A year of seriously good films

War, terror, and a frightening futurewere the dominant themes of 2006's movies, yet viewers didn't shy away. But there hasn't been much to laugh about. Except Borat.

It was not the best of years, it was not the worst of years. For a change, I had no trouble compiling a 10-best list, or even a roster of worthy also-rans. And anyway, who says movies have to be timeless to be worth talking about?

One dominant theme this year was a fascination with royalty and rulers – in other words, a fascination with power. In very different ways, and with varying degrees of success, movies as disparate as "The Queen," "The Last King of Scotland," "All the King's Men," and "Marie Antoinette" were about the consequences of autocracy. Maybe this is because, in parlous times, we want to believe that if only certain despoiled monarchs were not in power we would be OK, and there wouldn't be any wars.

A more direct expression of the times came through in films such as Paul Greengrass's very fine "United 93," which gave a docudrama immediacy to the events of 9/11, and Oliver Stone's less auspicious "World Trade Center," which focused almost entirely on the rescue operations that day. In retrospect, the "Is it too soon for this film?" debate provoked by both films was rather silly – as if anyone could presume to speak for everyone regarding such a trauma.

The Iraq war and its ramifications was most often the subject of documentaries, such as "The Ground Truth," "Iraq in Fragments," and "The War Tapes," or a docudrama such as "The Road to Guantanamo." Dramas featuring actual warfare usually were set back in time, such as Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters From Iwo Jima," which dealt with a less chaotic and more comprehensible conflict than Iraq. Some films featuring warfare took place in the apocalyptic near future but were really about today, like the extraordinary "Children of Men" or the excruciating "V For Vendetta."

On the lighter side, 2006 was a pretty dull year for comedy, especially romantic comedy. I got a kick out of "Borat" and "For Your Consideration," but the hoopla for "Little Miss Sunshine," a hard-sell movie about not selling out, was a bit much. Still, compared to "The Break Up" or "The Holiday," it was practically Preston Sturges.

Many of the big franchise movies, including "X-Men" and "Superman Returns," were flat. But in "Casino Royale" with Daniel Craig, we finally have a new 007 who, for the first time since Sean Connery, is also a first-rate actor. When was the last time you went to a James Bond for a performance?

The foreign-language movies were the usual mixed bag, if only because, as usual, so many excellent foreign films were shown only to critics at film festivals and not picked up for general release. The oft-repeated joke this year is that Jean-Pierre Melville's "Army of Shadows," made in 1969 but only now being distributed in America, is the best foreign film – some say the best film – of 2006. (I wouldn't go that far).

The indie scene was mixed, though performances such as Ryan Gosling's in "Half Nelson" or Maggie Gyllenhaal's in "Sherrybaby," put most of their higher-priced counterparts in the shade.

But enough grumbling. It's time to accentuate the positive. In alphabetical order, here's my Top 10:

A Scanner Darkly (R)

Richard Linklater, who can segue from a commercial classic such as "School of Rock" to an art-house marvel such as "Before Sunset," is the most consistently interesting youngish director around. This rotoscope animation Philip K. Dick adaptation is profoundly unsettling and features a marvelous performance – I said performance – by Robert Downey Jr. as a junkie.

Borat (R)

Playing clueless Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev, Sacha Baron Cohen is the most outlandish performance artist since Andy Kaufman. Is the film offensive? Guilty as charged, but then again, good taste and good comedy don't always agree. Is the film unethical for duping real people into making fools of themselves? Perhaps, but only in a perfect world do comedy and ethics go hand in hand. And the racists and bigots in this film who are duped deserve to be.

Children of Men (R)

Alfonso Cuarón's dystopian nightmare about a world in which no new children are born is the most stunningly directed movie of the year. Clive Owen is our hyper-intense tour guide to the apocalypse.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (R)

This great Romanian drama, written and directed by Cristi Puiu, follows an ailing pensioner throughout the night as he is carted to a succession of overbooked emergency rooms. It's an overwhelmingly powerful epic that lays bare the best and worst of which humans are capable.

Happy Feet (PG)

The kudzu-like proliferation of animated movies this year resulted in at least one spectacular success. Director George Miller, the brains behind the "Mad Max" and "Babe" movies, is the best friend a singing/dancing penguin ever had. Forget "Dreamgirls" – this is the musical of the year.

The History Boys (R)

Alan Bennett's Tony award-winning play about Oxbridge-bound British schoolboys and their teachers is emotionally and sexually complex and contains perhaps the best dialogue you'll hear all year.

Letters From Iwo Jima (R)

Clint Eastwood's companion piece to "Flags of Our Fathers" dramatizes the battle from the Japanese point of view, with a Japanese cast and English subtitles. Conventionally structured but unflinchingly powerful.

Notes on a Scandal (R)

Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench are marvelous playing opposite each other in this wickedly literate and dark psychological drama based on the Zoë Heller novel.

The Road to Guantanamo (R)

Michael Winterbottom is best when he's in his docudrama mode. No one who sees this film will be under any illusion about what it's like to be falsely imprisoned as a consequence of the "war on terror."

The Queen (PG-13)

Movies about royalty, especially from England, are often blinded to the beauties of tradition. This one, directed by Stephen Frears and written by Peter Morgan, seeks to humanize rather than demonize. Helen Mirren's performance as Queen Elizabeth is beyond praise.

Runners-up: "An Inconvenient Truth," "Army of Shadows," "Bobby," "Clean," "Deliver Us from Evil," "The Departed," "Fast Food Nation," "For Your Consideration," "Fateless," "Marie Antoinette," "Pan's Labyrinth," "Sherrybaby," "The Science of Sleep," "United 93."

At the movies: by the numbers

16: The age of the character played by 26-year-old Alison Lohman in "Flicka."

0: The number of scenes with smoking in "Thank You for Smoking."

2: The number of times that actor Michael Sheen has played Tony Blair. The first time was in "The Deal." The second time was in "The Queen."

5: The number of movies that Maggie Gyllenhaal and Alec Baldwin have each appeared in this year.

1 Billion: The number of dollars earned by "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest." It's the third movie in history to cross the $1 billion mark.

450: The number of live snakes used for the filming of "Snakes on a Plane."

6: The number of feature films simultaneously released to IMAX screens.

5:The number of movie soundtracks composed by Trevor Rabin in 2006. ("The Guardian," "Gridiron Gang," "Snakes on a Plane," "Flyboys," "Glory Road.")

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