Movie masters and mishaps

The best and worst films of 2006

How bad was 2006 for movies? To put things in perspective, in 2005, I tacked my highest rating on 13 movies. This year, only six films got the excellent rating.

Only six movies caused popcorn to spew out of the little cartoon popcorn-carton guy we use for the rating system. What’s more, you won’t see any cool blockbuster type films breaking into my top 20. Superman Returns and Mission Impossible III were very good but less than great. I’m a fan of big movies that blow my mind—Lord of the Rings movies had a lock on my top spot three years running—but nothing came close this year.

Big box-office winners like X-Men 3 and Pirates of the Caribbean 2 were underwhelming, and the Tenacious D movie was only so-so, so my geek soul has been left rather disappointed and sad. Leave it to Sylvester Stallone to provide some end-of-the-year blockbuster geek magic with Rocky Balboa, a film that had no right to be good but was actually better than most 2006 movies. Alas, Sly’s Rocky sendoff was too little too late for me. I wanted more!

So here we go. The list is awfully arty this year, with a couple of mainstream deals fighting to balance things out.

1) The Fountain
Writer-director Darren Aronofsky is a genius, and while his latest might not be perfect, it is definitely a bold, original, mystifying work. Hugh Jackman plays a Spanish conquistador, a doctor and an astronaut of sorts in this amazing meditation on eternal love and life. This is the performance that establishes him as a real actor rather than a cartoon character.

I’ve seen this film called “pompous” and a “vanity project” by many other critics. This is hilarious. It’s almost as if Aronofsky is being punished for being daring, smarter and brighter than most. To call this a mess because you don’t get it is shameful. This is a film where the viewer must surrender to what the filmmaker is trying to accomplish and go along on his journey.

The narrative of this movie is by no means conventional, although things do tie together a bit better upon a second viewing. The core of this film—that true love is an eternal, undying entity—is handled beautifully. That all of the pieces of the puzzle might not fit together perfectly is a moot point. Aronofsky tried to tackle the entire universe with his movie, and I’m amazed by how much he has succeeded.

Besides all that, the film looks better than anything put to screen this year, and it has a score to die for. It’s 2006’s best picture.

2) The Departed
As far as performances go, no film this past year was as packed with this many good ones. Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin are all first rate. It definitely helps matters that their work was guided by director Martin Scorsese, an artist who never ceases to amaze. A return to the sort of violent drama that Scorsese made his name with, the film might finally get him that Oscar. Ha, ha, ha, I made a funny. He’ll probably get snubbed again, just because snubbing Scorsese is something the Academy does so well.

3) Charlotte’s Web
Yes, Charlotte the spider is icky looking at first, but I got used to her. She does have the voice of Julia Roberts coming out of her, so that helps. The year’s best family film is also one of the year’s best movies—a visual delight and worthy of the classic E.B. White book. It put a smile on my face for its entire running time. Well, OK, I didn’t smile the whole time. The spider scared me at first, and I think I might’ve cried a little. Only a little.

4) United 93
While World Trade Center felt like a Hallmark channel movie, this one made me feel appropriately awful while watching it. Director Paul Greengrass went for a documentary look with his film, and it was a wise choice. A moving tribute to the people on that 9/11 flight and truly hard to watch, as it should be.

5) Half Nelson
Ryan Gosling is superb as a schoolteacher with a nasty crack habit, and Shareeka Epps is equally powerful as the student he befriends. This establishes Gosling as one of his generation’s elite actors.

6) The Descent
One of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. A group of women go cave diving and encounter some rather nasty cave creatures. This isn’t one of those movies where the victims run screaming. Here, they stand up and fight. They lose horribly and get eaten, but they go down swinging sharp climbing gear. People who say this movie wasn’t scary are lying assholes. They’re just trying to make you think they’re tough.

7) Letters From Iwo Jima
Clint Eastwood made two WWII films this year, and this one is far superior to Flags of Our Fathers. Depicting the battle of Iwo Jima from the viewpoint of the Japanese soldier, it showcases a heartbreaking performance from Ken Watanabe and frightening battle scenes. It’s pretty scary watching America’s might through the eyes of its foe.

8) Little Children
In the hands of another director, this one could’ve been just another pedestrian study of suburban malcontents behaving badly. Instead, what we get from director Todd Field is a strangely operatic, blistering portrayal of numerous folks (played by the likes of Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson) on the verge of collapse. Jackie Earl Haley (Kelly Leak from The Bad News Bears) plays one of the year’s most terrifying characters.

9) A Scanner Darkly
Philip K. Dick’s anti-drug story gets the Richard Linklater rotoscope animation treatment, and it’s a feast for the eyes and brain. It’s out on DVD, where it actually plays better than it did on the big screen. After seeing this, I was damned sure there was a bug on me, but that’s pretty much an ongoing problem in my life.

10) Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
I laughed more at this film than any other this year. Will Ferrell is funny enough as the title character, but Gary Cole, Sacha Baron Cohen and John C. Reilly nearly steal the movie out from under him in supporting roles.

11.) The Proposition
And I thought Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven was a nasty Western. This is as dark as movies get, which is no surprise considering it was written by Nick Cave. That boy is sick. Guy Pearce, a normally strapping lad, looks absolutely disgusting in this thing. Kickass soundtrack.

12) Borat
The second funniest movie this year featuring Sacha Baron Cohen. Loved the bear in the back of the ice cream truck. Still haunted by the ass-to-face scene. Perhaps didn’t need that one. Oh, the things that were left on that moustache. That’s right, I wrote that.

13) The Queen
Helen Mirren is perfection as Queen Elizabeth II in the aftermath of Lady Diana’s untimely death. She brings dimension to a royal figure that we never see beyond the surface. Whether the real queen is anything like the one in this film doesn’t really matter. It makes for a good movie.

14) Dreamgirls
Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Hudson and Beyonce Knowles all kick severe ass in this big-screen adaptation of the Broadway show that I didn’t know a goddamned thing about. I truly enjoyed this even if it wasn’t totally faithful to the show because, again, didn’t see it and didn’t know a goddamned thing about it.

15) Hard Candy
A pedophile (Patrick Wilson) gets tortured by his intended prey (Ellen Page). Not a good time at the movies, especially for males because castration—vivid and all too real—comes into play. As castration films go, this is very well done. It’s right up there with Oh Lordy, Give Me Back My Nads!

16) The Science of Sleep/David Chappelle’s Block Party
Director Michel Gondry released two highly inventive films this year, and he’s the winner of the inaugural Bob Grimm “Hey, Wow, You Released Two Highly Inventive Films In the Same Year” award, soon to be coveted by shameless directors and mallards everywhere. Sleep was a trippy ode to the difficulties of expressing love, while Block Party was a blast of great music and comedy.

17) Babel
I didn’t get it on with all of the stories in this one, but the ones involving Brad Pitt and Adriana Barraza kept my attention. I thought the Japanese portion of the film was a bit overwrought, although the performances were amazing.

18) For Your Consideration
Christopher Guest made me laugh many times at his nasty attack on the Hollywood promo machine, and Catherine O’Hara delivered a career-best performance. She had better get an Oscar nomination, or I’ll write an angry letter, which I will never send, for I am far too afraid and lazy.

19) Pan’s Labyrinth
Director Guillermo Del Toro knows how to make a good-looking movie, and this dark story mixing fairytales and war horror is definitely that. It’s also mighty scary when the wrinkly flesh monster with removable eyes goes nuts. Seriously, if you don’t like wrinkly flesh monsters with removable eyes, this might not be for you.

20) Marie Antoinette
This one got booed at Cannes, but quite a few of us movie critic maggots dug it. It’s one of the more beautiful films put to screen this year, and Kirsten Dunst is excellent as the title character. History mavens got all worked up over director Sofia Coppola’s supposed glossy treatment of the subject matter and her decision to use modern music on the soundtrack. I say she is one of the medium’s most gifted visual artists, and she is currently kicking her dad’s butt.

Those were the good ones. And now it is time for our annual journey into the land of Cinematic Stinkville, where Nicolas Cage embarrasses himself, and Sharon Stone remains, as always, a shameless whore. Oddly enough, Dakota Fanning is nowhere to be seen in the list below, but you will find her up above in the good place (see Charlotte’s Web). This is an encouraging sign of cinematic progress and Fanning’s waning ability to annoy the living piss out of me.

1) The Wicker Man
This was supposed to be a horror film, yet it ends with Nicolas Cage running around in a bear suit. (That’s actually him in back of Borat’s ice cream truck on the cover). Epic in its badness, with more laughs—be them unintentional—than most comedies released this year.

2) Basic Instinct 2: Risk Addiction
Speaking of laugh riots, this one had me chortling from the moment it was announced as a project. Sharon Stone disgusts me.

3) American Dreamz
A War on Terror/American Idol satire. American Pie writer-director Paul Weitz thought he had a clever idea, so he made it into a movie. This proved that his expertise lies more in the field of pie-fucking than political satire.

4) The Da Vinci Code
The boring novel becomes an even more boring movie. A big charisma-sucking straw came up from Hell, and withdrew all the positive and infectious energy from Tom Hanks’ bodice.

5) Snakes On a Plane
I got all swept up in the hype for this one and went to opening night only to discover that the Internet is a foul temptress, capable of much lies and deceit. I feel so used.

6) Man of the Year
Another truly awful political satire and yet another unholy pairing of director Barry Levinson and Robin Williams. Their Toys debacle wasn’t enough to keep them apart, and this is our loss.

7) A Good Year
Russell Crowe’s sleazy, vacuous bond trader gets what is coming to him when he inherits a beautiful vineyard and romances a hot woman. To all of you scumbags out there who are bilking people for money and stepping on heads to get to the top, watch out. Cosmic forces just might make you the owner of a French vineyard, where you will get your comeuppance drinking wine that isn’t all that great. Hey, I was a right bastard this past year, so I’m expecting one of them there Italian vineyards as karma payback. I would like to see the Pieta before I die.

8) The Nativity Story
The arrival of Christ on Earth calls for major moping, a little bit of scandal ("Say, who got that Mary girl pregnant?” “I heard it might be God!") and whitewater adventure. Jesus is cool, but this interpretation of the build-up to his birthday is a bad booze hangover.

9) All the King’s Men
While the stench of Sean Penn’s performance didn’t stink to I Am Sam levels, he came damn close. He makes so many violent arm movements in this thing that you expect one of them to fly off and decapitate Jude Law. Actually, that would’ve made this movie one of the year’s best!

10) You, Me and Dupree
Owen Wilson tried to do his best Owen Wilson impression in this film, and he wound up looking like David Spade. Bad concept, bad execution and proof that Wilson is best in supporting or sidekick roles. (He should make sure Vince Vaughn makes an appearance in every one of his films). Right now, my favorite Wilson brother is definitely Luke.

As for the coming year, nothing looks more exciting than Grindhouse, combining two films by directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Rose McGowan has a machine gun for a leg in this film, and that’s enough to get me stoked. Also looming big on the radar would be Spider Man 3; Live Free, Die Hard (Die Hard 4); I Am Legend and possibly even Rambo 4. You know the state of cinema is bad when you find yourself pining for Rambo 4.