MOVIE REVIEWS- 2006 in review: A big year for the littles

Stuart was nowhere in sight but the "Littles" carried the day, with Little Children (previewed at the Virginia Film Festival) and Little Miss Sunshine neck-and-neck for the top spot on my list. Both are dark comedies, though Children is more dramatic, about dysfunctionality in modern American life.

One of the key plot points of Little Children, that having a "sex offender" in the neighborhood may not be as bad as what some people will do to get rid of him, has already been ripped off by Desperate Housewives this season, with its own superb twist.

It hasn't been a great year for great films, but it's been a good year for good ones. Martin Scorsese and James Bond made their best pictures in many years. But the sheer number of movies in release keeps increasing, making it harder for critics to see them all. In many cases, it's a token release on the way to the lucrative aftermarket of DVDs and downloads. The latter should become more significant in 2007.

Two good films initiated experiments aimed at closing the window between theatrical and post-theatrical release. Bubble came out on DVD the same week it opened in theaters, while 10 Items or Less, another Virginia Film Festival veteran, was to be available for download shortly after its opening. Unfortunately, neither film found the audience it deserved in any medium.

Mergers and acquisitions made it hard to tell where movies were coming from. DreamWorks is releasing through Paramount and The Weinstein Company through MGM, but wasn't MGM bought by Sony? I'm so confused.

"Faith-based" films are becoming more prevalent. Everyone is hoping to catch a gold ring the way The Passion of the Christ did, but since the others are emphasizing spirituality over violence, they're not doing as much business. Except for an occasional studio release like The Nativity Story, they're not being screened for critics, who are presumed to be heathens, so we can only presume they're not much good.

One faith-related film got belated attention for having introduced the Rev. Ted Haggard to the world before the headlines did. That was Jesus Camp, a balanced documentary about a summer camp for evangelical teens. It too was at the Virginia Film Festival, which had a spiritual theme this year.

20th Century Fox has started the Fox Faith division to market independently produced, low-budget religious films; but they've also started Fox Atomic, a cheap teen schlock subsidiary, so you can be sure the 's' in their spirituality is a dollar sign.

Let's not rehash all the celebrity hookups, breakups, DUIs and trips to rehab this year. This is only a newspaper, not the Congressional Record.

Gasping at the finish line after watching nine contenders (only one of which made my list) in the last four days, I modestly offer some of my principal likes and dislikes of this rapidly concluding year. Some won't be opening in Charlottesville until early next year, and some are already in video stores.

Top Ten:

1. Little Children: Adultery and overzealousness mess up the American Beauty-ful suburban neighborhood where Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, and Jackie Earle Haley live, in Todd Field's even-better follow-up to his magnificent In the Bedroom. 

2. Little Miss Sunshine: A dysfunctional family can't get their act together, but they take it on the road anyway in this heartbreakingly funny debut by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. 

3. The Queen: Helen Mirren gives the performance of a lifetime filled with great performances as QEII (the woman, not the ship) in Stephen Frears' authentic-seeming story about the week between Princess Di's death and funeral. 

4. Letters from Iwo Jima: Clint Eastwood should win a Nobel Peace Prize, if not an Oscar, for his total immersion in Japanese language and culture to look at a key battle of World War II from "the enemy's" side.

5. Notes on a Scandal: Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett play teachers with secrets– Judi wants to do to Cate what Cate's doing to a 15-year-old student– in Richard Eyre's dark comedy, written by Patrick Marber.

6. A Prairie Home Companion: Robert Altman exits smiling (as do we). His final film appropriately looks at the end of an era, with an all-star cast that includes Garrison Keillor doing the final broadcast of a partly fictionalized version of Keillor's radio show.

7. United 93: Not all viewers are ready for it yet, but Paul Greengrass' 9/11 docudrama serves it up without the Hollywood schmaltz Oliver Stone loaded on World Trade Center.

8. The Devil Wears Prada: The chick flick of the year proved Meryl Streep can sell tickets as well as act, as the publishing powerhouse who intimidates new hire Anne Hathaway. The Ugly Betty writers must screen it frequently.

9. The Illusionist: Less prestigious than The Prestige but more effective, Neil Burger's turn-of-the-20th-century drama combines romance, politics, intrigue, and theatricality as magician Edward Norton tries to make Jessica Biel disappear from her fiancé, Rufus Sewell.

10. Superman Returns: In a year filled with worthless remakes and sequels, Bryan Singer made a welcome dip into the well of Kryptonite and pulled out corn-fed Brandon Routh to star in this "continuation," with Kevin Spacey as his nemesis and Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane. Okay, the climax gets pretty silly.

Honorable Mention (listed alphabetically):


Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Brothers of the Head


The Departed

Inside Man

Thank You for Smoking

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

V for Vendetta

X-Men: The Last Stand

Best Foreign-Language Film: Letters from Iwo Jima

Runners-up: Water, Time to Leave

Best Documentary: An Inconvenient Truth

Runners-up: Shut Up & Sing, The U.S. vs. John Lennon

Best Animated Film: Cars

Runners-up: Flushed Away, Over the Hedge

Best Director: Todd Field, Little Children

Runners-up: Paul Greengrass, United 93; Robert Altman, A Prairie Home Companion

Best Actress: Helen Mirren, The Queen 

Runners-up: Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal; Ashley Judd, Come Early Morning

Best Actor: Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland

Runners-up: Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson; Leonardo DiCaprio, Blood Diamond

Best Supporting Actress: Carmen Maura, Volver

Runners-up: Cate Blanchett, Notes on a Scandal; Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls

Best Supporting Actor: Jackie Earle Haley, Little Children

Runners-up: Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls; Kevin Kline, A Prairie Home Companion

Best Original Screenplay: Michael Arndt, Little Miss Sunshine

Runners-up: Peter Morgan, The Queen; Zach Helm, Stranger than Fiction

Best Adapted Screenplay: Todd Field, Little Children 

Runners-up: Jason Reitman, Thank You for Smoking; Patrick Marber, Notes on a Scandal

Titles I Hated to Leave Out but They Wouldn't Quite Fit: The Dead Girl, Duck Season, Friends with Money, Hard Candy, House of Sand, Joyeux Noel, Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man, 13 (Tzameti), Who Killed the Electric Car?

People I Hated to Leave Out but They Wouldn't Quite Fit: Christian Bale, Harsh Times; Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (directors), Little Miss Sunshine; Matt Dillon, Factotum; Djimon Hounsou, Blood Diamond; Rinko Kikuchi, Babel; Catherine O'Hara, For Your Consideration; Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada

Breakout Actor: Presley Chweneyagae, Tsotsi

Runners-up: Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat...; Harry and Luke Treadaway, Brothers of the Head

Breakout Actress: (tie) Keke Palmer, Akeelah and the Bee; Shareeka Epps, Half Nelson

Runners-up: Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls; Debbie Doebereiner, Bubble

Worst Performance: Dustin Hoffman, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

They Made Another One...Why? (Remake Division):  The Omen 

Runners-up: Poseidon, The Pink Panther, All the King's Men, The Wicker Man, When a Stranger Calls, etc.

They Made Another One...Why? (Sequel Division): National Lampoon's Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj

Runners-up: Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties, Underworld: Evolution

Bad Idea– Putting Country Singers in Movies: Toby Keith, Broken Bridges

Runner-up:  Tim McGraw, Flicka

Surprisingly Good Idea: Daniel Craig as James Bond, Casino Royale

Overworked: Hugh Jackman in Happy Feet, Flushed Away, The Prestige, The Fountain, Scoop, X-Men: The Last Stand

Runner-up: Kate Winslet in The Holiday, Flushed Away, All the King's Men, Little Children 

Worst Crash-and-Burn: Mel Gibson (also Fastest Recovery)

Runner-up: M. Night Shyamalan

Bottom Ten:

1. The Science of Sleep

2. The Fountain

3. National Lampoon's Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj

4. The Wicker Man

5. The Benchwarmers

6. Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties

7. Ask the Dust

8. The Night Listener

9. Strangers with Candy

10. The Zodiac

Dishonorable Mention (listed alphabetically):

The Descent

Find Me Guilty


Lady in the Water

The Oh in Ohio

The Omen

The Sisters


Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny