;The Academy Awards grow increasingly irrelevant each year, but they still seem to be the best barometer we have of measuring greatness in cinema. It doesn't matter how many reputable critics put The World or Tropical Malady in their top 10 lists of 2005; the films will be out-rented by excessive spectacles like Memoirs of a Geisha any day, based on Academy consideration alone.
;;The Golden Globes are the most telling indicator of Oscar bound–ness, and judging by this year's candidates, we're looking at another year of disappointments. The powerful but dubious — and certainly overreaching — message movie Babel leads the pack with seven nominations, and while the six-nominee Departed is more than deserving of any accolade thrown its way, a best-picture Drama nod for the preachy jumble Bobby is distressing, as are the majority of the Best-picture Comedy nominees. Borat is a great moviefilm, but Little Miss Sunshine? The Devil Wears Prada? Thank You for Smoking? Decent movies, but none of them have a sparkling wit or inventive premise; all are bogged down with unnecessary sentimentality or formulaic concessions. How about the wonderfully snarky, self-referential playfulness of Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story? No love for the trashy high-school slapstick of Strangers With Candy? No consideration for For Your Consideration? It's musical or comedy, folks, so A Prairie Home Companion works too.
;;The ultimate Golden Globe nadir is the nomination for Chiwetel Ejiofor in the pandering Kinky Boots. Unlike Florida Film Festival voters, the Foreign Press Association doesn't have the excuse of being soused on the Sterling wine that lowered our collective critical faculty in April.
;;However, there was a point when mid-carders like Smoking and Prada would have made my top 10, too, for lack of anything better. Seeing one paltry film after another during spring and summer, I comforted myself with a refrain from the Mountain Goats' album The Sunset Tree: "I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me."
;;After X-Men 3, Just My Luck, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, John Tucker Must Die, Clerks II, Scoop, Jackass: Number Two and Flyboys, it almost did. Hope arrived in small spurts in the forms of All the King's Men and The Black Dahlia, flawed by fascinating adaptations that were universally lambasted by critics who got a memo I apparently never received.
;;Then came Half Nelson, The Science of Sleep, Infamous, Marie Antoinette, and the liberating invigoration of The Departed, and 2006 is suddenly a fine year for cinema. At the time of this writing, I still haven't seen buzz-worthy titles like Dreamgirls, The Good Shepherd, Notes on a Scandal, Children of Men, Volver, Letters From Iwo Jima, Little Children or Sherrybaby. Even so, I'm surprised by what a solid fall and winter we're having; even surefire favorites from spring such as Duck Season, Tristram Shandy and United 93 were bumped off my year-end top 10 to accommodate so many new unusual and arresting films.
;;If there is a theme running through my favorites this year, it's a lone-wolf obstinacy to champion films that the critical establishment and most of the moviegoing populace dismissed or ignored. It's a shame, but Half Nelson was too slow, The Science of Sleep too weird, Infamous too familiar, Marie Antoinette too unconventional, Fast Food Nation too obvious, all of them too something.
;;But in each case, it's the very too-ness that makes them extraordinarily good. They barrel past accepted norms that Little Miss Sunshine and even The Illusionist are all but happy to conform to, each bit of commercial suicide working to the films' benefits. Half Nelson's deliberate pacing is essential to its exquisite evocation of a drug addict's slow and painful attempts at recovery. The Science of Sleep's visual and narrative schizophrenia elevates a Charlie Kaufman wannabe script to an exciting new level of surrealist freedom. Infamous' unfortunately timed release only gets better if you've seen Capote, because then you'll realize how incomplete the Oscar-winning latter was. Marie Antoinette's numerous anachronisms and self-reflexive cues modernize the stodgy costume drama and add to the alienating ambience of Marie's dissociation from the world around her.
;;And the bluntness of the year's best film, Fast Food Nation, is exactly the kind of unflinching confrontation we need in response to a monstrous oligopoly of shit-filled food chains and their exploitation of immigrant workers. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle renovated for Bush's America, this is a message movie that gets it right, cynically offering no false hope to defeat an institution as ingrained in our country as the obesity it's spawned. Aspiring activists attempt to free cattle from their imprisonment, but the cows don't budge — even they realize resistance is futile.
;;There are no tasteful cutaways in Fast Food Nation; Richard Linklater shows us everything, and when Catalina Sandino Moreno's character is fitted to "the kill floor" as a last resort, where real blood fountains from real slaughtered animals, it feels every bit like being sent to the gallows: a world we've only read about in black-and-white spilling forth in horrific Technicolor. Even the film's rule-breaking structure works to its benefit. Greg Kinnear has the first act almost all to himself, only to disappear until a post-credits dénouement, his palpable absence negating the moral dilemma he should, but doesn't, have. It's just assumed he'd rather continue collecting a paycheck than fix the problem.
;;If I seem to go overboard with Fast Food Nation, it's because there's nobody else in its corner. The Departed and Borat don't need my defense, and A Prairie Home Companion had a sizable run, though it too remains an underappreciated gem. It's one of the few films I've seen that can elicit pure joy from the first frame to the last. For the late Robert Altman, it felt like a swan song; a tender and romantic elegy to complete his canon.
;;Elsewhere, the Dardenne brothers and Hou Hsaio-Hsien continued to make excellent, thought-provoking work, the prior with the 2005 Cannes Golden Palm Winner L'Enfant and the latter with Three Times, a contemplation on the evolution of love whose DVD I reviewed here in October.
;;A latecomer to the list, Andrew Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation received little in the way of distribution, but it's worth seeking out. Grainy, black-and-white and utterly underground, it's geared toward and featuring 20-something hipsters in emotional paralysis, and resembles John Cassavetes channeling Gen-Y confusion. I'll admit my intense relatability to the characters and subject matter has a lot to do with my affection for the movie — I saw myself and my closest friends on screen, every positive and negative quality exposed and dissected — but it's personal, naturalistic and admirable filmmaking no matter where you come from. It's how people really act; they don't have clever comebacks to provide levity for awkward situations; they stumble, fumble and jumble over words, embarrassing themselves with their candor or lack thereof. Bujalski has a profound eye for the minutiae of life and love. These characters' problems may be petty compared to the important issues raised in Fast Food Nation, Babel or The Last King of Scotland, but for once they're given a forum in cinema, and what do you know — they're more flesh-and-blood than anybody in any film all year.
;;Perhaps more than anything, 2006 was a year of interesting failures (Bobby, Stranger Than Fiction, The Good German, Lady in the Water, Art School Confidential, The Notorious Bettie Page, Hollywoodland, World Trade Center), films that had too many interesting ideas to settle for middle-of-the-road disappointments. They all went out on limbs, but the limbs cracked under the pressure.;
;So let's reward the films that took the chances and got them right.;
Best of the year;
20. Neil Young: Heart of Gold;
19. The Queen;
18. An Inconvenient Truth;
17. United 93;
16. Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story;
15. Duck Season;
14. Half Nelson;
13. The Proposition;
12. Flags of Our Fathers;
10. The Science of Sleep;
9. Pan’s Labyrinth;
7. Marie Antoinette;
5. Mutual Appreciation;
4. Three Times;
3. A Prairie Home Companion;
2. The Departed;
1. Fast Food Nation;
Worst of the year;
10. The Da Vinci Code;
9. Jackass: Number Two;
7. Kinky Boots;
5. John Tucker Must Die;
4. Clerks II;
2. Conversations With God;