The Best and Worst Movies of 2006

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America has been the world’s film capital for nearly as long as there have been movies, definitely in terms of popularity and arguably in terms of quality, too. (Countries with smaller film industries might have a better ratio of good-to-bad simply because they have to be more careful with their money, but America rules when it comes to the sheer NUMBER of good movies.) Yet I notice something peculiar about my top 10 list this year: Only two of them are entirely American. The dominating nation turns out to be England, whose film legacy is actually rather weak.

“United 93” is about an American event, but was directed by a Brit. Likewise, “Borat” has America as its subject but was conceived and performed by an Englishman (though the director is American). “The Queen,” “Tristram Shandy,” and “The Descent” are entirely British; “Children of Men” is British with a Mexican director; “Pan’s Labyrinth” is Spanish with a Mexican director; “The Departed” has an all-American cast, director, and setting — yet is a remake of a Hong Kong film.

Only “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” and “Superman Returns,” then, are entirely the product of the United States. (We’ll ignore that Neil Young is Canadian, since his music, particularly that which he performs in “Heart of Gold,” is intrinsically American country-folk.) Both films are very much about America, too, nearly as much as “United 93” and “Borat” are. Young’s music is distinctly American, and the concert film was shot in that most down-home of music towns, Nashville. And as for “Superman Returns” … I don’t care if “the American way” was removed from the Man of Steel’s slogan in the film, what’s more American than Superman?

So what do we make of it? Maybe nothing. Maybe Hollywood had an off year for movies, and maybe England had a particularly good one. Or maybe as the world grows smaller, separating films by country of origin is becoming irrelevant. In terms of entertainment value and artistic merit, what difference does it make whether a movie came from America, Spain, England, Japan, Italy, or Brazil? All are developed nations with equal access to the technology and (more importantly) the talent necessary to make great movies. “The Queen” is inherently British, from its subject matter to its cast and crew. “Superman Returns” has America written all over it. The Spanish Civil War looms over “Pan’s Labyrinth.” What unites them is their excellence, and the language of excellence is spoken everywhere (except at the Wayans Brothers’ house).

The Best Movies of 2006:

1. “United 93” Paul Greengrass’ recreation of the doomed airliner on 9/11 is the most powerfully gripping film I’ve ever seen. It’s a masterpiece of craft, to be sure, and something would-be filmmakers should study shot by shot. But it’s also an emotional, visceral story, one that overwhelms and consumes the viewer, completely immersing us in the urgency of that day. It’s a sensitive, brilliant, uncynical re-creation, one that seeks not to exploit the dead but to commemorate them. It does this by telling the story as truthfully as possible, without Hollywood bombast, gratuitous violence or fake heroism. It doesn’t reek of self-importance or false humility, the way so many “important” films do. It speaks to us honestly, not mincing words and not shying away from the horrors inherent to the story. It’s a stunning piece of work.

2. “Children of Men” From a purely technical standpoint, Alfonso Cuaron is the best director of the year, hands down. He executes three very long, complicated scenes in one take each, and the logistics involved are mind-boggling. But even more important, the film — set in a future where women are universally infertile and the world is falling apart — is full of imagination, ideas, and intelligence, completely riveting from start to finish.

3. “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” The things Sacha Baron Cohen does in this film in the name of comedy are astounding. You think it would be embarrassing to do something foolish on stage in a theater? How about doing it on the street, in front of innocent bystanders? At least the theater audience knows you’re only acting; the people who see Borat behaving outrageously think he’s for real. In the process, Baron Cohen satirizes racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and homophobia, holding a very uncomfortable but very funny mirror up to American society.

4. “The Queen” Long live Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II! In this smart and sharp portrayal of the Royal Family’s activities after the death of Princess Diana in 1997, Mirren plays the queen to delightful perfection, every subtle facial expression and crisp bit of elocution bringing the old girl to life. That Mirren is able to convey so much emotion in the role of someone who doesn’t show much emotion is nothing short of miraculous. When it was over, I found myself adoring the queen and fairly worshipping Mirren.

5. “Pan’s Labyrinth” It’s a dark fairy tale, complete with a wicked stepparent, but by no means is it for children. Yet if it weren’t for the grim, sometimes shocking violence, it would be the sort of story children love, with a young hero encountering fantasy, mystery, and magic. Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” is full of imagination and nuance, with a story set just after the Spanish Civil War as a young girl meets a faun who tells her she’s actually a princess from the underworld, and her people are waiting for her return. In contrast to this fanciful story is the girl’s stepfather, a brutal military captain who proves that no matter how horrible a thing your imagination can conjure, real people are capable of much worse. This morbid, visually stunning fairy tale gives you plenty to think about and plenty to be entertained by.

6. “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story” “Borat” may have more laughs, but this platter of inspired British lunacy is more brilliantly constructed. It is a movie about people making a movie. The movie they’re making? An adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century novel “Tristram Shandy” — which is a book about a man writing a book. So this is a movie about making a movie based on a book about writing a book. Got it? The self-referential, post-modern humor touches everything from casting to editing, with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as the leads, improvising much of their hysterical dialogue. It’s sophisticated one minute, lowbrow the next, and funny all the way through.

7. “Superman Returns” It was less action-oriented than many viewers expected, and thus was disappointing to some. But “Superman Returns” wins by humanizing the Man of Steel (quite a feat, considering he’s not human), focusing not on his physical battles, which have foregone conclusions, but on his inner struggles, which do not. Newcomer Brandon Routh is surprisingly deep as Superman, and director Bryan Singer conveys a simple, old-fashioned ideal: Even in this cynical age, the world still needs Superman. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed him until he came back.

8. “The Departed” “The Departed” is the rare Hollywood feature that appears to have been made by someone who actually understands the language of film, who can do things with light and shadows, with camera positioning, with sound and music, to create feelings. That’s to say nothing of director Martin Scorsese’s knack for drawing pitch-perfect performances from his actors: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, all fantastic. This is an excellent film, a throwback to the grittier, more substantial crime dramas of the ’70s, and a reminder that movies can have weight to them and still be enjoyable as entertainment.

9. “The Descent” It’s been a few years since I was this pants-wettingly scared while watching a movie. From British filmmaker Neil Marshall, this is a truly terrifying horror flick — in which six young women go spelunking and are beset by sinister beings — with suspense, gore and grip-the-armrest thrills doled out in equal measure. In a year packed with really awful horror movies, this one stands out as being exactly what a fright-fest SHOULD be.

10. “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” Jonathan Demme directed “Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense” more than two decades ago and set the standard for the concert-film genre. With “Neil Young: Heart of Gold,” he raises the bar again. He doesn’t just record the concert; he almost captures Young’s soul, giving us an intimate fly-on-the-wall view of Young’s performance. Of course Young and his music are the stars, and it’s clear from watching “Heart of Gold” why Young’s career has lasted four decades and why he is revered by everyone from grunge rockers to country singers: Because he’s GOOD.

Honorable mentions:

11. “The Last King of Scotland”
12. “Take My Eyes”
13. “Deliver Us from Evil”
14. “Half Nelson”
15. “Quinceañera”
16. “The Science of Sleep”
17. “Tsotsi”
18. “Stranger Than Fiction”
19. “Little Children”
20. “The Puffy Chair”

The Worst Movies of 2006:

1. The teen-queen comedies: “She’s the Man” (Amanda Bynes), “Just My Luck” (Lindsay Lohan), “Material Girls” (Hilary and Haylie Duff). You know, it’s not just that I hate teens and their movies. I like teens in real life, and I often like the movies aimed at them. But these three comedies — as well as the next two on this list — all suffered from unworkable premises and one scene after another of implausible characters doing implausible things. They were made by people who evidently have no knowledge of comedy.

2. “Deck the Halls” The worst Christmas comedy in recent memory. And coming in the same decade as “Surviving Christmas” and “Christmas with the Kranks,” that’s saying something.

3. “Little Man” I’m a little disappointed the brain trust behind “White Chicks” made a movie that only climbed to No. 3 on the worst list. Here’s hoping their next effort can be No. 1 again!

4. “BloodRayne” It was about vampires. I swear to you, that’s all I can remember.

5. “Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector” Larry sure “got ‘r’ done”! Especially if “‘r'” refers to “irritating the audience with dim-witted fart jokes and redneck comedy”!

6. “Zoom” Tim Allen was in three movies this year: “The Shaggy Dog,” “The Santa Clause 3,” and “Zoom.” All of them stank like the back end of Larry the Cable Guy. When will we stop supporting Tim Allen in his stinky endeavors? When will we learn?

7. “Big Momma’s House 2” Martin Lawrence’s winning streak continues: Seven movies so far this decade, not one of them any good. I’m convinced Martin Lawrence couldn’t make a good movie if you gave him “Casablanca” and a video-duplicating machine.

8. “Basic Instinct 2” Gee, and it seemed like such a good idea.

9. “Date Movie” Note to everyone: Imitating a movie is not the same thing as parodying it.

10. The PG-13-rated horror flicks: “The Covenant,” “Pulse,” “The Return,” “Stay Alive” Simple-minded, un-scary, and worthless, every one of them. Films don’t have to be graphic or R-rated to be scary (see “The Ring”), but removing all the edgy content in order to secure a more teen-friendly PG-13 rating certainly doesn’t help, either.

Miscellaneous data:

Longest movie: “The Good Shepherd” (167 min.)

Shortest movie: “Date Movie” (78 min.)

Longest title: “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan”

Shortest title: “RV”

Most enjoyable bad movie: “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift”

Least enjoyable good movie: “United 93”

Best performance in a bad movie: Alyson Hannigan, “Date Movie”

Worst performance in a good movie: Jack Valenti in “This Film Is not Yet Rated.” The head of the MPAA (which oversees the movie rating system) tells lie after lie, and not one of them is believable.

Movies that did poorly with critics (besides myself) and at the box office but are actually pretty good (grade B or better): “Stick It,” “Running Scared,” “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World,” “Beerfest,” “Scoop”

Animated films in which alumni from “A Mighty Wind” play parents who leave for vacation at the film’s outset: “Monster House” (Catherine O’Hara and Fred Willard) and “The Ant Bully” (Larry Miller)

Movies in which dead people appear during magicians’ stage acts: “Scoop,” “The Illusionist”

Animated films in which characters engage in cow-tipping (or its equivalent): “Cars,” “Barnyard”

Movies in which abused teens shoot their father figures: “Running Scared,” “Gridiron Gang”

Movies involving mayhem on airplanes: “United 93,” “World Trade Center,” “Snakes on a Plane,” “We Are Marshall,” “Superman Returns”

Movies whose titles have nothing to do with what happens in the movie: “Pulse,” “Invincible,” “Apocalypto”

Movies in which “Deadwood” cast members play minor roles: “Miami Vice,” “Scoop,” “The Wicker Man,” “Pulse,” “The Ant Bully,” “Hollywoodland,” “Crank,” “We Are Marshall”

Movies whose closing shots feature the real people portrayed in the film interacting with the actors who played them: “Running with Scissors,” “Catch a Fire,” “World Trade Center”

Movies in which people are menaced with chainsaws: “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning,” “The Marine”

Movies about famous European queens: “Marie Antoinette,” “The Queen”

Movies that are dark, violent twists on children’s fairy tales: “Running Scared,” “Pan’s Labyrinth”

Movies featuring Ben Stiller in which climactic scenes occur after hours at a museum: “A Night at the Museum,” “Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny”

Movies in which characters pilot boats through sewer systems: “Flushed Away,” “Children of Men”

Movies in which Nervous Nellies urge their travel companions not to get ice cubes with their drinks while in foreign countries: “Babel,” “Turistas”

Movies in which Jack Black sings: “Nacho Libre,” “Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny,” “The Holiday” (Note: This is also every movie in which Jack Black appeared.)

Movies in which people have their organs ripped out after running through Central or South American jungles: “Turistas,” “Apocalypto”

Movies about African social and political strife: “Blood Diamond,” “Catch a Fire,” “The Last King of Scotland,” “Tsotsi”

It was a good year for inspiring sports movies: “Rocky Balboa,” “We Are Marshall,” “Invincible,” “Through the Fire”

… Or was it?: “Gridiron Gang,” “Glory Road,” “Crossover,” “Everyone’s Hero”

World War II is still our favorite war: “The Good German,” “The Good Shepherd,” “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “Before the Fall,” “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” “The Sun”

Hollywood’s Shameful Secrets

2006 was a banner year for studios being so embarrassed by their films that they wouldn’t show them to critics before they opened. In some cases, as noted, a promotional screening was held the night before it opened, in an attempt to avoid the stigma of not screening it at all while still avoiding negative reviews in the newspapers on opening day. In many instances, critics aren’t even invited to those last-minute promo screenings; they’re for the general public only. Here are the movies that the studios were embarrassed of and didn’t want critics to see in 2006:

“Grandma’s Boy” (7 p.m. promo)
“BloodRayne”
“Underworld: Evolution” (7 p.m promo)
“Big Momma’s House 2” (7 p.m. promo)
“When a Stranger Calls” (7 p.m. promo)
“Date Movie” (7 p.m. promo)
“Madea’s Family Reunion”
“Doogal”
“Ultraviolet”
“Stay Alive”
“Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector”
“Slither” (10 p.m. promo)
“Phat Girlz”
“Silent Hill”
“An American Haunting”*
“See No Evil” (10 p.m. promo)
“Zoom”
“Pulse”
“Snakes on a Plane”
“Material Girls”
“Crank” (10 p.m. promo)
“The Wicker Man” (10 p.m. promo)
“The Covenant” (7 p.m. promo)
“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” (7:30 p.m. promo)
“The Grudge 2” (10 p.m. promo)
“The Marine”
“Saw III”
“The Santa Clause 3” (7 p.m. promo)
“The Return”
“Let’s Go to Prison”
“National Lampoon’s Van Wilder 2: The Rise of TAJ” (7 p.m. promo)
“Night at the Museum” (7 p.m. promo)

(In some cities, “Eragon” was held until Thursday night, too.)

*In fairness, “An American Haunting” was the first wide release from a new-ish distributor, Freestyle Releasing, and it’s possible they just couldn’t afford the cost of setting up screenings everywhere, rather than that they wanted to hide their movie from critics.

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Past “Best/Worst” lists:
2005
2004
2003
2002
2001
2000
1999