Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Best of 2005

Wow! What a year for film! I feel like I say that more than most people, certainly more than most online critics, but man! This was a good one!

I watched 272 movies over the past year, my highest total yet. Of those, 72 of them were actually released either theatrically or directly to video or cable in the US in 2005. Those are the films eligible for this list. I awarded the most four-star reviews ever over the past year, 15 in all. For the first time ever I have had to eliminate four-star movies from my top ten list. And I also awarded more negative reviews than ever before. But it was the great movies that made this year so exquisite.

2005 was a great year in other ways as well. It brought me my second child, Jude. It saw my own initiation to the Internet criticism field with the site on which you are reading this piece. It brought the union of my lifelong friend, Trev, with his beautiful wife, Char. But this isn’t really one of those dreaded year-end family summaries you get from relatives you weren’t even aware were related. No, this, as with just about anything I ever have the determination to write about, is about movies. More specifically this is a little nudge to my readers to seek out those films I thought were particularly outstanding in a rather outstanding year in film, so without further ado, here is my Top Ten Films of 2005.

1. Oldboy. The revenge flick taken to another level. One which inspires the passion and rage that are embodied by the act of revenge itself. Oldboy is the tale of a man who is imprisoned for 15 years without ever knowing why. Upon his release his entire life has been stripped away from him and his only purpose is to find his captors, find out why they imprisoned him, and destroy them. Directed by renowned Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook, Oldboy makes Quentin Tarantino’s take on revenge in Kill Bill look reasonable and pleasant. Uma Thurman’s Bride in the Kill Bill films is a super heroine of sorts; Choi Min-sik’s Oldboy is a man of crunching bone and bleeding flesh with a brutal intellect and a past that catches up to him in more ways than one. Not merely a revenge story, Oldboy is perhaps the pinnacle of the current Korean film movement, presenting a basic premise and filling it with depth and clarity of character against of backdrop of beautiful images and stunning performances. Oldboy is a story that could be told through an American lens, but never this powerfully, never this well.

2. Munich. Munich gives us another story of revenge. This time told with the experience and grace of a master American filmmaker, whose foundation as a director is firmly based on Hollywood’s long history of craftsmanship in the cinema of impact and importance. Steven Spielberg’s latest epic follows the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Olympiad, during which Palestinian terrorists took 11 Israeli athletes hostage, a situation that ended with the sudden shocking deaths of all the hostages. Munich follows an Israeli sanctioned counter-terrorist unit dispatched to eliminate the men the Israeli government feels are responsible for the Munich attack. Spielberg dissects the logistical aspects of revenge itself, both the political reasoning behind it and the practicality of the deed itself. Eric Bana plays Avner, the head of a five-man team commissioned to assassinate 11 targets assigned to them by Prime Minister Golda Meir. None of the team has any experience in dealing assassination and despite their humble beginnings of nearly botched missions, these five soberingly normal men eventually become quite adept at their game, but after a while they begin to question the value of the game and regret the toll it takes on their own morality. In his strongest effort since 1993’s Schindler’s List, Spielberg presents a gut-wrenching morality tale that summons many questions about our humanity and offers little answers.

3. Broken Flowers. Bill Murray’s re-immergence as a comedic genius has produced the best work of the actor’s career. He once more proves in this understated performance that the best actors are re-actors. Broken Flowers is a somber comedy, much like Murray’s last highly praised performance in Lost In Translation. The difference here is that the aging Don Juan character he plays in Broken Flowers was written with only Murray’s unique comedic sensibilities in mind. It is hard to believe the lonely man sitting in his plush living room with a glazed look in his eyes as a version of the Don Juan story plays on his TV is such an attraction to the ladies himself; but after his latest woman leaves him and he receives an anonymous letter telling him that he is the father of a 19 year-old boy, this Don sets out on a path of self discovery that is made all the more revealing by the fact that he has only ever been defined by the woman in his life. His nosey neighbor sets him out on a journey to find the letter’s sender and his possible son’s mother. Don tracks down five women, and writer /director Jim Jarmusch (Night on Earth) takes the opportunity to flex Murray’s innate skill to communicate and create comedy through facial expression and dry delivery. In the end we find the purpose of Don’s journey is not so much to discover the mother of his child, but it is to discover himself.

4. Sin City. Writer/ illustrator Frank Miller built his career in the comic book industry as a man to redefine characters, genres and even the very format of comic books themselves. With the urging of maverick filmmaker Robert Rodriguez (Spy Kids), the two innovators of their respective fields collaborated to adapt Miller’s own Sin City graphic novels and proceeded once again to redefine an art form. This time the art of film itself is transformed as the sex and violence world of Sin City is realized on screen utilizing innovative techniques that produce not so much a film adaptation of a comic book as an actual comic book put into motion. Dripping with the atmosphere and images of a film noir that has been to hell itself, the mostly black and white anthology of four stories uses color sparingly and bullets in mass quantities. The dialogue is hard core and potentially laughable in hands that don’t understand that these stories are all about style. Like the comic book format itself, the style is part of the substance of the film, and this fantasy crime world that these characters inhabit is so complete it is impossible not to be transported into this gritty world where evil thrives and good can only be measured in the lesser degrees of bad involved. Sin City is truly a new kind of film that has never been seen before, but with two more sequels planned over the next two years and plenty of Sin City graphic novels ready to be mined for material, I’m ecstatic to say it is a style I expect to praise again.

5. Kingdom of Heaven. It is a shame the Christian community did not get behind Ridley Scott (Gladiator)’s Crusades story as eagerly as it did Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ. While Gibson’s film so meticulously detailed Christ’s sacrifice for humanity, Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven just as diligently portrays the human element necessary for Christianity, or any belief system for that matter, faith. The Crusades was the answer for many second century Europeans to release them from the oppression and squalor of their time. The Crusades were the great equalizer of its time that allowed people who were willing to endure the journey and the war with the Muslims for a chance to earn their place in society. The life of the blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) represents the true meaning of faith. While the freedom allowed to such groups as the Templar Knights in Jerusalem led many crusaders into the sins of greed and power mongering, Balian is a man with a true understanding of what it means to work the will of God. When Tiberius meets Balian, who is more man than most, he tells him, “Jerusalem has no need for a perfect knight.” That may be true for the Christians to retain control over Jerusalem, but it is what the world at large and humanity itself could use more of. Balian’s good will and true servitude of his beliefs are examples that should be heeded even in today’s world, which is still in a desperate struggle to find tolerance and understanding in the human condition

6. Downfall. During Anthony Hopkins’s Life Time Achievement Award ceremony at the Golden Globes this year they showed a clip of his over the top performance as Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in the film The Bunker. In the German language film Downfall actor Bruno Ganz gives a decidedly more subdued performance as the 20th Century’s most infamous real life villain. Ganz’s Hitler descends slowly and pathetically into madness as his empire crumbles around him in the final days of World War II after the German defeat is inevitable. Downfall tells the story of all of Hitler’s cabinet occupying his Berlin bunker in those final days as some remain loyal despite his delusions of victory, some just try to save themselves and some outright betray their once revered leader. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel (the upcoming Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake entitled The Visiting) offers a rare German perspective on the people that have become thought of only as the “bad guys” of World War II, and allows his audience a chance to relate to what the other side had to endure during the final days of the war. Yet the film is not so much sympathetic to the Nazis as empathetic. Many of Hitler’s staff are characterized as having lost their passion for what the Nazis were trying to achieve and many -- most especially Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), the secretary upon whose account of these events in the documentary Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary much of this film is based -- are portrayed as completely unaware of the genocide committed by the Nazis against the Jews. When word of such atrocities reaches the bunker, people are told these are stories made up by the Allied Forces to break the German will. By the end of the film, that inevitability has become reality and we witness more lives than we may have imagined fragmented and destroyed by Hitler’s cruelty.

7. King Kong. In 1933 King Kong changed cinema forever by exploiting the illusion of motion pictures and turning film into an art form of spectacle. Perhaps with the developments of CGI, a tribute to the spectacle that King Kong is was inevitable; but in the hands of The Lord of the Rings helmer Peter Jackson, the latest version of this exaggerated Beauty and the Beast tale has transcended its own spectacle to become the ultimate entertainment. Jackson’s vision transports his modern audience to not one but two different worlds. One is the world of pure fantasy that is Skull Island, where dinosaurs still roam and men are as savage as the beasts. Skull Island is the ultimate fantasy setting in which, like a dreaming child, Jackson pits his heroes against impossible odds and giant predators. A giant ape is king, but must constantly defend his throne and his possessions. The people are mere insects (even compared to the insects) and most meet grizzly ends. The other world is the New York of 1933, where the hustle and bustle of the modern age is just beginning and the similarities to primitive jungle life are closer than we’d like to think. But New York is a bigger jungle even than Skull Island in which Jackson lovingly pays tribute to a director that never feared even the big cats of the film industry. Jack Black’s Carl Denham is the relentless director cut from the mold of original King Kong director Merian C. Cooper, who is willing to sacrifice anything (or anyone) in his hunt to make the ultimate action adventure. But it is also in the jungle of New York where an even bigger animal will meet his own end chasing the creature of his desire Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), a vaudeville performer who can’t seem to get out of the jungle underbrush. It is with this relationship between Kong and Darrow where Jackson’s film is able to rise above the modern idea of spectacle and become the best kind of entertainment. He adds humanity to Kong and the love shared between Darrow and the beast becomes something more than just a perverse ape’s obsession. All this makes the film’s closing line even more affecting than in the original, “It was beauty killed the beast.”

8. Grizzly Man. There is a strange beauty that accompanied the estranged life of animal rights activist Timothy Treadwell and a harsh brutal irony that attended his death. German director Werner Herzog has defined his career with films about the self-destructive nature of obsessed men, and in the real life character of Treadwell he found an actualization of his own favorite subject matter. With the documentary Grizzly Man, Herzog presents the strange life of Treadwell and his obsession with the Grizzly Bears of the Katmai Nature Park in Alaska. Treadwell is a man who is happier with and more passionate about bears than his fellow humans, and in some esoteric way his death by those very animals he loved so much is quite fitting. Herzog begins this film with an effort to unlock the mysteries behind what drives a man’s obsessions to such lengths that he cannot see the imminent danger in which he places himself in pursuit of those obsessions and comes out of it with almost no answers. Instead Grizzly Man almost becomes a portrait of a man who is totally content because of his obsession. Treadwell may have died by the claws of these burly creatures he called his friends, but there is a sort of peacefulness implicit in the suggestion that this is the only way Treadwell would have wanted it.

9. Last Days. It seems that whenever a pop culture icon dies early in his or her career, there is a sort of national obsession about why such a revered artist would either choose or put himself in a position that would allow the rest of us to wonder what could have been if they had lived. Kurt Cobain, lead singer of the early 90s grunge progenitors Nirvana, is such an icon in rock history. In Gus Van Sant (Elephant)’s film Last Days the independent director shows us the final days in the life of a Northwest Coast musician (Michael Pitt) so much like Kurt Cobain in appearance and behavior that it is a wonder he even bothers to give the guy another name. What makes Van Sant’s take on the events of this rock star’s last days so original and fascinating is that he doesn’t succumb to this need we seem to have to ask why. The film is unusually haunting in the way it just observes the goings on in this old castle that acts as the musician’s home away from his life of fame. For a film where it seems as if nothing is happening, we witness many interactions between people. Mumblings, schemes and underminings. There is a group of “friends” that use the musician, and everyone treats him as they feel he expects to be treated rather than reacting to his strange behavior, often pretending he is not who he is even though they would not even be there were he not. Although Van Sant does not attempt to answer the question why, if you look you might be able to see how someone with so much might think he has so little.

10. Yesterday. I find it hard to express how beautiful this particular movie is. It presents a life that is cut short, but a life that is lived with purpose, light and life. Yes, a life lived with life. Yesterday is a mother to Beautiful. After the small African village in which they live is finally graced with a teacher, her daughter is about to embark on school. This is a great thing for someone in a place where most of the town’s husbands must live far away to work in the mines of Johannesburg. But Yesterday is sick. She walks every Tuesday for over two hours to get to a clinic with but one doctor. When the day ends and she has not seen the doctor, she is sent home for another week. She wakes earlier and earlier each Tuesday to get a better spot in line, and when she finally gets to see the doctor the news is not good. Yesterday does everything for her daughter and when faced with a terrible fate, she remains beautiful and strong. She wants only to survive until her daughter begins school. In this there is a lesson of life. Something like to live for the positive, but to say it sounds trite. Director Darrel James Roodt (Cry the Beloved Country) paints a beautiful landscape, although this picture is set in the desert. He surrounds his characters with life and hope, and somehow makes it easy to believe we are all here on the same world, one in which we should cherish every moment. Yesterday is the first film ever shot in the Zulu language, and Roodt uses this monumental event to address an issue that many have forgotten about, but is still a major problem for our world. Diseases do not just disappear in our world, but if we continue to look for cures, maybe someday they will exist only in yesterday.

The documentary film movement seems to keep increasing in popularity with each passing year, and this year saw a number of wonderful documentaries in release. One, Grizzly Man, landed a spot on my top ten list, but there were a number of other documentaries that I saw this year that could easily trade places with that one on my list.

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan is a four hour excursion into the early years of Dylan’s career by expert music historian Martin Scorsese. This film delves deeper into the Dylan being than any I have seen and exemplifies why Dylan’s genius has endured for so long.

Murderball is the forbidden name of the sport of wheelchair rugby. Played solely by paraplegic athletes, this film redefines the handicapped world for those who might think that the loss of limb mobility means the end of having fun. Of course, little seems fun in this full contact sport, which is taken as seriously by its participants as life itself.

Rock School enrolls its audience into the elite School of Rock run by the colorful Paul Green. The inspiration for Jack Black’s character in the film School of Rock, Green runs this strange school where children hone their rocking abilities like some sort of mad drill sergeant out to make or break these children. The kids have some pretty interesting stories of their own, but the key to this flick is the innate need to rock!

Most film festivals award special jury prizes to films they felt were also worthy for their top spots but just couldn’t be fit in. With so many great films to choose from this year I have to award some jury prizes myself. In alphabetical order:

Batman Begins rectifies the atrocity this franchise had become by beginning again with a fresh start and a dark look at the origin of the most popular of all comic book heroes. Director Christopher Nolan (Memento) grounds the character with a realistic vision giving us a story that focuses on what makes Batman so appealing to audiences as a superhero, his humanity.

Dear Frankie is a touching Irish film about a deaf boy named Frankie (Jack McElhone). In an effort to spare her son from the truth about his father, his mother Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) makes Frankie believe that his father is a merchant seaman on the HMS Accra by writing him fake letters from a father that isn‘t there. When the Accra sails into port one day, Lizzie must hire a man to play Frankie’s father. Avoiding many of the clich├ęs of the romantic comedy, Dear Frankie is an uplifting film with a heart and a brain.

Kung Fu Hustle is perhaps the strangest foreign film to find success in the US. A spoof of the Asian invasion of martial arts action films, this film proves that even a silly movie can be smart. With characters as colorful as their superpowers are outrageous, Kung Fu Hustle packs a laugh with every punch and proves that the spoof film may not be dead just yet.

If you want to get a glimpse of how well new James Bond Daniel Craig can carry a film, Layer Cake might show you a grittier hero than you would expect. Craig plays an underling drug dealer who gets promoted to Mob enforcer in this convoluted British caper flick by the producer of such British genre films as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch.

Millions is yet another picture from the United Kingdom, a family film from the most unlikely source of director Danny Boyle (The Beach, 28 Days Later). Boyle brings grown up filmmaking sensibilities to this story about two brothers who find a bag full of money. The younger boy speaks with various saints from his Catholic schooling for advice on what should be done with the money, which must actually belong to somebody.

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith finally provides fans and detractors of the prequel series alike with what they really wanted to begin with, Darth Vader. Director George Lucas does a surprisingly good job providing a true ideological struggle for the doomed Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) before his turn to the Dark Side. Not as surprisingly in this -- the strongest of the Star Wars prequels -- he also provides some amazing sci-fi scenery and battles. Be sure to check out Star Wars: Clones Wars, the Cartoon Network series that acts as a pretty solid prequel itself to this prequel episode.

Turtles Can Fly is the first Iraqi film to depict life in Iraq during the war with the US. It follows a child entrepreneur, who provides the children of his town with work and the elders with US News coverage of the war. It shows the Iraqis as people rather than just statistics on CNN, shows their hopes for the war and their disillusionment when the war does not miraculously change their lives.

In The Upside of Anger Joan Allen plays a housewife and mother of four girls, who believes her husband has left her for another woman. She uses this idea as a springboard for becoming a drunk and expressing all the anger she has ever felt about her life. Kevin Costner turns in a surprising performance as her goofy neighbor who shares her appreciation for barbiturates and harbors appreciation for the woman herself.

Johnny Cash is an American original, and in his biopic Walk the Line Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon provide two of the year’s spot on performances as Cash and his love June Carter. Restricting himself to Cash’s early years, director James Mangold (Girl, Interrupted) paints a typical tortured artist picture, but fills it with the life and vitality of the songs of Cash so powerfully performed by the actors themselves.

Steven Spielberg’s modern adaptation of the H.G. Wells sci-fi classic War of the Worlds is relentless in its depiction of a father’s struggle for his family’s survival during an invasion of the earth by unstoppable aliens. Staying truer to the story than the previous film adaptation, Spielberg knows just when to let Wells’s fantasy play on its own and when to stop for his own interjections.

I also enjoyed The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Assault on Precinct 13, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Constantine, Dolls, Fever Pitch, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, In Good Company, Land of the Dead, Lords of Dogtown, Madagascar, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Melinda and Melinda, Red Eye, Rings, Sahara, Serenity, Sky High, The Spaghetti West, Steamboy, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, and Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession.

Now, my lists:

Best Director: Steven Spielberg, Munich, War of the Worlds. Honorary mention: Park Chan-wook, Oldboy; Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller with special guest director Quentin Tarantino, Sin City; Werner Herzog, Grizzly Man; Peter Jackson, King Kong; and Gus Van Sant, Last Days.

Best Original Screenplay: Mike Binder, The Upside of Anger. Honorable mentions: Tsang Kan Cheong, Stephen Chow, Xin Huo and Chan Man Keung, Kung Fu Hustle; Andrea Gibb, Dear Frankie; Frank Cottrell Boyce, Millions; Miranda July, Me and You and Everyone We Know; and William Monahan, Kingdom of Heaven.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, Sin City, based on the graphic novels “The Customer is Always Right,” “The Hard Goodbye,” That Yellow Bastard,” and “The Big Fat Kill.” Honorable mentions: Bernd Eichinger, Downfall, based on the book Inside Hitler’s Bunker by Joachim Fest and the book Bis zur letzten Stunde by Traudl Junge and Melissa Muller; Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, Munich, based on the book Vengeance by George Jonas; John August, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, based on the book by Roald Dahl; Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson, King Kong, based on the original film story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace; and Josh Friedman and David Koepp, War of the Worlds, based on the book by H.G. Wells.

Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. Honorable mentions: Choi Min-sik as Oh Dae-su in Oldboy; Bill Murray as Don Johnston in Broken Flowers; Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler in Downfall; Eric Bana as Avner in Munich; and Sean Penn as Samuel J. Bicke in The Assassination of Richard Nixon.

Best Actress: Reese Witherspoon as June Carter in Walk the Line. Honorable mention: Ziyi Zhang as Bai Ling in 2046; Alexandra Maria Lara as Traudl Junge in Downfall; Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow in King Kong; Joan Allen as Terry Ann Wolfmeyer in The Upside of Anger; and Leleti Khumalo as Yesterday in Yesterday.

Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Costner as Denny Davies in The Upside of Anger. Honorable mention: Matt Dillon as Officer Ryan in Crash; Heath Ledger as Skip Engblom in Lords of Dogtown; Ciaran Hinds as Carl in Munich; Nick Stahl as That Yellow Bastard in Sin City; and Mickey Rourke as Marv in Sin City.

Best Supporting Actress: Rebecca DeMornay as Philaine Adams in Lords of Dogtown. I apologize for the lack of any significant supporting actress performances noted here. I’m sure there were some, I just didn’t happen to see those films.

Worst film of the year: XXX: State of the Union. Dishonorable mentions: Crash, Be Cool, Elektra, The Girl from Monday.

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