence, this documentary raises some potent questions about the nature of identity and what defines us as individuals. The moment where Doug watches a video of his former self horsing around with his friends–all of whom are complete strangers now–is one of the most extraordinary scenes I saw all year.

The Pusher Trilogy
Three Danish crime dramas that share some of the same characters but otherwise tell completely separate stories. Pusher and Pusher II are good films, but the third installment is the richest of the lot, although the final scene is definitely not for the squeamish.

An Inconvenient Truth
A wake-up call to those that still dismiss global warming as fiction and a helpful primer for those who still don’t understand its impact on our environment.

Little Miss Sunshine
Here’s a crucial lesson in how important it is to cast a movie correctly. On paper, Little Miss Sunshine is an agreeably quirky comedy, but it’s the marvelous ensemble of actors, which includes Abigail Breslin, Steve Carell and Alan Arkin, that really makes the material sing. Minus their efforts, Sunshine would never have distinguished itself from the dozens of other quirky comedies that play at Sundance every year.

The Painted Veil
Although it arrived in theaters with little fanfare, this adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel is one of the most enjoyable period dramas since the heyday of Merchant Ivory. Naomi Watts reaffirms why she’s a movie star as the adulterous wife of a priggish doctor, well played by Ed Norton. And since the film was shot on location in rural China, the scenery is pretty spectacular as well.

Honor Roll
Marie Antoinette
Mountain Patrol: Kekexili
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
The Queen
The War Tapes

Fascinating, but Flawed
The Black Dahlia
The Departed
The Fountain
The Good German
Inland Empire
Little Children
Miami Vice
The Road to Guantanamo
Superman Returns

Early Contender for Best of 2007
The Lives of Others
Set in East Germany in the early 1980s, this superb political thriller revolves around a Stasi agent who is ordered to bug the apartment of a playwright suspected of democratic leanings. Actually, the writer is a strong supporter of the Communist government, but a party leader has his eye on the poor guy’s girlfriend and hopes to find some intel he can use to eliminate his rival. Gripping, intense and thought-provoking, The Lives of Others chillingly depicts a society where everyone is under surveillance at all times, a portrait that only seems more resonant in light of the NSA wiretapping scandal that made headlines earlier this year. See it when it arrives in your town in February.

Best Performance of 2006
Gael García Bernal in The Science of Sleep
Like Q’Orianka Kilcher last year, my favorite performance of 2006 was one I never saw coming. That’s not to say that I wasn’t familiar with Gael García Bernal–he’s been doing consistently strong work ever since his breakout role in Y Tu Mama Tambien. Even so, I never thought him capable of channeling the manic energy that Michel Gondry’s flight of fancy requires of him. But Bernal isn’t just called upon to be a comedian; he has to fully embody all of his character’s contradictions. Stephane is a dreamer and a romantic, a petulant child and an ambitious artist, a layabout and a jerk. Few actors get the chance to show off this kind of range during their entire career, let alone in a single role.

Other Standout Turns
Maggie Cheung and Nick Nolte in Clean
Daniel Craig in Casino Royale
Shareeka Epps in Half Nelson
Melinda Page Hamilton in Sleeping Dogs Lie
Dustin Hoffman in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer and Stranger than Fiction
Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen in The Queen
Naomi Watts in The Painted Veil
Meryl Streep in A Prairie Home Companion

Promising Directorial Debuts
Duck Season
Half Nelson
Man Push Cart
Sweet Land
Thank You For Smoking

Biggest Surprises
The Bridge
Mission: Impossible III
Rocky Balboa

Biggest Disappointments
For Your Consideration
The Good Shepherd
The Prestige

Most Overrated
The Proposition
United 93

Most Underrated
Fast Food Nation
Night Watch
This Film is Not Yet Rated

Most Overrated Art House Release
Old Joy

Most Underrated Art House Relese
Only Human

Best Crowd-Pleasers
Dave Chappelle’s Block Party
Inside Man

Hit That Should Have Been a Flop
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

Flop That Should Have Been a Hit
Catch a Fire

Shoulda Been Better All Around
Snakes on a Plane

Movies I’m Sorry I Missed
Blood Tea and Red String
Our Daily Bread

Movies I’m Not Sorry I Missed
The Ant Bully
Employee of the Month
Nacho Libre

Movies I Wish I’d Missed
Silent Hill

Bottom of the Barrel
All the King’s Men
The Benchwarmers
Breaking and Entering
Date Movie
Everyone’s Hero
Lady in the Water
Man of the Year
Underworld: Evolution

And In a Category All Its Own
The Wicker Man
“Ow, my legs!” “Goddammit!” “Step away from the bike.” These are just a few of the fabulous one-liners you’ll hear in Neil LaBute’s hilarious remake of the British horror classic, The Wicker Man. Of course, it’s impossible to tell if the movie is supposed be a comedy. The actors don’t appear to be in on the joke if so and there are a few scenes that seem to have been specifically designed to scare you. Whatever LaBute’s intentions were, he ended up with one of those legendarily awful films that’s sure to become a staple at those all-night B-movie festivals alongside Plan 9 From Outer Space and Flesh Gordon.