Honorable Mention (alphabetically):Brokeback Mountain; Café Lumière; Fever Pitch; Grizzly Man; Match Point; Mondovino; The New World; Tim Burton's Corpse Bride; Wall.
As a friend said of Park Chanwook's revenge feast Oldboy: "It's pretty fun when you have no idea where a film is going next." In 2005, as in 2004, there were an unexpected number of movies that moved unexpectedly. The films I was most looking forward to (Broken Flowers, A History of Violence, 2046, etc.) turned out to be less--or different--than envisioned; others I had heard nothing about knocked me sideways, my vision doubled. In a year that had people complaining of disaster fatigue, I was glad to be surprised into feeling--even if, as with the startling reissue Winter Soldier, what I felt was "only" abiding grief.
1. Mysterious Skin
If you want a history of violence, look no further. Director Gregg Araki, long a winking bareback rider on the mechanical bull of cinematic violence, kicks the gore offscreen and focuses on the aftermath. What comes next isn't revenge or rote repetition or redemption, as we've come to expect. It's less definable: One victim denies and projects the abuse; another feels affection, even gratitude, toward the abuser. Watching these two sink below their surfaces to face the damage made me realize, as Dennis Lim pointed out, how rare is the film that seeks to explore the victim's complexities rather than the victimizer's. So often there's a sense that "they" deserve what they get. To acknowledge their complex humanity (which isn't innocence, of course)--why, that would be to see each anguished soul on TV as if s/he was your kin.
Midway through this shambling rumination on love and loss, I thought, "Wow--a Wong Kar-wai movie with no heart." The characters' (and the director's?) understanding of love seemed to have more to do with the ownership and use of beauty than anything else. Tony Leung's haunted rake looked like a caricature of Wong's other regretful wankers: a man so boringly steeped in nostalgia that I wished the ever-petulant Ziyi Zhang on him. Then something shifted--I couldn't tell you what-- and I noticed I was crying. A scene of Leung walking--no different than any other scene of Leung walking--was abruptly infused with raw significance. I say raw because it felt that way even though what I think happened was that the past was suddenly present: The other movies in Wong's trilogy (or "symphony")--Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love--were suddenly pulsing alongside this one, changing and being changed by its rake's progress; and I was pulsing alongside as well, changing and being changed. More than any recent artist biopic, 2046 enacts the creation of meaning--i.e., art. And the last trembling shot of the Hong Kong skyline transports the narrative to a breathtaking altitude: This is love story-making for a city, a country, a people, a world--for their past, present, and especially future.
3. Caché (Hidden)
From the first amazing shot, which goes on and on and then rewinds, Michael Haneke's post-9/11 whodunnit plays elegantly with perception and accountability before unraveling into a tripping tangle of motivations and electrical cords. You don't slip out unseen.
Filmmaker Simone Bitton takes a seemingly unyielding reality--the huge wall erected to separate Israelis from Palestinians--and taps along it until she finds the weak spots. Her interviews with people on both sides reveal common frustrations and fears, as well as all sorts of barrier crossings. At the same time, the wall does not yield. A painful, brilliant film.
5. Howl's Moving Castle
Yes, the heroine is a passive domestic creature compared to Kiki, Satsuki, or Chihiro. Yes, the hero exhibits the usual epic bravery, sacrifice, and arrogance of his type. Yes, the old women are scheming and/or avaricious. But Hayao Miyazaki's animation finds beauty and ugliness in all of them. And his visual inventiveness in the face of grinding war horror not only enchants, but suggests that we can be more creative in the stories we tell, especially in the stories we tell about war.
6. Grizzly Man
Something about the resemblance between Kurt Cobain and the subject of Werner Herzog's documentary, Timothy Treadwell, gets this story ringin' like a bell. It's not just their blond All-American handsomeness: It's the starry-eyed belief in purity, whether of passion or of wildness--which are pretty much the same thing in the Romantic tales the young still tell themselves. Treadwell sees uncorrupted innocence in the bears' eyes; Herzog sees brute hunger. I say that until we search the mirror for a more complex nature--wild and corrupt, innocent and brutish--we will go out looking to be eaten.
7. The Squid and the Whale
For director Noah Baumbach's refusal to soft-pedal the patriarch's destructive behavior (not to mention the matriarch's). And because it's so scathingly funny.
8. Tropical Malady
Half-sensual romance between two beautiful men, half-mythic dance between one of those men and a jungle tiger, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's playful film resonates like fable all the way through.