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The best movies of 2006

By Roger Ebert

Yes, I know it's a year late, but a funny thing happened to me on the way to compiling a list of the best films of 2006. I checked into the hospital in late June 2006 and didn't get out again until spring of 2007. For a long while, I just didn't feel like watching movies. Then something revolved within me, and I was engaged in life again.

I started writing reviews of the 2006 films, starting with "The Queen" (2006), and screened the Oscar nominees to make my annual predictions. Then I began doubling back to pick up as many promising titles as I could. Am I missing some pf the year's worthy entries? No doubt. But even in a good year I'm unable to see everything. And I'm still not finished with my 2006 discoveries. I'm still looking at more 2007 movies, too, and that list will run as usual in late December.

Nothing I am likely to see, however, is likely to change my conviction that the year's best film was "Pan's Labyrinth."

And so these were 2006's best films:

1 Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" tells opposite stories and does both of them full justice. On the one hand, there is an outpost of Franco's fascist army in the forests of Spain, seeking its enemies shortly after the Spanish Civil War. On the other hand, there is the fantastical world of a young girl whose mother is married to the monstrous captain in charge of the unit. She is led into a labyrinth by a fairy, and encounters the bizarre and disturbing world of a faun who tells her she is really a princess and must strive to accomplish three tasks to be reunited with her dead father.

It is universally assumed that this world exists only in the girl's fantasy, but I am not so sure. The film plays as well if it is a real but parallel world, in which she can correct such evils as fascism. The special effects are nightmarish and effective, including the faun and a giant toad, and it takes courage to go into that labyrinth -- and also to emerge again into a world of politics and cruelty. Del Toro doesn't compromise on the fantasy, or the reality.

2 "Bubble," Steven Soderbergh's film delicately examines the everyday life of three Ohio factory workers. To cast his film, Soderbergh used actual blue-collar workers from the district; he structured their performances and the plot, but remained open to their real lives, and we see the desperation of working poverty, in which you work double shifts, stare at the TV and collapse. Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), who cares for her father, has enough money to own a car; Kyle (Dustin Ashley), who lives in a mobile home, depends on her for rides to a doll factory. Then Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins) gets a job in the factory. She's younger and prettier than the fat Martha, but is Martha jealous? No, she doesn't want Kyle's love but his dependency on her. How this pays off is completely unforeseen but sort of inevitable, and it illustrates the bleakness and poverty of imagination of their quietly desperate world.

3 "Children of Men" is Alfonso Cuaron's fantasy set in the year 2027, when terrorism has rendered the world ungovernable, and no children have been born in 18 years. When a newborn infant and its mother Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) come into the circle of the hero (Clive Owen), he joins with a former lover (Julianne Moore) and her associate (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in an underground movement, to help the young woman find refuge in a rumored haven off the coast of Britain. This involves a journey across the land, and a stop at the home of a courageous aging hippie (Michael Caine) who tries to live somewhat outside the system. The view of the deteriorating society they travel through is humbling; is this where we are headed?

4 "The Departed" is Martin Scorsese's story of loyalties and deceptions in the worlds of two kids who grow up as impostors: One becomes a gangster (Matt Damon) who goes undercover as a cop, and the other (Leonardo DiCaprio) becomes a cop who goes undercover as a gangster. Each one is assigned to find the other, and each knows things he must conceal; there is a chilling moment when one is given the wrong address and goes to the right one instead. The movie's crosscurrents of plot and emotion are terrifying in their application of unforgiving logic. Scorsese, so good for so many years, finally won an Oscar for this film, as best director.

5 "The Lives of Others" is a film by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, about a member of the Stasi, the East German secret police during the cold war, and how he spies on a playwright suspected of treason. As he shares their lives through earphones day after day, his own life comes to seem more bleak and friendless than ever, and he makes certain decisions which the film doesn't underline, but simply regards with detached objectivity. The central performance by Ulrich Muehe is a masterpiece of observation about how a man can shut down or open up in reaction to the inhuman requirements of the state.

6 "United 93," written and directed by Paul Greengrass, could have been a routine thriller, even an exploitation film, but it is a masterful reconstruction of what happened on board the 9/11 plane that never did reach its intended target -- the one that was brought down in a Pennsylvania field by passengers' determined not to cave in to hijackers. Greengrass underlines the impact by making his film entirely in the present tense; at no time do his passengers have any more knowledge than the real ones must have had at the time. That's effective in placing us in the moment.

7 "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters from Iwo Jima" are two paired films by the hugely ambitious Clint Eastwood, who shows the most relentless battle of World War II from the American side, and then, with subtitles, from the Japanese side. Some 44,000 died in a few weeks on a small island in the Pacific, fighting with raw courage, and on the Japanese side, with full knowledge that they would die. With masterful production planning, Eastwood is able to make the strategies of both sides clear, and we understand what is happening and how deadly it is, and how the famous photograph of the flag being raised over Iwo Jima does not represent what is assumed, or even show what it seems to show. There is a heartbreaking subplot about Ira Hayes, the Native American who was one of those who raised the flag.

8 "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer," directed by Tom Tykwer ("Run Lola Run"), is based on the portrait of deep evil in Patrick Suskind's mesmerizing novel. A strange little man is born with no body odor of his own (is he the spawn of the devil?) but a nose so sensitive that he can live on a different plane from other people. He grows obsessed with extracting the aromas of beautiful women and becomes a serial killer in the service of his craft. Since neither novel nor movie can impart scents, it would seem they have impossible tasks, but not at all; the film is transgressive in suggesting how much its hero's gift violated the rights and persons of those around him.

9 "Babel," Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's cross-cutting film, shows us characters in Morocco, the United States, Mexico and Japan, all altered by the introduction of a rifle into their matrix. They speak different languages, yes, but more crucially they speak different images and contexts; what is meaningful in one world is inconsequential in another. The linkage is not just a narrative gimmick, but essential to the film's view of cultures in conflicts that are sometimes unconscious.

The inclusion of films in the best 10 by Gonzalez Inarritu, Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro is emblematic of the stature of the current Mexican cinema; all three have emerged as among the best recent directors.

10 "Man Push Cart" by Ramin Bahrani is as strong as or stronger than anything produced by Italian neorealism, and in the same spirit. The Iranian-American director follows the daily life of an immigrant from Pakistan as he operates a stainless-steel coffee and bagel cart on the sidewalks of New York and lives a marginal economic existence. The title reduces his life to his basic element; he was once a rock star at home, but now he pushes a cart. Bahrani's gifts as a filmmaker were evident again at Toronto 2007, when he premiered "Chop Shop," another unremitting portrait of life on the edge in New York City.

The year 2007 was not precisely Robert Altman's 50th anniversary as a filmmaker, but "The James Dean Story," his first feature, was released in 1957, and so the year will serve. This special recognition is given to the great director, who died on Nov. 20, 2006, depriving the film world of one of its most fertile and inspiring geniuses. It goes in particular to his elegiac and bittersweet "A Prairie Home Companion," which I am convinced is a farewell film of sorts, as the magician lays down his rough magic and a radio show goes off the air. In terms of its content, it is musical, funny, moving, mysterious. In terms of its function, it is difficult not to see the Garrison Keillor character as standing in for Altman, as he observes that everything must eventually run its course. If this film is a farewell to his career, I wonder if Altman's previous film, "The Company" (2003), was a tribute to his own work style. The largely improvised story of a year in the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, it stars Malcolm McDowell as "Mr. A," obviously intended as Gerald Arpino, the Joffrey's co-founder and artistic director. But maybe there is another "Mr. A" in view, too, who uses the same directorial method of low-key suggestion, elusive ways of collaboration, a sense of community, an openness to innovation.

I was so ill when Altman died, they didn't even tell me. When I finally heard the news, I immediately thought of this film. I watched it again, and found myself crying. I miss him so much.

Alphabetically: "49 Up," the latest chapter of Michael Apted's epic documentary series, tracking the lives of the same British citizens every seven years; "The Devil and Daniel Johnston," about an elusive and troubled but legendary singer-songwriter; the Oscar winner "An Inconvenient Truth," containing Al Gore's warning on global meltdown; "Isn't This a Time," about a final reunion of the legendry folk group the Weavers; "The Real Dirt on Farmer John," about an unconventional Illinois farmer who runs a self-sustaining organic farm; "Shut Up and Sing," about the Dixie Chicks and their troubles after their lead singer was critical of George W. Bush, and "Unknown White Male," the strange case of a man who may or may not have had amnesia.

At many great festivals, including Cannes, this prize essentially means: A large minority on the jury strongly feels this is the film that should have won. This year it is shared by 10 films, alphabetically:

"Akeelah and the Bee," the story of a young girl (Keke Palmer) who is a gifted speller and finds that opens doors to solving problems in her life; "Come Early Morning," with one of Ashley Judd's best performances as a hard-drinking rural contractor whose life is spinning out of control; "Hard Candy," starring Ellen ("Juno") Page as a completely different and astonishingly transgressive young girl who gets revenge on a man; "L'Enfant" by the Dardenne brothers, about two young drifters who have a baby, and the callow and heartless husband who decides to sell it; "Little Miss Sunshine," with Abigail Breslin and a colorful family on a cross-country odyssey to a beauty pageant.

Also, "The Queen" by Stephen Frears, with Helen Mirren's Oscar-winning performance as Queen Elizabeth II; "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones as a ranch worker who wants revenge and a proper burial for his murdered friend; "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story" by Michael Winterbottom, about an attempt to film an elusive British classic only one of the filmmakers has read; "Tsotsi" by Gavin Hood, starring Presley Chweneyagae as a South African township hoodlum, in last year's winner as best foreign language film, and Pedro Almodovar's "Volver," with Penelope Cruz and Carmen Maura, about a mother's ghost who returns to tidy things.

Every year we traditionally declare a 10-way tie for 11th place. The distinguished films this year are Eric Byler's "Americanese," about a tentative romance much entangled with the Asian heritage of the three people involved; Rian Johnson's "Brick," transposing a hard-boiled detective style to a modern high school; Olivier Assayas' "Clean," with Maggie Cheung as a drug-addicted fading rock star who wants her child back from her father-in-law (Nick Nolte); Cristi Puiu's "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," about an ambulance service in Romania doggedly determined to find a hospital for a dying man, and Bill Condon's "Dreamgirls," the high-octane musical.

Also Ryan Fleck's "Half Nelson," with Ryan Gosling as a high school teacher with a drug problem, and a student who tries to help; James Marsh's "The King," with Gael Garcia Bernal as a young man in search of his father; Marc Forster's "Stranger Than Fiction," with Will Ferrell as a man who hears his own life being narrated in his head; Jason Reitman's "Thank You for Smoking," a brilliant satire about Big Tobacco, and Michael Cuesta's "Twelve and Holding," about three kids who take desperate measures to turn around their lives.

Reviews of most of these titles are online at rogerebert.com

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