At long last, my wrap-up for the 2005 film year that was (I was waiting to see all the likely candidates for a top 10 before I posted). Forgive me the sin of writing far too much about too little, but after all, movies are the center of my existence. Once a year (okay, twice; I’m already drafting the Oscar nominee prediction post), I think it’s wise to take a moment to geek the fuck out.
For the first time since 2001, my favorite film of the year was English language, even if it was made by a crazy German New Wave expatriate, and I still think it’s kind of incredible that not one damn foreign language film made my list. I blame the distributors. (Oh, and I know that this isn’t consistent with the number rankings I gave everything. I changed my mind on some of them).
I defend my picks, and weigh in on a few other (arbitrary) categories below the fold.
The Top 10 Films of 2005
1. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog)
When I first saw this film, I wrote a review that was, to put it kindly, incoherent. And now, five months later, I still can’t pin down exactly what makes Grizzly Man such a transcendent experience. It’s more than just the story of Timothy Treadwell’s hubris and just (if grotesque) fate, although that is compelling. What drives this film to the top of my list has as much to do with director Herzog’s unapologetically subjective approach to the material: he does not merely show bear footage, he interprets it. And yet, he never seems to make it a definitive interpretation, always qualifying with I think, I feel, my opinion. The result, in addition to a terrifying musing on the relationship between man and nature, is a remarkable exploration of how we extract meaning from the moving image.
4. Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch)
The backlash started almost immediately, and left this film with no defenders – not the mainstream, not the hipsters. I cannot understand why. For all that it can be criticized as another damn midlife crisis Bill Murray vehicle, it’s the first of that benighted genre without a redemptive ending. It’s an inordinately static film, especially for a road movie, but I find that the constant deadness of the camera, the inexorably long takes, the patches of dead silence, underline how miserably empty this man’s life is.
5. Sin City (Frank Miller & Robert Rodriguez)
At long last, someone discovered what George Lucas has been missing for all these years: creating entire worlds in the computer only matters if you intend to use that capability to serve your story. And Sin City has perhaps the most immersive CG world in cinema history: set in a feverish nightmare version of film noir, it shows a world of incredible violence and brutality. The computer-generated sets aren’t merely a money-saving step: they are a key component in creating the hyper-stylized reality that allows such inhuman behavior to exist.
7. Munich (Steven Spielberg)
That it’s flawed goes without saying; it’s a Spielberg film. That a ill-considered ending nearly scuttles the whole (in this case, the worst title card in history) goes without saying; it’s a Spielberg film. That it has a pitch-perfect visual sense goes without saying; it’s a Spielberg film. That it’s the bleakest drama of the year, with the cojones to ask questions about politics and morality, and then insist that there are no answers most definitely does not go without saying.
8. The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach)
A perfect example of a film that doesn’t try to be any longer than it needs to be, this simple little tale of New York intellectuals is pretty bitter for a nominal comedy. But its depiction of a family that thrives on one-upsmanship is deeply resonant, no doubt because of Baumbach’s connection to the material. My adolescence was nothing like this, yet I can’t help but identify with it.
9. The Constant Gardener (Fernando Meirelles)
In a year when virtually every film released had a political spin thrown at it (Batman is a libertarian! Bush is Palpatine! No, the Pope is Palpatine!), this story of a massive pharmaceutical conspiracy is one of the very few that deserved it. But to my eyes, the film tiptoes into the realm of “timeless masterpiece” because of Ralph Fiennes’ inspired work as Justin Quayle, the insipidly bland and oh-so-British functionary who learns too slowly to be a man.
10. Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan)
To think that there was a time that all I wanted out of this film was that it equal Tim Burton’s first Batman…then it had to go and be the best superhero film of all time. But it’s not just that I’m a fanboy. In a way, it’s of a pair with The Constant Gardener: both tell the story of a man of privilege coming to learn he has a social responsibility as the result of personal tragedy. But while Gardener is a clinical, brainy thriller, Begins is a grim epic, latching onto our childhood fear of the dark and never letting go. Exhibit A in the case for why superhero comics are our contemporary mythology.
I saw films with worse scripts (Fantastic Four) , films of less overall competence (The Fog), and films I simply hated more (The Island). But no film in 2005 topped The Dukes of Hazzard for sheer unwatchability – so much so that, as I stated in my review at the time, my brain literally substituted another film in its place. The only way I could accept that it had been made at all was by deconstructing it as a surrealist art object.
Performer of the Year
Prior to June, Cillian Murphy was just “that Irish guy from 28 Days Later.” Then he appeared in Batman Begins as minor villain Jonathan “Scarecrow” Crane, and suddenly, he was everywhere, appearing as the psychopathic Jackson Rippner in Red Eye and transvestite Patrick “Kitten” Braden in Breakfast on Pluto. And it’s not simply the variety, but the quality of his acting that is so impressive; Kitten is one of the best performances of the year, and with those two very different villains, 2005 has shown his range in a most exciting way.
War of the Worlds
Maybe it’s a bit much to call one of the ten highest grossing films of the year “underrated,” but I certainly can’t name many people who didn’t seem to hate it. And for really bad reasons:
1) Tom Cruise is nuts
2) The ending sucked
The first point isn’t worth responding to. The second point is valid, but the deus ex machina was part of the story to begin with, and as for the happy-ending bullshit…well, it’s Spielberg. His recent movies all have bad endings. And the ending doesn’t matter nearly as much as the middle: this is an entirely unique popcorn movie, in that it is unspeakably horrifying. I cannot name a summer movie so full of nightmare imagery. My first reaction, one that I have stuck with ever since, is that it reminds me of a modern day version of Hieronymus Bosch: only instead of a medieval idea of Hell, Spielberg gives us the 21st Century analogue. Not for nothing does most of the imagery quote 9/11 and the Holocaust – those are the flashpoints of evil for the modern age. This is a horror film in the purest sense: it taps into what we fear the most.
For those who haven’t seen it, this is the experience of watching Crash, in text form (spoiler):
-There is a race problem in America.
-No, really, there is a race problem in America.
-There. Is. A. Race. Problem. In. America!
-THERE IS A RACE PROBLEM IN AMERICA!
–THERE IS A RACE PROBLEM IN AMERICA!
–SERIOUSLY! THERE IS A FUCKING RACE PROBLEM IN AMERICA!!
And then Sandra Bullock hugs her maid.
When a genius auteur makes a film, it’s a big deal. When that auteur is making his first film in seven years, it’s a much bigger deal. Which is why it was so heartbreaking that The Brothers Grimm, Terry Gilliam’s first work since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1998 was such a tepid, sleepy affair. It had the look of a Gilliam film, kind of, but it lacked any trace of substance – the story was a confusing, sprawling mess, and the performances were utterly flat, except for Jonathan Pryce and Peter Stormare as the campy villains. There are worse films in the “fairy tales for grown-ups” genre, but none with such a wasted pedigree. It’s almost impossible to believe that this is the man who gave us The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
I just knew, beyond a doubt, when I saw the Brokeback Mountain trailer, that Jake Gyllenhaal’s line “I wish I knew how to quit you!” would be the regrettable giggle moment in an otherwise fine movie. So imagine my surprise when the line came up in the film, and reduced me to tears. Close to the end of the film, it’s the scene in which Gyllenhaal’s Jack has been reduced to begging Ennis (Heath Ledger) to commit something – anything – emotional to their relationship, long since reduced to a series of fishing trip hookups. In front of a breathtakingly gorgeous mountain lake, Jack realizes that he’s never going to have Ennis as a true lover, and the film makes its definitive shift from star-crossed romance to outright tragedy. I certainly don’t think I would have ever found that line of dialogue funny if I’d known Ledger’s response: “Well, why don’t you?”
“What haunts me is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare only speaks of a half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell, this bear was a friend. A savior.”
-Werner Herzog, narrating Grizzly Man
There’s something striking about a black-background poster, for one thing. Like its cousin, the white-background poster, it stands out from the “actors in a circle” clutter, and draws your eyes very sharply to what little imagery it holds. And in this case, the one object in the poster evokes the film perfectly: a battered, anonymous dogtag. I don’t just love that Jarhead is on the tag, I love that the characters’ names aren’t. It’s a film about losing yourself in the Marine Corps, and the anonymity of being just any-old-jarhead comes forth here. And the reflection of the burning oil fields, which look almost like rust stains at first, point at the bleakness – and how mediated the jarheads’ experience of that bleakness will be. The perfect “Welcome to the suck” tagline is just the icing on the cake.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
The teaser was already a bit disconcerting, with its Day-Glo colors and mildly satanic Wonka. But this one is just a mess: the grotesque color scheme in the sunrise (replete with illogical lens flares), the film’s title crudely floating on Wonka’s hat, and the five children poking out of the ovals like some sort of posterized Whack-A-Mole. But the worst part is surely the star: poor Johnny Depp has been soft-lit and de-focused until he looks like a plastic model of himself.
Me and You and Everyone We Know. A quirky, childish attempt to describe the entire world. Just like the film itself.
Most Ill-Considered Title
Brokeback Mountain. Let’s be honest, it really was just begging to be nicknamed Bareback Mountain.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe narrowly beats out Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, not only because the punctuation is grotesque, but because of the painful certainty that we will soon be seeing The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Horse and His Boy, and other such marathon-length titles. And yes, I had the same problem with the LOTR films.
The “I Should Be Ashamed of Myself” Award
For a movie I know I shouldn’t like, but do anyway: Elizabethtown. It seems to me like a puppy with three legs and only one eye: in many ways it’s grotesque and even kind of horrible, but it wants so badly to be loved that I would feel awful for turning away.
The “No, Really, I’m Not Pretentious, See?” Award
For the film I had the most fun watching all year: Serenity. The movie that three successive Star Wars films have utterly failed to be – a rip-snorting space opera with amazing setpieces, incredibly heartbreaking moments, and some of the best dialogue of 2005.
The “American Distribution Sucks” List
The ten best films I saw this year that weren’t really from this year at all.
1. Saraband (Ingmar Bergman, 2003)
2. The Best of Youth (Marco Tullio Giordana, 2003)
3. Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2004)
4. Schultze Gets the Blues (Michael Schorr, 2003)
5. 2046 (Wong Kar-Wai, 2004)
6. Kung Fu Hustle (Stephen Chow, 2004)
7. Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004)
8. My Summer of Love (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2004)
9. 3-Iron (Kim Ki-Duk, 2004)
10. The World (Jia Zhangke, 2004)
…and the best film I saw for the first time in 2005:
Little Dieter Needs to Fly (Werner Herzog, 1997).
Viewed on DVD.