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The 10 Best Scenes of 2006

Including Bond, Borat, and the moment that changed the world

There’s no “Letters from Iwo Jima” on this list. No “Notes from a Scandal” or “Pan’s Labyrinth” either. Not because I didn’t like these movies but because I haven’t seen them yet. In this, I’m probably like you. “Letters,” for example, is already out in select cities, but most of us aren’t select. Since distributors increasingly release the best movies of the year in a late-December pile-up, and only in select cities, these “best of...” lists read more and more like ads for upcoming products rather than the beginning of a discussion. And it’s only getting worse.

That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: Fantastic scenes are released year-round. (Well, maybe not in January.) There’s no particular theme on this list, but looking over it I am struck by the fact that, in this media age, in which politicians and TV news try to package life like a movie, it’s filmmakers like Clint Eastwood and Paul Greengrass who remind us: No, it’s not like a movie at all.

10. “I hear everything.”

The burden of being Superman in “Superman Returns.”
Nothing makes me feel like a kid again like Superman, and though “Superman Returns” wasn’t perfect, and could’ve been edited down, I admired the filmmakers’ decision to make the movie, not a reimagining of the myth (a la “Smallville” and “Casino Royale”), but a continuation of a 25-year-old movie series. At the same time they updated matters, and never more so than when Superman takes Lois for yet another ride around Metropolis. As they hover over the city he asks her what she’s hears. “Nothing,” she says. “I hear everything,” he responds. And that’s the key. The problem with Superman has always been: How do you find a credible villain? How do you create drama? He’s Superman: He should be able to defeat anyone. But perhaps the drama should be in his being Superman. In being able to hear everything. What a burden that must be. “Superman Returns” suggest this. Not enough, but, who knows, maybe that’s the direction the sequel will go. Either way, it’s good to have the big guy back. It’s good to feel like a kid again.

9. “         ”

Coach Bill Resler exhibits grace under pressure in “Heart of the Game”
“Heart of the Game” is an excellent documentary on five years in the life of the Roosevelt Roughriders high school girls basketball team, and most of it focuses on the rise, fall and rebirth of its star, Darnellia Russell. But earlier there’s a scene when the girls first make the state championship but lose in an early round. While opponents celebrate, the Roughriders stand stunned. One girl is completely prone, face down, under the basket, and her body begins to convulse with sobs. Suddenly the team’s coach, the portly, effervescent Bill Resler, comes sliding into the picture and lays next to her, talking for about five seconds; then he gets up and is gone. We’re never sure what he says. We don’t even know if it did any good. It’s the fact that he puts his body on the line in such an unselfconscious way. It’s less physical grace than...grace. In the process he gave the movies its most famous whisper since “Lost in Translation.”

8. “I’m sorry, kiddo. I’m sorry.”

Donald Sutherland shows us the meaning of aging in “Aurora Borealis.”
Full disclosure: The screenwriter for “Aurora Borealis” is a friend of a friend, but I think “Aurora” is on this list despite that fact not because of it. Overall, I wasn’t a big fan of the movie, yet one scene stuck. Duncan Shorter (Josh Jackson), in his mid-twenties and aimless, begins to spend more time with his ailing grandfather, Ronald (Donald Sutherland), who’s succumbing to both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. When he was a kid he helped out around his grandfather’s hardware store and was known as Grandpa’s little helper, and in an early scene, as the grandmother helps the grandfather to the bathroom, Duncan jokes, “That’s where Grandpa’s little helper draws the line.”

You know the theatrical truism about the gun introduced in the first act going off in the third? In the movie’s third act, Duncan is pushing his wheelchair-bound grandfather through the Mall of America, when suddenly, unrelentingly, Ronald has to go to the bathroom. They rush to find one, rush into the stall, but Ronald can no longer control his body — he’s shaking too violently — and, as urine is sprayed everywhere, Duncan has to lower his grandfather’s pants and, yes, help him aim. The shame Sutherland exhibits is heartbreaking as he apologizes over and over again. But then there’s a slight uptick. A joke. A retreat into humor, certainly, but necessary humor to make it all bearable. There’s no scene like it in movies. Hollywood never shows this stuff. But for many people, caretakers of their parents and grandparents, who will one day have to be taken care of themselves, no scene rings truer.

7. “Wish I could’ve seen their faces.”

Clint Eastwood dramatizes the undramatic in “Flags of our Fathers”
Allow me a rant. A week after “Flags of our Fathers” was released, a New York Times article suggested that the zeitgeist, which had once embraced Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” had passed by Clint Eastwood’s WWII effort. In 1998, they argued, we could watch war movies as escapist entertainment, but Eastwood’s “Flags” had the bad luck to show up three and a half years into the Iraq conflict. If Americans couldn’t be bothered to watch war on TV, why would they pay to watch it in movie theaters?

What this argument ignored is what each film is. Spielberg’s flick was a melodrama, ultimately designed to make us feel good (and we flock to those), while the point of Eastwood’s effort isn’t melodrama or even drama but lack of drama. It takes one of the most dramatic photographs of the 20th century — the flag planting by Marines atop Mount Seribachi on Iwo Jima — and reveals that it was planted during boredom.

I didn’t know this going in. I had always assumed the iconic photo was snapped with shells whizzing overhead. It wasn’t. I also assumed Eastwood would save the flag-planting for the end of the movie. He doesn’t. Halfway through, a flag is planted, which so moves a visiting politician that he demands that flag for his office. Now the Marines have to plant another one. Shuffling their feet, between yawns, they do — and cameras are clicked. And that’s the picture that takes the world by storm. The message Clint Eastwood was sending was this: The world isn’t what you think it is. Zeitgeist, indeed.

6. “Yes...considerably.”

James Bond reintroduces himself with the best chase scene of the year
At first I didn’t know that what I was watching actually had a name. I thought it was just an incredible chase scene through a construction site that borrowed heavily from Jackie Chan and Jet Li — the speed, the grace, incorporating nearby objects into the action — but it’s called parkour, and according to its page on Wikipedia, its goal is to “pass obstacles in the fastest and most direct manner possible.” It reminds some of an extreme sport, but there’s such grace involved that it’s also similar to a martial art. During the “Casino Royale” chase sequence, Daniel Craig proves himself the most physical 007 ever (and in the movie he proves himself one of the best Bonds ever), but it’s the guy he was chasing who stunned. “Wow,” I kept thinking. “Wow wow wow.” That guy, Sebastien Foucan, is one of parkour’s most famous practitioners. His hitting-the-ground-running fluidity was truly beautiful to watch. Bond may have caught him, but he caught us. Hopefully we’ll see more of him. Maybe, next time, as the chaser?

5. “And I’m telling you...”

Jennifer Hudson brings audiences to their feet in “Dreamgirls.”
There was only one time this year when the audience I was in broke into spontaneous applause and cheers in the middle of the film. Hell, some people stood up. A standing ovation? In the middle of a movie? In Minneapolis? But that’s the power of this actress, this singer, this song and this scene. Jennifer Hudson plays Effie, the lead singer of the Dreammettes, then the Dreams, and then, suddenly, she’s no longer lead singer. Her manager and lover shunts her aside for the svelter, prettier, Deena (Beyonce), and, being Effie, she doesn’t take it well. Eventually she’s dumped — by both the group and her man. And this is her response. It’s heartbreaking —singing “I’m not going to leave you” to an empty room — but it’s still bold and defiant. Hence the power. Hence the ovation. I never saw Jennifer Holliday’s Tony-award performance in the same role, but Jennifer Hudson? She belts it out of the park.

4. “My moustache still taste of your testes.”

Borat and Azamat perform the first 69 in a mainstream film
Sacha Baron Cohen is fearless. During the course of this fake documentary about a fake Kazhakstani reporter, Borat (Cohen), traveling across America to “Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazhakstan,” he: 1) tries to kiss subway-riding New Yorkers, 2) tells a room full of feminists that women have smaller brains than men, 3) tells a good ol’ boy rodeo crowd that their nation is run by little girls, and 4) brings a bag of shit to a gentile Southern dinner table. And that’s just in the first half of the film. The Pamela Anderson stuff at the end is equally, crazily fearless, but nothing — nothing — prepared me for Borat and his beyond-large producer, Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian), getting into a naked fight in their hotel room during which they unwittingly assume some of our more popular sexual positions. Cohen, being Cohen, doesn’t stop there either. He takes the fight out into the hallway...and into the elevator...and into the middle of...what was it again?...a banker’s convention? Now that’s commitment. It’s also one of the funniest moments of the year.

3. “It’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”

“The History Boys” suggests the possibilities of life
This movie snuck up on me. It’s coming-of-age stuff: boys school, Britain, early ‘80s. The boys are gunning for Cambridge or Oxford and the headmaster brings in a new teacher, Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), to help them prepare. In a sense the new guy is preparing them for careers, while their beloved professor, Hector (Richard Griffiths), is helping them prepare for everything but a career. A conflict of teaching styles is thus set up, but the full battle is never engaged. The styles co-exist, and both teachers are sympathetic — Irwin maybe more so, since Hector is a bit of a pedophile, feeling up the boys on motorbike rides home. It’s an offense for which he’ll lose his job, but the film does not judge. The version of life it presents makes our own (or my own anyway) feel rigid. It’s as if I’ve always felt myself a noun, surrounded by nouns, and the film is suggesting, whispering, that we’re all just verbs. This is especially true in the final scene, in which the boys, still boys, talk about where they are now. There’s such melancholy in it. It’s the melancholy of choices made, and possibilities narrowed. Maybe it’s the melancholy of verbs becoming nouns: tax attorney; teacher; real estate developer; dead. I sat in the theater as the credits rolled, wanting to hold onto the spell the movie cast over me.

2. “Dwayne, this is the voice of experience talking. Are you listening?”

Alan Arkin gives Paul Dano the best life advice ever in “Little Miss Sunshine”
I wasn’t a huge fan of the indie hit of the summer. The story of a dysfunctional family’s journey across the southwestern United States — in which, one by one, everyone loses what small dreams they’re clinging to — seemed as unbelievable in its own way as any studio product. A heroin-snorting, porn-reading Grandpa? A teenager whose sullenness has veered into monklike silence? A gay, suicidal Proust scholar? A failed motivational speaker? All in one dilapidated van? If Hollywood films keep tossing up people we wish we were, independents keep tossing up people we’re glad we’re not.

But then Grandpa (Alan Arkin) gives some life advice to his sullen grandson Dwayne (Paul Dano). He starts out traditionally. He says: “I don’t want you making the same mistakes I made when I was young.” Since Dwayne is so screwed up, you wonder what possible advice he could give. And then it comes: “Fuck a lot of women, Dwayne. Not just one woman. A lot of women.” God, did I laugh. There’s another great scene later in the movie between Grandpa and Olive in the motel room (“...and it’s not because of your brains or personality”), but this is the scene that saved the movie for me. Maybe Dwayne even listened.

1. “Look how fast he’s going... Oh my god.”

Paul Greengrass humanizes the moment that changed the world in “United 93.”
Back in August, when I first suggested that “United 93” should be nominated for a best picture Oscar, I felt on a quixotic quest. The film had been released in April to good reviews and mild controversy. “Was it too early?” newscasters asked. “Should Hollywood profit from this tragedy?” they asked again. These were the wrong questions. “Is it a good film?” is all that matters. But the wrong questions sunk in. Despite great reviews, the box office was lukewarm and the film was gone by the Fourth of July. Meanwhile, Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” was getting attention and magazine covers. When I mentioned “United 93” some people actually confused it with “Flight 93,” a TV movie.

But apparently I wasn’t the only one affected by the power of director Paul Greengrass’ documentary-style vision. Film critic groups in New York and Washington, D.C. (no coincidence: the target cities that day) have declared it the best picture of the year.

This is the scene that stuns us all over again. Flight 11 has already crashed into the North tower, and a New York air traffic controller tries to contact yet another hijacked flight: “United 175 New York, United 175... This guy’s dropping like a manhole cover now, Paul.” The flight goes off the radar and we cut to the men at Newark Tower, who search for a visual. They get one. “There he is, over the Verrazano Bridge...Oh my god.” Then the television shot we all know. If the reactions from the people at the commands centers in Rome, NY, and Herndon, Va., are familiar, it’s because they’re ours: stunned silence and invocations of God. Greengrass is smart enough to hold on the moment. He’s smart enough to kill the music. Then slowly, as we cut from one horrified reaction shot to another, a sliver of music picks up: A kind of dawning realization of what this might mean. The sliver of music gets more disconcerting as Greengrass focuses on Major Nasypany (Patrick St. Espirit), who snaps his people, and us, awake again. “Shawna, what do you got? What do you got, Shawna?” The repetition is necessary. There’s work to be done. More than ever, there’s work to be done.

—Erik Lundegaard needed Alan Arkin around when he was a sullen teenager. This piece was originally published on MSNBC.com.