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The 10 Best Films Of 2006

The 10 Best Films Of 2006

With 2015 upon us, we figured it was a good time to look back on the movies the millennium has brought us. We’ve dug into the archives and are re-running our Best of the 2000s pieces, from way back in 2009 when the Playlist was a little Blogspot site held together with tape and string. Each list runs down the top 10 films of each year (it’s possible that, half-a-decade on, we’d put them in a different order and even change some of the movies, but we wanted to preserve the original pieces untouched as far as possible). Check out 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005 if you missed them, and today we continue with 2006. The original piece follows below, and thanks to staffers past and present who contributed.

The mid-aughts were incredibly strong for movies — we dealt with 2005 yesterday, and had to expand the list it was such a good year, while 2007 (coming tomorrow) had several of the very best movies of the whole decade. In between the two, 2006 is less immediately stacked with goodness, but over time has been revealed as a truly great year for genre filmmaking. Young auteurs took the western, the detective movie, the sci-fi flick, the gangster film, and even the “inspirational teacher” genre, and turned them into films as smart and subversive as those below. Even the Bond movie was reinvented, and more successfully than anyone could have imagined.

Elsewhere, Martin Scorsese finally won a long overdue Oscar for “The Departed,” and Ken Loach picked up the Palme d’Or for “The Wind That Shakes The Barley” (although both are examples of filmmakers being rewarded more for past work than for their best movies; particularly considering the presence of Cannes films, “Volver,” “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Red Road“)

Blockbuster-wise, the bloated “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” dominated, losing most of the charm of the original, while “X-Men: The Last Stand” and “Mission: Impossible III” also proved to be unsatisfying sequels, and “The Da Vinci Code” made a ton of money, despite easily being one of the worst films of the decade. On the plus side, “Borat” proved the sleeper hit of the year, and “The Devil Wears Prada” surprised by proving to be one of the best chick flicks (man, we hate that term) in some time.

10. “The Fountain
Tomas plunges deep into the jungle, in a search for the Fountain of Youth, Tommy (Hugh Jackman) is trying to push modern science to the brink to end his wife’s suffering (Rachel Weisz), while Tom sails through space and time in pursuit of Xibalba, the tree that will bring life to his long-dead paramour. The discussion as to whether all three are real, and the same person, is one with multiple sides and one that only underlines the multiple interpretations that can be given to Darren Aronofsky’s intense meditation on love, mortality and acceptance. Originally set up as a big budget post-“Matrix” sci-fi adventure with Brad Pitt, “The Fountain” eventually became a much more satisfying small project. An intimate, centuries-spanning tale of how death truly is the road to awe.

9 “The Lives of Others”
With its slow-burn paranoia and pitch-perfect performances, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck‘s Oscar-winning “The Lives of Others” (it beat out “Pan’s Labyrinth” among others) works as a political suspense film for the majority of its running time. The tale of an East German secret policeman (Ulrich Muhe, who would pass away six months after this riveting turn) who spends the majority of the film listening in on the lives of an arty couple (Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck), a playwright and actress suspected of harboring Western sympathies, really gets under your skin. As the tragedy increases, and the line between listening and getting involved blurs, the tension mounts. But it’s the final scene, too devastating to reveal to those who haven’t watched yet, that delivers the emotional suckerpunch. If only every historical thriller was this affecting.

8. “Children Of Men
For a film which is, ostensibly at least, science fiction (it creates one of the most coherent, fascinating futuristic dystopias ever seen on screen), “Children of Men” sums up our War-on-Terror, immigration-panic era better than any contemporary drama could. It’s impossible to talk about it without mentioning its bravura, CGI-assisted tracking shots, which immerse the viewer even more deeply in this bleak, terrible view of Britain in 2027. Focusing on the first pregnant woman on Earth after two decades of global human infertility, it’s a fiercely political and grim movie, but also one unafraid to be playful (the Pink Floyd homage, for example, or Michael Caine rocking out to Aphex Twin), miraculously remaining thrilling, funny and moving in equal measure throughout. Despite outstanding notices on release, Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece was neglected by audiences, but it’s only going to get better and richer as we edge towards the future it predicts. 

7. “Brick”
On paper, the concept of marrying hard boiled, stylized, Chandler-esque argot with a contemporary high school setting sounds dodgy at best. However, the debut by writer/director Rian Johnson works because of his dogged insistence to play it straight and let the audience find their way through the archaic dialogue to the mystery at the core. Brilliantly framed and photographed (not to mention captured on the cheap, with Johnson mostly shooting with one or two takes max throughout), and buoyed by fearless performances from his young cast, including a career page turner by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “Brick” distinguishes itself as one of the most distinctive and original detective stories in years, and heralds the arrival of a major directorial talent.

6. “Half Nelson”
Thoughtfully shot and carefully observed, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s undeniably assured character study of an improbable teacher-student friendship in urban, inner-city Brooklyn is a rare work of restraint and a remarkable debut feature film. Featuring an astonishing, Oscar-nominated performance by a then-twenty-six-year-old Ryan Gosling as a functioning drug addict, basketball coach and history educator, and an equally outstanding turn by newcomer Shareeka Epps as a street-wise middle-school student, the impressive indie drama is a considerate and mannered look at dynamics, race and make-shift families. Marked by an unsentimental, raw lens and a meditative ambient score (featuring instrumental tracks by orchestral rockers Broken Social Scene), Fleck and Boden take a familiar, potentially predictable relationship tale and imbue it with a politically-personal, starkly compelling, yet editorially neutral viewpoint that refuses to take any easy shortcuts.

5. “United 93”
As with any grieving process, Hollywood’s response to the terrible events of 9/11 was gradual — from removing the World Trade Center from the likes of “Zoolander” and “Spider-Man,” to the displaced anger of revenge movies like “Kill Bill” and “Man on Fire.” By the middle of the decade, even golden boy Steven Spielberg was using explicit 9/11 imagery in his tentpole “War of the Worlds,” and it seemed that the time had to come to address the day itself. And we couldn’t have asked for a better filmmaker than Paul Greengrass. Taking a measured, understated docu-drama approach was clearly the right one (particularly when placed against Oliver Stone’s ill-judged “World Trade Center”) — it paid true tribute to the heroes of United 93, while still enabling Greengrass to heighten the tension to almost unbearable levels (we vividly remember several people fleeing our screening while hyperventilating during its final sections).

4. “L’Enfant”
In 1988, Paul Schrader reimagined Robert Bresson‘s classic “Pickpocket” as a crime-drama centering on a narcissistic escort believing himself above the law. Conceptually, his “American Gigolo” works — the protagonist of “Pickpocket” too deems himself a “super human,” and egotism is ultimately his undoing — but where Schrader went wrong was mistaking Bresson’s automatism for emotional vacancy. Nearly two decades later, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne took a stab at their own version of “Pickpocket” with the harrowing “L’Enfant,” a title referring to both the film’s nine-day-old child and the immature young father who sells him — a fatal error that condemns the man’s soul and sets him on a quest for spiritual salvation. There are principle differences in the Dardennes’ approach (long takes with hand-held cameras) and that of Bresson (a master of quick-cut editing), but when “L’Enfant” reaches its “moment of grace” — one strikingly similar to the one in “Pickpocket” — there’s no denying the comparison.

3. “Old Joy”
“…Transformative, amazing, I’m at a whole new place now,” says indie-rocker Will Oldham‘s arrested development Kurt, a delusional, disheveled thirty-something man-child still clinging to youthful, unrealistic idealism. The other, Daniel London, is silently grappling with impending fatherhood under a stressed household. Introspective, idyllic and melancholy, Kelly Reichardt’s quietly potent travelogue about bygone eras and friendship, driven by a serene, atmospherically folksy score by Yo La Tengo, is a tranquil, yet penetrating masterwork. A two-hander, the story follows a pair of erstwhile best friends who take a road trip to a Portland hot spring and discover that they’re distinctly out of tune with each other’s life rhythms. Minimalist and low on narrative, the reflective picture — the bucolic scenery also hinting at the decay and uncertainty of America, which is also echoed on the subtle, but constant talk radio reports — is an acute expression of strained amity, but with bonds that are hard to break. 

2. “The Proposition”
“Australia. What fresh hell is this?” Considering the absolute brutality of the Australian outback, it’s surprising that there haven’t been more great takes on the Western genre from down under. But, boy, was the wait worth it for director John Hillcoat’s “The Proposition.” Re-teaming with Nick Cave, who was also behind the script for Hillcoat’s debut “Ghosts…of the Civil Dead,” the story takes on the mythic qualities of some of Cave’s best work, helped in no small part by his score with fellow Bad Seed Warren Ellis — probably our favorite of the musician’s film work. It’s a nasty, grimy little movie, reminiscent of the best of Peckinpah, with a fantastic cast (John Hurt and Danny Huston being the stand-outs) buried under layers of blood, dirt and sweat — these are people battling against an endless, godless landscape, and they’re losing. Plus, it has the best exploding head scene of the ’00s…

1. “Volver”
Set in a windy, superstitious Spanish village, Pedro Almodóvar’s tremendously rich melodrama shimmers with vibrant, colorful passion and familial melancholy. The combination of Almodóvar regulars is inspired; voluptuary Penélope Cruz reminds us how amazing she is when acting in her native tongue (she was nominated for an Oscar and tied for a Cannes actress award), plus Blanca Portillo and Lola Dueñas make perfect complementary accents. The film’s title (“Return” in English) is echoed by the return/resurrection of the protagonist sisters’ mother thought to be a ghost (and played by former Almodóvar muse Carmen Maura, returning to work with the auteur after a falling-out that lasted a decade). Enhanced by Alberto Iglesias score, the intricate, and at times comical, Hitchcockian thriller is ultimately a deeply felt consideration of death, family and forgiveness. One of the decade’s best and a deeply affecting work.

Special Honorable Mention:
“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”
In this mordant satire, a dying man finds himself at the mercy of the Romanian healthcare system as he slowly dies in front of everyone, powerless to stop his burial from occurring under a sea of red tape and bureaucracy. Cristi Puiu‘s black comedy started the buzz on what everyone considers the Romanian New Wave, and echoes of this film are still felt in its bleak, oppressive worldview, comically overwhelmed protagonist, and exceedingly flawed mortality.

For Your Mild Consideration
“Babel”
There’s no denying that “Babel” is a partly manipulative, pile-on tragedy porn with a hackneyed conceit — yet another one of Guillermo Arriaga’s the-world-is-all-interconnected contrivances. However the screenwriter would forever divorce himself from director Alejandro González Iñárritu after this film, and we’d love to believe that the filmmaker’s deviation from the text is the reason the picture is not a total waste (Arriaga’s tepid debut directorial effort, “The Burning Plain” suggested the man was running on creative fumes). The manufactured multi-narrative charts how one seemingly meaningless act — a Japanese hunter gives a rifle to a Moroccan goat farmer whose children inadvertently shoot an American tourist while their children are stuck in Mexico — can have rippling consequences across the planet. Yet on their own, the stories are completely absorbing and deeply moving (Cate Blanchett, Brad Pitt, Gael Garcia Bernal are remarkable, and Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi would earn Oscar nominations for their emotionally naked and harrowing performances). For all its crude, set-up machinations — the most pedestrian concept posing that the world’s languages lead to miscommunication — when the story is in full-swing, there’s also no refuting that some scenes are a tremendously trenchant depiction of the universal suffering of humankind.

Honorable Mentions:
As usual, some good films have to fall just outside the top 10 list including: Tommy Lee Jones‘ feature-length directorial debut, “The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada“; Christopher Nolan‘s excellent, in-between-Batman-movies cum rival magician film, “The Prestige,” starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale; Guillermo del Toro‘s fantastical fairy tale, “Pan’s Labyrinth“; Sofia Coppola‘s anachronistic teen alienation set in the 16th century, “Marie Antoinette“; Martin Campbell‘s superb rebooting of the Bond franchise with “Casino Royale“; Martin Scorsese‘s “Infernal Affairs” remake “The Departed” (which has been on TV so many bloody times, its power has worn off); Oliver Assayas‘ “Clean” which featured a Cannes-winning performance by Maggie Cheung as a struggling addict; and Park Chan-Wook‘s final installment of his vengeance trilogy, the beautifully haunting, “Lady Vengeance.” Also worth noting, we forgot to give love to David Lynch‘s beyond-weird “Inland Empire.”

Other films meriting mention include Robert Altman‘s final picture, “A Prairie Home Companion“; Mel Gibson‘s Aztec-thriller, “Apocalypto“; Tom Tykwer‘s kinetic (perhaps too kinetic) “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer“; John Cameron Mitchell‘s low-budget erotica,”Shortbus“; Richard Linklater’s live-action rotoscoped Philip K. Dick adaptation “A Scanner Darkly“; Spike Lee‘s biggest commercial hit, the entertaining heist film, “Inside Man“; Michael Mann‘s flawed, but interesting “Miami Vice“; Bryan Singer‘s unfairly maligned “Superman Returns; Nicole Holofcener‘s wryly observational “Friends with Money,” the over-estimated, but enlivening horror “The Descent,” and “13 Tzameti.”

— Kevin Jagernauth, Rodrigo Perez, Drew Taylor, Sam Mac, Oli Lyttelton & 

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