Relationships that can't work. Marriages that don't last. Humans that can't reproduce. People who are victims of drug abuse, mob violence, terrorism and just time. Could the best films of 2006 get any more bleak?
But who says great movies have to be happy? After all, the best performances often come from actors playing characters battling difficult, painful problems, and sometimes turning out no better than they were at the beginning. And, troubling or not, these movies are all worth seeing and re-seeing, blowing away the competition in a pretty strong year at the multiplex.
Without further ado, here are the year's top films.
1. Half Nelson
The year's best movie has a plot that seems guaranteed to spin into cliche, as junior high teacher/crack addict Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) forms a friendship with one of his students (Shareeka Epps) after she catches him getting high. But Ryan Gosling is so steady and marvelous as Dunne--and "Half Nelson" is so precise in deconstructing his floundering soul--that the movie becomes the most unusual of educational dramas: an honest, shattering and ultimately uplifting film that doesn't get within 100 miles of formula. Covering the different modes of change and the pressure of opposing influences, the film's last moment is the most perfectly tuned, hopeful finale in ages.
2. Children of Men
What will the future bring? "Children of Men" doesn't try to predict the details, but in envisioning the year 2027--at which point a baby hasn't been born for 18 years--Alfonso Cuaron's stunning thriller becomes a jaw-dropping vision of suspicion and desperation when Theo (Clive Owen) tries to protect a young girl who has somehow become pregnant. The film is a miracle of technical achievement--with takes that go on so long they must've taken weeks to plan--and it woefully sees life and death as a matter of both faith and chance. The lone spark of optimism is the supremely human truth that as long as you have faith, life always has a chance.
There aren't many movies that seduce you with language and leave you trembling with excitement as you leave the theater. "Brick" is one of those movies, masterfully transposing a 1940's detective noir into a modern-day high school and playing it totally straight. Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes a damn good teenage version of Bogart, and "Brick" may be the ultimate movie about the way it feels to be in high school, surrounded by cryptic language, exclusive cliques and, among an array of beauties, the one girl that got away.
4. The Puffy Chair
Love hurts, but how often does a movie about relationships really make it seem that way? "The Puffy Chair" takes a truthful look at two people who have lost that spark as they gradually realize they may have run their course as a couple. With painful clarity, director Jay Duplass and his writer-star brother Mark show that there's no right way to love but plenty of wrong ways. You won't be able to move when it ends; in this wise and immensely sad low-budget triumph, you can literally hear the sound of hearts breaking.
5. The Departed
Proof that remakes are not pointless. With more toughness and style than he's shown in a decade, Martin Scorsese takes his own spin on the Hong Kong action flick "Infernal Affairs" and finally gives Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon a chance to become men, not boys. It takes a master of mobsters to tell such a complex crime saga with this kind of depth and electricity, and the intricate plot keeps you so engrossed that you'll think your watch is broken when you see that two-and-a-half hours have disappeared.
6. Little Children
Husbands and wives, parents and kids all confront imperfection in "Little Children," Todd Field's ("In the Bedroom") sad and sensual suburban drama of screaming infidelity. It's a visual powerhouse accentuated with across-the-board great acting by Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly and Jackie Earle Haley. It's about people becoming slaves to their instincts and needs--stimulation, mostly sexual, is need numero uno--and clinging to ideals while grasping clumsily and impulsively at ill-advised opportunities. Some have criticized the somewhat sarcastic tone, but for my money that's how the 'burbs really are: weirdly secretive and darkly comic. Field gets how difficult it is to make our lives better, simpler and safer when other people's problems seem so much easier to solve than our own. And we can try to protect kids, but who will protect us from ourselves?
7. United 93
Before watching "United 93," you can't imagine how a movie about 9/11 could be worth seeing. After viewing Paul Greengrass' tense, respectful look at one of our country's darkest days, you can't imagine how anyone could do it better. Working with what we know and speculating about a few things we don't in ways that are fair and reasonable, Greengrass documents unthinkable terror and greater courage with dignity and purpose. The movie has one of the year's best scores because it barely has one at all, and the film itself is a powerful demonstration of the real-life response to a situation many thought could only happen in the movies.
Here's one about the big stuff: life, death, love, the difficulty of communication and the randomness of existence. As sweeping and ambitious as it sounds, the latest work from director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga breaks down the human condition through a set of universal experiences that could occur anywhere involving tragedy, loneliness and loss. It's all very, very heavy, but "Babel" wraps it all together--with help from Oscar-worthy performances by Brad Pitt and breakout star Rinko Kikuchi, among others--to make you feel how we're all in this thing together, alone. The characters here are people aging a great deal in a short period of time, desperately longing for the touch of loved ones and strangers, both just beyond their reach.
9. Notes on a Scandal
A young teacher sleeps with a student, and only a closed-off veteran educator knows. Within this tabloid-style setup comes a tightly wound, teeth-grinding game of friendship and manipulation, driven by terrific turns by Cate Blanchett (as the illicit teacher) and Judi Dench (as the confidant). The movie burns down appearances of normalcy to reveal incredible neediness underneath while Patrick Marber's sophisticated script articulates the role of leverage in everyday lives. At first the finale seems like it's not as crisp and shocking as the rest of the film; yet the cold feeling "Notes on a Scandal" closes with is actually the reality that when we go too far, we often learn nothing at all--and people with too much love to give will continue to give until they can find someone willing to accept it.
10. Old Joy
Plot is not the point of "Old Joy," and if you want a movie that moves faster than a snail, you'll be bored by this flick's gentle, sleepy pace. Pristinely beautiful and overcome with longing, the movie captures two old friends on a spontaneous trip into the woods who discover that they no longer exist on the same plane. Among the lulling quiet of time passing by, director Kelly Reichardt demonstrates an equal fondness for the period we remember as "those were the days" as well as the years that inevitably take their place.
Honorable mentions: "Letters from Iwo Jima," "The Prestige," "The Painted Veil," "Find Me Guilty," "Why We Fight," "The Queen," "Borat," "Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man," "Twelve and Holding," "51 Birch St."
Matt Pais is the metromix movies producer.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times