My apologies for being sidetracked from this popular series of posts, but I had some obligations I needed to fulfill with some of my other writing. However, with most other lists of this kind having been wrapped up for some time now—and Hollywood's own celebration of the films of 2009 approaching in the form of the Oscars—I am feeling some pressure to finish this survey of the best films of the decade. Once again, a reminder that I can't judge movies I haven't seen (which was entirely possible in 2006 since my first son had just been born, and we had just relocated to a different state). So if you feel a film you like was unjustly left out, it might be that I just never got to it. But definitely suggest it in the comments section below.
So now, without further ado, and in alphabetical order, the ten best films of 2006...
Bug, director William Friedkin - A return to form for Friedkin (The Exorcist), a director many had written off long ago. This chilling film, based on Tracy Letts' play, benefits greatly from Michael Shannon's breakout performance. Bug also recalls a little seen Nicolas Roeg film, Track 29 (1988), about a lonely woman bonding with a mysterious drifter who may be the son she gave up for adoption when she was a teenager. In this iteration, Ashley Judd does an outstanding job playing down her usually glamorous looks to play a devastated woman whose son disappeared years ago. Her fragile state of mind contributes to the bond forged between her and Shannon's unhinged entomophobic.
Casino Royale, dir. Martin Campbell - Sure, it would be simple to credit actor Daniel Craig for reinvigorating the stale, old character of superspy 007. He does bring a callous brutality which hasn't been seen in Bond since Sean Connery played the part nearly 50 years ago. But Campbell 's practically revelatory direction of the film goes further in breaking the formulaic rut this series was stuck in. Minimizing the silly gadgetry, bringing in a strong supporting cast (including Eva Green and Giancarlo Giannini), and making the normally impervious secret agent a thuggish rookie are a few things that help. The pivotal decision, however, was in filming a surprisingly faithful adaptation of Ian Fleming's first 007 story, a small-scale battle of wits with global implications set over a card table.
Children of Men, dir. Alfonso Cuarón - What are the chances such a deeply humanistic film would also turn out to be the most important science fiction film since perhaps, Blade Runner (1982)? Set in an Earth dying by fits and starts, the story of Theo Faron (Clive Owen) and his mission to transport a mother and her baby—the first born in over 18 years—is profound, emotionally resonant, and tightly paced. So one can be forgiven if Emmanuel Lubezki's fantastic camerawork is overlooked amidst the constant stream of action. There are at least three single-take shots—one shot of a climactic battle runs over 6 minutes—which will have you scratching your head and wondering, "How'd they do that?"
The Departed, dir. Martin Scorsese - Neither the horrible film most of its detractors call it, nor the best film on Scorsese's resume—as its box office receipts and awards would suggest—this gritty cop thriller is just a well manufactured genre piece. Most times it is these boilerplate productions which reveal more of the director's strengths than the more complex fare. In this case, those virtues are his mastery over an ensemble cast (Damon, DiCaprio, Baldwin, Farmiga, Sheen, Wahlberg, Winstone, and the inimitable Jack Nicholson) and his ability to keep the story focused despite the potential for some serious sidetracking into the culture and customs of criminals and cops in the city of Boston.
The Fountain, dir. Darren Aronofsky - Aronofsky's most underrated film is probably his best. This triptych stars Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz as past, present, and future paramours investigating the scientific and metaphysical aspects of the Tree of Life. The movie's startling imagery is on a par with the best that science fiction cinema has ever offered us. And the intertwining romance still resonates long after the memory of the film's spectacular dreamscape has faded.
Inland Empire, dir. David Lynch - After spending an incredible amount of time deciphering Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (successfully, I believe), the disappointment that emerges with the evaporation of all the mystery is not something I care to repeat with any Lynch movie. So with this one, I resign myself to deliberate head-scratching. Perhaps it's his most self-indulgent exercise since the ultimate student film, Eraserhead (a thesis film which he spent 5 years making); so indulgent, it often borders on the self-parodic (six-foot-tall bunnies, anyone?). But at least this one has one of the decade's greatest performances going for it, a dual one by Laura Dern as both an actress and the physical manifestation of the role she plays in the film-within-the film she stars in.
Inside Man, dir. Spike Lee - This tense heist flick echoes Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Not surprising, since Lee has previously acknowledged the veteran New York director's influence on his work. Like in the earlier film, the motive for the bank robbery is behind a surprising turn two-thirds of the way in. And like in that film, Lee is unafraid to inject social issues in an otherwise average thriller to keep the pot simmering. Clive Owen and Denzel Washington are effective antagonists.
Miami Vice, dir. Michael Mann - From a comment I left at Jake's recent review at Not Just Movies:
... Scarface was a major influence on Mann's first incarnation of Vice, which echoed a lot of the pastel colors, art deco production design, and synthesized music from De Palma's film. Vice in turn played a big part in turning Miami into "...a bit of a carelessly painted-over dump...all the time using [the film's] color scheme to undermine the hollow allure of the city."* Much of the revitalization and gentrification of South Beach began with and was coordinated by Vice's TV production crews looking to glamourize the area for location shooting. Ironically, Mann closes the circle with the movie's depiction of a city leading a double life, one which was unintendedly initiated by his vision of the city to begin with.*Quote taken from Jake's review.
The Prestige, dir. Christopher Nolan - This is Jackman's second appearance this year in a young director's best film. So why can't he connect outside of fantasy-inflected efforts? Well, there is a certain hamminess inherent in his style that lends itself to larger-than-life roles like superheroes (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) or showmen (this film). Kenneth Branagh might want to reserve a space for him in his next Shakespeare adaptation. Anyway, Nolan's tricky film never cheats as it skillfully explores his favorite themes of duality and deception in a rivalry between two turn-of-the-century stage magicians. Bonus points for finagling an extended cameo from David Bowie.
The Queen, dir. Stephen Frears - This sometimes humorous depiction of the British royals begins just before Tony Blair's election win and segues right into the week that Princess Diana died. Michael Sheen continues his portrayal of Blair begun in the first part of screenwriter Peter Morgan's triptych, The Deal, and to be concluded in HBO's upcoming The Special Relationship. But the real star here is Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth. While almost all of the insular royals are shown here to be completely out of touch with their subjects' feelings over Di's passing, Mirren's Queen often reveals a "common touch," attributed to her time serving in uniform during WWII. Morgan's sarcasm towards the royals is leavened by Frears' rather sympathetic view towards them, best illustrated in a quietly beautiful scene where the Queen is confronted by a 14-point stag on the grounds of her estate. Her grief when she hears of the stag's death later on reveals how deeply she identified with him and her awareness that the monarchy is slowly being phased out of existence.
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