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JASON'S BEST: The Ten Best Films of 2006 (Return to Jason's Best Main Page)


THE TEN BEST FILMS
OF 2006


Click Above to Listen to Jason's BlogTalkRadio Show Where He Revealed His Ten Best of 2006
(Originally Broadcast January 10, 2007)

I know it seems like the regular critic's thing to do to always complain that there weren't enough good movies in the past year. I don't always do that ... as you might remember from 2005, I actually thought there were a great number of quality movies, and had trouble narrowing them down to a top ten list. But this year, I have to say, 2006 was not a great year for motion pictures. One sign of that is that the movies I and several other critics selected as the year's best films are the ones being talked about as the best of the year, and there's not a lot of variety among them. But at least when the good films were good, they were often times great. And that was the case with the ten I ended up selecting as the best of the year for 2006. Looking at the common trends that I found myself responding to the most this year, one was definitely the stark realism and overwhelming emotion inherent in some really raw film experiences, filled with so much truth and heart pounding reality that often times they were difficult to watch. Whether it was the first real big budget attempts to examine the tragic stories of the 9/11 terrorist attacks just five years after the events took place, or the bold filmmaking of a legendary film director presenting the futility of war by examining World War II from the "enemy" side. Speaking of seeing the other side, a masterful film drama managed to make us understand in a way how the Royal Family reacted when Princess Diana was killed. But it wasn't just raw true stories that held such power and truth this year ... some of the fictional movies took us on raw journeys of truth as well, especially when Todd Field proved that he may be becoming a master director of the suburban life, the dramas that play out in everyday lives being as grand as the epic movies I discussed before. Those kind of dramas definitely resonate with me, but this year, I found my top ten populated also by films that were just plain fun, even if they were blowing people's heads off. Our greatest director returned to the mean streets he knows so well and created the film that may FINALLY bring him the Oscar, an incredibly well structured story brought off by brilliant performances. A film that most thought would be nothing but a running joke, the return of an aging fighter to the ring, instead drew critical acclaim and provided the ending that was deserved for one of the most beloved film characters of all time. A master director delivering his final film which proved again why his maverick style of filmmaking was one to be studied for years, creating a film that you could indeed "cuddle up to", to quote my favorite film critic. And yes indeed, another musical that was so well done it drew applause throughout the film, and continued to keep the genre alive and well ... and finally, a new actor rebooted one of the longest and most loved film series of all time, and proved the naysayers wrong, becoming perhaps the best James Bond that we've ever seen. These were the films I felt were the best this year, and they are films that I'll find myself rewatching in future years ... whether for the pure fun that movies can provide, or to experience the unimaginable in a way that we didn't think could be possible in a movie, and in my choice for the best film of the year, it was an experience that haunted me like no other could do except for how I felt on that day itself.


1. UNITED 93

For anybody who was alive on September 11, 2001, it was a day that we will never forget, even if we lived hundreds or thousands of miles away from the tragic events in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. Five years after the fact, it's still something very raw and very real when one thinks about that day, and I can still remember vividly all I was doing that day as the news unfolded. There were SO many stories of tragedy and heroism to come out of 9/11 that we knew sooner or later that serious filmmakers would finally make the first bold steps to re-examine that day and bring it to light in ways we couldn't have seen on 9/11 unless we were the actual participants. 2006 saw two bold filmmakers take what I feel will be the first of many steps to come in presenting a variety of different movies dealing directly with the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and ones more likely to tackle more political points of view as well, but for these first steps, two filmmakers decided to ditch the politics and just present the events as they happened that day. In my opinion, the most successful was the film that clearly had to be my choice for the best film of the year, the effort by Paul Greengrass to not only dramatize what may have happened on board the hijacked aircraft that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania when the 40 strangers on board took steps to save others, but also to present what else was happening that day in the air traffic control towers, the main air traffic transportation facility, and the military to immerse us right back into the chaos and the horror of that day. And Paul Greengrass achieves that brilliantly ... not casting well known actors was a big help, and in some cases, having the real people who made those decisions that day playing themselves in the film. It's an incredibly unsettling and somber film effort, but not one that exploits the tragedy. It simply presents the events of that morning almost in real time, showing all the other tragedies that unfolded unknowingly to the people on board United 93, until finally the film closes its focus around the final moments when the passengers discovered that they were on a suicide mission, and decided to take matters into their hands, eventually causing the crash of the plane into a field instead of its most likely target, the White House or the Capitol building in Washington. The movie is chilling and gripping in so many moments ... to be in the air traffic control towers as desperate controllers try to understand what is happening, where there seemed to be maybe even up to 12 possible hijackings that day ... to be in the New Jersey air traffic control tower as the men watch from afar as the second plane crashes into the World Trade Center ... to see how the military was unable to get planes in the air to try to strike down one of these planes and how frustrating it must have been. Paul Greengrass also adds some more subtle touches which were just as haunting ... at one point during the film, various people on the plane are shown in prayer, whether it be the prayers of the terrorists who believe they are doing this for the will of Allah, or the innocent passengers praying for some kind of salvation which unfortunately would never come. As the first major film to deal with the events of 9/11, we couldn't have had a more unflinching yet respectful tribute to one of the most powerful stories of that day, accomplished in a way that brings us right back to what it felt like to be alive and trying to understand the world and humanity on that day.



2. THE DEPARTED 

There are certain film directors who are so clearly at the top of their craft that they can almost do no wrong. And Martin Scorsese is one of these rare masters of cinema. And this year, he returned to his roots, the types of films that he does best, after the few years that he attempted to make bigger budget spectacles that seemed less personal and less gritty. Scorsese is indeed back on the mean streets, even if this time it's Boston instead of New York. Scorsese once again assembles a stellar cast ... all one had to hear in the advance buzz to this film was that Jack Nicholson would be working with Scorsese for the first time. And the two together are a stroke of genius ... Nicholson's mob boss is one of the most vicious and sadistic of any Scorsese character, and again proves what a truly talented and gifted actor Nicholson is. But the film is much more than Jack. Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio are the real leads of this film, giving two of their best performances ever (and I think this is Leo's best yet). It's a clever twist of a story, that serves to ratchet up the tension so much by the film's final moments, that you never know where this film is going to be headed. Damon plays a man who has been groomed by Nicholson's mob boss since he was a kid to eventually become a mole in the police unit. At the same time, DiCaprio plays a man hired by the police to be a mole in Nicholson's mob. So it's a constant game of cat and mouse and deceptions as the two try to keep their identities secret and try to serve their individual purposes, and it's just one hell of a fascinating ride. Even smaller supporting performances by Vera Farmiga as a woman also torn as she ends up becoming involved with both of Damon's and DiCaprio's characters, and the other cops in the film all give singularly unique performances, from Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin to a very good Mark Wahlberg. Scorsese just continues to prove why he's possibly our greatest living film director, and could this return to form FINALLY win him the one thing he should have already won a shelf-load of? This fan certainly hopes so.



3. LITTLE CHILDREN 

A few years back, Todd Field directed his very first film, a movie which captured a drama and tragedy in suburban life that was so richly detailed and performed that it became my choice for the year's best film ... that film being In The Bedroom . In 2006, he gave us another portrait of middle class family life just as detailed and exquisitely acted, containing another deeply realized performance by one of the greatest actresses of our generation, Kate Winslet. Adapted from the novel by Tom Perrotta, it's a small yet emotionally powerful film that tells the story about an affair between a married man and woman in a community where everyone is concerned about the return of a convicted pedophile, played hauntingly by Jackie Early Haley in a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination. The central story revolves around Sarah Pierce, played by Winslet, and Brad, played very well by Patrick Wilson. The film hits so many true notes of the boredom and disappointments that have developed in the married lives of these two, and how they slowly find an attraction to each other, and ultimately fall into an affair with each other. Especially through Winslet's character, we see how people get to certain points in their lives, places that they never dreamed of being, and in her case, she never envisioned herself as a suburban Mom and she decides to finally give in to the hunger for something different, for something exciting, for the "ability to have an alternative." The film doesn't judge their actions, but simply presents them for what they are, and I liked how the film takes its time in bringing the two together in a decision that will affect all their lives. Jennifer Connelly is also very effective in a very strong performance as Brad's wife. Ultimately, in a very strong dinner scene between the two couples, when secrets are revealed, the film also handles this with so much truth and tragic poignancy. I was impressed by Field's choices to make this a longer film, and really let a lot of these different stories play out to give this film a much richer texture, especially in the difficult story about the returned ex-con. It all adds up to another powerful middle class tragedy by a director who is proving to be master of this genre of films, always providing us with sharply drawn characters and realizing how much stories of epic tragedy can exist in the normal day-to-day lives of the American middle class.



4. LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA

It's sometimes amazing to realize just how much Clint Eastwood has contributed to the history of cinema just as a film director. As an actor, he of course contributed indelible characters to the annals of film history, but as a director, Eastwood has proven himself as an accomplished and highly skilled craftsman who is still at the top of his game even up into his 70's. And in 2006, he delivered not one but two powerful films re-examining World War II, and in the process, contributed a new perspective to the conflict that will forever help to define that war, just as Spielberg began with Saving Private Ryan in 1998. He first released Flags of our Fathers, which made my honorable mention list, which examined the truth about the men who raised that iconic flag at the battle of Iwo Jima in the Pacific, and the sometimes difficult roads they faced in being taken out of the war to campaign for war bonds and act as the war's "heroes" back in the States. It was a revealing film about history that not many people knew about ... all we knew about was that amazing photograph, and it was fascinating to learn about the picture's genesis and what happened to those men involved. But then Eastwood topped himself when he decided to take one of the boldest risks in recent years ... he felt that a lot of the story of Iwo Jima was being left out, and began work on a companion film that would examine the conflict from the Japanese point of view in the Japanese language. Just to imagine a popular American director doing a foreign language film presenting the viewpoints of the enemy at the time involved in what has been called "the last great war" was astonishing, but not near as astonishing as to what Eastwood finally delivered. He again tells a true story from the conflict, centering around General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, played incredibly well by Ken Watanabe, and the men under his command, as they face near certain loss and death in defending the tiny Pacific island. Just as in Flags of our Fathers, the cinematography in the film is gorgeous, this time almost completely drained of color to almost be a black and white film. With these two films, and especially this one, Eastwood makes the incredibly strong point about the futility and difficulties of war, and as he has often done with other tragic films, he doesn't present any easy answers, doesn't take sides, and simply presents what was. It makes us realize that war always involves human beings on both sides, and in doing so, Eastwood has contributed to a much greater depth and understanding about not only World War II but the true nature of war. This film was so fascinating to be able to experience the battle and the buildup to it from the opposite perspective, in a film that never judges, never tries to say the war wasn't necessary, but makes us think much more deeply about the whole prospect of war. The two films really do belong together as one piece, but on its own, Letters from Iwo Jima is a clear masterwork.



5. DREAMGIRLS

In recent years, the movie musical has definitely been making a comeback, and in 2006, it definitely continued its strong resurgence when Bill Condon, who had written the Oscar winning Best Picture Chicago, directed the film adaptation of the popular movie musical Dreamgirls . And like the great recent movie musicals, Condon and the actors in this film infused it with so much passion and energy than it leaps from the screen, and often brings the audience to applause in several key scenes. I particularly responded to how well the film covers the changing tides in music, as it covers the story of a Supremes-like girl singing group who begin by serving as backup to a popular singer, James "Thunder" Early, played brilliantly by Eddie Murphy in one of his best performances. As they become more popular, the promoter (another great performance by Jamie Foxx) decides to make them their own group, but decide to change lead singers from the immense powerhouse voice of Effie White, played with so much gusto by former American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson, to the thinner Deena Jones, played by Beyonce Knowles in another of the film's powerhouse performances. Of course this doesn't sit well with Effie, and this film stands with so many of the great films about groups of people entering show business together, and how the changing tides and egos break people apart and old values are forgotten. Deena ends up becoming a sensation from the group, while Effie struggles to make her own way in the world. The film is told through some wonderful set pieces, most particularly the much talked about core scene when Effie sings a powerful song at the height of her disappointment, when everyone it seems has turned on her, and another original song for this film, "Listen", performed so powerfully by Beyonce. It captures the time periods very well as it moves through its story, and is just one of those films which makes you love watching it, and I must admit, it surprised me on so many levels. Everyone is at the top of their game in this film, and in a nice touch during the end credits, the various artists are all shown with examples of their craft next to their credits. Very nicely done, in a film that clearly celebrates the best of what a great movie musical can be, and sits proudly with the ones that went before.



6. CASINO ROYALE

As soon as Daniel Craig was announced as the next James Bond, so many naysayers came out saying it was a terrible choice. I wonder what they're saying now. For me, Daniel Craig was an absolute breath of fresh air into the 40 plus year old James Bond franchise of films, coming at a perfect time when the series had gone way over the top with gadgets and special effects. It was definitely time to reboot the franchise, and who could have predicted that it would have come out as well as it did. This was a thoroughly entertaining and engrossing film, not just as a James Bond movie, but as a film as well. The film takes us to a James Bond who has not yet achieved 00 status by the film's start, but who quickly attains that status in a stark black and white opening. Craig's Bond is much closer to the one envisioned in the original Ian Fleming novels, and for the first time since Sean Connery in the very early films, Bond is much more dark and rough around the edges. Of course, Sean Connery is always regarded as the best James Bond there ever was ... and up until now, they were correct. But Daniel Craig has already given him a serious run for the title of best Bond ever in just one film. The action set pieces are all incredibly tense and well executed, and the drama in the film is much more realistic and down to earth than a lot of the Bond films had become, and Bond is a much more complex character this time around. I for one cannot wait to see Craig in the next Bond film, and hopefully he'll be around as this immortal character for a number of films to come.



7. THE QUEEN 

One of the best things about movies is that they can bring us into worlds that we only see from other sides and help to illuminate and dramatize places and locations that we otherwise would never see. Some of the films this year did that so well, and also did it amazingly well in this film by the accomplished director Stephen Frears. When Princess Diana died late in that summer of 1997, the world was stunned. In the days following the tragedy, the world became equally stunned by the inaction of the Royal Family. I know many people wondered what were they thinking? Well, finally, this film examines what happened with the royals and with the newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair in how they were affected and how they struggled to deal with the death of such a beloved person. Frears is brilliant at allowing us to see how shallow the royals could be at a time like that, and how out of touch they had seemingly become, but at the same time, managed to actually make us feel some understanding for why Queen Elizabeth II had difficulties understanding why her indifference to the death was so loathed and ridiculed by everyone. Helen Mirren gives the performance of a lifetime as the Queen, and she is matched by the wonderful performance of Michael Sheen as Tony Blair, and it's fascinating to watch the balance that each tries to strike, as Tony Blair makes a name for himself in trying to deal with the death as most everyone felt it should be handled, and Mirren's performance shows a woman steeped in so much tradition and etiquette that it's difficult for her to figure out what the right thing is to do. It's a fascinating portrait.



8. WORLD TRADE CENTER 

As I mentioned in my discussion about United 93, there were two major Hollywood films this year that took the first early steps at presenting stories about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The second to come out later in the year was this film by the legendary film director Oliver Stone. Stone's film narrows its 9/11 focus to dramatize one of the few "happy ending" stories to come out of a day that was filled with more tragedy than one could bear. This film tells the amazing true story about two of the survivors to be pulled out of the wreckage of the World Trade Center towers when they collapsed that day, two of only 20 people who were pulled out of the rubble alive. The film is incredibly tense in its early moments, as the planes strike the World Trade Center, and Stone keeps the focus on the men on the ground, much as he did in his landmark classic Platoon. We only see the events the way that the two central men of the drama, John McLoughlin (in an understated yet brilliant performance by Nicolas Cage), and Will Jimeno (another solid performance by Michael Pena), and also through the eyes of the women and the families who loved them, and their struggle with the unknown as the day wore on without any word. Maggie Gyllenhaal and the always great Maria Bello give two very touching performances of two very different women. When it was announced that Stone would be directing a film about 9/11, many thought that it would be a highly political film filled with conspiracy theories about the tragedy. But instead Stone surprised them all and made a completely apolitical film that goes into the wreckage, sticks to the dramatic story of the ultimate rescue of these two men, providing for us yet another reminder of what that tragic day meant.  It was also amazing and haunting to see how well Stone and his team reconstructed the rubble of the World Trade Center and how those Manhattan streets looked that day.  These are the first kinds of steps to be made in films dealing with 9/11, but I have a feeling that even more powerful films with even more haunting things to say about that day and the aftermath of the world are yet to come, and I hope Oliver Stone is one of those artists taking us down that road.



9. A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION

The world lost a legend in 2006 when the great maverick film director Robert Altman passed away. Before he did, he delivered one final film which was eerily fitting for his final cinematic effort, a film that has much to say about the passing of time and of life itself, as it deals with the very real Garrison Keillor show "A Prairie Home Companion", but in a fictionalized imagining of the show coming to a close. For a lot of people, Altman is an acquired taste, and I for one have loved the overlapping dialogue, the style of realism that Altman always brings to his films. And this film was just a delight, filled with an all star cast (as Altman always seemed to be handle so very well), as it celebrates the old fashioned nature of Keillor's radio show and how the ending of a legendary show moves some to tears, but how others feel it's the natural progression of things when the time passes for something. Keillor is a delight playing himself in the film, someone who feels there's no need to acknowledge that this is his last show. The songs are old fashioned and folksy, and the film is indeed something to almost "cuddle up to", as film critic Roger Ebert said in his review. Altman's influence will be felt for years to come, and this film deserves to stand with some of his finest work.



10. ROCKY BALBOA

Yes indeed, it's here, just making my top ten list, the film that probably drew the most ridicule when it was announced that it would be made. For years, people joked that another Rocky film would be a ridiculous thing, but Sylvester Stallone proved them wrong when he delivered a film that remains true to what made the best Rocky moments great, and provides the fitting conclusion that Rocky V couldn't quite provide. The character of Rocky Balboa remains one of the most endearing film icons in history, and Stallone wisely presented an honest and even touching film that did what the Rocky films had been doing all along ... telling the story of a life, of this man and the pursuit of his dream, his chance for the one shot to prove himself, and ultimately what happened to him when he attained even more than he dreamt of, and lost it again. In this sixth and final film, Rocky finds himself near 60 years old, and instead of trying to defy that truth, he presents it straight on, and presents an actually realistic portrait of what happens to boxers when they get older and fall out of the limelight where they once thrived. It examines the question of what does someone do to still matter later in their life, and when a computer imagined fight between Rocky in his prime and the current heavyweight champion shows Rocky being the victor, it stirs those fires within, and Rocky wants to still prove that he can stand toe to toe in the ring. Once an exhibition match is arranged with the current champion, Stallone gives us a Rocky film that makes us smile for those of us who loved those previous films, as it follows the formula right down to an inspiring final match, and in so many ways, the film is much like the original ... in that film, Rocky was a nobody simply wanting one shot to prove himself, being able to go the distance. In this final film, he's lost Adrian to cancer, and is trying to prove one last time that he can go the distance. It's a film full of heart and honest emotion, and provides a perfect conclusion to a series that misstepped some but more often than that, simply entertained us. When Rocky finally says goodbye to Adrian, saying "Yo Adrian, we did it" at her graveside, the saga has ended like it should, and Stallone should be commended for being brave enough to finish this series on his own terms.


THE FIVE THAT ALMOST MADE IT: #11 - 15

This year, I am again making special mention of the next five films that would be on my list, five more remarkable and stunning achievements that just couldn't quite make it.

11. THE GOOD SHEPHERD: Director Robert De Niro creates an intelligent and fascinating thriller/drama that feels like it came right out of the 1970's, portraying a fascinating history of the early years of intelligence efforts that eventually led to the building of the CIA, filled with stellar performances by a cast including Matt Damon, Robert De Niro, William Hurt, Joe Pesci, Angelina Jolie, and so many more

12. THE DA VINCI CODE: It was a film that reminded me of the classic adventure yarns that had a mystery at its core, in this case a fascinating mystery about the very tenets of Christianity ... Ron Howard took on the monumental task of adapting one of the most popular novels of all time into an enjoyable adventure that manages to present some complex theological ideas as well, filled with some great performances by Tom Hanks and Ian McKellen particularly

13. THE LAKE HOUSE: A film that didn't quite get enough notice or audiences, it's one of the most unique romances in quite some time, with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock pulling off a story about two lovers existing in two different time periods and how they communicate back and forth through a mailbox ... if you bought the film's premise, you were paid off with a film that contained some wonderful surprises and a really touching conclusion

14. AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH: In another year that showed that documentaries were really becoming a successful form of film expression, the best and some might say one of the most important had to be this film that presented us with Al Gore's presentation on global warming, which offered up some intriguing facts about an issue that we should really be paying attention to

15. BOBBY: A true passion project for director Emilio Estevez, this film managed to capture the mood of the late 1960's when its idealism truly faded away the night that Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 ... this film portrays the lives of several different fictional characters, all at the Ambassador Hotel that fateful night, and their different stories on that one day leading up the shocking finale when RFK was assassinated, the film reminds us of how idealist and bold politicians used to be, the kind we haven't seen the likes of since those seminal years in the 1960's


DISCOVERY OF THE YEAR - BEST INDEPENDENT FEATURE FILM:
THANK YOU FOR SMOKING

This was such a funny dark comedy coming from an incredibly talented first time director, Jason Reitman. Aaron Eckhart, always an accomplished film actor, gets a very good lead performance in this film, as he plays a tobacco industry lobbyist who must try to sell cigarettes and smoking to a public that has long since gotten the word that smoking is bad for them. It's hilarious to watch how this character twists so many things around to try paint a more positive image of smoking. Containing some wonderful supporting performances also by Rob Lowe, Robert Duvall, William H. Macy, Sam Elliott, and Katie Holmes, it's refreshing to see such a well done independent film become noticed by a first time film director.


DISCOVERY OF THE YEAR - BEST INDEPENDENT SHORT FILM:
LAST MINUTE THROWN TOGETHER LOW BROW NONSENSE

I've always loved the art of the short film, and this year, the one I ultimately had to select as the best was simply one that really made no sense whatsoever ... a film by Alabama filmmaker Sam McDavid that is just exactly what it sounds like, although it doesn't look to me like it was thrown together at the last minute. It's actually an animated short that really defies the ability to describe it, and for me, it was nicely animated as well ... rest assured, it is absolutely hilarious with the sheer ridiculousness of what happens. If you can ever come across this film, I think you'll agree. It's only 3 minutes long, but it's just that kind of film you find yourself laughing at, and you might be ashamed to admit that you are.


Honorable Mentions
(In no particular order)

CHILDREN OF MEN: An incredibly fascinating and haunting look at the future by director Alfonso Cuaron picturing a future where babies are no longer born, with so many interesting allegories to contemporary times

V FOR VENDETTA: Speaking of haunting looks into the future, this was another visually fascinating film with a lot to say about the nature of freedom fighters and governments, containing a great performance by Natalie Portman

INSIDE MAN: Spike Lee has always been one of our best directors, and he found his biggest success at the boxoffice in 2006 with this very effective film about a bank robbery, anchored by a powerhouse of actors all doing incredible work, most notably Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, and the always great Jodie Foster

WHEN A STRANGER CALLS: 2006 had its fill of so many horror films, but I had to single this one out ... some may ridicule me for it, but it did a pretty successful job at being a remake that realized what made the original good for a while. The original film contained 20 of the most terrifying minutes in film history in its opening, but then became a standard police procedural after that. This remake confines the story to the babysitter in the house and the haunting idea of someone calling her and actually finds some new effective ways to tell the story

CARS: Disney and Pixar once again add another classic to their already long list of films that never disappoint, and appeal to kids and adults alike. This time, they animated automobiles into a clever and enjoyable story which celebrated the ideas of the passing of time, and the appreciation for life instead of just zooming by it

SUPERMAN RETURNS: It seems lately that it has become time to re-invigorate so many classic film series, and Superman finally got its reboot in the summer of 2006, and Brandon Routh came off as a very effective Superman, one that at times made you think you were watching Christopher Reeve, in a film that takes advantage in the advances in visual effects that the other Superman films didn't have, and Bryan Singer actually created a very richly detailed story about a troubled relationship between Superman and Lois Lane that shows a respect for the first two Superman films and the story they told

THREE TIMES: An absolutely beautifully told love story set in three different time periods ... 1911, 1966, and 2005. A stunning foreign film from Taiwan.

PAN'S LABYRINTH: Speaking of stunningly beautiful foreign films, this film from director Guillermo del Toro is almost beyond words ... a stunning fantasy set amidst the real life Spanish Civil War.

THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED: An incredibly insightful documentary about the often times ridiculous way that the Motion Picture Association of America assigns ratings to films

FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS: As I mentioned above, this was the first of Clint Eastwood's two powerful films about World War II ... this one examining the nature of heroism and selling a war to the public that makes one think about how war is often portrayed and fought, often at the expense of the true suffering that people have to endure

BABEL: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu once again presents a fascinating and epic story, this time crosscutting between events about the breakdown in communication that occurs all over the world and how it contributes to the tragedies in our lives sometimes

STRANGER THAN FICTION: A very witty screenplay and high concept idea that plays out brilliantly, featuring Will Ferrell in a very good performance as a man who finds himself the unsuspecting participant in an author's novel, who narrates his every action

THE FOUNTAIN: You have to give Darren Aronofsky credit ... the guy goes for it in his risky film choices, and while he didn't quite succeed like I hoped he would with this film, it's still a fascinating attempt at showing the nature of love and the quest for immortality, telling of a love story between Hugh Jackman and Rachel Wiesz that spans hundreds of years in three different time periods

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS: For the performance of Will Smith alone, this film is a wonder ... an absolutely touching true story about one man who never gave up his pursuit to make a better life for his child

THE GOOD GERMAN : I guess I appreciated this more for the experiment that it represents than really for the story ... Steven Soderbergh films the movie in black and white in 1940's filming styles to present a Casablanca-like style of intrigue and romance during World War II, containing great performances by George Clooney and Cate Blanchett

NOTES ON A SCANDAL: Speaking of Cate Blanchett, she gives an even better performance in this tour de force thriller/drama about a young school teacher who takes the wrong step by having an affair with a young student, incurring the wrath of Judi Dench

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE: It was the independent success of this year, and for good reason ... it's a dark comedy about the most dysfunctional of families, with a unique charm all its own

MONSTER HOUSE: In a year filled with some great animated feature achievements, this was one of my personal favorites, a small little gem that contains some darker themes, feeding off that wonder and fear that we all have as children about the unknown horrors existing out there ... beautifully animated as well.