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Our critics recall the year’s best cinema

The Science of Sleep

Not since Salvador Dali, perhaps, has a visual artist been so smitten with his own imagination. Even so, Michel Gondry hits the nail right on the head when he describes his own creativity through the words of one of the characters in The Science of Sleep: “retarded.”

“Arrested” might have been the more tactful choice, but there’s a childish quality to the creative artifacts that pack every last corner of this film. All that bulging whimsy sometimes crowds the story out of the picture—even the awkward romance between Gabriel García Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg is kind of an extended crafting hour—but Gondry’s endless DIY inventiveness is a tonic to eyes weary of soulless CGI contrivances. The movie is like the stuffed horse featured on the poster: the seams show, and that’s the whole point. (AS)

An Inconvenient Truth

Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, a cautionary and informative film about global warming, is medicine, true, but it tastes really good. The surprisingly engaging film never loses its focus—unless we do something about the way we’re living and consuming the earth’s resources we’re all going to hell in a handbag, and soon—while still being entertaining. It’s absolutely essential viewing. (NP)

The Departed

With Martin Scorsese behind the cameras and an all-world cast (Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin) in front of them, The Departed seemed too good to be true. But in a rare victory for reality over hype, this movie not only met expectations, it blew them away like so much gray matter against the wall. Virtuoso performances across the board buttress Scorsese’s deft eye and marvelous timing, but perhaps the stoutest of this film’s foundations is the whip-tight script from William Monahan. It keeps you guessing even when you know the answer, and that’s a rare accomplishment for a movie, regardless of genre and era. (ND)

United 93

There’s some weighty baggage freighting the idea of dramatizing any real-life story as emotionally scarring as the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. I can’t say if Paul Greengrass got it right as a history lesson. And I can’t conceive of how it might be perceived by those whose loved ones are portrayed struggling and dying in an unimaginable situation. All I can say is that United 93 delivers an experience so intense and immediate that I literally felt myself sweating as events unfolded, a knot of anxiety churning in my stomach. It’s a devastating 105-minute cocktail of dread, frustration and inevitable tragedy. United 93—in some ineffable fashion that defines truly visceral moviemaking—simply works, in a way that feels honest and probing yet respectful. (SR)

The Queen

Even if it weren’t wonderfully directed by Stephen Frears, and even if the script by Peter Morgan wasn’t sly, smart and funny, The Queen would still rank among the best of 2006 on the simple strength of Helen Mirren’s remarkable, from-the-inside-out portrayal of Queen Elizabeth during the period of crisis sparked by the death of her former daughter-in-law, Princess Diana. (NP)

Casino Royale

Movie-wise, I didn’t do much proselytizing in 2006. But I did lobby hard for Casino Royale to people who roll their eyes at the mere mention of a new James Bond flick. This new Bond is more properly the old Bond: the movie version that comes closest to the literary original of the Ian Fleming novel. Daniel Craig completely reinvents the role, the longest-running franchise in the movies undergoes an overhaul, and 007 emerges slightly closer to human size. He’s kind of a jerk, in fact. There’s still plenty of action, but that too has been reduced to a more credible scale, which is to say there are more foot-chases and fewer knife-fights on the tailfins of plummeting airplanes. Other seismic shakeups: no Moneypenny, no Q, no gadgets, more homoerotic sadism, and Bond tells a woman he loves her. Steady on, Bond! (AS)

Miami Vice

While the prospects of recycling anything from the vast TV wasteland of the 1980s seem dubious at best (Dukes of Hazzard, anyone?), one such project did manage to mine a chunk of redemption from that decade’s affront to all things cultural: Miami Vice. Michael Mann’s crisp and dark remake of his own pastel-and-gunpowder cult classic finds Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx in fine form as the codependent crime-fighting duo, while Mann himself finds all sorts of ways to keep the action—as well as the bikini-and-boats aesthetic for which the show was known—fresh and smart. (ND)

Little Miss Sunshine

A treasure trove of wonderfully drawn characters are thrown together in one depressed and dysfunctional family in Little Miss Sunshine, then sent on a road trip. Their mission? To deliver the adorably geeky 7-year-old Olive from Albuquerque to Southern California to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. The movie is a marvelous treatise on losers stuck in a culture that values winning and winners above all else. (NP)

Babel Love him or hate him, when Quentin Tarantino exploded into the mainstream with Pulp Fiction in 1995, he gave a whole new generation of ambitious filmmakers license to go way out there with narrative, slicing and looping and braiding it all over the place.

And while much of what came after the Tarantino supernova was simply shoddy writing iced with ironic/moronic pop-culture dissections of reproductive behavior in Smurf Village, a handful of post-PF filmmakers have actually made something of their newfound freedom from linear narrative. Alejandro Iñárritu, in particular, has refined the weaving approach of his movies into a delicate art, crocheting his characters’ lives together through the knot of some central catastrophe. In Babel it’s an accidental shooting in North Africa that sends butterfly-wing ripples from Japan to California. This film is the director’s most thought-provoking movie so far, and also his best. (AS)

Borat

Comedic genius Sasha Baron Cohen’s satirical, envelope-pushing mockumentary, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, plays as if Peter Sellers were hosting an astute and observant version of “Jackass.” Several of the most outrageously funny moments ever committed to celluloid take place during this film. There is something in Borat, thankfully, to offend nearly everyone. (NP)

Heart of Gold

My pick for best movie of 2006 is not really a movie, per se. But what Jonathan Demme does with two nights of Neil Young & Friends at Nashville’s venerable Ryman Theater in Heart of Gold may well be the cinematic accomplishment of the year. Not far removed from the brain aneurysm that nearly killed him (twice!), the ever-reinventive Young is captured here in top form as he powers through a muscled acoustic set. And Demme’s employment of nine cameras and a painstaking blocking strategy is literally breathtaking, as in the moment that angel-voiced Emmylou Harris appears like a seraph over Young’s shoulder, bathed in golden light and pure, sweet harmony. (ND)

Reviews by Nick Davis, Nicole Panter, Scott Renshaw and Andy Smetanka.

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