1. THE DEPARTED Director Martin Scorcese has arrived in glorious form in The Departed, a film about two opposing men (Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon) who hide their true allegiance while working for the opposing side. Not only do these men have to outsmart their (rival) colleagues, they also must try not to blow their cover in the process. The cast is phenomenal all-around. From Jack Nicholson’s charismatic and menacing mob boss to Mark Wahlberg’s hilarious turn as a bad-ass sergeant, the all-star power doesn’t go to waste. What makes The Departed superior is simply Scorcese’s direction. Sometimes I even forgot he was directing because I was engrossed by what’s happening on screen. You can get lost in the violence, tough-guy talk, and gritty drama he orchestrates. While not the best Scorcese film, The Departed is a cause for monumental celebration. The legendary filmmaker finally received his long overdue Oscar.
2. VOLVER Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar has woven another masterful tale in Volver. This is the first time I catch him incorporating an element of horror. The title means “to return” and perhaps it refers to a ghost which unbelievably comes back among the living. The set-up for this premise is about perfect. The film vividly takes place in a local village, where unreal phantoms and supernatural spirits are part of the reality. Almodóvar is skillful in unveiling answers, teasing us yet it never feels like he’s manipulating us. The most wonderful surprise here is Penélope Cruz in the lead role. In American films, she seems out of place and sounds tongue-tied. But in Volver, Cruz has emerged as a screen goddess who brings out a beautiful performance. It is as if she has finally come to life for us.
3. BRICK This is a smoking film noir dope, but this old-school movie has high school as its burg. As with all teen movies, this could all be rubbish but Brick is solid; it never crumbles. The cement that fortifies the movie is lead actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Brendan – a loner who’s out for vengeance when his ex-girlfriend dies. The best thing about Brick is the construction of its story. It’s slow and steady, but it’s monumental. As far as mystery goes, this is skillfully first-rate. Filmmaker Rian Johnson slowly seduces you for a ride, casually shoots the breeze along winding roads, and then wham! – you ram into a wall of surprise. Here’s an intelligent movie that knows twists and turns are nothing if the rhythm and execution ain’t right. As a result, Brick hits like a motherfucker – it’s a triumphant knockout.
4. UNITED 93 Even years from now, United 93 will probably be still the best movie about 9/11. Watching it is one of the most memorable film experiences I had in theaters. Superbly shot in cinema verite style by director Paul Greengrass, the film is starkly realistic and achingly intimate. It is as close as you get to reliving September 11, 2001 – certainly one of the darkest days of our generation. The feeling is like being cut open and the filmmakers dug in deep and got hold of my emotions. My reaction was to bleed in tears. It’s horrifying, but undeniably powerful. No doubt, this film of incredible drama also delivered the most jarring horror of the year. It is not an easy picture to watch, but it is too extraordinary of a film to miss.
5. CHILDREN OF MEN Set in a future where humans are infertile, Children of Men is exemplary of bravado filmmaking. It takes a genius and a steady hand to create a film like this immersed in precariousness. Alfonso Cuaron’s gritty orchestration of chaos is simply masterful. As for the cinematography, Emmanuel Lubezki conceives the look of a plausible future, without being too distantly unfamiliar. The setting here is constantly volatile, where people drop dead like flies and dogs are inexplicably ubiquitous. The movie also offers the most impressive camera work of the year. Children of Men will be famous for its long and unbroken shots. It’s an achievement that requires flawless execution of an intricate choreography of actions. Children of Men is bound to enthrall many generations to come.
6. BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN The funniest movie of the year is also one of the most original. Sasha Baron Cohen plays the titular Kazakhstani reporter, who travels across America and learn about its culture. The road trip is a non-stop laugh riot as Cohen masterfully plays his character straight while he interacts with unsuspecting Americans. And yet behind the laughs, the film works as an effective social commentary, cleverly exposing our self-important nation’s ugly and scary prejudices. In the end, it’s ironic that Borat, the silly outsider, might know more about America than most Americans know more about its own countryt. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is an eye-opening, un-politically correct, innovative, razor-sharp satire. It is simply a comedy masterpiece.
7. PAN’S LABYRINTH Dubbed as a fairy tale for adults, Pan’s Labyrinth is one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the year. It is about a girl’s escape to fantastical adventures, while living in a grisly Spanish Civil War backdrop. Story-wise, I was truly impressed with filmmaker Del Toro, who’s cunning enough to harness two kinds of fears into this movie. There’s the superficial fear which concerns supernatural forces or monsters. Then there’s the realistic fear, where the monsters turn out to be humans. The juxtaposition of these two fears triggers our inner childs and adult selves simultaneously. When the fantasy and the real world converge towards the end, it does so in unexpected ways.
8. LADY VENGEANCE This Korean movie tells the operatic story of Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae), who, at 19, is jailed for kidnapping and murdering a little boy. She’s innocent, of course. But when she’s released 13 years later, she’s bent on exacting a magnificent revenge on a man who has wronged her. Director Chan-wook Park is masterful in triggering emotions. I was quite amazed by the depth and range of the film’s emotional journey. It’s a film that doesn’t play safe. It goes to extreme places that few movies ever venture. And yet at the same time, the film never once plays like a cheap stunt. When Lady Vengeance goes over the edge, it refuses to take the Wile E. Coyote plunge. Rather, it suspends like an overpowering thought.
9. LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima, seen from a Japanese viewpoint, is an unforgettable war drama. It grows harrowingly as one by one, the Japanese soldiers must confront the inevitability of defeat and ultimately death. Some commit suicide, while some try hard to survive. Ken Watanabe and the uniformally excellent cast are wonderfully guided by Eastwood, who smartly eschews any showboating. Even when chaos surrounds the movie, Letters from Iwo Jima never feels flashy. The muted cinematography is near monotone; the colors are faded. However, the haunting drama is very clear and strong. There are painful moments that can make you cry. They are so painful, you feel as if your heart will explode too.
10. NOTES ON A SCANDAL An intriguing British thriller. The promise of a scandal (a teacher in a sexual relationship with a student) whets our appetite, but the acting makes us devour the movie. Judi Dench, as the blackmailing Barbara, is deliciously evil, triggering fear, dread, shock, anxiety, hopelessness, and yes, even sympathy from the viewer. As the scandalous teacher Sheba, Cate Blanchett rises to the challenge: exuding charm, sexuality, and hysteria. The adept screenplay never simplifies Barbara and Sheba as scheming hag and slutty teacher, respectively. These characters are complex and morally dubious. By the end, their actions become convincing, given their psychological state of mind. I know the story of Notes on a Scandal is of tabloid fodder, but boy, tell your mother, this is one fine fodder.
Runners – Up
FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS Clint Eastwood’s other war drama looks behind a famous snapshot: six soldiers raising an American flag in Iwo Jima. The movie puts us in the midst of a battle, not skimping on torrential rain of bullets, booming explosions, and display of carnage. The film also expands its story, enlightening us on war propaganda and the unspectacular journey of heroic soldiers after the war. Flags of Our Fathers admirably combine the horrors of war and its traumatizing aftermath really well. This is an emotionally complex film and yet Eastwood has a way bringing home a point with staggering minimalism. War might be this significant and grand event in history, but it’s nowhere near compelling next to the simplicity of a man.
CASINO ROYALE Bond, James Bond. I’ve seen numerous Bond movies, but it seems this is the first time I’ve been properly introduced. In Casino Royale, Daniel Craig makes a more real and more human portrayal of the famed British agent. The previous cartoonish films have been fun, but the recent one demands to be taken seriously. It is a compelling transformation for the franchise. Some of the Bond traditions are still intact (first-rate action, villains, babes, and exotic locales), but what elevates the movie is a blindsiding emotional punch. Casino Royale is a force to be reckoned with – one of the best action pictures of the year.
Honorable mention (in alphabetical order): Akeelah and the Bee, Clerks II, Game 6, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, The History Boys, Little Children, Little Miss Sunshine, Monster House, Stranger Than Fiction, Thank You for Smoking.