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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Some people say that there aren’t many good movies these days, but I don’t agree with that. I know the statement to be false because for the past three years, making a Ten Best list has been painful. Literally. Not that there aren’t enough great movies to celebrate; on the contrary, 2004, 2005, and 2006 brought so many terrific films that it was hard to choose just ten. Each year has invariably required a few difficult cuts to the list. I don’t know who came up with the whole “Ten Best” concept, but would it have killed them to make it “Fifteen Best” or “Twenty Best” instead? It sure would have made my job a whole lot easier.

I briefly considered switching to a format used by other critics – an alphabetical, unranked listing of the year’s best movies. There are two benefits to this approach: 1.) You can have more than ten films if you choose; and 2.) You don’t have to subjectively rank one movie’s excellence above another’s. This is a particularly difficult chore, as the difference between, say, a #4 film and a #5 film is often microscopic. I’m still asked whether I think Crash or Brokeback Mountain deserved to win the Best Picture Oscar last year. My response: “I love them both the same!”

The Ten Best idea did not want to go gently into that good night, though. I was asked to prepare a list by one of the radio stations that carries my reviews, so there was no way to avoid making one. And if I’m forcing myself to whittle it down to ten for radio, then I might as well do it for this website as well.

As always, a few notes before I unveil the final list. I’ve been asked what makes one movie qualify over another. For me, a Ten Best list is a chance to weigh two things: the quality of the filmmaking and the personal resonance of the story. My list is – and always has been – weighted toward movies that meant something to me personally. For example, for my #2 slot, I traditionally pick a film that really connected with me on some special level. It can be (and has been) argued that movies lower on my list are often technically “better” than my #2 pick. Perhaps, but I reserve that special slot for a film that spoke to me at some level. This year, my #2 has the benefit of being extremely well-made, but it was the way the story delivered its relatable message that put it so high on my list. I fundamentally “get” that movie.

I also try to have variety in my lists. Some critics only deem “important” movies to be worthy of Ten Best inclusion. While there’s no doubt that I have some important films here, I also have some that were just phenomenal examples of pure entertainment. Hence, you will see comedies represented here, as well as an animated feature and a musical. I fully believe that great cinema comes in many forms, and I refuse to discriminate against a movie simply because it doesn’t aim to change the world.

We’re getting closer to the list, I promise. As of press time, a few films eligible for consideration were only in extremely limited release (as in fewer than 20 screens in the whole U.S.) and had not yet opened here in Central Pennsylvania. Several studios made arrangements for me to see these films in advance; unfortunately, others did not. Therefore, the following were not eligible for inclusion on my list: Children of Men, Pan’s Labyrinth and Letters from Iwo Jima. I will review these movies when they open more widely, but that is not scheduled to occur until the point where a Ten Best list is no longer timely.

Speaking of Letters from Iwo Jima, it should be noted that the hardest movie for me to leave off this list was Flags of Our Fathers. Director Clint Eastwood filmed the two back-to-back, intending them to be companion pieces. This created something of a quandary for me. When companion pieces are released in separate years (i.e. the Lord of the Rings trilogy or Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2), I have no problem putting them on the list individually. In Eastwood’s case, the titles came out in the same year, meaning I saw one and not the other. Had I been able to see Letters in advance of this list - and if it deserved inclusion, which early acclaim suggests was likely – I probably would not have used two slots for it and Flags; instead, I would have tied them in one position to recognize the achievement in its entirety. While Flags certainly stands on its own and absolutely deserves to be called one of 2006’s best films, I am giving it a Special Achievement Award and leaving it off the list. At least, this is how I am justifying a painful cut to myself.

There were other amazing movies this year, so I want to briefly recognize the others that didn’t make the list but delighted me nonetheless. If you haven’t already, make sure you see:

Hilarious Comedies: Clerks 2, Friends With Money, The Devil Wears Prada, The Groomsmen, Strangers With Candy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Thank You For Smoking

Gripping Dramas: Akeelah and the Bee, Babel, and Steven Soderberg’s creepy and atmospheric Bubble. Also: The Illusionist, Inside Man, The Last King of Scotland, Notes on a Scandal, Something New, Water, World Trade Center

Family Films: Cars, Happy Feet, Hoot, Open Season, Over the Hedge

Captivating Documentaries: An Inconvenient Truth, Wordplay, Who Killed the Electric Car?

Amazing Action/Adventure: The Prestige, Snakes on a Plane, X-Men: The Last Stand

Okay, let’s move on to the list. Here are my picks for the Ten Best Films of 2006:

10. The Pursuit of Happyness - While this Will Smith drama has done great box office business and garnered mostly positive reviews, my 4-star rating is nonetheless higher than what most critics have given it. That may be due to the fact that I really responded to the film’s depiction of poverty. Smith plays a down-on-his-luck single father who embarks on a long shot plan to reinvent himself as a stockbroker. We see him struggle financially, lose his home, and spend nights sleeping in shelters or subway restrooms, all while doing whatever he can to give himself and his son a leg up. Sadly, I have known my share of poor people over the years. The Pursuit of Happyness realistically and unflinchingly depicts the desperation that often comes with trying unsuccessfully to make ends meet. At the same time, this true tale offers more than a glimmer of hope. By refusing to roll over and die, Chris Gardner (the man Smith plays) completely turned his life around. By taking a cold, hard look at basic human survival, the movie earns its eventual life-affirming message.

9. Blood Diamond - If you’re going to make a political message movie, this is the way to do it. Director Edward Zwick (Glory) explores Africa’s “conflict diamond” situation, showing how the sale of precious gems funded bloody revolution in places like Sierra Leone. The point is to urge us not to turn a blind eye to what’s going on in other countries, because we may be inadvertently complicit in bad things. (Yes, lots of those conflict diamonds ended up in American jewelry stores back in the 90’s.) At the same, the movie also works as an exciting adventure, with Leonardo DiCaprio helping Djimon Hounsou (in a performance of great intensity) trade one such diamond for his kidnapped family. Blood Diamond is both entertaining and important.

8. Half Nelson - This indie masterpiece didn’t get a lot of theatrical play, but be absolutely certain you at least see it on DVD. Ryan Gosling gave a haunting, unforgettable performance as an inner city middle school teacher whose crack habit is discovered by a student (marvelous newcomer Shareeka Epps). Director Ryan Fleck – who co-wrote with Anna Boden – deconstructs what it means to be a role model, as the teacher sends the student mixed messages with his professional façade and out-of-control personal life. Anthony Mackie also stars as a local drug dealer; his character may not make an honest living, but he imparts a message to the girl about staying the course and meeting responsibilities. So many movies see things in black and white; here’s one that dares to live in the gray zone, where concepts like “good” and “bad” aren’t always so clear. Half Nelson represents the independent film scene at its very best.

7. Little Children - This is a story about a real desperate housewife. Kate Winslet plays an unhappy wife who begins an affair with a Mr. Mom-type (Patrick Wilson) whom she meets at the park. Meanwhile, a registered sex offender (the superb Jackie Earle Haley) moves into the neighborhood, sending all the parents into a panic. Directed by Todd Field and based on Tom Perotta’s book, Little Children is a poignant dark satire on suburban morality. It asks us whose behavior is worse – the local pervert’s or that of the “normal” folks who cheat on their spouses and destroy each other’s families in the process. Watching this unfold makes you really uncomfortable, and I mean that in the absolute best way.

6. Monster House - Cars and Happy Feet were bigger sensations, but for me, the best animated film of the year was this fanciful and imaginative tale. A group of suburban kids believe that the creepy house on the block is actually alive and eating people. The only way to stop it is to go inside and snuff out the life force (i.e. blow out the pilot light on the furnace). Too many family films have lame stories, but not Monster House. It comes up with a solid back-story about the home and its occupant. Also, the animation was gorgeous. How nice to see an animated movie that doesn’t have talking animals!

5. Dreamgirls - For me, watching this musical was like washing down a case of sugary candy with a gallon of Mountain Dew. That’s how pumped it made me feel. Bill Condon transformed the Broadway sensation into a motion picture that bursts with style and energy from start to finish. No wonder the crowd in the theater kept bursting into applause! Following the trials and tribulations of a 60’s R&B girl group, the movie featured solid performances from Beyonce Knowles (as one of the group’s singers) and Jamie Foxx (as their Barry Gordy-esque manager). The standouts, though, were Eddie Murphy as a raucous soul singer and former “American Idol” contestant Jennifer Hudson as the group’s displaced leader. When Hudson belts out the famous show-stopping number “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going”…well, that’s the stuff goose bumps are made of.

4. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan - Not just the funniest movie of this year, but also the funniest movie I’ve seen in the last ten years. I’d been a fan of Sacha Baron Cohen’s faux Kazakh reporter since first stumbling upon HBO’s “Da Ali G Show” a few years back. Even that didn’t prepare me for the no-holds-barred hilarity of this Candid Camera-style “documentary.” Amazingly, Baron Cohen never breaks character, no matter how incredulously (or, in the case of those drunken frat boys, offensively) his unsuspecting victims react. Borat made me laugh harder than I knew I was capable of laughing. One word description: genius.

3. The Departed - There’s no doubt that Martin Scorsese is as great a filmmaker as there has ever been. While his movies are always worth seeing, there are several that have rightly achieved “classic” status: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas. You can now add The Departed to that list. This superior remake of a Japanese thriller called Infernal Affairs teams Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Alec Baldwin, Mark Wahlberg, and Martin Sheen in a twisty crime drama that looks at issues of loyalty, punishment, and retribution. In other words, it’s Scorsese doing what he does best. It’s kind of a weird word to use when describing a movie, but The Departed is nothing short of electrifying.

2. Little Miss Sunshine - Oh, how I loved this movie. While not the first film ever to portray a dysfunctional family on a road trip, this is certainly the best. Expertly mixing comedy with shrewd behavioral observations, Michael Arndt’s screenplay (directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Feris) makes you laugh while it’s simultaneously making a point. Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, and the brilliant Steve Carell play self-pitying family members who hop into a VW van and head for California so the little girl can participate in a beauty pageant. Yes, there are mishaps along the way, and of course everyone learns a lesson at the end. What I liked – aside from the quirky humor – was the freshness of the message. Little Miss Sunshine reminds us that succeeding doesn’t automatically make you a winner, and failing doesn’t automatically make you a loser. What a beautiful message in a wonderfully acerbic – yet somehow sweet - film.

And my choice for the Best Film of 2006 is:

Passengers prepare to rise up against their terrorist hijackers in United 93, the best film of 2006
1. United 93 - But not for the reasons you might expect. Yes, this 9/11 movie is obviously powerful and affecting. While that certainly figures into the equation, I pick this as the year’s best because director Paul Greengrass takes an innovative approach to the subject matter. By shooting in a documentary style, telling the story in real time, and eschewing stars in favor of capable but unfamiliar actors, Greengrass creates the ultimate you-are-there historical recreation. Done the wrong way, United 93 could have been exploitive. However, the director’s technique serves to enlighten and inform us. We come to understand what must have happened on that terrifying flight and, more importantly, we understand how and why the passengers acted as they did. Surely, they were the first ones on the front line of America’s war on terror. Armed with the knowledge that their flight was intended as a suicide mission, the planeload of strangers worked together to foil the terrorists. There’s absolutely no movie artifice to United 93. It does everything it can to mentally put us on that plane, feeling the fear – and ultimately the determination – that the passengers felt. While a 9/11 movie may be too soon for some viewers, I found that United 93 really helped me heal. This is an admiring tribute to the heroes of that flight, and it’s also an affirmation of their message to us: if confronted with terrorism, do whatever you can to fight back.

So there you have it, the Ten Best Films of 2006, along with a handful of other recommendations. Happy moviegoing!

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