Monday, August 20, 2007
2006 in Review: #3
Given the oh-so-serious "prestige movies" that Hollywood often sells as art, one sometimes forgets that many of our greatest directors- Hawks, Ford, Ray, Hitchcock- specialized in genre pictures. Continuing their proud tradition in 2006 were Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, the latter of whom is the only double-dipper on this year's list. Lee's Inside Man is on one level a cleverly-written heist film, in which NYPD detective Denzel Washington faces off against criminal mastermind Clive Owen. But the boilerplate plot outline doesn't begin to describe the pleasures Inside Man has in store. The film sets up a fascinating contrast between its principal characters' styles- Owen's cool-headed efficiency and obsessive planning facing off against the style and swagger of Washington, who plays the character as a man who clearly enjoys what he does for a living. In the middle of it all is Lee himself, who takes the genre storyline as an excuse for playful direction, coupled with some of his pet themes- New York multiculturalism, the gulf between the haves and have-nots, and the reckoning he wishes would rain down upon all those who exploit the misfortunes of others. Inside Man is above all a grand entertainment in the classic tradition, but one only Spike Lee could have made this way.
But even Lee had nothing on the master himself, Martin Scorsese. The Departed, Scorsese's remake of the Hong Kong crime saga Infernal Affairs, transplanted himself from New York to Boston, but wisely didn't mess with his signature insistent style. In addition to the gangbusters premise of the original film- a cop goes undercover in the mob, a gangster infiltrates the police, and they try to flush each other out- the film is blessed with an irresistable screenplay that's both narratively tight and gloriously raunchy. And that cast- Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio play the lead roles flawlessly, and the supporting cast is killer- Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Vera Farmiga, Ray Winstone, and more. There has been some debate over Jack Nicholson's grandiose performance as crime lord Frank Costello, but I thought it worked- here's a man who's maintained his power through violence for so long that he's lost all perspective of the outside world, causing his sanity to spiral completely of control. But this is first and foremost Scorsese's achievement, a 2 1/2 hour gangland epic that never grows ponderous or self-important, and serves as a superlative entry into the genre he's returned to many times over the years with such vivid results. It says a lot about how impossible The Departed is to ignore that, even in an awards season filled with logy period pieces and message movies, it was The Departed that ended up taking home the biggest prize, and garnering Scorsese a long-overdue Best Director Oscar to boot. In many ways, it's as much a belated acknowledgment of the contributions of genre masters of the past as it is a testament to Scorsese's own brilliant career.