There were so many good films this year that picking just ten was hard, so I opted for ten pairs instead, all of films shown in Chicago in 2006 that I'd seen by mid-December.
1. Two masterpieces by Hou Hsiao-hsien, both profound meditations on the past and present: Cafe Lumiere and Three Times.
2. Two essential French films: Jean-Pierre Melville's lacerating 1969 Army of Shadows, about the French Resistance, which finally got a commercial run in the U.S., and Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, and Ghislain Cloquet's 1953 short about African sculpture and French colonialism, Statues Also Die, which finally turned up briefly in its uncensored form.
3. At a time when detailed truth about the war in Iraq continues to be scarce, these are the two best documentaries on the subject I've seen so far: The War Tapes, directed by Deborah Scranton and produced and edited by Chicagoan Steve James, addresses the American experience of the war with all its terrifying contradictions; and James Longley's poetic and informative Iraq in Fragments addresses the more neglected Iraqi experience.
4. The Gene Siskel Film Center presented the first U.S. retrospective of the uncategorizable Catalan filmmaker Pere Portabella, including his two most inexhaustible features to date: Cuadecuc-Vampir (1970) and Warsaw Bridge (1990).
5. Find Me Guilty, Sidney Lumet's best film, is a deeply entertaining, Brechtian look at our complicity in crime that features a sensational star turn by Vin Diesel. But any new American movie with a leftist slant is apt to be slimed so fast that few people will get a chance to see it, and this was no exception; it has so little market value that no end-of-year screeners were sent out to reviewers, and you can already find used copies of the DVD on Amazon for under $5. Ryan Fleck and Ann Boden's equally thoughtful and politically challenging Half Nelson, with three terrific performances from its leads (Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, and Anthony Mackie), fared somewhat better.
6. The U.S. premiere of Atom Egoyan's Citadel (2004) at Doc Films was a major local event. Unfortunately Egoyan still has no plans to distribute his poetic, Chris Marker-esque "home movie" of his trip with his family to Lebanon. I hope he'll eventually opt for a DVD release, because it's the most thoughtful and original thing he's done since Calendar. Adam Curtis's superb, three-part 2004 BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares is an extended comparison of American neoconservatism and Islamic fundamentalism that also premiered here belatedly (at the Evanston Public Library); you can download it for free or see the first part in the second issue of the DVD magazine Wholphin.
7 and 8. Old-fashioned Hollywood storytelling at its best made a significant comeback in Tommy Lee Jones's inspired western The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, in Neil Burger's deft and multifaceted The Illusionist, and in two bittersweet period evocations of Los Angeles, Robert Towne's Ask the Dust (adapting a John Fante novel set in Bunker Hill during the Depression) and Allen Coulter's neonoir Hollywoodland, with a script by Paul Bernbaum about the mysterious 1959 death of TV Superman George Reeves.
9. Jean-Luc Godard's 84-minute compression on film of his magisterial 1998 video series Histoire(s) du Cinema, Moments Choisis des Histoire(s) du Cinema, carries on the tradition of films serving as film criticism with somber authority. Isabella Rossellini, the writer of and sole actor in Guy Maddin's 16-minute My Dad Is 100 Years Old, gracefully juggles her feelings about her father (Roberto, represented by a giant belly), a long view of film history, and riotous buffoonery in her impersonations of Chaplin, Fellini, Hitchcock, and Selznick--all while channeling her mother, Ingrid Bergman.
10. Finally, a couple of the favorite whipping boys of closet conservatives: Richard Linklater and Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and Emilio Estevez's Bobby. Both are gutsy, heartfelt state-of-the-union addresses. It's hard to forget Fast Food Nation's scene of liberated cows refusing to budge or Bobby's depiction of the crosscurrents in the Ambassador Hotel kitchen in June 1968.
1. United 93 Paul Greengrass's white-knuckle drama about the hijacked airliner that crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11 was greeted with cries of "too soon," but unlike the flag-waving World Trade Center a few months later, it honored the dead by telling their story unvarnished. The harrowing flight was shot with unknown actors and airline staffers inside the cabin of a 757 and unfolds in real time; in the more instructive scenes Greengrass tracks the growing confusion on the ground among military officials and civilian air traffic controllers.
2. Tsotsi Young Presley Chweneyagae lit up this South African feature as a cruel Johannesburg street hood who steals a car, finds a baby in the backseat, and takes it home to his ramshackle flat. Caring for the baby reawakens his sense of decency, but his attachment to it makes him a target for police. This is the sort of character Cagney or Bogart might have played, and like them, Chweneyagae shows an impassive mask of cruelty fractured by fear, rage, and conscience.
3. The Ground Truth Al Gore's eco-movie An Inconvenient Truth may have been the most influential documentary of the year, but the most moving was Patricia Foulkrod's film about American veterans of the Iraq war. They speak candidly of their anger, guilt, and disillusionment over the war as Foulkrod traces their experience from recruitment to discharge, showing how the military indoctrinates them into a culture of brutality yet minimizes combat-trauma diagnoses.
4. Little Children Todd Field upheld the novelistic tradition with this beautifully written drama about adultery in the suburbs. Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson fall in love during their children's play dates; meanwhile a seething ex-cop (Noah Emmerich) harasses a child molester who's moved into the neighborhood (Jackie Earle Haley). The film is packed with Oscar-
caliber performances, but Field's secret weapon is a deftly ironic omniscient narrator (Will Lyman).
5. Down to the Bone Vera Farmiga got a big career boost this year as the psychiatrist in The Departed, but she was even better in this low-budget indie about a working mother whose attempts to kick a ten-year cocaine habit are constantly thwarted by the men around her. Director Debra Granik began researching the film as a documentary but eventually turned it into a flawlessly particularized drama about a working-class family riven by drugs.
6. Borat This grungy digital-video escapade prompted a torrent of op-ed comment and outrage from some of those who'd been conned into appearing in it. As a Kazakh TV personality reporting from the U.S., Sacha Baron Cohen elevated the pranksterism of cable-TV comedy to the level of social satire, offering a savage indictment of American greed, hate, selfishness, and jingoism.
7. The Last King of Scotland British screenwriter Peter Morgan enjoyed a banner year: in addition to writing The Queen, he contributed to this adaptation of Giles Foden's novel about a Scottish doctor (James McAvoy) who becomes personal physician and political adviser to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Forest Whitaker gives a powerhouse performance as the roaring Amin, and the underrated McAvoy shines as a white man seduced by the excitement over African independence and by the power and money surrounding his patron.
8. Notes on a Scandal Judi Dench finally gets a role worthy of her acid in this UK drama about a bitter old history teacher who befriends an attractive young colleague (Cate Blanchett) only to discover she's having sex with a 15-year-old student. Richard Eyre (Iris) directed an urgently plotted script by Patrick Marber (Closer), and Dench goes to town with a knowing, literate voice-over. Opens December 27.
9. Thank You for Smoking Adapted at long last from Christopher Buckley's fine satiric novel, this lampoon of the tobacco lobby was Hollywood's best indie comedy. Jason Reitman, making his feature debut, drew an inspired performance from Aaron Eckhart as a cheerfully amoral shill for the cigarette industry and great character turns from Sam Elliott, Robert Duvall, Rob Lowe, William H. Macy, J.K. Simmons, and Maria Bello.
10. The Proposition Despite all the acclaim for Apocalypto, the year's best historical action movie was this Australian spaghetti western, scripted by doom rocker Nick Cave, about a British captain chasing a trio of bandits across the outback in the 1880s. Ray Winstone, Guy Pearce, and Danny Huston are commanding as the mythical antagonists, and director John Hillcoat beautifully re-creates the charbroiled landscape and heat-stroke madness of the old Sergio Leone westerns.