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The Return : The Top 10 Films of 2006

I can’t recall 2006 being considered an especially dynamic or great year for movies. Quality films were cherished at the time, but if memory serves we mostly had endless chatter on the quality, or lack thereof, of Babel and people calling Martin Scorsese’s The Departed simply a make-up call Oscar winner for all of the past overlooks. In comparison to its neighboring year of 2007, which is arguably the best movie year of the 21st Century, 2006 isn’t the champion of champions. However, though 2006 may not be, as that year’s most popular character Borat called, “King in the castle,” even the faintest of hindsight reveals it to be a mighty impressive collection of cinema, both American made and abroad.

Which is part of why this personal annual tradition rolls on, with a look back at the best pictures of ten years ago right before we all delve into awards season that will surely smother us all. Movies breathe with time, and no matter how objective one tries to be, the echoes of the outside world, internal minds and surrounding film options can shape how one views in the moment. One’s own tastes evolve, and what you adored for its originality back then might read as gimmickry now, and life’s countless lessons unravel new shades of an already established portrait.

All of this is a preamble to saying, I used my old Livejournal to remember my Top 10 of 2006, of which speaks from 24 year-old me below.

10. The Science of Sleep

9. A Scanner Darkly

8. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party

7. Marie Antoinette

6. A Prairie Home Companion

5. Brick

4. The Queen

3. Borat

2. United 93

1. The Departed

Now, first things first about this. It came at a time where I wasn’t lucky enough to see releases early. That barrage of releases that trickle out at the end of December through the end of February to maximize Oscar awareness; those didn’t get seen until 2007. Children of Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, Letters from Iwo Jima and quite a few more didn’t get a release anywhere near little ol’ me in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, which doesn’t even take into account the stuff I wasn’t aware of or into yet.

The actual ten selected above definitely mirror a me of old, though the line from then to now is apparent. There’s the already established admiration of Linklater in the form of A Scanner Darkly, Altman with Companion and of course Marty for The Departed. Brick and The Science of Sleep are hosts to delighting in visuals that go beyond the normal shot, counter-shot.

Of course, the odd one, to some extent, is, to give the film it’s proper and full title, Borat: Cultural Learning of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. A phenomenon in it time that quickly spoiled into bad impressions and almost immediate escape from the comedic mindset, the likes of which only the Austin Powers series can rival in the past 20 years, Borat had one thing going for it that no other 2006 production could lay claim to; it made me fear for my life. In the opening of Borat, during the “Running of the Jew,” I, and I’m sure a few others in the theatre from the sound of things, was laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe. This was to such an extreme that I panicked, not helped by the increased cackling and confusion as “Mrs. Jew” squats and lays “a Jew egg.” Insight, absurdity and shrewd offensiveness have rarely been so perfectly orchestrated as one. Or maybe not.

As for now, that’s a point of a months long series of return viewings. Any film I haven’t recently seen lately had a fresh spin, along with ensuring many of the critical darlings I missed had finally been given a go as well. In ten years, this will evolve again, as goes film taste, both personal and beyond. For now, these are my selections for then ten best of 2006.

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  1. Volver

There are those rare directors whose middle of the filmography efforts are of almost embarrassingly impressive quality. Pedro Almodovar is one of those filmmakers. His Volver, in which a never better Penelope Cruz deals with murder, hiding bodies, the ghost of her mom and other not-so-fun things, is a classic melodrama, with that pinch of neo-realism that Almodovar throws into his personal blend. Volver confronts the pain of life with a laugh and by leaning on loved ones to get through the day. If it’s not Almodovar’s best, that only speaks to the man himself.

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  1. The Descent

There are horror films that specialize in claustrophobia. Those that revel in gore. Ones that titter with shock/boo scares. All of these can work when done properly. Neil Marshall’s The Descent does all of them flawlessly at once, as six women head into an uncharted labyrinth of caves, only to meet with monsters, both of the big-pointy-teeth variety and those self-made. Bloody and marvelous.

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  1. Marie Antoinette

Welcomed with mixed reactions from the word go, Sofia Coppola’s telling of the life of the infamous Queen of France was never meant to be a history lesson. It was, and remains, a keen observation of how the elite can be so absurd, the ways women are expected to behave by society and the nature of celebrity. With a resplendent production design and frankly delicious visual palette, Marie Antoinette is a capital A art film, as in it’s a piece of art.

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  1. The Prestige

The last Christopher Nolan to be great from beginning to end, and also his, hopefully not final, film with a moderate budget, The Prestige remains a pristine pseudo-thriller, where the sympathies felt for two rivaling illusionists (Christian Bale and ugh Jackman) keep you guessing from one second to the next. With a menacing, yet lovely hum of a score underneath it by David Julyan (who also did the amazing music for The Descent), Nolan’s adaptation of the Christopher Priest novel ticks by like a finely tuned watch to its eerie reveal.

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  1. The Lives of Others

When Germany was still a neighbor to itself, those on the East side of The Wall had reason to be paranoid about what they did, let alone said. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s rendition of this truth follows one man, seemingly the most capable of them all, who documents the days and nights of those suspected of working against the nation. Of course, listening leads to knowledge, which triggers a host of fresh feelings and a waterfall of complications in this deserved Oscar winner.

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  1. Clean

A cliché of a narrative has honest life breathed into it in this Olivier Assayas film, where a drug-addicted mother (Maggie Cheung in one of her final roles before kind-of-retiring) must fix herself in order to once more be a part of her child’s life. With the great tenderness one would expect of an Assayas drama, along with a fantastic turn by Nick Nolte as the boy’s grandfather and current guardian, Clean does nothing new. It does manage to execute a tale of emotional redemption impeccably.

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  1. Children of Men

Ahead of its time to be popular, as it was too politically charged and only cinephiles knew who Alfonso Cuaron was, Children of Men is as troubling, terrifying and true as it was upon release. Set in an uncomfortably close future where mankind hasn’t produced a child in well over a decade, possible hope peeks through the windows amidst the chaos. With a killer cast led by Clive Owen and also including Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Caine, Cuaron constructed a handful of unforgettable scenes; that ambush, that escape, that ending. In the end, it was and still is a frank look in the mirror.

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  1. United 93

You may never see this movie. That’s understandable. You may think there’s no use for a dramatic retelling of the events of United Flight 93. That’s understandable. All I can say is that the film by Paul Greengrass is heart-wrenching, deliberate and, as much as it can be, non-judgmental. There really are no sides be taken other than what we bring to the film, as Greengrass presents the horrific events as matter-of-factly. You may think that’s offensive. That’s understandable. I find it to be a masterpiece.

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  1. The Departed

For a certain segment, The Departed is still remembered as the Marty getting a “Sorry we didn’t give you one earlier” Academy Award movie. Scorsese has a number of films that dig into the psyches of American life with richer depth and more daring storytelling. The Departed is Marty, basically, having fun with his skills. He knows how to churn tension, get actors to do their best and let dialogue rat-tat-tat a scene. The Departed is all of that in a Boston-esque bow, with William Monahan’s script expertly re-tailoring a Hong-Kong crime pic into something distinctly 21st Century.

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  1. L’enfant

We all make the right decisions in our minds. We might fret about bad scenarios, but imagine that in the worst of worst times, we’d never do that thing. That one thing that is unforgivable. Brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne make films about those forced to question their own morals, just in order to better the most basic of needs. L’enfant stars Jeremie Renier, a regular for the Dardennes and a supremely underrated talent, as Bruno, a young man who sees a way to improve he and his love’s life by selling their recently born child. One can always have another after all. What proceeds, like the aforementioned United 93, is shown from afar. The camera may hover behind Bruno, but never in a sententious manner. This method allows for the beats to land harder; the viewer always fastened closely to the moment and footsteps of our protagonist. The music never signifies the barrage of tears around the corner either. What’s there is life, in all of its messiness, and our choice on whether or not to forgive, condemn or feel for a man who, unlike our dream versions, fails to make the right decision.

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