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Top 10 Movies of 2006 — and the Also-Rans

Pillaging pirates and tap-dancing penguins, Superman versus X-Men, Bond going up against Borat — it's been a big year for fantasy at the cineplex.

But it was when you walked past the auditoriums featuring the special-effects-driven epics, and on to the other theaters, that you would generally find something actually special: Helen Mirren's regal performance in The Queen, for instance, as a British monarch resisting her prime minister's call to react more publicly to the death of Lady Di.

And if The Queen has Mirren all but disappearing into her real-world character, Martin Scorcese's The Departed managed the opposite trick by having Jack Nicholson's fictional gangster be deliciously outsized, as he sneaked an informant onto the police force, while they sneaked one into his gang.

The Departed is bravura filmmaking, as was Clint Eastwood's double-whammy of a war epic — the very good Flags of Our Fathers and the really superb Letters from Iwo Jima (which Eastwood filmed almost entirely in Japanese). With notions of honor and duty foremost, this wartime double-feature offers a wrenching portrait of soldiers on both sides of one of the most ferocious battles of World War II. Let's call the two films a single choice, while noting that they are separately impressive.

Smaller in scope are a pair of tiny independent films. One's a riveting drama, Half Nelson, which seems a typical crusading-teacher movie — until you realize that the caring, protective middle-school teacher at its center is a crack addict. And the other is a road comedy called Little Miss Sunshine, about a family every bit as dysfunctional as the van it's traveling in, but one that makes an unusually stirring case for family values.

That's five. For the next three, let's look overseas — first to Europe, where Spanish director Pedro Almodovar's bright, bouncy comedy, Volver, put the melody back in melodrama — quite literally in a scene with star, Penelope Cruz, singing her heart out. "Volver" means "to return," and the film marks Almodovar's return to a favorite theme: women nurturing other women.

Harder to watch, but enormously involving, are two films about children: the Belgian picture L'Enfant, about a young thief who makes a terrifying error in judgment and then frantically tries to recover from it; and the Indian film Water, about a lively seven-year-old who becomes a widow after her family-arranged older husband dies. The problem is that widows in India are expected to live out the rest of their lives in mourning, renouncing the world — and this widow is awfully young for that.

The other two films on my list are by Mexican filmmakers who've been having mainstream Hollywood success. Horror director Guillermo Del Toro scored by mixing politics with his nightmares in Pan's Labyrinth — the tale of an 11-year-old girl who withdraws into a gorgeously visualized fantasy world to escape the horrors of fascism after the Spanish Civil War. Pan's Labyrinth is just opening in major cities, as is Children of Men, a breathtaking futuristic fable by Alfonzo Cuaron, in which we learn that women have stopped giving birth, and the youngest person on Earth — who's not all that young — has died. Children of Men imagines a world without a future, where Britain is the only spot on the planet where the rule of law still holds sway, and even it looks like a war zone. So naturally, it opened on Christmas Day.

Ten is an arbitrary number, and because I combined the two Eastwood films, we're already one over, so let's keep going. To winnow my list down, I had to leave out Babel, in which another Mexican director brilliantly communicates how impossible it is to communicate. I also skipped over the harrowing 9/11 drama United 93, and the Dixie Chicks documentary, Shut Up and Sing. And speaking of singing, there's that amazing number Jennifer Hudson sings in Dreamgirls, more or less reinventing the movie musical as she does. And the teenage detective flick Brick, finds indie Hollywood reinventing film noir as high-school noir.

Also great fun was a spoof of literary moviemaking called Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. Brazil's mother-daughter drama, House of Sand, was austere and elegant. And an absurdist tragedy called The Death of Mr. Lazarescu felt like modern-day Kafka. Taken together, that makes 19 reasons for cheer as we start a new year in which Hollywood will no doubt shower us with fresh invention.

Why, in the month of May alone, there'll be Spiderman 3, Pirates of the Caribbean 3, and Shrek The Third.

Who says they don't make 'em like they used to?

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.