Here’s my long overdue list of the best films of 2006. This was a strong year. The top three are masterpieces and would be included in a longer list of my favorite films of all time.
1. Hard Candy. 5 stars. This film is so many things: a dialogue drama, revenge thriller, enacted domination fantasy, and morality puzzle. I see a different film every time I watch it, and in the sum of those viewing experiences faults become strengths. The first time it was a Lolita set-up which turned into castration revenge. On second viewing I knew what was coming, and since Hayley was faking the castration her torture seemed a cop-out, and Jeff’s suicide silly and unbelievable. But on third and later viewings I saw an enacted domination fantasy: a man’s guilt-ridden wet-dream of being tormented by a 14-year old fantasy figure, and ending in his “noble” agreement to kill himself. Hard Candy works brilliantly on these meshed levels of reality and fantasy.
2. United 93. 5 stars. You feel helpless watching it, but it makes you think about 9/11 for the right reasons. There are no hindsight politics in play. It’s skillfully directed without a single exploitive frame. Ben Sliney plays himself, and to this day I can’t fathom how he got slammed with 9/11 his first day on the job as the FAA’s National Operation Manager. In the end, everyone on Flight 93, terrorists and passengers alike, were working toward the same goal—dying honorably. I would have easily pronounced this the film of the year if not for Hard Candy, and guess what? The next one is also a close rival.
3. Pan’s Labyrinth. 5 stars. An 11-year old girl retreats into her imagination to escape the horrors and brutality of fascist Spain. (But is it really all in her imagination?) This is a masterpiece on par with Lord of the Rings, and perhaps it’s no surprise that Del Toro, like Peter Jackson, began his career in the horror genre. Fairy tales are supposed to be horrific (as they were before Disney polluted them), and this film puts us in touch with the spirit of Grimm more than today’s children’s books.
4. Deja Vu. 5 stars. That Tony Scott can pull off time travel so well is further testimony to his underrated talents. He has become, by far, my favorite popcorn film director, and he uses Denzel Washington like Scorsese used DeNiro or Tarantino still uses Samuel Jackson. The action holds you in a vise, the time paradoxes are brilliantly handled; this is the rare transcendent action thriller that’s very hard to pull off.
5. The Departed. 4 ½ stars. Scorsese finally scores at the academy. A gangster film about two moles, one working for a crime boss as a state trooper, one working for the police to get as close as possible to the crime boss. Not every actor needed to put on a Boston accent, and the coincidence of the psychotherapist having an affair with both moles was weak, but it’s an otherwise great film, with an apocalyptic ending that calls to mind classics like The Godfather and Taxi Driver.
6. Little Children. 4 ½ stars. Shows adults of upper-middle class suburbia as they are: overprivileged, unappreciative, and pathetic (like little children). A film you can watch many times, speaking profoundly to the human condition. Sarah’s reinterpretation of Madame Bovary as a feminist “hungering for an alternative”, delivered to a living room of stunned women, is priceless.
7. Running Scared. 4 ½ stars. This one does not let you come up for air, starting with a drug deal gone bad, and then going into the wildly seedy territory of pimps, whores, child molesters, and dirty cops who like to ruin faces with hockey pucks. Exhilarating and over the top, it feels like Quentin Tarantino meets Martin Scorsese. I didn’t want it to end.
8. The Descent. 4 ½ stars. Six women go spelunking in an unchartered cave, get avalanched inside, and then assaulted by strange nocturnal humanoids. The U.S. theatrical version butchered the ending (by allowing one of the women to make it out alive), but the DVD thankfully has the original U.K. version (the last woman only dreams of getting out, but remains trapped with no hope of finding an exit). Harks back to the raw brutality of ’70s horror films.
9. Babel. 4 stars. Uses the Tower of Babel story as an allegory of failed communication. In three stories (which are obliquely interconnected), people become isolated on account of misunderstandings and prejudice. The plots become a bit contrived to make the big picture work, but it’s inevitable in a film like this. It doesn’t feel manipulative here.
10. Children of Men. 4 stars. A bit overrated, but there’s no denying its vision. Portrays a bleak future in which humanity has lost the ability to reproduce, immigration is criminal, terrorism runs rampant, and law officials treat people like beasts. A pregnant woman suddenly offers hope for humanity, but it’s never entirely clear why.
(See also: The Best Films of 2007, The Best Films of 2008, The Best Films of 2009, The Best Films of 2010, The Best Films of 2011, The Best Films of 2012, The Best Films of 2013, The Best Films of 2014, The Best Films of 2015, The Best Films of 2016.)