The plot complexity and ambiguous characterizations are big plusses in my book. And writer-director Stephen Gaghan's mood of portentous paranoia seems a better fit with U.S./Middle East oil shenanigans than it was with middle-class drug use in Traffic. I could see the ending from five miles away, and still it made me jump.
Honorable Mention (alphabetically):Brokeback Mountain; George A. Romero's Land of the Dead; Good Night, and Good Luck.; Kings and Queen; Kung Fu Hustle; Me and You and Everyone We Know; My Summer of Love; Nobody Knows; Oldboy; The White Diamond.
If you had told me this afternoon that a short while later I'd be experiencing one of the moviegoing events of my life...well, I would've sooner accepted Judith Miller telling me that the sky is blue. But that was before I saw Terrence Malick's The New World, a movie so removed from our preoccupations and tics, from our pop-culture knickknacks and political neuroses, that it seems almost heaven-sent.
And so whatever I had planned to say here about gay cowboys and histories of violence and the aesthetic failures of Fantastic Four needs to take a backseat to this urgent plea: See Malick's movie, which seems to have been abandoned by its backers. (Even the director is in the midst of reconsidering the film in the editing room as we speak.) Urgent yet meditative, handcrafted yet off-the-cuff, The New World had me whipsawing between ecstatic hyperventilation and tears--a response that I associate with adolescent drug use, and a reliable sign that a master filmmaker has broken through my defenses and taken me to the non-ironic place that gray-bearded men once called the Sublime.
1. The New World
Terrence Malick's take on the meeting of John Smith and Pocahontas (and their respective tribes) is many things: a revised national creation myth, a restaging of the war in heaven, a translation of the Emersonian transcendent into pictures, a recapturing of the emotive power of silent film, and an elegy for the Eden of Malick's youth--the American New Wave that gave a cinematic face to a nature-based counterculture. Torrential and euphoric, The New World seeks to rival not other movies, but Romantic opera, Whitman's poetry, and the Bible. Like the flowering, fallen America that is its subject, The New World is something that I'll be wrestling with forever. (It opens here in two weeks.)
2. Match Point
The most perfectly achieved of Woody Allen's 30-odd features is like a scene from one of his comic short stories in the New Yorker: Woody goes to bed in New York and wakes up in London, only to discover that he has turned into Alfred Hitchcock. (This one also opens here in two weeks.)
3. In Her Shoes
The critical establishment missed the boat entirely on this one, illustrating an ongoing problem: writers who review the marketing materials rather than the movie. Director Curtis Hanson turned the Chick Flick back into the Women's Picture, crafting a Chekhovian tragicomedy that's wise, tender, tirelessly observant, and decked out in a stylized color scheme that Sirk or Cukor would be proud to call his own. The year's best scene: Cameron Diaz learning to read by way of an Elizabeth Bishop poem--and discovering that it has, in fact, read her.
Just when you think that Ingmar Bergman has exhausted all his options, sneered smugly at his characters, and wasted the audience's good will toward his latest valedictory, you realize that he has led you into a trap: a perfect construction of classic pathos that leaves you dumbstruck and heartbroken.
6. George A. Romero's
Land of the Dead
I can't think of an American movie that plays out so many political allegories simultaneously within the same storyline. Dear George: I know it hurts that it took 20 years to arrive at Part IV of the Zombie Fresco, but look at what all those years of anxious rethinking got you.
7. War of the Worlds
Steven Spielberg's nightmarish reconfiguring of the horrors of 20th-century history in blockbuster-tent-pole shapes might've been dubbed the Most Subversive Studio Movie of All Time...if only it were signed by David Cronenberg.
8. Café Lumière
The latest films of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien have brought me close to an immensely patient master of cinema; nothing in my recent moviegoing experience has gratified me more than beginning to understand him. This exquisite miniature is a mix of Noh drama, Warholian stasis, and contemporary time capsule; watching it, you feel as if you're waking at last from a long, heavy dream.
A Count of Monte Cristo for the 21st century, this revenge thriller establishes Park Chanwook as a mercurial moralist and one of the keenest genre minds since Peckinpah. No other movie this year told a story with such oracular, spellbinding power.
10. Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist
Who but Paul Schrader would have dared to turn the rock-'em-sock-'em Exorcist franchise into a quiet, "cerebral," dryly ironic mid-period Graham Greene tale of imperialists in Africa? (Call it Our Man in Hades.) It must have been sweet revenge for the emeritus practitioner of the Cinema of Ideas to pickpocket the production company, getting his characteristically perverse anti-pulp film in theaters on the basis of the failure of Renny Harlin's witless reshoot. If any movie defines Martin Scorsese's notion of the director as smuggler, this is it.