The Year In Film 2006

When The A.V. Club film writers sat down to discuss what 2006 had to offer, we quickly discovered a remarkable amount of overlap between our lists. We could immodestly claim that great minds think alike, but the more likely explanation is that the most important and accomplished films of the year were just too bold to deny. In light of that fact, we've tallied our individual lists into a super-list that reflects our consensus over the films that meant the most to us this year. But that doesn't mean we've committed entirely to group-think: Individual Top 10 lists and commentary follow the master list.

The Master List

1. Children Of Men

Like the best science fiction, Alfonso Cuaron's visionary pre-apocalyptic thriller portrays the future that humanity has carved out for itself, in this case a world so lacking in compassion that it's been rendered infertile. With references to Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, anti-immigrant fervor, and ethnic strife, the film may seem like a catch-all of ripped-from-the-headlines topicality, but its gripping urgency makes it feel more like a punch in the gut. Much has been said about the film's astonishing single-take tracking shots, but far from showy, they all but forbid the viewer to breathe during the most crucial sequences.

 

2. United 93

For a time, it looked like Oliver Stone's cop-out melodrama World Trade Center was going to become the "acceptable" 9/11 movie for awards-giving bodies, but Paul Greengrass' underseen United 93 has staged a stunning rally late in the year, as critics have either aggressively advocated—or just finally caught up with—a film that documents with haunting and ultimately purposeful detail what exactly happened on one of the worst days in American history. It's a measure of United 93's economy and restraint that people of varying political persuasions can see it and walk away with different interpretations but equal admiration.

 

3. The Departed

Though Martin Scorsese has made several great (and frequently underrated) movies since 1990's Goodfellas, nothing has captured the sheer propulsive energy of that film like this whipcrack adaptation of the Hong Kong staple Infernal Affairs. Everyone's firing on all cylinders here: William Monahan's script wittily captures Boston's salty dialect, editor Thelma Schoonmaker crosscuts parallel storylines with a percussionist's rhythm, and the performances are uniformly peerless, especially Leonardo DiCaprio as an undercover cop whose face suggests the roiling ulcers within, and a scabrously funny Mark Wahlberg as a "statie" with a well-honed bullshit detector.

 

4. Brick

Rian Johnson's decision to make a modern noir set in a high school could have been a mere conceptual exercise. Instead, it's an inspired conceptual exercise. The stylized dialogue and younged-down stock characters get the surface right, but peel it back and you'll find a strong connection between noir themes and the hard realities of high-school life. Johnson also gets another amazing performance out of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of the most exciting actors around, even if nobody knows it yet.

 

5. A Prairie Home Companion

A Prairie Home Companion admitted Garrison Keillor fans to the universe of the venerable public-radio program, but even for non-fans, it was still one of the liveliest films writer-director Robert Altman ever made. And that was only the smallest part of its genius. The rest came from its touching, wise examination of mortality, both human and cultural. There's death at the center of the film, but just as much bittersweet concern with the slow, inevitable passing of the pop landmarks we share and the immortality that sustains them as long as we keep their memories alive.

 

6. Half Nelson

Like The History Boys, this indie drama reconceived and reinvigorated the inspirational-teacher genre, both by centering on a profoundly flawed protagonist and by exploring the philosophical issues behind what gets taught and what education ultimately means. In a performance that echoes his career-defining turn as a Jewish neo-Nazi in The Believer, Ryan Gosling delivers another stunning turn as an increasingly burnt-out idealist of a teacher whose efforts to save a student from a paternalistic drug dealer are compromised by his own spiraling addiction to crack.

 

7. The Prestige

It may sound cocky to say that people who didn't think much of The Prestige didn't really "see" it, but given how elliptical director Christopher Nolan and his screenwriter brother Jonathan make their adaptation of Christopher Priest's highbrow pulp novel, it's hard to believe that anyone could really pick up everything that's going on in just one viewing—especially since the Nolans make one of their big twists obvious on purpose, in order to throw the audience off the trail of the bigger ones to come. That a movie this purely entertaining could keep so many secrets—and be so ruthless in its examination of obsessive rivalry—is a kind of magic.

 

8. Pan's Labyrinth

Like The Prestige, Guillermo Del Toro's dark fantasy conceals a lot of what it's about beneath a rip-roaring adventure plot, and Del Toro's film has the added distraction of being a gory, R-rated children's fairy tale, at once too simplistic for adults and too horrifying for kids. But Pan's Labyrinth decodes itself slyly in its final 10 minutes, revealing the fallacy of reducing history—and the Spanish Civil War especially—to one long story about good and evil and winners and losers. Because the definition of all those terms changes every time the books get re-written.

 

9. Letters From Iwo Jima

No film this year better captured the full equation of warfare than Clint Eastwood's elegiac, quietly heartbreaking meditation on World War II, told from the perspective of outmatched Japanese soldiers who face certain defeat while contemplating the lives they've left behind. With Iwo Jima, Eastwood's late-period renaissance is starting to rival Robert Altman's, so it is poetically fitting that both Iwo Jima and Altman's Prairie Home Companion find venerable masters wrestling with the eternal question of how to die with dignity and grace.

 

10. The Devil And Daniel Johnston

Not since Crumb has a documentary plumbed as deeply into the fragile co-existence of madness and art. Whether you believe Daniel Johnston to be a savant pop genius or a falsely idolized fringe-dweller should have little bearing on how you respond to director Jeff Feuerzeig's intimate portrait of the manic-depressive visionary. Johnston's ambitions to fame often encouraged the worst from his champions, and his brief rise and precipitous fall from pop grace is marked by periods of violence and institutionalization. The big question is who's going to take responsibility for this troubled man, which leads to a wrenching and deeply ironic conclusion.

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Noel Murray

Top 10

1. United 93

2. The Prestige

3. A Prairie Home Companion

4. Children Of Men

5. The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu

6. Pan's Labyrinth

7. The Departed

8. Inside Man

9. Mutual Appreciation

10. The Devil And Daniel Johnston

The Next Five

It's no coincidence that so many movies this year were about living with violence and corruption, and few were as pointed as Kevin Willmott's alternate-history mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States Of America, which proposes that if the South had won the Civil War, the country would've grown to accept slavery as the norm, and James Longley's triptych documentary Iraq In Fragments, which looks at the mercurial hopes of a war-torn nation's varied religious and ethnic factions. On a smaller scale, Nicolas Winding Refn's sickeningly bloody Pusher III: I'm The Angel Of Death considers how easy it is for well-meaning men to keep doing awful things, while Robinson Devor's dreamy Police Beat uses the random, sexualized violence of a major city as a counterpoint to one lonely cop's lovesick interior monologue. And on an entirely different note, Nicole Holofcener's feather-light Friends With Money captures what it's like to be rich enough to dodge mere adult responsibility, let alone the horrors of the real world.

Performance
Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson

Finally realizing the promise he showed in The Believer, Gosling takes what might've been a gimmicky role—a crack-addicted junior high teacher—and finds the core of the character in his arrested adolescence. Always the smartest kid in school, Gosling's wannabe-inspirational pedagogue stays close to the classroom, where his recklessness looks like a method.

Overrated
Babel

Alejandro González Iñárritu's dour montage-fest came roaring out of Cannes as a critical darling and a sure-bet best-of-the-year candidate, but the movie is just another indistinct we're-all-connected middlebrow muddle, albeit artier than most. Though some influential writers continue to throw Babel's name into the Academy Awards Best Picture mix, it's hard to believe that people could be swayed by two-and-a-half hours of unrelenting degradation, disguised as deep meaning.

Underrated
Lady In The Water

Yes, M. Night Shyamalan's latest fairy tale for grown-ups is lumpy and over-earnest, and weighted down by a plot that should come with a set of charts. It's also as visually striking as his earlier work, with long, off-kilter takes that keep the audience from seeing too much too soon. For better and worse, Shyamalan's movies don't look or feel like anyone else's.

Most Pleasant Surprise
Monster House

Given how stiff and alien the motion-capture animation in The Polar Express looked, it was hard to muster much enthusiasm for a movie that used the same process for what promised to be a cacophonous horror-comedy. But in Monster House, the animation technique reveals subtle gestures, and helps create a kid-scaled suburban milieu that feels at times chillingly familiar. It goes off the rails at the end, but for the first hour, Monster House is as funny and natural as any low-budget indie film. With better mise-en-scene, too.

Guilty Pleasure
Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

Critics savaged the biggest blockbuster of the year, calling it overlong, bombastic and confusing. Some words they forgot: Funny, energetic, clever, well-acted, imaginative, and packed with sprawling action set pieces that twist and spin like a Rube Goldberg contraption. Soulless? Maybe. Brainless? Hardly.

Best Non-2006 Film Seen This Year
Overlord

Stuart Cooper's long-forgotten '70s cult item popped back into the cineaste consciousness thanks to the reveries of Cooper fans in the documentary Z Channel, and now that this strange, abstract World War II film has finally been given a U.S. theatrical release—with a DVD soon to follow, surely—devotees of the lyrical cinema of Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick have another fetish object to pore over. Of particular fascination: Cooper's use of nightmarish WWII stock footage, integrated into the story of one British army recruit's fitful journey to the grave, and John Alcott's high-contrast black-and-white imagery and shallow depth of field, which makes the characters look like blobs of ink, dripping across the scarred countryside.

Future Film That Time Forgot
The Sentinel

In the year that TV audiences decided en masse that they'd had it with interminable, resolution-free serialized dramas, movie audiences decided that they'd rather not see what amounts to a season's worth of ridiculous plot twists shoehorned into a 100-minute big-screen political thriller. The Sentinel even has a "TV in the middle '00s" cast, including a pistol-packing Eva Longoria, and Kiefer Sutherland on a busman's holiday from 24, essentially playing the same moody government agent he's been playing for the last five years.

Worst Of The Year
All The King's Men

Or maybe this should be the worst of last year, since it's been sitting on a shelf since '05. A year of fine-aging didn't help Steven Zaillian's adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's classic 1946 novel about political corruption, because Zaillian hadn't bothered to make the material fresh or relevant in the first place. Instead, he sticks high-powered actors with fakey accents into long, dialogue-heavy scenes that never build to anything; and he ditches the story of one man's awakening to the powers of demagoguery for a twisty scandal-exposé plot that has about as much impact as a crumbling newspaper. [pagebreak]

Keith Phipps

Top 10

1. Children Of Men

2. The Departed

3. Pan's Labyrinth

4. Brick

5. United 93

6. Letters From Iwo Jima

7. Half Nelson

8. Volver

9. A Prairie Home Companion

10. L'Enfant

The Next Five

A cerebral delight about an attempt to adapt Laurence Sterne's self-destructing 18th century novel, the Michael Winterbottom-directed Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story stays true the spirit of the original, reveling in how storytelling keeps us human while sending the process up—and the film industry that feeds stories to the masses—in the process. Stephen Frears' The Queen used the death of Princess Diana to chronicle a recent turning point in the psychic history of Britain, as registered on star Helen Mirren's expressive face. Focusing on much smaller-scaled turning points, the Fernando Eimbcke-directed Duck Season focuses on a Mexican afternoon in which a power outage forces some young characters to consider what they plan to do with the rest of their lives while Shortbus found some grown-up New Yorkers doing the same, only with considerably more hardcore sex scenes. Meanwhile, in Korea, Chan-wook Park's Lady Vengeance finds unexpected poignancy in the life of a woman who decided long ago that revenge was all she wanted to do with her life.

Performance
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Departed

Tortured doesn't begin to describe DiCaprio's performance as a cop gone so deep undercover that his insides seem to twist against him every second of the day. With each barely concealed twitch of his face, he's the living embodiment of the surrounding film's moral confusion.

Overrated
Little Miss Sunshine

Despite some fun performances, the only thing that truly united the family at the center of Little Miss Sunshine were the one-note indie film quirks that defined them. Yeah, yeah, we should all eat the ice cream because we'll be dead someday. But do we need films like this to ram it down our throats?

Underrated
The Fountain

Beneath all the old-school special effects and time-jumping whiz-bangery, Darren Aronofsky made a film about dreams of immortality and how failing to achieve it gives us all a peculiar human grace. That it proved a commercial and critical failure should allow it to find redemption in a cult audience that should start embracing it… now.

Most Pleasant Surprise
The Lake House

Who knew that reuniting the stars of Speed for a love story with a corny gimmick—the only thing keeping the lovers apart is the fact that one lives in the near future—could prove so romantic? And yet it's hard not to get swept up in this story of second chances. Maybe it's the likeable performances from Sandra Bullock and, yes, Keanu Reeves. Maybe it's the screenplay by playwright David Auburn (Proof). Maybe it's just the rare film that's not afraid to emphasize sadness and disappointment over cuteness on its way to a happy ending.

Guilty Pleasure
Hostel

The Saw-inspired trend that found so many horror films emphasizing lovingly detailed torture over suspense has yielded a lot of crap, but the grim wit of Eli Roth's Hostel almost makes it all worthwhile. The shocks don't come until fairly late in this subtly of-the-moment tale of ill-informed, pleasure-seeking Americans abroad who get in over their heads abroad and find themselves facing the kind of torment they'd previously only seen on CNN or read about in Senate hearings.

Best Non-2006 Film Seen This Year
Army Of Shadows

Never released in the United States, Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 film of sacrifice and compromise among the French Resistance in World War II was probably best film to play American theaters in 2006. It hauntingly examines the psychological toll of taking a principled stand, no matter how righteous. Think of it as the underground, existential companion to any of this past decade's tributes to the Greatest Generation, and the only one that bridges the decades to make the pain feel present tense.

Future Film That Time Forgot
She's The Man

Once there was a time when somebody decided that releasing a loose adaptation of Twelfth Night with lots of soccer scenes and starring an unmistakably feminine Amanda Bynes was a good idea. We now call that hazily remembered time as mid-March, 2006.

Worst Of The Year
Man Of The Year

A political satire about as in-touch-with-the-times as an old Dick Cavett monologue, this Barry Levinson written-and-directed film stars Robin Williams as the host of a Daily Show-like program who unexpectedly wins a presidential election. What spark the dull political commentary doesn't snuff out the poorly executed thriller elements of the second half extinguish without hesitation.

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Nathan Rabin

Top 10

1. Children Of Men

2. United 93

3. Letters From Iwo Jima

4. Jonestown: The Life & Death Of People's Temple

5. Idiocracy

6. The Departed

7. The Devil And Daniel Johnston

8. Half Nelson

9. The Queen

10. A Prairie Home Companion

The Next Five

After two collaborations with Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry wrote and directed The Science Of Sleep, a waking dream of a film about a petulant man-child who'd rather live in his own elaborate fantasy world than grapple with reality. The barely-released documentary Danielson: A Family Movie or Make a Joyful Noise Here examines another loopy man-child in Daniel Smith, a Christian indie-rock oddball whose strange odyssey parallels that of Daniel Johnston, who turns in a cameo. Rian Johnson's slangy, atmospheric Brick cross-pollinated noir with high school angst with such verve and assurance that it's remarkable no one ever sought to fuse the two genres before. Nicole Holofcener's sprightly dramatic comedy Friends With Money and Pedro Almódovar's Volver each explore communities of women with wit and compassion.

Performance
Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat

Both extremes in the Borat debate got it wrong: the left-field blockbuster is neither a satirical masterpiece nor a hateful affront to the human spirit. However, just about everyone could agree that Borat is hilarious thanks almost entirely to Cohen, a fearless chameleon and comic one-man-band whose dogged conviction and brilliant improvisation made the film's one joke go a very long way.

Overrated
World Trade Center

Longtime scourge of the right Oliver Stone finally made a movie arch-conservatives could get behind, but retained his weakness for turgid melodrama and quasi-spiritual hallucinations. World Trade Center boasts a gripping first half-hour, but quickly devolves into a ham-fisted, flag-waving movie of the week. United 93's bracing, heart-pounding verisimilitude threw the film's hokey dramatic excesses into even sharper relief.

Underrated
The Science Of Sleep

Director Michel Gondry's undiluted blast of whimsy turned out to be more than most critics or audiences could take. Admittedly, on a narrative and character level, The Science Of Sleep is a mess, but since the film operates almost exclusively in the realm of images and ideas, that's not really a problem. Gondry crams a lifetime's worth of half-baked conceits and surrealistic constructs into a wonderfully homemade dreamscape that seems to have emerged whole cloth from his overactive subconscious.

Most Pleasant Surprise
Idiocracy

Who could have guessed that a barely released, unpublicized, and not-screened-for-critics comedy would prove the year's timeliest, most savage satire? Along with the otherwise antithetical Children Of Men, Mike Judge's futuristic comedy brilliantly filtered the predominant fears and anxieties of today through the sturdy prism of dystopian science fiction. Just remember: Brawndo has electrolytes! It's what plants crave!

Guilty Pleasure
The Marine

A colorful gaggle of baddies tangle with the wrong ex-serviceman in this tongue-in-cheek action schlockfest, which is as deliriously, delightfully idiotic as only a vehicle for an inexpressive wrestler/rapper can be. Star grappler John Cena doesn't seem to be in on the joke, but everyone else clearly is, especially world-class bad guy Robert Patrick as a gleefully insane heavy.

Best Non-2006 Film Seen This Year
Mysterious Skin

A longtime poster boy for suspended adolescence, director Gregg Araki made a giant leap forward with this mesmerizing Lynchian character study about the very different ways two young boys deal with molestation at the hands of their Little League coach. Araki's hauntingly stylized Mysterious Skin radiates heartbreak, horror, and unexpected tenderness, while star Joseph Gordon-Levitt—a million miles removed from the inanity of Third Rock From The Sun—establishes himself as one of the most promising young actors since Johnny Depp, with a tough, unsentimental lead performance as a male hustler with a closet full of skeletons.

Future Film That Time Forgot
One Last Thing

Just about the only thing less palatable than a drama about a terminally ill teenager out to bang a supermodel as his final wish is a comedy with the same premise. Alex Steyermark's jaw-droppingly misconceived One Last Thing alternates between glib sex comedy and maudlin sentimentality in its unwieldy tale of a sensitive dying teen and his heartfelt yearning for the sexual services of self-destructive human mannequin Sunny Mabrey. Throw in Wyclef Jean's cameo as a magical cab driver and you have a time-capsule oddity that'll only grow stranger with time.

Worst Of The Year
The People Vs. John Lennon

VH1's super-slick, empty-headed canonization of John Lennon bravely champions its subject's controversial pro-love, pro-peace, anti-hate rhetoric, but ignores the contradictions and idiosyncrasies that made him such a fascinating artist and icon. In the process they reduce Lennon's life and activism to a series of trite bumper-sticker slogans.

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Tasha Robinson

Top 10

1. Children Of Men

2. Stranger Than Fiction

3. Brick

4. United 93

5. Half Nelson

6. Shortbus

7. A Prairie Home Companion

8. The King

9. Babel

10. The Prestige

The Next Five

Todd Field's lyrical, intense, deeply moody Little Children would have made the top 10 list, if not for the ill-conceived voiceover narration, which attempts to work literary conventions (and pretensions) into a film that doesn't need them. Michael Apted's 49 Up continued the amazing documentary series that's visited a group of Brits every seven years since they were 7 years old; this installment found some of them philosophical, and some of them unusually contentious. Chen Kaige's gorgeous epic fable The Promise channeled Zhang Yimou even better than Yimou's new Curse Of The Golden Flower does, while Pan's Labyrinth isn't as emotionally evocative (until the bitter end), but is just as visually lovely in an entirely different way. Finally, Mel Gibson's Apocalypto is an action film somewhere under all the trappings, but it's an unusually vivid and immediate one that goes to great pains to make its old-world Mayan setting real.

Performance
Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls

Though Dreamgirls isn't the best film this year, it's one of the biggest, and that's largely due to Hudson's grim, unreserved diva, who belts her way in and out of trouble throughout the picture, and projects committed passion that her costars can't match. She has the worst song in the film to contend with, but she still gives Dreamgirls its best moments.

Overrated
Marie Antoinette

Reviews for Sofia Coppola's historical drama weren't stellar, but they were still far too kind to a film that mostly seems to be about how vapid and opaque historical figures can be. The costumes, sets, and cinematography are all gorgeous, which just makes the empty, affectless performances and unenlightening script seem like more of a waste. What were the protagonists thinking during any of the significant events of their lives? Who knows? What was Coppola thinking as she made this movie? Seemingly, it was "Wow, that table full of cakes looks pretty. Can we add some petits fours?"

Underrated
Lucky Number Slevin

Like Marie Antoinette, this unfortunately titled thriller wasn't universally derided, but the many reviews dismissing it as yet another twisty-for-twisty's-sake crime thriller missed out on its sharp dialogue, its overall energy, and especially the way it played with audience expectations about what makes a twisty-for-twisty's-sake crime thriller.

Most Pleasant Surprise
Happy Feet

In a year full of CGI flicks about jabbering groups of dysfunctional animals, this looked like just another standard-issue toy commercial at film length, complete with a pat moral, a celeb cast, Robin Williams mugging in multiple roles, and medleys of pop hits. So it was impressive when the film wrapped up the rote romance and all the "nonconformity can be good" messages early on and moved forward into an entirely new story. It was almost as though the film acknowledged how trite those tropes were before going on to triumphantly surpass them.

Guiltiest Pleasure
Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Sacha Baron Cohen's comedy was a laugh-out-loud wonder, but they were pretty creepy laughs. Even setting aside all the lawsuits from people who claim they were duped and manipulated into appearing in the film, it's easy enough to tell just from watching it that most of the participants are struggling with their responses to the ugly situations Cohen creates, and laughing at them often feels dirty. Or maybe not feeling dirtier about enjoying the film feels dirty.

Best Non-2006 Film Seen This Year
Bridge On The River Kwai

It's embarrassing for a film critic to admit to having gone this long without seeing this David Lean standard, but some things just slip through the cracks. This is one classic that lives up to its reputation, both in scale and in the little details. The gentlemanly but rigidly confrontational conversation Sessue Hayakawa has in his tent with Alec Guinness, who suggests Hayakawa might need to commit seppuku, then cheerfully toasts him, is one of the best sequences in cinema.

Future Film That Time Forgot
Crank

This thriller was, like, totally Speed, but with a dude instead of a bus. See, this guy's been shot full of Chinese poisons, and if he slows down for more than a minute, he'll, like, die. And if the movie slowed down for more than a minute, viewers might notice that there's pretty much no other plot going on. You can get all the novelty from the one-line summary and pretty much be done with the film.

Worst Of The Year
Ultraviolet

Kurt Wimmer's thriller didn't even feel like it was trying to be a movie. Its lazy incoherence showed up in the plotting and the action sequences, which managed to make even stylish gun-fu entirely boring. Worse still, it didn't even bother pandering to its presumed brain-dead audience: Just when it should be kicking into overdrive, it cheats its way out of action sequences by cutting from Milla Jovovich getting ready to fight to Jovovich walking away from corpses. That's cheap even for a crappy, spastic, ill-conceived comic book of a movie.

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Scott Tobias

Top 10

1. The Departed

2. Children Of Men

3. United 93

4. Old Joy

5. Brick

6. Volver

7. L'Enfant

8. The Devil And Daniel Johnston

9. Neil Young: Heart Of Gold

10.Half Nelson

The Next Five

Though it centers on another group of fumbling, inarticulate proto-slackers, Andrew Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation refines his uncanny semi-improvisational style and builds to a touchingly real conflict between friendship and romance. A remarkably thorough piece of journalism, Jonestown: The Life & Death Of People's Temple recounts the harrowing circumstances that led Jim Jones' followers to mass suicide, but it resonates most for showing how a beautiful vision of community got squandered by one man's hang-ups and paranoia. Much like Edward Norton's smooth-talking cowboy in the contemporary West, Down In The Valley seemed entirely out of place in modern arthouses, but it would fit in nicely next to sun-dappled '70s classics like Badlands and Two-Lane Blacktop. Patrice Chereau's intense chamber drama Gabrielle captures the fallout of a shattered marriage within ornate walls that seem to be closing in like a noose. Michelangelo Antonioni meets Albert Brooks' Modern Romance in the quietly mesmerizing Climates, a tale of romantic obsession and ennui that confirms Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Distant) as a distinctive talent.

Performance
Judi Dench, Notes On A Scandal

Granted, Dench has cornered the market on imperious shrews, but as an embittered old spinster whose friendship with a bohemian art teacher (Cate Blanchett) veers into psychosexual obsession, she elevates her signature role to an intensity level that's just short of high camp. It's a wonder that those who fall under her sharp, withering glare don't turn into stone.

Overrated
Dreamgirls

Anointed the prize Oscar pony before anyone actually saw it, Bill Condon's turgid adaptation of the hit Broadway musical plays like Motown as a Disney revue, with precious little connection to the sonic and social upheaval of the era. The songs induce an outpouring of melisma that would be pure American Idol cheddar even without AI also-ran Jennifer Hudson, and the film's distant relation to real people and events underlines its suffocating insularity.

Underrated
Bubble

Director Steven Soderbergh manages his career like a junkie in-and-out of rehab: One year he's on a wild bender of perversely idiosyncratic projects, the next he's sobering up with a penitential Ocean's Eleven movie. This year, Soderbergh went off the wagon with the B&W post-war pastiche The Good German and Bubble, a digital curiosity that earned more attention for its day-and-date release strategy than its considerable merits as outsider art. Before the film evolves into a bizarre procedural, Bubble captures the workaday lives of doll factory employees with hypnotic precision.

Most Pleasant Surprise
Slither

Horror comedies are often at war against themselves, because the laughs have a tendency to negate the scares, but Slither strikes just the right balance between silly Tremors-like redneck humor and sight gags, and spooky creepy-crawlies from outer space. A first-rate group of character actors help, especially Michael Rooker (Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer) as a brute who undergoes a hilariously disgusting transformation and Serenity's Nathan Fillion, who brings his trademark unflappability to the role of a small-town cop who tries to thwart an alien invasion.

Guilty Pleasure
Beerfest

Okay, so the world probably doesn't need another lowbrow comedy for frat guys to get loaded to. And yes, two hours is probably more time than necessary to tell the story of a secret underground German beer-guzzling competition. But for all of Beerfest's obvious deficiencies, the Broken Lizard crew deserves credit for sheer off-the-wall daffiness, like casting sweet Cloris Leachman as a former Bavarian whore or contriving a passionate French kiss between Jürgen Prochnow and Mo'Nique or stuffing the movie with Das Boot references. Dumb rarely gets much smarter.

Best Non-2006 Film Seen This Year
The Double Life Of Véronique

Though he'd been making movies for years, including the brilliant monolith The Decalogue, Krzysztof Kieslowski's international breakthrough was the first exposure many American arthouse mavens had to his work. But in light of what followed, especially the famed Three Colors trilogy, The Double Life Of Veronique now seems like the linchpin to his career, a poetic meditation on beauty and fate that's the blueprint to Kieslowski's unique cosmos.

Future Film That Time Forgot
BloodRayne

Thanks to a loophole in German tax law, Uwe Boll's game-to-movie adaptations have earned him the reputation as a modern-day Ed Wood—though critics probably shouldn't say that out loud, lest the former amateur boxer offer to pummel them in the ring. BloodRayne doesn't reach the fevered heights (or is it depths) of Boll's Alone In The Dark, but the cast alone will have obscure video archeologists of the future scratching their heads. Ben Kingsley, Meat Loaf, Billy Zane, Udo Kier, Michael Madsen, Michelle Rodriguez, Geraldine Chaplin, Michael Paré… that must have been one crazy wrap party.

Worst Of The Year
The Holiday

Romantic comedies are painful enough without the characters referring to themselves as if they were characters in a romantic comedy, but lines like "I enjoyed my meet-cute" cut to the synthetic soul of Nancy Meyers' calculating dreck, which embarrasses every member of its first-rate cast. Meyers even has the audacity to exalt an Old Hollywood screenwriter who complains that they don't make 'em like they used to. No kidding.

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