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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.

8) Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? -- In a year of depressing documentary statements about politics, the economy and the environment, this wonderful film about a man of principles, teacher-turned-politician Jeff Smith running for outgoing Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt's seat affirmed that despite rampant corruption and laziness on the American political scene, there are still plenty of dreamers and visionaries out there.

9) Darwin's Nightmare -- Sure, global warming is a bitch. But Hubert Sauper's absolutely devastating documentary about the human toll our mercenary Western consumer demands place on the impoverished Third World was a smaller, below the radar study of what First World greed and disinterest has wrought in Africa.

10) Babel -- Overwrought and melodramatic yes. But despite its flaws, Mexican director Alejandro González Inárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams) study of a cross-cultural human tapestry divided by geographic and economic boundaries and unable to emotionally connect seemed to encapsulate the malaise that has made so many of us wonder if the human race is beyond repair.

'Let's Roll'

This year marked the first time that filmmakers directly dramatized the events of Sept. 11, with two films taking straight, seemingly apolitical approaches. Paul Greengrass' United 93 virtually placed audiences in the seats of the doomed aircraft, with its pseudo-documentary style and use of unknown actors (in some cases, actual air-traffic controllers and other participants). Oliver Stone's more bombastic and upbeat World Trade Center sought the silver lining in the tragedy by focusing on the ordeal of two New York Port Authority officers who survived the towers' collapse.

Despite United 93's impeccable taste and craftsmanship, however, neither film really challenges conventional thinking about the forces building up to and unleashed by Sept. 11.

Everything Old Is New Again

Atlanta's holy music-video trinity of director Bryan Barber and the duet of OutKast -- Andre 3000 and Big Boi -- set their sights on the silver screen with Idlewild. Barber updated the African-American-cast musicals of the 1930s and '40s with his unique visual approach, and OutKast supplied the genre-bending soundtrack.

Smoke and Mirrors

After several years of fiery political dramas inspired by American conflicts at home and abroad, filmmakers took sideways views of the national character. Thank You for Smoking's portrait of the tobacco lobby offered a hilarious portrait of "the yuppie Nuremberg defense" and the rationale that every cause, no matter how immoral, deserves representation. A looser and howlingly funny portrait of this nation emerged in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, with Sacha Baron Cohen's road movie finding humor in both the casual bigotry and saintly patience of ordinary Americans. Two imaginative mockumentaries made the most of low budgets, with CSA: Confederate States of America imagining race relations if the South had won the war, while Death of a President anticipated a George W. Bush assassination in 2007 (and suffered from poor taste and fuzzy themes). American Dreamz juxtaposed the war in Iraq with a thinly disguised "American Idol" and narrowly missed making a sharp point about zeitgeist. Will Ferrell's NASCAR spoof Talladega Nights stooped to even sillier gags, but included some undeniably pointed parodies of red-state attitudes toward gay people, the French, etc. Perhaps the year's most impressive satirist commanded the small screen, with Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" turning our political discourse inside out on a nightly basis.

And while Al Gore's global warming cautionary tale An Inconvenient Truth was the highest-profile documentary this year, there actually were a multitude of documentary and fiction films suggesting it is by voting with our wallets and seeing the connections between the consumer goods we buy and their effects on the world, that we can affect necessary change in the world.

Two remarkably similar films asked audiences to connect the dots between Western supermarkets and African suffering. Black Gold dealt with the global coffee trade and Darwin's Nightmare treated Africa's fishing trade. Both documentaries show how the simple act of ordering a Starbucks latte or cooking fish for dinner has devastating, unseen consequences for the Third World where so many of our products originate. In narrative form, films as diverse as Fast Food Nation exposed the ripple effects of American consumption.

Raking Over the Garden

Atlanta cinema lost a little of its character in October with the closing of Garden Hills Cinema, the 60-year-old, 375-seat movie house on Peachtree Road in Buckhead. Exhibitor George Lefont cited the difficulties of profitably maintaining a single-screen movie house in an era of commercial multiplexes. Atlanta still features several venues for art-house films, including United Artists Tara, Lefont Sandy Springs Parkside, Landmark Midtown Art Cinema and the historic Plaza Theatre (bought from Lefont by Jonathan and Gayle Rej earlier this year). Nevertheless, Garden Hills offered perhaps the most cozy and inviting environment of any cinema left in this city. Going to the movies won't be the same without it.

Indie Film Scene Musical Chairs

At the end of this year's Atlanta Film Festival, with the newly christened Festival Director Jake Jacobson out the door after less than a year and no executive director in place, the 31-year-old IMAGE Film and Video, like so many independent media centers across the country, appeared to be in trouble. Thankfully, a new executive director (Gabriel Wardell) was hired in September, and a new festival director (Dan Krovich) soon followed, stabilizing an important local film resource. Atlanta filmmakers also contributed to a feeling that the city was experiencing a promising indie-film rebirth. The anthology film The Signal, directed by Dave Bruckner, Jacob Gentry and Dan Bush, was chosen for the highly competitive 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Milt Thomas, another well-regarded local filmmaker, was tapped for his second Sundance honor after winning a coveted spot along with co-screenwriter Kristen Gorell at the Screenwriter's Lab workshop with a Director's Lab workshop spot to further develop his film Uncloudy Day.

She's Up ... She's Down ...

Nobody can appreciate the roller coaster ride of politics more than the pride of DeKalb County, Cynthia McKinney. Despite literally being the star of the show in the Sundance Film Festival favorite, director Ian Inaba's American Blackout, the U.S. representative was bounced from office by the electorate for the second time. (She lost in 2002, only to get back in in 2004.) The good news for McKinney, who stirred up still more controversy for striking a Capitol Hill police officer when he failed to recognize her entering the Capitol: '08 is only two years away.

American Blackout was released on DVD in early October.

Robert Altman, R.I.P.

As astounding American director whose rambling style and subversive content defined our national film character, Robert Altman worked up until the end, dying after five decades in the business, at age 81. Proving beyond a doubt that creativity was his lifeblood, despite suffering from cancer Altman had most recently created a typically layered ensemble piece, A Prairie Home Companion. His masterpieces were many -- M*A*S*H, Nashville, Gosford

Park, McCabe & Mrs. Miller -- but even his disappointments -- Cookie's Fortune, Dr. T & The Women -- only served to illuminate a man who took chances and had a desire to peek into a variety of subcultures, from the fashion trade to moneyed Southern suburbia, and whose identity was always wrapped up in the aura of a 1970 rebel bucking the Hollywood system. Long tracking shots, documentary-inspired naturalism and overlapping dialogue were all Altman trademarks, along with enormous ensemble casts. Though nominated five times, Altman never won an Academy Award though he did receive an Honorary Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2006.

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