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A memorable movie year From the stellar old guard to "Borat" catching people off guard, 2006 was an impressive and unpredictable season on the silver screen

The line is delivered near the end of "A Prairie Home Companion" -- Robert Altman and Garrison Keillor's fantasy about the final broadcast of Garrison Keillor's radio show.

Someone asks a modest and diffident Keillor in a rueful moment, "Don't you want people to remember you?"

He responds "I don't want people to be TOLD to remember me."

Quite so. Dead on. What matters -- what REALLY matters -- is what you couldn't possibly forget, even if you tried.

Movie lovers don't have to be TOLD that the two memorable stories in 2006 moviedom were:

1) Sacha Baron Cohen and "Borat," a savage movie comedy that actually made trouble in the world and,

2) The magnificent achievement of a whole bunch of senior citizens in the filmmaker's trade, most notably 81-year-old Altman himself, in what turned out to be his final movie, and 76-year-old Clint Eastwood and 64-year-old Martin Scorsese along with him.

It was a year tantalizingly full of movie surprises.

Who among us could have known 12 months ago that something like "Borat" was coming? Or that a drunken Mel Gibson would go into a bigoted rant in a Malibu cophouse and still deliver the brilliant piece of action lunacy like "Apocalypto," one of the strangest successes of 2006? Or that Robert De Niro, of all people, would spend so much career capital on bringing us such a detailed history of the WASP establishment in "The Good Shepherd"?

Who could have expected a pair of absorbing films about Victorian magicians in the 21st century?

It was an impressive movie year -- in truth, more for the high quality of movies that didn't quite make the Top 10 than the quality of the ones that did.

In alphabetical order, the Top 10 movies of 2006:

1. "Babel" by Alejandro Inarritu. The ending is flat-out bad. But here is a film that, on a global scale, brings us the same news that Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" brought us -- that our lives are all interconnected, even if we don't see how. But then maybe it's also about how much damage white Americans can do -- and suffer -- by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

2. "Borat" by Larry Charles and Sacha Baron Cohen. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But here's what I want to know: How on earth did Cohen and his film crew get out of that rodeo alive and untouched? After it became apparent to one and all that he was in the middle of the ring to mock and provoke the entire assembled crowd, how did he escape being pummeled? So troubling -- and utterly hilarious -- was the fake journalist from Kazakhstan that it was even reported that his movie may have led to the Pamela Anderson and Kid Rock split (not to mention to Cohen being set-upon by very real New York City louts after a taping of "Saturday Night Live" when he refused to get out of character as Borat.)

3. "The Departed" by Martin Scorsese. Why on earth did it take this long for 64-year-old Scorsese and 69-year-old Jack Nicholson to discover each other? One of a few movies this year to remind new audiences just how great the best '70s filmmakers were -- and still remain. No small matter in the real world, of course, is that it may be the best reason to finally give Scorsese an Oscar.

4. "Dreamgirls" by Bill Condon. As they used to say on "American Bandstand," it's got a good beat and you can dance to it. So what if it's pure B.S.? It's B.S. with energy, panache and incredible passion. And Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy are exceptional.

5. "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters From Iwo Jima" by Clint Eastwood. The most famous of all American war photographs and the bloody battle it commemorated are anatomized by the great star and stoic who has become the most dedicated revisionist and demythologizer in American movies this side of Robert Altman.

6. "Little Miss Sunshine" by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton. On the road with family dysfunction and the American Dream. With luck, you may never look at a beauty pageant in quite the same way again after you see the moppet parade here. For that matter, you may never look at a VW van the same way either. But then, as they always are, Alan Arkin, Toni Collette and Steve Carrell are wonderful.

7. "A Prairie Home Companion" by Robert Altman. He saved the warmest film of his entire career for last. There isn't a hint in it of the snobbery and misanthropy that, over time, eroded so much of his most enthusiastic audience. Death arrives at the end as a gentle question mark in a raincoat. It arrived for its director just a few months after its release.

8. "The Prestige" by Christopher Nolan and "The Illusionist" by Neil Burger. Two -- count 'em -- marvelously atmospheric films about Victorian magicians. One, "The Prestige" about a magician with a deadly rival for fame and a reputation for genius; the other, "The Illusionist" about a romantic rival who happens to be the Austrian crown prince. Somewhat incredibly, both were equally satisfying movies, not just glorious to look at.

9. "Thank You For Smoking" by Jason Reitman. While his father Ivan was still in the old school comedy bag ("My Super Ex-Girlfriend," complete with one of the movies' all-time great shark gags), son Jason made the year's most corrosive political satire about the world of Washington spin.

10. "United 93" by Paul Greengrass. Probably the most powerful film of 2006, a year in which there was a lot of competition. Greengrass came at 9/1 1, the defining event of our era, with the eye of a documentarian and an artist's mourning about human fate. Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center" had its virtues but it will be hard to forget this.

***

*Superb 2006 movies opening here in January: Guillermo Del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth," Tom Tykwer's "Perfume," Kevin MacDonald's "Last King of Scotland" (with its amazing lead performance by Forrest Whitaker as Idi Amin Dada), Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima" and Pedro Almodovar's "Volver." By reputation (I haven't seen them yet), also Alfonso Cuaron's "The Children of Men" and John Curran's "The Painted Veil."

*The best movies in many years that were not quite "the year's best": Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto," Robert De Niro's "The Good Shepherd," Gabrile Muccino's "The Pursuit of Happyness," Christopher Guest's "For Your Consideration," Marc Forester's "Stranger Than Fiction," Spike Lee's "The Inside Man."

*For your consideration: The most interesting best actress Oscar race in many years is shaping up between Meryl Streep, majestic and hilarious in "The Devil Wears Prada," and Helen Mirren, touching but not nearly as majestic and not hilarious either, in "The Queen," without question the most overrated movie of 2006. (Why? It was the most accessibly good movie at the New York Film Festival and New York is where the lion's share of major movie critics are.)

And while you're in the neighborhood, don't forget Penelope Cruz in the forthcoming film "Volver."

*You want "transgressive," we've got it: Should anyone be at a loss about what the meaning is of that increasingly popular critical adjective to describe dicey content (reputedly coined by former UB student Michael Silverblatt in his capacity as radio's greatest literary interviewer), take a good look at David Slade's "Hard Candy" -- with its protracted torture and castration scene, or John Cameron Mitchell's unrated "Shortbus" with the largest amount of nudity and sex ever seen in a mainstream movie. And to think, your great grandfather thought Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster on the beach were daring in "From Here to Eternity."

The Midnight Movie lives!

*They can act. No kidding. Honest. Really. At the age of 81, director Sidney Lumet reminded people that Vin Diesel is a lot more than muscles and a basso growl in "Find Me Guilty." Anyone who hadn't seen him before in "Boiler Room" might not have known. Even more surprising to a lot of people is how good second-rate Ben Affleck was playing third-rate George Reeves in "Hollywoodland."

*Conclusive proof that the Internet is full of prunes: The hue and cry about Daniel Craig as the new James Bond was wall-to-wall. Until the movie opened, that is, and everyone could see for themselves that he's the best actor to play the role since Sean Connery.

"Snakes on a Plane," on the other hand, was going to be the box office phenomenon of the year -- if you believed the Web. When the movie opened, everyone realized it was just a crummy piece of summer exploitation and stayed away in droves.

*As Bette Midler used to sing, "You've Got to Have Friends": The Sheen family certainly does. All those actors were the best reason to see Emilio Estevez's "Bobby." If only Estevez had been on equally good terms with Hollywood's writers.

*Friends with money: Frances McDormand's performance in Nicole Holofcener's movie of that name was a furious and angry gem that has so far gone unnoticed in the cinematic roundup business. Clearly, Mrs. Joel Coen could use more influential friends in the movie publicity biz.

*Enemies with money: When Tom Cruise was on his couch-jumping, crazier-than-thou TV publicity tour for "War of the Worlds," he only made a brief enemy of Brooke Shields. She later showed up at his wedding. His real enemy, it turned out, was media mogul Sumner Redstone, who found the whole cavalcade less than edifying and, the first chance he got, personally canceled Cruise's contract with Paramount. Nevermind that Cruise's Paramount movie "Mission Impossible III" made hundreds of millions of dollars and was one of the summer's most foolproof action movies.

*Big box office, big yawns: "X-Men: The Last Stand," "Superman Returns" and "The Da Vinci Code."

*Dumbest remake of the year: "The Wicker Man" could have been good. The marvelous, if esoteric British original, left plenty of room for Neil LaBute to do something exceptional in a new version with Nicolas Cage. Instead, LaBute blew it. Big time. By all means, rent the original, which is something of a horror film classic.

*Whatever you do, don't tell Attorney General Gonzalez: "V is for Vendetta" by the Wachowski brothers and director Lewis McTeige was an action fantasy that, somewhat incredibly, had good things to say about terrorism and the joy of blowing up public buildings. Whatever you think of the sentiment, the state of the First Amendment remains strong.

*Worst major movie of the year: What a rich year for high-minded garbage.

Woody Allen's "Scoop" was a truly awful British follow-up to "Match Point," M. Night Shyamalan's "Lady in the Water" was a now-legendary filmmaking indulgence and Wolfgang Petersen's "Poseidon" was all wet. It was near-universally thought that "Basic Instinct 2" shouldn't have been made at all.

Without question, though, the winner of the worst serious movie of the year was Brian DePalma's "The Black Dahlia," the kind of garbage only a richly talented filmmaker could make. The camera work was wonderful but the performances and script were astoundingly bad. When the best performance in a mystery is by the actress playing a corpse in flashback, you're in a whole lot of trouble.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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