Yet another list for your consideration, this one, I'm happy to report, features several relatively tiny films whose audiences could only have been built at the local level. (Anyone who says that the current cinema has nothing to do with geography is actively threatening to make it so.) I'm also enamored, even proud, of the fact that most of my 20 favorite movies of 2005 could easily be characterized with the same elegant phrase that the Christian Film and Television Commission recently used to describe Brokeback Mountain--that is, as "twisted, laughable, frustrating, and boring neo-Marxist homosexual propaganda."
1. Darwin's Nightmare
In the tradition of the greatest journalism, this apathy-rupturing doc takes a poetic approach to reporting a little-known story of vital concern and worldwide resonance: the inhuman devastation of Tanzania's Lake Victoria region by the predatory forces of global capital. Acting local, the Walker boldly bent its own rules to give this appropriately shocking film a week-long run in mid-October. What does it mean that the Strib, in the first Friday edition of its redesigned arts section, devoted twice as much space to trashing Domino as it did to mildly approving Darwin's Nightmare? Survival of the fittest?
2. The Joy of Life
San Francisco plays itself in Jenni Olson's mood-alteringly minimalist documentary about death, desire, and the thin line between. Revealing the beauty in decay, the images tell the story. I can't think of another artwork whose obsession with suicide is so clearly connected to the hope of inspiring us to live.
You're either with Wong Kar-wai or you're not--so let me speak for myself. In Cannes I saw his epic pseudo-sequel to In the Mood for Love twice in one night; wept like a baby both times. A year later I mustered the strength to return--and, though equally devastating, the experience felt completely different. Was it me or the movie that had changed? (The answer is both--at least one of them radically.) Maybe the master of melodramatic indecision has delivered his final cut of this excruciating lament for lost time and missed opportunity; maybe he hasn't. Either way, 2046 is still looking ahead (and behind), still trying to forget that it can't be like it was before.
Or: Scenes from After a Marriage. Reuniting Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullmann), Ingmar Bergman's swan-song sequel represents an old man's wisdom in the form of Johan's clinched, quivering fist and agonized howl--from which the camera shockingly pulls away. Approaching 90 years of age, Bergman won't go gently into film history.
5. Caché (Hidden)
Leave it to Michael Haneke, player of Funny Games, to stick it to the bourgeois, but pointedly: His TV-celebrity "hero" (Daniel Auteuil) here epitomizes the privilege of the times by passively doing untold damage to those less fortunate. Then, in one of the year's most hauntingly resonant images (not the movie's last, which is also a doozy), he draws the shades, pulls the covers over his head, and enjoys a deep, narcotized sleep. To the end, he'll maintain that the nightmare is Darwin's, not his. (The film opens here in two weeks.)
6. George A. Romero's
Land of the Dead
Almost 40 years after his first film on the subject, Romero, with supernatural insight, is still using the dead to show us how we live. To credit him with having foreseen Katrina feels both tempting and terribly crass; better to look at his haunting intimations of underclass dissent and say that his greater prescience is not yet official.
7. Funny Ha Ha
They're not slackers, but Generation Whatever does owe at least a shrug to Richard Linklater, whose influence on this hugely endearing DIY youth comedy extends to the casting of Kate Dollenmayer, assistant animator on Waking Life (and dead ringer for Wiley Wiggins's long-lost twin sister). Writer-director (and stubbornly independent distributor) Andrew Bujalski identifies deeply with Dollenmayer's Marnie, adrift between jobs and lovers. Like her (and to his credit), he has only his own smarts and high standards to blame for not going all the way.
8. Mysterious Skin
From its first shot of falling Froot Loops, the gutsiest film of the year presents middle-class American childhood in terms of both magic and horror--and without often separating the two. Whether or not you had regarded Gregg Araki as being "at serious risk of becoming the dirty old man of Amerindies" (I did, speaking as a fan), you had to admire his courage to reframe his own so-called Teen Apocalypse Trilogy of the late '90s as a typically adolescent (or American) form of defense.
9. The Squid and the Whale
Semi-autobiography at its toughest, Noah Baumbach's comedy (yes, it's a comedy) conveys the raw bewilderment of childhood amidst divorce with the psychological acuity of an adult's wounded retrospection. Calling to account his family's particulars (including the mixed blessing of precocious intellect), he ends up with something human: the unavoidable condition of being our parents' kids.
10 (tie). The Century of the Self/The Power of Nightmares
At a total running time of seven hours, Adam Curtis's scholarly pair of BBC docs about two interrelated forces of social control--capitalism and fear--just might count for extra credit at some universities. Unscreened in the U.S. outside of a few festivals and at one lucky and brave indie theater in New York, they're certainly hotter than Fahrenheit 9/11 and more than the System would wish to handle, even at a profit. Given the myriad obstacles that face any interested exhibitor, both Curtis and what we call film culture--what's left of it, anyway--will likely forgive those who take matters into their own hands; indeed, a few keystrokes on a computer with ample memory, and Curtis's oppositional outrage can be yours.