Strip away the visual effects, the fancy camera work, the MTV editing, and you're for better or worse left with the essence of what makes a film truly work: the people on the screen and the story they tell.
Early on in the film ONCE the two main characters (simply called the Guy and the Girl) sit down in a music shop. The Guy, a vacuum repairman who wants to be known as a songwriter, softly explains the chord progression and melody of the his song to the Girl, a shy immigrant from the Czech Republic who cleans homes to make ends meet while dreaming of the days she would play piano. He begins to play, quietly at first as the Girl tentatively picks out a few notes on the piano. As the song progresses, the music becomes the story of the love that will blossom between these two people, echoing the twists and turns that make up the most extraordinary of loves. It's a hearbreakingingly beautiful scene, one of the best this year.
And all the more amazing when you consider that the acting is by two unknowns, indeed the people who were originally commissioned to just do the soundtrack. Glen Hansard of The Frames, an Irish indie-rock band, was assisting his friend, former bass player John Carney when a lack of funds turned into film magic. And that's really what this is: magic. Relaying solely on the music and performances of its leads, ONCE is at once a true and fantastical look at the funny turns love can take you in over the course of a week. It's to the credit of Hansard and his co-writer/co-star Marketa Irglova that the music tells the story of their love with such simple passion, unadorned by sweeping strings and sentimentality.
All the requisite romance items are on display: the "meet-cute" with a broken Hoover, the jaded music producer who is turned around by the innocence and beauty of the music, the quiet duet where love is proclaimed. And if like the best love songs the ending is bittersweet, the feeling you leave with is one to treasure. In a summer of sequels, robots and $200 million blockbusters, the best film of the year works with two voices, a vacuum, and a piano.