2006 was a good year, in terms of quality pictures created primarily by individuals. The best were proportionately unnoticed—hardly surprising in a culture that tolerates trash like Borat—and that would include Doug Atchison's wonderful celebration of a child's mind, Akeelah and the Bee, Frank Marshall's breathtaking Eight Below, and the year's best picture, the romantic and alluring The Illusionist. The intriguing The Painted Veil, also featuring Edward Norton, is excellent, too.
These are movies with strong, potent visuals, heroic characters and interesting stories that don't sugarcoat extreme conditions—death, frostbite, disease—yet hold man as admirable. Catch them all on DVD—or go see The Painted Veil, now playing in theaters. They represent Hollywood at its best.
Other '06 don't miss movies include the wry Little Miss Sunshine, as good as its reputation, Leonardo DiCaprio's African adventure, Blood Diamond, and the thought-provoking Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, which shows what really happened to good Germans under the Third Reich. Enjoyable British imports include the fresh and direct The History Boys, Stephen Frears' imprinted moment in time for The Queen and the pleasant story of Peter Rabbit's creator, Miss Potter.
Good movies kept coming last year, from frothy fun—the hilarious She's the Man and The Devil Wears Prada, sexy and sweet The Holiday—to the surprisingly serious: the emotional powerhouse We Are Marshall, the heroic The Guardian and the most moving father/son picture since Kramer Vs. Kramer, The Pursuit of Happyness, each of which depicts man's triumph over adversity. In their own way, so do last year's tragic V for Vendetta, the insightful, satirical and original suburban drama Little Children and, while it trivializes a dictatorship, The Last King of Scotland.
As usual, the stinkers were out in force, and the most egregious were the morally agnostic, anti-American Flags of Our Fathers (followed by a version of World War 2 from Nazi-allied Japan, Letters From Iwo Jima), which was an incomprehensible affront to history, and the typical runs of low humor, from Adam Sandler's rotten Click to the caustic sneer of Thank You for Smoking.
Along similar lines were two of the most overrated movies of the year. The contrived nonsense known as Babel is so unrealistic and implausible it should have been called "Babble" and billed as a globalized cousin to Crash. Placing a helpless child in a computer-generated hell on (and underneath) earth, Spain and Mexico's religious horror fantasy Pan's Labyrinth is unbearable; an assault on one's vision with a truly depraved sense of life. Both pictures attempt to dramatize the idea that the universe is bad. Both succeed in being ugly.
Speaking of horror movies, there are movies this writer declines to review (I try to see movies I have reason to believe I might like) and last year's Apocalypto was not hard to dismiss in advance. Disney's other clunker, The Shaggy Dog, looked almost equally scary, and M. Night Shyamalan stopped making sense about six senses ago. 2006 movies I am sorry to have missed and hope to catch: Rocky Balboa, Flyboys, Wordplay, Flicka, Loverboy and Deliver Us from Evil.
Congratulations to Robert Iger, the chief executive of the Walt Disney Company, which more than doubled his annual compensation last year to almost $25 million. With the acquisition of Pixar Animation Studios, the lucrative Pirates of the Caribbean franchise—including last year's top grossing movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest—and a planned return to a smaller pool of movies reflecting the studio's relatively wholesome approach, Mr. Iger deserves every dollar.
If that weren't enough—and it is, contrary to the anti-business bellyaching that top execs don't earn their money—Mr. Iger stared down the bullies in Congress and an ex-president who tried to infringe on free speech by threatening Disney-owned ABC with government coercion over one of its movies. Though Disney movies and theme parks are not what they used to be, nothing is, and with creative minds such as John Lasseter, Steve Jobs and top motion picture talents, Disney under Mr. Iger's guidance is one of the few studios leading Hollywood in good, moneymaking entertainment. Here's to that in the new year—cheers!
2006 Review Roundup
• The Illusionist
• Akeelah and the Bee
• Eight Below
• The Painted Veil
• Little Miss Sunshine
• Blood Diamond
• Sophie Scholl: The Final Days
• The Queen
• The Holiday
• We Are Marshall
• The Guardian
• V for Vendetta
• Scott Holleran's Past Columns