The best (and worst) films of the year
By Tom Charity

(CNN) -- It has become almost meaningless to talk of "the year" in American film. The business is now more seasonal than the climate. No less than three of my top five choices were released within the last two weeks of December; such is the magnetic lock of the Oscar period.

Indeed, only the foreign-language titles in my top 10 were released in the first six months of 2006, though naturally they were barely distributed.

Sadly, without the requisite Oscar hype, even such impressive fare as "Hollywoodland," "Children of Men" and "The Good Shepherd" are deemed too risky to market. That doesn't bode well for next year's crop.

On the other hand, it's worth remembering that the year's most profitable film surely must have been "Borat," which probably cost about $700 and change to make, and has pulled in over $230 million worldwide to date -- more than enough to cover those lawsuits.

Anyway, here are my best films of the year.

'Letters From Iwo Jima' and 'Flags of Our Fathers'
Directed by Clint Eastwood; starring Ken Watanabe ("Letters"); Ryan Phillippe, Adam Beach ("Flags")

Clint Eastwood's WWII diptych was the most impressive achievement in American film this year. The two movies take opposing positions on the battlefield, but they share a deep respect for the men on both sides subjected to the horrors of war. "Iwo Jima," in particular, invests a brutal history with rare grace and compassion.

'L'enfant' ('The Child')
Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne; starring Jeremie Renier

The Cannes prize winner in 2005, this naturalistic drama from the Dardenne brothers is as intense as any thriller -- there's even a car chase. Bruno (Renier) is a petty thief and hustler who impetuously sells his newborn son on the black market. His girlfriend's absolute horror has him scrambling to recover the child and redeem himself in her eyes.

'The Good Shepherd'
Directed by Robert De Niro; starring Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie

Maybe this is the movie "Godfather III" should have been. De Niro's account of the foundation of the CIA is utterly absorbing, a study of the insidious influence of paranoia and mistrust in the corridors of power during the height of the Cold War. Damon heads up the heavyweight cast in a major picture that hasn't been given its due.

'Children of Men'
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron; starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Claire-Hope Ashitey

Cuaron brings breaking-news excitement to this allegorical thriller, a kind of 21st-century nativity story. The human race is living out its last days after succumbing to universal infertility. Owen is the good shepherd charged with delivering a miracle baby into a world tearing itself apart.

'Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Great Nation of Kazakhstan'
Directed by Larry Charles; starring Sacha Baron Cohen

This was the funniest movie in recent memory and the most talked-about of the year. Baron Cohen's "cultural learnings" weren't always edifying, but he certainly has a knack for putting the cat among the pigeons. Even the Kazakhs finally got the joke.


'The Death of Mr. Lazarescu'
Directed by Cristi Puiu; starring Ion Fiscuteanu

"ER" by way of Samuel Beckett. An old man calls the hospital for help. Eventually an ambulance arrives and he is escorted from doctor to doctor, department to department, hospital to hospital until finally his ailment becomes immaterial. This is how we die, most of us: with a whimper, and forms in triplicate.

'The Prestige'
Directed by Christopher Nolan; starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale

Nolan up to his old tricks. Like his films "Memento," "Insomnia" and "Batman Begins," this splendidly original mystery is constructed as a postmodern puzzle, framing stories within stories, flashbacks within flashbacks, and presenting us with at least two unreliable narrators -- feuding magicians Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman -- one of whom is the victim in the murder trial that opens the film. I look forward to seeing it again.

'Hollywoodland'
Directed by Allen Coulter; starring Adrien Brody, Diane Lane, Ben Affleck

Biggest shock of the year: Affleck winning an acting prize at the Venice film festival. Deservedly. He plays George Reeves, TV's Superman, in this overlooked, downbeat drama, a real-life mystery that turns into something unexpectedly poignant. Lane is also very fine as his Reeves' mistress.

'Three Times'
Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien; starring Shu Qi, Chang Chen

If cinephilia were as fashionable today as in the 1960s, Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien would be as well known as Fellini or Godard. Here, Shu Qi plays three roles in three different time periods, where she's romanced three times by Chang Chen. For all its formal experimentation, the exquisite "Three Times" very clearly pours its heart and soul in our lap.

'Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby'
Directed by Adam McKay; starring Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly

For a dumb comedy, this one is pretty darn smart. Against all odds Ferrell finds the innocence in ignorance, making his arrogant NASCAR jock strangely endearing as well as infuriating. Who can resist a guy who will stab himself in the leg to prove he's paralyzed (he isn't), then gets into a car with a hungry cougar to test his courage?

* * * * *

As for the year's worst films, it's always an achievement to waste talent, but these three do a particularly fine (or foul) job of it:

'Lady in the Water'
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan; starring Paul Giamatti

It takes a real gift to make something as excruciatingly self-important as this plodding fable, a bedtime story M. Night Shyamalan reportedly wrote for his kids. Be content they slept well.

'The Wicker Man'
Directed by Neil LaBute; starring Nicolas Cage

LaBute ("In the Company of Men") tossed off this ill-considered remake of a cult British horror movie, investing it with his own gender issues but failing to put them in a coherent form. I've never seen a sorrier bunch of pagans.

'The Sentinel'
Directed by Clark Johnson; starring Michael Douglas, Kiefer Sutherland

Okay, there were many worse movies than this thriller, but few (except maybe "Firewall") seemed so depressingly lazy. Cobbled together from bits and pieces of "No Way Out," "Absolute Power," "In the Line of Fire" and "24," this looked like an attractive package, but open it up and all you find are cliches and loose ends.

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