Living in Austin makes it challenging to create a year-end Top Ten list. I feel like I ought to have until February to finalize the list, because a lot of acclaimed movies from 2006 won't be released in this town until early next year. Plus, I am still catching up on movies that did get an Austin release before the end of the year -- for example, I didn't get to see The Queen until Wednesday night. I know I've missed some very good movies that might show up on a later list (I am dying to see Sleeping Dogs Lie, for example). And on the flip side, I've seen some excellent movies this year that were technically released in 2005, like The Squid and the Whale, but didn't arrive in Austin until 2006. Throwing film festivals into the mix means that I've seen some wonderful films that won't be released until 2007, or that have no distributor yet and may not see theatrical release at all. It's strange how "2006" can seem like such a fluid term when you're a film critic who lives outside of New York/Los Angeles.
So this Top Ten list is charmingly inconsistent as to release dates. Let's not worry about that. The list is in alphabetical order, although I will mention which movie was my particular favorite ...
- 51 Birch Street -- I caught this personal documentary at SXSW this year and was quite moved by Doug Block's story about exploring family secrets. It's an entertaining examination of the ways families communicate (or don't), and the ways in which American marriages have changed.
- Children of Men -- I thought the trailers for this movie were lame and I wasn't particularly looking forward to the film. However, the latest movie from Alfonso Cuaron turned out to be a wonderful surprise, with excellent performances throughout, especially Clive Owen.
- Clerks 2 -- The acting is often amateurish, the characters are not well defined, and it's a sequel, when I usually feel sequels are entirely unnecessary. Nor am I a huge Kevin Smith fan. But I loved this movie, with its sidesplitting geeky conversations and a plot strangely reminiscent of 1930s comedies (specifically, The Front Page/His Girl Friday). I watched the movie on DVD last week and it was still just as funny.
- Little Miss Sunshine -- I love dysfunctional family comedies, so I was a sucker for Little Miss Sunshine, even though many of the plot elements are predictable or occasionally even sitcom-y. This may be one of the less memorable films on this list, but I laughed so hard and enjoyed myself so much that it earned a place. I also am a sucker for anything with Alan Arkin in it.
- Pan's Labyrinth -- My review of this movie is forthcoming (as in later this week) -- the short version is that this fantasy-rich film was my favorite of 2006. As soon as it is released in Austin, I will probably see it again.
- Rescue Dawn -- The latest film from Werner Herzog hasn't been released in U.S. theaters yet, but I had a chance to see it at Austin Film Festival this fall. Herzog devotees (like Martha) don't seem to like it much, claiming it's too accessible and not the director's best work. However, as someone who nearly fell asleep during The Wild Blue Yonder in 2005, and who is not much of a Herzog fan overall, I was enthralled by this survival story.
- A Scanner Darkly -- I think many people were turned off by the rotoscoping animation technique in Richard Linklater's adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel. I'm one of the few who liked the rotoscoping; it gave the film a distinct tone, and helped make the near-future setting more believable. I also loved the music, to the point where I went to a special screening in Austin where composer Graham Reynolds performed excerpts of the score live.
- Shortbus -- John Cameron Mitchell's latest film was not without its flaws, but it was a nice change of pace to see a well-written, nonsanitized movie about sex. Most of the characters were realistic, and I specifically liked following the story of Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), the "pre-orgasmic" couples therapist.
- Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story -- I'm still amazed that Michael Winterbottom was able to adapt Tristram Shandy, a book that frustrated me so much with its digressions that I could not finish it, into a successful and clever film. Even if you have read the book, the film is unpredictable, and made me laugh throughout. It's gorgeously chaotic.
- When the Levees Broke -- Strictly speaking, this might not be considered a theatrical release, but the four-hour documentary by Spike Lee did play a few film festivals, so I'm including it anyway. I spent the better part of four hours in tears as I watched the effects of the post-Katrina flood on the greater New Orleans area. Lee stood back and let people tell their stories, to excellent effect. Also, the score fits the movie perfectly. This is well worth seeing and in fact, I'm about to buy the DVD.
Other notable movies/performances: Peter O'Toole in Venus, Ben Affleck in Hollywoodland (I'm starting to like him again), Mark Wahlberg in general (I'm starting to like him, period), Dustin Hoffman in Stranger Than Fiction, the hilarious mess of Idiocracy, Tideland (still not sure how I feel about it), the intensity of the Algiers ferry explosion in Deja Vu, Al Gore managing to maintain my interest for two hours in An Inconvenient Truth, and unexpectedly liking Scoop after vowing never to see a Woody Allen movie again after Sweet and Lowdown.
Disappointments: Tideland, Cars, Flushed Away, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes.