Overall, American movies landed with a fat, squishy thud this year. The more they strived for significance, the more flatulent they got. Most of the best commercial releases in town were sharp shocks from Europe, with only one genuinely popular stroke of genius to mark 2006.
1 THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU (Cristi Puiu)
A crusty old Bucharest man dies for two hours at the hands of Romanian health care. Sounds dire, but this is an affecting, sometimes hilarious summation of life's absurdities. Played only two dates at Cinematheque Ontario this year. Find it on DVD.
2 DEAR WENDY (Thomas Vinterberg)
Lars von Trier wrote this fable of teenagers who form a secret society to worship guns. But Vinterberg's direction humanizes the story's perverse abstraction, giving it the emotional power of a classic fable, plus the shock of an action movie turned inside-out.
3 L'ENFANT (Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne)
Another lacerating close-up look at callous youth in Belgium, this time with a newborn baby at stake. The Dardennes' commitment to observation over judgment is impressive.
4 VOLVER (Pedro Almodóvar)
Penélope Cruz padded her ass for the role, but there's no fat on Almodóvar's comic tale of female endurance. If it doesn't match his very best, it's still more evidence of the spectacular lean grace he's developed since All About My Mother.
5 THE ROAD TO GUANTANAMO (Michael Winterbottom, Mat Whitecross)
Telling the story of three Brits swept up in a U.S. security net, Guantánamo is this generation's Battle Of Algiers. Made with ferocious urgency and a will to help shut the illegal prison camp down, it's searing activist filmmaking. Winterbottom is wildly uneven, but he's the filmmaker of right now.
6 MATCH POINT (Woody Allen)
Could this be the last great Woody Allen film? Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Scarlett Johansson provide the sizzle in this London-set moral murder tale, but the precision of the writing, the elegance of the direction and the haunting fatalism are vintage Woodman.
7 THE QUEEN (Stephen Frears)
Helen Mirren gives a career-best performance as Queen Elizabeth II, her stiff upper lip tested in the weeks after Princess Diana's death. Frears rejects camp hysteria and chooses the mood of a political procedural, punctuated by sharp stabs of humour and clinical social observation.
8 NEIL YOUNG: HEART OF GOLD (Jonathan Demme)
Young and band return to Nashville for career-capping performances. Demme, who was far artier with Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense, finds a more stately style for Young's timesless, mid-tempo reflections on life. It might feel casual, but this film has the heft of an archival document.
9 NOTES ON A SCANDAL (Richard Eyre)
Judi Dench summons up passion, venom and punishing intellect in this super-juicy sex thriller about a teacher's growing obsession with a younger colleague. High-toned trash doesn't get any better.
10 BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN (Larry Charles)
Sacha Baron Cohen wrote his Cambridge University thesis on Jews in the American civil rights movement. Funny, no? But the point isn't how Borat unmasks anti-Semitism, it's how he unmasks our submission to media authority.