Best Films of 2006

I have two hands with five fingers each, and therefore must pick my Top Ten Films of 2006. But first, some ground rules: To qualify, a film must meet three criteria:

First, it had to play its first open-ended, Bay Area release in 2006. Films that only played festivals don’t qualify, but I’ve already given you my Top Ten Festival Films of the year.

9: Army of Shadows

Second, I had to see it. That disqualifies Pan’s Labyrinth, Letters From Iwo Jima,Children of Men, Duck Season, and many other quite-possibly excellent movies.

Finally, I had to really, really like it. So much for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.

So, with the rules established, here are the best movies of 2006:

10: Casino Royale: Yes, I’m putting a James Bond movie in my Top Ten. But this one’s not like any other James Bond movie. It’s opening in a couple of theaters this week, so see my recommendations below for details.

9: Army of Shadows: What? Another spy movie? And how can a film from 1969 make 2006’s Top Ten? It wasn’t released in the Bay Area (or anywhere else in the U.S.A.) until 2006. That’s how. See this week’s recommendations below for why it’s so good.

8: Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple: A lot of good documentaries came out this year (along with some mediocre ones), but Stanley Nelson’s sobering look at religious fanaticism on the left stood out. Once again, more details in this week’s recommendations below.

7: United 93

7: United 93: Unlike a conventional thriller, Paul Greengrass’ harrowing 911 retelling doesn’t comfort us with glamorous movie stars or witty dialog. And we know going in that no one gets out of it alive. The result is the most nerve-wracking experience I’ve ever had in a movie theater.

6: Tsotsi: Last year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar winner didn’t get to the Bay Area until spring, so I’m including it this year. Writer/director Gavin Hood asks for no sympathy for the violent young thug at the film’s center (Presley Chweneyagae), even as he shows you the dire poverty that created this scary young man. A tense, vicious, yet ultimately beautiful film about humanity and redemption.

5: Flags of Our Fathers: I still haven’t seen Clint Eastwood’s companion piece, Letters From Iwo Jima, but this one stands on its own as a great study of the horrors of war and the absurdity of wartime propaganda.

4: Half Nelson: Filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden create a work about high ideals and low achievements that avoids clichés, melodrama, and easy answers. The best American-set drama of the year.

2: An Inconvenient Truth

3: Little Miss Sunshine: Not quite as funny as Borat (which turned up number 11 on my Top Ten List), but thanks to a much better story, still the best comedy of the year. And I’m glad it’s a comedy; a drama about this supremely dysfunctional family would be unbearably depressing.

2: An Inconvenient Truth: The day before this surprisingly entertaining PowerPoint demonstration premiered, only tree-huggers and scientists worried about global warming. Now even the man who stole Al Gore’s job has had to admit that there might be a problem. Has any other film had this positive an effect on society?

1: Babel: Ignore the reviewers who didn’t like this multithreaded masterpiece. Filmmaking didn’t get better than this in 2006. I babble more about Babel in this week’s recommendations, below.

And now, this weeks’ recommendations–and warnings:

Casino Royale, Balboa and Parkway, opening Friday. The best James Bond flick since From Russia With Love, in large part because it doesn’t feel like a James Bond flick. The plot, in the second half of the movie, even resembles that of the book to a large degree. Instead of gadgets, countless babes, wit, and incredible cool, you get a well-made and gritty thriller with several great action sequences (and a couple of babes). It just so happens that the protagonist, a newly-promoted, borderline psychotic government agent with a huge chip on his shoulder, is named Bond…James Bond.

Summer In Berlin, Castro, Thursday, 8:00. Alcohol, motherhood, the struggle to earn a living and the boyfriend from hell strain two women’s friendship in this quiet character study. Screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase and director Andreas Dresen treat everything–even threats of violence–in a matter-of-fact manner, allowing for both quirky humor and a sense of every-day reality. Opening night of the Berlin & Beyond Film Festival.

Jaws, Cerrito, Wednesday and Thursday, 9:00. Steven Spielberg thought this out-of-control production would end his still-new career. Instead, it put him on the top of the Hollywood pyramid; and with good reason. By combining an intelligent story (lifted by novelist Peter Benchley from Henrik Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People), brilliant editing, and a handful of effective shocks, Jaws scares the living eyeballs out of you. A Cerrito Flashback.

Army of Shadows, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:30. Resistance is a dirty and almost inevitably deadly job, but in Nazi-occupied France, someone had to do it. Jean-Pierre Melville’s dark 1969 adventure, recently restored and introduced for the first time on American screens, occasionally confuses those who don’t know the history (or the geography). But the rewards are well worth the effort. The suspense set pieces, including a night-time novice parachute jump and a rescue attempt by ambulance, are nerve-wracking, but not nearly so much as the protagonists’ constant moral dilemmas. Nothing gets romanticized in this spy story.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Parkway, Thursday, 9:15. Full disclosure: My stepfather won an award for cutting the sound effects on this early Ray Harryhausen sci-fi adventure, and the trophy still sits on my mother’s mantelpiece. Aside from the brilliant sound effects, the movie is an okay but unexceptional exercise in 1950’s paranoia. And Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects, so brilliant when animating monsters and mythological beasts, really wasn’t the best approach for spaceships and collapsing buildings. A Thrillville presentation.

Casablanca, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00; San Jose California, Friday and Saturday. What can I say? You’ve either already seen it or know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another movie coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly.

Vertigo, Cerrito, Friday through Sunday. What? I’m not recommending Vertigo? Everyone else thinks it’s a masterpiece, but it tops my short list of the Most Overrated Films of All Time. Vertigo isn’t like any other Hitchcock movie; it’s slow, uninvolving, and self-consciously arty. Even if I don’t classify it as such, it’s the first selection in the Cerrito Classics‘ “Best of Alfred Hitchcock” series.

North by Northwest, San Jose California, Monday through Thursday. Alfred Hitchcock’s light masterpiece, not as thoughtful as Rear Window or Notorious, but more entertaining than both of them combined. Cary Grant plays an unusually suave and witty everyman mistaken by evil foreign spies for a crack American agent, and by the police for a murderer. A great movie for introducing pre-teens to Hitchcock.

The Queen, 4Star, opening Friday. The Queen works best as a study of a totally bizarre one-family lifestyle. Helen Mirren is perfect, brittle yet human, as the monarch Bette Midler once called “the whitest woman in the world.” Concentrating on the week after Princess Di’s death, the film focuses on Elizabeth’s failure to react to or understand her subjects’ affection for her son’s estranged ex-wife. But there’s a coldness to The Queen, as if the film, like its central character, is keeping everyone at arm’s length.

Babel, 4Star, opening Friday. A stupid act committed by a boy too young to understand the consequences sends shockwaves around the world, effecting the lives of an American tourist couple in Morocco, an immigrant nanny in the United States, her family in Mexico, an alienated deaf-mute teenager in Japan, and the boy’s own family. Writer Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro González Iñárritu weave a complex, four-strand tale of love, tragedy, parental responsibility, and the borders–political, economic, linguistic, and emotional–that separate us all. In the end, Babel (an appropriate title for a film told in Arabic, English, Spanish, Japanese, and Japanese sign language) hails the incredible human ability to heal. The cast, which ranges from major international stars (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael García Bernal, Kôji Yakusho) to complete novices, is uniformly excellent. Emotionally draining yet exhilarating, and filled with an intense love of humanity that never ignores our weaker selves, Babel is easily the best new movie I’ve seen this year.

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, Red Vic, Friday through Monday. Dangerous, tyrannical, and megalomaniac religious leaders don’t just exist on the political right. Stanley Nelson’s documentary takes us into the heart of the left-leaning, San Francisco-based Christian cult that ended in mass murder and suicide in 1978. Nelson shows us, and survivors tell us, why people followed Jim Jones, how the good things he did (including creating what was perhaps Indiana’s first integrated church) attracted so many, how he robbed his followers of their facility for critical thought, and finally, how he robbed them of their lives. Through archival footage, photos, and audio recordings, Nelson does more than tell you what happened; he makes you feel it, understand it, and shiver all the more for the reality of it.