5. Children of Men
Alfonso Cuaron's stark adaptation of the 1992 sci-fi novel takes place in a dystopian future Great Britain, where humanity is facing an infertility crisis. It's been 18 years since a human baby was born, and society has begun to break down, with political groups waging war on each other, almost every government in the world having fallen to chaos, and Britain having turned into a police state. A former activist named Theo (Clive Owen) is tasked by his ex-wife and her allies with escorting a pregnant refugee to the coast so she can meet up with scientists in Portugal and aid them in finding an infertility cure. Along the way Theo and his friends are ambushed and betrayed, and the film becomes a taut race for survival. Cuaron makes incredible use of long, unbroken shots in a few of the action sequences, giving them a wholly unique feel and plunging us right into the bedlam. Clive Owen makes a splendidly flawed, unlikely hero, while Chiwetel Ejiofor, Julianne Moore, and Michael Caine supply memorable supporting performances. Children of Men touches on themes of immigration policy, religious faith, and redemption, while exploring a fascinatingly thoughtful science fiction premise.
4. Rocky Balboa
Well this wasn't supposed to happen. The sixth entry in the dead-horse Rocky franchise should never have been even watchable, let alone one of the best in the series. But Sylvester Stallone managed to wash off the foul stink of the wretched Rocky V and present a completely worthy conclusion to the saga. While this film doesn't totally ignore the events of V (Rocky is still back to his working-class roots), it picks up the story years later after Adrian has died (Stallone famously explained the decision to kill her off by citing how much of a drag her character had become). Rocky now owns a successful Italian restaurant and has settled into a comfortable (albeit lonely) retirement, until an ESPN dream fight simulator pits Balboa against the current heavyweight boxing champion Mason Dixon, piquing the public's interest in seeing the matchup for real (inspired by George Foreman's unlikely comeback in the 90s). Rocky eventually agrees to the exhibition fight and we wander into familiar territory, complete with the classic Training Montage. As with the first Rocky film however, this movie is not really about the fight, but rather focuses on the characters. Rocky has seemingly lost his sense of purpose after Adrian's death and spends much of his energy mourning her, while her regretful brother Paulie is anxious to leave that part of his life behind ("Stop talking 'bout yesterday, Rock! Yesterday wasn't so great!"). Rocky develops a relationship of sorts with Marie, a girl he used to know from the old neighborhood, and in growing close with her and her son Rocky begins to really live again. I had no expectations of enjoying this film. The idea of picking up the Rocky series again after 17 years seemed totally absurd, but to his credit Stallone rediscovered what made these movies work in the first place and crafted an excellent final chapter (until the equally excellent spinoff Creed showed up that is) that rivals the original.
3. Pan's Labyrinth
Here is one of the most unusual and imaginative films I've ever seen. Guillermo Del Toro's fairy tale for mature audiences tells the story of a young girl named Ofelia growing up in post-Civil War Fascist Spain, who is visited by a mystical faun creature and presented with a series of fantastical challenges to gain immortality. The faun believes her to be a reincarnated princess and wishes to reunite her with her parents in the underworld. In real life Ofelia's mother has recently married a ruthless Spanish military Captain, who rules over their lives and household with an iron fist and specializes in hunting down and brutally killing Spanish rebels. The story follows Ofelia as she tries to fulfill the faun's mission while keeping everything a secret from her evil stepfather. Ivana Baquero is perfect as the young girl, bringing a hardened maturity to the role. Sergi López, a Mexican actor specializing in comedic roles, was an unlikely but amazing choice to play the terrifying Captain Vidal. To bring to life the fantasy elements, Del Toro relies only sparsely on CG, mostly employing traditional organic creature effects. The results are fully believable and aesthetically gorgeous, while also quite horrific at times (my favorite scene involves the undeniably scary Pale Man, whose eyeballs are attached to his hands). Pan's Labyrinth is a wonderful, if rather grisly, fantasy film utilizing elements that scared us all as children, but reinventing them for an adult audience. It is probably Del Toro's masterpiece.
2. The Prestige
Christopher Nolan's thriller about rival 19th century magicians is a dark, smartly-devised, and tremendously well-acted film. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale play former colleagues in the prestidigitation racket, who develop a deep personal feud wherein each tries to ruin the other's career, and eventually as the stakes escalate, his life. Their mutual hatred is ignited when Bale appears to have inadvertently caused the death of Jackman's wife, and Jackman becomes obsessed with destroying him, at the expense of his own sanity. The film jumps around chronologically and contains diaries within diaries, keeping the viewer guessing throughout the film. Also intriguing and marvelously executed is the gradual sympathetic shift - early in the film Jackman's character seems to be the protagonist, but slowly we begin to identify more with Bale, as Jackman's fixation drives him beyond the pale. The rivalry echoes the real-life professional competition between inventors Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla (who actually appears in the film, played as a reclusive eccentric by David Bowie); these two men abandon all sense of decency and fairness to annihilate the other. I particularly enjoyed the examination of the science of illusionism - how many of the classic tricks were performed; what commitment was required to maintain the illusion. At the height of its popularity the magic business often required one to stay in character at all times when in public. Case in point the Chinese magician Chung Ling Soo, as portrayed in the film, projects the persona of a frail old man to conceal the considerable physical strength neededto execute some of his tricks. The Prestige, like many of Nolan's films, takes a seemingly familiar subject and presents it in an unpredictable and thought-provoking way. Plus it has Wolverine vs. Batman!
1. The Departed
After decades of being snubbed by The Academy, legend filmmaker Martin Scorsese finally scored a Best Director and Best Picture Oscar with his 2006 return to the gangster genre, The Departed. Set in Boston, The Departed is loosely based on the story of infamous mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger, and is also an English-language remake of the 2002 Chinese film Infernal Affairs. Scorsese and his all-star cast (including Matt Damon, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, a scenery-devouring Jack Nicholson, and a tour-de-force performance from Leonardo DiCaprio) meld the two concepts together to create one of the all-time great gangster films. DiCaprio plays Billy Costigan, an undercover cop who is sent to infiltrate the inner circle of Boston mobster Frank Costello (Nicholson), and help the Massachusetts State Police build a case to bring him down. However in Costello's pocket is another officer, Matt Damon's Colin Sullivan, who manages to thwart the Department's attempts. The screenplay was adeptly written by Boston native William Monahan, who injects the dialogue with great authenticity and stays one step ahead of the audience. The Departed has all the Scorsese hallmarks - fast-pacing, frenetic editing, morally ambiguous characters on both sides of the law, and wonderfully quotable dialogue (oh, and lots of F-bombs). This is one of Scorsese's finest works.
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