Our critics' top 10 movies of 2006

The Baltimore Sun

For both critical and commercial success, the anthem for this year in movies was "Rule Britannia." Pictures with quality, "pull" or both often had an English accent.

For example, United 93 tells a quintessential American story of diversity, democracy and chaos. But it was filmed by a British director, Paul Greengrass, in England's Pinewood Studios. Working with little-known professionals and nonactors, Greengrass achieves a crackling Altman-esque mix of present-tense action and spontaneous epiphany. And Greengrass is just one of many British talents who've absorbed the lessons of American and international cinema and made British moviemakers beacons for the world.

During fall and winter, when American and international productions such as Flags of Our Fathers, Babel and The Good Shepherd showed up bloated with pretension and self-importance, the Brits provided gems such as The Queen, The History Boys and the coming Venus - compact comedy-dramas that do more for audiences by appearing to do less.

Cineastes and film schools used to denigrate British moviemakers for being overly dependent on writers and actors for their substance and effects. But movies from the 1948 Oliver Twist to the 1968 Oscar-winner Oliver!, made by those giants David Lean and Carol Reed (respectively), confirm what should be obvious: A command of language and theater only adds to the creative arsenal of born moviemakers.

At the climax of The Queen, Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) defends Queen Elizabeth (Helen Mirren) with an impassioned explosion at his Jacobin aides, who denounce her reticence in the public mourning of Princess Diana: "That woman has given her whole life in service to her people - 50 years doing a job she NEVER wanted - a job she watched kill her father. She's executed it with dignity, honour and, as far as I can tell, without a single blemish - and now we line up baying for her blood - why? Because she's struggling to lead the world in mourning for a woman who threw everything she offered back in her face, and who seemed, in the last few years, to be committed 24/7 to destroy everything she holds dear."

In Peter Morgan's published script, it's potent, in theaters even more so - you can hear the audience exhale a collective "oh!" when Sheen's Blair has his say. A movie that for over an hour condemns regal isolation ends up eliciting extraordinary sympathy for a dedicated monarch. This reversal resonates because director Stephen Frears shapes Mirren's and Sheen's work for close-ups that register as emotional seismographs and wider shots that capture the atmosphere surrounding the characters with subtlety, fullness and authority. And though Nicholas Hytner isn't the artist Frears is with a lens, The History Boys is full of similar tingling summary moments.

Still, what the Brits did this year goes beyond their traditional role of bringing originality and artistry to the traditional well-made film, as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger did with The Red Shoes (1948) and Lean with The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

The Anglo-American partnership behind Casino Royale, with British director Martin Campbell at the helm, demonstrated that intelligent decisions could revitalize a global-audience action franchise. Scrape away the complacency and gimmickry of the James Bond series, sprinkle in some up-to-date terrorist threats and hire the sensational, youngish Daniel Craig to portray Bond as a not-so-super-agent - and the resulting stew has zealots debating 007's flaws and virtues for the first time in decades (even if, at 144 minutes, Casino Royale is too much of a good thing).

Comic Sacha Baron Cohen conducted his own one-man British invasion, first in Will Ferrell's Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and then at the center of his own Borat. Cohen is the long-awaited heir to Peter Sellers: a creative wild man able to embody the most far-out figments of his comic imagination. His caricatures are so inspired and sustained they evoke reactions as complex as tragicomic figures of the stage or page - and in Borat, his one-of-a-kind comic documentary, he transforms real Americans into twin-edged foils.

Christopher Guest, though U.S.-born, is the son of Peter Haden-Guest, the fourth Baron of Saling in the County of Essex. A devotee of English comedy, he has followed in the multiple footsteps of British satiric-farce troupes such as Monty Python and Beyond the Fringe (which featured History Boys writer Alan Bennett) by organizing a big-screen improv-comic stock company, most recently for the underrated For Your Consideration (featuring, as always, the great Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey, Eugene Levy and Harry Shearer).

A stream of gifted British actors continues to replenish moviemaking on both sides of the Atlantic. Budding luminary James McAvoy, playing Ugandan dictator Idi Amin's risk-taking, sex-crazed Scottish doctor in The Last King of Scotland, provided the audience with crucial inroads to Forest Whitaker's multileveled characterization of the despot. (The movie's director, Kevin Macdonald, boasts a direct link to Britain's past movie glories, as Pressburger's grandson.) Recent stars such as Clive Owen (The Inside Man, Children of Men) and Kate Winslet (Little Children, The Holiday) continue to prove that careers based on artistic choice can pay off in fan as well as critical recognition in the short run - just as Peter O'Toole in Venus and Mirren in The Queen prove for the long run.

More important, all these directors, comics and actors seem to see their craft as the exercise of intelligence and emotion united by play. They're as brave and committed as our Method-saturated artists but less prone to self-indulgence. Their ability to improvise with discipline or to fill out a line with fresh behavior engages viewers at first sight and rewards re-viewing - and makes the very best of 2006 some of the best of all time.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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