February 6, 2007

2006 at the Movies Part V: Revisits and Revisions

After sitting with my lists for a little while and seeing a few more 2006 films, I have gone back and made a few revisions to the list. Among the affected lists are Best Score, Best Supporting Actor, Best Actress, and Best Picture. What you are about to read are my previously issued lists, revised to include the new entrants, along with notes of what the changes were. The comments for the films and performers that are still on the list are the same as before, but it is worth refreshing yourself with some of the year's best. Read on.

1. Children of Men. The most recent film that I saw for the year is also the greatest. Watching this was a transcendent experience. Alfonso Cuaron has crafted a film of high technical achievement that brings together religious and political concepts together in a drama that is gripping, and involving on a visceral and emotional level. It is a science fiction film that is not confined by the genre, less occupied with explaining the situation as it is with letting the situation speak for itself and deliver characters that are mired within its confines. This is a powerful movie that delivers the goods and hits all the right notes, from the performances, to the cinematography, to the script, to the score, everything is just right.

2. Pan's Labyrinth. Guillermo del Toro's fantasy film is absolutely amazing. He masterfully intertwines a young girl's fantasy and reality into one beautiful yet deadly tapestry. It is the story of Ofelia, a girl whose need to be protector to her pregnant mother in the face of her sadistic stepfather, who is the captain of a garrison whose purpose is to wipe out the remaining rebels at the end of the Spanish Civil War. This is a truly original and completely breathtaking vision that pays off visually and narratively. It is open to interpretation and can be taken a number of different ways.

3. The Departed. Martin Scorsese’s latest masterpiece is a remake, and an expansion on, the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs. The original film is a thrilling game of cat and mouse, a game which Scorsese has taken, with screenwriter William Monahan, and upped the ante in its conversion to a tale of the Mob in Boston. A film that is alternately hilarious and edge of your seat thrilling. The ensemble cast carries the drama of the setup, with Jack Nicholson chewing scenery as the larger than life crime boss. This is another movie that delivers deadly serious entertainment in a fast paced and involving way. This could possibly lead to Scorsese’s first Best Director Oscar.

4. Brick. Here is a film that caught me off guard. I went in expecting a good movie, you know, what every movie goer is hoping for. What I got was a mash up of genres that was engrossing and fascinating, without creating any type of connection between the audience and the characters. Take the high school drama and cross it with film noir, and you get a start towards what this movie is. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a high schooler looking to stir up some trouble towards the end of uncovering the mystery of his estranged girlfriend’s murder. This is a great movie that is not easily defined, yet completely engrossing.

5. The Prestige. The Prestige is movie magic. This is one of the reasons that people go to the movies. Christopher Nolan has crafted an intricate mystery that has a story that is involving, a cast that is highly talented, and an ending that is satisfying, yet leaves you thinking about what you just saw. On the surface it is a story of rival magicians, but the mystery runs much deeper than that as the competition is much more personal and all consuming.

6. Letters from Iwo Jima. The second half of Eastwood's visionary experiment in film. From the American perspective of Flags of Our Fathers to the Japanese vision depicted here, Clint has delivered a film of epic scope with personal implications. It is a film that draws you in until the final frame and features the wonderful performance of Ken Watanabe as General Kuribayashi.

7. United 93. Amidst cries of “Too soon!” director Paul Greengrass moved forward with his filmed tribute to those brave souls who lost their lives on 9/11. With the approval of the families, he created a gripping drama that puts you right in the middle of the day. It is a film that makes the audience a fly on the wall, watching, helplessly as the fateful events of the day unfold in front of you. It is free of the trappings of Hollywood cliches, it is a strong, potent, emotional journey.

8. Apocalypto. Here is the best pure action film of the year. This will have you on the edge of your seat as you watch Jaguar Paw outwit his pursuers. Mel Gibson has taken what seems like a pretty common story thread, translates it to the end times of the Mayan civilization and then turns the pace to eleven. This is a huge spectacle of an action film. Sure, you could pick it apart for deeper meaning, but it is wholly unnecessary, as the action is big enough and exciting enough to sustain interest throughout the runtime. It is vividly shot, plenty violent, and surprisingly funny. This is a film to experience on the big screen. B movie action raised by its unique setting.

9. Casino Royale. This is the best Bond film in decades, but even better than that is that it is a good movie. Daniel Craig slides effortlessly into the role, replacing Pierce Brosnan, and in doing so has helped bring Bond back to his roots. Director Martin Campbell has crafted a gritty, reality based film that is filled with intrigue, brutal action, and a great performance from all involved.

10. V for Vendetta. I found the film to be fascinating and wonderfully acted. My major questioning lies in whether this is meant to have a straightforward narrative, or if there are liberties taken within that narrative to express the ideas and concepts at the expense of the plot. Whatever the case is, V for Vendetta is a rare thriller of the modern age to have the concepts and ideas overshadow the action. This is a movie to be seen on the big screen. Hugo Weaving is fantastic in his role of V, successfully conveying a range that I thought imposssible when you are unable to see his face.

NOTES: Babel and Blood Diamond were knocked off the list in favor of Pan's Labyrinth and Letters from Iwo Jima. United 93 moved from 4 to 6, Apocalypto from 6 to 8, The Departed, Brick, and Casino Royale moved down 1 each. Children of Men, The Prestige, and V for Vendetta held their position.

Best Actress

1. Helen Mirren for The Queen. Much like Forest Whitaker, Helen Mirren turned in a great performance as a person from the real world. She brings a touch of emotion to a role that could just as easily been entirely cold and clinical.

2.Meryl Streep for The Devil Wears Prada. Deliciously evil, Streep gives a wonderful performance here, showing us all that it is possible to mold someone into what they do not wish to be without their knowledge. Quite subversive.

3. Judi Dench for Notes on a Scandal. Rounding out the top three, Judi Dench steps up to the plate and knocks it out of the park. This is one of those performances, along with those of Mirren and Streep, that should be studied. If you want to learn to act, this is a performance that puts on a clinic. She makes it look so easy.

4. Annette Bening for Running with Scissors. I cannot claim to really like the movie, but Bening rises above it and literally stole the show out from under everyone else. She plays a mother with a mental disorder that goes through some odd personality changes.

5. Penelope Cruz for Volver. The movie on a whole left me wanting more, I wanted to know more of the plot. Still, there is something completely enchanting about Cruz's performance that drew me in. It is easily the best performance I have ever seen from her and shows what she is truly capable of outside of the Hollywood system.

NOTES: Gretchen Mol (The Notorious Bettie Page) and Kirsten Dunst (Marie Antoinette) dropped off the list in favor of Judi Dench and Penelope Cruz and Annette Bening dropped one position.

Best Supporting Actor

1. Kazunari Ninomiya for Letters from Iwo Jima. This performance is very involving. Ninomiya is Saigo, a baker who is conscripted into service and taken away from his pregnant wife and forced to fight in a war he wants no part of. His character may not be typical of Japanese soldiers of the time, but the performance and everything around it feels genuine.

2. Ben Affleck for Hollywoodland. This is quite possibly the best performance of his career. He perfectly captured the suave, handsome Reeves, and the troubles that he experienced leading to his mysterious, and still unsolved, demise.

3. Jack Nicholson for The Departed. Jack in another scene-stealing performance. As the crime boss of Boston, he takes his performance to the edge yet never quite goes over. It is a strong part from a strong actor.

4. Djimon Hounsou for Blood Diamond. The role seems to be written slightly to the one-dimensional side, with the father trying to get to his family, but Hounsou is such a great presence on the screen. His high energy performance is downright captivating.

5. Eddie Murphy for Dreamgirls. What a surprisingly good performance from Eddie -- not that I didn't think he had it, I just did not expect it. The role really kicked up in the latter portions of the film, he had a really moving character arc that had more impact than I had expected.

NOTES: Alan Arkin dropped off the list in favor of Kazunari Ninomiya. Jack Nicholson and Ben Affleck each dropped one spot.

Best Supporting Actress

1. Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls. All I can say is "Wow." Her performance floored me. She carries the entire emotional weight of the film on much more than the strength of her voice (which is considerable).

2. Adriana Barraza for Babel. Speaking of carrying emotional weight, Adriana carries a lot of it in Babel. Her role as the nanny is a strong one, her willingness to give up everything for the sake of the children, despite her mistakes. Quite moving.

3. Geraldine Hughes for Rocky Balboa. It is a very understated role, but a vital one. Rocky is moving on in his life, and she provides a good portion of the motivation. Watching the relationship develop, it was sweet and each beat rang true.

4. Maribel VerdĂș for Pan's Labyrinth. Playing something of a double agent, Maribel gives Mercedes a strength that belies her belief in herself. A strong role in an amazing film.

5. Cate Blanchett for Notes on a Scandal. In a role that seems ripped from the headlines, Blanchett plays a teacher who has an illicit liasion with one of her students. She plays the role wonderfully. You can feel her fear of being caught tempered by the feelings she has for the boy. The performance steps above the soapy material and is just fantastic.

NOTES: Eva Green slips off in favor of Blanchett. The rest remain the same.

Best Director

1. Guillermo del Toro for Pan's Labyrinth. One of the year's finest films, helmed by a director fulfilling his potential. I have always been a fan of his work, but often it has been at a level lower than what we have found here. His work has generally risen above similar works in the genre, always hinting at what he could do. This is a film that is magical, it is dark, it has hope, it has violence, and you are not safe. Amazing film from a director at the top of his game.

2. Alfonso Cuaron for Children of Men. This was my favorite theatrically seen film for the year, and Cuaron very nearly took the top spot. His work here is very impressive, he brings us a perfectly realized world that draws you in with each frame.

3. Martin Scorsese for The Departed. As much as I would like to see Marty take home the big prize, he comes in third on my list. He made a completely involving film that actually surpasses its source material. It is quick, funny, thrilling, and suspenseful, and masterfully directed.

4. Christopher Nolan for The Prestige. Nolan has fast come into his own as a first rate director, not having a failure yet. His follow-up to Batman Begins is a suspenseful struggle of two dominant personalities. Of course, he had a couple of great performances to work with, but much credit to the man behind the camera.

5. Clint Eastwood for Letters from Iwo Jima. Eastwood deftly balances the horror of war and the intimate stories of the soldiers enveloped with it. He brings a face to the enemy and draws out some great performances. He is at the top of his game, and he really stepped up on this ambitious project.

NOTES: Paul Greengrass is replaced with Clint Eastwood as the anchor of my top 5.

Best Cinematography

1. Emmanuel Lubezki for Children of Men. A bleak and fully realized world. For two hours you will be a part of this world, so carefully constructed that you will believe. For some truly amazing scenes, take a look at the battle at the refugee camp.

2. Dean Semler for Apocalypto. This is a pure action film, and the cinematography is breathtaking. Running through the jungle has never seemed so real; of course I am not sure the last time I saw anything like this. There are some gorgeously composed shots in this film, the waterfall, for example.

3. Vilmos Zsigmond for The Black Dahlia. The film may have been overrated and a little too self-aware, but there is no denying how beautiful some of it looks. The use of angles and colors always offers something to look at while you spend time not becoming invested in the film itself.

4. Guillermo Navarro for Pan's Labyrinth. Much like Children of Men, this movie also creates an utterly convincing world, both real and unreal. the drained colors, the dark viciousness, there is a fantastic visual sense that permeates everything that comes on the screen.

5. John Stern for Letters from Iwo Jima. With desaturated colors, punctuated explosions, and some great framing, Stern has created a wonderful look for the island battle. It feels like you are there, surrounded by the grimness of war.

NOTES: Dan Laustsen is replaced with John Stern at number ten.

Best Score

1. Clint Mansell for The Fountain. Hands down, my favorite score of the year. The film left me scratching my head, in a good way, but the music was beautiful and haunting. The music, performed by Mogwai and the Kronos Quartet provides a surreal soundscape for the film that is interested in pushing the boundaries and takes chances with the art form.

2. Hans Zimmer for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. This score has the distinction of igniting my interest in movie music (there is always Star Wars, but even non-score fans like it). For better or worse, I love the big bombastic score that Hans Zimmer delivered. From the playful theme for Jack Sparrow to the more menacing strains for Davy Jones and the Kraken, I loved every note of it.

3. Philip Glass for Notes on a Scandal. I have not seen the film, but I very much like the beautiful minimal score that Glass has created. I know the name, but I am not familiar with much of his work, but if it is like this or better I am interested in listening.

4. David Arnold for Casino Royale. I really enjoyed the score, even without the full use of the classic theme until the end. It has the brassy sound of the old John Barry work, yet doesn't sound derivative; rather it fits the movie well and stands strong on its own.

5. Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens for Letters from Iwo Jima. A sad, haunting theme dominates this score. It is music that leaves an impression and mirrors the feelings of those who fought on the tiny island.

NOTES: Mark Isham (The Black Dahlia) is replaced in the number five hole.

That about brings my 2006 lists to a close. I hope you found something to like, if not, there is always 2007!

Be sure to check out the original versions of theses lists and the lists that did not change: Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.


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