Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Best of the Year: 2006

My Picks of the Year
(in alphabetical order)
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
"The only thing keeping me going was my dream of one day holding Pamela in my arms and making romance explosion on her stomach." Oh, Borat, you slay me. Borat is easily the funniest film of the year. I've seen it three times, and it's a knee-slapper at every single turn. I was not expecting anything from what appeared to be a one-joke movie, but the film succeeds on so many levels. First, Sascha Baron Cohen creates an extremely lovable character. He pulls it off without ever being grating or annoying. Secondly, you're always wondering -- is this for real? I know some of the scenes are staged (the Pamela Anderson confrontation in the end, for one, is too contrived to be unscripted), but most of the interactions with the public are in fact genuinely real. Cohen and Larry Charles were able to take what is essentially a hidden-camera/reality show premise and make it into a real movie infused with heart and, dare I say it, drama! Bottom line: I like-a very much!

Pixar is an anomaly, isn't it? How the hell do they do it? Sure, not every Pixar film is flat-out brilliant, but you simply cannot find a bad apple in their bushel of extraordinary films. I really loved Cars, easily a Top 5 Pixar title. The images are bright, crisp and beautiful while the voice cast is cheerful and well-matched with the characters. Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Owen Wilson, George Carlin, Tony Shalhoub are all sublime. Cars is filled with nice touches, including "You are a Toy…Car!" in a nod to Toy Story, Mack's realization that there are other Pixar characters that sound just like him, or Guido's excitable "Peet-stop!", or Flo's "I have gas! Lots of gas!", or Mater's "Like tuh-mater, but without the tuh!" It's an irresistible charm.

The Departed
I loved, loved, loved this film. I'm not in the same school of Scorsese fandom as most film aficionados are. I've never gotten into Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, etc. I won't say this is his best work, but it's by far my favorite Scorsese movie. I had seen and loved the original Inferno Affairs well before I knew it was being remade. Scorsese did wonders with Americanizing the film and added his own touch to the devilishly complex storyline. The sublime cast elevates it even further. Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin were phenomenal, two incredible supporting performances that any other film would die to have. I've seen the film at least 4 times now, and every time they kill off Martin Sheen, my heart stops. Leonardo DiCaprio is a top 3 actor in my book, one of the best in the business, and Matt Damon is as reliably strong as you would expect from him. Jack is Jack, and I was actually not that impressed with his performance here. I thought Ray Winstone was even scarier and had more heart. All said, a modern day classic.

Hard Candy
Now this one made me cringe. It's a daring concept -- a young woman holds a man hostage in his home and tortures him because she believes he is a pedophile. You're asking yourself a million questions throughout the film. "Who has the upper hand?" "Does he deserve what's being done to him?" "What if she has the wrong guy?" It's an extreme psychological study, a horrifying game of ethics and morals. There's hardly any violence in the film -- all of it is cleverly suggested and masterfully executed. Ellen Page is an astonishing actress -- watch this film and Juno back to back, and you won't believe your eyes. Patrick Wilson does a fantastic job making us unsure of who he really is. Hard Candy is shocking, thoughtful, and very clever. It sat with me for a long, long time.

The Illusionist
Two magician-themed films came out almost simultaneously this year (the other being The Prestige), and while both were strong films, The Illusionist is far superior, thanks to its superb casting and very smart script. Edward Norton is excellent as Eisenheim, a magician who early in life has fallen for Sophie (a surprisingly luminous Jessica Biel). The two lovebirds drifted apart against their wills, but eventually catch up to one another 15 years later. One hitch: she's engaged to the evil Crown Prince (a great, sneering Rufus Sewell). It all sounds fairy tale-ish, but that's what makes The Illusionist so special. It's an unabashed love story above everything else. Then throw in a brilliant Paul Giamatti as Chief Inspector Uhl, our narrator who tries to piece all of it together, and you've got quite a spectacle. It's a fun, fast-paced piece of escapist entertainment.

An Inconvenient Truth
A sobering, fascinating documentary about the crisis that is global warming. Al Gore, a warm, genial man, talks to us gently, though urgently, about how our world is slowly crumbling. The facts and images are staggering; it's mind-boggling that we've let our planet come to this. The film is not all that downbeat -- it's also funny and easy to swallow. But it also makes you angry and want to turn off your lights, computer, and TV, ride a bike instead of your car, use recycled paper, change your bulbs, and then tell everyone you know to do exactly the same thing. It's all rather inspiring.

Little Miss Sunshine
Critics and audiences across the nation fell in love with Little Miss Sunshine, a very funny, extremely engaging indie comedy about a dysfuctional family coming to terms with one another in order to bring little Abigail Breslin to a beauty pageant across the country. I saw it after the hype machine was in full blast, on DVD, and was expecting to be let down after hearing everyone make a big fuss over it. Well, miraculously, Little Miss Sunshine didn't let me down one bit. It was a pleasure to watch.

Sweet Land
Sweet Land is a gem that is still waiting to be discovered. Critics love it, but the audiences regretfully haven't found it. It's a fantastic little film set the 20s about a young woman who emigrated from Germany in order to marry Olaf, a quiet farmer in Minnesota. It's one of those arranged marriages, but there are complications due to her heritage and the ongoing war with Germany that prevent the two from being together. Elizabeth Reaser and Tim Guinee are superb their roles as Inga and Olaf, the young couple who are forced to convince the locals to allow them to marry in peace. John Heard and Alan Cumming are terrific in colorful supporting roles. It's a beautiful film, intimate, quiet, and perfect for the whole family.

Thank You for Smoking
Jason Reitman is a hot director. After this and the wonderful Juno, he has proven to have a sharp eye for biting satirical comedy dealing with serious social issues plaguing our country every day. This one is a gut-buster, about a PR guy for the tobacco industry (the great Aaron Eckhart) using twisted logic and convincing arguments that smoking is not as harmful as one might think. The film does not take sides and skewers both advocates and critics of the industry, while hilariously sending up the alcohol and firearm industries for good measure. The rapid-fire dialogue is the main star, really ("The great state of Vermont will not apologize for its cheese!"), but the actors are reliably phenomenal -- Mario Bello, David Koechner, William H. Macy, Katie Holmes, Rob Lowe, J.K. Simmons, etc. Great stuff here.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
Surprisingly thoughtful modern-day western about a lonely rancher whose world is shaken when his best friend is shot and killed by a border patrolman. Because of legal issues, the rancher cannot give his friend a proper Mexican burial. So he kidnaps the border patrolman (the electric Barry Pepper) and the two of them embark on a dangerous and spiritual journey bringing the dead Mexican back home to his family. It's a leisurely film where not much happens, but it's a phenomenal acting and directing showcase by Tommy Lee Jones, who has been having a great run in recent years (No Country For Old Men, In the Valley of Elah). This one is clearly a personal film for Jones, and it shows through his tired, weathered face. It's an effective, emotional piece of craftmanship.

United 93
United 93 is one of the most excruciating, emotional films I've ever sat through. It's a visceral and harrowing experience watching this tale unfold in real time with expert precision and unsentimentality. It rocked me to my core, leaving me shattered and speechless for hours, days, weeks after seeing the film. I give Greengrass a lot of credit for tackling an extremely difficult subject while the country was still so sensitive, and I give him a standing ovation for pulling it off with such class and sophistication and expertise. No sense in talking about plot or characters -- this film is all about the emotions and feelings involving this particular disaster. Truly devastating.

The World’s Fastest Indian
What a real treat to discover this wonderful New Zealand gem, about a man who has long dreamed of racing his hand-built motorcycle in the salt flats of Utah. Anthony Hopkins, in one of his very best performances, plays Burt Munro, a charming bloke and persistent old coot who defies obstacle after obstacle in order to make his dream a reality. It sounds hokey, but really, it's far from it. The race sequences are awesome, refreshingly authentic and thrilling. Donaldson is a skillful director with a long resume of solid films. It's clear this one is a personal pet project of his, since he wrote the script as well. It's easily his best work. The tag line for the film is "Based on One Hell of a True Story." And what a great, great story it is.

Honorary Mention
Akeelah and the Bee; Apocalypto; Babel; Blood Diamond; Bobby; The Dead Girl; Flags of Our Fathers; The Good Shepherd; A Good Year; A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints; Inside Man; The Last Kiss; Little Children; Lucky Number Slevin; The Matador; Mission: Impossible 3; Monster House; Night at the Museum; Notes on a Scandal; The Prestige; The Proposition; Rocky Balboa; Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story; World Trade Center

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