2006 was a decent but not altogether great year at the movies, with some blockbusters fizzling (The Da Vinci Code, X-Men: The Last Stand) while others dazzled (Pirates of the Caribbean 2). Emerging from the mediocrity is a nice variety of comedy, drama and action, as exemplified by this list of my 10 best movies of the year.
10. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan: Sacha Baron Cohen's television reporter from a third-world country who brings his values to the states worked as both a satire on American culture and a perverse, no-holds-barred comedy that stops at nothing for a laugh. This was by far the raunchiest, most vile and uproariously funny movie this year.
9. Children of Men: A stirring drama with a bold premise and a wonderful performance by Clive Owen makes this one of the must-sees of the holiday releases. The film takes place in London in the year 2027, by which point women are infertile and much of the world has been destroyed. What's appealing about this dystopian future is the bold visual style of director Alfonso Cuaron, which is both startling and depressingly gloomy.
8. A Prairie Home Companion: The death of Robert Altman hasn't dampened the exuberant cheerfulness of the film, which is one of the best of the director's extensive career. The funny, fresh and lively story was inspired by the radio show of the same name hosted by Garrison Keillor, and features some notable characters from the program. The overlapping dialogue and chaos of the live show is perfect fodder for Altman, and he brought it all to life as well as he ever has.
7. The Holiday: This is the best romantic comedy since Love Actually. Maybe I'm a sucker for the mix of Christmas and romance, but writer/director Nancy Meyers' splendidly funny and sweet movie is good enough to melt the heart of even the surliest scrooge among us.
6. Apocalypto: Personal issues aside, Mel Gibson is one of the most talented filmmakers working today, and his ability to find emotion in a period piece and action film told in an all-but-extinct language is remarkable. Yes, it's violent, but it's also great drama.
5. Bobby: You'd never think a movie this good could be written and directed by Emilio Estevez, the former Brat-packer and Mighty Ducks star. Yet here is a smart, layered drama that follows more than 20 characters on the day in 1968 presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy was shot in the Ambassador Hotel. Estevez effectively finds the essence of Kennedy's importance through the goings-on at the hotel and Kennedy's speeches, which are used throughout the film.
4. Dreamgirls: Great songs, solid performances by Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles and Eddie Murphy, and a wonderfully constructed story by writer/director Bill Condon make this the best musical since Chicago. Talented as the cast is, it's American Idol outcast Jennifer Hudson who steals the movie with her explosive performance. Expect it to dominate on Oscar night.
3. Little Miss Sunshine: This year's best independent film is a dark comedy about a dysfunctional family on a road trip to take their daughter to compete in a beauty pageant. The dazzling writing of Michael Arndt and strong performances by an ensemble that includes Steve Carell, Toni Collette and Greg Kinnear make this a smart, brutally honest and side-splittingly funny movie. It also features an ending you will never forget.
2. United 93: Two 9/11 movies (the other was Oliver Stone's very solid World Trade Center) were released this year, but this one came first and was more powerful and affecting. Kudos to writer/director Paul Greengrass for not sensationalizing something that is still very difficult for many to bear, and for finding an indomitable human spirit aboard the flight that crashed in a Pennsylvania field on 9/11.
1. The Departed: Martin Scorsese has dispensed with noticeable Oscar aspirations and made a sensational suspense story and crime thriller rolled into one. The premise is ingenious: Matt Damon plays a Mafioso sent to infiltrate the Massachusetts State Police, while Leonardo DiCaprio plays a state police officer sent to infiltrate the mob. Soon the situation spirals out of control and they must find one another before they end up dead, which leads to great tension and exhilarating action as the film gradually builds to its unthinkable climax. With a cast that also includes Jack Nicholson, Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg, everything that could've gone right with the project did. This is Scorsese at his best.
Honorable mentions include: Half Nelson, which should earn star Ryan Gosling an Oscar nomination; Clint Eastwood's combination of Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima; a Spanish film entitled Only Human; the deliberately un-sexy Miami Vice; the documentary Cocaine Cowboys, which tells the real story behind what we see in Miami Vice; the little-seen Fast Food Nation; Notes on a Scandal, which will earn Dame Judi Dench her sixth Oscar nomination; and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, which, aside from Borat was the funniest movie released this year.