Best Films of 2006

This year may be remembered as one that blurred the lines between reality and fiction. "Borat" wasn't just the funniest movie of the year, but the most controversial, fudging the divide between comedy, documentary and faux-documentary. "United 93" and "World Trade Center" came face to face with 9/11; Paul Greengrass’s “United 93” was shot in a cinema verite style that tried to distance it from Hollywood convention. The meatiest roles were often real people: Queen Elizabeth coping with the death of Diana; Idi Amin plunging Uganda into horror; the very real American and Japanese victims of the Battle of Iwo Jima saluted in two Clint Eastwood films; Truman Capote redux. Even the year's best musical, "Dreamgirls," was built on echoes of the true story of Diana Ross and the Supremes. Reality, it turned out, was stranger—and often more potent—than fiction.

Army of Shadows Yes, it was made in 1969, but the late Jean-Pierre Melville's fatalistic masterpiece about the French Resistance, starring Lino Ventura and Simone Signoret, was never shown in the United States until now. An instant classic.

Little Miss Sunshine Pure pleasure—a smart, sweet and edgy comedy about our cultural obsession with winning. This indie movie succeeds in something Hollywood used to be able to do, and rarely does anymore: appeal to everyone.

The Queen Tony Blair vs. Her Majesty, perfectly pitched by director Stephen Frears and writer Peter Morgan between satire and sentiment. With the sublimely subtle Helen Mirren in the title role.

Letters from Iwo Jima Clint Eastwood's devastating look at the war through Japanese eyes is a companion piece to the fine "Flags of Our Fathers." As good as that was, this one's even stronger, and the rare antiwar movie that never falls into the trap of getting you to root for someone's death.

The Departed Scorsese's supercharged, profanely funny, wonderfully plotted tale of two moles, with an ensemble to die for.

Half Nelson A smart, wrenching inner-city teacher/student tale that avoids every cliché of the genre. Ryan Gosling's performance as a teacher who is both inspiring and self-destructive is about as good as it gets.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan How long has it been since YOU laughed this hard? Sacha Baron Cohen has come up with a watershed comic event. The backlash just proves how deep a nerve the faux Kazakh journalist has hit.

Dreamgirls An exuberant reminder of why we love musicals. Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy bring down the house in Bill Condon's grit-and-glitter showbiz epic.

Venus Peter O'Toole dazzles as an old actor in this funny and heartbreaking May-December almost-love story, smartly written by Hanif Kureishi and deftly directed by Roger Michell.

Volver Almodovar continues his remarkable run of triumphs with this serene melodrama about murder and maternal love, with a voluptuous performance from Penelope Cruz.

Some other highly recommended movies of the year: "Friends with Money," "Time to Leave," "Notes on a Scandal," "Gabrielle," "The Proposition," "L'Enfant," "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," "Inside Man," "The Last King of Scotland," "Superman Returns," "The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros," "World Trade Center," "United 93," "Casino Royale," "Marie Antoinette," "Happy Feet," "Little Children," "Monster House," "Children of Men," "Kekexili: Mountain Patrol," "The Syrian Bride," "Pan's Labyrinth," "Prairie Home Companion," "Shortbus," "Infamous," "The Prestige," "Factotum," "District B-13," "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints," "The Devil Wears Prada," "For Your Consideration," "Duck Season," "Old Joy," "The History Boys" and David Lynch's baffling, mesmerizing, maddening, haunting "Inland Empire."

THE BEST NONFICTION FILMS

When I drew up my list, it struck me that the two recurrent themes were war and music. Iraq was the great subject no documentary filmmaker could avoid. And in a time of war, we need the music more than ever.

Darwin's Nightmare It was released in 2005 in some parts of the country; '06 in others. But it's too good not to mention. Made by the young Belgian filmmaker Hubert Sauper, this devastating work is about the repercussions of the introduction of the Nile perch into Tanzania's Lake Victoria, an act that completely alters not only the ecosystem but the economy of the region. But the movie evolves, with novelistic richness and no editorializing, into a profound, and disturbing, examination of how the First World exploits Africa, and how the export of fish for the fine restaurants of Europe results in the import of arms for war. The work of a real filmmaker, with a touch of the poet and a big soul.

Deliver Us From Evil There have been several excellent films exploring the molestation scandals in the Roman Catholic Church. Amy Berg's is the best yet: a searing indictment of the stonewalling church hierarchy (led by Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles, who calls to mind a mafia don), and a moving portrait of the victims. Most remarkably, Berg got one of the worst offenders, the twinkly-eyed sociopath Father Oliver O'Grady, who molested countless victims for almost 30 years, to appear on camera. A chilling portrait of a man in radical self-denial.

Iraq in Fragments There were a host of strong documentaries dealing with the war. James Longley's beautifully shot film is not about the U.S. presence, and it's not a polemic. In three "fragments," without commentary, it gives us slices of Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish life. This eye-opening film shows us what newspapers and TV don't.

Shut Up and Sing An intimate, rousing, fly-on-the wall look at the Dixie Chicks as they figure out how to handle the storm occasioned by lead singer Natalie Maines's anti-Bush remark. Codirected by Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck, it's tight, well-edited and unexpurgated. Chicks haters will find plenty to get mad about. The rest of us will cheer.

Dave Chappelle's Block Party Why people didn't flock to this soul-stirring, joyful movie is a mystery. It's got the beguiling Chappelle as host and ringleader, great performances from Jill Scott, Kanye West, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, The Fugees, Common and John Legend, to name a few, and it was shot by no less than Michel Gondry. Irresistible.

The Ground Truth Patricia Foulkrod's shattering expose of the psychic toll the war in Iraq has taken on the men who fight it, and how the government often turns its back on them when they return home, refusing to acknowledge that they are suffering from posttraumatic stress disorders. A powerhouse of a movie.

Crossing the Bridge: The Sounds of Istanbul German director Fatih ("Head On") Akin takes us on a revelatory musical tour of Istanbul, from traditional to Turkish hip-hop, offering not just great musical delights but a fascinating glimpse into that city's unique and contradictory multicultural identity, straddling East and West. I rushed out to buy a Sezen Aksu CD after hearing her unforgettable songs.

The War Tapes Iraq again. What makes Deborah Scranton's film unique is that it offers us a view of the war through the eyes of three National Guardsmen who fought there. Each was given a mini-DV camera to film their experience there, and upon their return. Here's the real skinny; it's not pretty, but it's essential viewing.

Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple A deeply unsettling portrait of Jim Jones's tragic transformation from an idealistic, socially progressive Indiana preacher to the megalomaniac, drug-addled monster who choreographed the mass suicide of his followers. Stanley Nelson's haunting film, informed by the voices of the few survivors of Jonestown, can give you nightmares.

Neil Young: Heart of Gold Jonathan Demme's lovely tribute documents Young's "Prairie Wind" concert at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Filmed just weeks before Young's operation for a brain aneurysm, the film, and the concert, are haunted by a sense of mortality. Anyone who loves Young's music will love this; those of a certain age may find it produces repeated lumps in the throat.

Once again, it was a strong year for documentaries, and many other titles deserve mention. Among the highlights: "An Inconvenient Truth"; "Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man"; "Why We Fight"; "Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story"; "Street Fight"; "God Grew Tired of Us"; "Heart of the Game"; "Our Brand is Crisis"; "Sketches of Frank Gehry"; "Romantico"; "My Country, My Country"; "Screamers."

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