Our pick of the films of 2006

After agonising for weeks over the perfect balance between solid entertainment, sound human values and artistic merit, the staff of MercatorNet selected these films. No list is perfect. We'd love to hear what you thought of our choices. Send us an email at [email protected]!
The Cave of the Yellow Dog
Directed by Byambasuren Davaa. Starring Nansal Batchuluun, Urjindorj Batchuluun.
It may be chauvinism and Eurocentric ignorance, but one does not expect a lot from the Mongolian film industry. However, this simple, well-told tale is a gem which proves that Hollywood has no monopoly on talent. Director Byambasuren Davaa uses non-professional Mongolian sheep herders to chronicle the live of the nomads there. The story line is thin: a young girl finds a stray puppy and hides it against her father's orders. It has a distinctly Buddhist flavour, but everyone can enjoy its message about the dignity of family life. Subtitles. 
Children of Men
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron. Starring Clive Owen, Clare-Hope Ashitey, Michael Caine, Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor.
This brilliantly directed film deals with two themes: world-wide infertility and the Bush foreign policy agenda. No children have been born on earth for about 20 years, so your response will depend on how worried you are about the former and how angry you are about the latter. A dark and decaying England has become an authoritarian state which treats international refugees with appalling brutality. Somehow a dishevelled London bureaucrat is handed the mission of delivering the world's only pregnant woman to mysterious scientists overseas. To reach a port, they have to pass through ghettos full of violent Muslim extremists as troops attack a mysterious uprising in support of the refugees. This is a dark but thought-provoking film. There is one brief scene with partial nudity.
The Hidden Blade
Directed by Yoji Yamada. Starring Takako Matsu, Masatoshi Nagase, Yukiyoshi Ozawa, Hidetaka Yoshioka.
Yoji Yamada's 2002 film Twilight Samurai was an Oscar nominee, and The Hidden Blade, the second in a proposed trilogy, is nearly its equal. Sociologically, the theme is the confrontation of traditional Japanese values with ruthless modernisation in the Meiji Era. An honourable samurai is asked to pursue and kill a friend who has turned renegade. There is a romantic subplot about a servant whom the tongue-tied hero loves. This is a splendid, deeply humane film about honour and tradition with brilliantly realised characters and a  fascinating recreation of a vanished era. Subtitles. 
Lady in the Water
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Paul Giamatti, Jeffrey Wright, Bill Irwin, Bob Balaban.
This modern fairy tale was panned by some critics as self-indulgent mythmaking by director M. Night Shyamalan, but others loved it. A depressed doctor now working as a janitor in an apartment complex discovers that the person taking illegal night-time swims in the pool is a narf. A narf, he learns from a Korean woman, is a water nymph who belongs in the sea. But she is afraid to leave because of malevolent spirits who are prowling outside. The mysterious fairy-like creature draws together the eccentrics living in the complex as they battle to return her to the ocean. Spooky, atmospheric and quirky. One of the characters is a sour, twisted book and film critic -- no doubt a dig by the director at hostile reviewers. Der Neunte Tag (The Ninth Day)
Directed by Volker Schlöndorff. Starring Ulrich Matthes, August Diehl
Based loosely on a true story, this is a story about conscience and courage. Father Henri Kremer has been imprisoned in Dachau for opposing the Nazi regime. In an unexpected act of mercy, he is given a nine-day furlough to attend his mother's funeral in Luxembourg. There, an ambitious young SS officer offers him a deal: if he can persuade his bishop to write to the Pope urging him to support Hitler, he, his bishop, his fellow clergy and his dear ones will be spared the worst persecution. Even the New York Times described this picture as "moviemaking on the highest dramatic, psychological, and moral plane". Subtitles.
The Queen
Directed by Stephen Frears. Starring Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, Alex Jennings, Helen McCrory, Roger Allam.
One of the most mysterious events of the 1990s was the torrent of world grief over the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Initially the Queen and the royal household were aloof and distant: after her divorce from Prince Charles, flibbertigibbet Diana was not Queen Elizabeth's favourite. It was Prime Minister Tony Blair's job to soften her and thus to ensure the survival of the monarchy. Director Stephen Frears does a splendid job of recreating the drama of those emotion-charged days. And the acting is marvellous, from the crusty dignity of Her Majesty, played by Helen Mirren, to Michael Sheen's buffoonish caricature of the PM. As MercatorNet's reviewer William Park wrote, "isn’t it great to have a picture that one can wholeheartedly recommend?"
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Directed by Gore Verbinski. Starring Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Tom Hollander, Bill Nighy.
Successful sequels are rare. Sequels which better the original are as scarce as doubloons in a charity box. This time the highly original, comical and swashbuckling characters of the first film are off to find the fabled Davy Jones's locker. The plot is threadbare, but the special effects, acting and preposterous melodrama are terrific. Stealing the show is Johnny Depp as the mascarared, rum-swilling rogue Captain Jack Sparrow. And a cliffhanger ending promises a third instalment: something to look forward to!

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days
Directed by Marc Rothemund. Starring Julia Jentsch, Fabian Hinrichs, Gerald Alexander Held, Johanna Gastdorf.
Germany's most famous anti-Nazi heroine is brought to life in a luminous performance by Julia Jentsch. In 1943, a group of college students set up a resistance movement in Munich called the White Rose. Sophie Scholl is captured while distributing pamphlets on campus with her brother Hans. Her cross-examination by the Gestapo quickly escalates into a searing test of wills as Scholl delivers a passionate call to freedom and personal responsibility. Despite his own atheism, the director has created a moving appeal to "decency, morals and God" based on the conviction that "all life is precious." Subtitles. 
Directed by Stephen Gaghan. Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, Chris Cooper, William Hurt, Tim Blake Nelson, Amanda Peet, Christopher Plummer, Alexander Siddig, Mazhar Munir.
Would you expect to see George Clooney in a neo-con shoot-em-up? Probably not. This cynical look at American involvement in the Middle East highlights corruption, complexity and cruelty in the West's engagement with the Arab world. Clooney plays a disillusioned CIA agent who has been thrown to the wolves by higher-ups. His story is interwoven with that of an educated Arab prince who wants to reform his country; an investment adviser working for the prince; the ambitions of a big oil company; and a young lad who becomes a suicide bomber. The narrative is a bit confused at times, but all the threads are drawn together in the tragic explosion which ends the film. This is Hollywood trying its best not to be Hollywood: solid but sombre. Some subtitles. 
Directed by Gavin Hood. Starring Presley Chweneyagae, Mothusi Magano, Kenneth Nkosi, Zenzo Ngqobe.
This moving South African film won the Best Foreign Film award at last year's Oscars. It is the story of the conversion and redemption of Tsotsi, a despicable young thug in the Johannesburg slum of Soweto. One day he savagely shoots and paralyses a woman and steals her car for kicks. When it finally grinds to a halt, he discovers a baby in the back seat. His efforts to care for the helpless infant are comical and touching and ultimately lead him to rediscover his own humanity. An unpretentious but memorable film. Some subtitles.
United 93
Directed by Paul Greengrass. Starring J. J. Johnson, Gary Commock, Polly Adams, Opal Alladin, Nancy McDoniel, Starla Benford, Trish Gates, Simon Poland, Khalid Abdalla, David Alan Basche, Lisa Colón-Zayas, Meghan Heffern, Olivia Thirlby, Cheyenne Jackson.
United 93 provoked a silly discussion about the proper moment for commencing 9/11 retrospectives. But if ever there was a tasteful way to approach this catastrophe, this is it. Director Paul Greengrass's docudrama relates the final moments of the hijacked plane which nosedived into a Pennsylvania cornfield. The actors are all unknowns, supporting the underlying theme that heroes are just everyday people under pressure. The scenes of confusion and incredulity in air traffic control are utterly believable. The hijackers are depicted as fanatical, but upright in a deluded sort of way. The only stinging political comment is made through the character of a German surrender monkey who insists that everything will be hunky-dory if the passengers cooperate. A riveting and inspiring film.


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