Monday, January 02, 2006

My Favorite Movies of 2005

2005 was a great year for good movies, but only a good year for great movies. Lower attendance in theaters was endlessly discussed this year, chalked up to DVD competition, cellphone annoyances and lower quality fare, but a convincing study puts the blame simply on higher ticket prices. In other trends, documentaries are crowding out the foreign films, which have no PBS alternative, but many of them have been excellent. Red and I noticed and tired of a strange and disturbing rise of the theme of children in peril, esp. as participants/victims in sexual activity (Mysterious Skin, Palindromes, Innocence, Garcon Stupide, You and Me and Everyone We Know, Keane, Born Into Brothels & Boys of Baraka, The Holy Girl, War of the Worlds). Yuck. War, the cycle of revenge and understanding the terrorist mentality were yet again prominent themes (A History of Violence, Caché, Syriana, Munich, Paradise Now, The War Within). 2005 also saw an uptick in the use of narration, usually ironic yet effective (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Happy Endings, Lord of War, Hitchhiker's Guide, Layer Cake). The year also saw an even greater than usual number of Hollywood remakes, a trend which continues full throttle into next year's slate (see #20 on this Film Threat article for a long list).

1. A History of Violence (New Line Cinema)
A stunningly intelligent thriller about the occasional necessity of using violence as well as the problems that result. The story offers no easy answers or simple polemics. A refreshingly smart and entertaining thriller with excellent lead performances, a subplot of superb counterpoint, and a kind of relevance you rarely get at the cineplex. Compare the two smart and expressive sex scenes, or the two confrontations with the high school bully. Before and after. So economical, yet they say so much. One of Cronenberg's finest.

2. (tie) Grizzly Man (Lions Gate) & The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (Shadow Distribution Inc.)
Two powerful docs that both deal with man's relationship to the animal world. One is horrifying, and the other is romantic and beautiful, like two flip sides of a coin. Herzog maintains his grip on a solid, sensible yet profound view of the world as he journeys into the abyss of a truly foreseeable (yet not necessarily preventable) tragedy. These days, naive dreamers easily become fodder for the big media hate machine, so I appreciated his integrity in handling footage that could have amounted to a snuff film or a punch-line. Judy Irving's documentary is so filled with life and love that it should have been the date movie that the much less intelligent March of the Penguins became. Mark Bittner, as much the subject of this film as his avian acquaintances, shares commentary about the individual birds' behavior that is fascinating, charming, and finally operates on another level of meaning.

4. The Beat That My Heart Skipped (Wellspring)
I haven't seen the original 70s cult classic which this film is based on, but my impression is that this is quite a reinvention. The story seems unlikely--a young man works as a mafia type but nurtures dreams of pursuing a classical music career--but as the film goes on, his character is fleshed out in a psychologically rich way that had me swooning for the film by the end. Like Irreversible (though with far more sophistication and success), it seems to express a fascinating, gendered view of the universe in which maleness itself is pathological, as Thomas dutifully serves his father but feels a powerful pull towards his absent (deceased) mother. Powerful, poetic stuff.

5. Nine Lives (Magnolia Pictures)
Having seen Rodrigo Garcia's previous film, Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her, also a collection of loosely linked shorts about women, I never would have expected this film to be so powerful, so excellent. Each scene is filmed in one fluid camera movement, and several episodes (Diana, Samantha, Lorna) would, standing alone, be among the highlights of the year. Even the few (Sonia, Camille) which stray into the pink ribbon politics that marred the earlier effort are grounded in powerful dramatic terms, with fresh angles and superb acting. Fresh, vital, electrifying at its best, Nine Lives presents us a major artist. (And it turns out he's Gabriel García Márquez's son!)

6. (tie) "Mountaineer Spinning" (2004) & "Shining"
No movie I saw this year stunned me (literally) like "Mountaineer Spinning," a 26min. short from underground legend Ken Jacobs. Using a stroboscopic effect and jarring soundtrack to continuously tease and frustrate the eye and the brain, it begins to feel after a few minutes like a futuristic weapon. A young woman in my row began to cry tears of anguish after about 20 minutes. I didn't blame her. It was a kind of torture, like the wrath of an angry god, but it was also profound and cathartic, and I'll never, ever forget it. Shining, a widely seen short posted online, generated the kind of water cooler admiration that few feature-length movies did this year. 25-year-old editor's assistant Robert Ryang entered "a contest...[to t]ake any movie and cut a new trailer for it — but in an entirely different genre. Only the sound and dialogue could be modified, not the visuals...." Ryang transformed horror pic The Shining into Shining, a Miramax-style feel-good dramedy in the vein of As Good As It Gets. In the process, he created the most vibrant work of film criticism of the year. His blast of satire exposes the cliches and manipulations of modern Hollywood with a refreshing anarchy of spirit. He posted his contest-winner online for a couple friends to see, one of them posted it on an obscure blog, and within 10 days an avalanche of traffic ensued and he received a call from the admiring vice-president of a major studio. Comedian Jack Black is also rumored to be an admirer. It may seem silly to choose this short for my top ten, but it had a spark of brilliance that was sorely lacking this year on the big screen. [I also flipped over a New Zealand short called "Two Cars, One Night," a 2003 film nominated for an Oscar in 2005. Michelangelo Antonioni's "Michelangelo Eye to Eye" was also impressive.]

7. (tie) Brokeback Mountain (Focus Features) & Happy Endings (Lions Gate)
I wrestled more with Brokeback Mountain than any other film this year, loving it one day, angry at it the next. It has believability issues, and if it's an argument for gay rights, it's a very conservative one. What saves it for me is that it doesn't feel like a piece of propaganda, even though many are treating it as one. The craftsmanship is remarkable, the performances great (esp. Ledger's), and it's extremely moving. And it has people talking like few films ever do. Happy Endings is in some respects way ahead of the curve for gay storytelling, one in which gay romance is a non-issue and the longing to raise a family is the emotional challenge, though there are plenty of other issues, many of them heterosexual. I was thrilled to see Roos, the director/writer of The Opposite of Sex, back in form, taking us through another story of nasty characters and messy feelings with such great skill that Tom Arnold turns in a surprisingly moving performance.

9. Red Eye (DreamWorks)
I can't feel guilty about the pleasures of this taut thriller, so witty and comic, a B movie with A talent and brains. Probably the most fun I had at the movies this year.

10. Fever Pitch (Twentieth Century Fox)
Too cute for many, but Fallon is surprisingly good as a Red Sox fanatic trying to make it work with a gal (Drew Barrymore) who enjoys his passion but doesn't fully understand the way it works. I know what it's like to be geeky about something, so I fully appreciated this film, the Farrelly Bros.' best film yet.

11. Oliver Twist (Sony Pictures Entertainment)
12. Keane (Magnolia Pictures)
13. Layer Cake (Sony Pictures Classics)
14. Proof (Miramax Films)
15. Double Dare (Balcony Releasing)
16. Thumbsucker (Sony Pictures Classics)
17. (tie) Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Warner Bros.) &
Sky High (Buena Vista Pictures)
19. Caché (Hidden) (Sony Pictures Classics)
20. Howl's Moving Castle (Buena Vista Pictures)

HONORABLE MENTIONS (the next thirty)
Look at Me (Sony Pictures Classics), Palindromes (Wellspring), Up for Grabs (Laemmle/Zeller Films), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Warner Brothers), King Kong (Universal), The Constant Gardener (Focus Features ), Broken Flowers (Focus Features ), The Squid and the Whale (Samuel Goldwyn Films), Lord of War (Lions Gate), Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (DreamWorks), Corpse Bride, Loggerheads, In the Realms of the Unreal, My Summer of Love, 2046, Walk on Water, The Girl from Monday, Mysterious Skin, Junebug, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Batman Begins, In Good Company, Up and Down, Breakfast on Pluto, The Weather Man, Mutual Appreciation, Cinderella Man, The Boys of Baraka, Look Both Ways

Best Actress: Rachel Weisz (Constant Gardner)
Runners-Up: Gwyneth Paltrow (Proof), Naomi Watts (King Kong), Monica Bella (A History of Violence), Lisa Kudrow (Happy Endings)
Best Actor: Damian Lewis (Keane)
Runners-Up: Romain Duris (The Beat That My Heart Skipped), Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), Nathan Lane (The Producers), Robert Downey Jr. (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang)
Best Supporting Actor: Keanu Reeves (Thumbsucker)
Runners-Up: Paul Giamatti (Cinderella Man), Jeffrey Wright (Broken Flowers), Jason Isaacs (Nine Lives), Jack Black (King Kong)
Best Supporting Actress: Robin Wright Penn (Nine Lives)
Runners-Up: Amy Brenneman (Nine Lives), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Happy Endings), Amy Adams (Junebug), Li Gong (2046)

Best Child Performance: Dakota Fanning (War of the Worlds & Nine Lives)
Best Adolescent Performance: Ashton Holmes (A History of Violence)
Best Use of a Star's Persona: Keanu Reeves (Thumbsucker
2005 Christina Ricci "It" Girl Award (breakout ingenue): Rachel McAdams
Best Director: David Cronenberg (A History of Violence)
Best taglines: Joint Custody Blows. (The Squid and the Whale) & There's been a grave misunderstanding. (Corpe Bride) & Something wicked this way hops. (Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit)

Activist Film of the Year: The Boys of Baraka
Most Overrated Film: Crash (despite good intentions) & Flightplan
Most Underrated Film: Proof (And too many films were underseen in '05.)
Best Gay/Queer film: Brokeback Mountain & Happy Endings (though Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Loggerheads, Walk on Water, Mysterious Skin and Breakfast on Pluto were strong, too)

Best Film Critic: A.O.Scott & Manola Dargis - The Times isn't my favorite source for reviews (except Dave Kehr's DVD column), since they skew towards the "important" over the fun or quirky. Still, the gatekeeper role is tough and thankless. The reviews are ok, but I was fairly impressed this year with the commentaries they write on top of the reviews, esp. a piece Dargis wrote on Brokeback Mountain and a piece Scott wrote asking where all the "howlers" have gone, which probably inspired me more than any other essay or review this year.

2005 Soundtrack Highlights: "Cheer Up! Smile! Nertz!" from Cinderella Man; songs from The Producers and Corpse Bride, a striking moment in Goblet of Fire when Harry returns from an ordeal only to be greeted with cheery brass band music; the interesting song selections in Walk the Line; Diana Reeves' classic song stylings in Good Night and Good Luck; a swiped Pink Floyd song in The Squid and the Whale; Maggie Gyllenhaal as chanteuse in Happy Endings; Elliott Smith and Polyphonic Spree on the Thumbsucker soundtrack; Broken Flowers, another great Jarmusch soundtrack; The Nomi Song; classical and pop music featured in The Beat That My Heart Skipped; a new theme in Star Wars III; silly songs in Hitchhikers' Guide; nerdy Christian family musical group in Palindromes; Jack Kerouac singing “Ain’t We Got Fun” in The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill; Breakfast on Pluto soundtrack; and several numbers from Sarah Silverman's Jesus is Magic. In older films I saw this year, I loved Cat Stevens' songs from Harold and Maude; and the waltz as clue in Shadow of a Doubt. Lastly, a new cliche: Middle-Eastern wails used in dark thrillers and dramas, my only real complaint about Layer Cake, but it's turning up everywhere, often jarringly inappropriate.

This was the year I first saw They Live By Night (1949) & Rebel Without a Cause (1955), both by Nicholas Ray. They blew me away, two of the most powerful films I've ever seen, far better than anything new I saw this year. I was also stunned and amazed by Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). Discovered a new favorite in the wonderful Teresa Wright in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Wyler's Oscar-winner The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). (She acted opposite one of my favorite actors, Dana Andrews, who was never better than in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), which I also saw this year.) I kept attending art and revival houses in 2005, where I got to see Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957) and Marilyn Monroe in Don't Bother to Knock (1952), another surprisingly entertaining film, but this was also the year I joined Netflix, the greatest Internet service since Amazon and Google. Life may never be the same. Thanks to the combined wonders of DVD and revival houses, I embarked on a remedial horror series, loving Dawn of the Dead (1978) most, other highlights being Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Seventh Victim (1943). Hitchcock delivered again in Lifeboat (1944), finally available on DVD. Bloody Sunday (2002) surprised me with its unexpected power. Got my first taste of Harold Lloyd, delightful in Girl Shy (1924) and Safety Last (1923). More Miyazaki was issued in DVD, and I loved Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds (1984). A fascinating artfilm called Decasia: The State of Decay (2002) impressed me, and Smile Performed by Brian Wilson (2004) gave me much more than a chance to experience a concert tour I missed. Other highlights of the many, many great older films I saw: Douce (1943), My Life as a Dog (1985), Winchester '73 (1950), 3 Women (1977), and The Man with the Movie Camera (1929).

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