I usually preface my year-end roundups with some brief comments about the year in movies, but in this case, I think the less said about 2006, the better.
So instead of focusing on all the negative aspects of this entirely disappointing period in film, let's jump right into the 10 movies that made the year bearable.
"The Departed" (Martin Scorsese)
After four viewings, this dense, literary crime drama has edged out "Taxi Driver" as my favorite Scorsese picture. By touching on a litany of heavy subjects (racial tensions, ethnic identity, class struggle and modern masculinity, to name but a few), Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan have fashioned an epic of Shakespearean proportions that puts most other genre films to shame.
Yet as high-brow as it is, this is still the most visceral, engrossing, flat-out entertaining movie of the year.
Leonardo DiCaprio - who stars as an undercover cop trying to flush out a mole in the Boston police department - has never been better, proving once and for all that he's far more than just a boyish heartthrob. Under Scorsese's tutelage, he's become one of the finest performers of his generation.
"Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" (Larry Charles)
The most controversial comedy of the year was also the funniest.
Setting its satiric sights on two specific targets (Judeo-Christian American culture and Muslim-influenced Central Asian culture), guerilla comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's film didn't just push the envelope; it shredded the envelope, then defecated on its tattered remains.
And in these days of cookie-cutter comedies that are content to replace real humor with uninspired slapstick, maybe that's what it takes to earn a laugh.
"Borat" earned several big ones from me (the scene in which Kazakh journalist Borat engages in a bout of nude fisticuffs with his morbidly obese producer had me laughing so hard I was actually sweating), and that's more than enough to warrant its high place on this list.
"United 93" (Paul Greengrass)
No laughs to be had here, I'm afraid. Not even close, as Greengrass has made a film so intense and dread-filled that I'm surprised I was even able to sit through the whole thing.
I'm glad I stuck it through, though, because this unflinching docudrama about the fourth plane hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001, is as enlightening as it is terrifying.
Many have accused Greengrass of exploiting this tragedy too soon, but this is not exploitation. By working with the families of the fallen heroes of United 93, Greengrass ensured that his work would be as somber, realistic and respectful as possible.
"United 93" serves as the ultimate memorial for the courageous men and women who confronted the face of evil on that terrible day, and it's never too soon to remember such an act of heroism.
"The Descent" (Neil Marshall)
I was hopeful that this low-budget horror flick from the United Kingdom would turn into the year's break-out sleeper success, but it was not to be.
Unfortunately, the legions of horror fans who continuously flock to dreck like "Saw III" and "The Grudge 2" don't even know what they're missing.
This is the real deal, folks: a bloody, atmospheric, expertly paced thriller that truly delivers the goods with its tale of an all-female group of cave explorers who get waaaaaay more than they bargained for when they set out to explore a supposedly uninhabited cavern in the North Carolina Appalachians.
This is easily the most frightening film released since "The Blair Witch Project." If that's a claim that intrigues you, then you need to see "The Descent" as soon as humanly possible. If not, well … just bide your time until "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in Space" or something.
"Apocalypto" (Mel Gibson)
Had this film been directed by anyone else, it would be garnering Oscar buzz and making regular appearances on other critics' top 10 lists.
Alas, the media elite despise Gibson for reasons too numerous to list here, so his labor of love will have to settle for sporadic recognition. But the lack of kudos in no way diminishes the power of Gibson's achievement.
As he did two years ago with "The Passion of the Christ," Gibson has fashioned a towering period epic in which dialogue (spoken in a dead language, as per usual) takes a back seat to magnificently rendered visual spectacles and strong characterizations.
This survival adventure centered around the waning days of Mayan civilization is a corker of an action flick, and mainstream audiences shouldn't let the subtitles scare them away from such a prime example of popcorn entertainment.
"Lady Vengeance" (Park Chan-wook)
Last year, Chan-wook's South Korean revenge yarn "Oldboy" was near the top of this list at the No.2 spot.
The director's concluding entry into his Vengeance Trilogy isn't quite as strong as its predecessor, but then, not many films are. It's still one of the most wrenching movies of the year, with the delicate Lee Yeong-ae starring as a wrongly imprisoned woman who, upon her release, sets in motion an elaborate plan to punish the man who put her there ("Oldboy" star Choi Min-sik).
This is a brutal film, to be sure, but it's also profound in the way it deals with the double-edged nature of revenge.
"Little Children" (Todd Field)
To characterize Field's sophomore effort (he previously helmed 2001's incredible "In the Bedroom") as a mere adultery drama is to do it a great disservice.
Yes, the central plot involves an affair between two suburbanites drawn together by their mutual hunger for "something more," but by focusing heavily on secondary characters and story threads, writer/director Field has made something much more special: a layered, universal examination of how ostensibly mature adults can willfully surrender themselves to immature impulses, and how none of us truly appreciate what we have until we're in danger of losing it.
"The Queen" (Stephen Frears)
By not awarding it four stars, I may have slightly under-rated this film when I first reviewed it.
"The Queen" is the kind of movie that you admire more the longer you think about it, and the kind of thoughtful, unsensationalized true-life drama you just don't see often enough.
Given the film's subject - the Royal Family's reaction to the death of Princess Diana - it would have been easy for Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan to throw together a slapdash hit piece and be done with it.
Instead they crafted a deeper look at Britain's overall battle between tradition (embodied by Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II) and modernization (personified by Michael Sheen as Tony Blair, in the year's greatest overlooked performance).
"Stranger Than Fiction" (Marc Forster)
People calling this adorable little existentialist comedy-drama "Charlie Kaufman light" can take their soy milk lattes and stick them you-know-where.
Really, this is Charlie Kaufman with a heart. It's every bit as creative as Kaufman's "Being John Malkovich" or "Adaptation," but instead of abhorring his own characters, screenwriter Zach Helm follows them with unabashed affection.
After some iffy attempts at big-screen comedy, Will Ferrell delivers his first great performance as a man who becomes convinced he is the central character in some author's still-progressing novel.
Hopefully Ferrell won't pull a Jim Carrey and set aside his striking dramatic skills in favor of more uninspired physical comedy.
"Bubble" (Steven Soderbergh)
The best movie that absolutely nobody heard about, this is the latest bit of experimentation from indie-maverick-turned-Hollywood-player Soderbergh.
As it turns out, this minimalist feature (it runs just over one hour and employs non-professional actors) is the strongest work we've seen from the filmmaker in years.
Yet the most impressive aspect of this high-minded examination of monotony is not Soderbergh's direction, but the central performance by Debbie Doebereiner as an aging factory worker whose latent psychosis bubbles just beneath the surface.
Prior to this film, Doebereiner was a manager at KFC. Now, she's my pick for the year's best actress. Funny how life can turn out sometimes.
First published: Saturday, December 30, 2006