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BEST OF 2006 / MOVIE | CARINA CHOCANO

A bumper crop

December 17, 2006|CARINA CHOCANO

THE process of winnowing down the year's best films to 10 always feels needlessly arbitrary and Solomonic, as problematic during the lean years (grade inflation) as during the fat ones (pointless exclusivity).

As ever, compiling the list raises questions about what "best" means in a medium of such fungible qualities. Year-end lists reward slickness and rawness; originality and conformity; sensation and insight; myth-making and iconoclasm; apples and oranges in more or less equal measure.

This list is a sampling of some of the year's most notable stories, performances, writing and images whose emotional and intellectual honesty stood out. With the usual caveats in place, they are in alphabetical order:

*

The Devil's Miner. A documentary about the child miners of Potosi, Bolivia, directed by Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani. Twelve-year-old Basilio supports his family by working in the mines and goes to school dreaming of higher education. The terrible legacy of oppression and the fascinating intermingling of two cultures and religious beliefs run through the film, but it's the story of Basilio that makes it astonishing.

*

Half Nelson. Directed by Ryan Fleck, the movie succeeds beyond its modest intentions thanks to remarkably honest, subtle performances by Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps. The story of a drug-addicted inner-city schoolteacher who befriends an "at-risk" young girl. The movie avoids every pitfall inherent in the genre to create a moving story about human connection.

*

49 Up. The seventh installment in Michael Apted's astonishing lifelong documentary series chronicling the lives of average Brits from different backgrounds and social classes. At this point in the project, the film takes on epic dimensions, disavowing the assumptions set at its start and weaving together a dynamic living portrait of 12 ordinary individuals whose lives have been made extraordinary by their participation in the series. Reflecting on their lives and the nature of the project itself, Apted's subjects provide amazing insight into contemporary life.

*

Iraq in Fragments. Directed by James Longley, this moving, poetically impressionistic documentary observes and listens closely to the experiences of Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish Iraqis living their lives after the American occupation and reflecting on their present, past and future. The film's mounting tension is organic to the mounting tension of a people pushed to the limit of their existence.

*

Little Children. Todd Field tackles the most sentimentally sacrosanct of all modern subjects -- middle-class parenthood -- and delivers a haunting impression of the inner life of characters trapped in a suffocating life script. Kate Winslet is remarkable as a doubt-plagued young suburban mother ostracized from her community, which has -- in the wake of Sept. 11 -- made a sort of religion of fear and mistrust.

*

Little Miss Sunshine. You wouldn't necessarily expect the funny, feel-good movie of the year to be among the smartest, bluntest and most honest, but Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Farris' debut feature offers an unflinching look at the culture of success in all its moronic, devastating awfulness.

*

The Lives of Others. A rare, remarkable film by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck that can't be summarized without spoiling and is difficult to do justice to. The story takes place in East Berlin in 1984 (five years before the wall came down), and concerns a Stasi agent (Ulrich Muhe) who is assigned to monitor a successful playwright, one of the few great artists left in the GDR who is still a staunch party loyalist. Sebastian Koch plays Georg Dreyman, the playwright caught in the Stasi's web along with his actress girlfriend, played by Martina Gedeck. The film traces its characters' moral evolution with astonishing grace and humanity.

*

The Queen. Stephen Frears' surprisingly empathetic portrayal of Queen Elizabeth's experiences in the wake of the death of Princess Diana, the movie features an unforgettably emotional performance by Helen Mirren in a role that is defined by its buttoned-down restraint.

*

Tristram Shandy. Steve Coogan (Steve Coogan), who plays Tristram Shandy in Michael Winterbottom's film-within-a-film, calls it the first postmodern novel, written before there was any modernism to be post about. "Tristram Shandy" is a film about the difficulty of making a film based on a book about the difficulty of writing a book. But mostly, it's a bawdy, frazzled rout through the boundaries of stories, storytelling, movies and movie-making, breaking down celebrity, and the toadying and the viciousness it inspires. The movie's main purpose, if it has one, is to question its own purpose, which makes it not only fun and refreshingly unassuming, but the perfect antidote to all the stately, straight-faced, upscale movie product floating down the red carpet these days like barges down the Yangtze River.

*

Volver. Pedro Almodovar's lovely tribute to tough, tender, working-class women and their cinematic counterparts, Volver is a warm and sensuous film about the love between mothers and daughters, sisters and friends. Carmen Maura and Penelope Cruz are wonderfully affecting as the loopy, fiercely loving mother of two daughters who returns from the dead to help them through difficult times, and the angry daughter who forgives her for their past.

*

The worst

Fox's treatment of Mike Judge's "Idiocracy," a brutal satire of the dumbing down of America and its logical endpoint.

*

carina.chocano@latimes.com

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