|by Peter Sobczynski
Many people have put out their Ten Best lists. This is the only completely correct one.
Although 2005 will probably not go down as a particularly fertile time for the film industry, at least from an artistic standpoint. Nevertheless, there was almost always something out there that was worth watching–sometimes you just had to look a little harder for it among the ordinary multiplex junk. Below are the ten best examples of the perfect diamonds that could be found amidnst the plethora of cinematic junk jewelry, along with additional lists of the other 2005 releases that made this job worth having even in the face of “Rumor Has It” or “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo.”
1. A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (directed by David Cronenberg)
This was the film that had it all–incredible performances by Viggo Mortensen (whose instant switch from kind-faced family man to instant killer in the opening diner scene was as terrifying to behold as any of Cronenberg’s more visceral transformations), Maria Bello, Ed Harris and William Hurt (whose freaky third-act appearance grows larger in the mind the more times you see it), action sequences in which character was deemed more important than choreography and a final sequence that says more with a few haunted faces and a plate of meat loaf about the ultimate price of violent retribution, no matter how initially justified it may have been, than Steven Spielberg did in all 160 minutes of “Munich.” Despite being described by those who saw it when it premiered at Cannes in May as his most accessible work to date, this meditation on violence and how the capacity for it is hard-wired into all of us, no matter how hard we try to deny it, was actually Cronenberg’s most audacious and provocative work since “Videodrome” and it is perhaps the one film to be released this year that will continue to be studied and analyzed for as long as people do such things.
2. THE NEW WORLD (directed by Terrence Malick)
It should come as no surprise to anyone, not even his detractors, that Malick’s latest masterpiece is one of the most visually ravishing films in recent memory. What is surprising is the way that he has taken a familiar story–the meeting of explorer John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (an extraordinary performance from first-timer Q’Orianka Kilcher) as their respective groups uneasily meet and later bitterly clash–and transformed it in such a way that it feels as if we, like the characters relating to their new surroundings and neighbors, are seeing and hearing it for the very first time. While it may prove to be too slow-paced for some moviegoers, there is not a single moment here that I wouldn’t drop everything to see again in a heartbeat.
3. LAND OF THE DEAD (directed by George A. Romero)
Darkly funny, socially committed and occasionally creepy as hell, Romero’s fourth zombie film was the rare long-awaited genre sequel that actually lived up to both the earlier films in the series and the dreams of film geeks everywhere. Romero’s blend of hippie-era idealism, post-Vietnam cynicism and state-of-the-art gore remains a potent brew and for a major studio release, it was a surprisingly radical work that dared to propose that perhaps the only way to end social inequality once and for all was to literally tear everything down so that everyone–rich or poor, black or white, male or female, alive or dead–would be on equally footing. As an extra bonus, you also get the year’s single funniest line reading when Dennis Hopper (playing an inspired spoof of Donald Rumsfeld) hits upon the best possible way of ridding himself of an unneeded underling.
4. SIN CITY (directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller)
Is this sexy, violent adaptation of Miller’s acclaimed series of graphic novels a particularly important or profound work of art? Does it say anything about the human condition or the world that we live in. Is there anything more to it than an eclectic group of actors embodying the classic noir archetypes–the sweet sexpots, killers with a heart of gold, hookers, politically untouchable psychos and the lone honest cop in a city gone wrong–in what appears to be the cinematic wet dream of a pulp-fiction fanatic hell-bent on making a film consisting entirely of Good Parts? The answer to all these questions is no but I would still place this film of the list for being cinematic junk food of an uncommonly high quality. For all the startling technical flourishes–the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography and the fabulous digitally-conceived sets and backgrounds–the most memorable aspect of the film is the achingly flesh-and-blood performance from Mickey Rourke as a misshapen thug looking for those responsible for the death of the one woman to show him kindness–it is a reminder that there is still a powerful actor behind all the tabloid headlines and it will hopefully inspire other directors to take a chance on him as well.
5. 2046 (directed by Wong Kar-Wai)
After years of wildly evolving screenplay, a production period that extended over a period of years and a series of re-edits that continued even after its high-profile premiere at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, even the most dedicated fan of Wong and his work might have expected this film–a wildly complex meditation on memory, love and loss that serves as a quasi-sequel to his earlier masterpiece “In the Mood For Love” and a stand-alone story in its own right. Even better, the film also serves as an excuse to watch some of the world’s most charismatic actors (including Tony Leung, Faye Wong, Maggie Cheung, Ziyi Zhang and Gong Li–the latter two demonstrating more genuine heat and personality just standing there than in the whole of “Memoirs of a Geisha”) strut their stuff. Straightforward yet ultimately unknowable, this is one of those films that seems to be tailor-made for repeat viewings on DVD.
6. THE CONSTANT GARDENER (directed by Fernando Meirelles)
I wasn’t much of a fan of Meirelles’s 2002 breakthrough “City of God”–it had a lot of flash and style but too little substance or genuine emotion. This adaptation of John Le Carre’s best-seller, in which a grieving mid-level diplomat (Ralph Fiennes) investigates the circumstances surrounding the death of his activist wife (Rachel Weisz), is also a visual stunner but also contain both substance–its criticisms of the ways in which massive corporations run roughshod over third-world countries in the pursuit of a larger bottom line are startlingly direct–and, through the powerful performances from Fiennes and Weisz, and heart as well.
7. ELIZABETHTOWN (directed by Cameron Crowe)
At one point during this sadly underrated comedy-drama about a young man (Orlando Bloom) contemplating his past (in the form of his father’s funeral in his Kentucky hometown), present (a catastrophic business failure that has left him on the verge of suicide) and future (in the form of perky stewardess Kirsten Dunst) over the course of one memorable week, a character extolls the joys and pleasures that can be found in an extended road trip–the kind of trip that one sets off on where the final destination is much less important than the adventures and diversions that one experiences before arriving at that destination. Crowe’s film is a lot like a cinematic equivalent of just such a trip–it starts off in a familiar manner and it concludes in a way that is equally unsurprising but Crowe gets us from point A to B by charting a fascinating journey that is driven by a gallery of interesting characters who are allowed to be real people instead of slaves to just another paint-by-numbers screenplay. Although a commercial disappointment, I suspect this is one of those films that will be rediscovered in a few years after the bad press subsides and its considerable virtues are allowed to shine.
8. DOMINION-THE PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST (directed by Paul Schrader)
Yes, this is the infamous film where director Paul Schrader, a filmmaker whose work has always leaned toward the philosophical and metaphysical, was hired to direct a prequel to “The Exorcist” and fired when he turned in a philosophical and metaphysical work instead of another two hours of grotesque special effects and regurgitated pea soup. (He was replaced by hack Renny Harlin, who reshot practically the entire film as the dire “Exorcist: The Beginning.”) The grimly ironic punchline to all of this is that “Dominion” was a genuinely strong and powerful film and one completely undeserving of its mistreatment. Instead of the stupid shocks common in most American horror films these days–where the audience reactions are more reflex than anything else–it took a more cerebral approach which gradually builds in power as it progresses and it actually dared to treat the subject matter seriously instead of using it as fodder for a goofy geek show. For Schrader, whose work over the years has been at times as uneven as it has been ambitious, it was a personal triumph and served as a reminder that he is one of the most intriguing and ambitious filmmakers working today.
9. GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK (directed by George Clooney)
This film may have sounded like just another history lesson that is irrelevant for most contemporary audiences. After all, it is a low-key, black-and-white film that is unabashedly liberal in tone, tells a story in which the triumphs are immediately derailed by the necessities of real life and, perhaps most challenging of all in these times, dares to present a journalist (Edward R. Murrow) in a positive light for questioning what is going on in the world and staking his career and reputation on exposing the truth (about the excesses of Red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy) instead of merely parroting the official party line. However, Clooney (who has quickly becoming one of the more interesting talents at work in Hollywood today as an actor, producer and director) has transformed it into something that is bracingly alive and relevant to the world today–in this, he has been aided immeasurably in that task by David Strathairn’s mesmerizing performance as Murrow and a stunning visual style that quietly and convincingly evokes the period in a surprisingly subtle manner.
10. KING KONG (directed by Peter Jackson)
The original “King Kong” is one of those legendary works that, like “Citizen Kane,” “Casablanca” and “2001,” will be seen, analyzed, discussed and revered for as long as people do such things with movies. Obviously, it will never be replaced but Jackson, a lifelong fan of the 1933 classic, has instead come up with the next best thing–a film that pays homage to the original while demonstrating such a fierce imagination of its own that it deserves a space on the same shelf next to the earlier film. It is such an impressive achievement on virtually every level–it is funny, sweet, scary, thrilling and contains the kind of honestly tear-jerking finale that will melt even the hardest of hearts–that I can see how it might inspire a whole new wave of future filmmakers all by itself. Hopefully, they will be lucky enough to snag actors of the level of Naomi Watts (as the damsel in distress) and Andy Serkis (who supplied the movements and facial expressions that were used as a guide for the digitally-created Kong)–against all odds, they create an on-screen relationship that is as convincing as any in recent memory.
The ten runners-up are Nick Park and Steve Box’s “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit[,” Michael Haneke’s “Cache,” Hayao Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle,” James Mangold’s “Walk the Line,” Dave McKean’s “Mirrormask,” Jim Jarmusch’s “Broken Flowers,” Pawel Pawlikowski’s “My Summer of Love,” Marco Tulio Giordana’s “The Best of Youth,” Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” and Miranda July’s “Me and You and Everyone We Know”.
I also enjoyed (in the vague order in which I saw them) “Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior,” “Constantine,” “Millions,” “Downfall,” “Hostage,” “Kung-Fu Hustle,” “The Boys and Girl of County Clare,” “Be Cool,” “Melinda and Melinda,” “Madison,” “Steamboy,” “Mondovino,” “Oldboy,” “Look at Me,” “Eros,” “Tell Them Who You Are,” “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “Mad Hot Ballroom,” “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” “The Interpreter,” “Layer Cake,” “Ladies in Lavender,” “Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith,” “Saving Face,” “Kicking and Screaming,” “Unleashed,” “Rock School,” “Mysterious Skin,” the first half of “Mr and Mrs Smith,” “5x2,” “Rize,” “Fear and Trembling,” “The Aristocrats,” “Lila Says,” “War of the Worlds” (until they go into the basement with Tim Robbins), “The Beat My Heart Skipped,” “Murderball,” “Duma,” “The Great Raid,” “My Date With Drew,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “The World,” “Last Days,” “Junebug,” “The Bad News Bears,” “Grizzly Man,” “The Brothers Grimm,” “Sky High,” “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Red-Eye,” “Thumbsucker,” “The Baxter,” “Lord of War,” “Roll Bounce,” “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “El Crimen Perfecto,” “Capote,” “Memory of a Killer,” “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” “Transporter 2,” “Dirty Love,” “Corpse Bride,” “Innocent Voices,” “Oliver Twist,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Protocols of Zion,” “Domino,” “The Matador,” “The War Within,” “Two for the Money,” “Paradise Now,” “Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story,” “Three Extremes,” “Prime,” “Breakfast on Pluto,” “Sarah Silverman-Jesus is Magic,” “The Kid and I,” “Syriana,” “New York Doll,” “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” “Ice Harvest,” “Match Point,” “Pulse,” “The Producers,” “The Three Burials of Melquiadas Estrada,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Ringer.”
There were a few other things that I saw during the past 12 months that I would have loved to put on one of these lists except that they didn’t quite fit within the guidelines. They include the restored version of the sexy 1933 Barbara Stanwyck melodrama “Baby Face,” Alain Resnais delightful French musical “Not On the Lips” (though it is now on DVD in America, its theatrical play was limited to a few brief slots at festivals and museums), Asia Argento’s mind-blowing “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things” (which is supposedly getting theatrical play in 2006), two episodes of the Showtime “Masters of Horror” series–Dario Argento’s wonderfully depraved “Jenifer” and Joe Dante’s hilariously angry politcal-satire-with-zombies “Homecoming–and the video for Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” which deftly conveyed in a few short minutes how seductive the military life can seem to kids trapped in a seemingly dead-end existence and the overwhelming horror of the reality of war–imagine “Jarhead,” only shorter, smarter and with a better soundtrack.
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originally posted: 12/29/05 21:37:49
last updated: 01/13/06 19:26:22