It probably says something about the world's collective psychological state that the best movies of the year tended to be the darkest ones, too. The most memorable movies also had the highest body counts and lots of gruesome images that, months later, are still burned into my brain. Actually, maybe I need some counseling.
There were a few lighter moments too--Almodóvar came through with a glorious ode to the strength of women in general, and the industrial cantilevered wonder of Penelope Cruz's cleavage in particular. The best horror movies were equally scary and funny. Borat and Little Miss Sunshine were wicked and hilarious. But mostly, I think we can definitely say that the unifying theme of 2006 was people getting shot in the head.
Here's the list, not particularly ranked.
Only in a Guillermo del Toro movie would a little girl see a giant flying praying mantis-like bug and say with delight, "Are you a fairy?" A children's movie that no one under 18 should see, the fantasy world in Pan's Labyrinth is just about as scary and painful as real life. Also, Maribel Verdú is awesome as Mercedes, the gutsiest character of the year, and Sergi López, as usual, rules.
Children of Men
Two of the best movies of the year were by Mexican directors, and this one specifically addresses the persecution of migrants as one of the biggest ways our society is screwing itself over. Set in a not-so-distant future in which the whole world is totally fucked, this movie has the most incredible continuous tracking action shots I've ever seen. Clive Owen may not have gotten to be the new Bond, but he's still a great action star. Also features the best car chase scene with a non-running car.
This movie was already really awesome and engrossing when it was just about some women in over their heads (haha!) on a caving expedition gone wrong. Then when the slimy albino flesh-eaters start crawling up the walls, it's like an added bonus. Truly shockingly gory and depraved. Loved it.
A real sock to the gut. It's hard to do a character like this one: a drug-addicted, self-pitying, spectacular disaster of a man who hates everything in his whole life, but is also a gifted teacher and does it all for the children. Sounds awful, doesn't it? Somehow, Ryan Gosling (?!) pulls it off. The most unlikely great movie of the year. And Shareeka Epps as the student he befriends is amazing--watching her become older and wiser is the best part of the movie. I'm sure she'll really blow all our minds in Alien vs Predator 2.
It's hard to talk about this movie strictly in terms of its artistic merit, since it used original source material for much of the script, and so many people played themselves in the military and ATC scenes. Here's what I liked about it: I delayed watching this movie for a long time because I thought I'd be a total mess watching it, but in reality, it was so exhilarating and consuming that there wasn't any time to cry. This movie is the opposite of sentimental. United 93 is about regular people struggling to do the right thing in an impossible situation, and not an attempt to lionize American heroes or make a political statement. Those last 15 minutes or so, when everybody on the plane is equally terrified and desperate, are jaw-dropping.
Leo still thinks scrunching up his face = acting. Jack Nicholson is a tap dancing orangutan of a self-parody. But hey! Martin Scorsese! Good to have to you back. Thank you for making a fun, exciting movie instead of trying to start a cult. And for casting Alec Baldwin.
Now that's more like it. None of that prissy Bond who looks like he's posing for a cologne ad. The new, improved Bond isn't so suave, but he's tough and funny and looks great when he's sweaty and naked. Ahem.
Spanish women are the toughest people on the planet (see also Pan's Labyrinth). I honestly can't remember that much about what actually happened in this movie, or what it was about, but I loved the characters almost as much as Almodóvar does, so I don't think it matters. A big step up from Talk to Her and easily as good as All About My Mother, even if there aren't as many trannies.
The meaning of this movie is a mystery locked away somewhere in the horrorshow amusement park of David Lynch's mind. Oh wait, right, it's about a woman in trouble. Anyway, it's bewildering and creepy as hell and somehow adds up to something that is really interesting, if not coherent.
And a tie for the last spot: Tzameti and Running Scared
Both of these movies are about horrible violence and contain really awful cruelty, so, you know, watch out. Tzameti is impressive in how it maintains high tension even after you know what the mysterious game at the center of the movie is, and Running Scared is just totally relentless and sick action--the cinematic equivalent of having a hockey puck shot at your face over and over again. Fun, right? OK, I guess I do need counseling.
Some other notables: Brick for being so creative and stylish that I think I missed the majority of the dialogue; Little Children for the always amazing Jane Adams, who is in just one brief scene but was my favorite part of the movie, which was good but weirdly stagnant; Babel for the Japanese girl and the club scene; and Notes on a Scandal for Judi Dench's evil predatory glee.
You'll note there is no The Queen or either of Clint Eastwood's WWII movies in here, and also no Nacho Libre. I didn't see them.
Do you realize that TWO Steven Soderbergh movies came out this year (Bubble and The Good German) and basically nobody thought they were any good? Also: Cate Blanchett had three major roles, in Notes on a Scandal, The Good German, and Babel. Kate Winslet was in Holiday, All the King's Men, and Little Children. They can apparently do anything.
Earlier years: 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001.