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BEST OF 2006 / MOVIES | KENNETH TURAN

Bypassing the escape clause

December 17, 2006|KENNETH TURAN

IN terms of what appears on-screen, the movie business is famously apolitical. The philosophy expressed in the celebrated quotation "if you want to send a message, use Western Union" is so widespread it's been attributed to both Samuel Goldwyn and Jack Warner. The year just ending, however, proved an exception to that rule.

It's not just that, with "United 93" and "World Trade Center," the movie business finally got around to dealing with the events of Sept. 11, 2001. It's that some of the best films of the year were informed by the growing national sense of anguished frustration about the war in Iraq.

Though that conflict was likely not high on anyone's mind when Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" was conceptualized, its echoes inescapably run through the narrative of the before and after of the celebrated 1945 flag raising on Iwo Jima.

It took a director of Eastwood's gifts, of his measured classical style, to bring that story to the screen with maximum -- and surprisingly disturbing -- effect. And it took someone of Eastwood's stature to follow "Flags," in the same year, with "Letters From Iwo Jima," a much smaller but equally involving movie that not only tells the story of that battle from the Japanese point of view, but tells it in Japanese.

Taken together as one entry, as Eastwood intended, these two films make such a powerful statement about the nature of war and its consequences that picking them for the No. 1 spot on a 10-best list is the easiest of choices. If there are any more important questions to be dealt with in the here and now, they don't come to mind.

In the spirit of that remarkable coupling, and to give as much credit as possible to the good things of 2006, I've once again expanded this year's list by grouping worthy contenders that pointed up the year's most positive trends. And no mention of World War II films would be complete without "Days of Glory," the remarkable French-North African epic about the war that also has uncanny relevance to today's world.

The rest of the list:

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2. The Iraq War documentaries. It's no accident that of the 15 films short-listed for the doc Academy Award, four -- "The Ground Truth," "Iraq in Fragments," "My Country, My Country," "The War Tapes" -- deal with this war in the most intimate and thoughtful way possible. It should also be noted that the most mind-altering political documentary of the year was about Africa, not Iraq. "Darwin's Nightmare's" unblinking picture of the insidious effects of state-sanctioned predatory capitalism is as dazzling as it is depressing.

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3. "Friends With Money" and "Half Nelson." Nicole Holofcener is an indie veteran, Ryan Fleck a beginner, but together they exemplify the spirit of artful and nuanced sensitivity that represents the independent movement at its most potent.

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4. "The Queen" and "Venus." Able to match the U.S. with ease, Britain's independent movement continues to come up with irresistible character-driven stories that feature, in Helen Mirren in the former and Peter O'Toole in the latter, some of the world's best actors working at peak capacity.

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5. "The Lives of Others" and "L'Enfant." A pair of European films -- the first by Germany's Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the second by Belgium's Dardenne brothers -- demonstrate that moral and ethical dilemmas are not the stuff of dry philosophizing but the basis of the finest and most gripping of dramas.

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6. "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Thank You for Smoking." What is rarer in today's movie world than a smart laugh honestly earned? Two examples of the way it ought to be done.

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7. "Volver." Like Eastwood, Spanish director Pedro Almodovar has modified his themes and concerns as he's gotten older while staying true to himself. When Penelope Cruz's best performance to date is thrown in, the results are exceptionally moving.

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8. "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Children of Men." The benefits of the internationalism of today's film business are evident in these fantasy-science fiction works that highlight the directing skills of two Mexican moviemakers who happen to be close friends: Guillermo del Toro's "Labyrinth" is set in Spain, Alfonso Cuaron's "Men" in England.

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9. "Dreamgirls." A musical that really moves along smartly, powered by dynamic performances by newcomer Jennifer Hudson and a newly revitalized Eddie Murphy.

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10. "Sweet Land." The kind of delicate but deeply emotional love story, both sincere and restrained, that, like love itself, is more sought after than found. And here it is.

If there were room for one more film even on a list this expansive, it might be "Happy Feet," the latest penguin extravaganza, or possibly Jonathan Demme's transcendent concert film "Neil Young: Heart of Gold." Both leave audiences on the kind of emotional high notes we all hope to experience more often in 2007.

The worst

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The year's worst trend is the studios' continuing insistence on a famine-and-feast pattern for quality films, starving audiences for nine months and then force-feeding them like foie gras-producing geese during the final three. Excellent films die unnecessary deaths, but no one seems to care.

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kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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