A 2006 post-mortem: the year in film

by Glen Baity

2006 is over.

Superman returned, as did Jack Sparrow and James Bond. Tom Cruise is still with us, but Don Knotts and Jack Palance are not.

Was it a good year for movies? Oh, I don’t know. Not to sound like a nihilist, but does it matter? With a Netflix subscription and a few minutes’ research, it’s entirely possible that you could go the rest of your life watching only good movies every weekend.

Anyway, good and bad are subjective, but here’s what I know: 2006 was a year that saw the Hollywood studio system embrace its pathological fear of originality even more tightly. Of the top 10 grossing films of the year, one of them (Cars) was not a sequel, a franchise, or an adaptation.

Despite that, it was also a year that gave us two new Clint Eastwood offerings, the first good Mission: Impossible film, and Martin Scorsese’s most Scorsese picture in years. You do the math.

As always, there’s an embarrassing disparity in the ratio of films I wanted to see to the films I actually got to see, which – if you’ll excuse the presumption – is probably true for you as well. So let’s just call this the Best of What’s Around, and please, feel free to add your notes in the margins. Now let’s dispense with this turkey so we can start our Spider-man 3 countdown.

The Top Five

5. Thank You For Smoking. A knockout performance by Aaron Eckhart drives this scathing satire straight to flavor country. As tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor, he makes harsh reality go down smooth in a lacerating examination of America’s love affair with the things that kill us.

4. Borat. You might be sick of the character by now, but the achievement of this picture stands alone. You also might call it needlessly mean-spirited, but you’d be missing the point. Sacha Baron Cohen spotlights the shrugging racism and thinly veiled xenophobia running through modern America, armed only with a camera and a box full of release forms. The result is some of the most dangerous comedy in years, as evidenced by the tidal wave of litigation that ensued.

3. The Departed. Scorsese’s warning to rats and stoolies everywhere was one of the most relentless films of the year (high praise in a year boasting a new Michael Mann picture). An all-star cast brings the pain, and the story, in an unusual twist, only gets more gripping as it barrels toward its conclusion.

2. The Prestige. Christopher Nolan re-teamed with brother and Memento scribe Jonathan Nolan to make the best film of his young career. Add stellar performances by Michael Caine and David Bowie and an elaborate plot with mystery to spare and you’ve got one killer illusion.

And lastly, the undisputed champeeeeen:

1. Little Miss Sunshine. Abagail Breslin’s turn as pageant hopeful Olive Hoover keeps this dark, screamingly funny picture from falling into the abyss. What could’ve been another smarmy indie “dramady” about a dysfunctional family is enlivened by excellent writing and touching performances all around. It’s a note-perfect road movie bright enough to quell the most drastic Vitamin D deficiency, and hands-down my favorite film of 2006.

Honorable Mentions: Rookie phenom Keke Palmer was terrific in the year’s best family film, the under-appreciated Akeelah and the Bee… The “Who saw that coming?” award goes to Will Ferrell and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who sparked in a big way in the loopy, wonderful Stranger than Fiction… A Scanner Darkly was one of the most visually spectacular films in a year that saw audiences turn away from the majority of CGI talking animal movies (finally)… and Slither, Clerks 2, and Miami Vice might not have set the box office ablaze, but they were way more fun than at least seven of the top 10 moneymakers.

The Dregs

5. The Da Vinci Code. Remember in A Christmas Story , when Ralphie finally gets his Little Orphan Annie Decoder Pin, and he’s furious when he finds out the super-important secret code from the radio broadcast is “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine”? Even that code was better than this one. Ron Howard’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s dimestore apocrypha incited more impromptu naps than outraged protests.

4. X-Men: The Last Stand. Wolverine sulks over a girl while 5,000 new mutants angle for their 90 seconds of screen time apiece. Who gets the most attention? Storm, because that’s what fans of the first two films were clamoring for, apparently. More Storm.

3. Hostel. Only because I didn’t see Saw 3 (or Saw 2, for that matter), though I suspect it’s all the same movie. Director Eli Roth retains none of the doofy charm of his debut, Cabin Fever, and spews forth the umpteenth torture-as-holiday stinker of the past five years.

2. Snakes on a Plane. The only entry on the list that sucked because it didn’t suck bad enough to suck in a good way. An overhyped, undercooked thriller that should’ve lived and died exclusively on YouTube.

And the undisputed Worst Picture of the Year, which is also – and I’m completely serious here – the worst movie in the history of movies:

1. Big Momma’s House 2. Martin Lawrence. Fat suit. Fart jokes. If possible, even more dreadful than you’d imagine. Lawrence might’ve hung in there long enough to see Dane Cook crowned the new Worst Comedian on the Planet, but this film ensures the sometime Big Momma will always be in the top three.

Also causing watermelon-sized migraines: Underworld Evolution reimagined the second half of From Dusk ’til Dawn as an Evanescence video, with all the restraint that implies… Final Destination 3 mixed existentialism and nail guns, proving that Death, after killing countless trillions of life forms since the Big Bang, is completely out of ideas… The Benchwarmers and School for Scoundrels indicated that Jon Heder, despite early reports to the contrary, just ain’t that funny’… and Christopher Guest dialed it down from 11 to three in For Your Consideration, a foundering satire in search of a subject.

With that, I’ll declare a 12-month moratorium on arbitrary lists. Until then, turn off your cell phone, leave your kids at home and please, please, please don’t give your money to Big Momma’s House 3, Saw 4, or anything directed by Michael Bay (except Transformers, because hey, they’re Transformers). Happy New Year folks, and thanks for sticking around.

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