Whatever controversial thing Mel Gibson ends up doing next, it cannot be contested that as a director, he is truly a gifted artist. Apocalypto is essentially a big extended chase scene, an action/adventure film set at an intriguingly dark time and place of savage beasts and human sacrifices. What could have been a cheesy National Geographic special becomes a major achievement because of Gibson's gift for authenticity (the dialect in the whole film is Mayan) and visual beauty, with the costume designs, makeup, and production design being among this year's most memorable. The ensemble is of highly capable, naturalistic actors, thus making it easy to sympathize with them despite the strangeness of the language. For sheer beauty and exhilaration, but not so much for the story itself, Apocalypto is definitely a film worth watching and ignoring Gibson's latest controversies for. Grade: B+
Children of Men
From stark beginning (the youngest person in a sterile future human world has just been murdered) to hopeful yet still gloomy end, Children of Men is what many recent science fiction films have tried and failed to be: smart without being condescending, futuristic without being glaringly modern, dark without being constantly shrouded in night, engaging and character-driven without milking audiences for cheap tears or thrills. Its vision of the future, as adapted from P.D. James's novel, is terrifying, with no new births replacing a dying race steeped in chaos and lawlessness, but without resorting to the usual post-apocalyptic tactics of covering everything in a blanket of darkness, the brilliant Alfonso Cuaron makes this future scary and depressing. A comparable movie, at least in terms of general feel, would perhaps be the 1973 film Soylent Green, but Cuaron ups the ante with a fabulous cast (Clive Owen is as good as always, and Michael Caine and Julianne Moore offer strong support), an appropriately "retro" British soundtrack, and the small strokes of genius that he is known for (a deer darting amidst ruins, dogs and cats overrunning the homes of a dying species). Add to the mix astounding cinematography, perhaps this year's best, and you have a certified masterpiece. Grade: A
The Good German
Anyone who thought that Steven Soderbergh had just a little too much fun in making Ocean's Twelve (Julia Roberts as Julia Roberts...ummm, ok), sacrificing substance in the process, would probably be inclined to think the same about his latest, The Good German. It is so obviously and admittedly inspired by Casablanca, from the poster to the ending shots, that it becomes little more than a misguided homage to the film and its genre (with a bit of film noir thrown in). The film is ultimately a waste of Cate Blanchett's talent and the beautiful photography, with a rudimentary story and serious miscasting in George Clooney (never more awkward) and Tobey Maguire. Soderbergh should realize that rather than offering an inferior copy, a better way to honor a film genre he loves would be to give the audiences something that they would remember on its own merits. Grade: C
The plot and style of SherryBaby are extremely simple; it's a linear story of how Maggie Gyllenhaal's character, Sherry Swanson, tries to rebuild her life, principally as a mother, after a three-year prison sentence. It is a good film, certainly, but there is nothing remotely special about it except Gyllenhaal's brave performance. While her perf is nowhere near being this year's best, it is definitely worthy of praise, and so she has this film to thank for making audiences take notice. Ultimately, however, they might as well entitle this film The Maggie Gyllenhaal Awards Showcase for all its worth. Grade: C+
Images from IMDb.