Monday, January 01, 2007

Kathryn Jenson White's Best Films of 2006 / Oklahoma Gazette

1. “Pan’s Labyrinth,” dir. Guillermo del Toro
My 3-D theory of the qualities of really good films — dark, disturbing and difficult — finds full realization in del Toro’s magical mystery tour of the human heart in both its most inspiring creative purity and its most dispiriting destructive corruption. The story is of a young girl seeking escape from the horrors of her personal life under the control of a stepfather who is a sadistic captain in Franco’s army. Her reality is mirrored in that of 1940s Spain and a guerrilla movement attempting to defeat Franco’s fascist forces. Ofelia seeks refuge from life’s horrors in the rich world of a child’s imagination as defined and fueled by fairy and folk tales. The film stuns with its vicious violence and recognition of the evil of which men are capable. It uplifts with its visual beauty and its equal recognition of the redemptive and restorative powers of love, art and the imagination.

2. “United 93,” dir. Paul Greengrass
To all those who have said this film came too soon after the horrific, based-on-reality story it depicts and that they could not/would not see it, I say, ‘You are wrong.’ Everyone should see this film. Greengrass takes a beautifully spare, almost documentary approach to exploring what happened on the 9/11 plane on which passengers nobly struggled to overcome their terror and stop the madmen in the cockpit from carrying out their hateful plan of destruction. The film pays heart-wrenching tribute to the human spirit. As the passengers rush the cockpit, no one watching can escape the piercing pain of the inevitable or the aching empathy of watching ordinary people respond with complete humanness in all its complexity to an extraordinary situation.

3. “The Departed,” dir. Martin Scorsese
With amazing performances from Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson as well as a rich, complex supporting cast, Scorsese’s film shows a master at work. This compellingly complicated, convoluted story of betrayal looks at love both noble and selfish and loyalty both admirable and misplaced. Based on the 2002 “Infernal Affairs,” a Hong Kong film directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, Scorsese’s re-visioning is as American as they come. Scorsese has moved from New York to Boston and expanded his cinematic world to include the family of law enforcement as well as the family of organized crime. The mob boy undercover as cop and the cop undercover as mob boy mirror each other in always surprising but never unbelievable ways. Nicholson is no cartoon joker as the baddest of the bad mob bosses; he’s flat-out scary.

4. “The Queen,” dir. Stephen Frears
Helen Mirren’s astonishing performance as Queen Elizabeth II elevates a fairly simple little character study of a film to something much more significant. As a grace note, it also makes human the seemingly cardboard figure who occupies the British throne. The queen of England owes Mirren big time; her husband, Prince Phillip, not so much. Using the death of Princess Diana in September 1977 as its fixed point, the film wanders around big political issues like governing as opposed to ruling and big personal ones like responding as a human rather than as an office or position or type. The stupidities of traditional behavior that no longer has relevance and the way slavish adherence to ideas can limit our abilities to be fully human are major concerns here. Frears takes them on boldly but not brashly.

4. “Little Miss Sunshine,” dir. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Who could not love Olive, the embodiment of the hopes and dreams we all have as children, the unspoiled innocent who believes, sincerely, the adult line about hard work leading to inevitable success, dreaming all that you can be and the rest of the hogwash generated by the American Dream-inspirational/motivational industry complex? Who could not equally love her dysfunctional family representing all the oddities of human behavior and absurdity of human interaction? A stellar ensemble of actors led by Abigail Breslin as Olive and including Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin, Paul Dano and Steve Carell delivers unto us a family with flaws and follies with which we can all identify. One part theater of the absurd, one part slapstick comedy and two parts sincerely touching human story, “Little Miss Sunshine” is truly illuminating.

5. “Shut Up and Sing,” dir. Barbara Kopple
6. “Little Children,” dir. Todd Field
7. “Half Nelson,” dir. Ryan Fleck
8. “Volver,” dir. Pedro Almodóvar
9. “Notes on a Scandal,” dir. Richard Eyre
10. “Casino Royale,” dir. Martin Campbell


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