Joe Bowman | Films

propositionJust as I did last year, I could come up with no clear-cut best film of the year. Michael Haneke's Caché emerged as the best after serious pondering, but no sleepless nights of consideration could bring me to name any of these films the stand-alone best film of 2006. So, I've alphabetized what I deduced as the ten finest films of the year with a couple of runners-up that got bumped from last-minute, frenzied film viewing for the past two weeks. Of course, I didn't have a chance to see everything, so the list could easily change by the time this is published. Notable films that I didn't get around to seeing include The Departed, The Queen, Old Joy, L'Enfant, Inland Empire, Three Times, Little Children, Shut Up and Sing, Gabrielle, and Half Nelson. As of right now, here it is for your viewing and arguing pleasure: my 10 best films of 2006.

Brothers of the Head

Brothers of the Head (IFC Films, R)

It may seem strange to admire a film that's maimed by a grave fault. Directed by the guys who made the documentary Lost in La Mancha, Brothers of the Head is their first narrative feature, and unfortunately the two didn't seem confident enough to step away from their documentary roots. Despite the unnecessary error in making this film a mockumentary (though I can always appreciate Ken Russell as a talking head), the directors created a beautiful and poignant tale of conjoined twins (Harry and Luke Treadaway) on their way to punk rock superstardom in 1970s England. The film's musical scenes are rollicking and vibrant, but it's the tender moments where the film unexpectedly tackles issues of identity and relationships that sound louder than the rowdiest pub in London.

The Descent (Lionsgate, R)

When your grandparents tell you about how they could barely take a shower after seeing Hitchcock's Pyscho, the jaded asshole within wants to laugh at them. Puhleeze, Grandma, if that made you scared, my little sister has some R.L. Stine books that‘ll be sure to make you shit your pants. Well, The Descent was my introduction to the sort of fear cinema has the power to instill in an audience. Trust me, I crossed spelunking off my list of things to do before I die after seeing Neil Marshall's terrifying tale of a group of British ladies trapped in a cave. Unlike the gore and torture fests that the American youth of today consider horror films (though there‘s plenty of flesh-eating to please the most elite of the splatterpunks), Marshall is more concerned with what isn't seen, using every tiny crevasse and dark turn in his setting magnificently. The sheer terror and distress that tightened within me can't be easily explained, and while the film does regrettably relieve some of the tension once the cave monsters are actually visualized, I urge you claustrophobics to beware. Visceral cinema experiences like this don't come around very often.

The Intruder (Wellspring Media, NR)

Though not for those with little patience, Claire Denis' The Intruder is easily her most impressive and fascinating film since 1999's Beau Travail. With this film, she crafts a finely interior film about an emotionally bankrupt hitman with a failing heart (Michel Subor of Jean-Luc Godard's Le Petit Soldat) and his unsympathetic struggle to illegally find a new one. Most of what happens in The Intruder doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but this comes not from incompetence but an intellectual trust Denis has with her audience. Visually, her film is impeccable, and while it‘s difficult to recommend a film as cold and troubling as this, The Intruder is so menacing and peculiar that it's difficult to keep your eyes away from the screen.

Next Door (NR)

It's not very often that I would include a film that bypassed a U.S. theatrical release altogether only to quietly sneak into video stores on this list, but a film as unnerving and fascinating as Next Door should not go unnoticed. The cover art proudly boasts similarities to Roman Polanski and David Lynch, and, though these are fair comparisons, to qualify the film's richly visual, claustrophobic atmosphere with such comparisons is to cheapen director Pål Sletaune's mesmerizing vision. Despite the fact that it does fall into the trappings of a weak explanatory conclusion, you have to respect a film whose frantic weirdness actually rivals that of Polanski's The Tenant.

The Proposition (First Look Pictures, R)

In his second screenplay, it would come as no surprise to fans of Nick Cave that the western genre would be the perfect setting for his morbid, romantic musings. The film plays almost like a film adaptation of one of his murder ballads, where a law enforcement officer (Ray Winstone) offers a bargain with an outlaw (Guy Pearce) to save his and his younger brother's life in exchange for the head of his violent, nomadic brother (Danny Huston). Within the western genre, Cave can reduce his characters to their most primitive, all within a world where the hopes for civilization looms above these man-beasts. While excessively violent, The Proposition plays like the darkest epic poem of a town and nation's history.

Shadowboxer (Freestyle Releasing, R)

Suspend your disbelief for just a moment and imagine a violent sex scene between one of the last remaining actress with class, Helen Mirren, and Snow Dogs and Boat Trip's Cuba Gooding Jr. Then, picture in your head Mysterious Skin and 3rd Rock from the Sun's Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a doctor, who happens to be dating Phat Girlz's Mo'Nique, who's a crackhead. And then, if you can, try Macy Gray stumbling across a bar and turning to the most toe-up tranny you've ever seen and asking, in her banshee who's been chain-smoking since age three voice, if she'd like a drink to add to Macy's five. And these are simply the chess pieces of Lee Daniels' puzzling directorial debut. Films this relentlessly unnecessary and dreadful only come around once a decade (Showgirls and Mommie Dearest, if you will), and Shadowboxer has proudly taken that claim for whatever-we're-calling-this-decade. Whether an abysmal misfire or parody that no one's aware of (there's a scene where a character is watching Susan Hayward singing in Valley of the Dolls on the television), you can't help but ask why this film was made, all while watching in such rapturous horror, disbelief, and joyous pleasure.

Shortbus (ThinkFilm, R)

Both emotionally profound and curiously meta, Mitchell and his non-actors designed the characters together for Shortbus, breathing an air of authenticity and, at the same time, subversive theories on the nature of acting and filmmaking. The actors, especially Sook-Yin Lee as a "pre-orgasmic" relationship counselor, resonate with undeniable genuineness that you not only sympathize with these people, but you wish you were friends with them. It's hard to separate the characters from the actors, as they all appear to be playing themselves or, at least, extensions of their personalities, and partaking in unsimulated sex acts with one another. This strange contradiction is always in balance in Mitchell's hands, in a film that succeeds at coexisting emotional and theoretical levels. Shortbus is thoroughly resonant, blissfully triumphant, and admirably hopeful in its depiction of the anxieties and struggles of a generation.

Time to Leave (Le Temps Qui Reste) (Strand Releasing, NR)

Taking cue from womens' melodramas of the 1950s, François Ozon takes a distinctly French approach to his tale of a successful 31-year-old fashion photographer's (Melvil Poupaud) dealing with the anguish of finding out he has terminal cancer. Unlike the plucky farce of Last Holiday or the weepy drama of Autumn in New York, Ozon handles Le Temps qui reste (literally, The Time That Remains) with minimal superficiality or obvious conclusions. Instead, the film is more of a mood poem about grief and inevitable closure. Ozon steps away from his more widely successful, pulpier 8 Women (8 femmes) and Swimming Pool in creating a thematic sequel to his sublime Under the Sand (Sous le sable) that succeeds just as effectively and hauntingly as its predecessor. With ample help from Jeanne Moreau as Poupaud's aging grandmother and Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi as a humble diner waitress, Le Temps qui reste stands as an eloquent example of Ozon's transformation from the garçon terrible of French cinema to one of their finest filmmakers.

United 93 (Universal Films, R)

Despite any reservations I might have had in watching a film depicting any of the events of 9/11, Paul Greengrass' astounding United 93 captures one of the most terrifying moments in our recent history with grace and skill. It's certainly not a sentimental film, but it isn't without heart either. Our villains aren't faceless or omnipotent evil; they're scared and pious young men out for a cause that Greengrass never tries to make the audience understand. There's an immediacy about United 93 that presents its images matter-of-fact instead of trying to fluff them up. I guarantee that the final moments of United 93 will be some of the most riveting sequences of film you'll see all year.

Volver (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

Reducing his male characters to mere catalysts, Almodóvar does what he does best: turns the camera to his women. Though notable for his first collaboration with Carmen Maura since Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, it's in Penélope Cruz that he finds his next great actress. His camera loves her, and Volver is such a lovely film that you can't help but fall for her too. Taking a clever spin on the mother-who-wants-to-reconnect-with-her-daughter tale (Maura appears to have came back from the dead to make her peace with Cruz), Almodóvar replaces the nifty plot twists of Talk to Her and Bad Education with delicate moments of sincerity. One might be afraid that this is a sign of the director losing his spunk, but Volver is adorned with equal parts vivaciousness and subtlety in the best possible way.

Honorable Mentions: 20 Centimeters (for being the most rousing musical experience of the past few years; Clean (for beautifully telling a tale that could have been extraordinarily mundane and for the superb performances from Maggie Cheung and Nick Nolte); Dave Chappelle's Block Party (for its surprising emotional depth); I Am a Sex Addict (for finally showing us that the digital revolution may be a good thing); Manderlay (for when the film becomes something more than just a sequel to the masterful Dogville); Miami Vice (for being one of the quietest and most effective action film of the year) | Joe Bowman

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