Keep your eyes off the prize

There was a rich feast on offer - but the top Oscar went to the wrong film

How you regard 2006 in cinema depends largely on whether you think of your bucket of popcorn as being half empty or half full. The year started, as usual, with the Oscar for Best Motion Picture going to the wrong film. And it ended with the death of Robert Altman, the most adventurous American director of the past 40 years (his final film, A Prairie Home Companion, will be released on 5 January). That's about as half empty as it gets. On the other hand, Tom Cruise was finally shown the door by the head of Paramount, who accused the star of being "embarrassing", "costing us a lot of money" and "having a gormless smile" (OK, I made the last one up). So it wasn't all doom and gloom.

It would be overstating the case to say that the Academy Awards ceremony was the Hollywood equivalent of Al Gore's defeat in the 2000 Florida elections. All that happened, after all, was that one of the best American films in recent memory (Brokeback Mountain) lost out to one of the worst (Crash). Brokeback Mountain demanded something of its audience: it unspooled at a lolling pace and asked for our engagement with its sometimes unsympathetic gay hero. Crash, on the other hand, flattered viewers into believing that they had helped make the world a better place simply by watching this tale of racial tensions in LA. Serious film-making has no business encouraging such complacency. Whether or not you were engaged by the global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth, or by Offside, Jafar Panahi's football comedy-with-a-kick, at least those films displayed a faith in cinema's capacity to effect change.

The viewing choices made by British audiences were often surprisingly daring. It would have been nice if this had been the only country to turn its back on The Da Vinci Code and Pirates of the Caribbean: dead man's chest, or to snub the depressing trend of horror sequels and remakes - but let's not expect miracles. Michael Haneke's intractable Hidden, a mystery without a solution, was one of the year's more heartening successes, and I say that as someone who wasn't taken with its tone, which left the viewer feeling admonished. But it joined the elite club of foreign-language films that have grossed more than £1m. And the heated discussions it prompted in cinema foyers suggested a throwback to the days when people were forever challenging one another to duels over the meaning of Last Year in Marienbad.

Another unexpected hit was The Squid and the Whale, in which the divorce of a New York literary couple is seen through the eyes of their wounded children. In a year that brought Match Point, another nail in the coffin of Woody Allen's reputation, The Squid and the Whale delivered a pure fix of the kind of urbane, scathing wit that once came so readily to him. Thanks to its young hero, whose overactive hormones turned the Dewey decimal system into the Gooey decimal system, it also ensured that you'll never pick up another library book unless you're wearing Marigolds.

Allen wasn't the only notable director to make a film unworthy of his reputation. There were steep declines, too, for Martin Scorsese (The Departed), Pedro Almodóvar (Volver) and Ken Loach, who won the Palme d'Or at Cannes for The Wind That Shakes the Barley, demonstrating that it's not only the Oscars which reward the wrong films. Even Pixar, the computer animation studio, released its first dud in the shape of Cars. In a pleasant twist, the most exceptional films came from relatively new directors. Romania's Cristi Puiu had made only one picture before The Death of Mister Lazarescu, but this brilliant documentary-style black comedy, with one man and a paramedic combing Bucharest in search of basic medical care, was a fully formed masterpiece. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, another odyssey with morbid preoccupations, was also impressive. Tommy Lee Jones is a wonderful actor, but this, his second outing as a director, was confident enough to make you say: do give up the day job.

First-timers were responsible for the most startling surprises. Phil Morrison's Junebug was a tasty fish-out-of-water comedy about a Chicago art dealer staying with her husband's folks in the Deep South; you could feel the director's affection for his characters coming off the screen in waves. And there was no need to sound the usual knell for British cinema. After we'd waited years for a suspenseful home-grown thriller, two came along at once, released within a month of each other. Andrea Arnold's Red Road and Paul Andrew Williams's London to Brighton lifted the spirits of anyone who felt passionately about cinema, even as the characters plumbed the depths of human behaviour.

Perhaps 2006 will be remembered as the year in which cinema tackled 9/11 head-on. Oliver Stone's World Trade Center was so soulless, it could have been made by a computer. But I was impressed by the way Paul Greengrass's United 93 brought the events of that day to forceful, dramatic life - even if some felt it flew too close to US propaganda for comfort.

The hope for coming years is that film-makers will turn their attention to the fallout from 9/11 in other areas of the world, and long after 2001. And that the Oscar will go to a decent film. Well, we can dream.

Christmas picks

It's Winter (12A)
dir: Rafi Pitts
Heartbreaking Iranian drama that pits love against poverty.

London to Brighton (18)
dir: Paul Andrew Williams
Don't expect to have any fingernails left at the end of this tense thriller.

The Wizard of Oz (U)
dir: Victor Fleming
Become a friend of Dorothy with this good-as-new re-release.

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