I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out what was the single best movie I’ve seen this past year (or my favorite, if you prefer). It’s usually not too hard to find a few viable candidates – last year, as detailed on the old website, I had Cinderella Man at the top of a list that included The Weather Man, Syriana, and Crash. They were all movies I appreciated from the moment I left the theater, movies well put-together and acted and scripted and directed and shot and all of that. They’re not necessarily films that had to be deep, but still affected me and touched me in a certain way, evoked something. I guess I share the Academy’s bias against traditional comedies in this sense, since it’s rare that they provide anything beyond short-term nourishment. But the point is, I don’t usually have any problems gathering a list of what I considered the best movies of the year, since I knew what they were basically from the moment I watched them.
But 2006 was not a normal year. I don’t remember walking out of the theater once knowing that I had seen one of the best movies I had ever seen. Did I watch some really good movies? Of course. But I left The Departed thinking I had seen only three-quarters of a fantastic movie, and the rest essentially a bloody, over-the-top parody of that great movie. I found Bobby beautifully made and well-acted… but for the life of me, didn’t find significance throughout in the sense of Syriana or Crash. Will Smith gave a remarkable performance in The Pursuit of Happyness, but that script pours it on thick. Speaking of overdone, the music in Dreamgirls had the unfortunate effect of keeping its characters at a distance, limiting it to a lavish production than the effective drama it flirts with at times. It’s Chicago and Moulin Rouge when its subject matter befits Walk the Line.
There were the movies that were great for what they were, popcorn flicks that will earn spots on my DVD shelf, yet movies I did not consider particularly memorable. The Da Vinci Code was a complete blast from beginning to end, even if it felt rushed and checklist-y, even if they threw in that bullshit story about the well to appease the religious fanatics… and undermine the fundamental point of the book in the process. 16 Blocks was highly entertaining – a less stylistic Collateral as it were, or perhaps Phone Booth concluded better – yet it was nothing more than an unexpectedly fun diversion. Arguably the funniest movies of the year? Little Miss Sunshine and Thank You for Smoking. But as I said earlier, with traditional comedies, you have fun, and it’s a great time, but at the end of the day, what are you really left with? Even a film that rises above that, Stranger than Fiction, became a little too self-aware and cute, languishing with its execution.
So when you ask me what the best movies of the year were, I can respond only with my two favorite films of 2006. Neither would have cracked the top five a year ago, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. The first is Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. I actually didn’t enjoy the first as much as most people, finding the entire middle sequence way too repetitive, wanting to yell during the battle with the undead, but thought the sequel was a mighty pleasant surprise. It was ridiculous at times, of course, and confusing too, but sprawling, involving, and fantastically imaginative. My friends might disagree vehemently, but it didn’t feel long at all, and for all its flaws, was easily one of the most fun movies I can remember. The second – and perhaps more worthy – choice? The Dixie Chicks documentary, Shut Up and Sing. It’s funny and heart wrenching and thought-provoking at the same time, never shying from the fact that the trio dealt with what they did because of just one of their members. Yet, whatever you might think of what Natalie Maines said, of the war in Iraq and President Bush… none of that is relevant here. When you see the women saying their goodbyes to their families before heading onstage following a death threat, there’s a certain poignancy there. That’s what the film is really about. The raw honesty, the emotional fallout, the art, the sisterhood, all of that. At its core, Shut Up and Sing is about three women dealing.
And there you have it. The good, if not the exceptional, that 2006 brought.