Burgess's Top 2006 Flicks

Pearls in a swinish movie year.

By Steve Burgess 29 Dec 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess reviews films for The Tyee every second week.

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A year of gimmicks and squirming.

It's a holiday tradition that critics start their year-end reviews by moaning about what a crappy year it was. But really, it was pretty weak, wasn't it? Listing top movies of 2006 is really an exercise in counting up anything not conspicuously lame.

Big caveat: this list cannot claim to be comprehensive, as I simply missed too many films. Too often I stayed home to watch the Canucks miss the net. But I saw enough to be disappointed. And to make a list of these notable exceptions:

'United 93'

A lot of people just couldn't bring themselves to see this, and who can blame them? It may have been a tale of heroism, but that doesn't make it any less painful. The thing is, United 93 was a remarkable piece of filmmaking. Paul Greengrass resisted all pressures to wave flags and cue angel choirs, and instead made a spare, unemotional dramatic document of 9-11's most haunting chapter. The movie is necessarily speculative but is built carefully on the skeleton of known facts. Most importantly, it never reaches for the heartstrings by bringing in relatives. Later in the year, Oliver Stone's World Trade Center offered the typical Hollywood approach, full of tears and ending with the sort of triumph and uplift that is possible only by looking at 9-11 through the wrong end of the binoculars. Greengrass's movie looks all the more admirable by contrast (and also by comparison to the near-simultaneous A&E TV film, Flight 93). If you're interested in a pleasant Saturday night, maybe you don't want to see it. But if you're interested in filmmaking, you really should.

'The Queen'

Well, la-di-dah. Of course the critics will praise The Queen, snooty bastards. But wuddya gonna do, yer Highness? It was one of the best-made movies of the 2006. Like United 93, The Queen aimed to pull off the difficult trick of illustrating history that almost all of us remember, at least from the tube. In this case it was the 1997 death of Princess Diana -- more precisely, the Royal Family's reaction to that event. Like United 93, The Queen aims to take us inside those events. Unlike United 93, The Queen has Helen Mirren. What a dame. Whoever opens the envelope should just say "And the Oscar goes to…" and then just turn the mic toward the audience and let them shout her name. She was also great in HBO's mini-series Elizabeth I, making a clean sweep of Royal Lizzes in 2006.

'Half Nelson'

A complete left-field surprise. In a year with so few pearls, it's criminal that Half Nelson came and went so quietly. Critics loved it, but quietly. This is a movie that defies your expectations so thoroughly, it gradually becomes clear that defying your expectations is among the filmmakers' major aims. Directed by Ryan Fleck, it stars Ryan Gosling as a white, middle class guy-turned-inner city teacher with a secret, and Shareeka Epps as the student who discovers that secret. Were we really so rich in quality films this year that we could afford to ignore this one? Watch for the DVD.

'Little Miss Sunshine'

I'm sorry this film is on the list. No offence intended to Little Miss Sunshine, which was great fun. It's just that in a perfect universe, or at least a better year, there wouldn't be room on a "Best Of" list for a solid little movie that gains big points for being so much better than expected. Little Miss Sunshine is a quirky-gang-of-misfits-road-movie, a genre that too often induces diabetic shock with overdoses of calculated wackiness and aw-shucks sugar. But this one works pretty damn well. Even the calculated wackiness works by virtue of being nasty enough to take the cutesy edge off, i.e. Alan Arkin as the junkie grandpa spouting obscene life lessons. Plus you've got to give big points to a movie about kiddie beauty pageants that manages to work in Proust and Nietzsche without coming off like a dumb-ass who wears glasses to look smart. (See: Good Will Hunting) And hey, that Steve Carell is a versatile guy. It appears he's trying to stay small and quirky, but can't seem to help being a smash success.


Call it a gimmick if you want. But when you pull off your gimmick this well, you make the list. Brick was a straight film noir, hard-boiled period dialogue and all, but set in a high school. I confess there were moments when I wasn't sure how seriously director/screenwriter Rian Johnson wanted to be taken. But I found myself playing the chuckles where they lay, and then being reabsorbed in a cracking fine noir.


The more I thought about this movie, the more misgivings I had about it. I found myself remembering long stretches when I was squirming -- bad-squirming, not squirming-laughing. But no backlash can deny Sacha Baron-Cohen his due -- he made a fearless comedy that broke new ground, took big chances and produced huge laughs. This movie probably has the best chance of any 2006 film of being regarded as seminal someday. Or will it come to seem like a comedic dead end? At any rate, this year offered no other movies powerful enough to dominate water-cooler conversation and break up the marriage of Pam Anderson and Kid Rock.

'Casino Royale'

Why put this one on the list? Just because I'm not a Bond fan. Because the franchise is very long in the tooth, mired in years of campiness and cliché, and already facelifted so many times the skin is waxy and the nose is falling off. And because Paul Haggis was involved and I really don't like his writing at all. And because I was then introduced to Daniel Craig's 007 and bought in immediately. Wasn't sorry, either. It was entertaining in the way Bond movies are supposed to be enjoyable, but usually aren't. They had a mountain to climb and climbed it, so I salute them.

Top seven. It's an odd number, I realize. Maybe next year I'll come up with an even 10. Depends on the films, and whether I finally give up on the goddamn Canucks.

Dorothy Woodend put her top five 2006 picks here.  [Tyee]

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