Between the hoards of self-conscious message movies and piles of garbage that didn't screen for the press, I saw, about two dozen films in 2006 that showed any kind of cinematic artistry. The movies that made my top ten list are movies that don't hand over any easy answers and have thus largely gone ignored this year. Moreover, these were films that used the form in a visual way, rather than simply unfolding a story on film like a big book-on-tape. The cinema isn't dead; it's just hiding...
I should note that my two favorite movies this year, Terrence Malick's The New World and Claire Denis' The Intruder officially count as 2005 movies, even though they opened in most theaters in 2006. So, with a broken heart, I leave them off the list. I also want to include a caveat that the year's most anticipated movie, David Lynch's Inland Empire, has only opened in New York and Los Angeles. No press screenings or screener DVDs have been available in any other city, so I have not been able to see it.
1. Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
One of the world's greatest filmmakers has been working for over twenty years. Yet only two of his films have received U.S. distribution. Each starred the beautiful Shu Qi (known in this country for her role in The Transporter) and each lasted about a week in theaters. Three Times, a triptych about two lovers in the 1960s, the 1920s and the present day, isn't one of Hou's very best films, but the first segment alone -- set in the Vietnam era -- is arguably his most heartbreakingly lovely achievement. It towers over everything else released this year.
2. The Bridesmaid (Claude Chabrol)
The old-time veteran of the French New Wave has directed more than fifty films, and because they're consistently good -- and because many of them are thrillers -- he is nowadays routinely ignored. This newest entry, based on a novel by English writer Ruth Rendell, was his best in years. Chabrol masterfully depicts the slow descent into hell when a young man meets the wrong woman and they become obsessed with one another in very different ways.
3. Inside Man (Spike Lee)
Unlike most of this year's message movies, Lee's film takes on the aftermath of 9/11 (rather than historically re-creating it), and does so in a way that's thrillingly ambiguous. Multi-cultural New Yorkers in this movie have a new sense of belonging, but also a frightening new wariness, mistrust and even resign. Best of all, Lee wrapped it up within the plot of a superb heist thriller. And behind the whole scheme is a war profiteer; how current is that?
4. Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-wook)
Helen Mirren may be headed for an Oscar for her performance in The Queen, but movie buffs owe it to themselves to experience Lee Yeong-ae in Lady Vengeance. The more I look at this Korean action film the better I like it. (It's easily better than its predecessors, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy.) Its complex construction practically demands two viewings. But it's far more than just another cool action flick; the final third comes up with a truly brutal depiction of revenge, one that's anything but sweet.
5. Art School Confidential (Terry Zwigoff)
Co-written by Dan Clowes (Ghost World), this was Zwigoff's darkest film to date, although most people saw it as a failed spoof on academic institutions. What it really has to say, that art is completely unknowable and unclassifiable, is far scarier. The movie's two key moments come during the opening few seconds, when a bully "punches" the audience in the face, and when Marvin Bushmiller (Adam Scott) addresses the art students and explains why he's such an a--hole.
6. Free Zone (Amos Gitai)
The Israeli filmmaker Gitai is one of the masters of the long take, and he gives us a doozy in the opening moments of Free Zone, gazing at Natalie Portman's magnificent visage as she looks out a car window, struggling -- and often failing -- to fight back tears, for a full ten minutes while tinny pop music plays on the car radio. The rest of the film is just as emotional and introspective as Portman's character finds herself on a road trip with an Israeli woman (Hana Laszlo) to see a Palestinian woman about collecting a debt.
7. The Black Dahlia (Brian De Palma)
Everyone complained about the cockamamie story in De Palma's newest movie, and perhaps they were right, but did anyone notice the masterful way in which De Palma told that story? It didn't even matter what the story was; it could have been The Nativity Story, and De Palma would have tackled it with his usual obsessive nature, dragging us down to a purely visceral place, and making us into guilty voyeurs.
8. The Departed (Martin Scorsese)
This was a minor entry from Scorsese, far too long with a flabby ending and with acting styles ranging all over the map (too many large egos, I would imagine). But no other movie in 2006 moved so well and so vividly, like a graceful, violent dancer.
9. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron)
Cuaron and his colleague Guillermo Del Toro seem to be heading up a very exciting Spanish/Mexican New Wave. This movie is the opposite of something like Blood Diamond, which tells its conventional story through conventional means, with everything explained verbally. Cuaron spins his science fiction tale, about an infertile future and the first baby born in two decades, with absolutely no explanation or exposition. He just plunks you down in the driver's seat and punches the gas. (And, yes, it's just a freak coincidence that Clive Owen stars in two of my ten best...)
10. Brick (Rian Johnson)
It didn't pick up much of a following this year, but I guarantee that Brick will be around years from now, inspiring a passionate cult audience to quote its carefully constructed dialogue. Of course the excellent performances, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt at the forefront, and Johnson's direction, with its amazing use of space and location, are a big help.
Runners up: (each of these temporarily flirted with my top ten list before finally falling off) 49 Up, Army of Shadows, Casino Royale, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Fearless, Find Me Guilty, The Fountain, Gabrielle, Happy Feet, Iron Island, Marie Antoinette, Mutual Appreciation, Old Joy, Pan's Labyrinth, A Prairie Home Companion
The Worst: (there were an unprecendeted number of bad movies this year, but these were the ones that truly irritated me) Annapolis, Apocalypto, Barnyard, Breaking and Entering, Cease Fire, Curse of the Golden Flower, The Da Vinci Code, Deck the Halls, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, Flushed Away, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, The Grudge 2, The Hidden Blade, The Holiday, Kinky Boots, The Libertine, Little Man, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, Man of the Year, Miami Vice, The Nativity Story, Renaissance, Running Scared, Running with Scissors, The Tiger and the Snow, Time to Leave, Tsotsi, Water, We Are Marshall; You, Me and Dupree