Continuing my retroactive Top 10 lists, this one takes us back to 2006, originally published in my “Confessions of a Dangerous Film Student” column in INsite Boston.
“Black Gold: Darkness Reigns During Awards Season”
I like fun. I promise.
But when it comes to selecting the year’s best movies, I’m not much for sunshine and puppy dogs — I’m all about drama. Whereas the Academy is more likely to recognize reasonably safe, audience-friendly films — you know, the ones that won’t send aging voters to the ER — the movies I reward tend to challenge and enlighten in ways Dreamgirls wouldn’t dream of.
So yes, this list is dark. It has a high body count. The films that aren’t death-centric revolve around drug addiction, pedophilia, or statutory rape instead. But considering how few of the silver screen’s pitch-black gems get the gold they deserve, it’s only fair that I recognize their murky genius here.
So without further ado… from out of the shadows rise my Top Ten Films Of The Year!
Helen Mirren may be the critic’s darling for her cool portrayal of The Queen, but those who like their dames less regal should make note of Judi Dench’s icy turn in Notes On A Scandal. Dame Judi is positively nasty as Barbara Covett, a spinster school marm who takes a fancy to the hot new teacher on the scene, Sheba Hart. Covett both befriends and resents the younger teacher, especially as Sheba begins an affair with a studly student.
It’s wicked fun to hear the usually-mannered Dench rattle off nasty zingers from Patrick Marber’s script, contained in the diary that acts as Covett’s co-conspirator, as she convinces herself that she’s doing Sheba a favor when really, she’s lording power over her with the mistaken belief that this can somehow end in some happy romance. As usual, Blanchett makes for an alluring foil who imbues Sheba with layers of complexity. While it’s all fun enough to be one of the lighter entries on my list, we do have infidelity, blackmail, and age-inappropriate sex, which all results in a scandalously satisfying viewing experience.9. CASINO ROYALE
Sorry, Pierce Brosnan, but Daniel Craig makes your 007 look like 003 and a half, tops. The recasting of one of the world’s most iconic film roles is only the first aspect that makes Martin Campbell’s James Bond remake feel like a totally fresh franchise. For quite some time now, 007 films have been rather silly affairs, with the Bond girls and the dastardly plots only a few steps removed from their parodies in the Austin Powers movies. (That’s what you get when you cast Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist named Christmas Jones.)
Sure, Casino Royale is as slick and diverting as any prior Bond film, enough to satisfy purists. But it’s also smart enough to modernize Bond for a more progressive era with savvier-than-average Bond girls (welcome to the club, Eva Green) and a dapper but less smarmy Bond (notice that a buffed-up Craig is the one now climbing voluptuously out of the water). By getting gritty with the torture and making James a realistic, vulnerable human being, for once (gasp!), Casino Royale goes deeper and darker than any other Bond has previously dared, shaking our nerves while stirring our emotions. Let’s have another round! (As if there were any danger that they’d suddenly stop making Bond films after this.) It’s only fitting that the rare Bond film that would make my Top 10 list is also probably the darkest 007 to date…8. VOLVER
Being an Almodovar film, Volver isn’t exactly dark — it carries the director’s trademark quirkiness and colorful cinematography — but it also centers around a woman who returns from the dead shortly after her granddaughter kills her sexually abusive stepfather, so it ain’t Dora The Explorer either. Penelope Cruz is Raimunda, a woman who is busy dealing with her aunt’s death, her teen daughter, multiple jobs, and then her husband’s body after he’s been stabbed and left for dead on the kitchen floor. Raimunda treats this as just one more pesky task on her “To Do” list, and she doesn’t yet know that her mother has reappeared from beyond the grave and become her sister’s new roommate.
Even moreso than most of his films, Almodovar posits Volver as a love letter to strong and vibrant women — there are almost no male characters of any significance, especially after the pervy stepdad is out of the way. Cruz is so good in this Spanish-language delight, you’ll never want to hear her speak English again! (And I mean that in a nice way.)7. THE DEPARTED
Packed with the likes of DiCaprio, Damon, Nicholson, Wahlberg, (Martin) Sheen, and (Alec) Baldwin, it’s almost shocking to see so much A-list talent on screen in one place in The Departed… especially since, true to its title, nearly everyone bids us a bloody adieu. The Departed is a nasty piece of work, even by Scorsese standards, with a seriously grim outlook dressed up as a slick studio thriller. The premise couldn’t be any more high-concept, with DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan going undercover as an Irish gangster to try and bring down Nicholson’s crime lord Frank Costello, who has himself planted Damon’s Colin within the police force.
The Departed gives us the ultimate domino effect of double crosses and at least one seriously shocking death scene. But Scorsese is the master of violently dispatching great actors, so here, as always, we hate to see ‘em go, but we love to watch ‘em leave. If it doesn’t quite reach the annals of classic cinema the way Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and GoodFellas did, that’s only because Scorsese’s landmark in the past is so incomparable. It’s easily his best since GoodFellas, clear proof that Scorsese can still deliver the nasty goods when he wants to.6. THE FOUNTAIN
The Fountain is a lush, romantic story about eternal love, but don’t worry — it’s about death, too. (And thus, more than worthy of being on my downer Top 10 list.) Darren Aronofsky doubles down on the bombastic bleakness he wrought in Requiem For A Dream in this tale of a terminally ill woman (Rachel Weisz) and the husband (Hugh Jackman) who is desperately seeking a cure for her. Jackman also portrays a conquistador exploring new lands for Queen Isabella, as well as a lonely man traveling through space in the distant future, with only a tree as his companion.
Yes, The Fountain is ambitious enough to take place in the past, present, and future, and the budget is much lower than you might expect it to be in spite of its dazzling cinematography and special effects. With its sprawling timeline, fractured structure, and an overflow of Big Ideas, The Fountain is not for everyone, but Jackson and Weisz turn in astonishingly emotive performances and the film is equally unafraid of being overwrought. Rare is the love story that is really more enamored of our obsession with eternal life, but Aronofsky was obviously the right man for the job.
5. PAN’S LABYRINTH
A young girl discovers she’s the lost princess of a magic land… sounds light, right? Well, Pan’s Labyrinth is the only fairy tale in recent memory to also depict a man’s face being bashed in with a wine bottle, so don’t bring the kids.
It’s been a long time since we saw a cinematic fantasyland as richly imagined as this. And probably even longer since we saw one so devastating. Pan’s Labyrinth takes the “it was all a dream” trope of family-friendly flicks like The Wizard Of Oz a few steps further, presenting a real world we can really understand wanting to dream a life away from. Guillermo Del Toro creates a dazzling fantasy world to offset the cold, cruel real one — and when his young heroine retreats into her imagination, we’re as relieved as she is to get away from the brutality. As fantastic as his fictional monsters are, Pan’s Labyrinth reminds us that these created creatures are only born to help us deal with the real ones.4. LITTLE CHILDREN
Don’t let the innocuous title fool you — Little Children deals with some very grown-up subject matter, and though it’s less death-drenched than most of my list, it’s definitely not for little children.
Two restless parents meet cute on a playground (Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson, both incredible) and begin a torrid bout of adultery. That’s pretty lurid on its own. But Little Children also centers on a sex offender living with his doting mother (Jackie Earle Haley and Phyllis Somerville, equally incredible). Director Todd Field’s treatment of the lonely little mad who made the very bad mistake of exposing himself on a playground due to illicit desires is fully nuanced, allowing us to feel sympathy for him while also making us as uneasy as we should be. This all bounces perfectly off of the slightly more mundane suburban frustrations of Sarah and Brad, caught in unfulfilling marriages and striving for what they left behind in their youth.
These damaged characters give into their base desires just like — yep! — lil’ kids. It’s a funny, moving, and somewhat disturbing portrait of the suburban underbelly from the man who gave us In The Bedroom. Even the steamy sex scenes between two incredibly attractive actors can’t distract us from the unsettling themes.3. HALF NELSON
Ryan Gosling gives it his all as Half Nelson’s charismatic inner-city teacher, striving to steer his students toward the straight and narrow. But this is not your average feel-good scholastic flick. The difference? Here, teach has a major heroin problem, thus his every encouraging word is laced with hypocrisy.
We’ve seen plenty of films about how inner city youth are in need of a little TLC, and there’s usually a benevolent educator there to shine a guiding light. Half Nelson gives us the flip side, presenting the teacher as the fuck-up who may never get things right, while allowing us to instill our hope in the next generation (which is the whole point of education). Shareeka Epps more than holds her own as the precocious student who knows teacher’s dirty little secret. The result is a heartbreaking look at how sometimes, the people we look to for guidance are the ones most in need of intervention.2. CHILDREN OF MEN
Much of the Earth’s population has fallen victim to war and famine. And if that’s not bad enough, all of humanity is about to go the way of the dodo. Yes, Children Of Men absolutely belongs on this downbeat list. Fans of Y Tu Mama Tambien already knew Alfonso Cuaron was a terrific filmmaker, but with Children Of Men, he confirmed more: he’s one of the best. Ever.
In a not-too-distant future, women have become infertile. There are no more children. Clive Owen is just one of many sad sacks waiting out human extinction. There is no hope… until radical ex-lover Julianne Moore pops back into his life, with some big news: one woman in all the world is pregnant.
Shocking in moments, painful in others, and tender just when we need a break from the tension, every note Cuaron strikes in Children Of Men is electrifying in ways that bear comparison to the best of Kubrick and Spielberg. Through long takes and otherwise expert filmmaking, he builds the suspense to an almost unbearable degree and delivers a truly surprising moment of violence that tells us all bets are off in this sci-fi dystopia. His apocalyptic tomorrowland feels all too real — it’s one glimpse into the future that actually feels like it could be coming. (But let’s hope not.)1. UNITED 93
No need to explain why this one’s a downer. With 9/11 still very present in the public consciousness, it’s questionable whether we needed a cinematic reminder. But thanks to Paul Greengrass’ riveting, documentary-like approach, United 93 does right what Oliver Stone’s sappy, malfocused World Trade Center did not — it strips away the politics and aftermath of that fateful day and takes us back to that moment when our generation faced true global terror for the first time. A moment that changed so much forever.
The filmmaking is remarkably invisible, following men and women doing their jobs, going about their business, on a day that begins like any other ordinary day, with no one (but a handful of terrorists) aware that historic events have been set in motion. It’s as if a documentary crew just so happened to be in the right place to capture the action.
With subject matter as monumental as this, Greengrass had the right instinct — go small. Give us the details, and let us fill in what we already know about what’s happening. As the second plane hits, we read on the characters’ faces the devastating disbelief that this is actually happening; as we’re stranded aboard the titular flight in the film’s final act, we feel everything the passengers do. But in a way, we did already.
The brilliance of United 93 is that it approaches September 11 with attention to detail that, anywhere else, would be boring; it focuses on nondescript, everyday individuals to capture our collective horror. We’ve been on planes. We’ve been at work during a crisis. (Though certainly a lesser crisis.) And we were there on 9/11, seeing an unspeakable event unfold on our TV screens.
Many have shied away from this upsetting masterpiece, but it’s their loss — watching United 93 subjects us to terror and despair, sure, but it’s terror and despair we were already subjected to in real life. I can understand not wanting to relive it. But what United 93 does is allow us to process the fear and the grief — not alone, but together. We experience the strength and courage of the passengers in those final moments. Presenting these events to us with as little razzle-dazzle and embellishment as is possible in a narrative feature film, United 93 is a rare, powerful, and cathartic masterpiece in which we not only bear witness to a historic event, but are allowed to become a part of it. United, indeed.*