a year. 2006 didn’t have the greatest depth of good
movies – I wasn’t exactly sweating which films would make the 15 – but the ones
that were good tended to be very, very good. That’s why I ended up with a tie
for first place – and why, quite honestly, any of my top 5 could have been
number 1 in any other year. And while it’s nice to have a year with a bounty of
good films, I’ll take a year with a handful of masterpieces any time.

This year I saw more movies than ever, and still didn’t have
a chance to see every film that would be a possible contender for this list. I skipped
a lot of the obviously bad films – for those of you wondering why Date Movie wasn’t
on my “Worst” list, the reason is because I was smart enough to avoid it. But
there are a couple of potentially great films that I just couldn’t squeeze in
this year. Some movies – like Clint Eastwood’s Iwo Jima
duology – didn’t make the list because I don’t believe they belong here. But
some – like Almodovar’s universally adored Volver – aren’t on this list because
they remain unseen by me. Still, I think I have found 15 films that I’m proud
to list as my picks for the best of the year.

And just in case you’re wondering – yes, I saw a number of great documentaries this year. So many, in fact, that I gave them their own list. You can check that out here. Casino Royale (CHUD Review)

I’m stunned that there’s a James Bond movie on my best of the year list. I have never been a fan of the character or the franchise; while I have sat through far too many of the films, I have taken very little pleasure from them – each viewing was like going to a church I didn’t believe in. I felt like I should be there, but man, what a drag. So here’s the new Bond – rebooted, buffed and different. Daniel Craig’s Bond is a person, not a device upon which we can hang our late 20th century masculinity issues.

Contributing Factors: The lack of sci-fi tech stuff and a story that actually makes some sense and isn’t only an excuse to move on to some other multi-million dollar set piece make this Bond outing fresh. And it’s nice that when there is an action sequence it is, more often than not, on a human level. But the main contributing factor is…

Performance to Savor: Daniel Craig. After so much angst in the press and online, the guy comes out and wipes away any fears… and the memories of at least two former Bonds. Honestly, the only thing keeping Craig from being crowned as the greatest Bond is the nostalgic attachment to Sean Connery’s pelt.

P.R. Pull-Quote: “This Royale is without cheese!” Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (CHUD Review)

I struggled over whether to include this phenomenal and funny slasher film on the list for 06, since it hasn’t had a theatrical release yet. I came to the conclusion that I should for the following reasons: 1) the movie is coming out in January, and this is a nice way to remind you of how fucking good it is, 2) it’s been hanging on to this list since the first half of the year… would it be fair to make the thing wait 18 months for the 2007 list (assuming I’m alive and writing one?), and 3) it’s just a great movie and this list is incomplete without it. And no, it’s not just Man Bites Dog rehashed.

Contributing Factors: This movie reminds you why you love cheesy slasher films, while gently making fun of them. But unlike Scream, Behind the Mask never needs to destroy the genre to deconstruct it.

Performance to Savor: Nathan Baesel, 100%, without a doubt. He plays Leslie Vernon, the wannabe slasher who has a documentary crew following him around, and he makes the character funny, empathetic, creepy and downright scary – sometimes within the same scene. When Leslie Vernon becomes a horror fan touchstone (and he will), it’ll be because of Baesel’s performance. He is to this character what Robert Englund is to Freddy Krueger.

P.R. Pull-Quote: “Rise off your couches and see this movie… NOW!” Inside Man (CHUD DVD Review) (Buy the DVD!)

This didn’t make my middle of the year list, but subsequent viewings on DVD reminded me of what a damn fine movie Spike Lee had made – and how he managed to turn a pulpy bit of throwaway entertainment into a real Spike Lee Joint that talked about racism, trust and New York City. And it’s a fantastic heist/standoff movie that’s aware of its own movieness and never forgets to be fun, twisty and thrilling.

Contributing Factors: Actors love Spike, so his movies always have a number of great ones. Here he mixes name actors with unknowns playing familiar New York City types, and his diversity never feels forced. It feels like New York.

Performance to Savor: While Denzel Washington has the showy bits, I think this is Clive Owen’s movie. We almost never see his face and we never learn anything about him, yet Owen gives us so much that it feels like getting a backstory would be extraneous. We know this guy, even if we don’t know his name.

P.R. Pull-Quote: “Hey look, Spike Lee made a movie that even racists can watch!” Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (CHUD Review) (Buy the DVD!)

Michael Winterbottom doesn’t recognize genre boundaries. In 2006 he gave us two fantastic films that couldn’t be any more different – Tristram Shandy, a comedically self-aware adaptation of a notoriously unadaptable novel and The Road to Guantanamo, a hyper-realistic (neo-factualist, anyone?) take on the true story of three innocent Brits who got sent to the American extra-legal detention camp in Cuba and were tortured. Either of these movies could have made the list, but there’s something about Tristram Shandy that still makes me laugh, all these months later. Maybe it’s Steve Coogan trapped upside down inside a giant plastic see-through womb.

Contributing Factors: Winterbottom isn’t afraid to make the whole movie loop in on itself again and again, blurring the line between what we’re watching, the story of Tristram Shandy, and the story of the filmmakers making a movie about Tristram Shandy. It’s almost delirious.

Performance to Savor: Steve Coogan. Always Steve Coogan. Given the right material, there’s almost no one funnier.

P.R. Pull-Quote: “This ain’t no bull – you’d have to be a cock to not like this movie!” Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (CHUD Review) (Buy the DVD!)

Let’s get this out of the way: No, Talladega Nights is not as funny as Anchorman, the previous film from Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay. It’s not supposed to be. While Anchorman was sheer anarchy poured out onscreen, Talladega Nights has a plot. And characters. Some of whom have arcs. It’s a lot like a real movie. And it’s still completely fucking hilarious anyway – the very funniest movie of the year, and I don’t care what mustachioed foreigner is out there asking people about Jews.

Contributing Factors: McKay and Ferrell are a perfect combination. They start the funny in the writing process and then leave it open on set for the tremendous talents they gather to bring their own flavor to it.

Performance to Savor: Gary Cole as Ricky Bobby’s father, Reese Bobby, is just amazing. Just watch him in the scene where Ricky Bobby is trying to get into the car with the cougar in it – Will Ferrell gets your attention the first time through, but Cole is in the back bringing the comedy to the next level.

P.R. Pull-Quote: “The funniest movie of the year!” Shortbus (Pre-Order the DVD!)

For some reason there’s never been a sexually explicit non-porn film that I’ve liked. Somehow the sex always overshadows everything else. In Shortbus, John Cameron Mitchell’s very long-awaited follow-up to Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the sex underlines everything else. Mitchell opens the film with a montage of sex scenes that introduce the characters and gets the shock factor out of the way – from then on in the sex in this movie about a number of confused and lost souls meeting at a kinky Brooklyn salon (not the hair kind) becomes part of the story and the characters.

Contributing Factors: Mitchell and his actors spent years working on their characters and getting to know each other. Most of the actors are barely professional, but all of them bring not just physical but emotional nakedness to the screen.

Performance to Savor: Lindsey Beamish plays Severin, a dominatrix who probably has the least explicit material in the movie (it’s still plenty explicit). She also has the biggest distance between herself and the other characters, and Beamish is able to perfectly portray Severin’s mixture of self-loathing, fear and yearning. It’s a heart-breaking performance.

P.R. Pull-Quote: “This movie is better than having a guy sing the national anthem into your asshole during a gay threeway! Which happens in the film!” Slither (CHUD Review) (Buy the DVD!)

Let’s face it: Slither isn’t highart. But it is perfect for what it is. James Gunn shows the truth to all the people who only knew him as the guy who wrote the Scooby Doo movies, and the truth is that he’s a twisted, darkly comic genius. Slither is backed with the gooey goods, just like the movies I loved as a kid – and it’s also packed with references and homages to those films. But unlike some directors, Gunn doesn’t let them get in the way of telling his own story, which just happens to be about some very likable characters who you actually don’t want to see get killed. How rare is that in horror films?

Contributing Factors: Gunn’s script – and the hiring of actors who can nail the delivery – is a big contributing factor, but the real winner here are the practical effects. Most of what you see onscreen was really there on set, slightly aided and abetted by guys at computer workstations. These days you go to the movies and even blood spatter is CGI, so it’s nice to see some real oozing tentacles attacking Elizabeth Banks.

Performance to Savor: This is impossible. Is it Nathan Fillion (“I’m Bill Pardy”), a guy who should be such a huge star? Is it Michael Rooker, making his completely fucked-up monster character into a lovelorn beast? At the end I think the answer has to be Gregg Henry, as the mayor – there’s not a line that Henry delivers that isn’t a complete winner.

P.R. Pull-Quote: “Let this film burrow into your chest and impregnate your DVD collection with the goods!” Marie Antoinette

A lot of people didn’t like Sofia Coppola’s quietly brilliant Lost in Translation. A whole lot more didn’t like her visually sumptuous Marie Antoinette, which follows a very specific portion of the French queen’s life. Those people are so very, very wrong. Coppola has found the universality of the story, connecting the rich kid club culture of today to the days before the French Revolution. But is the film a call to arms to get rid of the spoiled, vapid Paris Hiltons or an empathetic look at how Nicole Ritchie is a person too? That’s for you to argue about, but what can’t be denied is how absolutely beautiful and fascinating this film is.

Contributing Factors: Coppola uses New Wave music on the soundtrack, and she doesn’t have her actors behave like they’re in a stiff stage play. As a result, Marie Antoinette feels very of the moment, very now, without being completely anachronistic.

Performance to Savor: Did you see Rip Torn’s mugshot from his recent DUI arrest? Let’s just say that it looks like he’s still in character as the randy Louis XV.

P.R. Pull-Quote: “Let them eat Marie Antoinette!” Brick (CHUD DVD Review) (Buy the DVD!)

When we were offered an exclusive Brick poster premiere, I almost turned it down. I didn’t know anything about the movie, and the idea of a hard-boiled noir set at a modern high school – well, it just sounded like a gimmick. Boy was I wrong. First time writer/director Rian Johnson didn’t just burst out of the gate with this amazing movie, he made you forget there was a gate in the first place. Or that this was low budget. Or that it was his first film. You just luxuriated in the dense dialogue and never-winking story and performances. Brick is a movie that works more and more on repeat viewings, as Rian’s thick jargon becomes more familiar and you can sink into the just slightly unrealistic world he’s created.

Contributing Factors: Rian originally wrote Brick as a novella, and that and the shooting script are both available at his website. The rhythms of Rian’s stylized dialogue are like a balm for the ears of literate movie buffs.

Performance to Savor: Who ever thought we’d see Lukas Haas again? Or that he would be so good as a gimpy gothy high school drug lord dealing out of his mom’s basement?

P.R. Pull-Quote: “You’ll shit a Brick at how good this movie is!” Dreamgirls (CHUD Review)

The second time I saw Dreamgirls I was concerned it wouldn’t hold up. Was my reaction the first time around just about the shock of the new? In the weeks since I had gotten a hold of the soundtrack, so I knew the songs, and I had listened to that spine-tingling track, ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going again and again. But when the lights went down the emotions came back, and when Jennifer Hudson started singing that song, the tears started up.

Contributing Factors: Bill Condon has made an energized whirlwind tour through almost twenty years of black music and life that never stops moving and never drops the rhythm.

Performance to Savor: As great as Jennifer Hudson is, the movie is really Eddie Murphy’s time to shine. Sure, he’s funny and a little larger than life as James “Thunder” Early, but he’s best at the quiet moments of restrained despair, and when he’s letting the sadness leak out from behind his smile.

P.R. Pull-Quote: “And I am telling you I’m going to see this movie a third time in theaters!” The Departed (CHUD Review)

Let’s get this out of the way: just because the new Martin Scorsese movie is a gangster film, and just because it’s based on a Hong Kong film and just because it’s thrillingly fun to watch doesn’t mean it’s not a great film. When did we lose sight of the idea that a great film – a truly great film that will last the ages – can also make us giddy with sheer delight? Is Marty doing what he does best? Well, sure, but I fail to see how that’s a negative, especially when he’s surrounded himself with actors so good they make you wonder why we’re not running around talking about how we’re in a new golden age.

Contributing Factors: William Monahan’s twisty, textured and utterly profane script gives depth to The Departed that Infernal Affairs, with all of its cool HK poses, could only dream about.

Performance to Savor: This goes to Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg, who stand on the sidelines and deliver all the best zingers. Let’s do a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead type of film about their characters.

P.R. Pull-Quote: “Easily the best Scorsese film since Goodfellas!” Little Children (CHUD Review)

I am so depressed that this movie – this complete, wonderful gem – is being totally overlooked. New Line dumped the film and ran away scared, and most critics seem to be ignoring it. Why? Did everybody decide that biting, dark and smart films are the new polonium? Little Children is based on a novel by the author of Election, and if you can think of that film’s tone transplanted from high school to a suburban world full of lies and treachery and one sex offender on the loose, you know what to expect from Little Children.

Contributing Factors: Little Children is like a perfect storm of talent: Tom Perotta has adapted his own book with wit and literacy, and Todd Field has captured it all in voluptuous beauty. Meanwhile, every single actor brings their A-game to the table, creating characters who are despicable and lovable in equal measure.

Performance to Savor: While everyone is fantastic, no one comes near the harrowing depths Jackie Earl Haley reaches. The former child star of The Bad News Bears is now playing the kind of guy who would try to get Kelly Leak into his van. Haley plays his character as defiantly three dimensional – he dares you to like him, but he also dares you to loathe him. You have to do both.

P.R. Pull-Quote: “This movie has been abused worse than Ronny McGorvey’s victims!” Pan’s Labyrinth (Nick’s Review)(Devin’s Review)

This film is well-loved, and it makes my heart sing. There are films that can make the world a better place just by being seen, and Pan’s Labyrinth is one of them. A remarkable examination of imagination and freedom, and how they cannot be suppressed, this film is the culmination of Guillermo del Toro’s journey to being a great auteur. That may be shocking for those who only know him from his English language films, but I guarantee to you that this film will change your every perception of the man. And once you’ve seen this, rent Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone and you’ll see Hellboy and Blade 2 (and even Mimic) in a whole new light. The light of genius.

Contributing Factors: Wes Anderson designs his movies to an inch of their lives, making them feel like dioramas. Guillermo del Toro designs his movies to perfection, making them feel like living, breathing other worlds that we’re visiting. Pan’s Labyrinth would be a feast with the sound turned down and the subtitles off – it’s a magnificent visual offering.

Performance to Savor: It turns out that Segi Lopez, who plays the fascist Captain Vidal, is a comedian in Spain. You would never guess that here as he creates a villain so real and so human that you can understand why he does the evil he does – which just makes you hate him that much more.

P.R. Pull-Quote: “Get lost in this Labyrinth!” United 93 (CHUD Review) (Buy the DVD!)

In February, Newmarket Press is publishing the companion script book for United 93, and one of my interviews with director Paul Greengrass will be included. To me the honor is astronomical – having my name in any way associated with this movie is incredible. And part of that is because United 93 is more than a movie. It’s a cathartic moment for a nation and a world; it allows us to revisit and examine the events of 9/11, but never from a comfortable or safe place. While Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center found the most Hollywood-friendly story imaginable, Greengrass focused on the hard, ugly and scary truth, and made us feel like we were on that plane. When the screen goes black at the end it’s like a physical impact. Movies can entertain, movies can exhilarate – and movies can present us with ways to confront and deal with the most unimaginably terrible events.

Contributing Factors: How can a group of actors assembled on a soundstage create something so completely real?

Performance to Savor: This was truly an ensemble effort, but knowing that Trish Gates, who played stewardess Sandra Bradshaw, was really a United flight attendant on 9/11 makes her performance haunting.

P.R. Pull-Quote: “A monumental achievement. Everyone should see this film – no matter how much it hurts.” (tie). Children of Men/The Fountain (CHUD Review of The Fountain) (CHUD Review of Children of Men)

Is a tie cheating? I could do what I did last year, when I gave a slot to War of the Worlds AND Munich, and talked about how the film have thematic similarities. They sort of do – they could be seen as thematic counterpoints – but I won’t go that route. The truth is that both of these films are masterpieces, both reminded me why I am so much in love with film and both are science fiction movies that use special effects and make-believe to address very real issues. The ones that Darren Aronofsky addresses in The Fountain are eternal ones – mortality, and how we deal with it. Meanwhile, Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men is addressing our lives today, and how we deal with them. The world’s a fucked up place, and Cuaron sees it getting worse – but only before it gets better. And maybe there is a thematic continuity here, because Aronofsky sees the suffering of dying as the step before embarking on the road to awe. Alfonso Cuaron shows us that there’s always something to live for, and Darren Aronofsky shows us that there’s nothing to fear in death. It’s the totality of existence, all tied up in two fantastic science fiction movies.

Contributing Factors: Both films use special effects in novel ways – Cuaron creates impossibly long shots with sleight of hand, while Aronofsky films chemical reactions to get his trippy future visuals instead of going to the computer. Both men show that not everything needs to be rendered within an inch of its life to be magical.

Performance to Savor: The two leading men go through such incredible journeys – Hugh Jackman’s is more obvious, and physically transforming, but Clive Owen going from burnt out quitter to emphatic savior of the human future is no less amazing.

P.R. Pull-Quote: “Jesus Christ, 2006 was an incredible year for movies!”

Honorable Mentions: Hostel. Crank. Running Scared. Man Push Cart. Mutual Appreciation. Eight Below. The Hills Have Eyes. Down in the Valley. Hard Candy. Dead Man’s Shoes. District B13. Black Dahlia. Rocky Balboa.