It was a grim year at the movies — literally. My 10 favorite films of the year just past include three WWII movies, a 9/11 movie, two movies about babies endangered by callow young men and a film about a dying alcoholic.
Not that there weren’t inspirational bright spots. Consider Akeelah and the Bee, Lassie, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. Or consider some of the runners-up: The Nativity Story; Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest; Cars; We Are Marshall. (Yes, that last starts out with a plane crash that kills the whole football team, but it gets better. Trust me.)
For more on the movie year 2006, see Decent Films.com.
AKEELAH AND THE BEE A smart, inspiring, socially aware family film about a gifted young black girl growing up in South Central LA, where school smarts are both ridiculed and punished. Akeelah is wise about the pressures and obstacles faced by promising young children like Akeelah — and about the rewards and benefits of resisting and making good on one’s potential. Some mild profanity and a couple of crass words; some tense family and social content. Appropriate for older kids.
FATELESS Hungarian Holocaust film whose protagonist, a 14-year-old Jewish boy from Budapest, is sent to the Buchenwald camp. Though full of atrocity and horror, Fateless suggests that, even in a concentration camp, life eventually becomes a form of ordinary routine, one that is not without its small pleasures — which may be even more disturbing than imagining it as hell. Disturbing Holocaust imagery including nudity; some obscene and crude language. Subtitled. Mature viewing.
LASSIE This lovely, literate new adaptation is a rare family film that knows that kids live in a grown-up world — that they are not isolated from such realities as unemployment or war, and can relate to the problems of adult characters as well as those of children and animals. When Lassie’s proud but poor Yorkshire owners must sell her, it’s not just young Joe’s sorrow that matters, but also his parents’ — and not only at losing the dog, but at not being able to give their son the one thing he wants more than anything. Some depictions of animal cruelty; a brief scene of menace and violence; a scene involving a bodily function. Probably appropriate for kids.
L’ENFANT (THE CHILD) From the Belgian brothers Dardenne (The Son), whose uncompromising moral vision is never overtly religious but shot through with Christian undercurrents, The Child is an unnerving examination of arrested moral and psychological development. Set against a backdrop of European social decay, the film examines a callow street kid named Bruno whose girlfriend bears his child. Bruno isn’t so much unwilling to be a father as utterly without a clue what a father is, and his journey is horrifying — but not without hope of possible redemption. Some harsh language; criminal milieu; an infant in disturbing danger. Subtitled. Mature viewing.
MRS. PALFREY AT THE CLAREMONT An utterly charming, droll tale of an unlikely friendship between an elderly widow (delightful Dame Joan Plowright) and a charming young slacker (Rupert Friend). Dan Ireland’s indie comedy is sensitive to the plight of the elderly and neglected, yet suggests that the elderly have as much to offer the young as to gain from them. You’ll be glad you watched it. Mild profanity and crude language, a couple of brief bedroom scenes (no nudity) involving nonmarital relations.
LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA The second of Clint Eastwood’s two lopsided Iwo Jima companion films is by far the better, a deeply sympathetic but far from uncritical exploration of the Japanese side of the Pacific battle. The film balances earnest patriotism with blind anti-American prejudice, self-sacrificial valor with misguided, suicidal fatalism. Both sides are capable of both noble and ignoble actions. Intense, graphic battlefield violence; recurring honor suicides; some objectionable language. Subtitled. Mature viewing.
TSOTSI When a young South African thug discovers a defenseless baby in the back of a stolen car, it’s easy to imagine him doing something dreadful — and in a way he does. Tsotsi’s trial-and-error discoveries about responsibility and consequences include nearly unwatchable moments, but the film builds to a final shot of transcendent rightness. Harsh criminal milieu including brutal violence and deadly menace; obscene and profane language; disturbing treatment of an infant; discreet depictions of breastfeeding. Partially subtitled. Caution: mature viewing; use discretion.
SOPHIE SCHOLL — THE FINAL DAYS A riveting portrait of a bright, idealistic young German college student (Julia Jentsch) questioned by a canny Nazi interrogator about her involvement in an anti-Nazi underground resistance movement. Throughout her ordeal, Sophie’s Christian faith remains the cornerstone of her critique of Nazi ideology and a taproot of her moral strength. Much suspense and intimidation; a sequence of disturbing but implicit violence. Subtitled. Teens and up.
UNITED 93 Not to be confused with the TV movie “Flight 93” from the A&E network, United 93 is a work of extraordinary restraint and integrity — low-key, even-handed, unflinching, deeply persuasive. Shrewdly focusing on the one front on that day of infamy where the terrorists were dealt a decisive defeat, the film resists every temptation to succumb to one agenda or another, to gloss over or punch up any of the possible hot potatoes. Restrained depictions of strong violence; some profane language and obscenity; realistic depiction of intense terrorist menace. Teens and up.
THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU “Who is my neighbor?” This stark, devastating film from Romanian director Cristi Puiu tells the story of a crusty old drunk who may or may not be dying, and how various people from his neighbors to various medical professionals respond to his plight. Obscene and crass language; medical situations including vomiting and incontinence; medical nudity. Subtitled. Mature viewing.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor and
chief critic of DecentFilms.com.