The Best Movies of 2006

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I’ve been trying to make my way through the movies that have come out in the years since I was born in order to determine what is the best movie of my lifetime. A sisyphean task if there ever was one, but what can I say? I’ve run through the movies of 1992, 1995, and 2005 so far, and 2006 is up next. My archives say my favorite movies of the year back then were Pan’s Labyrinth, Little Miss Sunshine, The Prestige, and The Departed. Some things have changed since then. Earlier this year, I watched most* every movie from 2006 that seemed like something I would like. Here’s a list of my favorites.

*I couldn’t get to everything I was interested in, most notably David Lynch’s Inland Empire, which I hear is phenomenal.

The Best Movies of 2006

children061. Children of Men
(Dir. Alfonso Cuarón / 109 min. / USA, UK)
An expected, “fanboyish” pick, perhaps, but an uncontested one. There is no question for me this stands one step above everything I watched in preparation for this list. No one in their right mind could speak against the fantastic production design by Geoffrey Kirkland and Jim Clay, which creates a dystopian world rich in filth and despair, but those who dismiss Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography as the work of a show-off ignore how integral the camera work is in giving us the full picture of this carefully realized world, and the movie that holds entire untold stories in its background. And let’s not forget to praise the guiding hand of director Alfonso Cuarón for it’s his vision that morphs the movie from horribly depressing to deeply moving. The movie remains relevant, too, for finding hope in times that threaten to dive into deep darkness.

volver062. Volver 
(Dir. Pedro Almodóvar / 121 min. / Spain)
Why ever make movies about men when you can make movies about women like these? Almodóvar assembles a masterful ensemble, including a never better Penélope Cruz and a heartbreaking Blanca Portillo, and leads them in a pulpy melodrama designed to celebrate traditions of womanhood passed through generations and see the women who honor them emerge triumphant in the end. Lust and vengeance fuel the plot, but the movie’s heart beats with the open and warm tenderness with which these women care for themselves. In this world, and the next.

halfnelson063. Half Nelson
(Dir. Ryan Fleck / 106 min. / USA)
The relationship between a drug-addicted a high school basketball coach and history teacher and his young black student helps these two loners fight their demons and grow as people in the process. Sounds like the perfect recipe for indie-movie hell, but nothing could be further from the truth. Not only are Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps outstandingly natural in their roles, but the movie itself -led by the collaboration between Ryan Fleck and co-writer and editor Anne Boden- is subtler, and much more observant about the dynamics of race, class, and mentor-mentee relationships than practically any movie in its genre.

marie antoinette4. Marie Antoinette
(Dir. Sofia Coppola / 123 min. / USA)
Like so many movies regarded as “disappointments” when they came out, Marie Antoinette has aged not only as one of Coppola’s best, but as much more fascinating and relevant than most any biography of a 18th Century queen could ever be. Neither a condemnation of a superficial rich girl, nor a humanization of a misunderstood historical figure, the movie is an examination of the power dynamics and ancient mores that define royalty and the role of women within it. Marie proves to be the perfect Sofia Coppola heroine, and Marie Antoinette the perfect candy-colored, fabulously-soundtracked film to draw a straight line from French Absolutism through Paris Hilton and Myspace to Kim Kardashian, Instagram, and Snapchat.

PrairieHomeCompanion5. A Prairie Home Companion
(Dir. Robert Altman / 106 min. / USA)
When asked to give a eulogy for a recently deceased friend, Garrison Keiller -playing “himself” in this “adaptation” of his popular radio program- says he’d rather not. His reasoning: when he dies, he wouldn’t want people to be told to remember him. That’s the kind of seemingly modest, private, Midwestern (I am told) attitude that defines Robert Altman’s last movie, which ironically, works quite well as a eulogy for the director of sprawling ensembles that represent American life. A Prairie Home Companion is both a silly and innocent celebration of old-fashioned values and entertainment, and a portrait of a group of people dealing with the fact that they’re being directly confronted by death and oblivion. It is better described as a musical comedy.

thefall066. The Fall
(Dir. Tarsem Singh / 117 min. / USA, India)
It took director Tarsem Singh four years to complete the shooting of The Fall. Working mostly as the director of television commercials (including this classic), Tarsem took time during every shoot he had in a foreign country to get his crew together, and film a little of this movie in the most photogenic places all around the world. The result is an overwhelmingly gorgeous movie, perhaps the most beautiful-looking I have ever seen. All of this imagery is framed by the story of an injured stunt-man and the cutest little Romanian girl who are staying at the same hospital in 1910s Los Angeles. The movie has its weaknesses, but just one glimpse at the gusto with which indulges in the beauty of images will be enough to convince anyone that watching The Fall is, quite literally, a unique experience.

Prestige107. The Prestige
(Dir. Christopher Nolan / 130 min. / USA, UK)
Have you ever noticed that the structure of the magic trick explained by Michael Caine in the opening narration actually perfectly reflects the structure of the movie? Of course you have. Nolan fanboys won’t shut up about it. The thing is, they’re not wrong when they say The Prestige is a perfectly assembled movie. They only might be wrong, depending on whether or not they think it is a particularly profound movie. Because it is not. But who cares if a movie is profound when it is this much fun? This is undoubtedly the most fun Christopher Nolan has ever let himself have as a filmmaker, and it shows in a movie that bleeds with the pulpy heart of a nineteenth century science fiction periodical. A rock solid script, well-paced editing, and a number of awesome choices like casting David Bowie as Nikola Tesla make this an immensely enjoyable movie, and still the best work of Nolan’s career.

tencanoes068. Ten Canoes
(Dir. Rolf de Heer, Peter Djigirr /  90 min. / Australia)
Along with The Fall, this legendary comedy about sibling jealousy set in ancestral Australia is half of a fantastic double-feature about story-telling. This time, we are dealing with the culture and humor of one of Australia´s many aboriginal traditions. If you appreciate the ability that movies have to transport us into the minds and hearts of people with different backgrounds from our own, then you will surely appreciate Ten Canoes, and the way in which it avoids any kind of pedagogical or over-didactic messaging, and instead dives right into being the product of a culture recognizably different from most anything we’ve seen in film before. And it’s an incredibly accessible, funny, and creative product at that.

supermanreturns9. Superman Returns
(Dir. Bryan Singer / 154 min. / USA)
Deeply misunderstood and dismissed at the time of its release (even by me, who, in my defense, was only fourteen years old), Superman Returns is a window into all that the things we lost, and didn’t know we would so badly miss, about superhero movies. To put it bluntly: melodrama in superhero movies is better than edgy realism in superhero movies. As the Marvel machine keeps churning out one acceptable yet soulless spectacle after another, I yearn for a sign of anything in them that will move me as deeply as the relationship between Lois and Clark in this movie. I know I’m in the minority, but I want more open-hearted romance and silly heroism. That is why I will forever defend Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone’s relationship in Amazing Spider-Man 2 and the infamous “Martha” scene in Batman v. Superman. Melodrama forever!

thedeparted10. The Departed
(Dir. Martin Scorsese / 151 min. / USA)
I have a notoriously rocky relationship with Martin Scorsese. I never quite “got” the director that most cinephiles regard as one of the greatest in history.From the overwhelmingly repetitive and indulgence of The Wolf of Wall Street to the simplistic macho-rebel philosophy of  Taxi Driver, I have rejected lots of his most beloved work. The Departed, on the other hand… How can I resist a movie this exciting? You get a twisty thoroughly fun story, an ensemble cast full of amazing performances (Matt Damon and Alec Baldwin are the clear stand-outs), and most importantly, Scorsese having some goddamn fun for once in a while. The M.V.P., obviously, is Thelma Schoonmaker, who cuts the shit out of this movie and makes a two-and-a-half mammoth feel like the leanest, meanest populist entertainment in town.

Honorable Mentions: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Little Miss Sunshine, Away from Her, Offside