High Five! After a box-office slump, movies made money again in 2006. Kill-me-now depression sets in only when I list the big winners (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest; X-Men: The Last Stand; The Da Vinci Code). Luckily, it wasn’t just Borat that hit pay dirt without getting slimed by formula pap. Martin Scorsese had his biggest hit with The Departed. And Dreamgirls proved a musical could have grit as well as glitz. And what of terrific movies that barely made a dime? They, too, have pride of place on my list of movies that mattered this year.
1. The Departed: Crime in the streets. A Martin Scorsese specialty, from Mean Streets to GoodFellas. So what’s so special about The Departed that I’m calling it the best movie of 2006? For starters, it’s a new high in a historic career. The Boston crime milieu scrupulously laid out in William Monahan’s screenplay sparks something fresh in Scorsese about how moral corruption begins in childhood and festers in adult life. The acting, from Jack Nicholson’s Irish mobster to Mark Wahlberg’s hothead sergeant, is top of the line. And Leonardo DiCaprio, as an undercover cop, and Matt Damon, as an undercover criminal, give the performances of their lives. Scorsese orchestrates acting, writing, editing, production design and camera placement into a model of what directing is when craft rises to the level of art.
2. Dreamgirls: Despite, or maybe because of, the smartasses who rag on this galvanizing musical as “the gay man’s Lord of the Rings,” Dreamgirls is a movie you take to heart. I sure did. Fictionalizing the story of Diana Ross and the Supremes into a cautionary tale of how 1960s R&B was ground into white pop, director-writer Bill Condon turns Michael Bennett’s Broadway landmark into a movie powered by the unique magic of cinema. Give a shout-out to Condon — he’s got the goods. Beyoncé excels as the lead singer of the Dreams, as does Jamie Foxx in the role of the manager who sells her out. But the roof of the multiplex is blown off by trumpet-tonsilled newcomer Jennifer Hudson as the diva who gets replaced for singing large and eating larger. And Eddie Murphy totally kills as a James Brown wild man buckling under the pressure of cultural assimilation. It’s an all-black cast, which so-called experts insist will hurt at the box office. My guess is that audiences will have the savvy to know Dreamgirls is a story of America.
3. Letters from Iwo Jima/Flags of Our Fathers: With his customary daring and assurance, Clint Eastwood followed Flags — which tells the bloody story of this 1945 battle through the prism of three American soldiers who survived, only to be exploited by their government — with Letters, a tale of the same World War II battle, told from the Japanese side. The film is in Japanese with English subtitles, hardly a sop to draw the Saw crowd. But what Eastwood has done is extraordinary, uniting two films into a single, stinging portrait of war that honors the men who fought while nailing government for fobbing off hypocrisy in the name of patriotism.
4. Volver: Yes, it’s in Spanish with English subtitles, but no one rivals Pedro AlmodÓvar for speaking the language of love in all its permutations, from filial to sexual to lethal. Penélope Cruz, never more ravishing, claims the screen by divine right as a daughter whose problems with her mother (the superb Carmen Maura) only start with the fact that Mom is dead and may be out for revenge. Cheers to cinematographer José Luis Alcaine for the film’s shimmering beauty and to AlmodÓvar for showing that love has no intention of stopping with death.
5. Babel: Don’t buy the rap on this movie. Some people call it pretentious, when the intent of Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga is to reach high by taking on a world divided by terrorism, race, money, religion and language. I guess unpretentious would be taking on Big Momma’s House 3. Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi shine in the ensemble cast. But as the film builds to a shattering climax, you’ll be in an emotional grip that won’t let go. González Iñárritu is a world-class filmmaker.
6. United 93: Many people dodged this movie for being too painful a topic — a 9/11 re-enactment of what might have happened among the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 when four hijackers took control of the plane. It’s their right, and their loss. The gifted director Paul Greengrass has crafted a humane tribute to the power of resistance.
7. The Queen: There’s this dumb theory that the potency of this film totally hangs on the magisterial performance of Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana. Bollocks, as the Brits might say. Director Stephen Frears, working with an incisive script by Peter Morgan, is devilishly good at springing surprises, political, personal and profound.
8. Borat:Maybe you live on Planet Mars and don’t hear how Sacha Baron Cohen make fun about glorious nation of Kazakhstan and make big trouble with politically correct persons. Maybe you make benefit yourself and see cultural learnings of killer satire of year then laugh ass off.
9. Little Miss Sunshine: This bracingly unsappy family comedy is 2006’s best movie from first-timers. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris drop their terrific cast (Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin, Steve Carell, Paul Dano and little Abigail Breslin) into a VW bus and ship them off to a beauty pageant that exposes the ugly side of America and the dysfunction bubbling inside their own wack-job heads. It’s hilarious, heartbreaking and achingly true.
10. Prairie Home Companion:The last film from the legendary Robert Altman, who died in November, used Garrison Keillor’s long-running radio show to salute the joy of creative life and the art of laughing in the face of death. Other movies this year are bigger, showier and more ambitious, but there are none lovelier. The cast, led by the incomparable Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, glows under Altman’s playful watch. Keillor speaks of having had the “great privilege of seeing an eighty-one-year-old guy doing what he loved to do.” The rest of us have the privilege of seeing Altman’s movies. Godspeed, maestro.