Sunday, February 25, 2007

It's so long past 2006 now that it almost seems pointless to do this, but if the Academy Awards can wait this long, I figure why can't I? Also, any year when I can actually find 10 movies worth writing about is a good year these days. Last year, I only had about 5 I like enough to put in a top 10, so I didn't even bother.

The most amazing part is that I only saw 20 movies total last year (less than half my normal), and a 50% success rate ain't bad. That means movies are either getting better or I'm getting better at picking which ones to see (probably the latter). So for whatever it's worth, here's the last 2006 Top 10 movie list you'll probably read:

1. The History Boys - Admittedly, this is the equivalent of a lowest common denominator movie for me. Lovelorn gay teens. Great 80s music that hasn't been agonizingly overplayed. England. It's like everything I enjoy in movies wrapped up into one. And apparently, getting into Oxford or Cambridge is kind of a big deal over there. So I learned something, too. It had great performances, great characters and it had something to say about its subject matter without really Making A Statement. I saw it right after Thanksgiving, and I ate it up.

2. The Prestige - After darkening up the Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan goes back to the genre he does best, the "WTF is going on?" movie. And this one's almost as good as "Memento". I think I saw the twist coming sooner than I was supposed to, but it was still fun watching the puzzle pieces fit into place. And I guess that keeps me from having to see the movie twice, like the marketing people said you needed to in order to appreciate it. It's a shame most people didn't see this movie at all. Hey, marketing people, next time, just try to get people to see it once.

3. Notes on a Scandal - If I had an Academy Award vote, I'd pick Dame Judi over Dame Helen. I'd also vote for this script, which made great use of voiceover to show us how a woman who seemed shy but noble to the world was really a nasty, hilariously clever misanthrope. It could very easily have become a psycho woman revenge flick in the Fatal Attraction/Single White Female mold, but they never pushed Judi Dench's character past the bounds of believability just to give the audience a few more shivers. She was a real person, and her flaws were real, too, and in a strange way, she was able to remain a sympathetic antihero even as you cringed at the things she did.

4. Little Children - In some ways a similar form of discomfort porn to Notes on a Scandal, the entertainment value came mostly from wincing at characters making bad life decisions for good reasons. It's about two characters trapped in marriages not horrendous enough to get out of, but just bad enough that Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson seem entitled to seek some extra fulfillment elsewhere. Every storyline in the movie was like watching a speeding train hurtling toward a concrete wall - you knew nothing was going to end well for anyone. And it was all the more affecting, because at least while you were watching it, you got the feeling that half the people in the world were probably living out storylines just like this in real life.

5. Thank You For Smoking - My favorite kind of comedy: smart, funny and dark as a nicotine-stained lung. Aaron Eckhart was fantastic as always, and the script was perfect. Plus, it was only an hour and a half, and it's a lot harder to make a good 90 minute movie than it is to make a good three-hour epic. Jason Reitman deserves a lot of credit.

6. Borat - It's best not to think too much about how this movie was made. Were the participants taken advantage of? Was there a script, and does that make it more or less admirable that they pulled off what they did? How staged were the staged scenes and how real were the real ones, and which were which? Ultimately, most of that doesn't really matter. What they ended up with was one of the funniest movies ever made. Sacha Baron Cohen is more than talented, more than a genius: he's a true original. It's too bad that the movie that made his career might have killed it, too. How will he ever pull off another movie like this when everyone knows him now? Here's hoping he finds a way to surprise us.

7. The Devil Wears Prada - Sure, it's formulaic, but there's a reason people use this formula: when it's done right, it works. And instead of just telling us why the devil wore Prada, this movie actually tried to give us some insight into why she was a devil. It helped that the title character was played by Meryl Streep at her most devilish. What could easily have been overplayed as a cartoon character was a real human being, which made her even more hateable -- and loveable, too.

8. The Queen - A rare piece of very recent history and a look at a very private family. It does a great job of showing how a centuries-old institution like the British monarchy and a nearly-century-old woman like Queen Elizabeth can adjust to our very rapidly-changing modern world. Helen Mirren was terrific. It's hard to play a woman whose most notable characteristic is how emotionless she is. But Mirren was able to hint at what was really lurking underneath while maintaining her dignified fašade for the public and the audience.

9. Mission: Impossible III - It's a shame Tom Cruise is such an unlikable weirdo these days, because he's still a good actor, and he's still making good movies, even if fewer and fewer people are going to see them. This was the first Mission: Impossible movie that had a coherent, easy-to-follow storyline and that actually got it right: it laid off most of the technical wizardry and political mumbo-jumbo the first two were obsessed with and put the fun first.

10. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby - This didn't make a lot of people's top 10 lists, but I have to admit, I laughed a lot. I thought it was funnier than Little Miss Sunshine - and more believable, too.


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