Monday, January 01, 2007

Doug Bentin's Best Films of the Year / Oklahoma Gazette

The summer blockbusters may have left most of our blocks unbusted, but the end of the year has sent some pretty damn good movies our way. Looking over 2006’s offerings, here are the best films I saw.

“The Departed,” dir. Martin Scorsese

Scorsese, having crept away from the crime film ghetto for a few years, returned in a big way this year with a movie that showcases everything, except Robert DeNiro, that has made his name a pair of cineaste’s household words. Nobody removes the operatic romanticism of street crime to show us the worms under the rocks like Scorsese, and the fact that he can make these characters appealing without making them likable is remarkable. Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Ray Winstone—if the Dallas Cowboys had this much testosterone, they’d end the season 16-0. Violent, funny, terrifying, “The Departed” is bewitching. It’s the snake and we’re the birds. Thankfully, Scorsese provides the pane of glass that separates us.

“Notes on a Scandal,” dir. Richard Eyre

You know you’re watching a pack of rabid sociopaths while you watch “The Departed,” and they can scare the hell out of you, but the icky derangement of the English school teacher played by the brilliant Judi Dench in “Notes on a Scandal” creeps in on little cat feet—make that “little bitch feet”—and you find yourself slyly checking out the women in the audience just to make sure that none of them are smiling too broadly. Not to say that the film isn’t supposed to be funny—it’s wildly funny in that patented Brit way of finding humor in the most tragic situations. Cate Blanchett costars as the new art teacher on whom Dench’s spinster develops a crush. You won’t find two better performances in any film this year. Seek this one out.

“The Queen,” dir. Stephen Frears

Bette Davis once said that the Brits produced the best actors, but American gave the best actresses to the world. Maybe then—not now. Helen Mirren stars as the present Queen Elizabeth facing a royal crisis on the death of Princess Diana. She thinks the royal family should grieve, or not grieve, as they always have—in private—while the new Prime Minister Tony Blair believes that the country wants a show of grief. Cue the news cameras and tabloid reporters. Like “Notes on a Scandal,” this film finds dark humor in a happening that is mostly melodramatic, if not a little tragic. Mirren is just so good doing what the greatest Brit actors have done repeatedly—holding it all in until it has to gush out. Think of Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia” or Paul Scofield in “A Man For All Seasons.” It’s just a shame that Mirren had to deliver this performance the same year Judi Dench gave us “Notes on a Scandal.” Tie, anyone?

“Lady Vengeance,” dir. Park Chan-wook

Here’s my ringer. Every reviewer gets to praise one film at the end of the year that very few people have seen, and “Lady Vengeance” is mine. Directed by Park Chan-wook, this is the third part of his Vengeance Trilogy. “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” and “Oldboy” came first, and this is the story of a woman who willingly goes to jail for a murder she didn’t commit in order to protect someone dear to her. On her release, she uses the services of the women she was kind to behind bars to go after the real killer. Beautifully photographed and artfully edited, this Korean thriller is funny and dangerous. It’s an art film and a white-knuckler both at once. Available now on DVD, this is one fans of real movies need to see.

“Pan’s Labyrinth,” dir. Guillermo del Toro

American fans of genre films know Mexican director Guillermo del Toro for thrillers like “Mimic,” “Blade II,” and “Hellboy,” but those willing to dig a little deeper—i.e., read subtitles—may know his superb Spanish-language ghost story “The Devil’s Backbone.” Know it or not, you should see this new one. Set during the Spanish Civil War, it’s about a young girl who may have found a way to slip into a darker version of Alice’s Wonderland. Or who may just need fantasy as a way of escaping from the horrors of her life. It’s beautiful and grim at the same time, hopeful and tragic. If you despair of ever seeing a film fantasy that was made with adults in mind, give this one a shot.

“Blood Diamond,” dir. Edward Zwick
“Flags of Our Fathers,” dir. Clint Eastwood
“Thank You For Smoking,” dir. Jason Reitman
“Hollywoodland,” dir. Allen Coulter
“Casino Royale,” dir. Martin Campbell

And let me give a special nod to a picture I liked a lot although very few of my colleagues have had much nice to say about it. It’s Terry Zwigoff’s “Art School Confidential.” Give it a try.


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