The Devil Wears Prada
The summer’s frothiest treat features surprisingly sharp class commentary and a delicious lead performance by the infallible Ms. Streep. It’s one of the rare stories that improves in quality from the page to the screen (Lauren Weisberger’s unnecessarily catty 2003 bestseller will be best remembered for inspiring this film). As Streep’s brittle, anorexic assistant, Emily Blunt gives the year’s breakout performance, and Stanley Tucci locates the heart of the story in underappreciated editor Nigel. Prada is also notable for the year’s best line: Streep’s sub-arctic “The details of your incompetence do not interest me.”
An Inconvenient Truth
As a work of art, it’s pretty much a glorified PowerPoint presentation, but damn—who knew Al Gore had this much charisma? The would-be President scares the hell out of any thinking person and completely overhauls his image in the process (thanks to humanizing segments about his sister’s battle with cancer battle and his son’s brush with death). The achingly earnest Melissa Etheridge song over the closing credits is a bit much, but for the most part, director Davis Guggenheim’s documentary is a model of restraint—and the perfect message for our Super-Sized nation. This ought to be required viewing in every elementary school science classroom.
Dave Chappelle’s Block Party
Erykah Badu! Talib Kweli! The Roots! The (reunited) Fugees! On the strength of its musical performances alone, Block Party deserves a spot among the year’s best, but Chappelle pulled off what absolutely no one expected him to do: He created an honestly affecting portrait of small-town Ohio and the decency of ordinary folks. United 93 may have gotten all of the press, but in its own quiet way, Chappelle’s film is just as much about everyday acts of heroism. If abandoning his tired sketch show is what it took to rediscover his humanity, Chappelle should have no regrets.
Little Miss Sunshine
The year’s most celebrated quasi-indie film doesn’t have a weak link in its cast (not even Toni Collette, stuck in a thankless role as long-suffering mom Sheryl). As suicidal Uncle Frank, Steve Carell recaptures the squirmy humanity he found as the 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Alan Arkin angles for a late-career Oscar nomination with the confidence of a veteran of his craft. Greg Kinnear and Paul Dano do some of their best work without words, and Abigail Breslin is a revelation as seven-year-old pageant hopeful Olive Hoover. You can just imagine Dakota Fanning looking over her shoulder and muttering, “Who does this bitch think she is?”
John Cameron Mitchell’s porno-tastic sophomore (but not sophomoric) feature is 2006’s biggest triumph. Armed with a shockingly strong cast of unknowns—many of whom improvised their own lines—it’s an unapologetic, bracingly original examination of the queer counterculture Mitchell helped create with his own Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The most scandalous part about the film’s graphic sex is how innocent it all feels. One character describes the group’s vibe as “like the ’60s—but with less hope.” But Mitchell’s film gives us reason to hope again, for the state of cinema if not for the state of the world.