<em>Letters from Iwo Jima</em>: at right, Ken Watanabe
Letters from Iwo Jima: at right, Ken Watanabe
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Time once again for saluting the year's Ten Best movies. Although 2006 brought a handful of terrific films, overall it seemed an off year for cinema: more movies than ever, but few that registered strongly. Those that did are remembered here. Both frequent News film critic Kathleen Murphy and I have slightly adjusted the lists we posted with MSN.com a couple of weeks ago (what with late-arriving beauties and memory tardily kicking in). Meanwhile ... pass the popcorn.

1.  is inescapably two: director Clint Eastwood's pair of films about the World War II battle for Iwo Jima, from two national perspectives: Flags of Our Fathers and LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA. Each is superb on its own; as companion pieces, they're wellnigh overwhelming.

2.  Lovely is a word rarely invoked in connection with the bracingly sardonic cinema of the late Robert Altman. It applies to A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION, the director's last meditation on show business as intrinsic to the American family. Garrison Keillor is credited with the script; Meryl Streep and Lindsay Lohan (yes) shine in a feisty ensemble.

3.  A fairy tale like none you've ever seen: Guillermo del Toro's PAN'S LABYRINTH. Tender and horrific, historically framed (the Spanish Civil War running into WWII) and assuredly timeless.

4.  Not "too soon": Paul Greengrass' shattering, thoroughly honorable account of UNITED 93.

5.  What a relief to know that when the talk starts up again about how nice it would be to see Martin Scorsese finally win a best director Oscar, he really will deserve to be in the running for a change. THE DEPARTED finds him at the top of his game, abetted by William Morahan's crackling screenplay. Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon head a great cast.

6.  Helen Mirren, as everyone knows, gives a world-class performance as Elizabeth II in THE QUEEN. What's less bruited about is that the movie itself is a model of intelligence and decency, as both craftsmanship and study in shared humanity.

7.  Another, sheerly magical performance - by the great and beautiful Peter O'Toole - lifts the May-December love story VENUS into the empyrean ("empyrean" ... good word for Peter O'Toole to say). Wonderful screenplay by Hanif Kureishi.

8.  An inner-city teacher (Ryan Gosling) and student (Shareeka Epps) in a character-driven movie that never panders or loses its singular way: HALF NELSON.

9.  is one I forgot to include at MSN deadline, for the always-problematical reason that it was made for and shown on television - well, cable (AMC). But Walter Hill's BROKEN TRAIL is a beaut of a Western, uncompromising in its very strong, necessary violence and aglow with character and humor, thanks especially to Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church.

As for 10.  ... let that be a tie among the other three titles that filled out my MSN list:
     Ben Affleck is excellent in HOLLYWOODLAND as George Reeves, the small-time actor who played Superman on TV in the Fifties and maybe died of it. Diane Lane costars.
     Steven Soderbergh's THE GOOD GERMAN - a loving re-creation of post-WWII Euro-thrillers, shot in black and white with 1946-vintage lenses yet - is never more than a gorgeous movie ... but certainly never less. With George Clooney, Cate Blanchett.
     Todd ("In the Bedroom") Field taps exurban desperation in the postcard-pretty LITTLE CHILDREN, after the novel by Tom Perrotta. Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson play two of the unwitting title characters.

If I were putting non-2006 premières on this list, Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 Army of Shadows would be near the top. Lino Ventura starred.

CLOSE, AND BY ALL MEANS A CIGAR: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan; Brick; Casino Royale; Children of Men; Days of Glory (Indigènes); The Descent; For Your Consideration; Little Miss Sunshine; Miami Vice; Old Joy; Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS: Babel; Perfume: The Story of a Murderer; Science of Sleep; Superman Returns

VARIOUSLY BAD: Blood Diamond, The Prestige, Silent Hill, V for Vendetta, The Wicker Man

JUST WHAT IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN: Snakes on a Plane