In New York City, 626 films were released in 2006. So far, I've seen 126 of them. I rarely say this, but it's been a weak year for movies. I rarely say that because usually I've been to film festivals and seen so many little films at art houses and on DVD that I think there's plenty to get excited about, even if Hollywood falls short. This year, only three studio films of any sort made my list and they were all modestly budgeted affairs, two of them with no-name casts. I strongly considered listing the films alphabetically since none of them screamed out to me "best film of the year." But these are all worthwhile and worth your time. First, the list of my favorite films. Then the same list with brief comments. Then the list of all 126 films I've seen (so far) along with a rating. All ratings are on a four star scale.
THE BEST FILMS OF 2006
Time To Leave
The Pursuit Of Happyness
Honorable mentions: Neil Young: Heart of Gold, CSA: The Confederate States Of America, Duck Season, Solo Con Tu Pareja, Climates, District B13.
BRICK -- a clever blending of film noir and high school, I loved "Brick" because it was such an unexpected delight. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a high school loner determined to find out the truth behind his missing ex-girlfriend. It plays with every noir convention (right down to the vice principal being akin to a gruff police captain) and creates hard-boiled dialogue with original slang that is the freshest and funniest since "Clueless." Best of all, it came on the heels of Gordon-Levitt's terrific performance in "Mysterious Skin" and proves that he is an exceptional actor with great taste (which is just as important). He has a long career ahead of him. (Gordon-Levitt is also good in 2007's upcoming drama "The Lookout.")
VOLVER -- Like many people, I became a fan of Pedro Almodovar with "Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown," explored his hilarious early work and then watched with amazement as he began to make the melodramas he used to satirize so effectively. Always intelligent and funny, some of Almodovar's more somber recent work has thrilled others more than me. But "Volver" feels like a rich summation and the best of all possible worlds: a woman's film with a sly humor and a rich, sexy performance from Penelope Cruz, who should simply never make a film with any other director.
PAN'S LABYRINTH -- Nothing can break a film lover's spirit like a film festival. Go to Cannes and you'll wade through a LOT of bad movies and wonder why you were there. I wasn't even a fan of director Guillermo Del Toro's earlier work -- not Hellboy or Cronos or Mimic or Blade II. (But somehow, I'd seen them all.) But I love fairy tales and this dark film set during Fascist Spain at the end of World War II is a doozy. It came on one of the last days of Cannes, when all the good movies are usually already screened. I expected nothing and came away delighted by a film that was creepy and sometimes gorey but most of all emotionally moving, something I never expected from Del Toro. And Ivana Baquero (probably 11 at the time of filming) gives a great performance as the little girl at the heart of the film.
BORAT -- Sure it's meanspirited. There's a big difference between tricking celebrities and politicians into behaving like idiots and doing the same thing to clueless regular folk. But no movie in years has left me helpless with laughter like this one did.
HALF NELSON -- Unlike Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I already knew Ryan Gosling was a terrific actor who had a long career ahead of him. But his performance as a junkie teacher -- in which he does so much with his eyes and let's us see what he's thinking and feeling at every moment without ever being showy -- was still a revelation for me. And he was matched every step of the way by Shareeka Epps as the student who befriends him. I don't know if she is a great actress or was just cast perfectly here (it's hard to tell with kids) but she's certainly great here. I don't even know if the script is that good, but what Gosling and Epps brings to the film elevates it tremendously. They made this film special.
L'ENFANT -- The Dardenne brothers are one trick ponies, sure. I know that. All their films are intense, over-the-shoulder looks at the desperate people on the fringes of society, loners and losers without a hope in the world. See one of their films and you've seen them all. But I'm sucked in by the humanity of their characters and the immediacy of their filmmaking every time. Here we follow a homeless young guy and girl who are crazy about each other. He sells their new-born baby to make a few bucks, she freaks out and he spends the rest of the film trying to undo what he's done. That's it. But the simple power of the film -- the way the characters make a choice and then another choice and then suddenly find themselves buried up to their necks and wondering what the hell happened -- is overwhelming.
UNITED 93 -- It works. Heartbreaking and thoroughly convincing in recreating what it might have been like to be a passenger (or a suicide bomber) on that plane. No backstories, no flashbacks, no speeches -- just an intense focus on what is happening. It's not "grueling" -- grueling is for bad or unpleasant films. It's gripping.
TIME TO LEAVE -- French director Francois Ozon has been playing with genres recently, but this straightforward drama about a successful young man who finds out he has a fatal illness is his most emotionally satisfying film since "Under The Sand." The young man is kind of a jerk and happily, without making him lovable or having some sort of emotional rebirth, we actually sort of come to care for him and are moved by his unexpected, unsentimental reaction to the sad news. Simple, clear-eyed and moving.
FATELESS -- Good heavens, another movie about the Holocaust? Surely everything has already been said? It has and this movie doesn't really break any new ground. The big shift is to not paint life before the Holocaust as all peaches and cream and to show the bitterness of returning home to Hungary from the camps only to find yourself filled with anger at the countrymen almost sorry to see you return. Still, most of it is very familiar territory. But it's so clearly specific, so clearly one person's particular story that it feels fresh again. And the cinematography by Gyula Pados is brilliant.
THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS -- The first Will Smith film that has ever made my top ten list. He's a very appealing actor with generally terrible taste in movies. Smith has turned one dog after another into a massive worldwide hit. Happily, this time he strips down all his charm to tell the story of a man struggling to become a stock broker while becoming effectively homeless with his little son. Another great child performance from Smith's real-life son Jaden. Other supporting turns are very good too (including Thandie Newton as the wife who leaves him). But it's Smith all the way. Thanks to Italian director Gabrielle Muccino, Smith gives the least complicated, most complete performance to date. The movie is nicely unforgiving and unsentimental in its depiction of his plight, but it will still move you by the end. If this were an Italian or French film rather than an English language movie starring Will Smith, it would be on every critics' list in the country. They're not prejudiced. It's just that film reviewers are wary of sentiment unless it comes with subtitles.
Click here for a list of every 2006 film I saw (126 and counting) along with my rating for each film.