The best four films of the year are all essentially crime pictures. Though they are stylish, none could be deemed pulp, or at least not in the Tarantino/Rodriguez sense of the word.
In 2006, as has often been the case in recent years, I found more movies to like and admire, rather than to love and cherish. In fact, when attempting to compose a top 10 list, shockingly few films stood out as must-includes. As of this writing, only four '06ers demonstrate the kind of quality I strive to recognize in a year-end roundup: Rian Johnson's Brick, Martin Scorsese's The Departed, Christopher Nolan's The Prestige, and Spike Lee's Inside Man.
More than most best-of choices, these four films share a common thread: they are all essentially crime pictures. Though all four are stylish, none could be deemed pulp, or at least not in the Tarantino/Rodriguez sense of the word. They're fun movies to watch, but they take their crime stories seriously.
The Prestige stretches the "crime" tag furthest, as it's about two magicians, not detectives, gangsters or cops. Crime figures heavily in Christopher Nolan's four previous films (Following, Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins) and The Prestige retains the structure of an investigation. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Christian Bale (Alfred Borden) spend most of the film trying to figure each other out -- their methods, motivations, and tricks up their respective sleeves. The film is such adept entertainment that it's apparently easy to miss its thematic resonance, dismissed as it was in some corners as a "cold exercise." But the tug of war it depicts -- between meticulous illusion and miraculous technology, between personal obsession and outward showmanship, all structured as a symmetrical house of mirrors -- is timeless despite the period setting.
Bale and Jackman both had other, showier acting triumphs in 2006 -- Bale chewing scenery in Harsh Times and Jackman as the heart of Darren Aronofsky's head trip The Fountain -- and here they pursue each other with a doggedness usually associated with cops and serial killers. In keeping with the movie's obsessive doubling, each plays the hero in his own side of the story.
Brick also features an investigation without real cops; its detective is the teenage Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and its back alleys are California high-school hallways. Most of the characters speak in a slangy, neo-noir patter ("bulls" are cops, "clam" is to keep quiet, "The Pin" is a kingpin, etc.), but the first feature from director Rian Johnson isn't a parody. Its central mysteries -- the hows and whys of the death of Brendan's ex-girlfriend -- avoid the twist-a-minute convolutions of modern thrillers. Brick is convoluted, all right, but in a traditional, almost straightforward manner (if anything, there are too few plausible suspects).
What Johnson gives us in place of mind-blowing twists is a teenage detective film that rings emotionally true. Steven Soderbergh also put out a self-conscious twist on '40s style this year with The Good German, but as brilliant as many of its moments are, the film gets bogged down by favoring story mechanics over characters. Brick succeeds because of Brendan, our unlikely high school tour guide.
The two more traditional excellent crime pictures of the year came courtesy of two New York directors. Spike Lee's Inside Man and Martin Scorsese's The Departed were polished studio jobs, scoring the biggest financial hits of their respective careers. They also fit in perfectly with both filmmakers' idiosyncratic styles.
The outlines of Inside Man describe a heist thriller, with a slick, smart investigator (Denzel Washington) trying to puzzle out a bank job and hostage situation perpetuated by a smooth criminal (Clive Owen). But rather than speed up the pace, Lee lets the film breathe, with plenty of waiting and talking. Lee turns a Hollywood setup into a relaxed procedural with ample local color. Inside Man, with its very American cross-section of hostages, witnesses, cops, and criminals, is a love letter to New York City to follow Lee's deeply moving 2002 requiem, 25th Hour. If that film showed a city wounded by 9/11, Inside Man gives us a New York on the mend, where even the business-as-usual of cops and robbers is jazzy and joyful. A traditional crime plot turns out to be a great clothesline for Lee's sociological interests.
While Inside Man has Lee riffing in his familiar New York territory with revitalized results, The Departed takes Scorsese out of that geographical comfort zone and onto a different sent of mean streets, "shipping up to Boston," as a prominently featured Dropkick Murphys song attests (at least in theory, as parts of the film were shot in Brooklyn).
Though The Departed (a remake of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs ) is a return to gangster territory for Scorsese, those who dismissed it as a late-career greatest-hits comp have oversimplified matters. In its most obvious break from Scorsese's past, The Departed cuts back and forth between Frank Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), an undercover cop working inside the Irish mob, and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), an undercover crook infiltrating the Massachusetts state police. Has Scorsese ever spent so much time on the law-enforcement side of the cops/crooks divide? It's usually left to Michael Mann, who was off in a haze this year with Miami Vice. Scorsese picks up that slack with aplomb; his bustling Boston police station occasions some of the film's best scenes, with punchy dialogue courtesy of screenwriter William Monahan. The humor and thrills of The Departed are front and center. Its thematic concerns, with both Costigan and Sullivan grasping for father figures and undone by deception, seem secondary.
In fact, none of these four films make obvious overtures towards importance, which will make awards recognition difficult (except perhaps for long-overdue Marty and his all-star cast). It's also what makes this group so preferable to, say, the sprawling despair of Babel, the on-the-nose flash of Dreamgirls, or even those complex Clint Eastwood war stories. In a year of so many decent efforts yet so few great films, the year's best came disguised as "mere" entertainment. The familiar outlines of the crime movie do not limit Johnson, Nolan, Scorsese or Lee. Rather, they're the foundation for four startlingly imaginative films.