Iraq ruled not only the news but movie screens as well in 2006, as George W. Bush’s war was analyzed and attacked from myriad angles by documentarians intent on delivering “embedded” on-the-ground reports free from Rummy spin. The War Tapes, Iraq in Fragments and The Ground Truth (among others) provided bracingly immediate perspectives that blew away the sterility of cable news coverage, their raw, blistering tactics getting intimately inside the complex conflict. Interiority was also the hallmark of two of the year’s preeminent fictional efforts, as Michel Gondry’s dream-drenched The Science of Sleep and David Lynch’s magnum opus Inland Empire both burrowed so deeply into their characters’ fractured psyches that they became fanciful, terrifying, hallucinatory portraits of the mind’s tangled subconscious. Gondry and Lynch’s playful and/or rigorous experimentalism weren’t isolated examples, with Michael Mann (Miami Vice), Sofia Coppola (Marie Antoinette) and Darren Aronofsky (The Fountain) similarly revisiting favorite thematic fixations while pushing the boundaries of their particular aesthetic methods to new, idiosyncratic heights. And amid the usual glut of studio-produced junk, a few subversive figures—such as Sacha Baron Cohen’s infamous Kazakhstan reporter—managed to shake up the system from within. In some cases, however, triumph came not from daring risk-taking but, rather, from the cultivation and refinement of familiar ground, a fact breathtakingly demonstrated by masters like The Dardenne Brothers (L’Enfant), Pedro Almodóvar (Volver) and Hou Hsiao-hsien (Three Times)—and, as well, by the late Robert Altman, whose heartfelt tribute to showbiz and melancholy rumination on mortality, A Prairie Home Companion, proved one of the auteur’s trademark ensemble pieces, and a fitting coda to one of the medium’s most distinguished and vital careers. Nick Schager
1. Inland Empire (David Lynch)
Inland Empire is now out of its cage and critics are beginning to struggle with it. Or not. Avant-garde chickenshits have already tossed up their weapons, leaving Lynch’s meta-monster and its fucking-brutal clicking parts to please no one except for fans of the director’s previous freak-outs. Their loss is our gain. But how do you describe the indescribable to those wanting in? For one thing, you don’t. Lynch, pace Björk, leaves logic and reason to the arms of unconsciousness, but he never abandons compassion, because every corridor of this serpentine hall of mirrors is alive with a bug-eyed exaltation for the in-too-deep thesping that obsesses Laura Dern’s actress as she pushes and bleeds her way through a grungy view-askew of the Dream Factory. J. Hoberman, comparing the film to Meshes of the Afternoon, has said that the film “has no logic apart from its movie-ness.” A friend likens it to an STD, only one that’s worth getting—which is to say, it’s not easily forgotten. Sweet.
2. L’Enfant (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
The Dardenne Brothers are religious men, but their detached style is so munificent their films defy easy categorization; these works of art can just as easily be read as Christian allegories or visions of socialist-humanist daring. Indeed, every remarkable composition and movement in L’Enfant exudes compassion and remorse, evoking a profound sense of transcendental, existential, spiritual or emotional unease (take your pick, or take them all, because the brothers’ vision is nothing if not absolute), and its incredible, gut-punching finale, can be looked at as a male pieta or, more simply (but just as powerfully), an eruptive demonstration of a child finally becoming an adult. Either way, the film is nothing short of a miracle.
3. Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville)
Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows resurrects the existential noir. Almost 40 years old, this impeccably designed house of cards hinges on a perpetual mood of paranoia, with characters brokering spaces wide and small like rooks laid out across an intimidating and immaculate chessboard. Know thy enemy, but also know thy friend. The wind is its own character—and so are the falling rain and the ticking of clocks. A certain determinist pall encases everything, yet the film’s cool is not without purpose. A smoky commentary on liberty, equality and fraternity, the film acknowledges that the bell tolls for us all.
4. Battle in Heaven (Carlos Reygadas)
Carlos Reygadas has a gift for weighty parallelism and his Cannes flamethrower Battle in Heaven not only comes with one but two sets of bookends: a pair of blowjobs. Early on, the Mexican flag is hoisted into the air; later, when the main character’s fate has been sealed, the flag goes flaccid. Beyond these two scenes appear two recapitulations of the same oral sex scene. In one, the beautiful general’s daughter goes down on her driver, his cock sheathed in a condom; in the second, no condom is involved, but the cock is a prosthetic. To the very end, the film is committed to conveying a modern tragedy of personal and political negation through sexual pageantry.
5. The Science of Sleep (Michel Gondry)
The difference between Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep is the difference between a good pop song and a great punk record, a fluid Escher-like mindbender and a kaleidoscopic Jackson Pollock drip. This is the first Gondry film that feels completely born of the pop magpie’s own imagination—fabulously homegrown and devoted unpretentiously to an oddball way of looking at and appreciating the world and the people who run through it, a blissfully cluttered vision instantly and affectionately recognizable from Gondry’s groundbreaking music videos for the Chemical Brothers, Foo Fighters, Kyle Minogue, and Björk.
6. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu)
Mr. Lazarescu’s first name isn’t Dante for nothing. From hell and back, the man is subjected to a series of unfortunate events that represents a purgatory of exasperating ineffectuality and inaction. But Cristi Puiu never overplays this symbolism or loses sight of a larger humanist picture. Forcibly directed, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu—something of a state of the union address—rarely looks away from its main character, and when it does (not least of which when the lights go out over and over again outside the old man’s apartment), his absence is felt like a punch to the gut, or a beating heart ripped out from a body politic that’s slowly begun to give out on itself.
7. Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola)
Sofia Coppola is obsessed with Marie Antoinette’s pleasure, holding out her hand and contriving for her a series of mini revolutions (she claps, to everyone’s shock, after a court performance and, later, carries on an affair with a gorgeous and virile soldier) in order to hint at the girl’s desire to react against that which was preordained. Cynics will reduce these moments to feminist fiddling, but they are, in fact, very humane considerations of the corset-like effect ritual had on Marie Antoinette’s will. Marie Antoinette is a great fashion show but it is also constitutes a great makeover—an elegy to frustration, where every color and sound evokes the longing and rapture of a girl who did not understand her adult responsibility.
8. Miami Vice (Michael Mann)
Michael Mann’s stylish exercises in existentialist dick-swagger can be off-putting, almost hysterical, but Miami Vice is something special, materializing and soaring out of a splendiferous, almost sci-fi ether. Mann treats Miami like some dead thing, flipping it over so he won’t have to look at its tacky-pastel surface—essentially the only side of the city people who’ve never been there are familiar with. Every time Mann lingers on one of his actor’s intense expressions, he is considering the secret language the film’s world-traveling undercover agents use to scan their environment, and the pain and pleasure their silent tongue rouses. The film isn’t better than Scarface, but its style is like a vice, almost sinfully deep.
9. Romántico (Mark Becker)
Director Mark Becker’s subtle visual touches are always stressing his subject’s departed status, and implicit in Carmelo Muñiz Sánchez’s struggles—like selling nieves, a local ice cream, back home in Mexico (in part to raise enough money for his older daughter’s quinceañera)—is a critique of the powers that burden all immigrants. But Romántico is, above all, a portrait of an artist as an old man—a good man who reveals, through tears that run along the deep lines in his face, how he gives free nieves to poor children who remind him of himself as a child. Would that capitalism were as kind and forgiving.