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Maybe it’s the weather or the plethora of awful movies Hollywood unloads each January, but something about this particular time of year really puts film critics in a foul mood. As I peruse the variety of Best-and-Worst lists of 2005, I’m struck by the number of writers and journalists who have used their opportunity to comment on a year of film as a medium through which to bemoan the continual decline of all cinema. “The truth is, 2005 was a fairly crappy year at the movies,” said David Poland of “Movie City News,” reflecting the negative spirit of many of his contemporaries—though this is coming from a man who put The Family Stone in his top ten. It’s the same story every year, with gloom-and-doom reviewers spending as much time complaining about the state of the industry as they do praising the few movies they DID enjoy. Call me old-fashioned, but shouldn’t we, as supposed film lovers, see the annual review as an opportunity to celebrate our art form of choice?
And there was certainly a lot to celebrate in 2005. Every year I see at least fifteen to twenty movies that entertain, intrigue, inspire, thrill or move me, and last year was no exception. What was most surprising and interesting to me was the number of movies that directly dealt with real, serious issues affecting the world today. There were films about war (Munich), race relations (Crash), abortion (Palindromes), intolerance (Brokeback Mountain), gender identity issues (Breakfast on Pluto, TransAmerica), and pharmaceutical abuse (The Constant Gardener). Both The War Within and Paradise Now tackled the philosophy of terrorism, while George Clooney had his hand in two films that offered pointed criticisms of the American government, Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck. Even Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were able to sneak some sly political commentary into their big-budget, summer blockbusters.
Of course, not every good movie released in ‘05 had a Big Message to convey. Some of the best, in fact, were small movies driven by character and story rather than some over-arching theme or agenda. And others were just first-rate entertainments, dazzling paeans to style over substance. Of the 82 new films I saw in 2005, here is my list of the ten best, from an under-seen indie character study to a $200 million fantasy epic. And it starts, of all places, in the Bible Belt.
Junebug- Not just the year’s best film, but also its most welcome surprise, an out-of-nowhere triumph of American independent filmmaking. The plot suggests a broadly comedic culture clash: a Chicago art dealer (Embeth Davidtz) travels with her new husband (Alessandro Nivola) to his home in North Carolina, where she inadvertently disrupts the dynamics of his exclusive Southern family. But there are no stereotypes or clichés here, and not a single false note struck in this smart, funny, and deeply moving ensemble. With the help of a wonderful cast—including the charming Amy Adams, in an extraordinary break-through performance—director Phil Morrison has made a film of rare power and insight, one that gracefully walks a line between behavioral comedy and rich human drama. The tension between Davidtz and her new in-laws suggests an understanding of the real, fundamental differences between “Red” and ‘Blue” America, but Junebug, at its best, is about the prickly, complicated bond we share with our families, about the contrast between who we are to them and who we really are. This theme is hammered home in the last scene, a sublime final moment capped off by a closing line so revelatory and cathartic that it casts everything that came before it in a new light. It’s the perfect end to 2005’s most rewarding cinematic experience.
The Squid and the Whale- In which an ironic hipster explores his own childhood, growing up and finding his voice in the process. The fourth feature from writer-director Noah Baumbach is allegedly based on memories of his own parents’ divorce; you can feel the sting of painful experience in every frame of this biting, brutally honest comedy, which concerns the post-separation war of words between fed-up housewife Joan (Laura Linney) and her pompous husband, Bernard (Jeff Daniels), who selfishly puts their two children in the middle of the struggle. Both achingly sincere and relentlessly caustic, The Squid and the Whale is driven by four great performances. Daniels does the best acting of his career as an intellectual bully plagued by stifling insecurity, and Linney, the restrained yin to his boorish yang, matches him scene for scene. But the real revelations are Owen Kline and Jesse Eisenberg, two very different sons coming to terms with who their parents really are. They’re the emotional anchors of this deeply personal film, which is as hilarious and touching as it incredibly bitter and harsh.
Munich- You know we live in strange, topsy-turvy times when the most challenging, politically relevant film of the year comes from Steven Spielberg, the world’s most famous purveyor of feel-good, popcorn entertainment. There’s nothing even remotely uplifting about Munich, his somber, violent, intensely provocative thriller about the aftermath of the 1972 Olympics, where 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by Palestinian terrorists. Starting with a shocking recreation of that tragedy, the film follows a team of assassins (led by the quietly charismatic Eric Bana) as they hunt down and eliminate the men responsible for planning the massacre. Spielberg stages this globetrotting mission as a series of pulse-pounding, Hitchcockian set pieces, yet to confuse the movie as mere action spectacle would be to ignore the complex ideological terrain that it navigates. Munich gets darker and more thought provoking as it goes, and Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner never stop asking questions—about government motives, about moral obligations, and, most profoundly, about the cyclical nature of revenge itself. This is serious, powerful stuff, delivered by a filmmaker who, thirty-five years into his career, is still growing and maturing as an artist.
Crash- There seems to be very little middle ground when it comes to Paul Haggis’s debut feature: either you find it be a brilliant, hard-hitting look at contemporary race relations or a simplistic, heavy-handed lecture on the ubiquity of intolerance. Regardless of what you think of Haggis’s cultural politics, though, there’s no denying the exciting, galvanizing force of his storytelling abilities. Like a Robert Altman film on steroids, Crash tells the interconnected tales of a dozen L.A. natives, all of whose lives are affected by racial prejudice. Moving nimbly from one character arc to the next, it gives actors like Matt Dillon and Hustle and Flow’s Terrence Howard meaty roles to sink their teeth into. At its best, it’s thrilling and provocative, a fast-moving ensemble drama with considerable emotional impact. At its worst, it’s still a highly enjoyable melodrama. Ultimately, moral messages aside, the film, like Short Cuts, may work best as a love-and-hate valentine to Los Angeles, that big, messy, polluted metropolis of the West.
Grizzly Man- Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. Case in point: Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Werner Herzog’s utterly fascinating found-footage documentary. A self-proclaimed bear activist, he spent many years living amongst Alaskan grizzlies, until, in October 2003, he and his girlfriend were mauled, killed, and eaten by one. The strength of the film is its refusal to either mock or romanticize Treadwell, who genuinely loved the bears he swore to protect, but failed to respect them as wild animals capable of doing him harm. Herzog presents him objectively, through his own footage, and thus what immerges is a funny, sad, and strangely compelling portrait of a man and his obsession. The director frequently comments on the action via somewhat intrusive voice-over, but even this unnecessary editorializing cannot detract from the overall power of this outstanding nonfiction drama.
King Kong—Okay, so it’s at least a half hour too long and that business with the natives is still a little problematic. Those quibbles aside, Peter Jackson’s epic retelling of the 1933 classic is still monstrously entertaining, a towering achievement of the Event Movie era. Not since Spielberg made the first Jurassic Park has a filmmaker found such lively, effective use for the technology at his disposal: from its amazing recreation of depression-era New York to its never-ending cascade of leaping, snarling, prehistoric creatures, King Kong is a thrilling special effects showcase. But what gives the film its resonance, its soul, is Jackson’s commitment to making us wholeheartedly believe in the bond that develops between a young woman and a 25-foot tall ape. Thanks to the dedication of Naomi Watts (who radiantly fills Fay Wray’s shoes as the gorgeous Ann Darrow) and the utter believability of the lifelike, CG Kong, the film obtains a tragic romantic grandeur you can scarcely believe you’re falling for. When people talk about the magic of the movies, this is what they mean.
Wolf Creek—Because a good horror movie is hard to come by these days, and this is a great one. Three charming, sensible teens take a road trip to the Outback, only to get stranded and have unspeakable atrocities committed against them. This gorgeous but bone-chilling Australian thriller is like an impeccably constructed booby trap: it lures you in with its placid but unsettling first half, warming you up to its characters while it silently tightens the noose around their necks. And just when the film seems ready to explode from all the ominous tension, it does, and the audience is plunged, along with the teens themselves, into a nightmarishly vivid hell-on-earth. A lot of critics panned the movie upon its release last month, mostly because they were disturbed by its sheer brutality. But horror movies should disturb us: the best and the most effective ones prey on our deepest fears, slipping past our defenses and crawling under our skin. The terrifying Wolf Creek does all those things, and it is, in its own way, as powerful as anything released last year. It’s not for everyone, but those who can handle it will not be disappointed.
Good Night, and Good Luck—You can feel George Clooney’s love—of the 1950s, of investigative journalism, of cinema itself—in every beautiful, lovingly crafted shot of Good Night, and Good Luck. A sharply intelligent, coolly engaging period piece, Clooney’s second feature is a sort of anti-Network: in its depiction of Edward R. Murrow’s historic, televised attack on Senator Joseph McCarthy, it wistfully longs for an era in which broadcast media still fought the good fight for those watching across the nation. The film can easily be read as an allegory for what’s happening in America today, but looking for obvious parallels is perhaps less satisfying than just admiring the movie’s crisp black-and-white photography, its clever use of actual newsreel footage, and its strong sense of mood and pacing. In a dynamite cast, David Strathairn stands out as the strong but elusive Murrow, as does Frank Langella as his wary but supportive boss, William Paley.
Keane—A great, startlingly complex performance in a film nobody saw. As William Keane, a desperate and unstable man looking for the daughter he lost months earlier, Damian Lewis suggests internal confusion and distress through subtle shifts in tone and mannerism. His restrained but mesmerizing depiction of a lost soul losing his grip on the world around him is the centerpiece of Keane, a quietly intense, methodically paced character study. Everything about the film is understated, from its simple, handheld aesthetic to the uneventful nature of its meandering plot. But those patient enough to stick with it will find that it gets more suspenseful and emotionally gripping as it goes, culminating in a ending that is taut, touching, and quite devastating, all at once. This is a true independent production, one of the many undiscovered gems to float in and out of theaters every year. Here’s hoping it finds the audience it deserves on DVD.
Brokeback Mountain & A History of Violence- What tie could possibly exist between the two most critically acclaimed movies of the year? One’s an epic, languid ode to forbidden desire, the other a crisp, unsentimental bit of exploitation. Yet aren’t both Ang Lee’s tragic love story and David Cronenberg’s intelligent revenge thriller really, in their own separate ways, revisionist westerns? With its stunning, wide-angle vistas and its reflection of loneliness in the vast desolation of the Wyoming wilderness, Brokeback Mountain suggests the best work of John Ford, except that the doomed romance at its center is between two men. A History of Violence, on the other hand, plays like a particularly rough and raw gunslinger western, with the conventions of the genre subverted to expose the intrinsically American values they represent. Maybe you still don’t buy the connection. Either way, this list would feel incomplete without these two films, both of which are fundamentally American despite their foreign-born directors.
The honorable mention award goes to The War Within, Joseph Castelo’s disturbing but insightful look into the mind of a suicide bomber. It is followed by, in alphabetical order, The Edukators, Everything Is Illuminated, Fever Pitch, Last Days, North Country, Three… Extremes, and War of the Worlds.
Typically, after delving into my picks for the best films of the year, I also present a ranked list of the five worse movies I saw over the previous twelve months. I certainly experienced my fair share of cinematic disasters in 2005: though I dodged a lot of awful-looking Hollywood films (I wasn’t one of the unlucky few who caught Stealth), I did see a whole slew of mediocre to atrocious indies. But why bother calling out and ranking these follies when it is probably best if they were just ignored and forgotten.
I reserve my contempt for just one movie, a film for which Worst of the Year barely does justice. I’m speaking of Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha, a stupid, shallow, pandering bit of Oscar bait stretched out over an agonizing two-and-a-half hours. It’s hard to decide what’s most reprehensible about the film: its glorification of prostitution and female subservience; its superficial, bastardized depiction of Japanese culture; or its flat, utterly prosaic aesthetic. Choose for yourself… or, better still, skip this middlebrow schlock altogether and go watch something, ANYTHING else instead.
I suppose it is rather hypocritical of me to complain about the negativity of film critics when I’m ending my year in review on such a decidedly negative note. But this has more to do with journalistic structure (I always try to lead strong) than it does with my feelings about 2005 as a year of cinema. On a whole, the good generally outweighed the bad, and I saw more films that I liked than I disliked. If I can honestly say the same thing next year, I should be able to dodge the Critical Blues for a little while longer. If not, all bets are off.
Andrew Dowd is a film critic and writer living in Chicago.
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