05. Babel [Alejandro González Iñárritu]
In case you have yet to gauge whether your opinions are compatible with mine, allow me lay down a gauntlet – last year’s Oscar winner for best picture, Crash, was a big steaming pile of shit. That movie infuriated me, and I can’t see why anyone would watch it and feel…smarter? Better? More understanding? It’s supposed to be a message picture, but pisses all of its credibility down the drain when all the characters are revealed to be unrealistic clichés. Now, Babel is what Crash was trying to be. Babel is extraordinary in its pain and depression and struggle. It deals with communication, patience and prejudice in such a deep, real way that it could almost be a documentary. The characters transcend film to become people, and they cry and beg and bleed, strip themselves naked and walk under desert suns, screaming protests and collapsing into defeat. They plead – listen to me, please! That’s all it takes. That’s what should’ve happened in Crash - all it would’ve taken, one character to lower his or herself to simply asking for 30 seconds to explain. This is our world, a scary place, but there are people who listen and trust and give of themselves; people who will help, so have hope. Iñárritu has used his multiple, interconnected narrative motif to cover this territory before, in 2000’s Amores Perros and 2003’s 21 Grams, and yet, with this film his skill of composition and orchestration of depicting human suffering and emotional triumph just keeps expanding and growing to epic proportions. Babel will break your heart at every turn.
04. Pan’s Labyrinth [Guillermo del Toro]
Pan's Labyrinth is an incredible tale of war, both external and internal. While Guillermo del Toro excels at creatures (see Hellboy), he also has found a way to make his characters carry emotional weight and not be reduced to cut-outs; 12 year old Ivana Baquero is exquisite as the curious Ofelia, oozing the kind of childhood resourcefulness that only comes before you have to take real responsibility for your actions. It works as a fantasy fairy tale on the level of Spirited Away and The Lord of The Rings trilogy, but its main theme is the loss of a child's innocence during wartime, and Baquero embodies that just as much as the adult actors around her. There may be fairies & fauns & murderous monsters, but they can be as sinister as the evil Captain Vidal, who literally bashes a man's face in with a liquor bottle, and will stop at nothing to snuff out the remaining rebels fighting for freedom in the hills. After running the fantasy and the reality parallel for the entire film, del Toro has them converge in a horrible accident of loss, tragedy and hollow victory. This is not merely a good film. It’s a statement picture for del Toro. He’s in the spotlight now, a magnetic artiste, full of unique imagination and vision, with a huge palette to paint with. Let’s see what he gives us next.
03. Casino Royale [Martin Campbell]
Go down the list; message films, social commentaries, political satires. They’re all here, and on every other critic’s list too. But where’s the love for the explosion-filled action flick? The kind that makes the money so those other films can get financial backing. Well, here ya go. James Bond is back for the first time. And you, jaded consumer say ‘so what, that one with Halle Berry sucked my ass.’ True. But let me assure you, director Martin Campbell (Goldeneye, those Banderas-led Zorro films) has made his best film for you, the best action film I’ve seen since the first Die Hard in 1988. This is the way it’s supposed to be, when you sit down in a dark theater, and the movie just hauls off and punches you in the face with how BIG it is. Those uncompromising stunts aren’t all there is though, as they sprint neck and neck with emotional performances and actual plot. There is almost nothing to complain about here – I’d say Jeffrey Wright is underused, and that’s about it. Daniel Craig immediately asserts himself into the storied role by discarding pretty much all the history that came with it. He emerges, carved out of wood, juxtaposed with the classic figure of Sean Connery; Craig isn’t even close to perfect, and barely suave, because he knows that the only thing essential to James Bond is the inherent confidence. That, he has in spades, and the rest he (the character) can learn later. My favorite part of this movie is that Bond is always messy, making mistakes and snap judgments that don’t quite work out. Starting over is a blessing; just ask Batman.
02. Half Nelson [Ryan Fleck]
I had said to friends at one point that Half Nelson can be pretty much boiled down to Ryan Gosling's performance, which as a revisionist, I’d like to now half-redact. While his Dan Dunne is a defining performance, one that is truly heartbreaking and will go along way to making him the mega-star he deserves to be, it wouldn’t be that without the support of Shareeka Epps’ portrayal of Drey. Gosling and Epps push and pull against each other in a fascinating dance of fear and embarrassment and will, morphing from a relationship of teacher/student, to savior/saved, to friend/friend. He is constantly falling apart, while she is constantly rebuilding herself. She takes the hits and still stands, as he crumbles in glorious disregard for his self. They’re like the British Bulldogs of harrowing crack addicts and latchkey kids, but they’re both Dynamite Kids; they unite to emotionally raze the inner city landscape of the film. I left the theater with tears in my eyes & my jaw dragging on the floor. Really, only the great Anthony Mackie survives, brushing the rubble off his shoulder, covered in the slime of drug dealer Frank. It’s somehow a minor shame that Forest Whitaker's gonna steal Gosling’s award and acclaim this year, but if his name on the box gets just a few Notebook fans to watch this film, then we might eventually be saved like Dan is saved.
01. Children Of Men [Alfonso Cuarón]
Children Of Men is a masterpiece, and the best film of the last few years (since Lost In Translation in 2003, to be exact). First, Alfonso Cuarón melded the best bits of his previous two films to great effect here; he took the explorations of uneasy personal relationships while on a long journey from his Y Tu Mamá También, and mashed it up with his dark fantasy technique used on Harry Potter 3 (the one no one likes, but I think is the best one). Second, the story is built on an unshakable science fiction premise, which is [object x] can save mankind, so [main character] must go from [a] to [b], while avoiding [villainous types]. But the villains are allowed to be humans, with wrong choices and sympathy and misguided rage; even the promise of absolute power can corrupt absolutely. It's also refreshing to see a science fiction film that is actually science fiction (and not fantasy); I'd say that it's closest in tone to Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later... Insert the possibilities that come from the question "what would happen if the world stopped procreating?", and the elements that come out get slashed across the movie in glorious fashion. Militia groups and religious cults are completely feasible in this future, especially coupled with the isolation that England already feels. The details are incredible, from the allusions to images of the Holocaust & Guantanamo Bay & Abu Ghraib, to the graffiti (by guerrilla art genius Banksy) and propaganda posters, the choice of music, leaning on end-is-nigh art rock. Even the image of the giant pig is a direct reference to the 'welcome to the machine' warnings of Pink Floyd's late 70's work. Clive Owen's performance is superb, all worn out and beaten, constantly conflicted, internalized, and traveling basically blind to the effects of the events he himself is putting in motion. And then there's the "battle scene" at the climax, which will go down as one of the greatest moments on film ever - Owen running through gunfire and explosions with a cameraman right behind him, with no edits for minutes on end! It's a remarkable technical achievement. The ending gives the gift of hope, which is all anyone is after throughout the movie. Hope makes people kill at will, and climb impossible mountains, and brave hailstorms of bullets. And if anyone, like Clive Owen’s character, has been beaten so far by life that he has no hope, then a chance - that new hope - is all you need to get up and do something.