It ought to be relatively easy to narrow down a list of films I've seen and liked in 2006 into a cogent top ten -- and to be fair, I whittled it down to the top 20 pretty easily -- but figuring out in just what order to rank my final ten was incredibly frustrating. How to rank a list of films, so different from each other, into a semi-ordered list that would be less than random? Equally frustrating was realizing that, in spite of the number of films I did see in 2006, there were still some great films that I missed catching, some of which might have made it onto my list had I seen them. Nonetheless, I can only rank from amongst those films I did see; here then, are my top ten films of the year.
1. Children of Men -- Alfonso Cuaron's end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it film is one of the best examples I've seen recently of an adaptation that could have, in lesser hands, been absolutely dreadful. Where other directors might have focused on action sequences, pensive close-ups of furrowed brows, and lots of nifty, futuristic gadgetry, Cuaron instead opts for a cinema verite approach that puts the viewer right into the heart of a future with no children -- and little hope -- left in it. Cuaron keeps his lens wide and follows along as both characters and environment lead us on a perilous journey on which the entire future of humankind rides. The story, which harrows and inspires without ever dipping into emotional manipulation, delves into the darker side of human nature in a world without a future, while giving us a glimmer of hope for humanity in spite of it all. Hands down, my favorite film of 2006. Quite simply, brilliant.
2. Pan's Labyrinth -- This darkly-spun fable about a little girl who escapes from an unpleasant real-life situation into an equally dangerous fantasy world caught me up in its web and didn't let me go. Director Guillermo del Toro (who said of himself when introducing the film at Toronto, "... as you can probably tell from my movies, I had a fucked up childhood ..."), gravitates toward darkness, and Pan's is no exception. Yet, from adversity often comes greatness, and such is the case with this film.
3. Little Children -- This film has so many layers woven into its parallel tales of an affair between two suburban stay-at-home parents and a vendetta against a released sexual offender. Infidelity, loneliness, the ways in which we judge others while overlooking our own dark places, and the anguish we often find when we really do look within, can all be found in this film. Looking into our darkness can make people squirm -- we often tend to judge most harshly those things that mirror what we don't like in ourselves, and Field turns his lens to all those uncomfortable places -- but it can also be illuminating, showing us the ways in which we can change for the better, even when we think we're beyond redemption.
4. Deliver Us From Evil -- The first of two docs to make my top ten, Deliver Us From Evil examines the hot-topic issue of clergy sexual abuse through the story of Father Oliver O'Grady, a Roman Catholic priest who raped and molested hundreds of children in California, while the Archdiocese kept moving him from parish to parish. Helmer Amy Berg, who had unprecedented access to an admitted pedophile willing to talk openly on camera about his crimes -- while often seeming shockingly unaware of the damage he's caused -- has made a masterful statement about abuse of trust and power, and the lasting impact of abuse on the lives of the victims, many of whom have had neither acknowledgment nor apology from O'Grady or those who supervised him.
5. The Proposition -- Aussie musician Nick Cave scripted and scored this John Hillcoat-helmed Western about an outlaw who must find and turn in one brother in order to save another. Outstanding performances by Guy Pearce and Ray Winstone anchor the film, but Cave's seamlessly integrated score is almost a character in and of itself. This is a Western even filmgoers who aren't fans of the genre overall can enjoy.
6. Babel -- Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu's cross-sectioned examination of the ways in which communication and culture both divide and connect us was one of the most challenging films I watched this year. A tour bus in the wrong place at the wrong time, a loving nanny whose singularly bad decision has disastrous results, and a deaf-mute girl desperate to be seen as normal, all intertwine loosely. Like a kaleidoscope whose picture shifts each time you turn it, every viewing of Babel reveals something new to me, and bits of it replay in my head at the most unexpected times: When my sons bicker, when I pass a pack of teenagers at the mall, when I notice a couple quietly but intently arguing over lattes at my fave espresso cafe. Not one of your uplifting films, to be sure, but any film that manages to haunt me so thoroughly deserves a spot on my list.
7. Little Miss Sunshine - There were a couple of other comedies I liked this year -- most notably Borat and Thank You for Smoking -- that came close to making my top ten. In the end though, Little Miss Sunshine ended up on the list for a very simple reason: Watching it makes me happy. Getting the film even made was an incredible labor of love and patience that took husband-and-wife directing duo Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris almost a decade; the film was the big sell at Sundance last year, with some critics poo-pooing Fox Searchlight for its rumored $10 million investment, insisting the film would never make it back (the film has made over $86 million worldwide so far, and if it ends up scoring Oscar nods and getting another release, it will make even more). But mostly, Little Miss Sunshine is on my top ten list because it's just charming and delightful and filled with excellent ensemble performances. It makes me feel happy and warm and fuzzy inside, and sometimes, in the midst of serious "issue" films that dominate the fests, you just need to, well, let a little sunshine in.
8. Half Nelson -- If you'd asked me before I saw Half Nelson to name ten actors who might unexpectedly knock my socks off, it's unlikely that Ryan Gosling would have made the list. Whoever would have thought he had it in him to turn in the groundbreaking performance he gives as the idealistic, white, liberal, teacher-turned-crack addict in this film? Newcomer Shareeka Epps is an equally powerful counterweight as Gosling's student who knows his secret; the real key to this film, though, is how director Ryan Fleck and co-writer Anna Boden bypass the after-school-special potential of their film's core idea, and instead bring us a brilliantly faceted script that explores the relationships between social class and student and teacher in a completely original way. Expect to see more from Gosling, Epps, Fleck and Boden in the future; the critical response to this film is the stuff of which indie filmmaker sugarplum dreams are made.
9. The Queen -- Another film that completely surprised me with how much I liked it, The Queen takes a topic that's been perhaps more overdone than any celebrity death in recent memory -- the shockingly sudden death in a car crash of Diana, Princess of Wales -- and somehow manages to make a surprisingly intriguing film around it. By focusing not on Diana herself, but the quiet battle of wills between newly elected Prime Minsiter Tony Blair and the stalwart Queen Elizabeth II over how the palace should respond to Diana's death, director Stephen Frears gives us a compellingly human look at the woman who has been England's figurehead for over 50 years. Helen Mirren's stellar performance is the backbone of the film, but Peter Morgan's excellent script gives her the scaffolding on which she builds an unexpectedly moving portrait of a monarch.
10. Jesus Camp -- Co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are outstanding documentarians, and in Jesus Camp they manage to accomplish the seemingly impossible feat of creating a film that both hard-core liberals and hard-core Christians can find reasons to like -- for very different reasons, to be sure, but if you can find a way to appeal to both those groups simultaneously, you've done something right. Fundamentalist Christians will find inspiration in Pastor Becky Fischer's passion for converting the youth to the Lord; at the same time, liberals will cringe as Fischer talks candidly about her desire to create little "soldiers for God" who are willing to lay down their lives for their beliefs.
Beleagured pastor Ted Haggard, who's already taken a substantial beating over the revelation of his meth-fueled trysts with a gay prostitute, looks even more transparently desperate in retrospect as he callously snuffs the light of Levi, a passionate child preacher, basically telling a likeable young man who believes with all his heart God is speaking through him that people only listen to him preach because he's a cute kid. Now, what I really want for Christmas 2026 is for Ewing and Grady to revisit the kids featured here, to see what becomes of them as they grow from malleable young souls into adulthood.
Addendum 2/19/2007 --
#11 -- The Lives of Others -- If I'd seen this film before I wrote this list, it would have ended up higher on my list (not sure where exactly, but it would be there). This deeply thoughtful film explores what happens when a Stasi (secret police) officer in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall is assigned to scrutinize the life of an idealistic playwright. With its underlying theme of the inherent goodness or badness of people and mankind's capacity to change for the better, and its riveting focus on the Stasi officer and playwright and the events that set both of them in motion, The Lives of Others was one of the best written, best directed films of this or any other year.