Editor’s Note: What was the best movie of 2006? National Review asked some frequent movie watchers for their top choices. Here’s what they came up with.
I went to the movies more in 2006 than anybody you know: 128 times. That alone should tell you I’m no highbrow. (I paid to see Van Wilder 2, Scary Movie 4, and Michael Haneke’s French “thriller” Caché — guess which time I wanted my money back?) I say the best way to judge a movie is to ask a few simple questions: Is it fun? Would I see it again? and Will people care about it in 20 years? By that, the best of the year are:
10. Flags of Our Fathers. Clint Eastwood is an efficient director who brings things in on time and under budget — that’s why Hollywood loves him, not because he’s an artist. War stories are most effective when told simply and efficiently; this is a case of material matching the man, which is why it works so well.
9. The Prestige is a creepy, moody thriller about two ambitious magicians who will do anything for their art. It stands out for how its astonishing plot is revealed so clearly, step by step — a rarity for most heavily plotted films.
8. Night Watch (Russia). Horror, fantasy, vampires, ghosts, and an entire nether-world that exists along side us. Plus a killer theme song: “Fearless” by The Bravery.
7. Thank You for Smoking. Smart-funny. The only “thinking” comedy worth seeing this year.
6. The Hills Have Eyes. Best horror flick of the year, with opening credits worth the price of admission — the best since Se7en, set against Webb Pierce’s honky-tonk classic “More and More.”
5. The Departed. Scorsese. Gangsters. Shootin’. Dyin’.
4. Inside Man. The cracklingest heist picture since Dog Day Afternoon. Bonus: Director Spike Lee presents a diverse city as a filmic character instead of as the backdrop for a cardboard complaint about racism.
3. United 93. The drama flows not from music cues and camera moves but from all we know is to come. It’s too bad history isn’t more often told this dispassionately: it would be far more affecting.
2. Jackass Number Two. I laughed till I was sore, just like I did at Jackass Number One. Is it fun? Yes. Would I see it again? I saw it three times. Will people watch this years down the road? Of course.
1. Borat. This is the funniest movie ever made — and it’s not an exposé of racism, either. It’s an opportunity to laugh at 1) ridiculous behavior and 2) how people respond to ridiculous behavior — plus potty jokes and naked wrestling. That’s it. (Confession: I saw this six times. The first time was a month before its release. I waited in line two hours.)
YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: The Wicker Man — a pitiless surprise ending; Crank — Die Hard inside a human body; My Super Ex-Girlfriend — sounds stupid but plays funny; Hard Candy — dare-you-to-watch revenge thriller; Mini’s First Time — very black comedy.
AWFUL AND/OR OVERRATED: The Libertine — extra-frumpy Masterpiece Theater episode, except you pay; Running with Scissors — like throwing up, only for two hours; Caché (France) — ever read a book only to discover somebody ripped out the last page? Same deal here; Bobby — Who knew Jesus had another brother?; Little Miss Sunshine — call it a comedy but build it on tragedy and the critics will call you a god. Hell, they might even call you Bobby!
In the category of most sheerly entertaining film of the year, it’s a tie. The Departed has everything you could want in a foul-talking and violent cops-and-robbers picture, including one of the best acting ensembles in the history of American film. And you’d have to be lacking a pulse not to be charged and excited by the vibrant if lopsided Dreamgirls, which features an eight-minute scene sequence dab in the middle of the picture that is so amazing it overwhelms everything that comes before and after.
The funniest movie of this or almost any other year is Borat. The best non-Borat comedy of the year is Little Miss Sunshine. The most literate comedy of the year is Tristram Shandy: A Cock-and-Bull Story. The most surprisingly decent movie is The Illusionist, with the year’s best male performance — by Edward Norton. The best female performance is, by common agreement, Helen Mirren’s in the richly amusing The Queen.
The best film of the year, hands down, is United 93. Writer-director Paul Greengrass assigned himself the supremely difficult task of recreating the mood and feeling of the morning of September 11 as it was experienced by those directly involved with the aircraft hijacked by al Qaeda’s monsters. There’s never been anything quite like it — it’s not a docudrama but rather a fictional documentary that exists in an artistic version of a state of grace.
– John Podhoretz, a contributor to NRO’s Corner, is a New York Post columnist a movie reviewer for The Weekly Standard.
I didn’t see every film released in Washington this year, and there are still a few potential greats that have yet to make it to our nation’s capital (Inland Empire, Letters from Iwo Jima). But I suspect that no amount of catching up will change my impression that 2006 was not a particularly great year for movies. The first six months of the year were almost totally barren, and even the late-year awards season produced only a few true gems.
The problem this year was that so many of the films that should or could have been excellent were only good. With Inside Man, for example, Spike Lee dropped his usual hectoring tone to deliver a delectable caper flick; but, like so many brainy thrillers, it outsmarted itself in the final act. And as much as I enjoyed the glossy machismo of Miami Vice, director Michael Mann’s stylish veneer could only do so much to distract from the movie’s underlying shallowness. As such, I’m limiting my year’s best list to five films and some honorable mentions:
5. The Science of Sleep: Michel Gondry’s surrealist romance is a visual delight with the emotional glow of a treasured keepsake. Perfectly capturing the lovestruck heartache of a creative but childish young man, Sleep is a movie about young love that is tender and sympathetic, yet honest in the way it refuses to indulge immaturity.
4. The Departed: Has any director charted the lives of urban criminals with as much vigor as Martin Scorsese? The story, about a criminal masquerading as a cop and a cop masquerading as a criminal, was tailor made for Scorsese, and he and his A-list cast pull it off flawlessly.
3. The Queen: Funny, poignant, and nuanced — as sharp a take on recent history as you’re likely to see at the movies any time soon. Helen Mirren will rightly get credit for her magnificent portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II, but it’s Michael Sheen’s sturdy turn as Tony Blair that really grounds the movie.
2. Marie Antoinette: Rarely have the follies and joys of youth and privilege been treated so delicately and so lusciously. Sophia Coppola’s movie has little to do with history and everything to do with nostalgia for the responsibility-free days of adolescence.
1. Apocalypto: The year’s most brutal movie is also its best. Say what you will about Mel Gibson, he has an intuitive, almost primitive grasp of the mechanics of action filmmaking. But Gibson isn’t content to proffer thrills alone; he complicates his violence by reminding us that, even when it is necessary, it is never without cost and consequence.
Special notice goes to Paul Greengrass’ United 93. It’s possibly the year’s most powerful film, but it’s so fundamentally different from anything else released this year that it feels inappropriate to put it on the same list.
Honorable mentions: Miami Vice, Inside Man, Brick, Little Miss Sunshine, A Scanner Darkly, Borat, The Prestige, Thank You for Smoking
And for low-budget genre film guilty pleasures, it’s tough to beat District B13, Night Watch or The Descent.
– Peter Suderman writes regularly about film for NRO. He blogs on film and culture at www.alarm-alarm.com.
United 93. United 93. United 93. Lost, in the event it depicts and the socio-political mosaic it’s a small but sharp fragment in, is a really remarkable piece of filmmaking.
United 93 manages to be the most emotionally involving film of 2006 despite fate having broken off it’s most important narrative lever: everyone already knows how it ends. Add to this some writer / director Paul Greengrass’s choices, which, on paper, could hardly be less auspicious. There’s no lead role. There’s not much character development. There are hardly proper characters at all.
Yet, United 93 walks its audience through the banalities of check-in and beverage service with exquisite patience. When the action finally starts you’re on that plane, an everyman stranger surrounded by others (sitting with an air conditioned box with a bunch of strangers while you watch heightens the effect; probably why United 93 won’t be the same on DVD.) By the time you realize it’s less a story than an experience, you’re so in the moment, that — be honest — you think they might actually land that plane. Great movies make the impossible possible and that is a doozie of an impossibility. United 93 was the first important film about 9/11. Too sentimental, too star-centric, too action packed or preachy and people would reasonably doubt that Hollywood was capable of memorializing the day with anything deeper than a Die Hard 9/11. Instead, Greengrass made a movie spare and clear enough to play perfectly in any language, for decades. And he made it, in contrast to the actual World Trade Center Memorial, with little controversy. The “Is America ready for this?” line was always a canard. A more important question, now, is whether we’ll remember the gut-punch simplicity and restraint of United 93 be remembered in future 9/11 movies?
On a lighter note, my favorite most-overlooked flick of 2006: Brick. Hollywood was nuts for noir this year — Hollywoodland, The Black Dahlia, The Good German — but its best effort didn’t get much traction. Writer / director Rian Johnson takes a Maltese Falcon plot and grafts it onto contemporary high school setting. Where the others tried to capture a vibe, Brick injected creative adrenaline into a classic form. Before Brick, noir seemed valuable only to spoof. Now I’m buying every Raymond Chandler in Borders.
– Louis Wittig writes from New York.