counting down the best films of 2006: No. 5, ‘The Departed’

WHY IS THIS ONE OF THE BEST FILMS OF THE YEAR?: A cast and crew at the absolute top of their games — including some you never thought could play in this league — create a tough, gritty, funny, thrilling, pure-popcorn adrenaline rush. Movies that are Important and Meaningful and have Something To Say are all fine and good, but this is why we go to the movies: for sheer escapism that lifts you out of your world and plops you down in another more exciting, more dangerous one.

WE’VE SEEN SCORSESE DO THE CRIME THING A HUNDRED TIMES ALREADY. HOW IS THIS ONE DIFFERENT?: Marty ratchets up the stakes with every film, not just for his characters but for himself and for his audience: he demands more of all of us with every outing, and here, he finds all kinds of new layers of intrigue and moral complexity in a genre that is typically either unsatisfyingly black-and-white or unconvincingly shaded in grays. Crime is a basic staple of movie stories, and latching on to the thrill of the criminal is nothing new, but here, more profoundly than he’s done before, Scorsese asks us to consider the prices paid by those on both sides of the law, as well as the rewards gained, wants us to appreciate the gamesmanship of the players, demands that we understand that matters of law and order and crime and justice are nowhere near as cut-and-dried as it is comfortable to believe. But the brilliant thing is that all of this just roils under the surface — the braininess of this film is not a card that’s ever played, but held in reserve, strengthening Scorsese’s hand throughout the whole game.

OKAY. BUT IS MARK WAHLBERG REALLY THE BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR OF THE YEAR?: Absolutely. In fact, his cop, unpleasantly bitter and cruelly snide and oddly droll, just about embodies the peculiar dichotomies of the film, which twist around our ingrained ideas about “good guys” and “bad guys.” Wahlberg’s snappy yet subdued performance fools you for a long while — you don’t realize at first that the story might actually pivot on him, plotwise and metaphorwise. He sneakily keeps your eye off him while seeming to court your attention at the same time.

[Check out my full review of The Departed here.]

[See the whole best-of list for 2006 here.]

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