Children of Men - The trajectory of Alfonso Cuaron's career fascinates me. The Mexican filmmaker got his start directing shorts and Spanish soap operas before helming the children's film A Little Princess in his first U.S. production. He followed that up with a rather superb adaptation of Great Expectations with Gwyneth Paltrow. After that, he returned to his home country and made one hell of a coming of age story with the provocative and hormonally driven Y tu Mama Tambien. He switched gears mighty quick in order to direct the most critically acclaimed installment of the Harry Potter franchise with Prisoner of Azkaban. So, the men went from Spanish soaps to children's films, to meditations on sexual exploration, to the wizarding world and, in 2006, landed on a wickedly interesting dystopian future action thriller.
The plot finds a world where there has been no births in years. The population is crumbling and the world begins to reflect this. But a great secret is being kept; a young woman is found--pregnant--and now she must be protected at all costs. The film explores this world in grim detail. The cast is good all around, with Clive Owen, Julianne Moore and Chiwetel Ejiofor as stand outs. But, the true star of the film is the camera. The camera work in this film is dazzling, especially in the final act where the camera takes you through an action sequence that stretches several minutes in a single take. You, as an audience member, feel fully immersed in the chaos and the feeling is heart pounding. I was stunned that Cuaron did not receive Oscar recognition for his direction with this film. Each film he does just improves on the previous one. As far as dystopian future action dramas go, this is one of the finest of the past 20 years.
Perfume : The Story of a Murderer - A friend once described the affect this film has on its viewers as being lasso'd in and the film just keeps pulling and pulling on that rope until you are so deep within the film that you have no idea when it really had you in its clutches, but you are committed to going wherever it takes you. That is a perfect description of this film's power. It is a sharply original concept and is written with such tightness, and photographed with such exquisite beauty that it becomes impossible to pull away from. The plot sounds wild,and it is but in a delightful way. A man, with a tremendous sense of smell longs to create the perfect perfume and in order to fulfill that want, he turns to murdering woman and stealing their scent. The film explores the murderous character in fascinating detail and delivers one hell of an off the wall conclusion.
Rocky Balboa - Sylvester Stallone course corrects the Rocky franchise with this poignant meditation on age and mortality. Designed as a swan song for the title character, this film does for the character of Rocky what The Wrath of Khan did for the character of Kirk. It forces the character to recognize that their prime is behind them, but to not mourn it and see the beauty in the potential of what comes next. There is some really strongly written monologues in this film that have powerful impact and Stallone gives his best performance since the first Rocky film. The addition of Milo Ventimiglia as Rocky Jr is inspired. He gives a good performance and is fully believable as being the son of both Stallone and Talia Shire. Large sections of the film are spent with Rocky lamenting the death of his beloved Adrian, and they all hit harder than any punch Rocky could dish out. I love that this film doesn't shy away from the emotional toll Rocky has been put under and isn't afraid to let the audience feel it too. The film is also beautifully shot. Hands down, this is the best looking movie of the franchise and uses some really interesting camera trickery and use of color during the final boxing match. For my money, this film stands toe to toe with the first film and is my pick for best film of 2006.
Stranger than Fiction - This is a fun little drama wherein the title character discovers someone is narrating his life. He is the only one that can hear the narrator and things turn sour when he learns that he is going to die. So, now, he is in a race against time to discover who is narrating his life and to see if he can change his outcome. The film is wicked smart and makes good use of literary technique. Will Ferrell is quite great in the lead role and in wonderfully reserved in his performance. Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson also add greatly to the film. I love this film for its uniqueness and its willingness to explore Ferrell's life, even with the grim news he is given. I would have liked for it to hit a little more emotionally, but I can not deny the effect the film held over me. This is a strong picture and worthy of placement in the best of 2006.
Thank You for Smoking - Jason Reitman knocked it out of the park with this slick, fast talking dramedy about a spokesperson for Big Tobacco whose job it is to spin a negative public image into something cool that everybody wants. Aaron Eckhart was robbed of an Oscar for his performance in this. He somehow plays smarmy and likable at the same time and turns this otherwise diabolical character into something of a hero that you root for. Watching his character growth throughout the film is really, pretty engaging. The laughs hit hard and then you feel bad for laughing. This is really quite a special film and a must see.
Best Picture : The Departed - Scorsese finally got his Oscar with this remake of the Chinese film Infernal Affairs. The cast is stellar and the unfolding of the story quite gripping. I wouldn't have put it as best picture, but it is a good film nonetheless.
Biggest Box Office : Pirates of the Caribbean Dead Man's Chest - The worst (arguably) Pirates movie drew huge crowds with this film that finely fits the definition of underwhelming. Where the first film was surprising, engaging and smart, this film is overblown, plodding and dim.