the last couple of weeks I have been seeing as many movies as possible – first because I needed to be up to speed for voting in the New York Film Critics Online awards, but also because I wanted to be able to have a decent Top Fifteen at the end of the year. December has been a big, packed month, with a couple dozen movies being released, and many of them being potential Oscar hopefuls – which is supposed to mean that they’re quite good, and possible Top Fifteen fodder. And while some of the movies that are being released at the end of the year are making my Fifteen – films like Pan’s Labyrinth and Children of Men – the vast majority of these “important” films have fallen flat.

This made me realize something – 2006 was a great year to be entertained at the movies. Last year’s big movies were often great and engrossing and meaningful, but nobody is going to mistake Brokeback Mountain for entertainment. For years it seemed like the trend was towards good movies and entertaining movies, but it was rare that any movie would be both. And then along comes 2006, which has some great directors, like Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese, working in an unapologetically pulpy style. It has other great directors like Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro finding the exact right balance between creating transporting cinematic worlds and saying something about the world in which we live. It even had someone like Todd Fields taking what could have been a serious and dour movie about suburban moral decay, Little Children, and injecting it with generous amounts of humor. And then along comes Bill Condon with Dreamgirls, a movie that hearkens back to the days when the big films were important and were crowd-pleasers, all at once.

Interestingly, I think the year’s biggest dud, artistically if not financially, was Superman Returns, a movie that should have been all about entertainment yet perversely tried to make itself an Important picture. If only Bryan Singer had learned from Spike or Marty that you don’t need to weigh a movie down with heavy handed drama to make a point – both Inside Man and The Departed continued to explore themes and issues their directors have always been interested in, while giving the audiences the entertainment they want. Spike and Marty both had their biggest commercial hits this year, and neither one of them had to sell out to do it.

I’ve been waging a long campaign against “popcorn” movies – I find the idea of going to the theater and turning off your brain to be entertained to be nothing less than offensive. And 2006 was the year that vindicated me; my Top Fifteen is going to be filled with movies that are damn good movies to just SEE, even if you don’t get into the deeper themes or messages. You don’t have to see any meaning in the way immigrants are treated in Children of Men to just dig the movie as a dystopian sci-fi chase film. Who cares if you’re into Sacha Baron Cohen’s deconstruction of prejudice when Borat is so goddamned funny? None of the really entertaining movies of the year are no-brainers. Even the usual no-brainer entry, the newest James Bond film, is a great film to watch but also a very well made and smart film in its own right. Your brain stays on throughout Casino Royale, and that makes the movie so much more rewarding.

This feels like a trend that’s been continuing, by the way. We live in a time when even big blockbusters like the Spider-Man films aren’t content in just being FX-fests. Heck, even the Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, while completely senses-numbing, wasn’t totally dumb. But looking at how good we’ve had it since about 1999 is an editorial for another time. Enjoy it while it lasts.