The Departed. Martin Scorsese has made some great films. He’s also made just okay films and maybe one or two bad ones. Now that he’s lost the Best Picture Oscar two times at bat, he has been freed from the albatross of having to deliver an Oscar winner, and by doing so he has been released to make what has to be the most entertaining film of the year, by a long way. Sure, you have to be willing to stomach the violence, but what you get in return is a crackling script and top-of-the-line acting by Leonard DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, Jack Nicholson, Alec Baldwin and Martin Sheen. After three viewings of the movie it is clear that there is more to it than just a cat-and-mouse game.
Letters from Iwo Jima/Flags of Our Fathers. Where the lackluster box office hurt Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers, his companion piece, Letters from Iwo Jima, brought it back to life. Two stories from different sides of the island, Eastwood managed to show both the fear of being an unexpected hero on the winning side and the tragic despair of being on the losing side, with no choice but to either be killed or kill yourself. Filmed in washed out color, one film is BIG and therefore representative of America herself during World War II and the other is small by comparison, but fierce and defiant nonetheless. Long after awards season dies, Eastwood’s two films will be the take-away story of this year.
The Queen. An urgent score keeps the film humming along as the events surrounding Princess Diana’s death reveal themselves, but do so from the point of view of Queen Elizabeth. Director Stephen Frears makes it at once a showcase for the miraculous Helen Mirren as well as a truthful mirror we must look into, as a collective, and confront in ourselves what we don’t want to see. It is indeed our love for Diana that ultimately killed her. And in our need to find blame, we placed it unfairly on the Queen. We are given a second chance to see things a different way.
The Lives of Others. The German foreign language entry is an engaging look at life in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. But more than that, it is a story about what it means to be studying people in order to suppress the very things that make them unique, the things that make life worth living.
United 93. Paul Greengrass gives us a chilling but ultimately inspirational look at what might have happened to the doomed flight. It doesn’t romanticize the passengers but shows them as ordinary, panicked people. It is terrifying, but it is ultimately uplifting because it shows you what people can do in numbers.
Little Miss Sunshine. A retelling of The Wizard of Oz of sorts, but this time it’s a yellow bus and Oz is a garish child beauty pageant. Keeping the film from sinking into sap is a tight story, great acting and the universality of the characters.
Babel. It is one of the more difficult films to watch but also one of the most affecting. Rinko Kikuchi stands out as the confused deaf girl getting over the death of her mother.
Dreamgirls. Through the doom and gloom and general despair of films this year, Bill Condon’s musical update is a visually satisfying, captivating experience. Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy are reasons alone to see it.
Thank You for Smoking. Adapting a beloved book is never an easy proposition. But this one works. It’s funny, refreshing, well-written and features an outstanding performance by Aaron Eckhart.
The Three Amigos. In celebration of the Mexican new wave, Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel) and Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) for their audacity, artistic bravery and all-around brilliance. Bravo.