The Weekend Warrior’s Top 25 of ’06

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Another year has passed, and though for a while, it seemed like it might be a bad year for movies, when it came down to it, there were more than enough good movies to fill in a Top 10, and even a Top 25, without even including any of the great docs released in the past year. After spending some time shuffling things around, trying to compare movies that have nothing in common except for their medium, I’ve come up with my definitive list for the year. Bear in mind that these are my personal favorites of the nearly 300 movies I’ve seen this year, and mileage may vary depending on your own personal tastes.

(* means you can find my review at the link)

25. *Thank You for Smoking (Fox Searchlight) – Jason Reitman’s dark comedy based on the novel by Christopher Buckley offered a lot of topical humor, but there’s no denying that what really clicked was Aaron Eckhart’s portrayal of Big Tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor, a man so despicable and loathsome, yet played in a way that gets you on his side. It’s a brilliant piece of acting and writing, and a great feature directorial debut for Ivan Reitman’s talented kid.

24. *Notes on a Scandal (Fox Searchlight) – What starts out as a seemingly innocent drama about a teacher sleeping with her student turns into a tense thriller with three of the strongest performances of the year from Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett and Bill Nighy. The intense script by Patrick Marber (Closer, Asylum) is absolutely amazing in the way it shocks the viewer, but also makes you laugh at the darkly dysfunctional interaction between the characters.

23. *Pan’s Labyrinth (Picturehouse) – Not sure why, but I didn’t love Guillermo del Toro’s latest movie as much as everyone else seems to, but maybe it’s because I’ve been a fan of his for so many years, and I know he has better stories in him. Even though the film looked absolutely amazing, really one of the most gorgeous films this year, it was also so dark and violent and brutal that it was hard to truly love. It didn’t help that its strange mix of reality and fantasy had already been done better by Terry Gilliam.

22. *The Last King of Scotland (Fox Searchlight) – A bit of a giveaway, but this is the first of two movies written by Peter Morgan featuring a monarch (of sorts) and a person trying to figure out what makes them tick. In this case, it was Forest Whitaker as Ugandan president Idi Amin, and James McAvoy as the Scottish doctor who found himself in the tyrant’s employ at the height of his brutality. One can’t say enough great things about Whitaker’s transformation into the notorious world leader, but it’s the relationship between the two men that makes the film so memorable.

21. Casino Royale (Sony) – The promising notion of a James Bond reboot starring Daniel Craig delivered in spades (diamonds, clubs and hearts, too) due to its combination of an intelligent script and an amazing international cast that featured Eva Green and Mads Mikkelsen. Throwing the normal 007 playbook out the window, director Martin Campbell delivered the best Bond movie in at least 20 years or more, bringing Bond into the present day with a storyline involving terrorists and Texas Hold ‘Em poker, and the only high-tech gadgets being cell phones and laptops!

20. Jet Li’s Fearless (Rogue Pictures) – Of all the martial arts epics this year–and there were a couple–none of them took me by more surprise than Jet Li’s latest and supposedly last martial arts film, the true story of Wushu founder Huo Yuanjia, which allowed Li to flex his acting muscles while delivering some of the most insane action scenes that the legendary Yuen Wo-Ping could throw at him. While it wasn’t quite as visually gratifying as Zhang Yimou’s Hero, it contained all the elements one would expect from a quality martial arts epic, as horror director Ronny Yu (Freddy vs. Jason) returned to his Chinese roots.

19.*V For Vendetta (Warner Bros.) – I’ve been a diehard fan of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s serialized graphic story since I was a teen, so I was pretty excited to see how a movie might fare in the hands of the Wachowski Brothers and their hand-picked director James McTeigue. Probably one of the best comic-to-screen adaptations ever made, they really did this dark politically-tinged sci-fi story justice by incorporating new ideas into the best elements from Moore’s tale for a visually-stimulating action film starring Natalie Portman as Evey and the always great Hugo Weaving (AKA “Mr. Smith”) as V.

18. Down in the Valley (THINKFilm) – David Jacobson’s modern-day Western featured the return of Edward Norton in his best role of the year, as Harlan, a delusional man who talks and acts as if he’s a cowboy from a John Ford movie, and as he tries to make his way in the current San Bernadino Valley, he ends up falling for a teen girl played by Evan Rachel Wood, disrupting her already fractured family in the process. It’s a fine piece of filmmaking with moments that rival “Taxi Driver” in terms of intensity, but when Norton gets on his horse or gets into an old-fashioned shoot-out, you realize how few great Westerns have been made in recent years.

17. *Little Fish (First Look Pictures) – This is Cate Blanchett’s second appearance on this list, but really, this was the role and performance that I’ll always remember her for this year. Rowan Woods’ Australian crime-drama deals with three childhood friends whose lives fell apart due to drugs, and Blanchett’s powerful performance as a former junkie trying to fly straight was matched by her co-stars, including her “Lord of the Rings” co-star Hugo Weaving (him again!) as a has-been soccer star and Sam Neill as his drug kingpin lover.

16. *Apocalypto (Touchstone Pictures) – I’d already forgiven Mel Gibson’s drunken anti-Semitic rant by the time I got to his Mayan epic, so I didn’t even take it into consideration as I was transported back to the time of the Mayans thanks to his amazing vision of the past, which never lost my interest or attention even for a second.

15. *Little Miss Sunshine (Fox Searchlight) – I’d been dying to see this dark ensemble comedy since I first learned about it while interviewing Greg Kinnear for The Bad News Bears, and it didn’t disappoint in terms of creating a dysfunctional family road comedy that took that genre well beyond its “National Lampoon’s Vacation” roots. Most of it came down to the amazing ensemble performance by Steve Carell, Alan Arkin, Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Abigail Breslin and Paul Dano, in creating a believable family unit, as they also kicked off what would be a year of great ensemble performances including…

14. *Dreamgirls – This usually wouldn’t be my kind of thing–I hated Chicago (I know, blasphemy)–but the combination of story and good old-fashioned soul music made this one of the most entertaining films this year, mostly due to the performances by former “American Idol” contestant Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy, who returns to form as the flamboyant James “Thunder” Early. It’s hard not to be blown away when either is on screen, but there’s just as much nice things one can say about the way filmmaker Bill Condon translated the stage musical into a full-blown movie musical of the highest quality.

13. *Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (Sony Classics) – Director Zhang Yimou released two movies this year, but this is the one that is likely to be overlooked, maybe because so few people actually saw it. It’s very different from his recent martial arts epics and more like the other films he’s made in recent years, being a poignant drama involving an elderly fisherman trying to do something nice for his estranged dying son, a poignant tale that would have made O. Henry proud.

12. *Babel (Paramount Vantage) – Apparently some critics took issue with Alejandro Iñarritu Gonzalez’s third film about the shooting of an American tourist in Morocco and its repercussions. Maybe that’s because it really was four separate stories with only the loosest of connections, and the trailer made it seem like the movie was more about the language barrier and miscommunication. While the scenes of Pitt freaking out about his shot wife (Cate Blanchett… again!) allowed for some fine dramatic moments, it were the other three stories that really captured Gonzalez’s amazing vision, particularly Rinko Kikuchi’s turn as a deaf teenage Japanese girl trying to find love after the suicide death of her mother.

11. *Hard Candy (Lionsgate) – Of all the movies released this year, there were none that jarred me as much as this thriller from first-time screenwriter Brian Nelson and director David Slade. It starred one of this year’s finest young talents Ellen Page (Kitty Pryde from X-Men: The Last Stand) turning the tables on an online predator, played by Patrick Wilson (Little Children). It was riveting and disturbing, not only due to the nature of their relationship, but also to the way it was staged almost like a two-person play but with the kind of psychological tension that’ll make anyone squeamish.

That might have been the most shocking film of the year, if not for….

10. *United 93 (Universal) – Paul Greengrass’ recreation of the fateful 9/11 plane hijacking is so jarring in its attempts at realism that it’s not the kind of movie you can easily recommend, since it’s likely to shake up anyone who still remembers that unforgettable day. Besides Greengrass’ unique approach at recreating what might have happened on the fateful flight, it’s even more impressive for its amazing recreation of what was happening on the ground that day, given more weight due to the role in the movie played by air traffic controller Ben Sliney, who was there for most of it.

And continuing on that theme…

9. *Children of Men (Universal) – Alfonso Cuarón’s stark vision of the future where no one has been able to have children for over 18 years was right up there with the best films from Stanley Kubrick and Terry Gilliam, driven by a fantastic performance by Clive Owen and the amazing camerawork of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who was able to capture the most fantastic scenes in long extended shots that will be studied by film students for years.

8. *Volver (Sony Classics) – Pedro Almodóvar’s most accessible film to date features a wonderful mostly-female cast in a quirky tale that mixed comedy, drama and a good old-fashioned murder mystery for a film that once again shows why he’s one of the most respected filmmakers of the past 20 years. To try to explain the plot might take some time, but it involves Penélope Cruz as a woman who covers up the murder of her lecherous husband, while unaware that the mother she thought dead (Almodóvar vet Carmen Maura) has seemingly returned to life. It’s the type of uniquely original premise that only Almodóvar could pull off in such an entertaining way.

7. Stranger Than Fiction (Sony) – I never thought I’d see the day when a Will Ferrell comedy ended up in my Top 10, but this original tale written by Zach Helm owed more to the great films of Charlie Kaufman and Paul Thomas Anderson, being a quirky comedy about a man who discovers that he’s the lead character in a novel in which he’s going to end up dead. With a clever premise and a surprising amount of sentimentality and romance, in the form of this year’s other “it girl” Maggie Gyllenhaal, this was the type of departure Ferrell needed, and he had some great help in the form of the hilarious Dustin Hoffman (making up for I Heart Huckabees) and Emma Thompson, in a poignant role that any writer can relate to.

6. *The Illusionist (Yari Film Group) – Neil Burger’s second film is so gorgeous in its stylish simplicity that it’s hard to forget it. Edward Norton played a more subdued role as the title character than in “Down in the Valley,” but it was Paul Giamatti as Chief Inspector Uhl who often stole the movie, though the two together created some true on-screen magic. Add to that a twist ending that would make M. Night Shyamalan proud, gorgeous cinematography and a score by Philip Glass, and you have one of the most memorable films this year.

5. *The Fountain (Warner Bros.) – Not everyone understood or loved Darren Aronofsky’s time-spanning masterpiece as much as I did, although it certainly seems to be getting a lot of love at year’s end, which makes me feel better about how poorly it fared. At first, you’re not sure what you’re watching as Hugh Jackman tries to find a cure to save his great love (played by Rachel Weisz) as a 15th Century Spanish conquistador, a modern-day scientist and a space-traveller in the future, but as the pieces come together, you realize the full genius of Aronofsky and his team in creating a gorgeous tale that really sticks with you long after seeing it.

4. Happy Feet (Warner Bros.) – I remember after seeing this computer animated family film, thinking how odd it was going to look in my Top 10. It’s hard to deny that this was the most amazing movie of the year, because it’s so easy to forget you’re watching an animated movie due to the photo-realistic Antarctic landscape and creatures, and the way director George Miller brings them to life. He truly found the magical elements of Walt Disney, DreamWorks and Pixar to make an animated movie that surpassed the normal silliness of the animated genre. With spectacular musical numbers, wonderful characters and a great story, this quickly became my favorite animated film of all time.

3. *Sophie Scholl – The Final Days (Zeitgeist Films) – This is the second year in a row where a German film ended up in my Top 3. Maybe that says something about my own German roots or more likely about the quality of filmmakers coming out of that country and how many great stories there’s still to tell from this era in German history. In this case, it’s the story of a young woman who spoke out against the Nazis, but refused to be bullied into reversing her views when imprisoned, interrogated and put on trial. It’s an amazing film with a great performance by Julia Jentch, who is on her way to becoming one of the country’s finest exports.

2. *The Hidden Blade (Tartan Films) – It’s hard to believe that a movie that was my #1 movie even before the year started (due to a 2005 festival screening) held up for so long, but that’s the beauty of Yôji Yamada’s samurai epic in that it really is a classic, even better than its precursor The Twilight Samurai. For those who love “Letters From Iwo Jima,” here’s true Japanese filmmaking at its finest, a love story between an aged samurai and his family maid that stretches across years, while also dealing with the evolution of Japan via the import of guns and other weapons of warfare. A deeply rich experience that I could watch a thousand times.

1. *The Queen (Miramax) – Sure, a lot of people have been raving and will be raving about Helen Mirren’s performance as Queen Elizabeth II for years to come, but there’s a lot more involved in why this film is so perfect starting with Peter Morgan’s script, which is able to hypothesize about the inner workings of the British monarchy and its relationship with the government. Add to that an amazing portrayal of Tony Blair by Michael Sheen and great supporting performances all around, and you really felt as if you were watching something that’s never been seen before. Stephen Frears has always been a great director, but he really outdid himself this time, and then on top of all that, there’s Helen Mirren pulling off her note-perfect portrayal of the title character. It’s also a classic.

Honorable Mentions: Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima, the Aussie Western The Proposition and the dark Hungarian comedy The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, all good movies that just missed making it into the 25. Also, two of the best movies seen at festivals that are just now surfacing, the crime drama Lonely Hearts and the quirky Snow Cake.

Top 10 (or so) Documentaries
Because there were so many great docs this year, here are few of the ones that truly stood out.

1. *The War Tapes – The first of two great docs about the Iraq War, specifically about the men and women fighting there, in this case following three soldiers given digital cameras to capture their time there, then the footage compiled by director Deborah Scranton.

2. *Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos – Maybe it’s my deep and passionate love of European football that made this such a fascinating experience, but it had just as much to do with the amazing interviews and footage and the way it was compiled to great ’70s tracks by co-director Paul Crowder. It’s an amazing story, especially the way it’s told by the players both on the field and off.

3. *Deliver Us From Evil – Amy Berg’s in-depth exposé on the predatory pedophile Father Oliver O’Grady was probably one of the most shocking documentaries of the year, knowing what the member of the Catholic clergy was able to get away with and that he’s still free.

4. Saint of 9/11 – A hit at the Tribeca Film Festival, Glen Holsten’s documentary tells the story of Father Mychal Judge, the late Fire Department Chaplain who lost his life in the 9/11 terror attacks, told through the words of his close friends and those he has helped during his life. A poignant story that couldn’t be any more different than Deliver Us From Evil if it tried.

5. Cocaine Cowboys – Billy Corben’s amazing look at the cocaine wars of Miami during the late ’70s and ’80s was everything that the big screen Miami Vice should have been, complete with a new soundtrack by the one and only Jan Hammer!

6. The Ground Truth – Like The War Tapes, this documentary by Patricia Foulkrod examined the Iraq War through the eyes and words of its soldiers, in this case through interviews with dozens of those who have returned from the war, not all of them in one piece. It gives an abundantly clear picture of how those who’ve been to Iraq feel about our reasons for being there and how badly things have gone.

7. *Wordplay – Patrick Creadon’s entertaining documentary that takes a look at New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz, and the cult of fans his work has created, including the likes Jon Stewart and former President Clinton. Featuring a tension-filled Crossword Puzzle Tournament and insights into the creation of the puzzles, it probably got a lot of people into crosswords this year.

8. *An Inconvenient Truth – David Guggenheim captured former Vice-President Al Gore’s traveling multimedia presentation about the problems of global warming and how to solve it in this fascinating and informative doc. It’s sad to think that if not for Florida–a state that will probably be most affected by global warming in years to come–Gore would have been our President.

9. 49 Up – Michael Apted released the 7th installment of his life-long project exploring the lives of British youth from different classes. Although seeing the same footage in every movie is getting tiresome, there are always lots of interesting things to learn about his cast of characters in the seven years since the last interviews.

10. Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey – This amazing look at the origins and history of heavy metal didn’t get nearly the theatrical release it should have before being released to DVD by Warner Home Video, but the amazing interviews and footage really got into the heads of the musicians who’ve been mercilessly mocked and lampooned by those who don’t get the musical genre. This doc shows that there’s more to metal than just a lot of stupid partying fratboys wanting a good time.

That’s it for this year. Check back next week for the Weekend Warrior’s Terrible 25 i.e. the worst movies of ’07. It ain’t going to be pretty.

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