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.
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.
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.
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.