If I could create my own Ebert & Roeper–style TV show, it would be Borat and Mel Go to the Movies. Two anti- Semites rating the finest products of Hollywood and ranting about the cabal that creates them—there's nothing more entertaining than that paranoid intersection between reality and its imaginary best friend. (Sometimes that friend is a giant rabbit; sometimes it's a Zionist conspiracy.) Especially this year, when it was hard to prefer fantasy over fact or separate documentary from fiction; all seemed to flow together, as if spewed from the same Cuisinart into a docudrama smoothie. Below, fact and fiction fight to a tie. (See here for other critics' Top 10 lists.)
1. United 93 In keeping with his Bloody Sunday, Paul Greengrass produces docudrama at its finest. Searingly unsensationalistic and despairingly gutsy, United 93 faithfully follows the timeline of one doomed flight on 9/11, using real transcripts and even some of the actual FAA and Army officials involved that day to re-enact their roles. The only fiction, per se, is reasonable conjecture about what took place between the passenger phone calls and cockpit recordings—and during those final seconds over Pennsylvania. No other movie this year brought home how little we understand these terrorists (who also call home before their flight), and how they're not interested in understanding us. (Now on DVD.)
2. The Queen Real footage of Princess Diana's hounding, death, and celebrity-filled wake is cleverly interpolated with an entirely made-up drama, as Tony Blair woos Queen Elizabeth (Oscar lock Helen Mirren) into the television age of grief-as-spectacle. Director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan construct an elegant pas de deux for the unlikely pair; she gives him class (or at least gravity), and he gives her lessons—almost like Pygmalion in reverse—about how to reach her subjects' hearts by showing just a bit of her own. The Queen makes offstage maneuvering more compelling than the historical events being performed in public.
3. Mountain Patrol: Kekexili Again, based on a true story, you could call this a high-plains Tibetan neo-noir, as villagers form a vigilante band to fight ruthless antelope poachers. Despite the gorgeous, mile-high scenery, director Lu Chuan displays the same hard-boiled crime movie logic of his The Missing Gun. Here, a man's life is worth less than a dead antelope, and the terrain is no less fatal than the bullet from an AK-47. Ambiguous in its politics about the Chinese occupation of Tibet, Kekexili has an undeniably environmentalist message, but not one ounce of false sentiment.
4. District B13 Sometimes you give up on the movies, thinking that computer effects, TV knock-offs, and endless sequels have squeezed all the vitality out of the medium. Then a little French cop flick takes you back to the physically daring, jaw-dropping stunt work that hasn't been seen since Buster Keaton. And the stunts performed by David Belle and company, adapted from the urban gymnastic sport of parkour, appear to be entirely real. (On DVD.)
5.Borat . . . I pray that those drunken fraternity boys, or other plaintiffs, somehow succeed in dragging Sacha Baron Cohen into court, because the trial would make TV history. Borat on the stand? Swearing to tell the truth? Never mind his planned Brüno movie, that would almost be enough to justify a sequel (Borat Goes to Jail, perhaps?). The guy is like Andy Kaufman with a social conscience, Jackass with a brain.
6.Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story Undercutting and footnoting its artifice at every turn, Michael Winterbottom's comic adaptation of the famously self-reflexive Lawrence Sterne novel splits open the text to reveal the petty, insecure actors offstage and behind the camera. Steve Coogan's "Steve Coogan" is completely unready for family or fatherhood; yet babies insist on being born, and the resulting chaos is true to the spirit of Sterne: Life is too messy, inexorable, and uncertain to be contained on the page—or on the screen. (On DVD.)
7.Half Nelson Playing a crack- addicted Brooklyn schoolteacher, Ryan Gosling delivers the best male performance of the year, avoiding every junkie cliché and mannerism. He's closely matched by Shareeka Epps (as the student who tries to rescue him) and Anthony Mackie (the dealer, yes, with a heart). The film's structure is a little untidy, but that almost works to its advantage—mirroring the pedagogue who only learns by falling off his lesson plan.
8.Old Joy Arriving at the Northwest Film Forum next week, Kelly Reichardt's minimalist indie simply describes two guys going for a weekend camping trip in the Oregon woods, but it's much more than that—more like a melancholy detour out of time. Each man gets a brief reprieve from his life's trajectory—one on his way up, the other down—that also feels like a memorial service for one's younger self, only no one stands up to make a speech.
9. The Science of Sleep The aggressively regressive hero of Michel Gondry's endearing pop-up book of a movie can't separate dream life from waking life, leading to creative, fruitful confusion for Gael García Bernal's man-child. Yet beneath all the handmade whimsy there's a bedrock foundation of heartache. Like a lot of artists, Gondry's creativity often seems inspired by loss.
10.The Road to Guantánamo Winterbottom's second film on my list, this docudrama depicts the experiences of three detainees at Gitmo, showing how the world is being divided into torturers and terrorists. Seen first at home in England, the "Tipton Three" could hardly be confused with the United 93 jihadists, but Road warns us how the insidious cycle of us-and-them has become the new engine of history.
Honorable Mention: Army of Shadows, Brothers of the Head, Children of Men, Dave Chappelle's Block Party, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Duck Season, Flags of Our Fathers, Heading South, The Heart of the Game, Iraq in Fragments (from Seattle director James Longley), Lucky Number Slevin, Man Push Cart, Letters From Iwo Jima (Jan. 12), Monster House, Mutual Appreciation, Pan's Labyrinth (Jan. 12), The Proposition, and Thank You for Smoking. Most are on DVD or will be soon.
Calendar Casualties: Though they opened in 2005 in New York and/or L.A., Caché, Darwin's Nightmare, Match Point, and The New World were some of the best titles to play Seattle during 2006.
Help! We Need Distribution!:The First People on the Moon, OSS 117: Nest of Spies, Maxed Out, and TV Junkie were deservedly popular at SIFF. From local directors: Apart From That, June & July, Walking to Werner, and Yellow.
Drown This Film Like a Puppy:Little Miss Sunshine.