My Top Ten Films of 2006
(film comments by Mark R. Leeper)

2005 was a banner year for cinema and I looked forward to what we would see in 2006. Sadly, 2006 just did not have the impressive quality films of 2005. While there were several films that were very engaging, nothing really stood out as being particularly powerful. There is a major film missing from this list. I almost certainly would have Guillermo del Toro's PAN'S LABYRINTH on the list if I had a chance to see it. This is what I get for living in the wilds of New Jersey. I will treat it as a 2007 film (just as 2005 films I did not see until 2006 are included here).

In India in 1938 a seven-year-old girl who does not even remember her arranged marriage and who never knew her husband is suddenly told that she is a widow and has to go live with other widows the rest of her life. Widows in India could die with their husbands or lead a penitent life in seclusion the rest of their lives. Here a very young girl through no fault of her own falls into this fate. The story is tragic, but it makes a strong statement for Gandhi's reforms. The photography of Varanasi is just beautiful. WATER is a real work of art.

Toward the end of the 19th century two rival stage magicians compete and battle for dominance. This is a thriller, an education in stage magic, a mystery, and even a bit of a science fiction film. Christopher Priest's novel is brought to the screen by co-writer and director Christopher Nolan in a wonderful adaptation. This is a film that may be more enjoyable on the second viewing once you know its intricate secrets.

The German-language film SOPHIE SCHOLL: THE LAST DAYS tells the powerful and moving true story of the arrest, interrogation, and trial of an anti-government student and activist, one of the founders of the White Rose resistance movement, in Nazi Germany. It takes the story from her last day of freedom to her execution. Sophie Scholl's courage and personal morality in standing up to the evil and the force of the Third Reich make this film a moving experience.

In this the strong and disturbing story of two school teachers Barbara (Judi Dench) befriends and subtly controls her Sheba (Cate Blanchett). When Barbara discovers Sheba's indiscretion with one of her students she is able to make Sheba a puppet without Sheba ever realizing it. This is a real departure for both actresses.

In Japan 1861 a minor samurai is torn between his responsibility, his desires, and his morality. With this film Yji Yamada follows up his TWILIGHT SAMURAI, also set in the mid-19th Century against the backdrop of the dying order of shoguns and samurai. It is a story of a man who must choose between his duty and what he thinks is right. The film is less one of bloody martial arts and more a study of a personal conflict in a society at once overly ordered and rapidly changing. Yamada's film is strong and poignant, though perhaps it will be more so with Japanese audiences who better understand societal pressure. The film is powerful, though it fails a little in the final few scenes.

Daniel Craig is probably the best James Bond on film and this is probably the best James Bond film. Craig's James Bond is gritty and mean and a lot more real, albeit still too much a superhero. He has human fallibility and he gets hurt. The story, closer than usual to the novel for a Bond film, has the feel of a serious spy novel and is less like a children's television show than previous films in the series. Now what I would like to see is all the Fleming books redone in order with Craig as James Bond as he was written in the books. I wonder if we will see that. In any case, this film gives us a chance to rediscover James Bond on the screen for the first time.

Following the terrorist murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, an Israeli Mossad officer is asked to lead a five-member counter-assassination squad to track down the Munich terrorists and eliminate them. Eric Bana leads a cast of major actors in a tense but realistic looks at the dirty business of undercover work. This film takes place in a world devoid of warmth. The story has the feel of authenticity, though the events of the book it was based on have not been and cannot be confirmed. Still, the story is as intriguing and tense as anything written by John le Carre is.

Martin Scorsese surprises us with a film that is more of a thriller than his previous efforts. THE DEPARTED is a close remake of a very good Hong Kong crime film, INFERNAL AFFAIRS. The police Special Investigations Unit, unable to bring down gangster Frank Costello, places a mole into his organization. But Costello (Jack Nicholson) has his own mole in the police SIU. Each mole tries to determine who the other is. Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon play the two spies. The film takes a while to get going, but when it does it really holds the viewer. While this is one of Scorsese's most entertaining films, I have to say much of the credit goes to INFERNAL AFFAIRS. THE DEPARTED is the bigger film in many respects, but INFERNAL AFFAIRS is the better film. Scorsese added only modest value in return for taking someone else's plot.

When a Mexican illegal alien is killed, his employer and friend Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones, who also directs) is unsatisfied that the authorities are going to do anything. Perkins finds the killer is a trigger-happy new border patrolman and decides that some justice will be done. Perkins forces the patrolman to execute the dead man's final wish. This is a modest, low-budget, and low-key film but Jones shows a sure hand and real directing power with handling his actors. THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA is a simple, likable portrait of the personalities one find near the border. There is some anger at the American law enforcement officers but the film's main thrust is not anger for the Americans but respect for the aliens who come over the border looking to improve the lives of their families.

Terrence Malick writes and directs the classic story of John Smith and Mataoaka (nicknamed Pocahontas) and later John Rolfe. Malick's script reinforces some of the unlikely myths like Mataoaka's romance with John Smith and Mataoaka dramatically risking her life to save Smith's life. But like most Malick films it is also a finely painted portrait showing the smallness of man in nature. This is a strong, mesmerizing, and authentic-feeling view of a time and place lost to history. Malick's pacing is a taste I have not quite acquired and his history has some faults. But the film is a memorable experience for anyone with a healthy curiosity about the feeling of history.

					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2007 Mark R. Leeper