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In fact or fiction, movies exposed our national character

In 2006, both the United States and the city of Atlanta featured people, places and things heading in opposite directions. Politicians were jailed or voted out of office, music genres came and went, restaurants opened and closed, and topics previously ignored came to the forefront of our collective dialogue.

At times it seemed like we didn't know whether we were coming or going. In this look back at the year in culture, we examine the touchstones that affected our lives, whether they were hot or cold.

Curt Holman's Top 10 Films of 2006

1) Pan's Labyrinth -- Director Guillermo del Toro establishes himself as one of cinema's greatest fantasists in this exquisite, grown-up fairy tale about a little girl whose coming of age coincides with both the fascist takeover of Spain and the intrusion of sinister beings from the supernatural realm.

2) Children of Men -- Bravura action scenes dovetail with complex themes in this bracingly low-tech science fiction tale about anti-immigrant xenophobia and a global infertility pandemic. Certainly the most underrated film of 2006.

3) CSA: The Confederate States of America -- Like a blend of Ken Burns history and "Chappelle's Show" satire, this low-budget but corrosive and endlessly inventive mockumentary envisions an alternate U.S. history in which the South won the Civil War and contemporary America is a slave state.

4) The Queen -- Helen Mirren's sympathetic, justly acclaimed portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II isn't the only reason to see this sharp, subtle exploration of the death of Princess Diana as a historical tipping point between the classy, repressed past and the emotional, undignified present.

5) Letters From Iwo Jima -- Arguably Clint Eastwood's best film, this bookend to the flawed but fascinating Flags of Our Fathers presents the Japanese perspective of the battle of Iwo Jima, and offers a harrowing, antiwar account worthy of All Quiet on the Western Front.

6) Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan -- Jagshemash! Faking Kazakh journalist have funny-time with United States and America, get glorious laughs, glorious lawsuits. High-five!

7) Lady Vengeance -- The third and finest film in South Korean director Chan Parkwook's envelope-pushing Vengeance trilogy includes not just indelible, painterly images of beauty and horror, but an unexpectedly knotty debate about the social consequences of revenge.

8) Thank You for Smoking -- The trials of an unapologetic tobacco lobbyist (Aaron Eckhart at his most gleefully swaggering) provides a timely, terrific parody of political hypocrisy across the aisles. Any reference to "The Academy of Tobacco Studies" makes me chuckle.

9) The Fountain -- Darren Aronofsky's enigmatic treatment of love and time travel managed to be at once intricately cerebral and intoxicatingly sensuous.

10) The Departed -- Martin Scorsese's American "cover version" of Hong Kong's Infernal Affairs, featuring international movie stars as more deeply flawed characters, became a bracing cocktail of blood, testosterone and rock music.

Felicia Feaster's Top 10 Films of 2006

1) Volver -- An older and wiser Pedro Almodóvar continues to amaze with his seductive blend of outrageous humor and heartfelt sentiment in this tale of a community of Spanish women led by a revelatory Penélope Cruz dealing with death, family and a haunted past.

2) The Departed -- Leaving his usual Italian, New York mafioso behind, Martin Scorsese found a fresh take on the criminal underworld among Boston's Irish-Catholic hoods in a film with some of the year's best, crackling dialogue and crime-picture chops.

3. Pan's Labyrinth -- Director Guillermo del Toro's remarkably sad portrait of a Spanish girl during that country's civil war, whose eyes are opening to the ugliness and cruelty of the adult world around her, uses a unique combination of realism and fantasy to imagine death as a relatively welcome escape.

4) The Queen -- As much a statement about celebrity culture as an incisively imagined character study of the clannish British royal family and their big mama matriarch Queen Elizabeth, Stephen Frears and Helen Mirren in the title role prove an unbeatable combination.

5) Heading South -- Another devastating take on how Western greed and desire often blinds us to the world's cruelty, Charlotte Rampling and Karen Young lead a stunning ensemble cast in this tale of female sex tourists enjoying the firm young flesh of young Haitians in the early 1980s, but at an enormous moral cost.

6) Quinceañera -- An idiosyncratic coming-of-age set in the close-knit Latino community of Echo Park in Los Angeles, this Sundance favorite combines a realistic treatment of teenage sexual confusion along with an equally complex take on gentrification and an array of memorable characters.

7) The History Boys -- A plea for education for its own sake. This brilliantly articulate story adapted from Alan Bennett's play follows a group of working-class British schoolboys cramming for the exams that will allow them entrance into England's version of the Ivy League and the upper middle class. The film shows the misplaced values of education tailored to tests and upward mobility when it's enlightenment and expanded character we should be after.

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