Compiled with commentary by Scott Tobias

Last year, the Inaugural A.V. Club Film Poll was topped by David Cronenberg's A History Of Violence and filled out by several staff favorites such as Grizzly Man, Brokeback Mountain, The Squid And The Whale, and Oldboy. Based on those selections and the number of insightful comments that were submitted on the year in film, we could only come to the following conclusion: Our readers are a lot like us, only we're lucky enough to get paid. With a few notable exceptions, this year's film poll mirrored our critics' consensus Top 10 list to a remarkable degree, with each of the top six films appearing on both polls, including the same #1 and #2. Before I elaborate on the results, here's how the 96 ballots broke down:

1. Children Of Men (dir. Alfonso Cuaron) (238.5 pts., 63 ballots)

2. The Departed (dir. Martin Scorsese) 176 pts., 49 ballots)

3. The Prestige (dir. Christopher Nolan) (88 pts., 28 ballots)

4. Pan's Labyrinth (dir. Guillermo Del Toro) (85 pts., 25 ballots)

5. Brick (dir. Rian Johnson) (84 pts., 25 ballots)

6. United 93 (dir. Paul Greengrass) (74.5 pts., 22 ballots)

7. Borat (dir. Larry Charles) (57 pts., 26 ballots)

8. The Fountain (dir. Darren Aronofsky) (49 pts., 15 ballots)

9. Little Miss Sunshine (dir. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris) (42 pts., 19 ballots)

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10. The Science Of Sleep (dir. Michel Gondry) (36 pts., 11 ballots)

Others receiving significant points (in alphabetical order): Casino Royale, Dave Chappelle's Block Party, The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu, Idiocracy, Letters From Iwo Jima, A Prairie Home Companion, The Queen, A Scanner Darkly, Shortbus, Stranger Than Fiction, Volver

Considering that it's gotten little acknowledgement from any critics or awards-giving body, save for its extraordinary technical achievement, Children Of Men's resounding victory counts as a gratifying surprise at the top. Not only was it the runaway winner in terms of ballot and point totals, but it also inspired the most passionate support of any film on the list, with each voter allotting it an average of 3.79 points. It seems all the more remarkable (and shameful) how tepidly the film was promoted and received next to other end-of-the-year prize ponies, but in the alternate universe that is The A.V. Club, it's clearly a commanding favorite.

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The other big surprises, to my mind, were The Fountain and The Science Of Sleep, both fantastical ventures that received mixed reviews and petered out quickly at the box office. It helps that their respective directors, Darren Aronofsky and Michel Gondry, each enjoy a significant cult following and it's obvious that a good chunk of them responded to two unmistakably personal visions. One man's folly is another man's masterpiece, it would seem.

Before moving on to the heart of the poll, a few more notes: Of the honorable mentions, Shortbus, A Prairie Home Companion, and A Scanner Darkly received the most points, and would have tied at #11, if we chose to go the Spinal Tap route. Though we tried to give readers plenty of time to catch up with end-of-the-year releases, it should be noted that Pan's Labyrinth performed best on later ballots, which leads me to believe that it would have finished a comfortable third had it rolled out earlier in 2006. This year, a majority of the ballots came with extensive comments, which it made it very hard to choose which ones to fill out this piece; special thanks to everyone who took the time to offer their thoughts and apologies to those who didn't make a very difficult cut.

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On The Winners

Thanks to blockbuster franchises like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, as well as hit TV shows like Lost and Heroes, science fiction and fantasy are steadily climbing out of their niche markets and becoming part of mainstream culture. At the same time, a solid block of the general public still views genre films as kids' stuff, movies that offer escapism but little more. So it's only appropriate that the two most politically relevant and socially conscious movies of the year happen to be genre pictures. Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth is a potent and deeply emotional argument against blind obedience that's framed as a gothic fairy tale. It also features one of the most fully realized fantasy universes I've ever encountered in a film and one of the few that feels as if it could exist right alongside the real world. Meanwhile, Alfonso Cuaron's haunting sci-fi drama Children of Men offers the most convincing depiction of a dystopian future since Blade Runner. The film has won well-deserved raves for its technical brilliance—those dazzling tracking shots will be studied in film schools for decades to come—but its message of hope in the face of absolute despair is as stirring as the visuals. Together, Pan's Labyrinth and Children of Men represent a new standard for genre movies and filmmaking in general. —Ethan Alter

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What made Children of Men so very terrifying and real to me is that it wasn't just dystopia—it was true dystopia that only appears 20 years off, if we keep going the way we're going. I know it's never fully explained why women stopped being able to have babies, but the way we treat the environment, the way we wage war, the horrific ways we as a society treat each other and our planet were all fully realized. —Stephanie Kuenn, Chicago, IL

The Departed: The study in contrasts doesn't just stop at Damon and DiCaprio. Martin Scorsese's direction is the loosest it's been all decade; meanwhile, the screenplay—a master class in the art of adaptation—is so tight you could spend all day bouncing Sacajaweas off it. Join the two together and you get the most viscerally satisfying entertainment of the year. "How's your mother?" "Good. Still tired from fucking my father." —Steve Carlson

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United 93: Paul Greengrass did us the inestimable favor of looking objectively at the root of our sorrow and the public at large thanked him by cynically dismissing it as Hollywood crassness. (Paging Mr. Stone.) Those who did see it, though, not only walked out with a healthier perspective on that moment in our history but also having seen a peerless, visceral thriller intensified by (but not manipulative of) the deep emotions we've all had kicking around our heads and hearts for the past five years. I wouldn't press it on anyone who genuinely feels it's too soon for them to experience it, but otherwise it's essential viewing, and I'm confident that over time it will be recognized as such. —Nick Huinker, Knoxville, TN

United 93: Like the best art, United 93 is challenging, difficult, and compelling. It offers no answers, no resolution, and no release. But it is a haunting reminder of what happened that day, and more importantly, what it felt like to live through that day, a reminder that is more necessary than one might imagine, as our feelings of the situation have been numbed and hardened after years of exploitation of the event by our media, corporations, and politicians. —Andy Sayers, Calgary, Alberta

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United 93: For all the focus on the depiction of the doomed plane, it's the scenes on the ground that slew me, as the helpless observers tried to figure out what the hell was going on that morning.  A great movie can make viewers understand how it feels to be a different person in a different time, but United 93 reminds me with unflinching honesty how I myself felt that day. —Joe Arsenault, Toronto, Ontario

Brick: For the social outcast, high school is a lot like a Raymond Chandler novel: nobody likes a smart ass, all the pretty girls are doing something you don't understand, and you get beat up a lot. So it's funny that it took so long for someone to actually make the metaphor literal, and it's a relief that it was done with such a clear understanding of the grim realities of both worlds. The dialogue pops, and director Rian Johnson manages to get just the right amount of play out of the absurdity of the situation; but the last few moments gut you fierce, as they should. It's a perfect conclusion to a terrific flick: a knife in the stomach to remind you that nothing hurt quite like the moment you realized you were never going to be as old as you needed to be. —Zack "Marlowe" Handlen, Lewiston, ME

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It's noir set in a high school! Listen to that hard-boiled dialogue! Most reviews of Rian Johnson's Brick came down to variations on these themes, and not for bad reason. Yes, Brick is a film noir—complete with slangy, speedy dialogue, murder, femmes fatale, and plot twists—transplanted to the world of high school. And yes, that's awesome. But it's not the end of the story. Some reviews caught on to the significance of the high school setting, where each emotion is outsized and every bit of drama feels like a life-or-death situation. But even these reviews tended to miss the bruised, beating heart beneath the film-school cleverness of the set-up. In Johnson's story and wide, empty compositions—as well as in Joseph Gordon-Levitt's astonishing performance—lies a deep sadness specifically attuned to the worlds of both high school and film noir. Gordon-Levitt's Brendan is two types: the cold, distant hero of noir and the ultra-smart loner of high school (he "eats alone" in more ways than one). Throughout the course of the film, Brendan's solitude helps him solve the case, but he loses everything in the process. In this sense, Brick functions as a sly and intensely moving deconstruction of noir tropes. This is no celebration of Humphrey Bogart's "cool" stoicism; it's an elegy for lost souls. —Matt Noller, Athens, GA

Brick fits with 2004's Primer in the heartening category of improbably masterful low-budget debuts by intelligent young filmmakers who came out of freakin' nowhere. Like the earlier film, Rian Johnson's brilliant combo of noir romances and teen films utilizes jargon-filled dialogue, intricate plotting, and minimal exposition to keep itself one or two (or eight) steps ahead of the viewer throughout, which seems like a very noble goal in these days of spoon-feeding. And while the film's concept may seem silly (picture the pitch: "Guys, it's gonna be like The Maltese Falcon meets The Breakfest Club. How awesome is that?"), Johnson wisely takes it dead seriously. If we can expect a fully-formed filmmaker like Carruth or Johnson miraculously appearing out of thin air once every couple of years, with a debut this clever and powerful, then yes, there's still a lot of hope for cinema. Otherwise, it'll just sit there and bleed at us. —Luis Calil, Brazil

The Prestige: Is there an actor alive that does obsession as well as Christian Bale? His standard expression looks like he's just getting his eyes set before he burns your face off. Between this movie and Batman Begins, director Christopher Nolan has found what might be the perfect muse for his fixated protagonists; and while Bale is just one part of an excellent overall cast, his stare seems to linger over the move entire as a constant reminder of the lengths and depths a person can go. The magic trick structure is quite lovely, and does what so many "twist ending" movies fail to; it enriches the two hours it took you to get to it, as opposed to turning everything you've seen before into a sort of elaborate, pointless joke. But what really sticks with me are those final moments, when the nature of the obsessions of both Bale and Hugh Jackman are revealed, and we realize there are no lines and no limits; just the barriers we erect in our lives in the hope of holding on to our souls. —Zack Handlen

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All of the great movies hold up to multiple viewings, but Christopher Nolan's The Prestige practically demands it. In fact, watching the film twice is like watching one performance each by its two principal characters. The first viewing is like an Angier performance—you groove on the showmanship and the presentation, but you're not sure how much substance is there. The second viewing, however, is pure Borden, in that you really see how intricate and thought-out the film is, which of course makes it all the more entertaining. In the end, The Prestige deals with men who would sacrifice everything (love, body parts, even their lives) for their passions, and more than that, the fallout that occurs when two of these men are at odds with each other—not just Borden vs. Angier, but also Nikola Tesla vs. Thomas Edison. Plus it's just a ripping yarn with the cleverest screenplay to come along since Nolan's breakout film, Memento.  For my money, The Prestige is even better. —Paul Clark, Columbus, OH

Pan's Labyrinth: I have a general aversion to "grown up" fairy-tales, since what constitutes that is either postmodern posturing (I'm looking at you, Shrek) and/or obnoxious preciousness (the ouch-my-insulin Amelie). But Guillermo Del Toro puts the primal urgency back into fairy-tales, restoring to the genre the feral grisliness that has been sanitized and sublimated by 80 years of Walt Disney. Like the other great 21st-century fairy-tale, the woefully misunderstood A.I., Pan's Labyrinth takes the anxieties of children seriously. Both films are about a child's abandonment, loneliness, and exile in a less-than-kind world. And both recognize the deceptive comforts of fantasy. Those themes are universal, and Pan's head-on engagement with them make it one of the most genuine, emotionally intuitive lamentations of childhood innocence to grace the screen. —Jeremy Cohen

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The Fountain: The only movie that I saw two times in theaters this year, and the one that prompted the most post-screening discussion among the people I saw it with, both times.  I remain frustrated and saddened that this film received so little recognition and was unceromiously dismissed by most critics. There's so much to love about this film: its unbridled ambition, unique special effects, and the intentionally messy and overlapping narrative, which was vague enough (in a good way) to enable me and my boyfriend to reach completely different conclusions about the implications of the ending. Not since Capturing the Friedmans have I encountered a narrative that could yield such disparate interpretations. —Max Kamer, Providence, RI

The Fountain: Fuck all this fairy tale for grown-ups bullshit. We're all adults here, right? And as such I want a love story, dammit, one where my lady is beautiful, cancer-ridden, and turns into a tree. One where the man will fight off everything and everyone (including himself) for the woman he loves and float around inside a hermetic space bubble. I want a director who is in love with his picture (see every frame featuring his wife's face), one who doesn't shy away from including scenes everyone will think are overwrought or wince-inducing, and still manages to boil away everything superfluous to an essential 90 minutes. I loved every flaw and triumph of this film and will defend it to the death with a giant flaming sword. —Douglas, Chicago, IL

The Science of Sleep: I can't remember leaving a theater in such a state as I did at the end of this movie. I recall actually stopping to consider how safe I was driving home, as if I'd been out drinking or doing something else more elicit than sitting in stadium style seating for two hours. I think this film actually left the screen and came home with me that night, unlike the girl I went to see the movie with. It was all for the best, though, since Michel Gondry's dream-like imagery was likely better that night in bed than anything said girl could have offered. —David Hulford, Media, PA

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The Science Of Sleep: Michel Gondry's films play like working experiments but are filled with so much inventiveness and child-like exuberance that you can't help but be drawn in and made a believer.  For me, Gondry's crowning achievement as a writer and filmmaker is his ability to take these fantastic, dream and memory worlds and point them back to reality, furthering your understanding of human relationships. —Bryan Whitefield

The Science Of Sleep: Michel Gondry has an imagination like no one else on earth. Watching the stuff he comes up with in his movies gives me a goofy grin that lasts for weeks. His low-tech effects are charming, and the songs he picks fit the mood perfectly (which makes sense, since he has directed lots of music videos). This story of a guy who has trouble distinguishing dreams and reality is wonderful, and Gael García Bernal plays him perfectly. Bernal has been quickly becoming a favorite of mine, and he demonstrates a skill for comedy in this movie that I never realized he had. He's great, especially in crazy sequences when he has to act while wearing giant hands, walking around naked in his sleep, or building a cardboard city with his mind. I don't think I enjoyed any other film more this year. —Matt Brady, Plainfield, IL

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On The Also-Rans

Jackass Number Two: Half accidentally and half on-purpose, the aggro boys from MTV coughed up an avant-garde masterpiece. What makes this superior to anything Knoxville and Co. have done before is a sneaky self-awareness that suggests they've been in on the joke the whole time, and all that stuff that highbrow academic types have been saying is latent in their shenanigans. Piled gooch-high with radical/confrontational queer sexuality and my-body-is-a-canvas artistic masochism, this might be the most fucked-up and alienating thing released by a major studio in the past few years. Reasonably, it would be the kind of thing that plays at [New York's] Two Boots Pioneer for a week, loved only by an adventurous few; instead, it became one of the year's biggest cash cows as well as the single most mind-blowing and gut-busting communal experience 2006 had to offer me. —Steve Carlson

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Idiocracy: Ow, my follow-up film!  Mike Judge took it in the groin again and again, as Fox delayed, cut, then released his film in seven cities with no advertising. Was it because, despite the overbreeding of dumb people, it was the surviving corporations that were really keeping everyone stupid, even to the point of annihilation? Maybe. Or maybe they couldn't abide by the unmistakable sadness at the film's core. Despite Judge's dumb-comedy-for-smart people m.o. and the standard issue happy ending, I'm still haunted by the dead-eyed hospital receptionist and the guy with the head wound, playing a slot machine for free health care.  —Kent "kza" Beeson, Seattle, Washington

The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu: Moving from the realm of the fantastic to grim reality, Cristi Puiu's remarkable second feature charts the title character's one-way trip through Romania's bureaucratic health-care system. The power of the movie lies in the director's unwillingness to divide his cast into clear-cut heroes and villains. True, many of the doctors and nurses aren't very helpful, but the ornery Lazarescu doesn't exactly make their jobs easier. Ultimately, this is a film that presents human beings as who we often are—selfish and self-absorbed—rather than who we'd like to be. It's an undeniably depressing vision, but it makes the small moments of kindness between the characters that much more meaningful. —Ethan Alter

With a title like The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu, one does not go in expecting to have a good time, but while the film is harrowing, it's also essential viewing for anyone who takes world cinema seriously. Much of the credit for the film's success can be attributed to Ion Fiscuteanu, who embodies the title character with a complete lack of guile, fearlessly venturing through the bowels of the Romanian health care system that, over the course of one night, will suck away his dignity and his humanity, leaving him naked, barely breathing, and waiting to die. Meanwhile, the system swirls around him, with hospitals sending him elsewhere, doctors taking him to task for his drinking and diet rather than dealing with the problem in front of them, and everyone trifling over paperwork and procedure, perhaps to cope with all the suffering. Director Cristi Puiu never allows his film to devolve into a wallow, leavening the story with sardonic humor borne out of exasperation and impotence in a way that hasn't been done this well since Terry Gilliam's Brazil. —Paul Clark

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For me, no film this year was as moving, as uplifting or just as out and out entertaining as Michel Gondry's Dave Chappelle's Block Party. Ostensibly a concert documentary, Block Party is less concerned with the actual concert—which is admittedly spectacular—than with the circumstances surrounding it. Frequently cutting back and forth between the concert and its preparation, Gondry turns his film into the story of a man who used his newfound money and fame to bring people from all backgrounds together. The result is one of the most movingly optimistic films I've ever seen, one that posits that no matter how bad things look, all it takes for Americans of all stripes—from Harlem youths to Ohio grandmas—to come together in joy and celebration is a kickass rap concert. In other words, it was the perfect film for 2006; suddenly, two more years of Bush don't seem that bad. —Matt Noller

The Devil & Daniel Johnston: I was never a huge Daniel Johnston fan, but this film went a long way toward giving me a greater appreciation of his work, although I'm not sure if that's a good thing, in light of all the problems appreciation of his work has led to. It's easy to get high-minded about The Purity Of An Artist's Vision in the abstract, but when you see some of the very real consequences of the artist's eccentricites, such arguments seem petty. Maybe our culture would be worse off if Mozart and Van Gogh had had the opportunity to receive useful psychiatric treatment, but there is little doubt that the people closest to them would have been much better off. —William Dewey, San Jose, CA

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Shortbus: Hardcore emotion, ejaculation, and pleasure in one wholesome package. Director John Cameron Mitchell even has a male character singing The Star Spangled Banner in the asshole of the guy he's eating out, and it didn't offend me the slightest bit. Who knew that group sex could be so meaningful? —Mallory Adamczyk, Chicago, IL

Marie Antoinette: Sofia Coppola's empathy may or may not be misplaced, I don't know. But contrary to what critics say, she is interested in the political milieu of the era. Even if the film omitted all reference to the rest of France, as many claim, it would be an absence so ornate as to only have been intentional. But even that's not the case: the last third of the film takes place largely at a cottage where Marie and her girlfriends fetishize "the simple life," an idea so disconnected from what the real "simple life" consisted of that it speaks to how remote France must have seemed from Versailles. In a narcissistic film about narcissism, Coppola turns that self-absorption against itself, and makes her most conceptually ambitious film to date. —Jeremy Cohen

Inland Empire: Lynch's most experimental work since Eraserhead is one of his greatest films. It's a film filled with trap doors that lead to other rabbit holes that lead to other time zones and states of being— Alice In Wonderland meets Celine And Julie Go Boating. Laura Dern's performance is brave and extraordinary. A major film, which really needs to be seen in a theater on a big screen with the sound system CRANKED UP! —Matt Severson, Los Angeles, CA

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Miscellaneous Kisses And Disses

In an essay for The New York Times about a year ago, film critic A.O. Scott posited that the lack of mindblowing cinematic masterpieces was directly related to the lack of mindblowing disasters. His argument was that the insane, outsized ambition that leads to movies like Apocalypse Now also lead to movies like Heavens Gate. He ended the essay by pleading for more filmmakers to risk disaster in the fulfillment of their visions; if 2006 is any indication, at least a few people were paying attention. Two of the most interesting studio films of the year, M. Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water and Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, were the results of wildy ambitious—and, in at least Shyamalan's case, egotistical—directors refusing to hold back or compromise. Naturally, the mainstream critical establishment—the same people who often bemoan the mediocrity and sameness of Hollywood cinema—responded with hostility or indifference. The Fountain, with its emotional content and stunning visual brio, has found supporters, some of whom even claim the film as a masterpiece. Lady in the Water… um, not so much. Certainly the film is a mess, often silly and self-important, but it's also deeply personal, not to mention absolutely gorgeous (that last scene is one of the most transcendently lovely sequences I've seen since The New World). Everything Shyamalan feels—about the current political climate; about the critical reception to his work; about the art and conventions of storytelling; about how all of the above intersect and relate—is on clear display. It's his psyche and soul laid bare, slashed crimson (or, in this case, a sort of bluish-green) across the screen, and audiences and critics didn't like what they saw. Shyamalan is now reportedly having trouble getting funding for his next project, which is a shame; if we had more directors like him, I think the mainstream film scene would be a much better and more interesting place. After all, would you rather watch Lady In The Water again or Epic Movie? I think the choice is clear. —Matt Noller

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Confronting death head on seemed to be a large theme in movies this year. Letters from Iwo Jima, The Fountain, Children of Men, and Stranger Than Fiction all have characters who knowingly face their own impending mortality. In the case of Iwo and Children of Men, it's not even just the mortality of the main characters, but of all people, and nations, and ideas, and fights. For a long stretch in the past 20 years, death in cinema has been treated solely as an ironic device, and a means for dark laughs. Some of these are successful (Fargo, Pulp Fiction), but most just continue to reinforce the death, denying American culture by treating death and murder as lightly as possible. Stranger Than Fiction even acts as a reaction to the prevalence of these devices. It could be a reflection of our "post-9/11" culture, and certainly United 93 would fit in with Iwo Jima thematically, but even the genre films seem to be taking death more seriously. The multiplexes are filled every week with a new sadistic torture film, that while they may not confront any issues with any insight, don't contain the wink-wink tongue-in-cheek killing off of characters that was so prevalent in the '90s slasher resurgence. We've become a braver culture perhaps, and it's a unique time for films with ideas to be able to be financed and released respectably. —Nicholas Tinsley, Glenview, IL

Marie Antoinette: I've read reviews suggesting it's Sofia

Coppola's meditation on female powerlessness or some such, but I still haven't gotten over my strong initial reaction, which was: Really, why was this movie made? Nothing happens. None of the key characters make any interesting decisions or have any urgency. It's visually lush, but the whole movie should have been reduced to 20 minutes of clips and interludes strewn throughout a much better movie—you know, one with a plot. —Daniel

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The Ed Wood Jr. Award for the Worst Film of the Year goes to What Is It?, a would-be edgy art film directed by Crispin Glover, featuring snail-killing by salt and decapitation (screams supplied by Fairuza Balk), an old man with cerebral palsy lying in a giant clam shell being masturbated by a woman with an ape mask on. And oh yeah, most of the cast are people with Down's Syndrome. That description actually makes it sound much more interesting than it is. It's really just a big stinking pile of garbage. —Matt Severson

The Honorary Paul Haggis "Uncomfortable = Profound" Screenwriting Award goes to Guillermo Arriaga for Babel. See the Moroccan boy masturbate to thoughts of his sister! See the Japanese deaf-mute girl lose every shred of dignity! See Oscar Winner Cate Blanchett urinate in a pan! Okay, so that last scene is actually kind of affecting, but only because we'd all like to be held by a rugged and caring Brad Pitt. Otherwise, Babel misses the mark nearly as wide as last year's stinker Crash. —Jack Monahan