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"Pan's Labyrinth"
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2006: Year in Movies

War, crime, royalty, fairy tales and a guy named Borat: Eight writers celebrate their favorite movies of 2006

By MSN Movies

2006 will go down as the year of mediocrity and confusion. Just take a look at the list of failed blockbusters this summer and all of the undercooked sequels. And, on the positive side, then look at the year-end nationwide critics' lists, where no one film is truly emerging as the "best" of the year. This was the year where critics agreed on little; one person's favorite film was another's most hated. And as for trends? Good luck finding one. Outside of statements on war, filmmakers liberally spread the themes around... which, of course, isn't a bad thing.

So, does this mean 2006 was a bad year for cinema? Well, again, it depends on who you ask. Personally, I saw a lot more crap than films that inspired my love for the medium. But I'm just one voice, so this year, I've decided to open up the floor.

What follows is the year in review from seven of MSN Movies' most frequent contributors. You'll discover what they loved and hated, and, for once, you'll read about films that made us happy instead of cranky. Well, OK, there are a few cranky moments ...

First up is my list, and for the first time in a decade, I don't have a best film of the year. I appreciated each of these titles equally and for different reasons, but no one title stood above the others.

Enjoy our year in review, and please send us your thoughts, lists and gripes.

-- Dave McCoy
Lead Editor, MSN Movies

Dave McCoy's Favorite Movies of 2006 (in alphabetical order)

"Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan": Between his performance in "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" and here as the clueless Kazakhstani TV reporter, Borat Sagdiyev, Sacha Baron Cohen kept me laughing more than any other personality this year. His film isn't just the most painfully hilarious comedy I've seen in years, it's also the smartest and most subversive.
Watch the trailer

"The Break-Up": Universal Pictures wanted you to think this was a romantic comedy. Surprise, surprise. Instead, it's exactly what the title says: an ugly, often hysterical examination of a dying relationship that left you laughing and feeling icky. Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston are wonderfully nasty and selfish and real as the leads, and the supporting cast (Jon Favreau, Vincent D'Onofrio, Cole Hauser and Jason Bateman) is equally memorable.
Watch the Trailer

"Brick": Nearly forgotten upon its spring release, writer/director Rian Johnson's neo-noir set in high school featured its own rich, metered language (think "Miller's Crossing," an obvious influence), a delicious labyrinthine plot, and a superb young cast -- led by Joseph Gordon-Levitt -- that was more than up for the challenge.
Watch the trailer

"Half Nelson": What could have played like an after-school special (crackhead teacher befriends an urban latchkey teen) instead is understated, affecting and ambiguous. Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps offer subtle, harrowing performances, while Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's script offers no easy answers or upbeat solutions.

"Letters from Iwo Jima": While "Flags of Our Fathers" left me cold and its repeated message was as subtle as a sledgehammer, its companion film haunted me for days. It's the ultimate anti-war film, as the World War II battle is told from the Japanese perspective (one we've never seen in the movies). Words such as "honor" seem awfully empty when you're sitting on a stinky, barren rock pointlessly waiting to die. And after offenses such as "Mystic River" and "Million Dollar Baby" (thanks, Paul Haggis), this reminded me of Clint Eastwood's greatness.

"Neil Young: Heart of Gold": I'm not sure how he does it, but Jonathan Demme has now made three rock docs ("Stop Making Sense," "Storefront Hitchcock" and this) that are all perfect and exhilarating. His camera never leaves the stage, and here he manages to capture the most intimate, personal performance from an artist known for his strictly guarded nature. Young's music is lovely; the filmmaking mirrors it.
Watch the Trailer

"Pan's Labyrinth" / "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer": If forced to choose my two favorites of the year, well, here you go ... and they are both twisted, emotionally rich and beautifully filmed fairy tales. The former, Guillermo del Toro's best film, uses childhood fantasy as a way to escape from the brutal reality of war and familial pain. The latter, from the great Tom Tykwer, explores the amoral depths we'll mine for art -- in this case, a perfume genius who doubles as a serial killer to capture the ultimate scent. It's amazing these films got made at all, but the fact they did gives me hope.
Watch the Trailer: "Pan's Labyrinth" | Watch the Trailer: "Perfume"

"A Prairie Home Companion": There may never be a better farewell from any artist than Robert Altman's lively finale. For one, it's pure Altman, chock-full of colorful characters and intertwined storylines. But, though full of life, it's also a sly, somber film about how death interrupts the creative process. R.I.P, Bob ... and thank you.
Watch the Trailer

"The Queen"/ "Marie Antoinette": Two films about royalty and its strict code of conduct told in ways we've never seen ... and both funnier than you'd think. "The Queen," set during the week following Princess Diana's death, explores what happens when modern displays of emotion clash with century-old stoicism and restraint. And yes, Helen Mirren is that good. Sofia Coppola's re-imagining of Antoinette as an overstimulated stranger lost in a society she both loathes and doesn't understand is a satire for the ages. From the music to the cinematography, the film jumps off the screen.
Watch the Trailer: "The Queen" | Watch the Trailer: "Marie Antoinette"

"United 93": Paul Greengrass achieved the unthinkable: He made a film about the events of Sept. 11 without sentimentality. This is a film about total chaos, on the ground and in the air, and when you leave the theater feeling ill, well, that's because it's done its job.
Watch the Trailer

A Twelve Pack of Honorable Mentions
"The Proposition"; "Venus"; "The Descent"; "Cocaine Cowboys";  "Man Push Cart"; "Old Joy"; "The Departed"; "Casino Royale"; "Dead Man's Shoes"; "Volver"; "Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story"; "Babel"

A Six Pack of Ugh!
"Lady in the Water"; "All the King's Men"; "X-Men: The Last Stand"; "Miami Vice"; "Dreamgirls"; "The Devil Wears Prada

Dave McCoy is lead editor for MSN Movies. He's written professionally about movies, music and TV for longer than he'd like to admit.
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Sean Axmaker's Top 10 (in alphabetical order)

"Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan": Sacha Baron Cohen is drop-dead funny as Borat, an outrageous caricature of a New World Eastern European with Stone Age values, but this is more than simply a docu-farce. His wide-eyed sexism, racism and anti-Semitism invites everyday Americans to confess the most revealing prejudices -- which ends up revealing more about our own society than we might care to admit.
Watch a Clip

"The Death of Mr. Lazarescu": Cristi Puiu's black comedy on the state of socialized medicine is as devastating as it is exasperating. The dignity of the titular pensioner (Ion Fiscuteanu) is eroded over the long night as he is bounced from hospital to hospital, deteriorating to a state of numb incoherence along the way. The bitter humor is the only release for the audience trapped in his nightmare.

"The Descent": Neil Marshall's claustrophobic survival thriller -- set in a dank, dungeonlike cave Appalachian system -- tips its hat to the action-horror tradition while reshaping the conventions to his own will. Watch for the original British cut coming to DVD at the end of December. The haunting additional seconds bring the film to perfect closure.
Watch the Trailer

"Flags of Our Fathers" / "Letters from Iwo Jima": It is said that the ability to hold in mind two contradictory notions at the same time is a sign of genius. Clint Eastwood's drama about the iconic power of images -- specifically the famous flag-raising photo on Iwo Jima -- and the human reality behind those symbols never sacrifices one for the other. It is compassionate, thoughtful and as intelligent and astute as American cinema gets. His companion film to "Flags" is a sympathetic and thoughtful portrait of a military culture at war with itself through the ordeals of ordinary soldiers sacrificed to national notions of honor that seem alien today. He proves himself a powerful and compassionate storyteller who values all human life sacrificed to the war machine, not merely those under the flag of our fathers.
Watch the Trailer: "Flags of our Fathers"

"Old Joy": Kelly Reichardt's intimate and easygoing film about old friends reconnecting after years captures the ephemeral pleasures of the road trip with lucid simplicity. It stirs up lost dreams and youthful hopes gone from their mundane lives, but for a few hours they recapture that soothing spell of a lazy road trip where the journey is the destination.

"Pan's Labyrinth": In the dark fairy tales and supernatural horrors of Guillermo del Toro, the evil that men do is far more terrifying than the spooky shadow worlds of his imagination. He hews his elemental fantasy world from the very Earth, like neglected spirits roused by a girl's sense of wonder to give hope in a world of apathy and brutality.

"The Proposition": Guy Pearce is an outlaw forced to choose between his brothers in the jagged Australian frontier Western in the key of Peckinpah, written by cult rocker Nick Cave. A savage social subtext rumbles under the austere plotting, and director John Hillcoat stirs the fierce conflicts between justice, social expediency and family duty in a sun-seared land baking in its own hate.
Watch the Trailer

"The Queen": Helen Mirren delivers the performance of the year as Queen Elizabeth II, the professional monarch struggling to find her place after the death of Princess Diana. Stephen Frears compassionately explores the awkward relationship between the newly elected man-of-the-people Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) and the proud but dedicated queen who has given her life in service to her country.
Watch a Clip

"The Science of Sleep": Michel Gondry uses whimsy and fantasy to get at prickly emotions, uncomfortable feelings and the sometimes painful divide between our dreams and our lives in his bittersweet tale of an aspiring illustrator (Gael García Bernal) more comfortable in his head than in the world. Gondry's scruffy, unkempt narrative has a messy authenticity that matches Bernal's cardboard and cellophane fantasy world.
Watch the Trailer

"Volver": There isn't a male filmmaker working today who so richly and sensitively celebrates the complexities of women's relationships as Pedro Almodovar. The mothers, daughters, sisters and devoted friends of "Volver" form a society almost absent of men, and find the strength to forgive, embrace and persevere.
Watch the Trailer

Honorable Mentions
"Army of Shadows"; "Stick It"; "Iraq in Fragments"; "13 (Tzameti)"; "L'Intrus"

Worst
"Lady in the Water"; "The Celestine Prophecy"; "Lucky Number Slevin"

Sean Axmaker is a film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a DVD columnist for the Internet Movie Database. He regularly contributes to Amazing Stories, Asian Cult Cinema, Greencine.com and StaticMultimedia.com. His reviews and essays are featured in "The Scarecrow Video Movie Guide."
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Greg Ellwood's Top 10

1. "Dreamgirls": What makes a movie a transcendent and overwhelming experience? Is it when you find yourself clapping and cheering throughout it? Or is it spectacular moments such as when Eddie Murphy spins from a quiet backstage piano solo to the soulful intensity of "Fake Your Way to the Top"? Or is it the gospel revival echoes of "Steppin' to the Bad Side," or is it Beyoncé Knowles twirling around the lit stars of The Dreams debut? Can it all be summed up in Jennifer Hudson's star-making performance that can break even the coldest heart? Whatever the case, this movie is one dream that I, thankfully, still can't get out of my head.
Watch the Trailer

2. "The Queen": Despite her obvious talents, Helen Mirren could have easily fallen flat on her face playing the iconic Queen Elizabeth II during the pivotal week in Britain's history following Princess Diana's death in 1997. Instead she and director Stephen Frears create a multilayered and moving portrayal that is the center of a film chronicling the breaking point at which the old guard must learn from the new to survive.
Watch a Clip

3. "Children of Men": Director Alfonso Cuaron takes the viewer on a fantastic ride into a future, where women have been unable to reproduce for decades and the world has been hurled into chaos. Clive Owen is stellar as a former activist whose ex-wife (Julianne Moore) convinces him to help smuggle a pregnant girl out of a newly totalitarian Britain.
Watch the Trailer

4. "Little Children": A haunting look into the world of lonely, suburban 30-somethings and their journey into delayed adulthood with terrific performances by Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson.
Watch the Trailer

5. "Marie Antoinette": Talk about a visionary tale -- Sofia Coppola creates a beautiful and sympathetic portrayal of the misunderstood French queen thanks to an unheralded turn by Kirsten Dunst.

6. "The Lives of Others": An East German secret police officer becomes entangled in the lives of a writer and his girlfriend during long-term surveillance. The movie is a stirring reminder of the silent horrors of the Cold War and the dangers of any totalitarian state.

7. "Quinceañera": A teenage girl has a lot of growing up to do as her 15th birthday approaches in this touching tale set among the culture clash of the Echo Park neighborhood in modern-day Los Angeles.
Watch the Trailer

8. "Pan's Labyrinth": This film is another wonderful vision from the imaginative mind of Guillermo del Toro that contrasts a lonely girl's fantastical world with the brutal reality of fascist Spain during Franco's rise to power.

9. "United 93": The first major movie detailing the events of Sept. 11 sadly looses something after the depiction of the traumatic events at the World Trade Center, but the initial hour is a harrowing account that should serve as a history lesson for generations to come.
Watch a Clip

10. "The Departed": Martin Scorsese juggles two great performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon to create one of the most entertaining thrillers in years.
Watch the Trailer

Honorable Mentions
"Little Miss Sunshine"; "Shut Up & Sing"; "Inside Man"; "Babel"; "Letters From Iwo Jima"

Worst of the Year
"Flicka"; "Date Movie"; "Ultraviolet"

Gregory Ellwood writes the Hollywood Hitlist column for MSN Movies. He's worked in the movie industry for almost a decade and lives in Los Angeles.
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Jim Emerson's Top 10

1. "Pan's Labyrinth": I don't know that I've ever seen a more richly and fully realized fantasy film. In Guillermo del Toro's masterpiece, Fascist Spain and a little girl's imaginary world of monsters and fairies are two sides of the same coin. One isn't the "fantasy escape" from, or the "harsh contrast" to, the other; each is a reverse impression of the same treacherous experience.

2. "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer": Think of it as "cine-sthesia" -- a lush, sensuous, brutal fable (aren't fables meant to be all that?) in which sight and sound are masterfully orchestrated in the service of ... smell. My senses were re-invigorated. My jaw was on the floor half the time, and my eyes, ears and nostrils wide open from beginning to end.
Watch a Clip

3. "Man Push Cart": A Pakistani pushcart vendor survives one day at a time on the streets of midtown Manhattan. A modern Sisyphean tale of urban survival, told with Bressonian minimalism and specificity -- and if that doesn't sound like a rip-roaring good time, it's also spellbinding, suspenseful, heartbreaking and dazzling to behold.

4. "A Prairie Home Companion": Robert Altman's vision was always so wide that it embraced life and death at the same time, but never so warmly and wisely as in his valedictory film -- an elegy for a career and a companion to "Nashville," especially.
Watch a Clip

5. "The Descent": Six women go spelunking in the bowels of Mother Earth. A plunge into subterranean horror, deep underground where our bones will someday lay, and even deeper into the darkness of the subconscious.

6. "The Bridge": Another kind of plunge into the abyss: Cameras capture suicides off the Golden Gate Bridge over the course of one year. The filmmakers work backwards to fill in the gaps, to see if it's possible to understand what brought these people out onto the span. Maybe the only film that has ever dealt so honestly (yet also hauntingly, poetically) with the most important decision of people's lives (that is, whether to continue living them) -- a decision many have to make again and again and again, every waking moment.

7. "51 Birch Street": Nice house, nice neighborhood, nice Jewish family. Documentarian and sometime wedding videographer Doug Block investigates the mystery of his own parents' marriage -- and all the drama of "ordinary lives" emerges, as we see how the past flows into the present.

8. "Half Nelson" / "Old Joy": Two tales of struggle with personal and political idealism as Americans (in the urban Northeast and the bucolic Pacific Northwest, respectively) age into their 30s and 40s, worried about what they've lost, who they've become and who they're going to become.

9. "Flags of Our Fathers" / "Letters From Iwo Jima": Images, words, symbols, stories, propaganda ... Clint Eastwood's two-part epic, ostensibly looking at the battle for Iwo Jima, first from the American and then from the Japanese point of view, is really about the meta-weapons of war -- powerful as any atomic bomb. As Peter Bogdanovich says of "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" in "This Is John Ford," these movies understand the value (maybe even the necessity) of "printing the legend" -- but the director also makes a point of showing you the truth behind it.
Watch a Clip: "Flags of our Fathers"

10. "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan": This is what movies do best: They show you the world through someone else's eyes, even when that someone is a ridiculous cretin from a mythical Kazakhstan. I don't think we've even begun to consciously understand why this movie is so funny, or how it managed to resonate so strongly with a mainstream American audience. But the comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen smartly and hilariously connects the anarchic wit of W.C. Fields, the Marx Bros. and Preston Sturges with the reality-based satire of "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report."
Watch a Clip

Honorable Mentions
"The Good German"; "The Break-Up"; "Inside Man"; "49 Up"; "Volver"; "Brick"

Worst
"World Trade Center": Of course it's not really the worst movie of 2006, not even close. But Oliver Stone's superficially "nonpolitical" film about Sept. 11 could not have been more political, almost by definition. As such, it's perhaps the most deceptive and dishonest. It will always be "too soon" -- and "too late" -- to make a feel-good movie about Sept. 11 simply by narrowing or widening the zoom (in to the guys in the rubble, or out to the rescuing Marine headed to avenge this slaughter in Iraq), but what Stone served up was the knee-jerk, Rumsfeldian antithesis of the ambivalent wisdom expressed in Eastwood's 2006 war movies.

Jim Emerson is the former editor of Microsoft's online/CD-ROM movie encyclopedia, Cinemania. He has written a lot over the years, mostly about movies, for many publications and Web sites, and is now the editor of RogerEbert.com, where he also publishes his blog, Scanners (blogs.suntimes.com/scanners)
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David Fear's Top 10

1. "Half Nelson": He's a funky Brooklyn-based teacher who's schooling urban youth about American history. She's a student who finds out he's also got a secret crack-cocaine monkey on his back. Most filmmakers would take the inspirational-teacher-meets-inner-city-kids combination and make a treacly "Dangerous Minds Redux," but writer-director Ryan Fleck goes for something far more interesting: An social-realist drama about self-destruction and salvation. It also boasts the two best performances of the year, courtesy of Ryan Gosling and newcomer Shareeka Epps, and reminds you that independent cinema can still be more than just snarky shoot-'em-ups and quirky, cutesy comedies about beauty pageants.

2. "Old Joy": Two buddies try in vain to revive their friendship in Kelly Reichardt's gentle, quiet ode to sensitive male bonding in the Pacific Northwest. Apparently, breaking up is hard to do even in platonic relationships.

3. "A Scanner Darkly": Sci-fi author Philip K. Dick's schizo masterpiece about drug addicts and undercover narcs is turned into a paranoid android of a film, thanks to Richard Linklater's ingenious use of Rotoscope animation. Somebody needs to get Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson their own stoner TV comedy series stat.
Watch the Trailer

4. "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu": Most people hear the phrase "a two-and-a-half-hour long satire of Romania's healthcare system, told in real time" and run to the hills. They'd end up missing director Christi Puiu's stunning, spiritual look at how bureaucracy has turned the medical world into a Kafkaesque nightmare. Paddy Chayefsky would be proud.

5. "The Departed": Or, "How Martin Scorsese Got His Groove Back." His Martyness relocates the Hong Kong thriller "Infernal Affairs" to the mean streets of Boston and turns this cops-and-mobsters story into a high-voltage crime drama about changing your identity and selling your soul.

6. "Shortbus": John Cameron Mitchell trades in glam-rock drag queens for a group of dysfunctional New Yorkers in need of sexual healing in this largely improvised -- and highly graphic -- look at modern love. You'll never hear the national anthem the same way again.
Watch the Trailer (warning: mature content)

7. "L'Enfant (The Child)": Belgian filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne invoke the ghost of Bresson in this story about an irresponsible father, a missing son and the notion of redemption. World Cinema, meet your brightest hopes for the future.

8. "The Devil and Daniel Johnston": This documentary about singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston chronicles the musician's long, troubled history with mental illness. Although the movie doesn't downplay the tragic elements, its affection for Johnston and his catchy, offbeat ditties makes it more of a tribute to a hidden pop-music treasure.
Watch the Trailer

9. "United 93": Paul Greengrass' recreation imagines what might have happened on that doomed Sept. 11 flight with a you-are-there style that's both respectful and rigorous. A harrowing look at a day that has unfortunately defined an era.

10. "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan": Sacha Baron Cohen's trip across America under the guise of a clueless Eastern European journalist is like watching Peter Sellers host a season of "Punk'd." It's the rare pop phenomenon that opens up a dialogue about polite intolerance (and the ethics of comedy) and features a show-stopping wrestling match between two nude men.
Watch our interview with Borat

Honorable Mentions
"Gabrielle"; "Letters From Iwo Jima"; "When the Levees Broke"; "Casino Royale"; "Dead Man's Shoes"

Worst
"The Wicker Man"; "Lady in the Water"; "Sleeping Dogs Lie"

David Fear is a film critic for Time Out New York. He's also written for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Filter and Moviemaker Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.
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Richard T. Jameson's Top 10

1. "Flags of Our Fathers" / "Letters from Iwo Jima": There's no getting around it: the best film of the year is two films, each magnificent on its own recognizance, but each meant to reflect and deepen the other, and those privileged to view them. "Flags" portrays the hell of battle more harrowingly than most war movies, but is essentially focused on something else -- the fallout from the battle, the making and then the concocting of history, in a necessary process at once noble and appalling. "Letters" portrays the same battle, but from a perspective never seen or even hinted at in an American film before. Directed by Clint Eastwood, America's finest living filmmaker, and getting better all the time.

2. "A Prairie Home Companion": The Eastwood movies came out late, so most of 2006 belonged to Robert Altman's glowing tribute to heartland radio, the spirit of his native Midwest, the transient yet genuine bonding of showfolk, the consolations of art in the face of crassness and mortality, and the resiliency, resourcefulness, and laidback orneriness of America's extended family. It was also immediately apparent the movie would make an eloquent valedictory, though we hoped it wouldn't come to that; after all, what's a world without more Robert Altman movies to look forward to? It's doubtful he believed in anything like an Angel of Death, but when she came for him, let's hope she looked like Virginia Madsen.

3. "Pan's Labyrinth": In a Spanish manor house in a forest in the last year of the Second World War -- which feels more like the latest chapter in the ongoing Spanish Civil War -- a girl on the cusp of adolescence finds solace in an underworld of fairies and monsters, while never really escaping the monsters who dominate aboveground reality. Guillermo del Toro, obviously a very talented fellow, has never quite closed the deal in any of his half-dozen previous films. This one vaults him into the major leagues: a true original and a ravishingly beautiful movie.

4. "United 93": "Too soon!" moviegoers are reported to have cried last summer when trailers announced the coming of a major film about the terrorist attack that altered our world. Not too soon at all, as Paul Greengrass's deeply respectful, rhetoric-free, shattering, and entirely honorable account of the fourth doomed flight on 9/11/2001 proved.

5. "The Departed": Martin Scorsese's movie isn't the best or most memorable movie of the year, or of his career, but over its two-and-a-quarter hours it never lets down for a nanosecond. If he finally wins that long-sought Academy Award, this time (unlike his last two times on the slate) he will have earned the right to be in the running.

6. "The Queen": It sounds all too "Masterpiece Theatre"-y, but this account of Elizabeth II standing her royal ground in the face of mass hysteria over the death of Princess Diana is a beautifully judged performance, on the part of director Stephen Frears as well as actors Michael Sheen (Tony Blair), James Cromwell (Prince Philip), and the incomparable Helen Mirren. No one else need bother claiming an Oscar nomination as best actress.

7. "Half Nelson": With no U.S. theatrical release in 2006 for "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," "Syndromes and a Century," and "Red Road," I pretty much ran out of firm 10 Best conviction with the previous film. I mightily resisted "Half Nelson" because I loathe the frowsy, faux-vérité style in which it was shot. But the richness of the characters and the performances of Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, and Anthony Mackie swept resistance away. A complex drama of a teacher and a student in an inner-city school that has no truck with easy answers.

8. "Hollywoodland": All sorts of things about this modest indie production spell limited means and unrealized ambition; yet this account of the semi-ridiculous rise and long, sad fade of George "Superman" Reeves cast a spell; I felt a sense of loss just walking away when the movie was over. And Ben Affleck is really good.
Watch the Trailer

9. "The Good German": Steven Soderbergh's latest is such a gorgeous, exhilarating film-buff wallow -- a loving recreation of a black-and-white post-WWII intrigue such as Warner Bros. would have shot and told it in 1946 -- I wish it ultimately added up to something more. But pleasure, and movie literacy, are not to be scorned.
Watch the Trailer

10. "Little Children": Todd Field directs a sharply focused study of murderously intermingled private lives in a postcard-pretty New England village. The titular characters aren't the preschool youngsters who occasion the meeting-cute and clandestine afternoon passion of frustrated housewife Kate Winslet (incandescent) and perennial-jock househusband Patrick Wilson, but the adults who have never grown up and never will. Mesmerizing comeback performance by Jackie Earle Haley as an accused child molester who has never molested a child ... and yet.

Close, and by all means a cigar (alphabetical order)
"Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan"; "Casino Royale"; "Days of Glory"; "The Descent"; "Little Miss Sunshine"

Four over hyped duds
"Dreamgirls"; "Blood Diamond"; "The Prestige"; "V for Vendetta"

Richard T. Jameson has been editor of Movietone News (1971-81) and Film Comment (1990-2000) magazines, as well as Seattle's Queen Anne News (2003-present). He has been a member of the National Society of Film Critics since 1980.
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Kim Morgan's Top 10

1. "The Departed" : Who would have thought that Martin Scorsese's greatest film in 10 years would be a ... re-make? Not I. But indeed, "The Departed" (adapted from the terrific Hong Kong actioner "Infernal Affairs") is not only one of Scorsese's greatest, it's the best film of 2006. Crackling with a rough wit supplied by a cast in top form (Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin and the fantastic Vera Farmiga), the Boston-set story of cops and crooks and the myriad ways they work and screw with each other, is endlessly fascinating and filled with that special kind of verve and violence Scorsese stamped on world cinema so many years ago via "Mean Streets." It may not "Goodfellas" but it's damn near close.

And, the rest in alphabetical order:

"The Break-Up": This suffered from a lot of things, not one of them being the film itself: Bad press (the whole Aniston-Pitt saga) and bad promotion (a romantic comedy?). But the dark little film offers one of the most realistic and darkly humorous looks at exactly what the title states -- a couple not being able to work it out.
Watch a Clip

"Dave Chappelle's Block Party": As directed by visionary wizard Michel Gondry, this eccentric, lovingly-filmed documentary is so infectiously good natured, so easy going, so wonderfully refreshing, that it leaves you significantly energized. His examination of a block party thrown by comedian Dave Chappelle is also tremendously and genuinely positive -- something we all could use a little more of these days.
Watch the Trailer

"The Hills Have Eyes": Alexandra Aja's remake of Wes Craven's creepy cult classic is (hold on to your hats) even better than the original. I'm serious. It's a terrifically tense, genuinely scary and frequently funny study of not only family vengeance, but of a mutant wasteland that we (well, the American government) created. The movie is a potently subversive blast of masterful pulp.
Watch the Trailer

"Little Miss Sunshine": A movie that could have been both overly-wacky and exceedingly corny, "Little Miss Sunshine" is instead startlingly genuine and touching. A sweet paean to the unending quirkiness of families, and a celebration, of sorts, to losers everywhere, this journey of a chunky little girl's dream to become a beauty queen is hilarious, heartbreaking and tender. It also features a brilliant Steve Carell in a performance that, if the Oscars had any guts, would be nominated.
Watch the Trailer

"Marie Antoinette": Sofia Coppola's third film is so beautifully photographed (all that pink!), so evocatively scored (New Order, Bow Wow Wow, The Cure) and so overtly superficial (shopping, shoes, pastry eating) that many critics missed the point. And boo on them. The story presents the iconic French queen as giggling teenager and offers keen insight into her insulated world. It's a transcendent, mesmerizing fever dream of gorgeousness.

"Pan's Labyrinth": With his grim and gorgeous fairy tale, director Guillermo del Toro proves himself a true visionary, a filmmaker of such boundless creativity and subversive daring that his visions left me, at times, absolutely awestruck. But there's more than just intensely vivid imagery and fantastically crafted creatures, there's a story (of a lonely little girl living amidst the Fascist regime of 1944 Spain) that blend reality and metaphor into a movie that is sensational on all levels. A work of art.

"Perfume: The Story of a Murderer": If you were significantly moved by the tracheotomy kiss of Tom Tykwer's "The Princess and the Warrior," you'll appreciate the director's mesmerizing take on love, sexuality, fear and horror. So it's perfect then, that Tykwer adapted Patrick Suskind's "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" (about a young man of 1766 France who crafts perfume out of the beautiful women he murders) into an olfactory masterwork -- a movie that's so hauntingly beautiful, so terrifying and yet, so weirdly romantic and sad that like any great scent, it lingers for days.

"The Proposition": Helmed with a stunning, rough-hewn, motley crew of a cast (Guy Pearce, Danny Huston, Ray Winstone) and spiked with Sam Peckinpah grime (as written by Nick Cave), director John Hillcoat's offering is grit most true. Elegiac, dark and wonderfully blood soaked, the outback set western is a gloriously vicious affair that never lets you go.

"Volver": If any one director is resurrecting the classic women's picture of Hollywood's yesteryear ("Mildred Pierce," "All That Heaven Allows," "All About Eve") it's Pedro Almodovar -- and God bless him for it. The film, starring a sensational Penelope Cruz, soars with humor, pathos, affection and wit.

Honorable Mentions
"The Queen"; "Half Nelson"; "Inside Man"; "Idiocracy"; "The Descent"; "Brick

The Worst
"X-Men: The Last Stand"; "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest"; "The Da Vinci Code"; "All the King's Men

Kim Morgan is a film writer for the LA Weekly, Fandango and Reel.com. She was a film critic for The Oregonian and has written about movies for various print and Web media. She served as DVD critic on Tech TV's "The Screen Savers" and has appeared as guest film critic on AMC's "The Movie Club with John Ridley" and on E! Entertainment. She writes for her blog Sunsetgun.com.
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Kathleen Murphy's Top 10

1. "Flags of Our Fathers" / "Letters from Iwo Jima": Clint Eastwood's films unreel as one effortlessly masterful work. This radical anti-war film deconstructs the myriad ways mostly youthful flesh and blood can be manipulated, inspired, coerced into harm's way -- but never dishonors American and Japanese warriors "framed" into paying the price. "Flags" weaves a complex tapestry of visceral battlefield sequences, mediated reality, chamber-of-commerce flag-waving, a soldier's conscience, advertising and the terrible persistence of memory -- while "Letters" gives voices and faces to "The Enemy," traditionally stripped of idiosyncratic humanity by most war movies. If Eastwood's vision actually got inside all of our hearts and minds, we'd be hard pressed to bear arms.

2. "A Prairie Home Companion": Robert Altman stoked the communal give-and-take of Garrison Keillor's heartwarming radio hoedown with his usual sardonic delight in the crowded human comedy. "Companion" celebrates -- with joyous unsentimentality -- Altman's faves: show business, community, talk, music, old hands and comers, the sublime and the ridiculous. His movies gave Altman and his current pride of inspired players opportunity to act out and make believe until the set was struck and it was time to move on to a new cinematic collective. But artists like Altman never get away from these seductive fictions unscathed -- there's always the odd bit of mortality left behind, a signal that making art takes something out of you.

3. "Pan's Labyrinth": Guillermo Del Toro's gorgeous (and gory) fairy tale for grown-ups makes compelling visual poetry of a child's courageous quest for the restoration of family and love in dark times of war and madness. "Labyrinth" shifts seamlessly between actuality and its heroine's excursions into wildly phantasmagorical environs. Superb performances, terrific lensing, breathtaking F/X.

4. "United 93": Perhaps the horrors of 9/11 are too raw to be digested by star-driven melodrama like "World Trade Center." "United"'s stripped-down, riveting evocation of the ordinary shattered by the unthinkable is so authentic, we feel that this is how it must have been on that terrible morning. Looks like documentary, plays like human tragedy of the highest order.

5. "The Queen": Chronicling the comic / killing collision between old school and contemporary existential styles of showing one's face and feelings, "The Queen" contrasts private expression (Elizabeth II, given to putting on a brave face) and public spectacle (Diana, the "People's Princess," who exposed her bruised charm to every camera eye). Helen Mirren flawlessly incarnates Elizabeth as armored icon evolving into a vulnerable, even tragic figure.

6. "Apocalypto": There's an Old Testament Jeremiad embedded in Mel Gibson's dazzling adventure-chase movie, but sheer kinetic filmmaking trumps sermonizing about similarities between past and present civilizations given to wasting the earth, bloody invasions, maximum decadence. "Apocalypto"'s every face shines with exotic beauty, strength, viciousness (cast is mostly non-professionals) and the central, pell-mell race for survival grabs you up and never lets go.
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7. "Half Nelson": Skirting sentiment and cliché, "Half Nelson" showcases exquisitely nuanced performances (from Ryan Gosling, a crack-addled inner-school teacher; old soul Shareeka Epps, one of his students; and Anthony Mackie, devilishly charismatic drug-daddy). True-blue tensions and connections spark among these three-dimensional characters, playing out scenes that often go somewhere smart and unexpected.

8. "Climates": Documenting wounds inflicted in the name of love and lust, "Climates" maps Antonioni-like abysses of loneliness and alienation between lovers even as bodies strain to become one. Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan stars as a womanizer cold to the bone, while his wife (Ebru Ceylan) offers her incredibly expressive face to the camera's lingering gaze, her shifting emotions as visible as clouds moving in the sky.

9. "The Descent": Beautifully paced, photographed and designed, this Hieronymus Bosch horror movie avoids every tease and cheat that snuff 'n' slash flicks like "Saw" rely on. There's gore galore in this distaff descent into hell, but every drop's integral to a tale rooted in human character, choice and fate.

10. "Days of Glory": Who knew that, during WWII, North Africans enlisted to help save France, the country they thought of as their Motherland? "Days" follows a quartet of colorfully diverse soldiers through brutal battle and the realization that, in the eyes of French officers, they are hardly more than cannon fodder. A smartly directed action/war movie, enriched by a top-notch cast.

Note: As an exercise in brilliant filmmaking and tour-de-force acting, Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" would grace any 2006 10 Best List. Still, the movie felt hermetic and calculated to me, as though I was being galvanized by superb, heartless mechanics. Other, less perfectly crafted movies took firmer root in my memory because they reached hard for something new, surprising, transforming.

Honor Roll
"Little Children"; "Old Joy"; "Man Push Cart"; "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan"; "Casino Royale"

Brain Dead
"Dreamgirls";"Blood Diamond"; "The Prestige"; "X-Men: The Last Stand"

Kathleen Murphy currently reviews films for Seattle's Queen Anne News and writes essays on film for Steadycam magazine. A frequent speaker on film, Murphy has contributed numerous essays to magazines (Film Comment, the Village Voice, Film West, Newsweek-Japan), books ("Best American Movie Writing of 1998," "Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West") and Web sites (Amazon.com, Cinemania.com, Reel.com). Once upon a time, in another life, she wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross.

What are the year's 10 best movies? Write us at heymsn@microsoft.com

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