Little Messrs. Sunshine

Get on the bus with James and Bob for a trip through the movies of 2006

The year 2006 was amazing: Tom DeLay was hanged in Baghdad for his crimes against the Iraqi people; Hamas won the majority of seats in the British Parliament; Lindsay Lohan became the first female speaker of the House; and Slobodan Milosevic and Augusto Pinochet were married in Massachusetts.

Or something like that. As film critics, we're concerned with something more important than the year in politics: the year in movies. In that dark and glorious realm, it was a year when nerds huddled, scared and alone, in their dank basements, devoid of any new Star Wars movies. A year when the membership of NAMBLA bemoaned the absence of a new Harry Potter film. A year that saw the death of movie legends Robert Altman, Jack Palance, Glenn Ford and Saddam Hussein.

But it was also a year of great triumph: Eddie Murphy was in a film that didn't get added to the all-time worst list. Hollywood finally got around to exploiting the Sept. 11 tragedy. And Superman returned to crack the Da Vinci Code.

So while most Americans were wasting their time counting the dead in Darfur, rallying against the United States' use of torture and working assiduously to stop global warming, we, America's film critics, took on the hard task of watching hundreds of important movies. Then we assembled, tested and genetically encoded the results of our studies so that you could benefit from our difficult labors.

With that in mind, our professional film critics present their lists of what to look for, and what to avoid, in the year gone by. You know, in case a time-travel accident sends you back to Jan. 1, 2006, and you want to spend the next 12 months going to the movies.


Let's start with the bad stuff: To be fair, most of the worst films won't be on this or any list, because they only had brief New York/Los Angeles gigs or showings at small festivals.

But a far worse crime than making a bad movie is hyping a mediocre one. While the following films were not necessarily the year's worst, they were the most disappointing, because they wasted money, squandered talent and/or had expensive and deceptive PR campaigns. They were like that boy who talked you into letting him touch your special place when you were 15: They promised something that they knew they couldn't deliver.

Superman Returns to Annoy Me: Director Bryan Singer decided that Superman should be remade as a movie about how sad it is when your girlfriend dumps you. In the upcoming sequel, Superman goes on The View so he and Rosie can hug out the feelings.

Fast Food Nation: An excellent nonfiction book turned into a preachy and incompetent fiction film. Imagine making Einstein's Relativity: The Special and General Theory into a weepy romance where the characters stop in the middle of a kiss to produce condescending lectures on the relation between mass and velocity.

The Black Dahlia: Brian De Palma does his usual style-over-substance shtick, but this time, he thinks he has Something Important To Say, so he makes his film Really Really Boring.

Running With Scissors: Perhaps this will end the self-indulgent-autobiography-by-a-person-too-young-to-write-an-autobiography genre. If so, kudos to the producers for making something lame enough to subvert that stain on literature.

Casino Boring, I mean Royale: Everybody loved this movie, which means everyone loves really dull films with faceless villains and no motivation. With the bad guys only lightly sketched, and their goals never defined, I had no idea why I should root for ruthless killer James Bond over the unnamed foe. I also didn't care, since the film was a collection of logical leaps and ridiculous plot holes: Like, the CIA and MI6 go to elaborate lengths to bankrupt an international money launderer so he'll turn on his criminal clients, and then when they get him to the point of desperation, they just let him go. You'd think they'd, I dunno, round him up and interrogate him, as was the plan. But then there'd be a plan, and Casino Royale would have made some sense, and it wouldn't be a Bond movie anymore.

A Scanner Darkly and Pointlessly and With Lots of Pseudo-Deep Stoner Dialogue: If I want to see Keanu Reeves as a cartoon, I'll just look at Keanu Reeves. Not only is this a film about the mindless ramblings of a group of stoners; it comes across as if it were written by a rambling, mindless stoner. It's kind of like being trapped in a room with that guy who's telling you that there might just be a whole universe inside his thumbnail. Dude. No! Dude!

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus: Not totally awful, but insulting in its portrayal of Arbus as a childlike naïf. Plus, Nicole Kidman gives the worst performance of the year by an Oscar-winning mannequin.

Harsh Times: Christian Bale continues his glorious career arc from "the next Paul Newman" to "the next Steve Guttenberg."

While the above films deceived us with false promise, the following films simply and clearly wallowed in their sheer awfulness.

Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj: This is one of the worst movies I've ever been subjected to, and in the past 10 years, I've been to thousands of movies. Seriously: It's depressing how many movies I've had to see, and still I was amazed at how bad this was. It's like the average person picked a scab and said, "Damn, this is the worst scab I've ever seen."

Ultraviolet: Milla Jovovich's nipples star in this plotless violencefest that's pretty much 90 minutes of a svelte woman spinning around while people die. It's as though you're watching an aerobics class gone horribly wrong. Strangely, much of this film was shot out of focus, perhaps as an ironic commentary on the script.

Nacho Libre: If Mexicans, wrestling and Jack Black were inherently funny, this would be a hilarious film. Or so writer/director Jared Hess must have thought, because after he secured those three elements, he figured, "Why write a script?" and instead just let the camera roll for 100 of the dullest minutes of my life.

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont: Worse than being waterboarded.

Kinky Boots: Worse than being waterboarded while watching Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont.

Now on to the good stuff. Strangely, there was a lot of good stuff this year, even though most of the major commercial releases sucked. (Don't worry; "sucked" is a technical term in cinematology: It means they sucked.) So it was sort of an awful year for movies, because the films that got hype and press and money were largely mediocre or worse, but it was also a good year, because the Democrats finally regained control of Congress.

Last King of Scotland: This easily won Best of the Year for me, if only because, in a year when so many dictators died (Augusto Pinochet, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, James Brown), it's nice to see one of them finally get the cinematic treatment that, until, now, only Hitler had received. The film never dumbed itself down; it exposed large swaths of background information without any obvious expository sequences; and it featured one of the best performances of the decade: Forest Whitaker as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, the man who put the "ic" in Africa.

Lemming: This was a close second. A pitch-perfect re-creation of the best of Hitchcock, only with the human sensitivity of John Cassavetes. Plus, it starred Charlotte Gainsbourg, who's weird and pretty like a French space alien from the planet Phuqmipleez.

The War Tapes: A great documentary about our glorious fight for democracy in Iraq. The producers handed cameras to soldiers going overseas, and then edited together the results of their amateur shooting, which show them getting shot at and trying not to die too hard. Really brings home why "war" is "bad."

The Departed: This is not even Martin Scorsese's fourth-best movie, but would someone just give him a goddamn Oscar, ferchrissakes? What would be fabulous would be if both Departed and Rocky Balboa were nominated, and Rocky Balboa won, because that would create perfect symmetry with what the Academy did in 1976 when Rocky beat out Taxi Driver.

Little Miss Sunshine: This is proof that "comedy" does not necessarily equal "insipid poop-joke marathon aimed at anencephalic frat boys and their dogs." Also, Steve Carell shows that he can play any role. Someone should just put him in charge of Iraq. At least it would be funny.

Bubble: Technically, this was released for like five minutes in 2005, but its true release was in March 2006, where it stayed in theaters for nearly the entire length of the film. It's one of the best-shot movies of the decade, and its experiment in using untrained actors pays off with a dull emotional punch to the stomach. I mean that in good way, like when the CIA says "extraordinary rendition," because that's the nice form of torture.

Little Children: You know who's a really good actor? Patrick Wilson. He was great in Hard Candy, but he's much better in Little Children, which is also a much-better movie. Not only is the acting powerful without being Oprah-ish; the script is amazing. It includes my favorite dialogue of the year: Wilson is a married man having sex with a married woman who's not his wife. "Do you feel bad about this?" he says as he's slowly thrusting into her. "No!" she says. "I do," he replies, not stopping. "I feel really bad."

Jesus Camp: I wonder what a camp would be like if it were actually run by Jesus. I'm guessing it would be nothing like the one shown in this documentary, where children worship a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush and pray for an end to peace and democracy. As a special bonus, there's a truly creepy scene featuring a not-yet-disgraced Ted Haggard. In a lovely bit of irony, Haggard strangely implies that the average American male is secretly gay. I wonder where he got that idea.

The Science of Sleep: If prettiness could make a movie, it would make this one, but then Michael Gondry would have to sue prettiness, because he already made it, and it's perfect.

The Good Shepherd: Robert De Niro's second stab at directing is one of the most intelligent movies since mandatory lobotomies were instituted during the reign of the Empress Jenna Bush. It demands a lot of its audience, and Angelina Jolie is strangely miscast as Matt Damon's wife, but the payoff in the final third is well worth it.

Apocalypto: I'm thinking this won't show up on many best-of lists, because it was hyped as a message film about the way cultures destroy themselves--and on that count, it's a total failure. That's fine: It's not a message film; it's an action film, albeit an intelligent one by the standards of that genre. But more importantly, it's an expertly paced, incredibly exciting, visually stunning action film that creates special effects out of the artistic use of set, costume and camera instead of the usual fallback of explosions, breasts and stupidity.

Somersault: This Australian weepy so perfectly captures the emotional state of teenage love that after watching it, I called up my mother and told her that she'd never ever understand me, because she was never my age. Then I slammed my door and turned up my music real loud, and I wrote in my diary, "Some day I'll get out of here, and I'll never come back and they'll be so so so SO sorry!!!"

Some other notables that just barely missed the traditional Top 12 list include The Queen, which I might have liked more, but I saw it the day after I saw Last King of Scotland, so it suffered by comparison. Plus, Queen Elizabeth II just didn't kill as many people as Idi Amin did.

Children of Men was generally excellent, but it had too high a polish on it, and felt a little too Hollywood for its dark and well-balanced story of a childless future.

District B13 was a perfect stupid action movie, plus it was made by the French, so it was, like, more quelque chose or something.

The Notorious Bettie Page was a smart and stylish depiction of the life of the '50s pin-up queen, but it tried so hard to be ambiguous and distancing that it wound up being less engaging than it could have been.

Snakes on a Plane did what it wanted to do as well as it could have. It re-created, down to the last detail, the look and feel of a '70s disaster movie. I think it lost a lot of its audience by never winking and by eschewing the broad comedy that recent parodies (Scary Movie, Date Movie, Bullshit Parody Movie That Overstimulated Teenagers Pretend to Enjoy, etc.) use to let the audience know that they're supposed to laugh.

49 Up, the latest in a series of documentaries charting the lives of ordinary English people, created an overwhelming sense of sadness by showing that most people's lives don't have any real narrative quality.

Friends With Money was this year's other smart comedy, and it would have made the list if it weren't for the out-of-place acting style that the otherwise talented Jennifer Aniston displayed. Her sitcom manner just didn't fit in with the more naturalistic performances of Catherine Keener, Joan Cusack and Frances McDormand.

V for Vendetta did a great job of adapting the comic-book story about a totalitarian future, and its experimental ending was forceful and effective. I could have done without the romance they stapled onto it, though.

Half Nelson, the story of a drug-addict teacher, was harrowing and featured a great performance by Ryan Gosling as a high school basketball coach whose inappropriate relationship with his student may be the best thing in his life. I'm not sure why it's not in my Top 12, actually, but the traditional dictates of the Top 12 list demand that some worthy films just not make it in.

The documentary American Hardcore was among the year's best, but it's pretty much aimed only at those who already love American underground music from the '80s, i.e., all the cool people, and so I kept it off the main list so that the losers and nerds wouldn't feel left out.

Finally, I need to note The Most Uncategorizable Film of the Year: Inland Empire. I have no idea if I liked this movie or not. It was so confusing that it actually interfered with my ability to introspectively know the contents of my own mind. Not only could I not say if it's a good film or a bad film; I'm not even sure it's a film. I think it has five stories, six if you count the one about the room full of people with rabbit heads, but they don't interweave or connect or crossover ... they just sort of become each other. On the other hand, it's the second David Lynch film in a row which spends more than two hours of screen time to justify a lesbian kiss, and I'm pretty sure that that's a good thing.


James has submitted a much happier list than the death lineup he compiled last year. I would've bet an ice cream cone and a horse that something like Little Miss Sunshine (a rather adorable movie) would never find a place in the James DiGiovanna Top 12.

There's no surprise seeing the terrifically violent The Departed, the amazingly depressing Bubble or Jackie Earle Haley doing very bad things to himself in Little Children ... all of these are certainly at home in DiGiovanna territory. But Little Miss Sunshine? I have a little more hope for humanity and James' ability to lead a happy life full of sparrows and pie after reading his list.

Wait a minute ... Sunshine has a heroin-addicted grandpa in it who croaks. OK, now I see how it qualifies.

Kudos to James for giving praise to one of the year's funniest films, Apocalypto. By the time the panther was ripping somebody's face off, I was rolling on the floor with laughter. That Mel Gibson is such a card!

While perusing his Top 12 and runners-up, I found myself in a surprising state of agreement with James until ... Snakes on a Plane?! The Fountain or Charlotte's Web can't find a home in Jamesland, yet Snakes on a Plane gets the glory? Snakes finds a prominent place in my worst film list, and James has been officially uninvited to my Arbor Day Cocktail Social Extravaganza for liking it.

As for his list of awful movies, I take major offense to his dissing Nacho Libre, a movie I had a lot of fun with. (Actually, I don't really take offense at all. My editor gave me the edict to be a disagreeable asshole in this piece, and I'm trying to play the part. He gave me an extra five bucks!)

Finally, I'm aghast at the list of films that James found "disappointing," simply because I liked so many of them, and since I idolize James in many ways, I now feel ultra-stupid and insignificant. I gave recommendations, and rather big ones, for Superman Returns, Casino Royale, A Scanner Darkly and Harsh Times. James probably knew I liked those movies and compiled that extra list just to make me look like an ignorant dick. Thanks a lot, James. You've been uninvited to the Secretary's Day Fondue Mixer and Tequila Party as well!

After ingesting his lists, I'm now fully confident that James thinks I'm some sort of idiot. Mind you, lots of folks (including my editor) would probably agree, but I do suddenly feel very alone in this article.

Somebody, please ... hold me.

My Top 10 and 15 runners-up.

1. The Fountain: Writer-director Darren Aronofsky is a genius, and while his latest might not be perfect, it is definitely a bold, original, mystifying work. Hugh Jackman plays a conquistador, a doctor and an astronaut of sorts in this amazing meditation on eternal love and life. This is the performance that establishes him as a real actor rather than a cartoon character.

I've seen this film called pompous and a vanity project by many other critics. This is hilarious to me. It's almost as if Aronofsky is being punished for being more daring, smarter and brighter than most. To call this a mess because you don't get it is shameful. This is a film where the viewer must surrender to what the filmmaker is trying to accomplish, and go along on his journey.

The narrative of this movie is by no means conventional, although things do tie together a bit better upon a second viewing. The core of this film--that true love is an eternal, undying entity--is handled beautifully. That all of the pieces of the puzzle might not fit together perfectly is a moot point. Aronofsky tried to tackle the entire universe with his movie, and I'm amazed by how much he has succeeded.

Besides all that, the film looks better than anything put to screen this year and has a score to die for. It's 2006's best picture.

2. The Departed: As far as performances go, no film this past year was as packed with as many good ones. Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin are all first-rate. It definitely helps matters that their work was guided by director Martin Scorsese, an artist who never ceases to amaze. A return to the sort of violent drama that Scorsese made his name with, the film might finally get him that Oscar. Ha, ha, ha ... I made a funny. He'll probably get snubbed again, just because snubbing Scorsese is something the Academy does so well. This marks the first time in our lists that James and I agree.

3. Charlotte's Web: Yes, Charlotte the spider is icky-looking at first, but I got used to her. (She does have the voice of Julia Roberts coming out of her, so that helps.) The year's best family film is also one of the year's best movies, a visual delight worthy of the classic E.B. White book. It put a smile on my face for its entire running time. Well, OK, I didn't smile the whole time. The spider scared me at first, and I think I might've cried. Only a little.

4. United 93: While World Trade Center felt like a Hallmark Channel movie, this one made me feel appropriately awful while watching it. Director Paul Greengrass went for a documentary look with his film, and it's a wise choice. A moving tribute to the people on that Sept. 11 flight that's truly hard to watch, as it should be.

5. Half Nelson: Ryan Gosling is superb as a schoolteacher with a nasty crack habit, and Shareeka Epps is equally powerful as the student he befriends. This establishes Gosling as one of his generation's elite actors.

6. The Descent: One of the scariest movies I've ever seen. A group of women go cave diving and encounter some rather nasty cave creatures. This isn't one of those movies where the victims run screaming. Here, they stand up and fight. They lose horribly and get eaten, but they go down swinging sharp climbing gear. People who say this movie wasn't scary enough are lying assholes. They're just trying to make you think they're tough.

7. Letters From Iwo Jima: Clint Eastwood made two World War II films this year, and this one is far superior to Flags of Our Fathers. Depicting the battle of Iwo Jima from the viewpoint of the Japanese soldier, it showcases a heartbreaking performance from Ken Watanabe and frightening battle scenes. It's pretty scary watching America's might through the eyes of its foe.

8. Little Children: In the hands of another director, this one could've been just another pedestrian study of suburban malcontents behaving badly. Instead, what we get from director Todd Field is a strangely operatic, blistering portrayal of numerous folks (played by the likes of Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson) on the verge of collapse. Jackie Earle Haley (Kelly Leak from The Bad News Bears) plays one of the year's most terrifying characters.

9. A Scanner Darkly: Philip K. Dick's anti-drug story gets the Richard Linklater rotoscope-animation treatment, and it's a feast for the eyes and brain. It's out on DVD, where it actually plays better than it did on the big screen. After seeing this, I was damned sure there was a bug on me, but that's pretty much an ongoing problem in my life.

10. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby: I laughed more at this film than any other this year. Will Ferrell is funny enough as the title character, but Gary Cole, Sacha Baron Cohen and John C. Reilly nearly steal the movie out from under him in supporting roles.


11. The Proposition: A sinister, dark Western.

12. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan: I would be the only Borat fan writing for this article.

13. The Queen: Start polishing the Oscar for Helen Mirren.

14. Dreamgirls: Eddie Murphy sans latex!

15. Hard Candy: The feel good castration flick of the year!

16. The Science of Sleep/Dave Chappelle's Block Party: A double score for director Michel Gondry.

17. Babel: I didn't care for all of the plotlines, but the ones that grabbed me were spectacular.

18. For Your Consideration: Catherine O'Hara deserves an Oscar nom.

19. Pan's Labyrinth: Scary and enchanting. Mostly scary.

20. Marie Antoinette: An art direction Oscar must happen here.

21. Idiocracy: The funniest movie nobody saw.

22. Little Miss Sunshine: I like it even more now that I know James liked it.

23. Children of Men: One of those films that makes me glad I'm single with no kids.

24. Superman Returns: Probably my favorite intended blockbuster of the year. Got an unfair bad rap.

25. Rocky Balboa: Hell yeah, I included this on my list. Rocky! Rocky! Rocky!

Those were the good ones. And now it is time for our annual journey into the land of Cinematic Stinkville, where Nicolas Cage embarrasses himself and Sharon Stone remains, as always, a shameless whore. Oddly enough, Dakota Fanning is nowhere to be seen in the list below, but you will find her up above. This is an encouraging sign of cinematic progress and Fanning's waning ability to annoy the living piss out of me.

1. The Wicker Man: This was supposed to be a horror film, yet it ends with Nicolas Cage running around in a bear suit. Epic in its badness, with more laughs (unintentional) than most comedies released this year.

2. Basic Instinct 2: Risk Addiction: Speaking of laugh riots, this one had me chortling from the moment it was announced as a project. Sharon Stone disgusts me.

3. American Dreamz: A War on Terror/American Idol satire. Writer-director Paul Weitz thought he had a clever idea, so he made it into a movie. This proved that his expertise lies more in the field of pie-fucking than political satire.

4. The Da Vinci Code: The boring novel becomes an even more boring movie. A big charisma-sucking straw came up from hell and withdrew all the positive and infectious energy from Tom Hanks' bodice.

5. Snakes on a Plane: I got all swept up in the hype for this one and went to opening night, only to discover that the Internet is a foul temptress, capable of lies and deceit. I feel so used.

6. Man of the Year: Another truly awful political satire, and yet another unholy pairing of director Barry Levinson and Robin Williams. Their Toys debacle wasn't enough to keep them apart, and this is our loss.

7. A Good Year: Russell Crowe's sleazy, vacuous bond trader gets what is coming to him when he inherits a beautiful vineyard and romances a hot woman. To all of you scumbags out there who are bilking people out of money and stepping on heads to get to the top: Watch out. Cosmic forces just might make you the owner of a French vineyard, where you will get your comeuppance drinking wine that isn't all that great. Hey, I was a major bastard this past year, so I'm expecting one of them there Italian vineyards as karma payback. I would like to see the "Pieta" before I die.

8. The Nativity Story: The arrival of Christ on Earth calls for major moping, a little bit of scandal ("Say, who got that Mary girl pregnant?") and whitewater adventure. Jesus is cool, but this interpretation of the buildup to his birthday is a bad booze hangover.

9. All the King's Men: While the stench of Sean Penn's performance didn't stink to I Am Sam levels, it came damn close. He makes so many violent arm movements in this thing that you expect one to fly off and decapitate Jude Law. Actually, that would've made this movie one of the year's best!

10. You, Me and Dupree: Owen Wilson tried to do his best Owen Wilson impression in this film, and he wound up looking like David Spade: bad concept, bad execution and proof that Owen is best in supporting or sidekick roles. (He should make sure Vince Vaughn makes an appearance in every one of his films.) Right now, my favorite Wilson brother is definitely Luke.

As for the coming year, nothing looks more exciting than Grindhouse, combining two films by directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Rose McGowan has a machine gun for a leg in this film, and that's enough to get me stoked. Also looming big on the radar would be Spider-Man 3, Live Free or Die Hard (Die Hard 4), I Am Legend and possibly even Rambo IV: Pearl of the Cobra.

You know the state of cinema is bad when you find yourself pining for Rambo IV.

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