There are still some well-reviewed 2005 films that I have not managed to see, like Brokeback Mountain and Syriana and The New World. I really would like to watch those before publishing any kind definitive take on the Year in Movies...but I've got to run with this list while it's still timely. In another few days, 2005 will settle into its permanent place in our collective rearview mirrors, and no one will really care what, specifically, the Best Films were.
I'll do an Oscar post once those nominations are announced, but here are some of my choices for Outstanding Achievements in Films this year that aren't usually recognized by the Academy.
BEST ENSEMBLE CAST: Batman Begins
WORST ENSEMBLE CAST: The Fantastic Four
THE JEFFREY LEBOWSKI AWARD FOR THE MOVIE CHARACTER I'D MOST LIKE TO HANG OUT WITH: Winston (played by Jeffrey Wright) from Broken Flowers
BEST USE OF RACISM: Will Ferrell's constant Italian stereotyping in Kicking and Screaming
WORST USE OF RACISM: Paul Haggis desperately trying to make a BIG STATEMENT in Crash
MOST DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND CHARACTER IN A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE: Cavaldi the Torturer, played by Peter Stormare, in Brothers Grimm
BEST DIRECTORIAL DEBUT: Shane Black for Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
WORST FOLLOW-UP TO A BRILLIANT DIRECTORIAL DEBUT: Fernando Meirelles for The Constant Gardener
BEST FOLLOW-UP TO A MEDIOCRE DIRECTORIAL DEBUT: George Clooney for Good Night...and Good Luck
BEST OVERALL SPECIAL EFFECTS: Star Wars; Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
COOLEST SPECIAL EFFECTS SEQUENCE: Tom Cruise evades a Tripod on the streets of New York in War of the Worlds
WORST OVERALL SPECIAL EFFECTS: Serenity
WORST OVERALL SPECIAL EFFECTS SEQUENCE: Fraudulent computer-generated birds in March of the Penguins
BEST SCORE: Batman Begins
BEST SONG I SINCERELY HOPE GETS NOMINATED FOR AN OSCAR FOR "BEST ORIGINAL SONG," SO IT WILL HAVE TO BE PERFORMED ON THE OSCAR TELECAST: "Whoop That Trick," Hustle and Flow
BEST ALTERNATE TITLE TO "WHOOP THAT TRICK" OFFERED IN THE FILM HUSTLE AND FLOW: "Stomp That Ho"
BEST SURPRISE: Werner Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Peter Jackson's bloated King Kong
MOST POINTLESS FILM, FICTION CATEGORY: Be Cool, a ruthlessly unfunny follow-up to Get Shorty with none of that film's style or wit, almost no returning cast members, a different director, and a paunchy and world-weary John Travolta collecting a paycheck.
MOST EGOMANIACAL FILM, NON-FICTION CATEGORY: My Date With Drew, positing that dorky aspiring filmmaker Brian Herzlinger is so fascinating, audiences will be enthralled watching him hang out with friends and ramble into the camera for 90 minutes about his childhood crush. Apparently, with modern technology as it now stands, filming yourself goofing off now qualifies you as an auteur.
MOVIE THAT MADE IT APPEAR COURTNEY COX HAD GONE FOR BREAST ENLARGEMENT SURGERY: The Longest Yard
MOVIE THAT CONFIRMS THIS WAS NOT THE CASE: November
THE BRETT RATNER AWARD FOR THE MOST SHRILL, IRRITATING TO LISTEN TO FILM: Robots
THE JOEL SCHUMACHER AWARD FOR THE MOVIE WITH THE UGLIEST DESIGN AND DECOR: The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D
A SPECIAL BRAND NEW-AWARD WILL HEREBY BE NAMED FOR JESSICA ALBA, AND WILL GO TO THE ACTRESS WHO MOST NEEDS TO JUST GET OVER HERSELF AND DO A NUDE SCENE
Presented to Jessica Alba in recognition of her not-nearly-slutty-enough turns in films such as Sin City, Fantastic Four and Into the Deep.
Okay, congrats to all the winners. Looking back on 2005, it was a peculiar year. It's true that, overall, I think there are less films this year that I have really enjoyed thna in years past. However, I think the big, event movies (obviously, with some exceptions) were much stronger than average. Usually, out of all the big summer films that come out, maybe one or two is worthwhile at all, while the rest are unwatchably terrible.
This year, some of the blockbuster films also happened to be spectacular entertainments, the kind of movies that encouraged audiences to line up and get hyped for summer films in the first place. It's just that, summer tentpoles and end-of-the-year award-grabbers aside, there just wasn't a ton of quality in Hollywood films this year.
Obviously, international cinema was quite a different story. The weird thing about doing these kinds of Top Ten lists is that I don't get to see most of the great foreign titles in the year they are first released. The foreign movies I saw this year were overwhelmingly released in 2004 in their native countries.
So, I can't really say what kind of year 2005 was internationally yet (I'll know more in a few months), but I can say that 2004 saw some pretty amazing achievements in world film. So, before we get on to the Actual Official List of the Best Films Released in 2005, Proper, here are my favorite films (foreign movies mainly, but also American films and documentaries from the last year or two that I didn't see until 2005) that didn't quite qualify for the list in terms of release date.
The Best Films of the Past Few Years that I Didn't See Until 2005
10. Memories of Murder (2003)
This taut, detailed and goregeously-shot Korean police procedural is based on the true case of Korea's first serial murderer.
9. Kings and Queen (2004)
French director Arnaud Desplechin throws a dizzying amount of ideas at you through the course of this 2.5 hour tragi-comedy, and not all of them stick around long enough to make perfect sense. But his ambition is admirable, the film is frequently funny and he coaxes terrific performances from Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric (who also appears in Spielberg's Munich as Louis, the French informant).
8. Survive Style 5+ (2004)
Bizarre Japanese farce that's equal parts social satire and loopy cartoonish fantasy film. It also features some more hilarious, engaging work from Ichi the Killer star Tadanobu Asano and a strange cameo from British tough guy Vinnie Jones.
7. The Man Who Copied (2003)
This Brazilian thriller-comedy reminds me of some of Polanski's more playful films. This film's been pretty much completely overlooked thus far in the States, which is a real shame.
6. Fear and Trembling (2003)
This French-Japanese co-production could be described as Lost in Translation meets Office Space. But even though I like both of those films a great deal, neither of them has the emotional intelligence or bravery of this outsider's look at the Japanese corporate world. Sylvie Testud's performance as the befuddled, alienated Amelie is one of my favorites from any film I saw this year.
5. Undertow (2004)
Apparently, David Gordon Green's follow-up to the brilliant All the Real Girls actually came out in theaters in 2004, but I don't remember ever seeing it playing anywhere around here. And I do live in the middle of Los Angeles. Is it just because there are no big movie stars? Because Undertow is hardly an art film. It's an adventure story, and a thriller, and it's just brutal and intense and immediate and beautifully shot and, even if the story isn't exactly distant and cool and intellectual and artsy, Green can't help but bring his natural eye and unique aesthetic sensibility to the film. Another forgotten, ignored gem.
4. Head-On (2004)
This German-Turkish co-production hasn't won a lot of fans at Laser Blazer, and I suppose its punk rock soundtrack, explicit repeated drug abuse and frequent nudity might be off-putting for some. But I found its depiction of misfits, married for convenience, who fall in love at precisely the wrong moment mesmerizing in its unpredictability and bold in its execution. I don't often like films this sentimental, and I'm fond of saying that most Hollywood tearjerkers don't earn their sentiment. Well, here is a film with a heart-breaking climax that is completely earned, and extraordinarily effective.
3. Overnight (2003)
This is one of those "right place-right time" documentaries. A camera crew just happened to be following around a guy who would have an unbelievable, fascinating adventure, and the entire ordeal would be caught on tape. In this instance, it's megalomaniacal wannabe filmmaker Troy Duffy, a bartender granted the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make his debut feature for Miramax Films based on his own script. The film in question? Boondock Saints. Troy's bandmates (who also hope to win fame and fortune on Troy's coattails) film his fast rise to the top of the young Hollywood heap, and his even faster freefall from grace. This film is hilarious and also really sad.
2. I'm Not Scared (2003)
I saw this Italian wonder one year ago this week, and it has stuck with me ever since. A searing portrayal of innocence lost, featuring a tremendous performance from young actor Giuseppe Christiano, this family drama/thriller is not to be missed.
1. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance/Oldboy (2002/2003)
Is it cheating to split the #1 slot between the first two segments of Chan-Wook Park's Revenge Trilogy? Well, I don't give a shit. Both of these brilliant, unflinching and surprisingly divergent takes on the nature of revenge deserve a spot at the top of this list. Oldboy is probably the film I have recommended to people the most this year, the movie perhaps that I talked about more than any other this year. It is like a shot of adrenaline straight to your brain, a movie bursting with energy that comes right out and demands your attention. Sympahty for Mr. Vengeance, on the other hand, takes its time, slowly constructing a tragedy of epic, almost Shakespearean, proportions out of the lurid, questionble escapables of a brother and sister duo in modern Korea.
2006 will see the release of Park's third and final "revenge" film, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. Definitely among my most eagerly anticipated films of the coming year.
At one time or another, these three films were on the Top Ten List. Other movies just knocked them down, but I thought they deserved a mention anyway.
Todd Solondz's typically frank and funny "sequel" to Welcome to the Dollhouse made excellent use of what appears at first to be a self-conscious gimmick. The lead character, a young girl determined to get pregnant by any means neccessary, is played by a different actress (including grown women, boys and Jennifer Jason Leigh) in every scene.
Robert Rodriguez's adaptation of Frank Miller's comic broke new ground in terms of digital technology (not to mention in terms of psychotically violent, cruel mayhem). But beyond its amazing, black-and-white look, it's just an extremely fun, free-wheeling and insanely brutal trip through outsized noir archetypes. The movie's not without its flaws or bad performances, but overall it's, you know, really really cool.
Me and You and Everyone We Know
Miranda July's twee, sometimes silly debut comedy is SO not at all like Garden State, despite what that guy in the Comments said. Sure, she's quirky, but July's observations about life, like her artwork that fills the film, communicate so well because they are unafraid to be personal and intimate and a little bit strange. Whether or not it feels realistic to an individual is secondary, when the entire point is that we're all trapped in our own head, trying our best to communicate with anyone who doesn't share our exact perspective. I'm really sorry there wasn't room for this sleeper indie on my Top Ten list, but it deserves to be watched.
The Best Films of 2005
10. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan
This documentary, assembled by Martin Scorsese but produced by Bob Dylan's own management team, was accused of whitewashing some aspects of the singer's background. And while it's true that we don't get a really solid idea of the effect that, say, constant drug use had on Bob's psyche during the year's covered in the film, that information is available elsewhere for the curious. What the film does provide is the most complete, entertaining and thorough look at Bob Dylan's early, formative years to date, and some fascinating context for some of his most famous songs. Also, it features some great archival footage of the singer from 60's folk music festivals and early television apperances.
9. Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
I think no single topic has taken up more words in the first year of Crushed by Inertia than the Star Wars prequels. I have pontificated about their relative levels of quality at great length...you don't need to hear it all again. Suffice it to say, this film has everything I demand from a Star Wars film - adventure, nostalgia, comedy, cool characters and great effects unfold with the stylish grace of an old-fashioned epic. It may, in fact, be better than Return of the Jedi. I initially imagined it would rank much higher on my Best of the Year list, but then...a lot of good films came out in the past two months...
8. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
Shane Black, who made his directorial debut with Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, has been writing great action-comedy scripts since the 1980's. But though I've always been a fan of the sharp, sarcastic dialogue of The Last Boy Scout and the repartee in Lethal Weapon, I had no idea Black had brilliance like this hidden within him all these years. Kiss Kiss is the best action film of 2005, the most outrageously funny comedy of 2005, the best "L.A. movie" of 2005 and also the best mystery of 2005, featuring the best on-screen comic duo of 2005 (in Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr.) along with one of the sexiest female appearances of 2005 (co-star and Mission: Impossible: 3 co-star Michelle Monaghan). A self-aware, twisty, violent and fall-down funny slice of noir nastiness that will, I predict, some day find a huge and appreciative audience on DVD.
7. Good Night, and Good Luck
George Clooney really impressed me with this tight, lean and insightful historical drama, ostensibly about Edward R. Murrow and Joseph McCarthy, but more accurately about bravery in the face of high-level pressure and intimidation. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white by Robert Elswit (a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination, I'd say), and crafted with not just intelligence but also subtlety and an eye for detail, Clooney makes an impassioned and pretty convincing argument about the need for a vigorous, active and even (to quote our beloved Vice-President) robust free press.
6. Broken Flowers
Jim Jarmusch's most warm, accessible and funny film features another strong, silent Bill Murray performance and great supporting work from Jeffrey Wright and a bevy of actresses (Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Chloe Sevigny, Julie Delpy and Tilda Swinton). The first half-hour of this movie made me laugh as much as any movie this year, and the ambiguous ending stings the viewer in exactly the right way. Oh, and the Ethiopian music on the soundtrack compliments the film's offbeat journey perfectly. Though Jarmusch's BEST overall film is still debatable, I don't think I've ever enjoyed a Jarmusch movie this much.
5. A History of Violence
David Cronenberg is like some sort of freakish cinematic machine: Interesting premises go in, fascinating, dark, ceaselessly inventive movies come out. Here, Josh Olson's intriguing adapatation of the graphic novel A History of Violence becomes a nightmare-world morality tale, a story about the unknown depths we are capable of sinking to in the interest of self-preservation. Cronenberg captures the on-screen violence with shocking, but never gratuitous or extended, realism that gives the film a real impact beyond its more traditional noir-y mechanics. And the Third Act features some of the best acting (from Viggo Mortensen and William Hurt) and dialogue in any movie this year.
4. Grizzly Man
Werner Herzog, like Michael Moore or Nick Broomfield, tends to insert himself into his documentaries. He's just a bit less obvious and more artful about his technique. These aren't non-fiction stories, told simply in a straight-forward manner, with the intent to inform. Herzog is looking for real-life stories that reflect the same themes he looks for in his fiction - ambitious men whose dreams exceed their capabilities, who suffer and rage in the face of the impossible. His film about the life and death of bear-lover and professional nutter Timothy Treadwell is simultaneously true to life and larger than life. True, because most of the film is composed of Treadwell's own nature footage. And bigger than reality, because Treadwell allows us inside his perspective, where he is a brave but lonely hero fearlessly risking his life on behalf of nature's noblest animals. We know this image clashes with reality (Treadwell, of course, was eaten by a bear along with his girlfriend on one of his expeditions), but Herzog invites us to see the world as Timothy did for a few hours, before reminding us in the end that Timothy was charming but also batshit insane. Easily the year's most provocative, fascinating, spellbinding and worthwhile documentary. Fuck them penguins.
3. Batman Begins
Christopher Nolan has directed the single best comic book movie ever made. The old logic, the logic that has ruled the Internet Dork Community since its inception in the mid-90's, held that the best comic book adapatations would capture the spirit and style of the comics. Would, essentially, be comic books come to life. This year's Sin City is the final end-point of that logic - a movie that looks exactly like a moving version of the comic book. And Ang Lee's experiments with editing in Hulk were chasing this same vision...Can we edit a movie to make it look just like a comic?
Nolan has reconfigured the entire equation. He has abandoned any attempt to make a Batman movie that resembles a Batman comic. Instead, he has taken the raw materials, the things that make Batman Batman, and has recreated them cinematically. You still have a tortured billionaire who drives around a special, armored car and hides out in a cave and uses technology to outwit criminals and solve crimes and fight freakish enemies.
But what you don't have are the silly costumes or stilted, expository dialogue or extended backstories or goofy weapons and contraptions that bog down other films in this genre. By insisting on realism, and removing the cartoonish elements of the story that only work when drawn, Nolan allowed himself to reimagine Batman as a classic, old-fashioned adventure story. His finished product not only successfully brings the Batman character to film for the first time, but blows away every single other action or adventure film that came out this year. Peter Jackson's Kong dreams of the outlandish scale and intensity of this film's First Act.
Also, as I stated above, this film has more great actors in fun turns than any other 2005 film, easy. Seriously, every actor in this fucker rules: Christian Bale, the first actor to ever inhabit both billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne and ultimate badass Batman successfully; Michael Caine, whose Alfred gets a good deal of the film's best lines; Gary Oldman, who I'm looking forward to seeing more of in the sequels; Morgan Freeman, who I like more here than in Million Dollar Baby; Cillian Murphy, whose deviant Scarcrow ranks as maybe my favorite comic book movie villain ever; Tom Wilkinson, nailing the scummy old-time gangster role perfectly; Rutger Hauer, who it's nice just to see in a big movie; Liam Neeson, who really, when you think about it, is the key holding the whole film together.
2. Match Point
I thought Woody Allen was gone. Whether it was old age, or just a lack of enthusiasm, I assumed his incredible gifts for storytelling had evaporated, and what we were left with was a stale imitation of his former self. Duds like Curse of the Jade Scorpion seemed to indicate not only a lack of ability to produce the kind of one-liners that used to flow from every page of his writing, but a lack of concern about things like basic structure and entertainment value. Who, even, is the target audience for Anything Else? Certainly, young people don't care about old jazz records and Woody's sexual neurosis. But do Woody's older fans want to see Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci going through the old Annie Hall motions?
With Match Point, Woody's finally found his way back to greatness. And this isn't just some "return to form," "better than average" Woody movie. This is the best film he's made in a really long time. I'd say, since Crimes and Misdemeanors (the film in his catalogue it most closely resemembles), which means I'm saying it's better than Husbands and Wives, Deconstructing Harry, Sweet and Lowdown and Bullets Over Broadway, all of which I think are above-average Woody films.
It turns out, the way back was abandoning all his Woody-isms, telling a story that was still personal for him, but also reflected an entirely new literary tradtition - the cold-blooded aristocratic thriller. Patricia Highsmith and "The Talented Mr. Ripley" come most immediately to mind, but Match Point really fits in to the entire European tradition of movies about wealthy people doing dastardly things to one another behind closed doors.
The film is a textbook on building suspense, and its final half-hour in particular is mercilessly tense. With wonderful performances all around (particularly from lead Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, capable of exhuding great warmth as well as extreme, almost sociopathic, apathy within moments of each other) and a perfectly-timed soundtrack composed entirely of opera, Match Point both mirrors the strength's of Woody's older films while carving out an entirely new niche for him as a filmmaker. Apparently, his 2006 follow-up, Scoop, will be a return to comedy (and also a return to working with Scarlett Johansson, who does her best work to date in Match Point). I hope he can find the same enthusiasm for funny material that he did for this icy-cold bit of cruelty.
For the record, this is the first time I have chosen a Spielberg film as my favorite of the year since I began making Top Ten lists for my high-school paper. He's long been a favorite of mine, but I don't think he has made a tighter, better film than Munich since my early childhood. You have to go way, way back - we're talking early 80's - to find a Spielberg film that exudes this much clarity, confidence and natural filmmaking ability.
But unlike Steve's early 80's work, tremendous though films like Raiders and E.T. are, have this level of relevance, thought or philosophy behind them. Those are escapist entertainments designed by greatest escapist director of the modern age. But Munich is something much more. For the first time, Spielberg has managed to meld the raw ability that makes a Jaws or Close Encounters so thrilling and memorable with the ambition and social relevance of The Color Purple or Schindler's List.
For the first time. Schindler's List is a great movie, but it has Spielberg's usual flaws when working with grand-scale dramatic material. It's maudlin and sentimental, it goes on too long with endless bookends and epilogues designed to highlight the film's seriousness and importance. It's self-aware, Spielberg Commenting on the Holocuast, Forcing us to Confront the Horrors of Our Past.
Munich is a statement, a defiant statement even, against retaliatory thinking in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it is not self-important or self-aware. It is not some award-hungry Great Film contender, looking to earn popularity by delving into the reliable old bag of Melodramatic Movie Tricks. It's a film that challenges the audience, not only to draw conclusions, but to consider the ways in which others might draw different conclusions. It's a movie that doesn't offer any answers, easy or otherwise, but that's about finally starting to ask the right questions.
But it's not just Spielberg's most emotionally mature film. It's one of his most technically fluid and, really, perfectly realized visions. Europe in the 1970's is breathtakingly realized on screen, right down to every last detail of the decor, clothing and language. (Even Janusz Kaminski's stellar cinematography occasionally takes on a reddish, sun-worn 70's glow.) Achingly suspenseful sequences abound, and the violence is raw and realistic and horrifying. As in Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg refuses to pull away from the gore and horror; it's about shocking the audience, re-sensitizing viewers used to seeing blood and body parts in horror movies to the grotesque nature of real violence.
And the characters are wonderfully realized and sympathetic, which as it turns out, becomes extremely important during the film's harrowing, paranoia-fueled final act. Cieran Hinds stands out as a Mossad agent who cleans up after bloody acts of retribution with a wry smile, and Eric Bana gives the year's best performance as Avner Kaufman, the team's conflicted leader. But the smaller roles are likewise filled with great actors - future Bond Daniel Craig as the only Israeli mercenary who never feels guilty over killing Palestinians, French actor and director Mattheiu Kassovitz as a toymaker moonlighting as a bomb maker, Kings and Queen veterna Mathieu Amalric as a Frenchman who supplies surveillance to the team and Michael Lonsdale as his anti-establishment father.