'Sunshine' tops the year's best films

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 4, 2007

By Carla Meyer

Sacramento Bee

There are movies you love and movies you greatly admire. The ratio on a Top 10 list is usually about 1-to-9.

“Little Miss Sunshine” tops my list for 2006 because it got to me the most, through its humor and warts-and-all approach, and because of that face: the bespectacled, highly expressive mug of young Abigail Breslin, who plays Olive, the most unaffected junior beauty-pageant contestant in history. Great the first time, the film grows richer, funnier and more heartwarming on subsequent viewings.

As with most annual Top 10 movie lists, this one includes films with sociopolitical relevance, heavy emotional content and reserved British people. But some of the best films of the year distinguished themselves by fully engaging the audience through great storytelling and direction. The messages followed the action, if they arrived at all.

Here are my top 10 films of 2006.

1. “Little Miss Sunshine”: Even its contrivances — such as piling everyone in a Volkswagen bus — work beautifully. Infused with tremendous warmth and empathy, this film transcends its quirky-indie roots to arrive at insights that, while not earth-shattering, are certainly universal.

2. “Little Children”: Featuring a knockout performance by Kate Winslet as an unhappy suburban mother, this arch yet intimate tragicomedy works on every level. Director Todd Field’s heavily stylized approach, from abundant narration to swooping shots that suggest a horror movie, distinguishes this film from the usual tales of suburban ennui.

Jackie Earle Haley’s appearance as a sex offender will creep out viewers who recall him as the teen dream of “The Bad News Bears.”

3. “The Queen”: This look at the period just after Princess Diana’s death in 1997 achieves a delicate balance. It had to show the royal family as stuck in its ways while also depicting Queen Elizabeth II, quite literally a born leader, as a monarch capable of change. Perhaps Helen Mirren’s understated yet emotionally complex performance makes the queen more sympathetic than the irreverent script intended. Whatever the reasons, this picture in which people do little but sit and talk (often by telephone) stays utterly involving throughout.

4. “Charlotte’s Web”: The runt’s a winner, and the computer-generated effects and barnyard antics dazzle and entertain in this live-action adaptation of E.B. White’s classic children’s book. Despite the updates, the picture’s emphasis on the power of friendship comes straight from the book.

5. “United 93”: This highly respectful yet unflinching account of the events of Sept. 11, 2001 — focusing on United Flight 93, which crashed in a Pennsylvania field — offers a great testament to the bravery of average Americans in the face of terrorism. A historically important work, it takes us back, vividly and poignantly, to those few hours that altered how Americans view themselves and the world.

6. “Shut Up & Sing”: If “United 93” evokes the moment Americans first felt devastated and willing to do what was necessary to protect the country, then this exceptional documentary touches on the growing skepticism and discord of the intervening years.

Following the Dixie Chicks from their upbraiding by the public and country radio through the making of their 2006 album “Taking the Long Way,” the picture reveals that Chicks singer Natalie Maines’ infamous comment about the president was about as premeditated as most other things that come out of her mouth.

That is to say, not at all.

7. “The Departed”: Martin Scorsese’s return to gangland offers rough-and-tumble attitude along with great style and superb acting. Matt Damon is especially fine, hardened but still sympathetic as a mole for an Irish American gang who lost sight of himself when he infiltrated the police force.

8. “Inside Man”: Spike Lee’s bank-heist picture is just as involving as “The Departed” and as well acted, though its supporting-cast bench doesn’t go as deep. Whereas Denzel Washington’s magnetism as a hostage negotiator is almost a given, Clive Owen’s quietly powerful work as a bank robber was less expected — especially when he plays so many moments behind a mask. Jodie Foster’s turn as a smooth, morally flexible power broker reminds us of the thoughtful woman behind the action heroine.

9. “The Last King of Scotland”: Forest Whitaker’s phenomenal performance as Idi Amin has captured most of the buzz. But the picture is accomplished overall: a fictionalized account of the late Ugandan president’s reign of terror that is as seductive (and scary) as the protagonist’s (a winningly wide-eyed James McAvoy) experiences working as Amin’s personal physician.

10. “Borat”: Is it pure comedy or a social commentary? Were participants misled? These and other questions have turned this into the most dissected, debated picture of the past few years. At once sophomoric, appalling and uproariously funny, the film — and

Sacha Baron Cohen’s immersive performance — is endlessly, surprisingly fascinating, which one cannot say about most raunchy comedies. And that’s not even counting your cousin’s “very nice” impression.


Carla Meyer can be reached at cmeyer@sacbee.com.