- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 28, 2006

It feels awkward to compare works as disparate as “Borat,” with its sometimes vulgar (but always laugh-out-loud) humor, and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a darkly serious fairy tale. So take the numerical rankings of the films on my list with a grain of salt. Each one had a very different purpose. Perhaps more important, though, is the dominance of foreign and debut directors on this varied list, which makes me more optimistic about the future of film.

1. The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) — Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s astonishingly accomplished debut is powerful but understated filmmaking. A Stasi officer in 1984 East Berlin gradually gains his humanity through spying on a playwright and his actress girlfriend.

2. Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) — The year’s most imaginative film is a dark fairy tale for adults. With his fantasy set amidst the post-civil war repression of Franco’s Spain, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro is set to become a more successful Terry Gilliam.

3. The Departed — Evil comes in many guises. With one of the year’s best casts and his trademark talent for setting a scene, Martin Scorsese took a Hong Kong crime thriller and turned it into a very American tale.

4. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan — Enjoy this audacious, side-splitting window on America — there can never be another movie like this again.

5. Little Miss Sunshine — This more than promising debut rivals “Borat” for the title of funniest film of the year. And like that comedy, it makes us laugh ‘til it hurts while taking on our deepest prejudices. With a 7-year-old in a fat suit (Abigail Breslin), an obscene Alan Arkin and a suicidal Steve Carell, what’s not to love?

6. Thank You for Smoking — With his first effort, Jason Reitman proves he’ll never have to live under his father’s shadow. While Ivan Reitman’s “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” was one of the worst movies of the year, his son’s debut was a sharp satire and an almost perfect film.

7. The History Boys — The cast and makers of the smash stage hit reproduce their success on the big screen. Alan Bennett, adapting his own play, has written one of the year’s wittiest films. His study of the clever but crass boys of Cutlers’ Grammar School is sharp, not sentimental.

8. Casino Royale — Bond is most certainly back. Daniel Craig proved the skeptics — including myself — wrong within minutes of appearing onscreen. An exceedingly pleasurable film, “Casino” cleverly poked fun at the franchise without turning it into a joke.

9. Brick — We saw a lot of neo-noirs in 2006; this was the best. Rian Johnson’s debut was a bit rough around the edges, but his eye and ear for the incredible variety of American personality make the director of this high-school noir one to watch.

10. The Painted Veil and The Prestige — These two films proved, in very different ways, that the “costume drama” has plenty of life left in it. The often cavernous distance between two people — as well as between who we are and who we want to be — is the timeless subject of “Veil,” based on a Somerset Maugham novel. Christopher Nolan brought his avant-garde novelistic sense of narrative to the past with “The Prestige,” one of those sublimely entertaining movies that you turn over in your mind long after you’ve left the theater.

Most underrated: Edmond — Stuart Gordon’s adaptation of a David Mamet play, with a screenplay penned by the playwright himself, was the most disturbing film of the year — which might explain why it wasn’t released in the District. You may not enjoy watching this exploration of masculinity, race and destiny starring William H. Macy, but you’ll think about it for weeks to come.

Fitting exit: A Prairie Home Companion — Director Robert Altman’s last movie wasn’t the best of the year. But as an elegy to an all but lost way of life, the warm, gentle piece was a nicebookend to a marvelous career.

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