Moriarty's Favorite Films Of 2005 And Other Equally Useless Awards!!
Published at: Jan. 23, 2006, 4:16 a.m. CST by staff
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
Okay... I know I’m a little late on this one, but I’m always traditionally the last one to put my list up each year. And honestly, I hate that drive for everyone to put their lists up five seconds after the year ends. What ever happened to the idea of letting things settle a bit and fully processing something before writing about it? I had to take two weeks to work on my season two MASTERS OF HORROR script, and in that time, I’ve been thinking a lot about the year. Having had time to reflect, here’s my first thought.
I’m genuinely sorry to say goodbye to 2005.
This has been, no question, the best year of my entire life. My son was born this year. No event will have a greater impact on the rest of my life, and no event prior to that has been more overwhelming. Every day since July 6th has been a pleasure, a treat, a gift. I am re-learning everything I know about this world simply by dealing with my little boy on a daily basis. Also, my first film was shot and released this year, by no less a filmmaker than John Carpenter. Considering it started shooting on July 6th, mere hours after my boy was born, that was a pretty momentous day for me.
To top things off, 2005 turned out to be a fascinating year of cinema, a year where all sorts of ideas about this business got turned inside out, a year where business models seemed to be crumbling all around us, and where anything could happen at anytime because nothing we expected seemed to come to pass. If you had tried to predict this year’s best films last December, it would have been pretty difficult. This has been a year of surprises, and I think it’s going to be a year worth looking back on in the future.
The last few years, I didn’t do as well as I could have in terms of seeing everything and really trying to sample all the films possible before putting together a list of the year’s highlights, but this year, I did better.
As always, I refuse to call this a “Best of 2005” list, because that’s such a subjective term. To me, all I can do is offer you a list of my favorite films of the year, and then break down some of the other things I think are worth pointing out or remembering or, in the case of the stuff that caused me the most pain, run a list of the 20 Hours I Want Back. I’ve seen 170 (or so) movies released this year, which seems like a pretty fair representation of everything released. At the end of the column, I’ll run a list of everything I missed, just to be fair.
And before anyone screams at me about what came out when, according to my own personal goddamn rules, since this is my own personal goddamn list, in order to be eligible a film either had to play a major festival or run theatrically. For that reason, I’m disqualifying anything we saw at BNAT if that’s the only place it played. I’ll deal with V FOR VENDETTA next year, where it belongs for me. Something like SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE is fair game, though, since it played Toronto and has already had a full theatrical run in its country of origin. As the year progressed, I kept a running list of everything I’ve seen, and I grouped the titles without any ranking under one of five categories: EXCELLENT, VERY GOOD, GOOD, NOT SO GOOD, and FUCKING AWFUL. It takes a pretty special film to end up in either of the two extreme categories, but what impressed me this year is how many films ended up in the second category. There were a lot of movies that delivered the goods, and it’s a shame there’s not room for all of them on the list. I’m sure I’ll get screamed at by genre fans because REVENGE OF THE SITH doesn’t show up on my list, but that’s not a slam. I really, really liked the movie, and the STAR WARS fan in me is delighted with how the series concluded. The simple truth is that there were films this year that resonated far more for me, though, and for personal reasons. Will I revisit SITH in the future? Frequently, I’m sure. Same with KING KONG, which also did not make my top twenty. I think it’s a great film. I just don’t think it’s Peter Jackson’s masterpiece. You know what it feels like to me? The film that Peter Jackson had to make to get it out of his system so that he can go now and make his masterpiece. It’s the warm up. It’s a great filmmaker clearing the pipes and revving up to... whatever’s coming. Anyone who’s not curious to see what that is just doesn’t love movies.
The nature of a list is to exclude something, and in a year this good, that hurts a little more than normal. But so be it. To me, that’s just an indicator of how fortunate we’ve been watching the films of 2005 go by. Instead of yelling at me over SERENITY or WAR OF THE WORLDS or CAPOTE or GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK or WALK THE LINE or BROKEN FLOWERS or any of the other films that just narrowly missed my list, let’s focus on what it was about the films that made my list that made them stand out. And if your list is different than mine, then by all means... run yours in the talkback. I’d love to talk about films I may have missed, or that you felt strongly about.
More than anything, I wanted to be provoked this year. I wanted to hear someone’s personal voice, even if it was a big studio film. I wanted to see people take chances. I wanted to feel something real. I wanted to see people top their previous work. I wanted to see people risk it all on films that might fail spectacularly or might be brilliant. I wanted to be reminded why I love movies in the first place, and the ten runners-up this year and my ten favorite films all managed to genuinely affect me in the theater. In every case, we’re talking about films that will last, films we’ll see again ten years from now or fifty years from now. Durable films. Vital films. More than anything, these are the films that pinned me to my seat this year and forced me to pay attention.
THE RUNNERS-UP (in ascending order)
20. KINGDOM OF HEAVEN: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT
Goddamn right this is a deliberate political choice, meant to further shame a studio that screwed the film, but it’s also heartfelt. KINGDOM OF HEAVEN is a great movie. When you see the film on DVD at whatever point, you’ll see what I’m talking about. You’ll realize you were robbed in May. Not since THE ABYSS has a film been so radically butchered for a studio’s summer release date. Oddly enough, that was Fox, too. The fact that this played any theater screen anywhere is small cause for celebration, I suppose. I got to have that experience, along with the three other people who showed up. Hardly seems fair no one else will. Ridley Scott is a great director who doesn’t always make great films, a masterful visualist.
I think he’s got a very particular view of humanity, and he’s only really found a few scripts that have ever perfectly captured his sensibilities. KINGDOM OF HEAVEN is one of those scripts. Bill Monahan did a man’s job on this film, and deserves credit for carefully constructing an epic that is rewarding on both a character and a spectacle level. It’s smart, the characters are rich and interesting, and it’s a sprawling cast. So many people make strong impressions, even in small parts. I love the way the gravedigger from the beginning shows up again at the end of the film as one of the common men who are knighted by Balian (Orlando Bloom). His own personal sense of absolution is heartbreaking.
I love this movie. I regret that it was not given a fair shake this year. I think time will be very kind to it, and maybe down the road, Fox will be shamed into doing the right thing and bringing this back, in its full length, for a real theatrical run. If they really wanted to show Ridley Scott that they are “delighted” with the film, they’d get those director’s cut DVDs into the hands of Oscar voters RIGHT NOW... along with a letter explaining that Ridley Scott’s film deserves a second look, that you came to your senses, that you meant to release this one all along. The ballots were just sent out. You actually had a qualifying run in an LA theater, so the Academy could nominate this particular cut of the film. You still have a chance… a very slim one, admittedly... but a chance... to do the right thing by this movie. There’s already a grass-roots movement starting to build some support, and consider this startling fact: for the first time in what seems like forever, Jeffrey Wells, David Poland, and I are all in complete agreement about something. That alone should suggest just how special this film is, and how much Fox needs to step up and do the right thing. Have faith in it. It’s not too late. Everyone finds forgiveness in the Kingdom of Heaven... maybe even Fox executives.
19. BATMAN BEGINS
Yep. I’m a nerd. No two ways about it. I think I was fairly moderate in my online excitement about this film, and that’s because back in 1989, I spent every waking second for about six months getting psyched up for the release of Tim Burton’s BATMAN.
Let me explain. Simply put, Batman is my favorite comic book character ever. I think you can do the most with him. I think the most amazing stories have been written with him. I think he’s a great creation, flexible but indelible. When Burton’s film came out, I was crushed by it. But I was so hyped up that I didn’t even admit to myself how disappointed I was until months later. The ’89 BATMAN was my own personal PHANTOM MENACE. My biggest heartbreak as a fan. So when Christopher Nolan’s film started production, I did my very best to remain calm and collected and not let myself get too worked up. I wanted to see a good Batman film, and anything more than that would be a bonus. I just didn’t want another embarrassment. That’s all that seemed important to me as it got closer and closer to release.
What Christopher Nolan and David Goyer and Christian Bale and everyone else involved all ended up doing, though, was so much more than I could have hoped for, and I still find myself popping in the DVD and watching a bit of it, amazed that this thing exists. It’s not flawless, but it’s mythic. It gets the grandeur of the Batman legend right, and it takes its time setting up something that I want to revisit. For the first time in a long time, I am positively rabid about getting to a sequel.
Like many of the films released this year, this movie is about fear, and how we deal with it. It makes sense that much of 2005 would be spent with studios dealing with their own fear in public and splashed across the pages of almost every entertainment publication online and off thanks to a slump, while onscreen, some of our best filmmakers were wrestling with a deep-seeded cultural fear that’s been growing since September 11, 2001. We’re starting to talk about it. We’re starting to pick at it. We’re starting to come to terms with what happened to us in America, and how we reacted to that, and how we have to react now in the long term. These are big ideas, and dealing with them in our popcorn entertainment, dressed up in the biggest, most obvious metaphors, it’s a good thing. It’s healthy. In some ways, the big popcorn treatment of these themes is better than a more somber and “important” version, because these are the movies people see. Using Batman as a way into 21st Century survivor’s angst is the ultimate cinematic spoonful of sugar, and I think it proves just why this character is so great.
Nolan’s version of the Bat is no more definitive than any other, but it is distinct and clear and mature, and that alone makes it unique so far for film interpretations of the character. I also credit Warner Bros. for the courage to allow someone to pull off such a radical vision of one of the franchise characters. I hope this time next year, I’m saying the same sort of things about SUPERMAN, because you’re dealing with an equally potent icon. In the next film, I hope they fulfill the promise of that last scene, and I hope we see a lot more of Batman as a detective, something no one’s paid attention to in any of the films so far. Now that he knows who he is, let’s see him work for it. The Joker shouldn’t be easy, and neither should these films. They’re going to have a hard time living up to this first one, but I’m sure they’ll try. For now, in this particular case, let’s just say job well done.
I’m sure I could say that about many of the films on this list, and I’m sure I will say it about at least one more, my number ten choice for the year, but in this particular case, I think people missed something special in a theater. I think they missed a film that would have played beautifully with a big crowd. EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED is a human comedy, and it’s got some bittersweet mixed in there so you feel the laughter even more acutely. Elijah Wood shakes off LORD OF THE RINGS so easily and so effectively with this role, as “Jonfan,” the collector whose quest to understand his grandfather leads him on a road trip that completely changes his perception of the world. Yep. It’s that ol’ thang. We’ve seen a million heart-warming road trips where people bicker until they bond, so this isn’t groundbreaking material. Liev Schreiber, adapting the novel by Jonathan Safron Foer, manages to avoid many of the stumbling blocks that you’d expect from an actor-turned-director.
For one thing, he takes away a lot of the dialogue, so the film has to communicate the rich density of the novel through the imagery that Schreiber chooses to shoot. He’s helped magnificently by hot-shit cinematography black belt bad-ass Matthew Libatique, who drenches the film in color. It’s a film to get lost in, a film that makes so powerful points about honoring where you came from, but also the dangers of clinging too tightly to the past. The real discovery of the film is Eugene Hutz, and his narration is second only to that of my number ten film of the year, a hilarious counterpoint to the sometimes sober events unfolding. This movie’s got a big beating heart, and it’s a promising debut by Schreiber as a filmmaker. He’s definitely been playing attention on his sets, and I’m curious to see what he’ll do to follow this up.
I love it when Tommy Lee Jones plays a character who is such a miserable sonofabitch that he can just barely function with decent folks. I really do. I get the feeling he’s always looking for an excuse to let his inner coot run wild, and he found a doozy with his feature directorial debut. He’s working from a lyrical, deceptively simple script by Guillermo Arriaga, best known for his scripts for 21 GRAMS and AMORES PERROS. He’s a hell of a writer, and he shifted gears a bit for this particular story. I’ve heard the comparisons to Peckinpah, and I see them on a surface level, but THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA manages to evoke an unease all its own, something that I don’t think Peckinpah could have done. Jones etches a portrait of what it’s like to exist right on this particular patch of border, what these tensions are like, and he fleshes out this little community with some really interesting characters. January Jones, Dwight Yoakum, Melissa Leo, Gabriel Olds... we get a nice look at who these people are, at how they’ve decided to live in this godforsaken place. Barry Pepper plays Mike Norton, a new border patrol officer who starts off a little overzealous, a little too ready to kick some ass whenever he gets his hands on anyone.
Then something happens. There’s an accident. And Mike Norton crosses paths with Pete Perkins (Jones), who is a spectacular creation, an ornery old cuss who has little use for others unless they can prove themselves on horseback, working the same job as him. That’s how he came to be friends with Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo), and that friendship is what leads Pete to feel personally responsible for understanding the truth when Mel turns up dead. More than that, though, he feels like he needs to honor a promise he made to Mel to take him back to Mexico to bury him at his home. Since Pete holds Mike Norton responsible, it only makes sense that Pete would attack, batter, and kidnap Mike to force him to help with his plan for Mel. The two of them have to cross into Mexico illegally... something you don’t see everyday... and then find this place that Melquiades always described, a place which may not ultimately even exist. Through it all, Pete stays focused, taciturn about his feelings, expressing his emotions with actions, not tears. This is one of those films like TOM HORN or UNFORGIVEN, about old cowboys staying true to a code that may already be dead.
In the end, what really did it for me was the simplicity of the film. It’s gorgeously photographed by Chris Menges, and the score by Marco Beltrami does a nice job of underlining the lonely heartbreak of the story. There’s some dark humor involving the body of Melquiades that surprised me, but it’s a nice way of mixing things up a bit. The ending is one of the year’s quietest, at a moment where you expect some giant overdramatic epiphany, and that choice really sealed the deal for me. Tommy Lee Jones may not end up directing many films in his lifetime, but this one will stand as a major accomplishment when people look back at his career.
16. BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN
Undeniably powerful and affecting, Ang Lee’s BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN has got to go down in film history as one of the great creative rebounds of all time. Now, I’m a fan of THE HULK, but I acknowledge that it’s weird as shit, and hardly what people expected from a film about a big green dude that smashes stuff. I’ve loved Ang Lee’s work ever since PUSHING HANDS, and it’s exciting to see how he continues to defy anyone’s expectations for what his career is supposed to be.
It helps that he lucked into a phenomenal screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, a model of economy in writing. The film deals with some huge, difficult subject matter, but it avoids all the traps of being big and broad and overly dramatic. Instead, it plays everything in miniature, which makes perfect sense when you consider that this is basically the story of Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger), a man afraid of his own heart. I’ve never read the short story this is based on, but the film is very smart, very well-observed. Everyone in it is given a great role to play, and they all respond by turning in career-best work, like they realized this was a chance to bring their A-game in a way that they won’t often get. Ledger’s been building to this performance for a while, and he’s had a really good year overall. Ennis is a challenge, because he’s such an internal character, and Ledger plays it with clenched teeth, like he’s just barely in control of himself, but desperate to hold on to whatever control he does possess. He’s sorely tempted by the depth of his feelings for Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), but he’s also torn apart by them, and that battle between the two sides of his nature is what drives the film.
What makes the film great, though, and what I suspect will make it endure, is the way the film gets past the same-sex issue fairly quickly. This is simply a romance about two people who want to be together, but who can’t. So often, films with gay themes in them announce those gay themes and underlines how important and groundbreaking those themes are, and I understand. There’s a lot of black cinema that was made right after Spike Lee broke through with SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT and SCHOOL DAZE that was self-important and self-conscious, too. It’s inevitable. BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN shakes all of that baggage off and tells a personal story that doesn’t wrap itself in a larger agenda like a flag. It doesn’t turn Ennis and Jack into symbols of something larger, and that’s precisely why it works. It’s been interesting to see how politicized the actual release of the film has become in the last few weeks, with theaters refusing to show the film and with people making public stands against what they see as the normalization of homosexuality. The fact that the film is generating this sort of friction is proof that we haven’t really changed much as a country since the time that the story takes place.
You can’t praise the film and forget to mention the women in the movie, because they really do define what a great supporting cast is supposed to do. Their work provides the foundation that allows Ledger and Gyllenhaal to fly so high. Michelle Williams has been doing solid work for a long time, but she’s devastating here. So much of her work in the film is non-verbal, and she nails every single moment. Anne Hathaway does a nice job playing a largely unsympathetic role, and I like the way she gradually gets harder and less attractive as the film progresses. By the time she shows up with the lipstick on her teeth, sporting that hair helmet, chain-smoking as she yaks on the phone, she’s convincing as a certain type of woman, trapped in a life she hates. Even Linda Cardellini and Anna Faris register in small roles. Roberta Maxwell comes in near the end of the film and positively kills as Ledger’s mother. It’s the script that gives each of these actors the ammo they need to come in and do such strong work in such brief roles, and it’s a rare movie that is written to include great material for everyone, and not just for the leads. It’s also the rare filmmaker that is able to create something so human and moving and heartfelt. It’s a lovely return to form for Ang Lee, and it’s a film that will be revered for years to come.
15. NOBODY KNOWS
Hirokazu Koreeda is one of the most underrated filmmakers working anywhere in the world today. It’s a mystery to me, too. AFTER LIFE was one of the very best films of 1998, a lovely riff on what each person’s life is worth. I never got a chance to see DISTANCE, his follow-up, but based on the evidence of NOBODY KNOWS, his latest film, I’d say he’s as good as anyone working in Asian cinema right now, and better than most.
Three of the films on this list this year deal with unconventional situations regarding children and how they’re cared for, and I’m sure becoming a parent is one of the reasons that theme seems so important to me right now. It never really struck me until after we had been taking care of Toshi for a few months... but parenting is the single most insane job you can ever have. The idea that anyone can become a parent based solely on a bit of friction and the miracle of cell division is terrifying to me now.
The responsibility of this other human life hits me like a ton of bricks, over and over these days. Things drive the point home all the time. Car accidents I see. Stuff on TV about kids being hurt or kidnapped or killed. Articles I read about possible health issues. Simply watching my baby boy sleep. It sets off something primal in you, a desire to protect this person no matter what, and when that instinct isn’t there... when it doesn’t automatically kick in... what happens? What can happen? How are those children, born into homes where no one is equipped to play a consistent parental role, going to react when there’s no one to care for them, no one to provide for them? How do they survive?
This is the nightmarish world of NOBODY KNOWS, a film that is one of the most beautifully photographed I’ve seen recently. It’s quite striking in its simplicity, and in the way he creates and fills this space, this world he drops his actors into. His actors, I might add, are for the most part children. That’s one of the hardest things you can do as a director, working with this many children at once. It seems to be completely natural for Koreeda, though. He’s as good as Steven Spielberg at working with kids, and that’s saying something, and he’s also just as good as Spielberg at taking us inside the secret language and logic of kids.
Remember that scene in E.T. where Eliot is explaining action figures and STAR WARS and everything else to his new friend? Or remember the D&D scenes in the film? Or the way Eliot and Michael would deal with Gertie? There was a reality to those sequences that allowed the fantastic to exist and be completely acceptable. In NOBODY KNOWS, Kaneeda works magic. There’s a reason Yagira Yuya won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival. He’s amazing. He’s this 12-year-old genius, and he just rips your heart out from the very beginning of the film to the very end. He’s so real, so honest, so completely in this moment. He plays Akira, the ostensible head of the family. He’s the man of the house. And he’s 12. He’s the one who has to handle all the money. He’s the one who has to provide for the smaller kids. He has to keep them all happy and healthy as best as he can. And he’s 12. And he somehow manages to contain his own nature, or at least he tries to, and maybe he can’t help it if he gets interested in Saki (Kan Hanae), a schoolgirl his age. He is, after all, 12.
And watching him in this film, you’re reminded how gloriously young 12 really is. When he’s alone with the other children, he is simply a child. He drops all the affectations of adulthood and becomes a kid again, ready to play, wanting only to be liked and to be happy and to just enjoy himself and indulge himself and not worry. He’s ready to be a kid again at the slightest provocation. Of course, he can’t. He can’t let himself. He has to be the one who holds everything together. And he knows that. And it weighs heavy on him. He gets some help from his slightly younger sister Kyoko (Kitaura Ayu), but she’s a dreamy little girl, and hard as she tries, she’s not up to the challenge the same way that Akira is. He may not want to shoulder the burden, but he does, and that’s what defines him. He rises to the challenge, even when it seems impossible and depressing and difficult, because he looks at the two younger kids and sees how fragile they are. His little brother Shigeru (Kimura Hiei) is hilarious, a barely-restrained little monkey boy. His little sister Yuki (Shimuzu Momoko) is beyond adorable. They’re so young that they don’t really understand what’s happening to them, or that there’s anything unusual about it. They just accept and adjust. When they run out of money and the power is switched off and they have to start bathing in public, they just roll with it, heartbreakingly happy all the time.
I can’t really describe the film to you, because it’s the small details, the atmosphere, the way Koreeda shot the film in sequence so the children are actually aging, their hair growing, their costumes growing more and more tattered and worn out. It’s the cumulative impact of the movie, and it’s the powerhouse ending, and it’s the way the film lingers with you after it’s over, more like a real memory than a movie. You have to see it for yourself to really understand why this one is so special. All I can do is encourage you to find the film on DVD and take a chance with it.
14. HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE
There’s something off-handed about this one, something deceptive. I saw the film a few times this year, and much like the magic door that leads out of Howl’s workshop, everytime I watch this movie, it seems to be something totally different.
It’s the most slippery film that Miyazaki has ever made, harder to define than any of his other films. He’s working from a book by Diana Wynne Jones that I haven’t read, so I can’t judge this as an adaptation. His artistic signature is all over the film, so I’m sure he changed a lot of things when he wrote the script. It certainly feels like it belongs to him. Howl is a great Miyazaki character, a walking mystery who remains elusive even at the end of the film. The love story between Howl and Sophie is unconventional, to say the least, and it’s not even clear if it’s romantic love, or if Howl is simply looking for someone who can care for him. Over the course of the film, Howl ends up assembling a very unusual family around himself, and each of the characters ends up playing out in a way you wouldn’t expect based on how they’re introduced.
What really slays me about Miyazaki, though, is the way his imagination seems to be so completely unfettered. His fantasy films aren’t like anyone else’s. Ever. He’s got this bizarre ability to conjure up these deep, rich worlds in each film, but they never feel like they’re the same worlds, and he doesn’t seem to repeat himself. I’m not sure I completely understand the rules of HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE, but I love the way war rages in the background of things, the way magic exists in a world of modest technological means, and the way Howl’s origin is eventually explained.
Every time he makes a film now, there’s a chance that we’re seeing the last Miyazaki feature, and for that reason, I approach each new film of his with a sort of hesitancy. I wish there were fifty more films by him waiting for me to discover them, and the fact that I’ve seen all of his work now saddens me. Each film he releases is a bonus, a treat to be savored, and I’m looking forward to getting HOWL’S home so I can dig back into it and enjoy all the great twists and turns of the story, all the quirks of the characters, and all the magic Miyazaki so effortlessly summons.
13. HUSTLE & FLOW
Whoop that trick, indeed. Sometimes, formula works, and Craig Brewer struck gold with it this year. There’s nothing particularly new or groundbreaking about this film, but it’s the telling of the tale that makes it work.
Well... that and the fact that Terrence Howard seems to have decided that he wants to be a gigantic movie star this past year. He stars as DJay, a truly sleazy street pimp who runs a sad little stable of whores in Memphis. People who think this movie glamorizes DJay or his lifestyle must have seen a different movie than I did, because this is one depressing picture of Memphis, a city I’ve spent a lot of time in. DJay may be getting by, but he’s hardly rolling in the money or enjoying the life he’s leading. DJay would rather be doing something else, but he doesn’t even admit to himself what that something else is. At least, he doesn’t admit it until an opportunity presents itself in the form of an off-handed comment by Arnel (Isaac Hayes), owner of a local BBQ. It’s a very small window of opportunity, but it’s still a chance, a tiny little glimmer of hope, and that spark is enough to start a fire in DJay, a fire that spreads to his girls Nola (Taryn Manning) and Shug (Taraji P. Henson) and to Key (Anthony Anderson) and Shelby (D.J. Qualls), the two guys who DJay recruits to help him create a demo tape. See, DJay wants to be a rapper. There’s a guy named Skinny Black (Ludacris) who used to live in Memphis, and he ended up signed to a major label, a huge star in the hip-hop world. DJay remembers when Skinny Black was a local hustler, producing his own underground tapes and distributing them in parking lots to whoever would listen. DJay figures that if Skinny Black could do it, then he can do it.
That’s the power of films like this. They are potent reminders that dreams are something we all have in common. When we watch a film about an underdog who makes good, we can’t help but project a bit, imagining what might happen if we only had our own opportunity or the free time or whatever circumstances need to come together to make our particular dream come true. And most people never do anything about their secret dreams, which is why movies like this work so well with audiences. At least people get to live vicariously through the fiction they watch. What makes HUSTLE & FLOW better than average for this genre is the way Craig Brewer refuses to give you the easy ending, and the way Terrence Howard refuses to play DJay as a hero. The title is very appropriate, because the movie is about how having the right hustle is maybe more important than having any real talent.
The big moment in the film for me has nothing to do with the making of the demo tape, even though all of that is entertaining. When DJay finally comes face to face with Skinny Black, he gets brushed off, and he almost accepts that defeat and walks away. But then something kicks in and he turns around and puts on his A-game, his best hustle, and in that moment, we understand everything there is to understand about how DJay has stayed alive so far. I wish Brewer hadn’t put the coda on the film and had just ended everything with the bar and the aftermath of what happens there, because I think that’s the honest ending. Even with that extra ten minutes or so, though, there’s a sweaty, honest integrity to the film that I admire deeply, and it really does feature one of the best performances of the year.
12. BREAKFAST ON PLUTO
Cillian Murphy had a really good year. I thought he did a nice job in BATMAN BEGINS, playing a villain who managed to be both comic-book creepy and somehow grounded in reality, and even though RED EYE is a very, very silly popcorn film, I thought he did a nice job of making you buy into the premise. But when people discuss his work in 2005, the movie that they’ll talk about in the future, if there’s any justice whatsoever, is Neil Jordon’s funny, furious, fabulous BREAKFAST ON PLUTO, based on Patrick McCabe’s novel. It’s the story of Patrick “Kitten” Braden, played by Cillian, and it features the single most joyous and celebratory performance I saw all year. So much of this year has been about tortured people, conflicted about who they are.
Well, finally, here’s a movie about someone who loves being who they are. Kitten wouldn’t trade being Kitten for anything, and that’s a glorious thing to see. Sure, his life may be difficult, and it may have holes in it, and there may be things that he spends his whole life chasing, but along the way, he refuses to let life defeat him. He manages to hold onto his individual personality no matter what, no matter how hard people try to force him to change, and it’s that strength of character that makes Kitten so fascinating. From the very first moment, with the ‘60s pop song blaring and the gorgeous candy-colored cinematography by Declan Quinn, this is a film that’s just plain pretty.
Kitten walks down an Irish street, pushing a baby pram, flirting with construction workers, telling us how the story of Kitten Braden first began. The film flashes back to the day that Patrick was left on the doorstep of Father Bernard (Liam Neeson), and then starts working its way forward from there. What unfolds is a sort of IRISH GUMP, a sprawling journey in which the unflappable Kitten meets each new twist in recent Irish political history with the same insouciant attitude, the same steadfast refusal to be serious in any way. All Kitten cares about is finding his mother, the lovely Eily Bergin (Eva Birthistle), said to resemble the movie star Mitzi Gaynor. Kitten’s convinced that if he finds “the Phantom Lady,” then his whole life will turn around and everything he’s ever missed in his life will fall into place.
Of course, it’s not that easy. Nothing ever is. Along the way, Kitten meets a great cast of eccentric characters, some who take advantage of him, others who he takes advantage of, and still others who simply twist him around and send him in some fresh direction. Gavin Friday’s very funny as Billy Hatchet, and his brief affair with Kitten starts off hilarious but ends quite sadly. Jordan regular Steven Rea shows up as a hypnotist/magician who seems to really care about Kitten even as he exploits him shamelessly. The movie plays as an emotional rollercoaster, with some remarkable highs and lows, and there’s a subplot involving a local boyhood friend of Kitten’s who loves the Daleks from DR. WHO that is wrenchingly sad, but the way Ruth Negga as Charlie comes back into Kitten’s life is uplifting and quite touching. Overall, this is one of those films that defies any easy categorization, and it’s a joy, a clear indication that Jordan remains one of our most consistent and interesting filmmakers.
I haven’t formally reviewed this film, but if you read my interview with Stephen Gaghan, I think I made my feelings about the film pretty clear. Since then, I’ve sen it three times, and I find that it’s a film that grows for me upon seeing it again. It’s ambitious, it’s bold, it’s incredibly dense and smart, and I think it’s a film that manages to be political without being remotely partisan, no simple trick these days.
Technically, the film is a dream, a masterfully made political thriller that’s incredibly photographed by Robert Elswit and tensely scored by Alexandre Desplat. Tim Squyres manages to make an elegant whole from the tightly-knotted threads of the film, something that deserves extra praise. Gaghan’s grown by leaps and bounds as a director since he made ABANDON, and I’m sure part of that is because the subject matter was so inspirational. To my mind, the film isn’t about oil so much as it’s about anger. Right now, as the world grows increasingly complicated and dialogue breaks down in all arenas, anger seems to be the one emotion that people allow to run unchecked, and there’s enormous danger in that. SYRIANA is a cautionary tale, and it builds to a climax that is pulverizing precisely because it’s handled with an almost clinical detachment. Violence in the modern age doesn’t have to be handled up close. One button gets pushed somewhere, and lives are snuffed out halfway around the world. When confronted with some of the base truths in this film, it makes sense to see some of the reactions that these characters have. Gaghan is served well by his sprawling cast, with Jeffrey Wright, Matt Damon, and George Clooney at the center of things. What impresses me most about Damon is how he not only gets smart roles, but he manages to play them in a way that convinces us that he is as smart as the material he’s given. It never seems like he’s putting it on for the sake of the movie. It just seems real. Clooney is the soul of the film, a jaded intelligence man who’s seen it all but who still believes that he is working for good. It’s the exact opposite of cynicism, and for Gaghan to allow hope and despair to co-mingle in his film so effectively suggests that his is a world view worth returning to, whatever films he makes from here on out.
Okay... so those are the runners-up. If that was my top ten list, I would still have been totally satisfied with the year, and I’d be celebrating. But the ten films that I loved more... well, those are the films that really knocked me on my ass, the movies that I urge you to seek out and to see, no matter what, because I whole-heartedly believe in their power. You’ll notice that most of the top ten are films that I actually reviewed when they were first released, films that I got evangelical about the first time around.
MY TEN FAVORITE FILMS OF 2005 (in ascending order)
10. KISS KISS BANG BANG
Shane Black’s career is both a carrot on a stick and a warning for every aspiring Hollywood screenwriter. When I first moved to LA, it was at the height of the spec market, driven primarily by two guys... Shane Black and Joe Eszterhas. It seemed like everything they wrote was selling for millions of dollars, and the city was flooded with people who moved here with one idea: sell their spec and retire to a life of ease. Everyone wanted to be him. I’m often surprised by how few of those people actually ever read one of the scripts that Shane Black sold. They judge him and his work based on the films that were made from those scripts, like LETHAL WEAPON or THE LAST BOY SCOUT, never realizing how watered down and different the end result was. Shane’s gift was writing scripts that read like a guy telling you a story in a bar, peppered with personal digressions and profane hilarity, scripts that seemed like the exact opposite of the style that guys like McKee and Syd Field were pushing. Shane’s scripts would make you laugh out loud as you read them, and inevitably, once they were put through the development “process,” everything that was unique got crushed out of them.
Finally, though, Black has made a film that fully captures the humor and the absurdity and the attitude of his screenplays, and it makes perfect sense that he had to direct it himself for that to happen. KISS KISS BANG BANG is also a great showcase for two other deeply misunderstood talents, Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer, who both step up and give exceptional performances in the film. It’s a potent reminder of just how funny both of these men are, and Kilmer in particular needed this. He’s great as Gay Perry, a private investigator in Hollywood who is asked to give some tips to Harry Lockhart, Downey’s character. Harry’s a classic Shane Black lead, cut from the same cloth as Martin Riggs and Joe Hallenbeck, and because he narrates the film, it sounds the way one of Black’s scripts read. Harry’s voice literally is Black’s voice, and that’s part of what makes the film special on his filmography. It’s interesting that he’s working loosely from a novel by Brett Halliday, weaving in his obvious adoration of Raymond Chandler and Los Angeles. It may be one of the most original adaptations of the year.
I think the thing that directors frequently didn’t get right about Black’s stuff is how funny he is. THE LAST BOY SCOUT comes the closest to getting it right, and Bruce Willis is a big part of that, totally tuning in to Black’s sense of humor. Robert Downey Jr., even at the worst of his tabloid meltdowns, has always been an interesting actor, but when he’s at his best, there are few better in the business. This role allows him to be at his most charming, and he manages to bring a depth to it that most comic actors wouldn’t. The supporting cast is great, filled with really sharp comedy performances, with Michelle Monaghan turning out to be a particularly impressive find. She’s not just adorable to look at, she’s also got something special going on in her scenes with Downey. If she gets the right roles, she has a shot at being something more than eye candy. The action scenes work as loving send-ups of the ‘80s mentality that Black’s films helped to create, much more effective as genre satire than THE LAST ACTION HERO ended up being. I’m really smitten with the energy of the film, and it’s one of those movies you realize is ending, and you wish it could just go on another twenty or thirty minutes, or that there was a sequel already in production, because you grow attached to these characters. I hope this becomes a massive cult hit on DVD so that we’ll see Harry and Gay Perry together again, but even if that doesn’t happen, we’ll always have this one, and hopefully Shane Black keeps directing his own personal material from now on.
Easily the most misunderstood film from a major mainstream filmmaker since EYES WIDE SHUT in 1999, MUNICH is going to be almost completely ignored at Oscar time, and then rediscovered and debated for years to come. Steven Spielberg received almost universal accolades for SCHINDLER’S LIST in 1993, and that’s certainly an easy film to praise. The moral questions and ideas in the film are, pardon the pun, fairly black and white. The story loaned itself to the sort of big movie sentimentality that the Academy feels good voting for and that plays across the board. I think SCHINDLER’S is really good, and the performances are epic, but if I was forced to choose between that film and this one, I’d choose MUNICH, no question about it.
Part of the difference this time is that the script by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth (among others) is difficult and avoids some of the most obvious choices it could have made. The film is built like a Hollywood thriller, but it totally subverts all of the things that we normally get from a thriller, and it makes it hard to know what you’re supposed to feel. This isn’t Spielberg being obvious. He’s made a morally complicated film, which seems appropriate considering what the film’s about. Eric Bana’s performance as Avner is one of my very favorites of the year. I think he’s an outstanding lead, grounding the film with an earnest integrity that makes it work, and he plays beautifully off Ciaran Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Daniel Craig, and Hanns Zischler, the actors who fill out his team. Geoffrey Rush, who is always reliably good, makes the most out of a small but crucial role in the film.
It’s been fascinating to watch the debate about the film, and there’s one particular scene I’d like to address before I put the film to rest. The last image in the film is incredibly powerful, and I’ve heard so many different interpretations of what it means, but I don’t think I’ve heard anyone else articulate what it meant to me. If you haven’t seen the film, you shouldn’t read this part, because it’s a spoiler, and a pretty big one.
Rush, playing Ephriam, who is the handler for Avner and his team, shows up in New York to try and talk Avner into coming back. It’s too late, though. Avner can’t go back to Israel. Even though he was willing to give his life and sacrifice everything to do what he thought was right for Israel, he’s lost his faith. He’s lost his home, the thing that the entire film is about, and now New York is his home. He’s got to live where his family can be safe, and where he can finally put to rest the fears that Munich stirred up in him in the first place. Spielberg’s decision to frame the last shot with the towers of the World Trade Center in the background has spurred many people to think that he’s connecting the events of 9/11 directly to the events of Munich, as if the two were part of some cause and effect chain. I don’t think that’s what he’s saying at all, though. I think he’s simply reminding us that this place where Avner has found refuge, this safe new home of his, is not safe. Nowhere is truly safe as long as any of us solve problems by killing other people. It’s not that Israel’s actions led to 9/11 so much as it is that they’re all part of the same endless cycle.
It’s strange to say, but it feels like Spielberg finally let go of the last bit of childhood with this film. There’s nothing innocent about this movie, nothing blindly optimistic, and that’s the point. Really dealing with these issues in an honest way, having the courage to make a movie that asks hard questions without offering simple answers, that’s the most adult thing that Spielberg has ever done. MUNICH’s harshest critics are right about one thing: MUNICH shouldn’t be rewarded by the Oscars.
Michael Winterbottom can do anything. It’s just that simple. He can make any sort of film he wants to make, and he seems to be able to slip from genre to genre without missing a beat. So often, we pigeonhole our best filmmakers and try to force them to work in niches. Winterbottom’s filmography flies in the face of that idea, though. CODE 46, 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE, 9 SONGS, IN THIS WORLD, THE CLAIM, BUTTERFLY KISS... he doesn’t repeat himself. He has embraced the ease of video without hesitation, and it seems to make him one of the most limber guys working, turning films out as fast as he seems to think of them. With TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK & BULL STORY, he’s made a great comedy, full of genuine wisdom about human behavior and insight into the creative life. Like KISS KISS BANG BANG, this film takes a liberal attitude towards the adaptation process, and it’s essentially a film version of an unadaptable book which solved the problem by making the film about the way the book is unadaptable, in which actually manages to make the same thematic points tha the book does. It’s a magnificent piece of writing, but Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Shirley Henderson, Dylan Moran, Kelly Macdonald, Gillian Anderson, and the rest of the exceptional cast all bring their own sense of play to the table, free to ad lib and make the film even more honest and revealing. It sounds like it’s going to be a Christopher Guest-style comedy about filmmaking, but it’s not. It reaches deeper.
The thing that really gets me is the material about fatherhood and the way the entertainment industry pulls you away from your family, almost as a matter of routine. Ten days after my son was born this year, I was in Vancouver on a film set. And as much as I was dying to be on that set the entire time I was in Los Angeles, when I actually got to Vancouver, I wanted nothing more than to get back to my family. That push and pull is no doubt going to be part of my life for many years to come, and learning to balance those things is one of the most important things I have to do. Coogan’s made a career out of playing puffed-up jackasses, variations on his Alan Partridge character, and there’s stuff in this film that could easily be seen as a knowing wink at that image. But he strips all of that away in a few moments, and it’s those moments that elevated this from a great comedy to something else for me. I’m sorry that Frank Cottrell Boyce, Winterbottom’s longtime screenplay collaborator, had a falling-out with the filmmaker and took his name off the film, because I think this represents a sort of summation of all the wonderful work they’ve done together up till now. The film’s getting a release on the 27th of this month, and it’s well worth seeking out if it plays anywhere near you.
And by the way, you haven’t properly lived until you’ve seen Coogan’s impression of a man with a hot chestnut in his pants. Worth the ticket all by itself.
David Cronenberg has long been one of my favorite filmmakers. A number of people have criticized me heavily for my MASTERS OF HORROR episode, claiming that I’ve just cribbed mercilessly from VIDEODROME. Maybe that’s true. It’s not intentional, but I would never deny how formative much of Cronenberg’s work was for me. I think he’s one of our most important filmmakers, in horror or any other genre, because of the way he’s always been so uncompromising. His films are detached in a way that makes people really uncomfortable, like anthropological reports filed by an alien who is watching humanity and wrestling with their spiritual worth and their visceral repulsiveness.
With A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, he’s made a film that seems more accessible than most of his work, but that doesn’t surrender any of the cutting intelligence usually associated with his work. He is the very model of an actor’s director, exceptional at getting great work out of his casts. Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello make us invest in their relationship by creating an honest, recognizable attraction between two people. The impending menace in this film exists in the form of Ed Harris and, eventually, William Hurt, and they’re both excellent. In fact, part of the reason I found myself rooting for the film so much was because Cronenberg got something truly great out of Hurt for the first time in a long time. If you weren’t a fan of Hurt’s in the ‘80s and ‘90s, invested from the beginning, you may not understand. There was a time where he was, basically, the best guy working. No one else could do what he did. Look at his work in films like THE BIG CHILL or, my personal favorite, BROADCAST NEWS. He seemed capable of anything. And then he sort of shit the bed in one of the most mystifying vanishing acts in recent memory. Seeing him do something great like this... it’s like a long drink of cold water after a desert march. It’s deeply satisfying. I love the way this film uses sexuality as major defining points in a couple’s relationship, expressing everything you need to know about them from the way they fuck. For that to happen in a major American movie at this point requires just the right touch, and Cronenberg should be saluted for the way he elevated his game and really stepped up, while Josh Olsen deserves to be launched onto the A-list of working writers for the terse, skilled work he did adapting the original graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke.
By now, it is empty praise to hail a film as “Woody Allen’s best film since blah blah blah,” because anyone who works as much as he does and who is as monstrously talented as Allen undeniably is is bound to have their highs, as well as plenty of lows. Accepting that when you’re a fan of a director is part of the admiration and understanding of their work.
So I’m not going to say that about MATCH POINT. I’m not going to try to compare it to his other films. I’m not even going to discuss it as a Woody Allen film. The reason that MATCH POINT deserves to be on this list is because it’s a masterful example of a genre that certainly isn’t new, the romantic thriller, an example that does everything right in a way that these movies almost never accomplish. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers so convincingly plays a man consumed by irrational lust for a woman who doesn’t happen to be his wife that even when he crosses some surprisingly moral lines, he’s not a villain. He’s simply someone drowning in quicksand who grabs for the one lifeline he sees, someone who makes a horrible decision and then has to live with it. Scarlett Johansson makes a credible object of desire, and she navigates the film’s tricky second half very well. The film asks hard moral questions and then offers you no easy out, and it’s the way it looks deeply into Allen’s own heart of darkness that makes it something that will last.
5. WALLACE & GROMIT IN THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT
Simply put, the most fun I had in a theater all year long. Nick Park and Steve Box packed their film incredibly full of character comedy and sly visual gags, and from the moment it starts to the moment the last credit rolls, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. Wallace is a great character, but Park knows full well that Gromit is the star here, and he is once again a spectacular hero, resourceful and stalwart and the owner of the best comic poker face since Buster Keaton. Great family entertainment is the sort that plays to each member of the family as something personal. No one has to sit through the film like a chore. Pixar manages to do that, Miyazaki manages it consistently, the greatest of the Disney films did that, and there’s no question that this film fits that same bill. This is the sort of film that I would show to anyone, without hesitation, knowing that they’d thank me afterwards for this affectionate, engaging, absurdly funny rollercoaster.
This was the very last film I watched in consideration for this list, but at first, I didn’t put it this high on my list. I wasn’t sure where to put it. If this film were fiction, no one would believe it. As it is, I spent most of my first viewing of GRIZZLY MAN staring at the screen in awe, amazed by what Werner Herzog stumbled into and impressed by just how well he managed to put together this document of one sad man’s slow descent into madness and, eventually, death.
But it didn’t really sink in during that first viewing. I knew I liked the film a lot, and I knew it was interesting stuff, but when I was telling someone about it the next day, and I was thinking about it as I described it, and as I got animated describing it to my friend, I realized just how powerful and demented the film really is, and what kind of impression it made on me. Herzog is a character in this, always a welcome thing since he’s so incredibly charismatic on-camera, and he spends parts of the film on-camera as he digests this bit of information or a story someone tells or an audio tape. He’s brilliantly funny, but I think he’s genuinely unsettled by what he’s discovering. The filmmaker in him can’t help but be excited by the sheer volume of footage and by how incredibly revealing it is. Timothy Treadwell, Herzog’s subject, was a troubled young man who, for some reason, developed a fixation on bears. Maybe it’s as simple as the stuffed bear he carried with him everywhere as a child, his favorite toy, a symbol of a happier time for him. Or maybe he was just so disappointed by himself as a human being that it seemed easier to go live out some hippie-dippie Walt Disney cartoon fantasy life where he communed with nature and basically became a bear. Whatever the case, Treadwell spent months at a time living in the wild among grizzly bears, making sure to get as close to them as possible. He named them. He interacted with them. And more than anything, he filmed them. He seemed to be working on some grand epic movie with himself as the star, with the bears as the co-stars, and with his death at their hands the inescapable and even desired conclusion.
A film that ends up this high on my list probably does more than one thing, and it may be the collision of tones or styles that makes a film really stand out. In the case of GRIZZLY MAN, part of me wants to laugh at the film, and to mock Timothy Treadwell, who is so sugary sincere during his “performances” that he makes Mr. Rogers look like Clint Eastwood. You almost can’t help it. I can admire his intentions, the impulse to protect bears, majestic powerful creatures that he felt were being harmed. Treadwell’s not trained for conservation work or zoology, though, and as a a result, several genuine experts explain that Treadwell probably did more harm than good over the course of the thirteen summers he spent in the wild. When Herzog stepped in, after Treadwell’s death, he was faced with over 100 hours of footage to sift through, and what gradually becomes apparent over the process of reviewing all that footage was a deeply lonely, deeply unhappy, profoundly contradictory man. Treadwell obsessively repeats things for the camera until he gets them “right,” but in the process, he reveals his true self more and more, and because he spends much of his time alone, and because he becomes more and more intimate with the camera, he really doesn’t seem to understand quite what he’s projecting as an on-camera figure.
That sort of total lack of self-awareness seems to be a running theme in the film, too. It’s not just Treadwell who seems to be emotionally naked in ways he didn’t intend. All the people who were peripheral to his life are interviewed by Herzog, and they all end up showing sides of themselves that I’m sure they didn’t intend, as well. Herzog’s film is as much about our desire to expose ourselves for the camera, that inevitable endpoint of the reality TV culture we live in, as it is about Treadwell’s particular case. One of the most powerful moments in the film involves something that we don’t actually get to see or hear, when Herzog listens to the tape that was made when the rogue bear ate Treadwell and his girlfriend. Treadwell wasn’t able to get the lens cap off the camera, but he was able to hit record, so what exists is only audio. That seems to be enough to unsettle Herzog, and by the time he finishes listening, he tells the ex-girlfriend of Treadwell to destroy the tape and to never listen to it, and Herzog studiously avoids playing us even an excerpt of it. He may be acting or playing it up, but if so, he’s a better actor than I thought, physically shaken by it.
What disturbed me most in the film was the mounting sense of dread in the footage over the last week or two of Treadwell’s life. Normally, he spent his summers alone, and he worked hard to make sure that all of his footage made it look like he was completely solitary, even when he had someone with him. On that last trip, he took his girlfriend along, Amie Huguenard, and even though she barely appears on camera, the few moments where she does are quite upsetting. They were supposed to leave for home, but Treadwell threw a tantrum and they extended their stay, and every bit of footage from that point forward seems to me like borrowed time. Treadwell knows there’s a rogue bear in the area, and he even antagonizes it, getting close and provoking it several times. Any bear expert will tell you that the bears that eat people are frequently older bears who are having trouble hunting, who have slowed down, who are no longer part of a social group. Treadwell either doesn’t know that, or he doesn’t care. Even worse, there’s a moment where he’s filming Amie where he keeps pushing her to get closer and closer to the bear, almost like he wanted to see it attack and eat her. By the time the attack finally happens, one gets the sense that it’s a relief for Treadwell to not have to go back to the civilization he hates so much.
I’m not sure what caused the Academy to disqualify this from their short list of possible Best Documentary nominees, but it’s a mistake, yet another example of how frequently the best films released in a year are shut out of Hollywood’s annual circle jerk. Documentary or otherwise, this stands among the very best films that Herzog has ever made, excellent company indeed.
3. THE NEW WORLD
I haven’t seen the new version of this film that’s playing in theaters now, but the original cut that I saw and reviewed pinned me to the back of my seat, and I’m confident that whatever Malick does with his film, he’ll simply find different ways to emphasize and illuminate the themes of his film. If he more fully explains the inner life of Q’Orianka Kilcher’s Pocahontas, then the new edit’s worthwhile. Even if he doesn’t, he’s made one of the seminal films about what happened when explorers finally came face to face with the Native Americans at the dawn of this country’s history.
What distinguishes this from most movies about the same general subject is the way Malick refuses to give in to any of the easy stereotypes. His “naturals” are neither noble savages or barbarous villains, and the same holds true for the members of the English expedition. Instead, the film draws parallels between everyone, and it’s careful to show how alike the cultures are, and how sad it is that they don’t acknowledge those similarities. There’s an inevitability to t