Best of 2006 - THE MOVIES
Martin Scorsese assembles an all star cast for a trip through the Boston underworld and the Undercover unit of the state police in this remake of Asian crime drama "Infernal Affairs". Jack Nicholson stars as a grizzled veteran Underworld kingpin, Matt Damon is his mole in the police department, Leonardo DiCaprio is the police mole inside Jack's gang, and Alec Baldwin and Mark Whalberg steal the show as a pair of asshole officers. Scorsese paces the film brilliantly, and the dramatic highs and lows keep the film riveting throughout. If not for the final act, which goes from "dramatic" to "slightly ridiculous", The Departed could have finished even higher on the list.
JJ Abrams, most known for TV spy show "Alias", brings a fresh approach to the third film in the M:I franchise. It isn't quite the cerebral experience the first film was, nor is it the brain-dead action-fest of the second, but a solid mix of the two previous experiences with an added style all of it's own. Tom Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt, retired from the secret agent game and engaged to be married, until a trainee of his winds up a prisoner and he's recruited by an old friend to bust her out. Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays the truly loathsome villain of the piece in a tour-de-force performance that seems to have garnered the majority of the attention, though I feel Cruise does every bit as good a job when sharing the screen with Hoffman. Abrams also keeps the tension wound tight throughout, with one hell of an opening tease and one riveting scene after another with very little downtime. If it ain't the best film of the series, it's definitely tied with the first.
Based on the Phillip K. Dick novel of the same name, A Scanner Darkly is a drug-addled trip through the paranoid world of the near future, where everyone and anyone is under surveillance. One undercover cop, played by Keanu Reaves, begins to lose his grip after becoming addicted to a lethal mind-altering drug. To make matters worse, all undercover officers wear a special suit which hides their identities to one another, and the latest subject he's been assigned to investigate happens to be himself. Linklater uses Rotoscoping to fully animate the film and give it a unique look, and Reaves, along with Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson all give fantastic performances. It's one trippy ride of a movie.
Kevin Smith returns to his original (and most effective) piece of work, only a decade or so later. We find everyones favorite clerks, Dante and Randal, still jockeying a counter, only this time it's the fast food counter of a burger-slinging joint. Dante is engaged, planning on leaving Jersey for sunny Florida with his semi-insane bride-to-be, Randal is grooming Elias, a religious teen with a Lord of the Rings fetish (played brilliantly by Trevor Fehrman) to be Dante's replacement as his stooge, and everyone's favorite drug dealers, Jay and Silent Bob have gone sober, but still sell drugs of course. I'll come right out and say it, this is the single funniest film Smith has ever done, it has all of the sly wit and pop-culture jibes of the original, combined with some outlandish sillyness and hilarious commentary. The characters have aged well, and show the added maturity that would come with the passage of time from 20-somethings to 30-somethings. It's an intelligent and heartwarming film in spite of all the raunchy going's on (The donkey show is just wrong man.) Brian O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson play Dante and Randal as they should, and the supporting cast is spot on. Smith even does a great job on the randomly inserted song and dance scene. Best "laugh-out-loud" comedy of the 21st century thus far.
The first Pirates film's commercial success was a total fluke. By all accounts, it should have been a bomb of "Cutthroat Island" proportion. It wasn't, far from actually, so here we are with the inevitable sequel. Surely, being the sequel to a fluke blockbuster, it has to suffer, right? Not so. Pirates 2 takes everything that worked in the original, and amps it to eleven. The action is more intense, the fantasy elements are more fantastical (is that even a word?), and Jack Sparrow is even more bizarre and unhinged than he was in the first. Rest assured, this is entirely Johnny Depp's show, and while it bugs me that Jack isn't quite the consummate pirate he was in the first film (he has a distinct cowardly trait that was absent in the original), Depp still plays him with the aplomb and brilliance to make him one of the most memorable characters to come along since Indiana Jones and James Bond. Pretty much the entirety of the cast is back, and everyone is given plenty of screen time. The closing moments are also a brilliant setup for the third film, which is due in May of '07. Dead Man's Chest is pure spectacle, but with a heart and soul, the kind of film we haven't seen in 15 or 20 years. If they don't drop the ball on the third film, i'd say we're looking at another trilogy that will live on for decades.
This flick was a total surprise for me. Paul Walker plays Joey, a low level mob guy typically responsible for disposing of "hot" pieces, guns that have been used in crimes and whatnot. Unfortunately, Oleg, the boy next door, just lifted a hot piece from Joey's basement and used it to take potshots at his crooked Russian father. What follows is a sort of film noir Alice in Wonderland as Joey and Oleg journey from one macabre situation to another. Wayne Kramer directs with a highly visual flair, and his script is sharp and full of twists and turns. The violence is gritty, over the top in the same vein as last year's Sin city. The biggest suprise for me was Walker, who actually gives a pretty solid performance. The supporting cast all did a great job as well, and Vera Farminga shines as Joey's wife, Teresa, who gets a pretty disturbing chapter of the story all her own. It's a dark horse to be certain, and is certainly not for everyone. If there's any justice in the world, it's a cult phenomenon in the making.
For those who've been living under a rock, Casino Royale serves as a certified reboot of the long-running James Bond franchise. Recasting the role of Bond, restarting continuity, and generally tossing the good stuff (as well as the wretched) that came before. The stripping away of all the superfluous gadgets and cheesy elements of the series has resulted in a vibrant and energetic piece of spy-fiction along the lines of the Jason Bourne films. For the first time in a few decades, Bond feels fresh and original. Daniel Craig does an amazing job with the role, his Bond is an icy, arrogant killer, and thankfully, his quips are far removed from the lame one-liners of Bond's past. The film does a fantastic job with spectacle, from the opening "free-running" chase to the final shootout in Venice inside a slowly sinking house, the stunt work is spectacular, and CG interference is kept to a bare minimum. Overall an excellent re-imagining of the James Bond character and one hell of a spy-film.
Originally supposed to be a big-budget sci-fi epic starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchette, Aranofsky's finished project is much smaller and more intimate. Hugh Jackman plays Tommy, a doctor researching a means to cure brain tumors, Racheal Wiesz plays Izzy, his wife, who happens to be slowly succumbing to the same illness. Sprinkled amongst the film are flashback and flash-forward scenes featuring a very different Thomas, a Spanish conquistador in search of the fountain of life in the name of his queen, Isabel, and a bizarre zen-priest version of Tom in the far future, careening towards a dying star inside a giant clear orb accompanied by the apparition of Izzie, and a giant tree. The whole thing is open to interpretation, and if you look at it the same way I did, it all seems a lot more straightforward than it sounds. Ultimately, what The Fountain is, is a heartfelt and beautiful commentary on love everlasting. The film is amazingly well acted, the score by Clint Mansell (performed by The Kronos Quartet and rock group Mogwai) is fantastic, the visuals are astounding, and, for me at least, the entire thing held me captivated until the closing moments. A beautiful and fiercely original film that will undoubtedly spur conversation and debate, even if you do come to the logical conclusion that I did. Aranofsky has knocked it out of the park on this one, it's his finest film to date.
Michael Mann brings his signature style to this slick re-imagining of his classic 80's series of the same name. Anyone expecting anything resembling the pop-culture infused semi-false memory of the original show is going to be horribly disappointed with this one. The affair is slow and deliberate, soaked in detail from start to finish, and unfolds in a slow and steady manner, occasionally exploding in fits of realistic violence. What makes the film so fresh and invigorating for me is the lack of the Hollywood action "slam bang" mentality that could easily have soaked into the film. Mann is far too smart for that. We get real characters, doing their jobs. Vice is a film that makes the viewer work, everything is not spelled out for you, you must think on your feet, much like the characters, piecing things together as they happen. It's intelligent to a fault, not taking our smarts for granted. The film is a visual marvel, Mann soaks it in a natural style, much like collateral, almost the way a photographer will capture a natural landscape, and the results are stunning. It's a police procedural through and through, like Heat before it, or The French Connection before that, an adult piece of work. Colin Farrell and Jamie foxx don't act per se, so much as they present us with real people. They aren't action heroes or rah-rah gunslingers, they are slightly above average joes doing a far from average job. I think the film is pretty much perfect on every level, I love it. One of Mann's best!
Where do I even begin? I don't think there's anyone alive who doesn't know the history of September 11th, 2001. United 93 tells the story of the doomed flight of the same name, the plane that didn't hit its intended target due to an uprising amongst the passengers. There's so much more than that to this film though - we see the events of that fateful September day unfold deliberately, on Flight 93, in the FAA control center, and at Aircraft control centers in Boston and New York. In many cases, the officials in these centers are the real people, and the reactions seem every bit as real here as they probably did on that day. Director Paul Greengrass (the man behind "The Bourne Supremacy") uses a minimalist style, a fly on the wall approach, with little to no "Hollywood" interference. The end result is a visceral and involving film that feels entirely real without any of the baggage that would usually come with a Hollywood drama. We don't even know these characters names, and yet by the end of the film we feel more deeply for them, simply based on their reactions to the events surrounding them, than we would for any Hollywood cliche. The tension is ratcheted to the limit of human endurance, it's the only film in my adult life, or as far as i can recall anyway, that literally left me trembling and shaken. An incredibly powerful piece of work, a must see film.
A Prairie Home Companion
The Last Kiss
Bon Cop, Bad Cop
There are a few flicks i haven't managed to catch yet that very well could have had a place on this list - I figure i might as well give them mention:
World Trade Center
Catch A Fire
The Good German
A Good Year
The Good Shepherd
That's it for the top 10's
Regular updates to follow