For fans, a happy ending after all

Published December 29, 2006

For the first time this century, the movie year is worth celebrating. The short list for my annual Top 10 list was longer than in any recent year, and eliminations were tougher to decide.

Don’t go overboard with the Champagne, though. Too many sequels, remakes and knockoffs still take up too much megaplex space and public attention. But consumers seem to be wising up a bit ­— just ask Superman, if he returns again.

James Bond, Martin Scorsese and Rocky Balboa all made impressive comebacks in 2006.

The year also marked the passing of legendary filmmaker Robert Altman, a few months after gracing the Sarasota Film Festival with his presence and his last film, A Prairie Home Companion.

Altman’s swan song made my Top 10 list, along with several films dealing with war and remembrance.

Filmmakers tackled such themes head-on in a year when events continued to keep them at the front of the national consciousness. Still, ticket sales suggested moviegoers weren’t so enthusiastic.

 Let’s hope 2007 brings as many impressive works, and fewer real-world inspirations. Happy new year, and now a look back at the Top 10 films of 2006:

1. Pan’s Labyrinth: A young girl imagines a haunting fairy tale mirroring her predicament during the Spanish civil war. Director Guillermo Del Toro fashioned violent and phantasmagorical images, always keeping viewers slightly off balance until the final scene when everything becomes heartbreaking. An opening date in bay area theaters hasn’t been determined. Don’t miss this beautifully horrifying film, whenever it arrives.

2. The Departed: Martin Scorsese might finally get his Oscar, not for playing the academy’s game with gaudy biographies or historical epics, but for doing what he does best. Boston’s mean streets revive his savage style, as an undercover cop (Leonardo DiCaprio) and a mob mole (Matt Damon) infiltrate the enemy. There aren’t enough Oscar nominations to cover the excellent cast.

3. Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers: Clint Eastwood in 2006 delivered the most remarkable directorial achievement since Steven Spielberg released Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in 1993. Flags used a conventional approach to U.S. heroism during World War II with panoramic battle scenes and meticulous homefront detailing. Letters commanded viewers to witness war from an enemy’s perspective that isn’t much different from ours. No bay area opening date for Letters From Iwo Jima has been set.

4. United 93: Paul Greengrass ventured where filmmakers feared to tread, inside the fuselage of an airliner hijacked by 9/11 terrorists. We feel as if we’re witnessing the end of American comfort, as confused and helpless as the air traffic controllers monitoring the crisis. The final scenes of passengers bravely fighting against fate are supreme examples of cinematic tension.

5.  A Prairie Home Companion: The late Robert Altman saved one of his best works for last, a celebration of heartland values laced with wry regret over changing times. The ensemble cast was perfection, the music soared and a clever subtext of mortality suggests Altman knew his time was nearly up. Rest in peace, maestro.

6. Apocalypto: Mel Gibson may be a jerk but he’s also one of our finest filmmakers. His Mayan empire adventure contains more brutal thrills and spills than any slasher flick, and his artful way with historical detail makes viewers feel smarter for watching. Now if he could only hold his tequila.

7. Notes on a Scandal: Judi Dench doesn’t need to boil a bunny to become the creepiest stalker since Fatal Attraction. She is superb as a prep school teacher with a crush on a married colleague (Cate Blanchett), who is having an affair with a student. Patrick Marber’s deliciously tart screenplay inspires three award-worthy performances, counting Bill Nighy as the unwitting husband. Opens here Jan. 12.

8. Little Miss Sunshine: The little movie that could, from Sundance anonymity to a pair of Golden Globes nominations. A cross-country trip with a dysfunctional family is a common movie theme but seldom this abrasively funny. The jokes and a perverse endorsement of “family values” become richer with repeat viewings. Please give Alan Arkin an Oscar before it’s too late.

9. Thank You for Smoking: Bad habit, terrific movie. Aaron Eckhart created the year’s most daring antihero, a tobacco lobbyist rationalizing cancer rates with disarming charm. Jason Reitman’s satire spared no one on either side of the issue, with a few choice digs at alcohol and gun addictions along the way.

10. The Dead Girl: Five stories with fascinating women, each linked to the shocking discovery of a corpse. Director Karen Moncrieff connected these initially unrelated minidramas better than Babel, with more wrenching emotion. No opening date here has been determined.

HONORABLE MENTIONS (in alphabetical order):

Akeelah and the Bee: The year’s best family film.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston: Ditto among documentaries.

Half Nelson: Sorry, Forest Whitaker and Peter O’Toole; Ryan Gosling is the year’s best leading actor.

Stranger Than Fiction: Marc Forster’s meta-fantasy about life imitating art nearly made my Top 10.

Tsotsi: Arrived in Tampa Bay after deservedly winning the 2005 Academy Award for best foreign-language film.

V for Vendetta: 2006’s angriest political statement on film.

World Trade Center: Instead of controversy, Oliver Stone created a moving tribute to 9/11 heroism.

Times film critic Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or persall@sptimes.com.