1. The Prestige
No other film in 2006 enraptured me the way Chris Nolan’s tale of two magicians did. “The Illusionist” was a very good film but at its core was a love story, whereas the stakes are infinitely higher in “The Prestige”. Every frame of this film is essential to the story they act like building blocks and if one is removed the whole tower falls. However, one does not fully realize this until the final scene of the film. This is a magical (excuse the pun) tale that twisted my mind more than any other film has since “Memento”. Nolan’s direction is subtle but speedy and the magnificent splendid script (done with his brother Jonathan) should have been nominated for an Oscar. The acting across the board is exceptional and each and every scene binds the overall scope of this picture together. Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine and the ghostly David Bowie give extraordinary performances in this masterpiece. For some unknown reason, many critics overlooked this film when compiling their year-end lists. All I can say is that the second it was over I wanted to see it again. This is why it is at number one on my list.
2. The Departed
Let’s clear something up right from the get go, Martin Scorsese is ALWAYS in top form. The last film he made in which he was lacking focus was 1977’s “New York, New York”. Every film he has touched since then has been first-rate whether it has been deeply personal (“Raging Bull”), small budget (“After Hours”), epic (“Gangs of New York”) or just flat out sprawling (“Casino”). “The Departed” is no different as he delves into the pulverizing underworld of the Boston mob. Sure this is territory he has explored before but when a player hits his 500th home run does it mean it’s any less important than their first? Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg all give Oscar worthy performances in what truly is a first rate crime thriller based deeply on internal conflict. The complex characters, engaging script and riveting direction make “The Departed” an example of a Hollywood mainstream film at its best.
The biggest surprise of 2006, a highly intellectual film based around a high school murder is so much more than meets the eye. The rich dialogue in this film owes a debt of gratitude to Quentin Tarantino and David Mamet, but surprisingly, instead of attempting to sound like those two, the characters have their own distinctive voice. The world and characters he created was one I didn’t want to leave. While the drama is elevated, in truth, is that high school is dramatic and challenging and this is what makes this world so fascinating. Rian Johnson is a director to watch in the future.
4. Little Miss Sunshine
When I went to see this film, my wife turned to me and said “It’s a road trip movie, it has to be good!” She was dead on. You laugh, cry and feel deeply for each of these characters. Their lives may be turned upside down, but they bond together and find a way through with each other, with some hilarious high jinks along the way.
5. Pan’s Labyrinth
This film took me by complete surprise. I’m not quite sure I have ever seen another film quite like this before. It is set around the fascist Spanish of 1944, but with an element of the mystical thrown in based around a young girls mystical adventures. Either film on itself would have been a great film but the fact that director Guillermo del Torro was able to blend these two stories seamlessly is an accomplishment upon itself. The thought and imagination that went into this film is extraordinary, eerie and romantic. This film will be a classic in years to come.
6. V For Vendetta
It’s been eleven months since I have seen this movie and it still resonates deeply within me. The futuristic action film is full of ideas of how to tear down a fascist British government. The answer is given to the people by a freedom fighter named “V”. I see plenty of action films and always find them enjoyable but this film is so much more. There is a profound sense of hope and determination from these characters. In the end, it is a story of the triumph of the human spirit while helping the Wachowski Brothers (who were producers and writers) gain ground after the dismal “Matrix” sequels.
7. Thank You For Smoking
The most wicked comedy of the year. Aaron Eckhart is one of the finest actors of his generation and I can honestly say I will watch him in anything. Of all the Oscar snubs this year, this is the biggest, as his performance was electrifying as he delivered every line in this film with a crocodile smile. We know we can’t trust a word he says, but he wins you over nevertheless. Eckhart plays a brash and cocky representative for the tobacco industry who can spin almost anyone on his head. His performance alone almost guaranteed this film would be on my top-ten list. Credit must be given to writer/director Jason Reitman who balanced the tone for the film beautifully while spraying it with elements of witty and comedic dialogue.
8. Marie Antoinette
Sofia Coppola divided critics and audiences with her surrealistic tale of the 18th Century French Queen. She added a new wave soundtrack and took risks with the casting but I was deeply intrigued right from the opening scene. This film could have been a stuffy period piece, but instead Sofia Coppola breathed life into it and gave the period piece a new spin. While greatly underappreciated by most, this film will continue to find its audience in coming years and in the not too distant future will be studied in film schools for its inventiveness.
9. Children of Men
A bleak, menacing look into the not too distant future in a world where women are barren and no one has given birth to a baby in eighteen-years. This dark noir stayed with me for weeks. The haunting and disturbing imagery made me think twice about how much we take for granted on this Earth. Could one imagine a world without children or no future? Director Alfonso Cuaron has made a film I believe will be viewed as the “Blade Runner” of the 21st Century.
10. Rocky Balboa
I had zero desire to see this film when I heard it was going to be made. Why would Stallone revisit this series? Apparently Sly had unfinished business and all I can tell you is that I am thrilled he chose to make it. The film finds Rocky wanting to prove himself once again, trying to find meaning in his life. The parallels between Stallone and Rocky are eerie. Stallone went back to the first film and took all the heart in it and transported it thirty-years into the future. This story is as inspiring as any film that will come out of Hollywood and I can’t recommend it enough.
11. United 93 / World Trade Center
Two distinctly different films about the same day with Paul Greengrass taking the lead with the docudrama style in “United 93”. One is a shot like a docudrama and the other is a drama shot in a straightforward storytelling manner. Both are deeply profound and while some audiences are not ready for them today, they are important documents for future generations.
12. The Queen
An inside look at the Queen following the death of Princess Diana. The film is based on insider stories from people who witnessed these events. Helen Mirren gives the performance of her life (in what is already a remarkable career) as the Queen. She’s bone-chilling good and she inhabits a character the same way Anthony Hopkins does; you never once doubt that what you are seeing on screen is a live, vital and real person and not a movie star.
13. Casino Royale
The genre of action films will never get the credit they deserve, but this Bond film may take the cake as a definitive one. This was the film Pierce Brosnan wanted to make but they fought him for over a decade before he handed the keys over to his Aston Martin. Daniel Craig breathes life into the character and most importantly, the story of how James Bond became 007 is something I’m not sure if anyone thought they would ever see. Sadly one can only tell this story once so it’s unlikely future installments will be as good as this one.
14. Stranger Than Fiction
A sweet, melancholy film that was overlooked last fall with revelatory performances by Will Ferrell and Maggie Gyllenhaal. It’s a simple but intriguing story of a character within a story. The Emma Thompson and Will Ferrell storylines do not cross until late in the picture, but every moment leading up to it leads to a bigger whole. Harold Crick’s transformation is one of the most joyous things I have witnessed on a movie screen in years.
15. Superman Returns
Is this film perfect? No, however, director Bryan Singer did the impossible he revitalized a franchise that has been dead for close to two-decades. I always loved the Superman stories and despite numerous attempts at trying to resurrect this franchise,
16. Notes On A Scandal
If Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett did not already have Oscars, they would be the front runners in this years Oscar campaign because of their otherworldly impassioned performances. This is a disturbing tale of friendship where these two actresses play off one another like they are playing chess, each moving subtly through the picture. Aside from “The Departed” no other 2006 features more tour de force performances.
17. Little Children
This film is a wildly involving emotional tale of two lost souls seeking solace and meaning in their lives who find it in the comfort of one another. Both are married and seeking a less complicated life away from their demanding and emotionally distant spouses. Director Todd Field (“In The Bedroom”) carefully wrote and directed this film and while it’s not a fast moving film, it is completely engrossing. Kate Winslet is nominated often for Oscars and I have to tell you, she has never been more deserving than this year. This is her most complicated and challenging role to date and yet she handles it with ease. Truly great acting is when it appears to be effortless. Another film that is full of astounding performances by Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly and Jackie Earle Haley.
18. Clerks 2
What can I say, Kevin Smith’s return to his roots made me laugh…a lot. It’s also sweet and more grown up than his first film twelve years ago. Smith is a director, who continually surprises me and while his humor is raunchy, he develops and grows with every film as a writer, actor and director.
19. The Good Shepherd
Yes this film is lengthy and big on minute details; however, I also had very low expectations for the film. Robert De Niro took the seat behind the camera as the director for the first time since 1993’s “A Bronx Tale” and he crafted a delicate yet extremely engaging and thought provoking film on the creation of the CIA. Matt Damon is one of the most underappreciated actors working today. By now he should have had Oscar nominations for not just this film but “The Departed”, “Syriana”, “Stuck On You” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley”. Like Kate Winslet, the greatest actors appear to not act at all and few people could have pulled off the bone chilling performance Damon gives here. This film also warrants some of De Niro’s lesser comedies of the last few years as I am sure he made those films as leverage to make this one.
20. I Know I’m Not Alone
My favorite documentary of the year and virtually no one knows of it. Michael Franti is a musician who chose to go to a number of war torn countries and show the other side of the story not being shown on network news broadcasts. He merely spoke to people and wanted to show the human element of war.
It’s not “Rocky” but this inspiring true tale of someone who becomes a player for the Philadelphia Eagles performed with great ease by Mark Wahlberg who continues to prove cynics wrong with his acting. It’s straightforward Hollywood fare that amazingly feels true without manipulating the audience’s emotions.
22. The Notorious Betty Page
Gretchen Mol gives a career defining performance as the first superstar pin-up girl. The film looks deep into her psyche. Instead of some twisted sex tale, the film is more of an exploration of one’s soul and how she comes to reconcile her image. Mol was determined a “has been” by Hollywood before her career even took off and she owns this role and sadly, come award time, it was overlooked. She isn’t just playing Betty Page, she exudes her sexuality and her goody too shoes innocence at the same time.
23. Shut Up & Sing
I just saw this film last night and it’s an intense look over a three-year period in the lives of the Dixie Chicks. The good, the bad and the ugly is here on display here showcasing their warts, triumphs and tragedies. The film was released with little fan fare but it’s an important document of the group’s outspoken manners and the media backlash due to some infamous comments. The film carefully showcases that these women are far more vulnerable than they would ever appear in an interview segment, but at the end of the day they may have the final laugh as they just swept the Grammy’s. There are great moments of humor, sweetness and horror on display here.
Steven Soderbergh’s return to independent film with an engrossing murder mystery filmed with non-actors and released to cable, theaters and DVD simultaneously last winter. Despite no big names in the film, I promise you that you will have a hard time not being sucked in by the story.
The most surprising film of the year which offended as many people as it entertained. Surprisingly, it is more than a gross-out comedy. It is a social commentary on how close minded, conservative and ignorant large parts of America truly are. In many ways, many of the people Borat encountered were far more ignorant than he ever could be.
Twenty other films worth seeking out (In no particular order)
A powerful and evoking film that isn’t perfect. While I greatly admire the film, it relies on three distinct pieces to flow together. However, one of the three stories, while deeply emotionally wrenching, does not fit with the other two at all. For that reason alone, I can’t put this at the top of my list.
Ryan Gosling deserves his Oscar nomination as a drug using teacher, however, I wanted to love this film but it did not evoke the emotional response I had hoped for.
An Inconvenient Truth
If this movie had come out in 2000 Al Gore would have easily won the presidential election. The film truly impacted my life as I immediately went around my house unplugging outlets and looking for new ways to recycle. Also, it’s an engaging two-hour film that will make you think twice before you throw out a soda can again.
Who Killed The Electric Car
This is a fascinating and frustrating documentary about the invention and demise of the electric car. You will be livid upon the movie’s completion.
Letters From Iwo Jima
I’ll be the first to say this film is overrated, but it is a fascinating and brave look at “the other side” of the story. Ken Watanabe gives a career defining performance in this heart wrenching film. What it does show is that no matter what country one lives in or what side of a war one fights on, we are all humans with families, dreams and hopes.
I’ve never been a Penelope Cruz fan and will admit to criticizing her acting almost every chance I get, but she is dynamite in this film proving that she is capable of a tour de force performance in her own language.
It’s a downbeat film with depressing topics, but Maggie Gyllenhaal is spectacular as a former addict haunted by her past actions and addictions. Not the easiest film to watch but one that should be seen for Maggie’s performance.
Conversations With Other Women
The dialogue driven film is a showcase for Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham Carter who are former lovers who meet at a wedding years later. The film is edited and shown with split screens and makes for a captivating watch along with a stylish script and two performances that are bustling.
Here is yet another example of Hollywood making a great commercial film. It’s a genuine script and Queen Latifah is wildly entertaining giving her best performance to date. There is nothing flashy about the Wayne Wang’s (“Smoke”) direction but the film hits your emotional core and like “Invincible” and “Rocky Balboa” is profoundly inspiring.
This is hands down the most disturbing film of the year about a religious camp for young children. I consider myself spiritual and religious but this film will shock you more than any horror film or any story on the nightly news.
The Pixar team makes their films so effortlessly that we often take them for granted. “Cars” is not quite as good as the films that have preceded it, but it’s still quality entertainment and will continue to be watched generations from now.
Some people have a hard time watching Spike Lee films but this is easily his most digestible film to date. It’s a first rate thriller and mystery with an A-list cast that is incredibly enjoyable and intriguing.
The Last King of Scotland
A powerhouse performance by Forest Whitaker is what most takes with them when seeing this film but there is so much more to it. It’s not one of the defining pictures of the year but it still an important and engrossing film rooted in a social reality we all too often tend to not want to know about.
Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor are a dream team in this simple and engaging film about Beatrix Potter, the author or “Peter Rabbit”. It’s a charming and wonderful film that sadly too few people saw when in theaters.
This is a small film based around a thirteen-year-old Asian boy who goes through his growing pains in his family owned motel. An unexpected elder rents a room and befriends the young boy and shows him the inside track to life’s many questions. It’s a small film but also incredibly enjoyable and remarkable despite no familiar faces.
A well intentioned film by Emilio Estevez who proves he’s no joke as he wrote and directed this film. You won’t see more stars in a single film this year and while it’s not a revolutionary film, it is enjoyable and worth seeking out.
Mike Judge’s completely surreal bizarre comedy where Luke Wilson is frozen in a military experiment and awakens 500-years in the future to find he’s the smartest human on Earth. It’s funny, scary and potentially a very relevant social commentary.
X-Men: The Last Stand
While not quite the masterpiece the middle portion of this trilogy was, it’s still highly entertaining comic book fare with some of the best characters to inhabit the silver screen.
Art School Confidential
I put off seeing this film and when I finally did watch it, I found it jubilant and appealing despite how it was marketed. This film is incredibly funny and often questions what truly great art is. Not every film on this list will get a second viewing from me, but this one definitely will if for no other reason than the hysterical portrait of an art teacher, performed flawlessly by John Malkovich, who is merely a frustrated artist who is not taken seriously.
I would caution most people from seeing this futuristic thriller by the dazzling director Darren Aronofsky. The story behind making this film is as epic as the story. The problem is that this film probably requires a dozen viewings to find it’s true meaning. I can’t tell you how much I admired this film, however, unless you have the patience for a surreal adventure where you may have more questions at the end then at the beginning, I wouldn’t suggest this film. However, despite what people say, I imagine that this will be studied, debated, loved and loathed for decades to come.