Monday, January 01, 2007

George Lang's Best Movies of 2006 / The Oklahoman

In 2006, cinematic triumphs were less obvious than they were the previous year. The best films were ones that succeeded against odds and expectations. The chorus of "are we ready?” hand-wringing by political and social pundits over "United 93” gave way to a film that defied preconceptions. Similarly, the online movement to defame Daniel Craig on the eve of his first appearance as James Bond was proved to be premature and painfully inaccurate. This was also a year when, more than ever, finding great films often meant treading far from the multiplex and hoping against all odds that great but unheralded films would even have a one-week stand in town.

The following list of great 2006 films splits neatly down the middle between easy-to-find, undeniably great mainstream releases and films that almost required a spelunking excursion to see.

1. "United 93” — Paul Greengrass' towering achievement in cinema verite not only respected the memories of those who died Sept. 11, 2001, but captured the confusion and horror of that day in an uncompromising and harrowing real-time account. Greengrass ("Bloody Sunday,” "The Bourne Supremacy”) made "United 93” with New York stage actors and an impressive cast of airline, military and air traffic control personnel who contribute to the film's stark realism. It is "the impossible documentary,” a flawlessly executed story that could pass for nonfiction if not for the horrible knowledge that such a film could never have been made.

2. "Casino Royale” — By jettisoning the techno frippery of the franchise's past several entries, boiling the character down to his original essence, actually bothering to tell a compelling spy story and following through with the inspired casting of Daniel Craig as James Bond, "Casino Royale” became the first 007 film in more than three decades that truly mattered. Craig is phenomenal, infusing the role with raw wit and energy, and Eva Green as Vesper Lynd was the anti-"Bond girl,” an intellectual match for the spy who loved her.

3. "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” — It made sense that Sacha Baron Cohen chose "Curb Your Enthusiasm” director Larry Charles to helm this brutally funny, taboo-incinerating "mockumentary” about a deeply racist and disarmingly genial Kazakhstani TV reporter's disastrous American odyssey. Like "Curb,” "Borat” is so painful to watch because it cuts so close to people's most unseemly attitudes. Even the most jaded viewer will watch through splayed fingers — a sociological horror film.

4. "Superman Returns” — An epic reclamation project that thoroughly restored luster to the Man of Steel, Bryan Singer's "Superman Returns” succeeded as an homage to Richard Donner's "Superman: the Movie” and as a throwback to a time when summer blockbusters had to tell good stories, not just inundate audiences with visual spectacle. Looking as if he were engineered in a lab from Christopher Reeve's DNA, Brandon Routh captured the mythical burden of Superman and the light humor of his terrestrial alter-ego, and Singer directed with an honest affection for the hero and with genuine belief that the world needs Superman.

5. "The Last King of Scotland” — No other 2006 performance was as searingly believable as Forest Whitaker's portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland.” In this historical fiction told through the eyes of an idealistic young Scottish doctor (James McAvoy) who becomes Amin's most trusted confidant, Whitaker exudes the charisma that brought Amin to power and the psychotic bloodlust that sustained him. In "The Last King of Scotland,” he is the best friend who will give you everything, then turn on a dime and kill you to get it all back.

6. "Pan's Labyrinth” — Guillermo del Toro's unsettling fantasy "Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno)” returns the fairy tale to the adult realm in the story about a young Spanish girl who, after her widowed mother marries a fascist military officer, disappears into a frightening but mesmerizing netherworld. Del Toro's visuals are the essence of the most baroque nightmares, and "Pan's Labyrinth” is impossible to shake.

7. "Thank You for Smoking” — Writer-director Jason Reitman's debut improves on Christopher Buckley's comic novel about Nick Naylor, an unapologetically ruthless and rhetorically gifted spokesman for Big Tobacco. Aaron Eckhart's career-defining performance as Naylor could carry the film even if he weren't so ably abetted by fine performances from Maria Bello, David Koech-ner and a surprisingly great cameo from Rob Lowe as an egocentric, Asia-obsessed film producer.

8. "Little Children” — For his follow-up to "In the Bedroom,” director Todd Field delved into black-comic suburban malaise for "Little Children,” a film that makes "Desperate Housewives” look like "Spongebob Squarepants.” At turns darkly funny and just plain disturbing, the melodrama of infidelity and dark urges showcases the luminous talent of Kate Winslet as frustrated and straying housewife Sarah Pierce. But it also features a star turn by former child actor Jackie Earle Haley as convicted sex offender Ronald James McGorvey, a character whose inner repugnance surfaces to topple every furtive attempt at normalcy.

9. "Venus” — Peter O'Toole delivers his best performance in years as Maurice, an elderly actor who would still be a playboy if his corporeal self wasn't failing him. It is a brave, beautiful role in which a man at the end of his life invests the last of his taste and libido in a young woman (Jodie Whittaker) who scarcely deserves his ministrations yet benefits greatly from his attention and experience.

10. "Notes on a Scandal” — Screenwriter/playwright Patrick Marber ("Closer”) is a master at feel-bad morality tales, and "Notes on a Scandal” takes Lifetime TV movie material — a spinster blackmails a young teacher caught having sex with one of her students — and transforms it into a story worthy of Greek tragedy. Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench offer intense performances in a film that hurdles toward human disaster and then becomes ever bleaker.


Post a Comment

<< Home