Jonathan Romney: Of raw hides and hot mamas

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The damnedest thing about these December round-ups is that some films seem to have been around a lot longer than a year. Can Michael Haneke's Hidden and Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain really be films of 2006? Only just. Released in January, both figured in some lists of 2005. But they instantly impressed the public imagination as epoch-defining. As well as being a great landscape film, Brokeback Mountain was the first mainstream movie to come out about what cowpokes really get up to on those lonesome campfire nights. Hidden scored an equally startling breakthrough. It was an unashamedly philosophical, downright difficult puzzler about the way we live, think and see in the West today, yet it became an international art-house hit. It will launch a thousand PhD theses, but its complexity will remain intact.

For sheer invention and audacity, Guillermo del Toro's historical fantasy Pan's Labyrinth was one of the pleasures of the year. But for me, the film that offered the most surprising variation on genre material - though it took me two viewings to fully appreciate it - was Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men, which covered some familiar dystopian sci-fi terrain, but broke much new ground besides. It was certainly the year's most stunningly directed film; get the DVD and study the four-minute, single-take, in-car sequence about 40 minutes in. You'll gasp.

Reality, especially very recent reality, had a major on-screen resurgence. While Oliver Stone's 9/11 film World Trade Center was the expected pious folly, Paul Greengrass's passionate, serious, painfully vivid United 93 evoked a less-publicised drama of that day, to nerve-shattering effect. In a strong year for political cinema, Syriana was a sleek, intelligent attempt to "do" geopolitics as a multi-strand spy story. And Ken Loach's Cannes winner The Wind That Shook the Barley was not only his most provocative film for some time, but also his most furiously cinematic: modern history with an unexpected edge of heroic balladry.

Before I go on enthusing, my fundamentally glum disposition compels me to muse on the year's indignities. Fortunately, I don't see every film released, so I couldn't honestly say which high-school mutilation sequel really scraped the bottom of the gutbucket. But of the teeth-grinders I endured, there was little to beat the soporific pomposity of The Da Vinci Code; the art-house earnestness of posthumous Kieslowski warm-over Hell, and the sheer futility of Atomised, which turned Michel Houellebecq's quintessentially French misery into something soft, sour-sweet and German. But if you'll forgive me for being obvious, the year's nonpareil clunker was M Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water, a spectacularly soggy career-dampener (and even that was marginally less self-important than Shyamalan's American Express ad, a YouTube favourite).

On the plus side, there were some promising new names. From the US, there was Rian Johnson's loopy, glossary-bending Brick, Noah Baumbach's cruelly droll family snapshot The Squid and the Whale, and a new name behind the camera of the Peckinpah-esque The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada: that Tommy Lee Jones should go far. From Iran came Rafi Pitts with his chilly parable It's Winter; from Germany, Hans-Christian Schmid with the intense exorcism drama Requiem; and best British discovery was Andrea Arnold, whose Red Road was a steely statement of intent.

Most Misunderstood Film was Marie Antoinette, which many dismissed as glossy, trivial, historically inaccurate. Well, yes, but what did they expect? Even so, Sofia Coppola has a fine-tuned aesthete's ear for a chandelier's distant clink - see the film as a tragic panto, and it makes perfect sense. As for Most Underrated, among the gems that passed under the radar were the barmy Princess Raccoon by octogenarian wizard Seijun Suzuki; Danish lowlife thriller Pusher III; and from the UK, Penny Woolcock's anarchic Mischief Night, which offered a taboo-confronting state-of-the-nation report in the guise of populist farce.

Comebacks of the Year: Martin Scorsese, who benefited from a dip back into chilly genre waters with The Departed; and Werner Herzog, whose documentary Grizzly Man, about hapless bear-hugger Timothy Treadwell, was a close-up of man's idiot incapacity in the face of nature's furry fury.

Among the best performances: Penélope Cruz as the mother of all mothers in Almodóvar's Volver; Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote (so-so film, but can't fault the big guy); Damian Lewis for his unravelling loner in Lodge Kerrigan's Keane; and Charlotte Rampling, terrifying in the confused Lemming, commanding, cerebral and poignant in Laurent Cantet's superb Heading South. And hats off to the year's only example of acting as a performance-art endurance project: Sacha Baron Cohen's sustained Kazakh attack.

You wouldn't have thought there was time for further surprises, but here's a last-minute curveball released this week: Into Great Silence, a 162-minute portrait of Trappists in an Alpine monastery. The title does not deceive: the few words spoken barely rise over a distracted mutter. With the contemplative solemnity of a Gerhard Richter painting, and the unearthliness of Herzog in his heyday, the film tells you nothing concrete about these men's reasons for withdrawing from the world, but it doesn't need to: attuned to their own time scheme, they come across as radical refuseniks. Philip Gröning's film is philosophical, yes, mystical perhaps, but in no way pious. If you crave a post-festive detox, this is a must. Just try not to rustle your sweet wrappers.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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