Movie reviewers pick top flicks of the year
Didn't make it to all the movies you wanted to see this year? As Oscar contenders make it back to the big screens and DVDs come out, Associated Press' movie writer David Germain and movie critic Christy Lemire chime in with their top five picks of 2006.
GERMAIN'S FAB FIVE
1. "Pan's Labyrinth" — Writer-director Guillermo del Toro presents a wondrous hybrid of stark historical drama and wildly inventive fantasy in this saga of a girl (Ivana Baquero) whose encounter with an ancient forest spirit offers escape from her bleak life in 1944 fascist Spain. The chilling images are as fanciful as anything Terry Gilliam's ever dreamed up, and the film offers a marvelously ambiguous finale that could be the downer of the year — or pure bliss.
2. "The Queen" — Helen Mirren needs to clear shelf space for her best-actress Academy Award. With a potent mix of autocratic condescension and touching pathos, Mirren delivers the performance of the year in a difficult role as a universally known figure — Queen Elizabeth II, amid the crisis over the death of Princess Diana. Ever-wily director Stephen Frears injects great humor and subtle historical depth.
3. "Little Miss Sunshine" — It's a profound comedy, a hilarious tragedy. Filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have crafted one of the great road-trip films, the story of a painfully screwed-up family racing to get their little girl to a beauty pageant. Portrayed by a fantastic ensemble led by Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette and Steve Carell, the characters are so real you want to console them over their sufferings even as you guffaw over their antics.
4. "United 93" — Sept. 11, 2001, comes rushing back in director Paul Greengrass' searingly authentic re-creation of the doomed flight whose passengers died after battling their terrorist hijackers. Using an anonymous cast that captures the strangers-on-a-plane sense of air travel, the film is agonizing yet oddly cathartic, a testament that leaves viewers with renewed empathy — and maybe a bit more peace of mind — over the victims' final moments.
5. "Days of Glory" — World War II from a fresh perspective. Director Rachid Bouchareb spins an epic with great relevance today, following a band of North African soldiers who helped liberate France from the Nazis. Beautifully acted by Jamel Debbouze, Sami Bouajila, Roshdy Zem, Samy Naceri and Bernard Blancan, the film is a reminder of the courage and sacrifice made by colonials, who were repaid with decades of continued racism and second-class citizenship.
LEMIRE'S FAB FIVE
1. "Volver" — There's just something magical about the pairing of Pedro Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz. The Spanish master provides her with the most complex role of her career, and she gracefully anchors one of his most emotionally engaging works yet. As a middle-class wife and mom, Cruz deals with everything from murder to the return of her deceased mother to making an impromptu lunch for 30 people. She's sexy, fiery, funny, earthy, wise and ultimately empowered. A great film about strong women from a man who loves and appreciates them.
2. "The Queen" — Helen Mirren rightfully has been the main recipient of praise for her subtle, stinging and eventually sympathetic portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II during the week after Princess Diana's death. It's the performance of the year, and she will win the Oscar. But many other parts help make this machine hum: Stephen Frears' intimate direction; Peter Morgan's wry, observant script; and a knockout supporting turn from Michael Sheen as Tony Blair.
3. "Half Nelson" — Its inner-city setting could have inspired an overly feel-good film, but director Ryan Fleck and co-writer Anna Boden present the material with a bracing realism that keeps it raw and grounded. Ryan Gosling is mesmerizing as a charismatic junior-high teacher by day and a crack addict by night whose separate lives begin bleeding dangerously into each other. Shareeka Epps is astonishingly assured as the student who provides an unexpected path toward redemption.
4. "House of Sand" — Everything and nothing happens in this emotionally arresting, visually dazzling epic. Birth and death, hope and disappointment, scientific discovery and endless solitude — it all transpires on the sandy northern edge of Brazil, where three generations of women fight to survive. Director Andrucha Waddington brings out the best in real-life mother and daughter Fernanda Montenegro and Fernanda Torres.
5. "United 93" — Paul Greengrass' brave, bold recreation provokes a rare physical reaction. By now you know what's going to happen: that hijackers will take over a United Airlines flight on 9/11, and that passengers will rush the cockpit and struggle to conquer them right until the Boeing 757 nose-dives into a Pennsylvania field. Still, it's impossible not to feel engrossed. It's pure, raw filmmaking: respectful but free of melodrama.