War. What is it good for? Well, this past year it was good for the movie industry. Yes, I know it was good for a lot of people in Washington, D.C., too, but our concern today is Hollywood, not Halliburton. Ticket sales rebounded over the past 12 months following the steepest year-to-year decline in more than two decades. Why did that happen? One reason might be the proliferation of serious, thoughtful motion pictures dealing with the subject of war, a subject on many peoples' minds these days.
After all, 2006 was the year America confronted the specter of 9/11 in the Cineplex. Two powerful films from talented directors brought haunting reminders of that morning's horror. Oliver Stone's World Trade Center made a lot of critics' 10-best lists. Paul Greengrass made it to the top of mine with United 93.
It seemed as if someone released a new documentary on the folly of the Iraq invasion every weekend - among them The War Tapes, The Road to Guantanamo, Iraq in Fragments and Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers. On the fictional front, there was the upcoming Home of the Brave. Even V For Vendetta contained coded references to Abu Ghraib. And then there were movies about other wars, such as The Good German and Clint Eastwood's towering big-screen bookends, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima.
That's a lot of war for a single year. One would like to think the trend has peaked, but anyone who's tuned into a White House press conference lately knows better. Change is a long way off. A whole slate of Iraq docs are standing by for release throughout 2007. That there will probably be another batch in 2008 is the most inconvenient truth of all.
Ticket sales were up for other reasons, too, of course, and here are a few of them. As always, the caveat: I'm not claiming the following are definitively the 10 best and worst movies of the last 12 months, just the best and worst I've had a chance to see. Awaiting me is a stack of award screeners I haven't been able to keep up with. I'll tell you all about them in the new year. Best wishes for a boffo one!
The 10 Best Films of 2006
(from fine to finest)
10. BLOOD DIAMOND
This year's Syriana. Edward Zwick's riveting, large-canvas conflict-stone exposé marked a welcome return to form. Briskly paced, beautifully shot, and shocking and touching by turns, this film is as rare as the gem at the heart of its story. Few are this close to flawless.
9. V FOR VENDETTA
From the Wachowski brothers, a visually dazzling work that refracts a dizzying array of cultural touchpoints - from 1984, The Phantom of the Opera and "Benny Hill" to ripped-from-the-headlines riffs on religious fundamentalism, domestic surveillance, suicide bombers and Abu Ghraib. I'm not sure there's ever been a big-screen blender quite like it.
8. STRANGER THAN FICTION
Suspending disbelief has seldom paid more satisfying dividends than it does in Marc Forster's latest. With a little help from Will Ferrell and Maggie Gyllenhaal, the director conjures a metaphysical fairy tale that's as touching and funny as it is utterly preposterous. It's that rarest of movies, which misfires with its central conceit but triumphs on virtually every other front. And that's a fact.
The great Isabelle Huppert makes Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? look like June Cleaver by the final act of Patrice Chereau's blistering, brilliantly original rumination on the subject of marital rot.
6. A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION
A fitting farewell from the master. The recently deceased Robert Altman teamed up with fellow Midwesterner Garrison Keillor to produce a motion picture that's not merely unique in the director's body of work but unique, period. As meditations on mortality go, this is a lively, warm-blooded affair.
5. THE PROPOSITION
John Hillcoat's hypnotic, unflinchingly pitiless Aussie Western is about many things: loyalty, national arrogance, the cyclical nature of vengeance. It's also about as authentic, original and exhilarating an experience as the cinema offered this year.
4. SWEET LAND
If you see just one love story about a German mail-order bride and a taciturn Norwegian corn farmer set in the Minnesota countryside of the 1920s this year, make it this amazing shoestring debut from writer-director Ali Selim.
3. LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE
Every once in a while a small picture from unknown first-timers comes along and shows the big boys how it's supposed to be done. This is such a film. Everyone in Tinsel Town should be required by law to watch it on a regular basis.
2. FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS
At an age when most people would be well into retirement, Clint Eastwood is doing some of the finest work of his career. This is a tragic tale magnificently told, a comment on war and the things people do to one another in its name, and it's as powerful and profound as any ever made.
1. UNITED 93
Without a trace of Hollywood sentimentality, director Paul Greengrass allows us to take in the poignancy of people talking about plans for vacations, business trips and journeys home that will never be. Once in the air, their story unfolds in real time, and one can only marvel at what a number of them were able to do with the last 81 minutes of their lives.
The 10 Worst Films of 2006
(from bad to baddest)
10. THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP
Michel Gondry attempts but fails to duplicate the triumph of imagination that marked his previous film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Both movies have style. Both have interesting ideas and talented casts. What Sunshine had that Science doesn't are an emotional core and a script by Charlie Kaufman. These are not incidental differences; they're the difference between art and artsiness.
9. ALL THE KING'S MEN
Steven Zaillian directed this remake as if he was trying to fit it in on his lunch hour and was in a hurry to get someplace else. Nothing in the picture develops subtly or with appropriate pacing. Rather, the movie lurches from one plot point to the next, in many cases shoving major shifts in character at the viewer in the space of a single edit. A waste of one of the year's best casts.
8. SCARY MOVIE 4
After more than a quarter-century of dumb puns, pop-culture parodies and flatulence jokes, did Airplane! director David Zucker still have what it takes to create fast-paced, brain-damaged satire? No. Let's just say his career has officially nose-dived.
7. SNAKES ON A PLANE
OK, nobody thought this was going to be a work of art, but we did expect more than just an excuse for a cool movie title. A great cheesy, tacky time, for example. What we ended up with was a routine air-disaster film that never quite got off the ground.
6. THE BREAK-UP
I suppose it added something to know Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn were serious off the screen (at the time, anyway). It would have added infinitely more, though, if they'd managed to be funny on it.
Not a lot of horror. Not a lot of thrills or chills. Not a whole lot of reason, when you get right down to it, to make the trip.
4. LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN
In Hollywood, anything worth doing is worth overdoing. Since the success of The Sixth Sense, more and more pictures have featured Big Surprise Twists. This year it finally reached the point where they're not merely the main attraction of a movie, but for all practical purposes they are the movie. No film exemplified this pinheaded trend better than this lightweight, too-cute-for-its-own-good contrivance.
3. YOU, ME AND DUPREE
It's official: Joe and Anthony Russo will not be the next Farrelly brothers. How bad was this cretinous, sitcom-y, third-wheel laugher? Even Owen Wilson's slacker-savant charm couldn't keep it from wearing out its welcome long before the closing credits rolled.
2. THE DA VINCI CODE
Like a lot of people, I found Ron Howard's latest film shocking. Not because it's blasphemous or anything. Just because it's shockingly silly, tedious and talky. Even Tom Hanks couldn't save this blabby, big-screen baloney. Can it really be only a year since Howard gave us Cinderella Man? Talk about a fall from grace.
1. PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN'S CHEST
I didn't think the day would come when Johnny Depp would make a crappy movie just for the money. On Friday, July 7, however, he did. The original may have been a big, dumb Jerry Bruckheimer F/X joyride, but Depp's Jack Sparrow stood apart from the high-seas hokum. The second installment was even bigger and dumber. This time, though, the novelty, energy, color and oddball charm escaped Depp's performance like air from an inflatable pirate doll. This is the closest the actor has come to phoning it in.
The Biggest Disappointments of 2006
FAST FOOD NATION