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January 9, 2007 |

By Daniel Carlson | Guides | January 9, 2007 |

This time last year, Messrs. Rowles, Carlson, and myself sat down and wrote three separate yet often overlapping lists of the previous year’s best films, each of us cackling giddily (you guys cackled giddily, too, right?) as we combed our memories and recalled the many happy hours of 2005 we’d whiled away in the dark. It had been such a rich, exciting year at the movies that the most difficult part of the task was narrowing our lists down to just 10 films; in the end each of us cheated a little. Sure, there were plenty of terrible flicks released that year, but with films like Capote, The Constant Gardener, Syriana, The Squid and the Whale, and that gay cowboy movie to look back on, they hardly seemed to matter. In addressing the year’s worst films, we limited ourselves to five each (more or less) and dismissed them in a few, brief lines.

It’s no coincidence that our approach has changed this year, with only one joint list of the best films but two separate lists of the worst films of the year and those that most failed to live up to their hype (and we still missed some excellent candidates). For all the startling debuts (Brick, Half Nelson) and the brilliant new entries from directors we’ve always counted on (The Departed, The Queen, Volver), there were long stretches of the spring and summer when our local multiplexes seemed entirely devoid of anything worth getting worked up over. In a year when Bryan Singer broke his streak of worthwhile comic-book-to-film adaptations and was upstaged by Brett Ratner, the hack who replaced him on the franchise he’d established; Brian De Palma couldn’t even turn out a compelling noir; and Sharon Stone couldn’t even keep her knees apart, all bets were off. Indeed, one of the most difficult aspects of assembling the list below was coming up with 10 films we could agree genuinely deserved the recognition.

So many of the best films of 2006 are somehow less than the sum of their parts. For all its popularity and critical acclaim — both deserved, due to the consistently great performances and several terrific scenes — Little Miss Sunshine, an early contender for the list, is ultimately undone by its ridiculous plot contrivances. Other films, including The Illusionist and A Prairie Home Companion, didn’t have any specific flaws we could point to; ultimately we just felt that, while they were very good films, they weren’t quite great. And looking at the films released during any year, you want to be able to believe that at least 10 were great, or near enough that the difference is negligible. So, after some considerable debate, we’ve arrived at the following 10 films that we believe meet that standard, listed alphabetically to avoid any further arbitrary value judgments. Here’s hoping that y’all enjoyed these as much as we did, and that 2007 turns out to be a better, more enjoyable year at the multiplex, despite early indications to the contrary. — Jeremy C. Fox

Babel: The first of three films on the list to spring from a Mexican director, Babel is the sprawling international tale of interconnected heartbreak that Paul Haggis only wishes he could create; this is P.T. Anderson territory, only without all the smiles. Alejandro González Iñárritu delves again into the dark world around us and the random ways we’re all connected; it sounds trite, but it works. Brad Pitt is stunning as a reserved American tourist driven to the edge when his wife (Cate Blanchett) is shot in Morocco. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s close. — Daniel Carlson

Brick: I fell hard for every glistening second of writer-director Rian Johnson’s heartbreaking debut. Setting his melodramatic noir, complete with complex argot, in the halls of a Southern California high school is a gimmick that Johnson keeps from collapsing by infusing the story with verve, guts, and more than a little violence. With a haunting score from brother Nathan, Brick is John Hughes by way of Dashiell Hammett: Snappy, sleek, and impossible not to watch. — DC

Children of Men: Seriously, we should just assign some kind of group nickname to the Iñárritu-Cuarón-del Toro unit; Trio? Troika? These guys are turning out some amazing films, and this year was a big year for all three. Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men is a postapocalyptic thriller that’s really a chase movie that’s really a love story that’s really a political commentary that’s really, well, brilliant. P.D. James’ novel about a near-future where women are infertile is just a springboard for Cuarón to explore a world where the government has turned on its people. Every shot exists for a purpose, and the detailed design and effects heighten the sense of reality. — DC

The Departed: From Jack Nicholson’s Satanic growl to the opening strains of the Rolling Stones, The Departed is Martin Scorsese’s full-throated proclamation that he’s not yet done making some of the best films of his generation. Diving into the grimy streets of Boston, The Departed is a fantastically Americanized version of Hong Kong’s Infernal Affairs, a tortured tale of fathers and sons and the revenge men visit on each other. The cast is pitch-perfect, but it’s Leonardo DiCaprio who sets himself apart as the undercover cop trying to take down a gang; it’s the first real adult performance of his career. — DC

Half Nelson: After all of the dull, earnest, phony, white-teachers- reaching-out-to-inner-city-kids films of the past 15 years (and the past weekend — I’m looking at you, Freedom Writers), Half Nelson comes as a welcome respite, focusing on a white teacher from a perfectly normal middle-class family who is nonetheless far more fucked up than any of his disadvantaged students. The plot ties together a little too neatly at the end, bringing together its parallel stories in a way that feels too contrived to be fully convincing, but the performances of Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps (who, I agree with Dustin, displays a precocious maturity that leaves my beloved La Fanning in the dust) are brilliant enough that we’re willing to overlook that. — JCF

Little Children: Todd Field’s suburban melodrama could easily have become laughable: It’s got the adulterous housewife, the shiftless young husband, and a quirky subplot about a recently paroled pedophile. But Field, who adapted the screenplay with Tom Perotta from Perotta’s novel, walks a fine line between satire and silliness, keeping the film emotionally honest without becoming simplistic; Little Children is a roving, searching film that probes the meaning of modern life and isn’t satisfied with the answers. Complex and unyielding, the film is tough to label, but in the best of ways. — DC

Pan’s Labyrinth: Guillermo del Toro, to the relief of many, is finally starting to grow up; ironically enough, he did it by creating a fairy tale. Abandoning the dumb-fuTM appeal of Blade II and Hellboy, del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is a haunting, gorgeous storybook fantasy about a young girl who’s the reincarnated spirit of a princess, and who must undergo three tasks to save her kingdom. Set against the rise of fascism in 1940s Spain, the film examines the meaning of what it means to love and obey, and it blends magical realism and phenomenal production design while examining the horrors of which men are capable, and the dreams that can save them. — DC

The Queen: Let’s not pretend that 2006 was anything other than The Year of Helen Mirren. Between her performance here as Queen Elizabeth II, her performance as her predecessor in Elizabeth I, and her brilliant, corrosive final bow as Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison in the final installment of the “Prime Suspect” series, Mirren showed a range and skill that almost every living actress (or actor) should envy. Combine her shockingly human portrayal of QE2 with Peter Morgan’s insightful script and Stephen Frears’ supple and subtle direction and you have, simply, one of the best films of the year. — JCF

United 93: This movie was able to stir up a tremendous hue and cry before anyone had even seen it — just the trailer was enough to set folks off. “It’s too soon,” many said, while others felt it would always be so. But confronting the horrors of life is one of the essential functions of any art, and Paul Greengrass’ take on the September 11, 2001, hijacking of this airplane full of ordinary, frightened, courageous people manages catharsis without ever reaching for melodrama. Taking a simple, ground-level approach to such overwhelmingly emotional events, Greengrass manages to put the viewer right into the eye of the storm, making everyone, from the passengers to the air traffic controllers to, yes, even the terrorists, believably and empathetically human. — JCF

Volver: Even Pedro Almodóvar’s least films are better than most filmmakers’ best, and his latest effort revisits many elements of his early masterpieces with the hard-won maturity and sensitivity of an old master. Reuniting with his early muse, Carmen Maura, and pulling an unexpectedly exquisite performance out of the oft-maligned Penélope Cruz, Almodóvar combined intrigue, melodrama, and dark comedy to create a film that could serve as a manifesto of the themes and issues that have always fascinated him. More importantly, though, he created a vastly entertaining film that explores the empowerment of women without ever feeling like some cheesy Lifetime Network bullshit. — JCF

Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

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