Top Ten 2005 Films
Submitted by lbangs on Sun, 04/03/2005 - 10:16
- 1) The New World - Britain discovers America, and Malick makes a masterpiece the masses will hate with a passion. This is not pop music; this is a symphony made up of subtle motifs and unhurried movements. Despite its intentions to be an American epic, it, with its fully fleshed characters still operating as symbols launching internal monologues that melt, merge, and intertwine throughout, is closer to Resnais than anything the average American moviegoer can handle or hope to understand. Proof will be seen in the lack of award nominations for Q’orianka Kilcher, who gives a finer performance than Reese Witherspoon dreamed of last year. With narratives rushing and mixing like rivers throughout the country, this runs lyrically through American history without oversimplifying matters or motives; the complexity gained leaves this film richer than most historical narratives. The meditative style is very effective, mixing realistic material with stylized editing to weave a moving web of the realistic and the poetic. No, if you are already scared by Malick’s past work and the film’s two-hour plus running time, or by anything not strictly conforming to the formulas and conventions Hollywood has fed you a steady diet of, or if you are a genre-addict who shuns drama and anything lacking clichéd conventions, you should run from this film as if from a falling sky. If that last sentence hasn’t set you on your heels yet, though, there is a fantastic film waiting for you.
- 2) King Kong - Most of our culture’s most valued dramas are remakes of a sort; the Greek tragedies were nearly all re-workings of traditional material, much of which was transformed into plays many times before the classic versions we treasure, and of all of Shakespeare’s virtues, his originality of plot is never a highlighted one. Purists may grumble and complain, but our cinema is the closest our civilization has to such a unifying dramatic medium as the classical folks enjoyed; events are dramatized, people across the nation watch, and we often take it for granted that most people we converse with over the age of twenty-five have the Star Wars trilogy or several of the Spielberg constructions as a point of reference. If we roll our eyes at remakes, it is only because Hollywood cynically cranks them out, all too often as camp. Peter Jackson’s King Kong, however, is not this type of product; it is closer to reworking already classic material, and if the special effects are dramatically enhanced in this presentation, so are many of the dramatic elements. The bizarre love story between Naomi Watts and the large ape is epic not only in sheer size, but in emotional impact as well. Kong here surpasses the director’s previous Gollum as an incredibly expressive computer-animated creation. This drama occupies the spotlight, but other interesting strands weave a rich web in the background. Jack Black’s obsessed director notes the dichotomy of our struggle with art, romance, and the other beautiful things we love; too often, we either strangle these valuables or are strangled by them. If we love, we jump, but that guarantees no happy ending. Nearly upstaging the characters in this film is the deliriously delicious attention to detail; Broadway of the 1930 comes to lucid life, and the Empire State Building demands all the awe it commanded in its glory days. Did I mention how thrilling this film is? A protracted segment involving dinosaurs is one of the most riveting, adrenaline-saturated montages captured on film, and the climatic scene will speed your pulse regardless of whether you know how it all ends. On top of the thematic richness many will miss upon viewing this, Jackson’s epic has more popcorn value than any other film of this decade. In fact, while the box office threatens to label this a disappointment, let us fall in awe before this beast. Critics were much too quick to label this director’s Middle Earth trilogy as his masterpiece. This film surpasses that work by quite some degree, at the risk of breathing heresy, I’ll even whisper a more astonishing truth. Peter has pulled off the impossible here; he topped the classic original. If cinematic decades are remembered more for their blockbusters than their art offerings, this ten-year stretch may well be the decade of King Kong; if the public refuses it that title, it will go on to be Jackson’s Vertigo, shunned on release and later worshipped as a missed masterpiece.
- 3) Heading South - I seem to be one of the few people who enjoyed Time Out rather than leaving the film bored stiff. Still, I wasn’t expected a follow up from director Laurent Cantet nearly this strong. Using a cast of complex, subtly colored characters, this script recalls the best of John Sayles; the penetrating character studies somehow, through a few thoroughly believable twists, end up saying at least as much about an entire society as it does the few people hogging the limelight. Dumb guys should stay far away; nearly all the main characters are women past fifty, and not an explosion goes off anywhere in the film. Smart people, on the other hand, are in for a rare treat - an intelligent, penetrating, and revealing adult movie, one that heralds the full arrival of a previously promising director to boot.
- 4) Brokeback Mountain - "I'm not queer," Heath Ledger's cowboy whispers during his first romantic encounter with Jake Gyllenhaal's Jack Twist, and that is a key to this film. Neither man is queer in the original sense of the word. They are two normal men who discover they are homosexuals and in love with each other. Ang Lee, whose track record with English-language films has been over-praised, finally finds a story fitting to his style; his wide-angle solemn shots of wild country illustrate Ledger's character and his silent struggle with raging forces within himself. All the public focus is on the "radical" idea of gay cowboys, as if Kenneth Anger never existed, but even more odd is Proulx and Ossana's screenplay refuses to set up any major characters as huge heroes or villains; this story does not deal in such obvious stereotypes. Jake Gyllenhaal continues to prove he is a talent to be reckoned with, giving Jack a sensitive pining soul behind the crazy rodeo spirit of youth. Anne Hathaway does not age very convincingly, even if her acting is fine, but Michelle Williams is terrific in a vital role. Capping this measured, moving study is one of the better final scenes of the year, one that summarizes and amplifies the rest of the film without straining for a false over-cooked climax. Finally, Lee has created an English-language film worthy of the rest of his oeuvre.
- 5) Pride & Prejudice - Joe Wright had to know he was entering impossibly treacherous waters. The BBC miniseries based on Jane Austen's incredible novel has grown a deserved cult, and to adapt the work of Ms. Austen is to expose one's self to a bizarrely insular group of fans who make the strangest demands upon films based on the novelist's terrific work. No doubt, this situation explains why Mr. Wright frankly directs the hell out of this film. Where that 1995 version was an excellent transfer of the novel to television, this is simply an excellent film, graced with a dancing camera that glides between revealing tableaux, capturing each group of conversations at the perfect, most revealing moment and sliding off to the next. It is an Oscar worthy performance behind the camera, a calling card of a filmmaker of extraordinary talent. When you realize that this waltzing lens also captures terrific performances from a stellar cast that, yes, includes a magical lead turn from Keira Knightley, who never looked lovelier or performed so wonderfully, then you know you are watching magic. Yup, it is a tough fact to fathom, but Joe Wright has created the definitive cinematic version of Pride & Prejudice, one that will both thrill film fans and delight open-minded lovers of the novel.
- 6) Brick - The idea sounds like another horrible Hollywood high concept destined to run the rails - attempt another neonoir, but meld it with the trendy teen genre by letting the tangled dark doings go down in a southern California high school. Instead of a Frankenstein monster of mishmashed parts, Rian Johnson's mad scientist genre transplantation proves ingeniously exhilarating. After the shock of the jarring juxtaposition, the world of lockers and classrooms proves the perfect setting for a contemporary crime caper, with its polished upper crust dependent on a shady underworld for its kicks, its multi-tiered social system, and its susceptibility to stylized conventions and fast speech. It is an insightful splicing, and it jazzes this well-written mystery with a zippy juice the direction refuses to let go to waste. The ending will surprise no fan of the genre, and on a rare occasion, the attempt to walk the wire between earnestness, tribute, and humorous takes a perilous dip, but this low budget affair deliciously delivers the goods in a truly wired, wild, and witty way. This is bizarre beast is one of the more elusively delightful and exciting films of the decade.
- 7) Good Night, And Good Luck - I've praised Clooney for some time, and I've entertained pretty high expectations for his future. Any thoughts that he is more interested in stardom than art really should begin to evaporate here. His second film, a black and white drama with little in the way of explosions or sex, takes on politics while covering it in the guise of an exercise in journalism history a la All the President's Men, and he scores. Not every element is perfect here; in particular, a few subplots seem meaningless. Still, David Strathairn will probably join Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix in the Best Actor category this year, and with great reason. He shows the cracks of worry and anxiety through Murrow's stoic armor with the slightest glance and eyebrow twitch, and the performance is terrific. The choice to only have Joseph McCarthy play himself works very well, and when the political roundhouses come, they are grounding in story and character and thus integral to the fabric of the story. Despite its flaws, this is one great film; it deserves the applause it gained at my local theater.
- 8) Syriana - I’ve always had a hankering, hunkering hunch that if you take away a few brain cells, that scene with Jennifer Lopez in the trunk of the car in Out of Sight is more George Clooney’s true self than acting. He is a huge, certified star, but one of the few that seems actually to love films as much as fame. This year, he has been a force behind two attempts to revive the classic political thrillers that have not really thrived since the seventies, and if his self-directed Good Night, and Good Luck was an excellent success, the Stephen Gaghan written and directed Syriana is even better. Using Gaghan's template from Traffic, this newer films does an even better job interweaving disparate narratives on different continents that despite distance are tightly interwoven beneath the surface. You have to stay awake, and even then, one or two events do not quite add up, but all the elements combine to create an excellent political thriller that does not sacrifice the thrills for the politics. Conflicting viewpoints fly, and each one is stated with some intelligence and force, leading to a more even-handed treatment of complex issues than you’ll find on an average hour of cable news. Still, blow that all aside; the engrossing story and living characters alone will absorb you, and if Hollywood films are too often made for teenaged boys, this is one smart, adult film I pray finds its intelligent audience. Syriana is one original, impressive film.
- 9) Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit - AJ and I recently discussed how long it has been since an excellent comedy earned critical and commercial acceptance. The answer to that quest is simple now. This is not only the funniest recent animated movie, it is the funniest film in quite some time. The animation is terrific, Nick Park continues to direct his clay figures with more skill behind the camera than most live-action filmmakers, and the endless allusions and puns never wear thin or steal from the originality of the final product. Sorry, Tim Burton; you no longer deserve the Oscar for Best Animated Film. In fact, looking at the year so far, you can probably scratch the word Animated from that statue.
- 10) Sin City - Any one watching this film after first reading the graphic novels will have no doubt why Frank Miller scored a co-director credit; the books are storyboards for the finished product. That certainly does not take away from Robert Rodriguez’s work; those szme people will also know that transferring Miller’s vision to film is an impossible feat. Sometimes, though, the impossible happens, and in this case, Hollywood has blessed us with this masterpiece of twisted vision, hard luck life, and the gritty individuals who suffer both. The casting, even the choices that at first had me worried, is inspired and precise; Rourke’s career may not get quite the boost Travolta’s did from Pulp Fiction, but if so, it won’t be because the actor faltered here. The screenplay practically lifts its entire body from the excellent source material, and the technology and the artistry to imagine and realize it both soar breathtakingly. Somebody obviously has pictures of the ratings board in compromising positions, as even the darkest, grisliest, and most explicit portions of the original somehow manage that R rating. The result is a joy ride the likes of which we see on screen once or twice every half-decade. I honestly did not realize Rodriguez had this in him. You will think of Pulp Fiction, and this is not quite up to that level of glory, but it is no small praise to state that it is not that far below. Fans will delight in the miracle of seeing the comic live; newbies might run for cover. What can I say? Welcome to Sin City.
- Honorable Mentions
- Me and You and Everyone We Know - Todd Solondz’ Happiness is the obvious touchstone for Miranda July’s debut, but July stomps Solondz and wipes the floor with his flawed film. This starts a bit shaky, and the viewer requires a few minutes to make the difficult transitions into July’s slightly skewed world, but her films works so well because of the intimate degree in which it wraps its troubled characters about us. Oh, it is funny, truly funny, not simply hoping to evoke laughter from uneasy shocks but from genuinely humorous material, no matter how disturbing it may be. This winning film indeed did win me over, and while its audience is no doubt a limited one, it should be a quite pleased one.
- Grizzly Man - What fool would want the responsibility of drawing a line between genius and madness? Werner Herzog constantly studies that divide or, possibly, overlapping territory in his films, but who could have guessed this documentary would be one of his finest studies? I remember reading an article on Yahoo about the life and death of Timothy Treadwell and his unfortunate girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, a day after their death. This film backtracks more than it focuses on that actual death. Herzog tries to understand why a man felt the need to become a bear and cross a line that experience sadly proved we cannot fully leave behind. He makes a strong argument for the aesthetic desire, in Treadwell expressed in his videos, composing part of that urge. He interviews family and friends about Timothy’s early life mired in lack of purpose and drugs, and he examines Treadwell’s desire to not only study but also to join the lives of the Grizzly. Reading over what I so far typed, I see how cerebral this entire exercise sounds, and it is. It is also, however, emotionally involving, almost as much so as any new film I watched so far this year. In the end, this is a rare wonder, an intellectually stimulating film that spurs our deeper feelings, and a documentary that leaves most contemporaries seeming as crass publicity stunts.
- A History of Violence - If the Coen brothers in their prime decided to remake Hal Hartley's masterpiece, Amateur, the results might well closely resemble this film, Cronenberg's most mainstreamed attempt since The Fly. The odd twist here is that inside this moody, stylized film, the very elements that most Hollywood films handle artificially, namely sex and violence, are represented with stark realism alternately awkward and shocking. As the film examines questions of identity, history, and the banal effectiveness of violence, it resolutely centers the themes around a strong if simple narrative brought to grave life by an exemplary cast. William Hurt will almost certainly nab a supporting nomination for his turn here, but he simply shines brightest in an already luminous constellation of performances. Cronenberg’s risky strategy works, and from the gasps of the large audience watching the film, the realism of the extreme elements did the job intended. It is a triumph, and easily one of Cronenberg’s finest.
- Munich - Steven Spielberg is doomed to carry a bad rap among the hipsters. This happens to many great artists who create a style so effective it dominates a field. Young aspiring directors (such as ol’ Dawson) claiming him as an idol over, say, Godard, sets eyes rolling to the heavens in split-seconds. We hate it when our friends are successful. His hoard of hacks who spun careers out of emulating him (Why, hello, Chris Columbus!) does not help the situation. It is not fair, of course, especially when in a year where the popular accusation became that he makes films for kids, he released two of his most adult films ever; in fact, Munich may well be his most mature film so far. If he shares the bad rap I mentioned above with Alfred Hitchcock (who certainly had a similar accusation leveled against him by contemporaries at times), he also shares one of the director’s flaws; they both have troubles with ending their films. For the first two hours or so, this film is fantastic. Spielberg has never been so subtle and yet so shocking with his images at the same time. He explores his characters’ psyches without resorting to lame speeches or other poor devices. He builds suspense like a political thriller while at the same time questioning the very premises behind such plots. He creates stunning, unconventional visuals, some even in glass reflections, which will stay with the sensitive viewer for weeks. When he stumbles in the home stretch, it is surprising; the scenes become heavy-handed () and sloppy. Throughout it all, though, Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is stellar without being flashy, Geoffrey Rush continues to prove he is one of the most versatile actors around, and Eric Bana delivers a performance every bit as worthy of an Oscar nomination as Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny Cash. The final shot, while hardly subtle, clears any doubts a dense person might have about why Spielberg wanted to do this film now; it may be a wallop, but it is an effective one nonetheless. In the end, Munich in one of Spielberg’s best films since the early 80s; it is simply frustrating because with a slightly better ending (and luckily, this one is not nearly as bad as the finale of War of the Worlds), I would not need to put any time qualifier on that statement.Spoiler: Highlight to viewWhy have a dramatic breakdown ending in a night in the closet when a simple pan over an empty bedroom into said closet would have been much more appropriate and moving? I know he is new to the territory, but did anybody bother to tell him that the sex scene toward the end starts off well enough but sadly slips into goofiness? And while the flashbacks to the Munich hostage event are excellent, they are as illogically placed as the ones in Ray...