Top films from the first half of '06

In every year, it seems, the overall quality in Hollywood seems to be going down as quickly as domestic box office revenues. Finding a good movie, it seems, is much harder than it ever has been. In every year, however, there are generally 25-35 good films that come out that are most definitely worth viewing. While most of the quality films are held for the second half of the year, as the year’s best is generally held for “Oscar” season in the late parts of the year, sifting through the doldrums of the first half of 2006 can find some quality movies mixed in with the garbage left over from 2005 that was unleashed in the first two months of 2006. With films like The Pink Panther, RV, Grandma’s Boy and Ultraviolet stinking up theatres on a regular basis so far in 2006, finding the time to find the good films is a near Herculean task.

Having viewed roughly 70 films apiece, InsidePulse senior reviewers Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz and Travis “No Nickname Required” Leamons have combined their combined 300 hours of cinematic pleasures and pains to provide you the only films you needed to see in the first half of 2006.

Glory Road

Leamons: Sports movies are almost always entertaining, though only a few are worthy of being labeled as “great.” Glory Road is in select company. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, whose first sports movie Remember the Titans depicted the integration of blacks and whites in school and athletic competition, returns with another “Inspired by a True Story” tale of race and sports. The basketball team at Texas Western College (now Texas-El Paso) broke barriers. Never before had there been a NCAA Championship contested in which a team started five African American players. Josh Lucas stars as Coach Don Haskins, a man of character and integrity, who judged the quality of his players not by skin, but by athletic ability. Deftly handled by first-time director James Gartner, the film is a fictional tribute to the most important college basketball game ever played.

Sawitz: Texas Western beating the University of Kentucky for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship in 1966 is considered one of the biggest upsets in sports history. It was a small university with a team that had never been a contender from El Paso going against Adolph Rupp and basketball royalty. And considering the history of basketball movies, the fact that a Jerry Bruckheimer produced film could come close to the rarified air of Hoosiers is a testament to the story of a group of black basketball players who paved the way for generations to come. Following the pivotal first year of Don Haskins (Josh Lucas) and a group of players from all over the country, the film follows them from the initial awkward phase to the one of the most climactic sports moments of a generation in a film that’s on the short list of great basketball films.

Friends with Money

Sawitz: This was the first movie of the year I really wanted to see, and it was tough because it was sold out at the art house cinemas for about a week and a half straight before I was able to get in to it. It had the same sort of buildup that Thank You For Smoking had as it built a strong word of mouth as it slowly expanded from bigger markets to an eventual wide release. Following the interconnected lives of four women (Catherine Keener, Jennifer Aniston, Frances McDormand and Joan Cusack), the film is one of the few I’ve sat through and walked out wanting a good 40 minutes to an hour more of the story.

Leamons: Fresh from Friends Jennifer Aniston had all the makings of an instant TV screen-to-silver screen success. Having been in such duds as Derailed and Rumor Has It, though, the promise of Aniston as a box office attraction was waning. Then she took a step back and made this independent feature. Friends with Money, is a little movie about the lives of four women. Together with Aniston are three of the best actresses working today (Catherine Keener, Francis McDormand, and Joan Cusack). And when I write “actresses” I stress the act. Those who generally dislike dialogue-driven pictures should think again, if only for McDormand’s outbursts.

Over the Hedge

Leamons: “Under the Radar” would have been a better title, because it made $100 million dollars in seven days, and yet its success is not mentioned in the same breath as other 2006 money earners. Part endearing family film, part madcap Wiley E. Coyote cartoon, Over the Hedge mocks suburbia. As RJ the Raccoon (Bruce Willis) picks apart our indiscretions when it comes to eating and driving SUVs, he is surpassed by Steve Carell as Hammy the Squirrel. Pretty much a scene-stealer in all his supporting roles, here he is again acting crazy as the caffeine-addicted squirrel.

Sawitz: I think this might’ve been the most innocuous film to gross $100 million domestically of the year, especially for an animated film, but it is a heart-warming film about a raccoon (Bruce Willis) trying to find redemption amongst a group of forest animals as suburbia encroaches upon them. It’s a hilarious riff on suburban life and sprawl that’s smart in how it handles its subject matter. With enough references for adults as well as plenty of humor for children, it’s a great film for the whole family.

Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor)

Sawitz: To be honest I’d been waiting for about a year for this to come out, as it had been teased in front of so many movies and had its release date pushed back so many times that the eventual small release it received (I had to drive about 40 miles to find a theatre showing it in the greater Chicagoland area) was disappointing considering how good the film was. A Russian fantasy trilogy about the end of times with the forces of good and evil, it has lots of clever CGI work to go with a big epic story that’s just getting started. Me, I can’t wait until Day Watch gets released in 2007.

Something New

Leamons: Good romance comedies are dime a dozen. While many are tasteless, incorporating the same gags and TV sitcom humor we have seen time and time again, this comedy offers just what its title implies: something new. The film is about the love shared between a white man and a black woman. Interestingly enough, the man is not the one with all the money. The woman is a white-collar worker, where as the man is landscape designer. The comedy is sharply written and avoids the usual pitfalls. With a cast of relative unknowns it was probably destined to fail. Apparently when women want romance, they want name recognition as well. Still, when it opens against Big Momma’s House 2 and When a Stranger Calls its opening weekend of February 3, 2006, Something New definitely deserved something better.

Sawitz: As my friend Mike always says, romantic comedies serve a very important function in Hollywood today. Unlike their counterparts in big budget epics and action films the “rom-com” is still the last genre in which story telling and character development truly matter the most. You can’t make up for a sound script or good actors by merely turning up the volume in other areas like inserting bigger, better explosions in a romantic comedy because plot and characters are essential to the story. One can’t make up for it in other areas, and that’s what separates a film like Something New from the usual trite that comes out of the genre. It has a great plot and good characters with a unique twist on a familiar story.

District B13

Sawitz: If there was a film that was close to being “action porn,” as dubbed by James Bernadelli of Reelviews, then District B13 would be it. Functioning as merely action sequences with a loosely held together plot with a pulsating techno soundtrack, this French action film is a shot of vitality into what has been a slowly dying genre since its heyday in the 1980s. Produced by Luc Besson, and directed by the cinematographer of The Transporter, it has some of the best action sequences of the last five years meshed with an easy to follow story of two men trying to defuse a nuclear weapon primed to detonate in the slums of Paris.

The World’s Fastest Indian

Leamons: Anthony Hopkins is the man. Having cemented his status as the most provocative villain in cinema’s history, he has the freedom to do whatever he wants. He’s played Zorro and given Tom Cruise an impossible mission. Now, he can add “folk hero” to his resume. As Burt Munro, Hopkins is an old codger with a motorbike and a dream. With some eye-popping visuals by director Roger Donaldson and Hopkins as the amiable New Zealander, The World’s Fastest Indian is one hell of a ride. Definitely needs to be seen.

Sawitz: Anthony Hopkins has had a long and distinguished career, and at the end of it seems he’s decided to have as much fun with as many different roles as possible. From the reincarnation of the Zorro franchise to adaptations of plays (Proof), Hopkins is just taking roles he can have fun with and Indian was one of them. While I didn’t think it was that great of a movie, as the pacing and editing weren’t the greatest, Hopkins is strong enough in it to warrant a curiosity rental as it is a good tale of an underdog who just wants to go fast.

Mission: Impossible III

Sawitz: Tom Cruise is a loon in his personal life, jumping over couches to proclaim his love for Katie Holmes and espousing his Scientology beliefs on anyone willing to thrust a microphone in his face, but when it comes to making action movies he still knows how to make a great one. Reprising his role as Ethan Hunt, Cruise and yet another talented director (J.J Abrams from TV’s “Lost”) go with a more conventional spy thriller in the third film in the franchise that made Cruise an action star.

Leamons: Tom Cruise may be the big name on the marquee, having had a string of $100 million-dollar-plus box office hits, but I was more interested in seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman as a villain. Since Hoffman won an Oscar for Capote, the timing couldn’t have been better for Mission: Impossible III. To see him stand his ground against Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, the man is downright masochistic. Continuing the revolving door of directors, first-timer J.J. Abrams takes the reigns and delivers a spy thriller with over-the-top, but oh so good, action scenes and a ruthless villain. Arguably the greatest entry in the franchise, it’s worth viewing only to see Nicole Kidman’s dream fulfilled: Tom Cruise tied up, struggling to free himself.

Akeelah and the Bee

Leamons: A few months removed, and I still think about this movie. Maybe it’s because of Keke Palmer. Not even old enough to drive, she delivers a performance that should be remembered at Oscar time. Akeelah, raised in the inner city, is at the point in her life where she has yet to be corrupted by society’s ills. Not swayed by drugs or other miscreant behavior, she turns to spelling as an outlet. Some may see this movie as the spelling bee equivalent of Rocky, but it is so much more. It’s about moments we have all experienced: meeting new people, trying to fit in. The National Spelling Bee finale may be trite, but the journey Akeelah takes to reach said Bee is worth the trip.

Sawitz: I would disagree with Travis on the placement of Akeelah on this list, as I think there are plenty of other films that are better, but I can’t deny its appeal. Combining the tried and true story of the underdog against all odds with an unconventional “sport” in the spelling bee, this is more of an actor’s film than it is a film about the story. My only criticism has been that the film could’ve been a bit more unconventional in how it handled the underdog story to fit in with the unconventional manner in which it’s presented in, but Laurence Fishburne does turn in a terrific performance as a spelling coach. It has a definite unique groove to it that gets ruined by the sticking to the conventional underdog tale almost relentlessly.

Click

Sawitz: Adam Sandler is one of the few comedians out there who doesn’t settle for just taking familiar roles. While his characters are always common to one another as loud, brash, borderline sociopaths with hearts of gold who end up getting the girl after all, Sandler has taken on much stronger films than his earlier work like Happy Gilmore. I think he’s been watching what Jim Carrey has been doing as of late and trying to follow his lead by taking stronger roles that require more than just comic timing and Click seems to be Sandler’s version of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The film is a great thinking movie as it deals with choices in regards to life and Sandler is perfect as a guy who wants everything for his family and winds up with nothing. Outside of an ending that really took the gut punch out of the finale, this is one of Sandler’s best films and proof that he actually can act when he wants to.

Leamons: This is the part where I chime in and express my disapproval. Don’t get me wrong Click has a nice concept. Who wouldn’t want a remote control to control their universe? The possibilities are endless, but for Adam Sandler it’s a convenience. Just imagine the good he could have accomplished if he wasn’t so concerned with freezing time so that a baseball could hit a neighbor in the face. Yes, Adam Sandler has played characters that are loud and brash but ultimately a creamy center. The problem is the sophomoric, downright infantile humor that is littered throughout the story. Just when I am getting comfortable with the story, there’s Sandler farting in David Hasselhoff’s face.

Cars

Leamons: Leave it to the boys at Pixar to give us the best animated film of the year (so far). It just goes to show you that not all theatergoers are dumb. With Pixar Animation Studios, the viewers have come to expect quality. Not just in the computer animation, which I found myself immersed in, but in the storytelling as well. Cars is another excellent release by director John Lasseter and company. Like the title implies, it’s about cars. One is a superficial hot rod named Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) that gets a dose of reality when he speeds into Radiator Springs. Another is a clunky Studebaker (Paul Newman) that teaches McQueen the finer points of racing and what it means to be a man, er, car. The two are joined by an all-star vocal cast that includes Larry the Cable Guy, Bonnie Hunt, Richard Petty and Tony Shaloub. Good story + good animation + good vocal talent – the trifecta as far as animated films go – makes Cars a can’t miss hit that both kids and parents will enjoy.

Sawitz: While Over the Hedge and Ice Age 2: The Meltdown were good starts on the year for animated films, the blockbuster animated film that has been the best of them all was Cars. With an impressive voice cast and the best animation of the last five years, the film is not something you watch. You experience it. With a great story, some great voice work from Paul Newman, Larry the Cable Guy and Owen Wilson as well as a great soundtrack it was one of the first great films of the summer film season.

Lucky Number Slevin

Sawitz: Some films are more than the sum of their parts, but Lucky Number Slevin was a film that works mainly because it has one of the best ensembles on film for 2006. With Bruce Willis, Josh Hartnett, Morgan Freeman and Sir Ben Kingsley (amongst others), Slevin revolves around a plot you have to really pay attention to. With all sorts of amusing dialogue, some well done action sequences and a cast that is having an absolute blast with the proceedings, the payoff is well worth the wait.

Leamons:Josh Hartnett can act, who knew? But honestly, this lanky guy is a little green when it comes to his acting ability. Perhaps that is why in many of his films he’s simply reacting. Not in the case of Lucky Number Slevin. Here he is the lead, in a cast that includes Bruce Willis, Lucy Liu and Stanley Tucci. The plot moves in and out and all around as the story consists of numerous cons. Morgan Freeman (as “The Boss”) and Sir Ben Kingsley (as “The Rabbi”) are the icing to this crime thriller as the heads to two feuding mobs.

Inside Man

Leamons: A movie specifically made for a grownup audience. A few of these cinematic treats pop up every so often. Unlike Spike Lee’s prior race-centered films, his latest appeals to a wider audience because of its three-prong attack: Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, and Jodie Foster. A title like Inside Man suggests maybe an undercover operative of some kind. Well, Owen is the polar opposite of being cop. He’s a criminal who has the means and opportunity to rob a bank. Washington is the hostage negotiator trying to qualm the situation. Foster is merely window-dressing as her role is small. A heist with some strong performances and cat and mouse suspense makes for an interesting Spike Lee movie. Whodathunk?

Sawitz: A year without Denzel Washington in the cinemas just doesn’t sound right, which is maybe why 2005 was an off-year for film. 2004 had given us Man on Fire and a remake of The Manchurian Candidate with Denzel in the lead roles, so it’s only fitting that the first half of 2006 had Denzel returning to the big screen in a racially charged drama. As a hostage negotiator facing off against a fun enemy in Clive Owen, Washington is in top form as the film is a great heist movie with a couple interesting twists.

The Proposition

Sawitz: Good Westerns are a rare breed in the last two decades and it’s interesting that two terrific ones have been released relatively close to one another. After a quick theatrical run in 2005 to get it considered for that year’s Academy Awards, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada was over-looked and subsequently had a small but strong release in early 2006. The Proposition has had a small independent release which hasn’t drawn well despite a strong word of mouth. While not as good as the Tommy Lee Jones revenge film, The Proposition is an interesting film that focuses on a sheriff trying to maintain law & order who makes a deal with a scoundrel. With lots of great action scenes to go with some top-notch acting, it’s a gritty western about a man who is given an impossible choice to make and how he has to look deep inside his soul to do the thing he knows is right.

Leamons: It is true, westerns are a rare breed. This is coming from a guy who never understood John Wayne’s mystique; he seemed like he played the same character in all the westerns. Still, there is something about The Proposition. Maybe it’s because of the gritty nature and blood-soaked carnage depicted. Or, maybe it’s because musician Nick Cave penned the screenplay. It’s a film that attracts you on a visual level; all the while the characters are acting on a visceral level. Those who have seen Danny Huston in supporting roles where he has a sympathetic ear will be shocked at his transformation. Gone is the cuddy teddy bear. In its place is a big, bad wolf.

The Lake House

Leamons: This is one of the rare, cinematic experiences that started out good and got better with each scene. Twelve years ago, Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock starred in a little movie about a bus that couldn’t go under 50 miles per hour. Okay, maybe the movie wasn’t so little. Nevertheless, the movie made the actors Hollywood commodities. They reunited for The Lake House, an English interpretation of Siworae (Il Mare). In a nutshell, the movie is Frequency by way of The Notebook. It’s a good romance involving a man and a woman who live two years apart. The fact that they can’t see each other, and can only communicate through letters, is a welcomed concept as it makes them realize the beauty in each other through thoughts and ideas, not looks and appearances.

Sawitz: As Keanu Reeves moves forward in his acting career after The Matrix trilogy it seems he’s finally taking roles best suited for his abilities. Reuniting with Sandra Bullock for the first time since Speed, Reeves and Bullock have a great romance with questionable physics. The thing about the film that makes it good is the chemistry between the two. It is a romantic drama, so make sure to load up on testosterone after; District B13 is a great double feature with this to balance out the estrogen.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Sawitz: If there’s one genre of film that America can still knock out of the park on occasion it’s the western. And while The Proposition was a solid contribution to the genre and much better than some recent efforts in the genre, Three Burials is Tommy Lee Jones going back to the well and recreates the kind of film John Ford would’ve made with the material. Focusing on a cowboy (Jones) who is fulfilling a promise he made to a friend to bury him in his home town, it’s a film about revenge and honor for the dead that harkens back to the old days of the Western when Ford teamed with John Wayne in films like The Searchers.

Leamons: Three Burials is a western of revenge and honor. Tommy Lee Jones coerces Barry Pepper, by way of gun, to help him take his deceased friend across the border into Mexico. It’s a modern-day western filmed entirely in Texas, instead of a studio lot. Jones – like Mel Gibson and Ron Howard before him – has expertly grown fond of the director’s chair. Not bad for his first feature, all things considered. Taking into account all the problems with illegals coming into America, it’s fitting that two men cross the border into Mexico, only to fulfill a promise.

United 93

Leamons: For all those who say it is “too soon,” I say watch it before jumping to such conclusions. Director Paul Greengrass does not take sides. He simply illustrates the events that transpired that day. There is no aftermath, only the here and now. Using mostly unknown actors and a few persons playing themselves, performing the same tasks on that fateful day, United 93 is a fitting tribute to those men and women who perished on 9/11. To call it a movie is doing it a disservice. It is an experience, in which you can’t help but be emotionally involved.

Thank You For Smoking

Sawitz: It isn’t too often Hollywood can make a terrific comedy from elements that don’t lend themselves to the genre, especially when the source material is a satirical political thriller based on the tobacco industry. Taking a 180 degree turn from the book of the same name, Thank You For Smoking went from packing independent theatres with word of mouth to expanding to multiplexes and still making good money at the box office. Focusing on the career of Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), a tobacco lobbyist, the film is insanely funny while unloading on more targets than it knows what to do with. Taking potshots at Hollywood, the tobacco industry, Congress, anti-tobacco lobbyists and plenty of others, Thank You For Smoking is a great film that comes down to one concept: Choice.

The choice of what to do and what not to do is the film’s focus, as the film never endorses smoking (nor does it show anyone actually doing smoking during the duration of it) but the film doesn’t moralize about smoking as well. All it illuminates is the art of making a choice and the people behind it trying to sway you to one mode of thinking or another. It’s an Oscar caliber performance from Eckhart amongst a very talented cast, one that hopefully will be remembered when it comes to Academy Award nominations.

Leamons: Cigarettes can kill you, but the government loves collecting the taxes made from each and every purchase. Never mind the tobacco lobbying aspect of Thank You for Smoking, look at how advertising and spin control influences people. Effortlessly directed by Jason Reitman, it was the first, great movie, and it remains the best movie that either of us has seen. The subject is addictive as is the satire. The all-star cast, including Aaron Eckhart and William H. Macy, is given remarkable source material in which to work from. You should make a point to see this amazing comedy. It’s a much better choice than, er, paying for another pack of cigarettes.