First, a disclaimer: No critic who gave birth to her first child last Feb. 14 can reasonably lay claim to an exhaustive knowledge of the movie year that followed. There were at least four months there during which the only movies I managed to catch were the fatigue-induced hallucinations on the inside of my own eyelids. But in mid-June, I started as Slate's film critic, a job that, along with the aforementioned child, has made 2006 my personal best year ever. It was a pretty terrific year for movies, too, despite Fur and Apocalypto and My Super Ex-Girlfriend. In alphabetical order, here are my 10 best of the year:
Babel: I wouldn't have thought this would be a controversial choice for one of the year's best films, but it hasn't been showing up on a lot of year-end lists. I know there were critics who found Alejandro González Iñárritu's swirling, virtuosic vision ham-handed and message-heavy. But Clint Eastwood's lumbering Flags of Our Fathers has mysteriously escaped these same labels. I watched every minute of Babel with my heart in my throat, and if Oscar had a category for best new performer, Rinko Kikuchi would win it for her role as a deaf Japanese teenager with a secret or three.
Children of Men: OK, maybe I was feeling a burst of yuletide generosity last week when I labeled this "the movie of the millennium," but it's a long time since a filmmaker has brought together intellectual rigor, technical prowess, and compassion the way Alfonso Cuarón does in the dark, futuristic thriller Children of Men. You don't have to be a new parent to be laid low by this movie's dystopian vision of a world without babies, but it surely helps.
Documentaries (a four-way tie): As political and historical reality trips over itself to outstrip our worst imaginings (how much worse can it get? Oh, that much worse), documentaries just keep getting better. This year was awash in fine nonfiction filmmaking, from Our Daily Bread, the impossibly bleak, nearly silent German film about the origin of commercial foodstuffs, to Iraq in Fragments, the first documentary about the Iraq war to transcend the newsreel genre and aspire to be a work of art. For the sheer dreadfulness of its subject, it would be hard to top Deliver Us From Evil, in which a pedophile priest remembers the dozens of children he ravaged with an almost twinkly nostalgia. But my favorite doc of the year may have been Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's scrupulously respectful Jesus Camp, which follows three born-again children to an evangelical summer camp in North Dakota. Bonus moment: a pre-gay-sex-scandal Rev. Ted Haggard addressing the camera with the assurance that, "We don't have to debate about what we think about homosexual activity, because it's written in the Bible."
L'Enfant: With this tale of a Belgian petty thief who sells his newborn son on the black market, the Dardenne brothers continue their run of astonishingly austere and uncompromising moral fables. The lead actor, Jérémie Renier, who played the blond little boy in the Dardennes' 1996 immigrant drama La Promesse, has grown into an actor perfectly suited to the directors' style, which might be described as offhandedly devastating. The absence of close-ups, music, and other emotional cues make you forget you're watching a drama at all, until your heart is suddenly ripped from your chest. It's not too much to invoke Bresson as the spiritual antecedent of these acolytes of cinema.
Little Miss Sunshine: Part of this indie's enduring charm is that, on paper, it looked so crappy: a road movie about a nutty family on their way to a children's beauty pageant? Sounds, er, heartwarming. But against all odds, it really was, with one of the most satisfying happy endings in recent comedy (unfortunately, the current TV ad for the DVD ruthlessly gives away the climax). A second viewing reveals the script's impressive attention to detail (watch the way the evolution of Greg Kinnear's character traces the steps of his batty self-improvement program). In an age of splintering audience demographics, there's hardly a viewing companion I couldn't imagine taking to Little Miss Sunshine. Though the plot elements include Grandpa's heroin problem, Uncle Frank's gay porn, and a corpse in the back of a VW bus, I'd buy tickets for either Gramps or Junior in a hot second.
Man Push Cart: Go to your Netflix queue right now, demote Talladega Nights by one space—not that you shouldn't get around to it eventually—and add this first feature by young Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani. It follows a Pakistani pushcart vendor (Ahmad Razvi) around the streets of New York City, where he befriends a Spanish girl (Leticia Dolera), does odd jobs for a wealthy fellow Pakistani (Charles Daniel Sandoval), and eventually faces an overwhelming reversal of fortune—not that things were going so well for him in the first place. But this slice of 21st-century Neorealism isn't eat-your-spinach, feel-sorry-for-the-immigrant social cinema; it's ruefully funny and quietly moving.
Pan's Labyrinth: This tale of a little girl (Ivana Baquero) who becomes the prisoner of her sadistic stepfather (Sergi Lopez) after the Spanish Civil War isn't fantasy in the mode of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, but fantasy in the mode of Alice in Wonderland or the tales of the Brothers Grimm. Mexican horror director Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, The Devil's Backbone) has reached into the depths of our collective unconscious—not to mention the fertile swamp of his own mind—and pulled out a fever dream of a movie. More than any other film I can think of except possibly the Spanish masterpiece The Spirit of the Beehive (which it occasionally resembles in subject and mood), Pan's Labyrinth evokes the mental landscape of childhood, the feeling of what it's like to slip between dream and reality just by whispering a magic word. But the political and psychological realities it explores are deep, dark, and ugly; though this is a great film about childhood, it's decidedly not a film for children.
A Prairie Home Companion: Robert Altman's last film is a dusty old trunk full of treats: Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly as an off-color singing cowboy duo, Meryl Streep reminding us she can sing, Lindsay Lohan reminding us—make that informing us—she can act. Midway through this elegiac tribute to the power of collective art-making, there's an exchange that seems to presage Altman's too-early exit last month. A suicide-obsessed adolescent (Lohan) tries to convince the radio host, played by Garrison Keillor, to deliver a eulogy on his program. "Don't you want to be remembered?" she pleads. "I don't want them to be told to remember me," he responds. With a sendoff like this, nobody needs to be told to remember Altman.
The Queen: There's nothing about this tart comedy of morals that doesn't fall into place as discreetly as a perfectly served English high tea: Helen Mirren's and Michael Sheen's pitch-perfect performances as Queen Elizabeth and Tony Blair, Stephen Frears' wry but loving gaze on the fusty customs of the monarchy, and his scone-dry critique of the rising culture of confession and celebrity. To those few who are still avoiding it because (like me) they're allergic to all things royal: You don't have to read Hello! magazine to love The Queen.
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story: Literary adaptation has never been less ponderous or more fun than in this nimble movie-within-a-movie about a self-absorbed British actor (Steve Coogan) playing the hero of Laurence Sterne's 18th-century novel while his off-screen life, like the narrative itself, disintegrates into chaos.
Three that nearly made this list (and might have if I hadn't squeezed in an eleventh-hour viewing of L'Enfant) were Little Children, Quinceañera, and Half Nelson, all of which made the minutiae of human relationships into the stuff of potent drama. And there are movies I've yet to see that are riding high atop my own Netflix queue for 2007:Hou Hsiao-Hsien's lyrical three-part love story Three Times, the French-Algerian war picture Days of Glory, and Dave Chappelle's Block Party, in which French fantasist Michel Gondry films what the renegade comedian calls "the concert I always wanted to see."
Please join me next week for Slate's 2006 "Movie Club," where three of my fellow critics will no doubt give me hell for what I did and didn't include on this list. And here's to a New Year full of wonderful movies.