The year's best films: 2006

by Helene Wong / 30 December, 2006


1. A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, directed by David Cronenberg
This astonishing meta-thriller was about more things than any other film in mainstream cinemas this year. There was Cronenberg's regular interest in identity - what are the parts of ourselves that we choose to hide and what are the parts that we choose to display, and what happens when they splinter? -- but there was also, in the implausible switch between good Tom and bad Tom (Viggo Mortensen in both cases) sharp comment about the mendaciousness of Hollywood thrillers and the vigilante impulses they celebrate: all those films in which law-abiding family men suddenly find themselves capable of outgunning and out-thinking professional criminals while we urge them on.

2. THE NEW WORLD, directed by Terrence Malick
Inexplicably, this missed out on a local release and went to DVD after festival screenings. But The New World needs a screen as big as Malick's vision: this director is a lyrical nature poet and the Pocahontas story is the perfect canvas for his romantic assertions about the primacy of the natural world and states of innocence against the degradations of civilisation. Malick has been widely criticised as self-indulgent, but the final, moving moments of this epic are startlingly economical - a film-school lesson in storytelling through images.

3. MUNICH, directed by Steven Spielberg
Set in 1972, Munich is both an expertly conceived 70s-style espionage movie - in the tradi-tion of, say, Day of the Jackal - and an investigation into a secret agent's doubt and soul-searching, as he questions the story that Israel is worth any number of other people's lives. Violence begets violence and vengeance is embittering - surely that's why Spielberg's last shot is of two Israeli men arguing in front of the World Trade Center.

4. CHILDREN OF MEN, directed by Alfonso Cuaron
A beautifully stylised vision of a dismal England. This eccentric, violent and oddly funny sci-fi thriller depicts a future - the year is 2027 - that feels like a very plausible extension of right now, with its terror alerts, its media events, its refugee panic.

5. THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, directed by Noah Baumbach
Jeff Daniels is the year's most inappropriate dad in a funny, tender, unflinching view of divorce, drawn from the writer/director's own life and shot in his old Brooklyn neighbourhood. The personal connections go deep: Daniels didn't just grow a beard to resemble the film-maker's dad, novelist Jonathan Baumbach - he even borrowed the clothes.

6. THE PROPOSITION, directed by John Hillcoat
This and the superb, nasty horror Wolf Creek coinciding with our Sione's Wedding and No 2 is a reminder that the popular myth that Australia produces light films to New Zealand's dark doesn't always stand up. In a script by Nick Cave, partially inspired by his reading of Michael Ondaatje's book about Billy the Kid, the settling and civilising of Australia is a blood-soaked, nihilistic western. This is a film of strong, clear images and swift, brutal violence.

7. KEANE, directed by Lodge Kerrigan
British actor Damian Lewis is incredible as the title character, a rootless and disturbed man who roams the crowded public spaces of New York City looking for his abducted seven-year-old daughter. The crowds and spaces are real and Kerrigan shoots for as long as his camera will allow - the film has doco-like rawness and a clear sense of empathy.

8. OUT OF THE BLUE, directed by Robert Sarkies
This account of the Aramoana killings is not a perfect film, but it's a brave, well-made and sorrowful one. Brave in its determination to resist action-movie impulses, to defy received notions about how stories should be structured, to refuse to offer easy psychological clues and, most of all, to express unexpected pity for someone who did the unthinkable.

9. TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY, directed by Michael Winterbottom
This film-about-film purports to do the impossible: to adapt Laurence Sterne's unadaptable 18th-century novel. But in a significant way, Winterbottom and star Steve Coogan pull it off, making a loose, generous, partially improvised and frequently arch comedy that stalls, procrastinates and messes around, just like Sterne did.

10. A SCANNER DARKLY, directed by Richard Linklater
Most directors (including Ridley Scott, Paul Verhoeven and Spielberg) treat Philip K Dick as science fiction; Linklater properly understands him as a counter-cultural philosopher, and the rotoscope animation technique that Linklater pioneered in Waking Life is a perfect fit for Dick's druggy, woozy, paranoid mindset and his musings on power and addiction.


1. GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK, directed by George Clooney
Clooney's tribute to Ed Murrow, the broadcaster who took on Joseph McCarthy and set a standard of journalistic eloquence and integrity we might view with some wistfulness today, has the suspense of a thriller and the smoke-filled uneasiness of noir. Its black-and-white treatment is gorgeously evocative of era and theme; David Strathairn brings cool gravitas to the role; and in a stroke of casting and editing genius, McCarthy plays McCarthy.

2. UNITED 93, directed by Paul Greengrass
It unfolds grippingly in real time, and though based on creative speculation, the re-enactment of 9/11's fourth hijacking is a marvel of restraint and authentic detail. The marshalling by Greengrass and his editors of their multiple scenarios on the ground and in the air is clear and unsentimental. Most chilling of all is the sustained dread that comes from observing the ordinary rituals of plane flight while knowing the extraordinary events to come.

3. THE KEYS TO THE HOUSE (LE CHIAVI DI CASA), directed by Gianni Amelio
An odd couple story that's not a comedy, this Italian treatment of a father getting to know his teenage son for the first time is handled with compassion and understanding of the joys and frustrations of caring for a disabled child. The father's gradual transformation from appalled stranger to committed parent is intimately observed and free of emotional manipulation. That the father is impossibly handsome is a brilliant thematic stroke.

4. KENNY, directed by Clayton Jacobson
This Australian mockumentary about a Portaloo supervisor has its quota of clever toilet humour, but the best comedy comes from its genial lead, Shane Jacobson, playing everything straight. There's great heart and dignity in the character, a strong supporting cast including Jacobson's friends and relations, and a satisfying if simple romantic plotline that makes it more than just an extended joke. An unwitting Melbourne public sometimes finds itself, um, exposed.

5. OXHIDE, directed by Liu Jiayin
Probably only a handful saw it in the festival. Slow, dimly lit, possibly the most mundane material ever shot - Jiayin locked off her digicam in her family's cramped Beijing apartment and filmed them coming and going, eating, worrying the leather they turn into handbags - but from it emerges a bracing sense of the stubborn resilience of the urban poor, and a lesson in the power of film to communicate story and emotion with minimal sound and action.

6. TEN CANOES, directed by Rolf de Heer
De Heer's collaboration with the Ramingining people combines the visual facility of an experienced film-maker with the discursive style of indigenous storytelling, illuminating the world and rhythms of life in Arnhem Land, pre-white man. We learn about the value of patience, the gathering of goose eggs and why humans go to war. Laced with bawdy humour and gentle wisdom, it feels like a breakthrough for the Aboriginal voice and worldview on film.

7. BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, directed by Ang Lee
Tender and heartbreaking, this story of forbidden love is rendered unique by its circumstances: the lovers are gay and they live out west. Forget the jokes about making explicit what previous cowboy partnerships hinted at; it's hard to imagine this coming out of the closet better dressed by anyone other than Lee, with his epic visual sensibility, and his entire cast's insightful restraint.

8. THREE TIMES, directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien
Taiwan's Hsiao-hsien chooses three years - 1911, 1966, 2005 - and creates scenarios that not only sensuously evoke each period and its rhythms but also comment on the changes in male-female relationships and the increasing complexity and alienation in society. Two remarkable actors glide from one period to the next and into distinctly different characters with breathtaking ease. The accomplishment of a veteran film-maker.

9. TSOTSI, directed by Gavin Hood
About redemption and growing into manhood, set in the townships and middle-class neighbourhoods of black urban South Africa, this adaptation of an Athol Fugard novel seizes the attention and never lets go as it unfolds its unexpected plot turns. Its power comes from all directions: raw performances, unspoken feelings, the soundtrack, the seething colour and life of the townships and the glimpse of a nation's growing pains.

10. OUT OF THE BLUE, directed by Robert Sarkies
Faced with the challenge of a character who is a serial killer and leaves little to chart a psychological journey from, Robert Sarkies and writer Graeme Tetley wisely chose to concentrate on those around him. A gut-wrenching dramatisation of the Aramoana killings made with a film-maker's eye, it injects the intensity of a thriller beneath the comfortable veneer of a familiar and iconic landscape.


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