Honorable Mention (in order of preference):Duma; Red Eye; Grizzly Man; Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance; The Interpreter; Kiss Kiss Bang Bang; Crash; Happy Endings; One Missed Call; Brokeback Mountain.
Speaking as one who went to the drive-in as a teenager every weekend in hopes of discovering a director like David Cronenberg, the thrill this year was the renewed potency of genre movies and their willingness to stomp in where prestige pictures tread lightly. Steven Spielberg shrewdly surmised that the best way to make a 9/11 movie was to do it with aliens; George A. Romero and Joe Dante sent the undead to finish the job that Michael Moore started. And one of the year's most striking, subversive American movies was by an auteur named Rob Zombie. Only in 2005.
1. A History of Violence
A divided movie for divided times, this split critics into accusatory camps: Either David Cronenberg's whip-taut thriller was an overrated, overwrought blame-America screed--The Emperor's New Mystic River--or a fierce indictment of our nation's itchy trigger finger. It's the perfect movie for a year when TV news was taken less as fact than as a Rorschach test of the receptor. Whether Cronenberg's movie is primarily a potent urban Western about a man forced to use justifiable violence to defend the innocent or a troubling take on the American ideal of the self-made man--a haunting portrait of a nation in false faces and a walk on the sometimes blurry line between killer and hero--depends largely on the viewer. And if you think educated people can't look at the same story and see radically different pictures, try flipping sometime between NPR and Fox News. Cronenberg's little experiment ultimately extends to the libido, with two astonishing sex scenes of varying temperature: a sweetly intimate, quaintly suburban kinkfest between wife and husband, and a hot, hostile hate-fuck between a wife and a stranger who also happens to be her husband. Whichever one makes you squirm--out of desire, discomfort, or both--is your dirty little secret.
2. Grizzly Man
In a year when evangelical tub-thumpers held up March of the Penguins as evidence of intelligent design, ignoring that penguins are stupid enough to live in the most godforsaken place on earth, Werner Herzog's documentary offered a savage riposte to the pathetic fallacy of treating nature as a mirror--or, for that matter, as a combination backdrop and audience for our own narcissistic one-man show. As long as there are floods and tornadoes to be filmed, the doomed grizzly obsessive Timothy Treadwell will not be the last person to die mistaking his camera for a shield.
After the emotional equivalent of plowing down a one-way street at 120 mph into a brick wall, then waking in a pool of broken glass and blood, one might still conclude that every shattered bone was worth it for the memory of Sibel Kekilli tossing her hair and laughing in the moments before impact. At least writer-director Fatih Akin convinced me.
4. George A. Romero's Land of the Dead
Chapter Four of A Zombie's History of the United States--by the Howard Zinn of splatter. (Hoped-for sequel: Romero's pissed-off activist gutmunchers enlist the dead army from Joe Dante's amazing Homecoming for a Million Zombie March.)
Writer-director Lodge Kerrigan (Clean, Shaven) issues his latest rebuttal to the idea that movies cannot express inner states of being, conveying more than we want to know about the mental stability of a traumatized parent (Damian Lewis, in the year's most unnerving performance) while holding back a few key secrets. With the exception of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse, this film is scarier than every horror movie released all year (which may or may not explain why it hasn't yet opened in Minneapolis).
6. Brokeback Mountain
A beautiful, eloquently square piece of American mainstream cinema whose most revolutionary virtue is the source of its backlash: its total lack of edginess or subversion.
7. Nobody Knows
The abandoned children of this devastating drama were ignored all over again when the movie played theaters in the heartland. Not to get all Sally Struthers on your ass, but please look in on them. Director Hirokazu Kore-eda uses 141 minutes to show a kid's dream of all-day play slipping into a nightmare of starvation and neglect--yet without the miserabilism you'd expect.
8. Caché (Hidden)
Something still bugs me about Michael Haneke's contemptuous classist control, at once ironfisted and high-handed, but I cannot dispute the formal mastery of a director who turns the lowly establishing shot into a weapon of terror.
9. Red Eye
Like War of the Worlds, Wes Craven's unusually adroit 85-minute wonder turned routine genre material into an exorcism of post-9/11 powerlessness and an examination of situational ethics--in this case, whether the concerns of one airline traveler (Rachel McAdams) amount to a hill of beans with thousands of lives in the balance.
10 (tie). The Devil's Rejects/Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance/Oldboy/Sin City
From Saw II to Syriana, from Wolf Creek to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, torture was the movies' leitmotif, rivaled only by revenge. Here are four films that span the human capacity for imaginative cruelty, summoned by God knows what subconscious mandate. None of them is entirely defensible for mining thrills from sick behavior, yet each manages to complicate the big payback--either by emphasizing its self-negation (as in the graphically stunning Sin City and Park Chanwook's pair of revengers' tragedies) or by making it so extreme (as in Zombie's Rejects) that it thwarts the audience's bloodlust. The oddly resonant message of these movies is that no matter who's holding the hammer--or the knife or the battery cables--torture puts everyone in the victim's chair.
Honorable Mention (alphabetically):Kings and Queen; Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior; Sky High; The Squid and the Whale; 2046; War of the Worlds; The World.