1. Cocaine Cowboys
For sheer entertainment value alone, this frenetic, balls-to-the-wall documentary is a supreme wonder; fast, furious, and delightfully candid about cocaine’s impact not only on the South Florida of the 70s and 80s, but an entire culture built on crime, murder, and unchecked hedonism. Paced, shot, and edited like the best fiction, it never lets up in its portrait of kingpins, addicts, assassins, and drug-runners alike, refusing to bow to cheap moralizing; so much so, in fact, that charges of misty-eyed nostalgia seem disturbingly apt. And why not? If Miami exists today as a cultural hotspot, it is because of the cocaine blitz of years ago, where dirty money and even dirtier dealers poured millions of dollars into a dying beach town and created an empire. If a modern skyscraper stands at all, in fact, thank Colombia’s most infamous export. Above all, this is an American tale — perhaps the most patriotic film made all year — for the only love of country worth preserving is the recognition that it takes saints and sinners to make a nation, and only more of the latter make it worth saluting at all.
2. United 93
The first, and likely the last, 9/11 film to avoid grandstanding, this unflinching account works much as a documentary, refusing at every turn to become what politicos wanted it to be and instead standing as the document of that dreadful day. Almost fanatically objective in its execution, it elevates the banal and the ordinary to high drama, but only for the audience, as those on the plane and the ground were, above all, drowning in utter confusion. This isn’t about the “Let’s roll” ethic that seemed to infect the country in the months following the attacks; this is an “as it happened” presentation that becomes even more disturbing because of its lack of hindsight. When we’re on that plane, there is no Bush, or Rumsfeld, or Bin Laden, or anything approaching an agenda; it is mere survival, and what any of us might consider when faced with inevitable death. And while the final moments of that flight will go forever unknown, we can rest assured that whatever occurred, it was locked in the immediate; the human animal pushed to the brink and fighting desperately, painfully, for one more second of life.
3. Little Children
If there is a film of our times, it is this supremely insightful adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s delightfully dark novel. More than a mere peek into the hypocrisies of suburbia, it is a devastating, yet ultimately hilarious dissection of contemporary despair; where happiness has been transformed into a birthright, and the means of its acquisition an unlimited grab bag of rationalization and pathetic self-involvement. Above all, it provides one of the most accurate understandings of adultery yet filmed, refusing to believe it is anything other than infantilism writ large. Reduced to a child-like state, we sob and whine about wants and needs, single-handedly create a cottage industry of self-help, and stand aghast at the very idea of responsibility. Thematic considerations aside, this is a well-acted, thoroughly entertaining film that pays close attention to the back- and foregrounds of characterization, sensing a societal rot at all rungs of the ladder.
Between unnecessary (and unwanted) trips to Vegas for the seemingly unending Ocean’s series, Steven Soderbergh made this small, almost invisible masterpiece about, well, nothing in particular. And yet, it’s a film of almost wrenching power; an exploration of social class, loneliness, and self-deception that springs its trap with an exacting precision. Because these people are non-professionals and the script both improvised and written by the actors while in character, every scene rings with an authenticity impossible to fake. Rarely has monotony and hopelessness been so flawlessly rendered, and for one of the few times I can remember, a murder seems not the product of contrived melodrama or trumped-up action, but an understandable — reasonable, even — cry for recognition. Here, there are no heroes or villains, just average folks adapting and reacting to what they know, which for many, is very little indeed.
5. Running Stumbled
No film gave me more perverse joy during 2006 than this mind-fuck of a documentary, which would, more accurately, be labeled a pus-filled open wound. Director John Maringouin turns his camera on the rusting husk of his maniacal father, a two-bit, once-great artist now reduced to pill-popping, lounging, and leveling increasingly disturbing threats in the direction of his common-law wife. This is verite at its most vicious, and from the first frame to the last, we get a blistering record of what it means to hate another human being with near-fanatical loathing, yet need that person like a drug. While depressing, painful, mean-spirited, and ultimately exploitive, it is also a laugh riot, and one of the few times all year I thought I might wet myself with delight. That a murder did not take place during the course of filming is a miracle on par with the loaves and fishes, though there is a resurrection of sorts that is, in its own way, a testament to evil’s refusal to die. No one on earth seems to have seen this film, but it deserves the widest possible audience, if only to feel normal by comparison.
6. A Prairie Home Companion
Robert Altman’s death late last year, while expected, was an incalculable loss to American cinema, and this final, joyous romp is a reminder of how deeply he’ll be missed. But how fitting indeed that his last film was an ode to mortality; a toe-tapping, spirited rendering of a dying radio program’s final night, peopled with the sort of characters you couldn’t possibly forget. Having no real knowledge of — or interest in — Garrison Keillor, my expectations were relatively low, but I should have known that no Altman film is ever really about its stated subject, having much more to say about life, love, and ultimately, the final curtain that awaits us all. And what a treasure we have in Meryl Streep’s performance; a sexy, silly, bosom-busting delight that made me hope that if her golden years are to hold anything, it is the promise that accent parts have been tucked away in favor of self-deprecating comedy. Still, this is Bob’s show, and in the end, he upheld his own bargain: do what you can, give it your all, but step off the stage at the right time. Knowing when is the greatest lesson of all.
7. Deep Water
Yet another film that nobody saw, this British documentary was an unexpected thriller, the sort of movie that appears to be about one thing, only to twist itself around and become something else entirely. On the surface an account of a 1969 solo boat race around the world, it darts about with a dramatic flair nearly unseen in the fictional realm during 2006. Donald Crowhurst, the centerpiece of this tale, is so British as to be a caricature: upstanding, proud, and back-breakingly dutiful, with a sharp turn towards the uncharacteristically mad. The race itself might be enough for a forgettable half-hour or so on the BBC, but this film is after bigger game: vanity, the competitive fire run amok, and even insanity itself, and how the sea, far from romantic, destroys nearly everyone who challenges it head on. And as these fortunate few make their way for home and certain glory, events turn even more bizarre, and the shock is surpassed only by our utter fascination.
8. Jesus Camp
Schadenfreude, that most glorious of human indulgences, will affect each and every future viewing of this jaw-dropping look at Pastor Becky Fischer’s religious insane asylum in the wasteland of North Dakota, as then-revered Ted Haggard lent his mug and pseudo-wisdom to the proceedings. Still, despite the knowledge that good ol’ Ted was, even then, taking a giant cock up his ass while snorting meth, this is a brutally depressing film all on its own, showing us kids who are being abused as sure as a strap across the back of the thigh eventually tears skin. These are God Warriors in training, and to witness the mind-raping effect of Jesus on the big screen is to stare into the abyss of our sad future, where young people, armed only with ignorance, anti-intellectualism, and a reverence for George W. Bush, take to the streets, and eventually the school boards, state houses, and courtrooms of our land. Atheists may have reason and truth on their side, but if this film is any indication, the battle has been lost.
9. Notes on a Scandal
They don’t make nasty, overwrought melodrama like they used to, but this little gem is a step in the right direction; a silly, deliberately outrageous lark with grand gestures, high-strung heroines, and last-minute reversals that, rather than embarrass, send us from the theater in one hell of a good mood. Judi Dench is reliably wonderful, and her dry commentary is among the best dialogue of the year, reducing everything in her wake to a ball of yarn to be played with, then discarded with utter contempt. There’s forbidden sex, unrequited love, lesbian obsession, and even a retarded child for good measure, with illegalities fighting for time with assorted immoral transgressions. Cate Blanchett is striking as always, but her turn has the added dimension of being all-too-common in this, our tragically self-indulgent age. Bored with life, she becomes a fraud and a liar, and then has the audacity to express outrage at the very woman who kept her from discovery. That is, until she was crossed. A camp classic that deserves to live on through the ages.
10. The Hills Have Eyes
A re-make actually worthy of release, this vicious, brain-splattering mess managed to lay on thick subtext between its explosions of violence, and actually had more to say about American manhood that more self-important movies could ever hope to muster. As with so many horror films throughout time, there’s a deeper lesson to be had: fuck with nature, or the downtrodden, or a carefully constructed community, and the wrath of the damned is sure to follow. Here, nuclear testing, like so much of Cold War cinema, is the culprit, but as much as the creatures of the desert can point to unchecked jingoism as their mad birth mother, they are equally the inspiration for a milquetoast’s acquisition of his lost masculinity. Any film where a self-righteous prick is skewered with Old Glory is inherently worthy, but whether satire, call-to-arms, or ode to Peckinpah values, this is a thoughtful, much-needed bloodbath.
The Second Ten:
11. The Queen
12. Children of Men
13. The Departed
14. Deliver Us from Evil
15. Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
16. Hard Candy
17. Who Killed the Electric Car?
18. Half Nelson
19. This Film is Not Yet Rated
20. An Inconvenient Truth