2006: The Box Office Strikes Back
by Scott Mantz

It wasn’t that long ago that pundits throughout the entertainment industry were clamoring about a potentially seismic shift in the habits of moviegoers – a shift that threatened the very foundation of the movie business itself.  Thanks to rising ticket prices, the Internet and the appeal of hi-tech home entertainment systems, the general consensus was that moviegoers would rather stay at home than fight the crowds, expensive concessions and ringing cell phones that made going to the cineplexes such an unpleasant experience.  It didn’t help that the movies they were fighting to see weren’t even that good to begin with.

But after a lackluster 2005, when receipts and admissions were at their lowest point in years, the box office struck back with a vengeance in 2006 (up 4.9% to $9.4 billion), and all that doom and gloom suddenly disappeared (at least, for now).  The movie business was alive and well, thank you very much – despite the fact that the movies still weren’t all that good.  For proof of that, look no further than “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.”  Though panned by critics, the high profile sequel grossed a huge $423 million, making it the biggest movie of the year.  The same can be said about another critically derided summer blockbuster, “The Da Vinci Code,” which came in fourth place with $218 million.

And that brings me to my point: with so many successful movies defying the universal thumbs-down, one has to wonder, do critics even matter anymore?

That may be a loaded question, but one thing’s for sure – the role of the critic has definitely changed.  Gone are the days when film scholars like The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael had enough of an influence on her readers to affect the overall success or failure of a film.  These days, it doesn’t really matter what the critics – and there are many of them – think.  People need something to do, and taking their loved ones to state-of-the-art theaters is, while expensive, still more affordable than most other forms of entertainment.

And thanks to the Internet – and especially databases like Rottentomatoes.com – they can later go online to see if other critics shared their views.  Because no matter what, people love to talk about movies, and they like to read about them too.  So while reviews may no longer carry the influential weight they once had, people can still read them to justify – and maybe even help formulate – their own opinions.

With that in mind, it turns out that there were a lot of good movies to be found in 2006.  So here are some of my favorites – coming from a critic who, hopefully, still matters to some of you.

1) “Little Miss Sunshine”
Talk about a “little” movie that everyone could relate to!  A crowd-pleaser when it was acquired at Sundance for a record-breaking $10.5 million, the dysfunctional family dramedy played well for months and grossed almost $60 million, thanks to the best marketing tool a studio exec could ask for – strong word-of-mouth.  Touching, poignant and very funny, “Little Miss Sunshine” is an instant classic that makes you smile.
2) “The Departed”
Legendary director Martin Scorsese relocated the Asian setting of 2002’s “Infernal Affairs” to the world of Boston’s Irish mob, and the result was an immensely entertaining return to form.  Thanks to well-staged suspense, a crackling screenplay and terrific performances from Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson, Scorsese delivered his best film since 1990’s “Goodfellas.”
3) “Children of Men”
It’s rare for a movie to be relevant, provocative and entertaining, but “Children of Men” is all of those things, and then some.  The latest from visionary director Alfonso Cuarón is more than just a violent, intense, haunting, beautifully shot sci-fi thriller that stands alongside “Blade Runner” as one of the best of the genre.  It’s also a cautionary tale that will permanently resonate as a wake-up call to save the future, before it’s too late.
4) “Letters from Iwo Jima”
The second of Clint Eastwood’s epics about the battle of Iwo Jima shows the bloody conflict from the Japanese point of view.  The straightforward drama depicts how the outnumbered Imperial defense forces carried out their doomed mission from the perspective of a culture that’s very different from our own in some ways, yet hauntingly familiar in others.  It’s a spectacular film in its own right, but it’s even more powerful when viewed alongside…
5) “Flags of Our Fathers”
Eastwood’s other Iwo Jima epic, which showed the battle from the American perspective, was more ambitious and complex than its sister film.  In a challenging, non-linear format, “Flags” exposed the devastating effects of heroism, which turned out to be more of a curse than a gift to the surviving American flag-raisers on Mount Suribachi.  Released within two months of each other, “Flags” and “Letters” both proved that the 76-year-old Eastwood isn’t getting older, he’s getting better.
6) “The Queen”
The knee-jerk reaction might be to praise the film based solely on Helen Mirren’s phenomenal portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II, who was closed off from her grieving people during the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death in 1997.  But the latest from director Stephen Frears is much more than that, thanks to an equally impressive performance from Michael Sheen as Prime Minister Tony Blair and a terrific screenplay that takes you behind the closed doors of the Monarchy during that fateful week.  As for Mirren, the Academy Award for Best Actress is hers to beat.
7) “Dreamgirls”
Twenty-five years after taking Broadway by storm, “Dreamgirls” made a supreme transition to the big screen.  Writer-director Bill Condon’s energetic, entertaining, electrifying adaptation of Michael Bennett’s stage show stands alongside “Chicago” as one of the best movie musicals in recent years, while Eddie Murphy and newcomer Jennifer Hudson gave spectacular supporting performances that brought the house down.
8) “The Descent”
Anyone who thinks that today’s blood-splattered horror movies keep re-hashing and re-cutting the same-old-same-old have never seen “The Descent.”  Yes, it’s loaded with gore just like the rest of them, but what really makes it stand out is director Neil Marshall’s penchant for maintaining terrifying suspense from start to finish.  Not for the faint-of-heart, but if yours can take the beating, then brace yourself for a masterpiece of modern horror.
9) “An Inconvenient Truth”
I still can’t decide what I liked better about this fascinating documentary – the convincing argument that former Vice-President Al Gore made about the life-threatening effects of global warming, or the easygoing, inspiring, passionate personality he displayed while stating his case.  Yes, our planet is in deep trouble, and we better do something about it now to change that, or we’re screwed.  But where the heck was this guy back in 2000?  If he was this enthusiastic during his run for the presidency, things might have been different.
10) “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan”
Wawaweewah!  What better way to close out the Top 10 than with the year’s most controversial comedy?  By posing as a clueless journalist from Kazakhstan on a road trip across America, comedian Sacha Baron Cohen inadvertently exposed the racism and bigotry that still run rampant throughout the country.  But the film was also downright hysterical, which made it one of the rare comedies in movie history that actually had something to say.