The ringer? March of the Penguins, which is on my Worst of 2005 list. It's NOT a documentary. It's a poorly made fictional film using animals to tell a fake story. (At least in the rest of the world. For the US, they slapped on some embarrassing, unscientific gobbledygook about penguins that often ignores what's happening right in front of our eyes.) For other duds, scroll down to the bottom.
THE BEST MOVIES OF 2005
The Best of Youth – a six hour Italian miniseries that spans decades to cover politics and business and terrorism and love. And life. Which only sounds dorky before you’ve become caught up in the lives of a group of characters you get to know almost as well as your best friends. Shot for TV, so its visual flair is limited. But pure entertainment.
Brokeback Mountain – yes, it is a gay cowboy movie. A very good one. Ang Lee has only really stumbled once (with “The Hulk”) and been less than great only one other time (the fine “Ride With The Devil”). Other than that, since his breakthrough with the commercial hit “The Wedding Banquet,” it’s been one marvelous film after another: “Eat Drink Man Woman,” “Sense and Sensibility,” “The Ice Storm,” “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” (one of the great entertainments of all time) and now this thrillingly good drama. Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams are terrific, but Jake Gyllenhaal is the center of the tale, doing his best work since “Donnie Darko.” A great, tragic love story – no wonder teenage girls are going again and again.
Mysterious Skin – a strange, odd and compelling movie, easily the best from director Gregg Araki (who always had great style, but not always great storytelling skills). Adapting the novel by Scott Heim pushed Araki to be very disciplined when telling the story of two kids who are molested by a baseball coach. One descends into prostitution (almost a legal requirement for troubled gay youth in the movies) and the other blocks it out completely, ultimately convincing himself he was abducted by aliens. Really wonderful and Joseph Gordon-Levitt of “Third Rock From The Sun” is sensational. (He’s just as good in the terrific 2006 release “Brick.”)
Good Night, and Good Luck – a tightly controlled, compelling story of the showdown between Edward R. Murrow and Sen. Joseph McCarthy. But GNAGL uses that as a springboard to discuss fear and conformity in general, the changing face of television, and the responsibilities of journalism, all in a film told with verve, a terrific cast (including David Straithairn, director George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr, Frank Langella, etc), a smart use of jazz singing to break up the intensity and above all the words of Murrow. My God, did people really talk that smartly and incisively on TV? Heck, even the people interviewed quote Shakespeare.
The New World – If you liked “The Thin Red Line,” you should enjoy this similar poetic retelling of the legend of Pocahontas. I was enthralled (yes, enthralled) by the original 138 min. version – the ships landing in America with Wagner rising and rising in intensity was like seeing an alien spaceship landing. The momentousness of it to the indigenous Americans came across beautifully, as did the strange wonder of this gorgeous new world. Quiet, thoughtful, with a gentle pace I luxuriated in. And the third act where Pocahontas goes to England was just as remarkably strange and eye-opening. Could anyone else make us appreciate and experience the unique sensation of what it would be like to see something utterly new?
The Squid and the Whale – captures better than almost any movie I’ve ever seen the uniquely adolescent stance of a kid (Jesse Eisenberg) who is smart enough to soak up the comments of adults around him but not quite ready to voice his own opinions – but boy does he want to. In between, we see parents divorcing and throwing everything at each other – including the children. Everyone is great, from Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney to William Baldwin, Owen Kline and Eisenberg.
Capote – a hushed, focused look at Truman Capote exploring the true crime story he would immortalize in “In Cold Blood.” A second viewing confirmed my feeling that this was an incisive, memorable work. (The production design and costumes alone are terrific for suggesting the period without ever intruding.) I may disagree with the film’s assertion that creating “In Cold Blood” cost Capote his soul and kept him from ever producing anything of note ever again (I’d say fame did that nicely), but it’s terrific nonetheless.
Look At Me – This French comic drama is easily compared to Woody Allen: clever, wealthy intellectuals arguing and debating and discussing everything under the sun. At the heart of it is Lolita Cassard, a lovely if plump girl with a wonderful voice who wants nothing more than the approval of her insanely self-centered and egotistical dad (a hilariously indifferent Jean-Pierre Bacri). Very funny, but ultimately quite moving.
The Constant Gardener – a rare, intelligent thriller that never overplays its hand or underplays our intelligence. No finale with guns a-blazing here. To my taste, Rachel Weisz slightly overacts in her first scene. But Ralph Fiennes – after a string of forgettable flops like Maid In Manhattan – is back in form. No plays opaque better than him.
The Aristocrats – Happily, watching it a second time lets you appreciate the clever editing that turns what could have been a tedious exercise into a revealing look at artists…and you get to catch your friends’ reactions to the more outrageous variations on the filthiest joke in the world. My favorite riff: the mime.
The Beat That My Heart Skipped – I didn’t like James Toback’s Fingers starring Harvey Keitel, so not surprisingly I avoided this nominal remake for a long time. But only the broad outline is similar in this story of a small-time thug with a rundown dad and a talent for classical piano. Star Romain Duris is an increasingly interesting actor and I won’t soon forget his showdown with a petite Chinese piano teacher.
2046 – If John Ford can make Western after Western and Hitchcock make countless thrillers, why do people complain when Wong Kar-Wai makes two movies (this and In The Mood For Love) in the same vein. Personally, I can’t get enough of his swooning romanticism, stunning female leads and impeccable use of sound, music and color. Tony Leung is so masculine in a self-confident manner he’d give Clark Gable a run for his money. And he’s surrounded by some of the best actresses in the world. For all its messiness, is there any doubt after watching it that you’ve seen an artist at work? No.
A History of Violence –one of the best directed films of the year, thanks to director David Cronenberg and the graphic novel it’s based on. Taut, clever storytelling about the owner of a smalltown diner confronted by thugs. His reaction to their threats changes the lives of everyone he knows. Viggo Mortensen proves he may very well have a career post-Aragorn.
Howl’s Moving Castle – not as stunning as Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece Spirited Away, but then again almost no film is. Still, a delightful tale with all his usual talents and obsessions (including threatening old women) on full display.
Downfall – is it wrong to say how entertaining this is? Don’t think of this drama set in Hitler’s bunker as good for you or “important.” Just let yourself get caught up in the tense, surreal atmosphere. Yes, Bruno Ganz’s Hitler is a man rather than a monster. That makes him a lot scarier. And the scene where a Nazi mother tucks her children into bed is the most chilling moment of the year.
The 40 Year Old Virgin – what a delight. Like most “raunchy” comedies, 40 Year Old Virgin is at heart very sweet. It may seem like a sex romp, but it’s really about a man who saves himself until he meets the woman of his dreams (a warm, funny Catherine Keenar) and marries her. The best mainstream comedy of the year.
The Warrior – almost unheralded here, this lean period drama shows a hired swordsman in India working for a petty little ruler. When ordered to mercilessly behead some innocent villagers, he chooses to go on the lam instead. Simple, straightforward storytelling with all the humanity and action of Kurosawa. Director Asif Kapadia’s nest movie – The Return – stars Sarah Michelle Gellar and Sam Shepherd, so don’t be surprised if he’s the talk of 2006.
Grizzly Man – it’s odd to watch an entire documentary film about someone you wouldn’t want to spend two minutes. But director Werner Herzog turned the final years of the odd and ultimately unstable Timothy Treadwell into an uinforgettable document of obsession. Obviously, Herzog could relate. A wonderful score by the legendary Richard Thompson helps tremendously.
Tony Takitani – a quiet little gem that transforms the idiosyncratic style of writer Haruki Murakami into this sweet, sad and beautifully filmed story of a technical illustrator whoe wife is obsessed with shopping.
Mad Hot Ballroom/Rize
My Summer Of Love
Walk The Line
The Power of Nightmares
March of the Penguins
Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Wal-Mart: The High Cost Of Low Price
Pride & Prejudice
Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo