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Indy flicks fill ‘Best of Year’ list

Carly at the Movies column by Carl Larsen

I’m not a snob. I love the glitter, the production values, and the big-star casts of major Hollywood productions as much as any other movie-obsessed slob. But in 2006, Hollywood let me down.

For some reason, just a few big-budget films made my “Best Films of the Year” list, and all the other spots were filled by delightfully skewed independent films.

Let’s start at the very tippy-top, the very best movie released in 2006. For my money, it’s “Little Miss Sunshine.” I started chuckling the minute it started, and didn’t stop ’til the final credits dimmed. This film has got to be called the poster boy for Dysfunctional Families On The Road movies, as each and every one of the sterling cast members takes a familiar stereotype (Moody Teen-ager, Grumpy Grandpa, Clueless Preteen, et cetera.) and twists it just enough to make for deadpan, offbeat hilarity.

Guess I’m just a kid at heart, but for sheer entertainment it was hard to beat “Happy Feet” in 2006. Even though it gets a bit dark and preachy at the end, this bright animated film full of toe-tapping Emperor penguins will delight all but the youngest and/or grouchiest of viewers.

I saw “SherryBaby” before it was released, at a film festival in Oregon, and I’m still walking around amazed at the performance of Maggie Gyllenhaal as a drug-addicted mom trying to re-establish her relationship with her daughter after a jail sentence. Number three on my list, for sure.

It may seem cold-hearted of me, but frankly I’ve about had my fill of movies about struggling druggies, noble AIDS victims, and misunderstood gays. I’m not prejudiced; it’s just that there have been too many of these movies lately, and I’m fresh out of compassion. Or so I thought. But then along comes “SherryBaby,” and I’m knocked for a loop again.

It’s already picked up some festival awards, and Maggie is up for a Golden Globe. (She won’t win, but deserves it anyway.)

I have to admit, there’s actually another Struggling Druggie indy flick on my list. Just couldn’t leave off “Half Nelson” because of Ryan Gosling’s amazing performance as a lonely teacher gone wrong, opposite Shareeka Epps as his wise-beyond-her-years student. Gosling, if you’ll recall, was fabulous in “The Notebook” in 2004, and has developed into an actor with major talents.

Sad film, good film.

Documentaries are beginning to pop into the Top 10 with disgusting regularity, and this year it’s Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” that I’m unable to ignore. This is NOT, as some cynics have suggested, a cleverly-disguised political ad. It is a clear and dramatic discussion of what must be done about global warming (a phenomenon that our president has promised he will officially admit exists sometime next year).

Speaking of years, perhaps this is the one Marty Scorsese will finally win his long overdue Best Director Oscar with “The Departed.” Not his very best, but way up in the Ain’t Crooks Interesting genre due to slick writing and directing, and bravura performances by Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio. Excellent film, and #6 on my list.

Oliver Stone could have gone completely overboard with his whacky theories when making “World Trade Center,” but he played it straight (as did star Nicholas Cage) and ended up with an honest and throat-catching depiction of the nature of courage. Another excellent film based on a real tragedy was “Bobby,” Emilio Estevez’s dream project about the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Hats off to Emilio for this wonderfully written, acted, and directed ensemble effort. Gripping, thought-provoking film will grow in stature with the years, I’m sure.

What’s a Best Movie list without a Christopher Guest? This year, his “For Your Consideration” correctly skewered the Awards Ego that fills most of Hollywood. His madcap gang of usual suspects is back doing their usual outrageous improvisation, with the usual results. Guest fans, unite!

Robert Altman, alas, is dead. His final film, “Prairie Home Companion,” is touching, warmly humorous, and beautifully crafted. As a huge Garrison Keillor fan, I couldn’t possibly leave it off my list, even though I like Altman’s stranger movies (like “Three Women”) even better.

Not all of the above Top 10 will appear on the myriad dreary yearly list of favorite films that will come flying your way over the next few months. But I found each to have a unique quality. I’ll see them all again.

Meanwhile, back at the Dixie:

If I only still lived in the Shenandoah Valley (sigh), I could hop over to Staunton and see “Happy Feet” again, this week. Also on the top-notch bill are “Casino Royale,” “We Are Marshall,” “Rocky Balboa” and “The Holiday.” Very classy collection of celluloid.


Carl Larsen is a regular contributor to The New Dominion. Look for his At the Movies column on Mondays.

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