Babel (Dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Innarritu): Although this bears many structural similarities to Alejandro Gonzalez Innarritu’s other films (Amores Perros and 21 Grams) with its interwoven narratives of despair, this was his most ambitious film yet. Exploring different characters connected by a single gunshot over 3 different continents, it is a moving and highly accomplished piece of work. Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Gael García Bernal all turn in fine performances but look out for newcomer Rinko Kikuchi who is startling as a deaf Japanese teenager.
Brick (Dir. Rian Johnson): Another first time film maker to catch the eye this year was Rian Johnson whose debut feature got a US and UK release a year after making waves at Sundance in January 2005. A film noir set against the back drop of a Californian high school, it was a film that could easily have looked silly but thanks to some assured writing, acting and directing it is a gripping and captivating film. Made for just $450,000 it puts a lot of the UK lottery funded garbage to shame.
Children of Men (Dir. Alfonso Cuaron): The future has rarely looked as plausibly bleak as it does in director Alfonso Cuaron’s vision of Britain in 2027. Although the acting from the likes of Clive Owen and Michael Caine was excellent, it was the virtuoso technique and underlying intelligence that took this film to another level. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki and the production design by Jim Clay and Geoffrey Kirkland were particularly outstanding.
Half Nelson (Dir. Ryan Fleck): The real treat of the London film festival this year was this shrewdly observed tale about the relationship between a Brooklyn teacher and a student after one of them is caught smoking crack. Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps give two marvellous lead performances and the film skilfully avoids the clichés of the teacher pupil drama. A stunning debut from director Ryan Fleck and his writing partner Anna Boden, it marks them out as filmmakers to watch out for in the coming years.
Little Children (Dir. Todd Field): This intelligent and highly accomplished adaptation of Tom Perotta’s novel about suburban angst unfortunately died at the box office but deserved a lot more recognition. Apart from featuring a clutch of heavyweight performances from Kate Winslet, Jackie Earl Haley and Phyllis Somerville it was one of the boldest mainstream studio releases of the year in terms of style and content. Managing to weave some dark subject matter with some telling ironic touches it was a film that deserved a bigger audience.
Pan’s Labyrinth (Dir. Guillermo Del Toro): Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro created the best work of his career so far with this sublime fantasy set amidst the backwoods of Spain during the Civil War. Ivana Baquero gave an excellent performance in the lead role and the visuals (on a medium sized budget) were a feast for the eyes. Del Toro has managed to balance commercial films (Hellboy and Blade 2) with more personal work like Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone and this extraordinary film.
The Departed (Dir. Martin Scorcese): It is no coincidence Martin Scorcese’s return to form happened when he stopped chasing Oscars with Harvey Weinstein and returned to the urban grittiness that characterised his best work like Taxi Driver and Goodfellas. Whilst this was not up to those exalted standards it was still a refreshing blast of cops, crime and corruption laced with a wicked sense of black humour. The plot was reworking of the 2002 Asian thriller Infernal Affairs relocated to Boston, as a cop (Leonardo DiCaprio) and a criminal (Matt Damon) double cross their bosses in an increasingly dangerous game of cat and mouse. It might have lacked the tension and panache of the original but the lead and supporting performances were excellent (look out for Mark Wahlberg as a particularly foul mouthed cop) and Scorcese has certainly done enough to bag his long overdue Oscar.
The Queen (Dir. Stephen Frears): Helen Mirren is odds on to win the Best Actress Oscar for her imperious performance in this drama about the relationship between Her Majesty and Tony Blair during the death of Princess Diana in 1997. Michael Sheen was nearly as good as the Prime Minister (and he was even better on stage recently in London as David Frost in the brilliant Frost/Nixon) and both were helped by a script by Peter Morgan that was bold, witty and intelligent. Stephen Frears direction was a reminder that he is one of England’s most accomplished and consistently interesting directors.
United 93 (Dir. Paul Greengrass): The first major studio film to deal with 9/11 was a riveting recreation of the fourth hijacked flight that crashed in Pennsylvania that day. Director Paul Greengrass has surely now established himself as one of the most interesting and gifted directors currently working in Hollywood. Shrewdly avoiding any politics it was a remarkable film on many levels, its technical brilliance matched only by its emotional intensity.
Volver (Dir. Pedro Almodovar): Pedro Almodovar has long been one of Europe’s best directors but in the last few years he has hit a particularly rich vein of form. Talk to Her (2002) and Bad Education (2004) were both outstanding and this year Volver was in the same league. This tale of three generations of women dealing with life and death in Southern Spain was funny and filled with emotion and a career best central performance from Penelope Cruz. The title of the film means “to return” and after a lengthy professional absence from Almodovar’s films, Carmen Maura made a welcome return in a key supporting role.
A Scanner Darkly (Dir. Richard Linklater)
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Dir. Larry Charles)
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Dir. Cristi Puiu)
The Last King of Scotland (Dir. Kevin McDonald)
Little Miss Sunshine (Dir, Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris)
Hard Candy (Dir. David Slade)
Thank You for Smoking (Dir. Jason Reitman)
Venus (Dir. Roger Michell)
Casino Royale (Dir. Martin Campbell)
Superman Returns (Dir. Bryan Singer)
Flags of Our Fathers (Dir. Clint Eastwood)
As usual it is no particular order but check out last years list for films that ended up getting a UK release earlier this year (like The New World and Grizzly Man). There are also films I haven’t seen yet like Letters From Iwo Jima and Dreamgirls that may end up in this this list when I do. See here for the explanation.