babel- of the three nominated movies that i have seen, and knowing what i do know about the two that i haven't seen ['the departed' and 'letters from iwo jima'], 'babel' is going to be the movie to beat this year. it has every attribute of not only a great movie, but a 'best picture' as well. every technical aspect is so finely tuned it is invisible, making us forget almost immediately that we are watching any sort of pre-fabricated creation. everything looks completely authentic, from the deserted wastelands of morocco to the high-rise apartment of downtown tokyo, and the floating handheld camera captures the moments so immediately that even when we break from the screen and remember that this is a movie, it's almost impossible to imagine that there could be a crew of any size standing outside the field of view; there is no one but us, peering to look because everything is so intriguing.
the movie looks as if there were no lights used anywhere. the huts seem to be lit only with the gray light coming though the windows; at night, the dessert has absolutely no light bet the bright headlights of the car--there are no 12K lights giving even a slight 'ambient moonlight'; helicopters flying over cities, the japanese metropolis, everything looks completely natural. but not in the way a 'dogma 95' movie looks, where no lights were ever used, but the way the world looks to our natural eyes. we almost never notice the lighting around us, as our eyes naturally adjust and recalculate the way we balance light and dark. the movie was shot by rodrigo prieto, one of the prominent dp's of the new generation, and his work here is some of the best i have seen in any movie. no, it is not the beautiful masterwork of a conrad hall movie, nor the impressionistic style of 'punch drunk love'; it is the most realistic and natural lighting i know of, in that he makes the camera see the world the way a human eye does.
'babel' has been compared to 'crash', last year's best picture about colliding stories of racism in los angeles. and it is, but as i was admiring the elusive naturalism of 'babel's cinematography, i compared it to 'traffic' [which is either more realistic or more stylized, depending on how you want to look at it]. the structure of the movie is also akin to soderbergh's masterpiece, in that the storylines are connecting, but not intersecting. ideed, the japanese connection is not even discovered until partway through the movie, and it is barely attached. but that is not the point. even brad pitt's story and that of his children are independant enough that the familial ties are necessary only to justify having the stories in one movie.
like 'traffic', the stories play simultaneously in the movie, intercutting from one to the other, often leaving one just as a moment of crisis or tension strikes [particularly in morocco]. while this is a great skill of editing, the cutting within the stories is particularly strong. i loved the painful craziness of the ultra-modern dance club mixed with pills, where shots jumped so erratically that i became disoriented myself. at different points as the stories progress, there are montage moments where the sound fades and music carries the scene, when words are spoken but not heard, because we don't need to hear them; the scene does not become pastoral, but ponderous, giving us a break from the aural to think about what is happening. we do not need to hear to know the universality of human experiences.
just as the technical aspects of 'babel' are flawless, the artistry of the movie is profound, showing so much without telling us anything about what we should think. there are no 'stars' in this movie; it is a true ensamble piece. brad pitt is the most prominent face of them all, but does stands out no further than the dvd title menu. the movie follows the events of three or four groups of people struggling to live their basic lives. communication barriers and misunderstandings arise all around them as the natural result of an increasingly small world wher people are paradoxically pushed closer together and isolated. brad pitt and cate blanchet battle for literal live over death, while rinko kikuchi, as a deaf tokyo teen, pounds against her personal walls, both physio- and pyschological, to live life. her character is unquestionably flawed, by her own choices and compounded with choices of those around her, yet it is impossible not to sympathize with her agony and frustration as she lowers her standards further and further in desperated attempts to have connect with another person. anyone.
what is the plot of the movie? i'm not sure. if i thought on that for a while, i could give you descriptions of what happens with each story, but that would not entice you to see the movie. nor should it. while we were on the edge of our seats for the fates of the characters, the resolutions at the end are only enough to let you leave the movie, but not its questions. it is about communication, what aspects are cultural, geographic, and specific, and how much of what we do, say and think are universal. apart from that, what it's about it what you take from it.
---much, much better than i expected---
i have not yet see 'the departed' or 'letters from iwo jima', and it seems that scorsese may be giving the biggest competition. i am a fan of scorsese, but even if 'the departed' is everything i've heard, at best it will be a really good gangster movie [brad pitt turned down a role in that to do this]. 'babel' is bigger than that; it reaches beyond boston, beyond the mexican-american border, around the world and back again.
this is the best movie of 2006.