Well, here we are, another year of life and films. Before I turn my attention to the best films of the year, perhaps we should take a moment to reflect on the culture that produced these films. In other words, my yearly …
RANT FROM THE CULTURAL FRONTLINE
Here’s what I learned in 2005 (based either on what famous people told me or on my own slightly cynical observations):
I learned that the natural disasters befalling red states — in particular Florida and Texas — are messages from God. Interestingly, I’m told they are not warnings about the Bush regime but rather expressions of God’s dismay about Ellen Degeneres hosting an awards show. Maybe if she were actually funny, he’d stop “corresponding.”
Pat Robertson continued in his efforts to be our own version of Osama Bin Laden, calling for acts of terror and assassination and then hiding behind religion, free speech and the “hey, I’m just expressing an opinion” shields — which in the USA are evidently just as effective as a mountainous cave.
President Bush is listening to your phone calls — talk nice! And if you get a little visit from Homeland Security, all you have to do is say, “hey, I’m just expressing my opinion” and refer to free speech and religion. They’ll understand. Honest, they’re all really nice guys.
Let’s see, what else did I learn? Oh, yeah, the Bush Administration and the Republicans in charge are corrupt. Gasp!
But don’t bother me with all of that, because what’s really important is that Martha Stewart served her time, Kate Moss is on crack, Jude Law screwed the nanny, Brad and Jen broke up, Tom Cruise is living his own private brokeback mountain, Michael Jackson is not a pedophile and chaotic Brittney Spears divorced — uh, I mean, annulled — the sweet home town guy in order to free herself up to marry a, well, I don’t know what he is, but they’ve reproduced — that mountainous cave doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?
The last twelve months also raised a lot of pressing questions, so maybe in 2006, I’ll learn the answers to:
Who are all these little Borg-like wannabes with their Bluetooth headsets apparently permanently attached to their ears? Must be Trekkies (and before you get in a huff, notice I did not say Trekkers, who have a little more integrity).
When did “best” become an appropriate closing for emails, cards and letters? What is that? An adjective? A noun? A verb? Is it short for “best wishes”? We’ll ignore for the moment the irony of that being a wedding expression. Is it a cryptic “best beware”? “Best be going”? “I’m the Best”? “You’re the best”? “I can best you”? What? I know, we need something less formal than “sincerely” and something less abrupt than just one’s name at the end of a correspondence, but “best” is the best we can come up with?
Why do people prefer DVDs to theatrical movies? Oh wait, I know the answer to that one — I prefer DVDs because I hate the little blue glows of text messaging screens, people no longer making any effort to whisper while carrying out 30 minute cell phone conversations during the movie, and my recent experience at a screening of MATCH POINT where I felt I was in a real live tennis match, my attention diverted alternately between the couple on my left and the couple on my right who talked throughout the entire movie. Rather than having an attendant standing at the exit to loudly say “thank you” and hand me a piece of gum or candy as I leave, how about hiring someone to actually patrol the aisles and remove people who are disrupting the viewing experience for the rest of us. Even at the Arclight, known for being a place where movies are still respected as a viewing experience, I encountered several audience members with cell phones in operation during the movie. So no place is sacred. Here’s a radical suggestion: if you can’t turn off your cell phone or text messager for 2 hours, how about you stay home and watch a DVD? Leave the theater to those of us who actually want to see and listen to the movie.
Speaking of consideration, here’s my pledge — when I go to a coffee shop just to read the paper or a book, and there are plenty of seats, I’ll try not to sit where I block the only outlet that patrons with laptops could make better use of.
Okay, enough rant. On to the good stuff.
On television, the best series remains BATTLESTAR GALLACTICA, I kid you not. Just buy or rent the first season DVDs to catch up and you’ll see what I mean. This series achieves not just what great science fiction accomplishes, but what any work of true art can, it uses the unfamiliar to show us the world we live in. VERONICA MARS continues to impress; if only being an outsider in high school were really this cool. MY NAME IS EARL cracks me up — of course that may say more about me than the show, I guess. The documentary series THIRTY DAYS consistently entertains and provokes thought. And aren’t you just dying to see the movie documented in last year’s best season ever of PROJECT: GREENLIGHT?
Speaking of movies, once again it seems like almost every film idea out there got made several times in 2005. Choosing my “best of” list meant that I had to compare and contrast several sets of films before tallying up. And in so doing, for the first time, I decided to ignore the copyright dates of the films and rather consider any film that received official release (even limited) in the USA last year. Of the 80 or so films released in 2005 that I saw, there’s only one I wish I had seen before putting together this list, TRANSAMERICA, but even in late January, it has yet to find its way into a Chicago theater. So with that small caveat, here is my bad case of …
CRASH versus NINE LIVES
These two films each boast a series of characters whose lives intersect, with CRASH carefully orchestrated and NINE LIVES casually random. CRASH is not so much about race as a reminder that we’re all in this world together, and what we do comes back to us. For some, this means a merciful universe, but for the others, the world is a painful and sometimes tragic place — redemption is never simple or easy. No other film this year zeroed in on my emotions quite as effectively, so you know this is going to be on my top ten (listed at the end of this article). NINE LIVES further refines its filmmaker’s interest in short stories, succeeding as a stylistic experiment with nine ten-minute single-take “short films” that form a series of loose connections, not all of which are immediately apparent. Unfortunately, the last segment is the weakest, but the previous segments are so well acted and crafted that NINE LIVES borders on the exquisite.
CAPOTE versus WALK THE LINE
CAPOTE boasts the best ensemble acting by a cast this year; everyone is impeccable. Add to this a storyline that raises disturbing questions about personal and artistic integrity, and you’ve easily got one of the best films of the year. Likewise, WALK THE LINE has some great acting as well as some pretty good music, but ultimately, the story seems a bit too sprawling and unfocused. If you have to choose, CAPOTE’s the one to see.
YOU ME AND EVERYONE WE KNOW versus HAPPY ENDINGS
The scale of YOU ME AND EVERYONE WE KNOW is so small that you can almost miss its movement, but the beauty of the film is its meditation on human touch — good and bad — culminating in the graze of a hand against another that is one of the most powerful moments in recent cinema. In a thematically similar way, HAPPY ENDINGS uses several different storylines to reveal the ways in which people strive to connect and form families. Each of these films has a very specific style which audiences either love or hate, but both are worth every moment you spend with them.
JUNE BUG versus THE FAMILY STONE
Independent and Hollywood, each film brings us the scrutinizing eye of homespun families checking out the new women in their favored sons’ lives. Both have moments of almost over-the-top comedy and both tug at the heartstrings, and while they’re very different in terms of style, both are moving. The dinner conversation about homosexuality in THE FAMILY STONE shows the writers of GUESS WHO (with it’s dinner conversation about race) how it’s done.
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN versus 2046
What is the power of love? And why are we unable to recognize or unflinchingly embrace love when it’s within our grasp? Each of these highly visual films explores those questions, but neither is the masterpiece some have called them. The western-influenced BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is a 21st Century Romeo & Juliet. In our modern age, we can’t imagine why any heterosexual couple who feels the power of love wouldn’t pursue it, regardless of whether they were married or too young or of different classes. Since none of these situations provide a believable restraint for person in love anymore, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN has found a taboo love that once again reminds us of the sheer force and the potential for disaster as well as joy that love can bring. Though the film seems to be about Ennis, it’s the other cowboy who breaks your heart. The science fiction-influenced 2046 is more restrained but equally tinged with regret and longing and the inexplicable nature of love.
STAY versus NOVEMBER
If you’ve seen the 80s anthology film, ARIA, you’re ahead of the game. While STAY is filled with splashy special effects and dazzles the eye, NOVEMBER is the film that carries an emotional wallop with its economy of dialogue, excellent performances and intricate design. All of its parts, even the muddy cinematography and production design, work together to reveal the most intimate act of all. NOVEMBER is not so much a film as a work of Modernist art, and it is effective as both. Skip STAY and go straight for the heart. NOVEMBER is the film to see.
SYRIANNA versus GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK
These two films work awfully hard to be relevant to our current world situation, in one case reflecting a rather simplistic view of the complexities of national relations and in the other, turning back to a point in our history that parallels a number of our current fears. Both films explore to varying degrees the need for personal integrity. Ultimately, SYRIANNA is the more cynical of the two, offering lots of irony and little hope of being able to really do the right thing in such a convoluted world. GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK seems a simpler world, for all of its drama, but also a reminder that maybe we haven’t come quite as far as we’d like to think.
WAR OF THE WORLDS: versus MUNICH
These are probably the best two films Spielberg has made in years, and they are two sides of the same coin. As much as SYRIANA and GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK hoped to be a mirror held up to our current cultural climate of fear and paranoia, Spielberg trumps them by first creating a full-tilt action adventure of the world falling apart in the aftermath of attacks and then following up with a contemplative moral examination of fighting violence with violence and the possible tolls one pays for such a choice. Both films bring their broader themes and interest into focus by concentrating on the smaller scale of “family” within the worlds created. And ultimately these are not just his best but also his darkest and most cynical films; each has moments that are brutal to watch. On the other hand, it is Spielberg at work here, and as with every film he’s made since E.T. THE EXTERRESTRIAL, he ultimately doesn’t trust his material, particularly the climax (pun intended) of MUNICH. So there are flaws, but even if not perfect, these are the best films Spielberg can make, and by any standard, they’re pretty damn good. Besides, he got Tom Cruise to give his best lead performance ever — assuming that he’s acting.
RED EYE versus FLIGHT PLAN
Going with the notion that drama is heightened in confined spaces, two films explored the thriller genre up in the wild blue yonder. FLIGHT PLAN starts off strongly, but once it’s mystery is solved, it’s pretty standard fair. Unfortunately, some early trailers made RED EYE look like it was going to be a horror film rather than a thriller, but ultimately RED EYE is the more satisfying film.
BRIDE AND PREJUDICE versus PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
Do we really need another Jane Austin movie? And one based on Pride and Prejudice no less? BRIDE AND PREJUDICE proves that we do — no other film made me smile during and for hours after. Maybe next year, a Bollywood HARRY POTTER, anyone?
Speaking of which …
HARRY POTTER AND THE WHATEVER THE HELL SEQUEL IT IS versus THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE
Except for about thirty minutes where the characters actually talked to each other and had more to do than just stand in front of green screens, HARRY POTTER was the biggest disappointment of the year, easily passed up by the Christian-influenced and marketed CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LIION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE which managed to remember what the awe of wonder is all about.
CINDERLLA MAN versus KING KONG
The Great Depression gets remade as epic battles, one in the boxing ring and the other on the top of the Empire State Building. Thank god both fighters have the love of a good woman behind them.
MATCH POINT versus GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS
Two films about outsiders trying to fit in and being seduced by the British way of life, though the lifestyle revealed in each film is miles from the other. An examination of the blurry lines and messy intersection of Caucasian machismo, sports and violence, GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS is the best film you didn’t see this year due to its ultra-independent release and distribution. MATCH POINT makes you forget who its famous filmmaker is, which in this case is a good thing.
GRIZZLY MAN versus MURDER BALL
Men’s men proving themselves as, well, men’s men, in one case ending in tragedy and in the other, inspiration. In a year where documentary films continued to grow in appeal, and in a year when political documentaries and exposes revealed injustices and questionable corporate ethics, GRIZZLY MAN and MURDER BALL kept it personal, to devastating effect.
CACHE (France) versus ANTIBODIES (Germany)
Basically, both of these films are reimaginings of earlier movies, and as thrillers they prove surprising and provocative. CACHE seems like it’s going to capitalize on the underlying horror/thriller premise of LOST HIGHWAY, with a little bit of REAR WINDOW thrown in for effect, though it ultimately proves less than satisfying. Provocative in an entirely different way, ANTIBODIES is a variation on SILENCE OF THE LAMBS that doesn’t lose focus of the fact that the serial killer is a bad guy and not to be admired. ANITBODIES allows you to think you’re smarter than the police officer, but before it’s all done, you realize you’re not as smart as you think you are. But that’s okay, because the film brings everything to a comprehensible closure. CACHE on the other hand ultimately makes you feel that you’re dumber than you are, and when the last shot fades to black, you’ll probably feel like the twenty-something couple who walked out of the theater behind me, trying to figure out where the film ultimately left us, finally concluding “Honey, we’re stupid; we have no idea what just happened in that movie.” I’d argue that statement says more about the film than the audience, and what it says keeps it off my “best of” list. But both films have brilliant moments and are well-acted; it just depends upon how you like your endings that will determine which one you like better. Hmmmm, that could sum up most of the films I saw this year. So on to the …
All The World’s a Stage
Best Male Performance:
Phillip Seymour Kaufman as CAPOTE
Best Female Performance
Juliette Binoche as Anne in CACHE
Best Supporting Male Performance:
Paul Giamatti as Joe in CINERELLA MAN
Best Supporting Female Performance
Taraji P. Henson as Shug in HUSTLE & FLOW
Who’s Your Daddy?
Angelina Jolie (MR. & MRS, SMITH) can be my Daddy anytime, as long as I can be Chris Moore’s (FANTASTIC FOUR). As for other “cracker awards” (as in, “I wouldn’t kick these people out for eating crackers in my bed”), Matt Dillon (CRASH, HERBIE: FULLY LOADED), Gerard Butler (THE GAME OF THEIR LIVES) and Dennis Quaid (YOURS, MINE AND OURS) just keep getting sexier and sexier. And Rachel McAdams (WEDDING CRASHERS, RED EYE, THE FAMILY STONE), Maggie Gyllenhaall (HAPPY ENDINGS) and Diane Keaton (THE FAMILY STONE) exemplify the adjectives of beautiful, playful and smart.
Best Trailer for a Film
A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE because its trailer didn’t give away the entire film. Thank you!
Worst Marketing for a Film
ROLL BOUNCE because it made the movie seem like an inconsequential period comedy rather than the moving coming of age story and family comedy-drama that it is.
Best Closing Credits Sequence
THE FORTY YEAR OLD VIRGIN takes on HAIR.
MR. & MRS. SMITH
THE HITCHIKERS GUIDE TO THE GALAXY
FANTASTIC FOUR (hey, I said I felt guilty, didn’t I?)
The Worst of the Year
Oh, why even bother. You know what they were. Like me, you were probably duped into seeing a couple of them. Oh wait, STAR WARS: EPISODE III deserves a special place in hell — yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s better than Episodes I and II, but wake up and smell the smoke: that’s about the faintest praise imaginable.
The Top Ten
Many of the films I’ve talked about could have ended up on my top ten, but in thinking about which films impressed me, stuck with me the longest after seeing them or held up under multiple viewings, here’s my humble opinion of the year’s best:
2. Grizzly Man
3. Happy Endings
5. Nine Lives
6. You Me and Everyone We Know
7. Match Point
9. War of the Worlds
10. Brokeback Mountain
There were so many good films this year, I had a tough time honing my list down to ten films. Feel free to disagree with my choices — lord knows, most of my fellow Film Monthly critics do. And who knows, I might just agree with you. Happy Viewing in 2006.
Joe Steiff is the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Independent Filmmaking and not above a shameless plug.
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