Cinematic thrill and torture 

OK, we rounded up the MT cadre of eagle-eyed film crits and asked them to burp up their obligatory year-end lists. We just love these things, as you can see. But getting the year's best from them wasn't all that easy. Scribe Jim McFarlin summarizes it well: "This wasn't a great year for movies, but 2006 was a year of a few great movies."

It's true, the previous 12 months were uninspired, fraught with cinematic twaddle and unironic tripe (Superman Returns and Little Man, anyone?) and even more stupided-down fare (um, Nacho Libre), each with the sugar-crashing lifespan of a Gastrotrich fruit fly. As critic Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey points out, more than 15 of the 200 worst-ranked movies ever on metacritic.com — which ranks films by professional critics' scores — hail from this year. But, hey, it's the year of budding Sam Peckinpahs debuting on YouTube, presenting endless loops of dudes getting kicked in the balls! Lots to look forward to in the coming decade, then. But take heart, 'cause not everything blew chunks. Some filmmakers (Michael Haneke, Deepa Metha, Ryan Fleck and the primordial Martin Scorsese, etc.) came through with trend-bucking, empathetic and story-driven pieces of truth and beauty.

Below you'll see them listed, and you'll notice that a few writers strayed from the old top-10 tradition — one offered the 10 worst (what joy!) with a trio of great ones and another critic simply categorized.

Oh, and if you can't bear so much hot critic-list breath, the regular film reviews appear on the pages following this 2006 best and worst. Got it? —Brian Smith

 

JIM MCFARLIN

1. The Departed

You don't get many pure treats in modern-day movies, but the chance to witness one of the greatest directors of our age (Martin Scorsese) working in his favorite genre (gangster crime drama) with a who's who cast is an experience to savor. Scorsese doesn't allow his all-star team, led by Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio, to get in the way of this layered, mesmerizing and tragic tale. A masterpiece.

2. The Last King of Scotland

The best single lead performance this year, for my $8.50, was the fully realized portrayal of former Uganda strongman Idi Amin by Forest Whitaker, who makes the genocidal madman seem playful, vulnerable, even charming in befriending a naive young doctor (James McAvoy), yet never lets us forget the terrifying evil within.

3. Little Miss Sunshine

A rollicking joy of a film, putting the fun in dysfunctional with a quirky family that will stop at nothing to complete a road trip so their little girl can compete in a beauty pageant. Steve Carell is predictably wonderful, Greg Kinnear is actually watchable, and the climactic talent performance by 7-year-old beauty queen hopeful Olive (Abigail Breslin) is riotously unforgettable.

4. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

Johnny Depp has crafted an amazing career by taking on an array of unconventional characters, but I'm convinced his boozy, backstabbing pirate Black Jack Sparrow is the invention for which he'll be remembered throughout the ages.

5. Casino Royale

Shaken or stirred? Who gives a damn! At last, a James Bond of bravado, blood and balls. (Oh, those poor balls!) Daniel Craig completely reinvents the most legendary movie franchise with a slam-bang action spectacle tailor-made for the poker-on-TV generation.

6. The Prestige

This spellbinding, well-crafted tale of dueling magicians features a complex storyline made wonderfully simple to follow by director Christopher Nolan, a surprise ending and Scarlett Johansson. Presto!

7. Water

When remarkable Indian director Deepa Metha began filming this sociopolitical story of unrequited love in 2000, violent fundamentalist mobs burned her sets and threatened her life. She persevered, moving the production from India to Sri Lanka to shed her camera's light on the deplorable plight of Indian widows — who are warehoused in ashrams and ostracized from society when their husbands die — and their desperate struggle for liberation.

8. Dreamgirls

The best musical of the year, remaining true to its Broadway roots while emerging as a movie blockbuster that can succeed on its own R&B groove. Jamie Foxx is a believable record mogul villain, Jennifer Hudson is a superstar-in-waiting, Detroit has never been shown with such vibrancy (or honesty) on screen, and this just in: Eddie Murphy can act! And sing! In case anyone had forgotten, he's more than a donkey's ass.

9. Pan's Labyrinth

My best Christmas present by far was a studio copy of this DVD. Mexican director Guillermo del Toro has transferred comic book action to the screen with impressive results (Hellboy, Blade II), and now he conjures a darkly enchanting adult fairy tale that's equal parts violence, horror and compelling drama. It'll make you remember those long-ago nights spent hiding under the covers.

10. Thank You for Smoking

Satire is rarely attempted in American cinema — Hollywood thinks we're too stupid to appreciate irony — but when the strokes are painted as broadly and hilariously as in the foibles of a tobacco industry lobbyist (Aaron Eckhart, in an inspired bit of casting), everybody can get the joke. Jason Reitman, in his first feature film, has learned the art of sardonic fun well from his dad, Ivan. This comedy leaves you gasping for breath.

The worst of 2006:

Nacho Libre

Bonehead comedies are my guilty pleasure. I howled at Clerks II, rolled at Borat, and fully expected Jack Black as a Mexican wrestler to hold equal goofball excellence. Jack is funny. Wrestling is funny. Jack as a Hispanic priest moonlighting as a Luchador barely produced a smirk and was borderline offensive. The moral: Don't always bet on Black.

JEFF MEYERS

1. Cache

The personal becomes the political as a smug Parisian intellectual is forced to confront his past and his conscience. The fear and guilt in this haunting thriller are nearly palpable, and Michael Haneke proves once again that he's one of cinema's most uncompromising directors.

2. Pan's Labyrinth

Known for horror fantasias, Guillermo del Toro has an uncanny ability to fill the screen with gothic poetry of the highest order. Until now, The Devil's Backbone was the only proof that his abilities rose above genre pulp. An exquisite fairy tale of horrifying beauty, it's one of the best fantasy films of all time.

3. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

In a year desperate for comedy, Sasha Baron Cohen delivers by taking Candid Camera to an all-new level of depravity and outrageousness. Exploding sexism, anti-Semitism and bigotry to the point of absurdity, 20 percent of the audience shook their head in disgust and the rest laughed so hard they wet their pants. Could be the Citizen Kane of offensive cinema.

4. United 93

British director Paul Greengrass delivers a gut-wrenching re-enactment of the 9/11 attacks with respect, courage and extraordinary restraint.

5. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Ignore year-end lists that place the bloated and pointless Babel in the top 10. This minor-key effort by screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga displays far more heart and soul than that star-studded Oscar darling. Tommy Lee Jones takes the director's chair (and the leading role) and delivers a heartfelt call for racial tolerance. The cast is top-notch, with Barry Pepper shining brightest as a craven border patrol officer struggling to find personal redemption.

6. The Descent

Political policy inspires pop culture as 9/11 and the Bush administration's scary new world order inspires the greatest onslaught of horror films since the radioactive monster movies of the '50s. The last five years have seen audiences pony up big box-office bucks to a cinematic slaughterhouse of death and dismemberment. This chicks-with-picks versus cannibalistic underground dwellers was the best of the bunch. It'll have you screaming.

7. Little Miss Sunshine

Grandpa's hooked on porn and does heroin, big brother Paul won't speak, Uncle Frank is a gay Proust scholar and little Olive wants to compete as a child beauty queen. Welcome to family dysfunction for the new millennium. Brainy, funny and filled with humanity, this "little film that could" understands how comedy and character are vitally entwined.

8. An Inconvenient Truth

The greatest slide show ever captured on film. Al Gore proves that the world would be a much different place had the Supreme Court not handed the presidency to the loser of 2000's presidential election.

9. The Departed

Martin Scorsese hasn't entertained like this since Goodfellas.

10. Army of Shadows

Gritty, steely-eyed and unsentimental, the director Jean-Pierre Melville's personal experiences with the underground inform his unsentimental view of war as survival of the grimmest. So what if this was made nearly 40 years ago.

Honorable Mentions

Brick, Hard Candy, Flushed Away, Our Brand Is Crisis and The Prestige.

The worst of 2006:

The Lady in the Water

Since the success of his best film The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan's ego and self-importance has grown in direct proportion to the awfulness of his movies. His second effort, Unbreakable (to which television's Heroes owes much) was flawed but interesting. Unfortunately, it gave way to the moronic Signs and the misguided The Village. Not coincidentally, M. Night also gave himself larger and larger acting roles with each release.

Still, even his worst work displayed a master's touch behind the camera, creating tangible moments of suspense and intrigue. Until Lady in the Water, that is — a film so indulgent and monumentally bad that the director deserves at the very least a bitch-slap. This tedious and incoherent tale of water nymphs and the "power of myth" is a train wreck of an ego trip. In it Shyamalan actually casts himself as a writer who must pen the novel that will change the world. God help us all.

COREY HALL

1. The Departed

Good cop, bad cop, great movie. It's impossible to beat Scorsese in top form, especially when he's got a stellar cast like this.

2. Pan's Labyrinth

Guillermo del Toro's beautiful and gory allegory is one of the freakiest fairy tales ever made. An instant classic.

3. The Science of Sleep

Michel Gondry's loopy love letter to cinema dreamtime magic is the kind of movie you want to curl up with and then take out to breakfast.

4. Letters from Iwo Jima/Flags of our Fathers

Old soldier Clint Eastwood rises to the challenge once more with this two-gun salute to the insanity of war.

5. Deliver Us From Evil

This harrowing tale of a pedophile priest would have been the scariest horror flick of the year; except it's a documentary.

6. Little Children

A movie that actually had something fresh to say about sex and secrets in the suburbs, which is almost as miraculous as Kate Winslet's performance in it.

7. Casino Royale

Daniel Craig's blond Bond was a born-again badass. Far and away the most exciting franchise revival in years.

8. An Inconvenient Truth

Al Gore as a matinee idol? Stranger things have happened, like 60-degree days in December and the polar ice caps melting.

9. Thank You For Smoking

A satire as black as a smoker's lung, which made it hard for some people to take in unfiltered.

10. Marie Antoinette

As pretty and shallow as a teacup, but that was the point; so let them eat cake.

The worst of 2006:

Superman Returns

OK, yes, there were technically far worse pieces of crap churned out of the Hollywood sludge factory this year, like say Deck the Halls, Lady in the Water or that neo-Step 'n' Fetchit bullshit that the Wayans brothers keep serving up, but for the most massive disappointment of 2006: Look up in the sky! Having turned the X-Men into the sleek Sharper Image catalog of superhero franchises, Bryan Singer turned his attention to making the man of steel cool, and succeeded in making him as icy and stiff as a corpse. Casting underwear model Brandon Routh as Supes was bad enough, but using wispy glamour girl Kate Bosworth as spunky Lois Lane was an outright disaster. Even Kevin Spacey's wildly hammy Lex Luthor couldn't rescue this listless mess, which was production-designed into plastic sterility, then stretched into two-and-a-half hours of soul-sucking pretension. Singer copied everything he could from the classic '70s original, but forgot to include fun or excitement, and for that he deserves a kryptonite enema.

 

MICHAEL HASTINGS

The best film in 2006:

Half Nelson

So much more than a "This is Ryan Gosling on drugs" public service announcement, Ryan Fleck's debut feature was the rare heart-on-your-sleeve liberal plea for togetherness that dared to criticize the lapsed ideals of entitled, middle-class liberals. Gosling finally lived up to his promise and delivered a truly great, unshowy performance, aided in large part by his preteen co-star, Shareeka Epps, one of the most confident, unsentimental child actors to emerge since the young Jodie Foster.

Most haunting documentary:

Three Rooms of Melancholia

It may have looked like a Kubrick film, but Finnish director Pirjo Honkasalo's chronicle of the Russian-Chechen conflict was all too real; the director herself had to stop shooting in 2003, after hostage massacres rendered the area too dangerous. The footage she compiled is a chillingly still, quiet vision of the children of both sides becoming indoctrinated into a life of ceaseless bloodshed — one that the Western world continues to ignore.

Best Scorsese movie since the last Bush administration:

The Departed

Even a hammy Jack Nicholson performance couldn't trip up Martin Scorsese's most fleet-footed work in years. This gloriously convoluted Hong Kong remake played up all of the master's strengths — improvisational acting, genuinely shocking violence, 12-letter-word tough-guy posturing — while minimizing his recent tendency to paint in broad, would-be epic strokes. Bonus points for providing a showcase for the great, previously underrated Vera Farmiga.

Best movie that sounds like a chore:

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

A two-and-a-half-hour, near real-time account of a lonely Romanian man's slow, inevitable decline might not have been anyone's idea of a date movie. But Cristi Puiu's documentary-like film called to mind both the black humor of Beckett and the procedural drama of E.R. as it indicted medical professionals and bystanders in the death of one "insignificant" man.

Funniest film of the decade:

Borat

More daring than Shortbus, more relevant than Babel, more damning than Fast Food Nation, Sacha Baron Cohen's extended parlor trick ended up being more of a full-blooded movie than most "serious" efforts in 2006 could claim. It also featured the single best line of dialogue: "My moustache still smells of your testes."

Best blockbuster:

Casino Royale

All hail the blond Bond. Somehow, Daniel Craig managed to be a bitter, brick-shithouse badass and an emotionally vulnerable softie, thus endearing himself to most of the English-speaking world for the next dozen installments of this previously moribund franchise.

Best movie of 1977:

The Proposition

Nick Cave has always exhibited a flair for the cinematic in his music, so it makes sense that — after two decades of dabbling in film — he wrote this gruesome yet eerily placid period western. Playing like the bastard child of Robert Altman and Sam Peckinpah — with a little bit of fellow Aussie Peter Weir thrown in for good measure — The Proposition was the best '70s throwback of the year, subverting its genre while paying homage to the Old West — er, the Old Outback.

Best reasons to revise your best of list a month from now:

Children of Men, Pan's Labyrinth

Whether due to distributor cowardice or just bad scheduling, Detroit will be denied these two uncompromising auteurist visions for at least another few weeks.

The worst of 2006:

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things

In a year full of execrable spoofs (Date Movie, Another Gay Movie), tedious highbrow crap (All the King's Men) and useless slasher remakes (When a Stranger Calls, Black Christmas), it's hard to choose one worst film. But horror heiress Asia Argento did them all one better by smashing up every genre possible into this reprehensible take on (fake) author J.T. Leroy's (not at all) autobiographical novel of Southern Gothic sexual abuse and depravity. Less of a movie and more of a glossy Vice magazine photo spread on heroin-pedophile punk-chic, Heart was littered with has-beens (Winona Ryder, Peter Fonda) desperately vamping it up for indie cred, unsure of whether they were making a black comedy, an X-rated after-school special or a thinly veiled Courtney Love biopic. It would've been gloriously, unintentionally funny if it weren't for the subject matter, or if it weren't so ineptly put together.

 

CLARE PFEIFFER RAMSEY

Picking a 10 best this year was too easy because the field was so narrow. Every year has its stinkers, but 2006's crop was especially rancid. Instead, here's a list of the worst of the worst, movies that completely disappointed or were just plain wrong:

1. Basic Instinct 2

Sharon Stone's bringing sexy back? Don't think so. This movie hits you like a cold shower.

2. Da Vinci Code

Director Ron Howard should be ashamed for sucking the life out of a best-selling thriller and mortified for letting Tom Hanks get away with that helmet-head hair.

3. Little Man

Seeing Marlon Wayans' head transposed on a two-and-a-half-foot-tall actor's body rivals only Hanks' hair for scariest movie moment.

4. Shadowboxer

Helen Mirren may take home an Oscar for 2006, but it won't be for doing the nasty nast with Cuba Gooding Jr.

5. The Hills Have Eyes

If the hills really had eyes, they'd be best advised to gouge them out before having to watch this.

6. The Last Kiss

Zach Braff's Scrubs charm and Garden State sweetness goes sour in this dull, incredibly unromantic and unlovable movie, proving you can't hide behind an polite indie-rock soundtrack every time.

7. A Prairie Home Companion

At the risk of insulting the National Public Radio faithful, this movie was even less funny than Garrison Keillor's weekly radio sapfest. Sadly, the best laugh to be had from director Robert Altman's final bow came from Lindsay Lohan's incomprehensible condolences.

8. Running With Scissors

In the game of "whose childhood was more messed up?" Augusten Burroughs will one-up ya every time. Too bad actually running with scissors would be more fun than watching the movie.

9. Running Scared

Watch out, Augusten Burroughs: This movie's protagonist, a youngster named Oleg, one-ups even the king of dysfunction, fending off angry pimps, vengeful mobsters, crazed homeless guys, an abusive daddy with a meth lab and a pair of kiddie molesters — all in 18 hours!

10.

There are just too many contenders for this final slot. It's really a toss-up. Should it be Phat Girlz, Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj, Crossover or Unaccompanied Minors? But don't forget Larry the Cable Guy, Employee of the Month. Oh, where to stop?

The best of 2006:

There were a few standouts in '06. Among them:

1. Fateless

Haunting beauty marks this film based on Hungarian Nobel laureate Irme Kertesz's memoirs. It is one of the finest Holocaust movies to date.

2. The Proposition

Songwriter Nick Cave captures longing and despair in film as well as he does in song.

3. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

and

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

Unwieldy titles, yes, but so funny. Thank you, Sacha Baron Cohen. Thank you, Adam McKay.

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