Monday, January 01, 2007

Phil Bacharach's Best Films of 2006 / Oklahoma Gazette

1. “United 93,” dir. Paul Greengrass

Brilliant, searing and gutsy, “United 93” is also that rarest of films: An amazing experience. To helm the first theatrical film to fictionalize aspects of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, director-writer Paul Greengrass set out on a daunting mission. He would handle the most sensitive of material while resisting the temptation to sentimentalize or whitewash. The movie that resulted is nothing short of electrifying. Greengrass employs a cast of unknowns and a no-frills, documentary-like visual style to offer a possible account of the hijacked United Airlines flight that crashed in rural Pennsylvania, killing everyone on board. Filmgoers stayed away from “United 93,” understandably hesitant to revisit the horrors of 9-11, but this is an extraordinary work that vividly captures a monumental time in our nation’s history. If “United 93” does not shake you to your core, check your pulse.

2. “Little Miss Sunshine,” dir. Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris

Independent cinema needs another comedy about a dysfunctional family the way Mel Gibson needs another swig of bourbon. Even so, “Little Miss Sunshine” is eons above standard indie fare. The feature-length directorial debut of husband-wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the film was the belle of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and for good reason. Screenwriter Michael Arndt taps the time-tested on-the-road genre, but nothing is rote about this cliché-free blending of drama, comedy and sharp-toothed satire. It helps to have a stellar cast, of course, and the movie has one, with Greg Kinnear, Steve Carrell, Toni Collette and young Abigail Breslin as particular standouts. Alternately poignant and hilarious, “Little Miss Sunshine” is a wry and wise examination of our societal obsession with winning -- and all the ways in which families inadvertently screw us up.

3. “The Departed,” dir. Martin Scorsese

It took a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong flick “Infernal Affairs” for Martin Scorsese to make his best film since 1990’s “Goodfellas,” but “The Departed” is quintessential Scorsese – a gritty action-thriller spilling over with so much ferocious urgency, it practically induces vertigo. Leonardo DiCaprio shines as a Boston cop who infiltrates the crew of mob boss Frank Costello, played by a scenery-chewing Jack Nicholson. Matt Damon is every bit DiCaprio’s equal as a slick Massachusetts state detective with a secret allegiance to Costello. Against this maze of doppelgangers and doublecrosses, “The Departed” crackles with overcaffeinated energy and violence. Stylistically, the movie is as sharp and unnerving as the edge of a stiletto, but Scorsese never sacrifices a labyrinthine plotline for the sake of cheap thrills. It’s a thrill-fest, alright, but each and every one is earned.

4. “Pan’s Labyrinth,” dir. Guillermo del Toro

It’s tempting to summarize “Pan’s Labyrinth” as a Grimm fairytale for adults, but that doesn’t begin to do justice to this unique fantasy. Set in Spain after the end of Franco’s civil war, the story follows the travails of young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero). Life is hard for the girl. Her mother is in the midst of a complicated pregnancy and her stepfather, a sadistic military captain, is intent on starving out the few rebels who remain hidden in nearby mountains. Then magic intrudes in the form of a faun-like creature that tells Ofelia she is actually the princess of the underworld; he assigns her a series of mythological tasks to return to her rightful kingdom. Luring moviegoers into the purely fantastical, writer-director Guillermo del Toro unfurls a haunting masterpiece in which dreamscapes and heartbreaks are inexorably bound.

5. “Borat: Cultural Learnings of American for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” dir. Larry Charles

Not only did this monstrously outrageous prank of a movie produce more laughs than anything I’ve seen since “There’s Something About Mary” in 1998, but Sacha Baron Cohen, the twisted genius behind it, has almost certainly set an industry record for most lawsuits stemming from a comedy. As the titular character, Cohen portrays a blithely bigoted Kazakh journalist traveling across America. It’s a paper-thin premise for a movie, but Cohen -- who introduced the shtick on his HBO series, “Da Ali G Show” -- possesses a mesmerizing fearlessness. He is also riotously funny. In his encounters with unsuspecting folks who range from a bloodthirsty rodeo organizer to drunken frat dudes, Cohen exposes some eye-popping ugliness just below the surface of Everyday America. But this is no sociological experiment; Cohen is out to draw laughs, not blood.

6. “Little Children,” dir. Todd Field
7. “Water,” dir. Deepa Mehta
8. “Shut Up & Sing,” dir. Barbara Kopple & Cecilia Peck
9. “Stranger Than Fiction,” dir. Marc Forster
10. “The Prestige,” dir. Christopher Nolan


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