For me, 2005 was a year in which I was in perpetual catch-up mode, and as a result there are easily 20 or more films available right now, either in theaters or through the magic of DVD, that I have yet to see for the year, including some titles, like Brokeback Mountain, Capote and Good Night, and Good Luck, that look to figure pretty significantly in the Academy Award nominations, to be announced Tuesday, January 31. But the reality is, my paying job is keeping me pretty busy these days (to the tune of about 50 hours a week, and even more during the last couple of months of the year), and in addition to my beautiful family and a couple of burgeoning outside interests, finding the time to write for SLIFR is an increasingly difficult task, one that I must achieve due to the fact that writing this blog has become an addictive part of my life. And so finding the time to see movies to write about is even more challenging. And I have not done a journalist’s thorough job of it as the year came to a close, I freely admit. That is why what follows should not, cannot in any way be mistaken for a list of the year’s best. Even some film critics who are paid to do what I’m doing here for the love of it can’t see everything that’s available for them to write about. What you’re about to read is even more subjective than a list like this usually is, due to the incompleteness of my movie-going year. These are my favorites, the best 22 movies (and change) out of the 60 or so 2005 releases I managed to get to this year (out of a possible 250 or so released in American theaters). I missed a bunch, but I saw an awful lot that I liked too…
1) 2046 (Wong Kar Wai) A supremely gorgeous, elliptical meditation on love, memory, loss and muted passion, the movie shimmers and undulates and expands in the imagination like a timed-release capsule filled with sense memories triggered by the faint scent of perfume and cigarette smoke. That expansion was, for me, definitely enhanced by a recent encounter with Wong’s previous film, In the Mood for Love, but on its own 2046 succeeds as a perfect expression and summation of the director’s obsessive romanticism, even as Wong seems to flirt with disappearing into his own navel. The swoon factor here is incomparably high (Tony Leung representing the XY chromosome, and Faye Wong, Gong Li, Maggie Cheung and, most memorably, Ziyi Zhang making a very strong case for XX), but the question that resonates after 2046, regarding Wong, is, where does he go from here? Will the train to 2046 bring Wong Kar Wai back?
2) LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF (Thom Andersen) A supremely entertaining work of film criticism which teases out, explicates and analyzes the representation of Los Angeles as it has appeared throughout the history of cinema. Positing the best uses of Los Angeles in fiction films as geographical documentaries (Kiss Me Deadly and H.B. Halicki’s original Gone in 60 Seconds are cited as key examples) and convincingly refuting the reputations of some established classics (Chinatown, L.A. Confidential), Thom Andersen’s three-hour essay will make you laugh, make you think of the city through a different prism, and make you argue back with the director’s contentions, even as it inspires you to make a list of movies you need to see, or see again...
3) A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (David Cronenberg) Ostensibly a hired hand on this film, Cronenberg fashions a surface-straightforward narrative from John Wagner’s graphic novel that artfully straddles the line between a critique of the inevitable legacy spawned by violent behavior and a hard-boiled, Phil Karlson-esque noir that implicates the audience in that critique. In other words, he’s taken what could have been fairly routine material and teased out the concerns in its intertwining veins and musculature—he’s made it a David Cronenberg film. Bleak, frightening, and often funny, the movie features flawless work from Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, William Hurt, Ed Harris, and Ashton Holmes as Mortensen’s conflicted son, as well as two of the most revealing, effective and erotic sex scenes seen in an American film in years and an ambiguous conclusion that left the audience I saw it with stunned, and somewhat confused—they got the release they were looking for, but they weren’t prepared for the bitter lump in the throat that came after. Bull’s-eye.
4) KUNG FU HUSTLE (Stephen Chow) Gravity can be overrated, and there is no clearer proof of that absurdism than the evidence put forth in this insanely entertaining, delirious action comedy. Packed with enough clever and organic cinematic references to make Quentin Tarantino or Joe Dante blush, the movie is nevertheless something wholly original. Chow has taken Tex Avery, Chuck Jones and the whole Warners cartoon sensibility, through outstanding stunt choreography, a vivid sense of exactly where to place the camera for maximum zing, and the most clever application of computer-generated imagery yet seen, and translated it into a live-action universe where gravity and physics are not only overrated, they’re practically afterthoughts.
5) GRIZZLY MAN (Werner Herzog) Timothy Treadwell, an outcast from society as much through his own will as by circumstances, lived in the Alaskan wild for years, interacting with the native grizzly bear population and, some would say, repeatedly crossing an invisible line between man and beast that would lead to his death. Herzog, not a director unfamiliar with demagoguery in face of nature’s unbending will, uses Treadwell’s own videotapes to reveal rhe activist as both benevolent wildlife protector and, increasingly, a man consumed by instability and rage, and the director meticulously contrasts Treadwell’s insistent worldview with his own rather more grim assessment. Somewhere between Treadwell’s naive anthropomorphism and Herzog’s dark forest of the soul lies the truth, and the art of Grizzly Man acknowledges the extremes while mapping the thorny terrain in between.
6) WALLACE & GROMIT AND THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT (Nick Park, Steve Box) In a year that showcased so many entries in the animation field, from the dregs of Robots to the vivid stop-motion wonders of Corpse Bride, Aardman Animation’s impossibly delightful feature stood tall over all others, not least because it bears the unmistakable stamp of being hand-made (those visible fingerprints in some of the clay figures are a tonic and a sharp rebuke to the gleaming surfaces of a soulless contraption like Robots). But the movie’s brisk, happily inventive story, a riff on Universal and Hammer horror thrillers, as well as a tribute to the indefatigable spirit, and absurd obsessions, of post-WWII Britons, is a ripping achievement in itself; it resonates with top-drawer wit, low-grade puns and an infectiously giddy humor.
7) THE ICE HARVEST (Harold Ramis) Amongst all the year-end award-mongering and rampant blockbusterism, Ramis’ adult-oriented crime thriller crept like a thief in the night, and got about as much notice. But audiences who took a chance on this astringently funny, seductively seedy picture were rewarded with Ramis’ sharp timing and respect for their intelligence, as well as career-best turns by John Cusack, as a shady lawyer looking to bust out of Kansas City during a freak ice storm after stealing $2 million from a local crime boss, and Oliver Platt, as an alcoholic pal trapped in a frozen marriage to Cusack’s ex-wife. As critic Dave Kehr put it in an early rave, in its solid professionalism, which harkens back to the glory days of film noir and amoral action pictures like Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick, The Ice Harvest isn’t trying to be awesome, which is precisely why it is.
8) KING KONG (Peter Jackson) The current poster boy for movies that are “needlessly long” (thanks to Caryn James for solidifying this minor quibble into a blanket dismissal, the latest in jaded water-cooler conventional wisdom). In reality, Peter Jackson’s Kong was precisely as long as it needed to be. Funny, what some folks will luxuriate in on a DVD special edition, they just can’t seem to endure in a movie theater. My suggestion: drink one less 48-ounce soda during the show and allow yourself to sit still for a blockbuster that sidesteps almost every trap the format routinely indulges. Every time I felt the movie beginning to sag slightly—perhaps a little too much of, say, the Bronto stampede for my taste—Jackson turned around and unleashed a sequence like that triple T. rex battle, which ends up taking place in mid-air amongst a thicket of hanging vines, Kong and the beasts suspended above ground, Ann Darrow swinging like a pendulum back and forth toward the jaws of the giant dinosaur—as spectacular, witty and thrilling an action sequence as has been filmed in the CGI age. The 2005 model Kong is so full of riches that complaining about a sore ass, insufficient bladder or wandering mind seems especially silly-- Naomi Watts’ superlative and emotionally direct performance as Ann, and even the usually dismissed Jack Black, channeling 21st century attitude (and the spirit, if not the letter, of Orson Welles) into Depression-era survival instincts as driven filmmaker Carl Denham; the expansive, fresh, thematically resonant script; and Jackson’s undeniable gifts as a director, his ability to tap into the reserves of reverence he has for the original film and translate that into a vision that pulses with dread, wonder, surging emotion, and life. He has made a movie worthy of being held in comparison to the source material, and also one that doesn’t live or breathe on besting the original simply because the technological means to do so are available at hand. And I know it’s fashionable in some circles to knock the verisimilitude with which this Kong has been created, the implication being that the relative innocence (and ignorance) regarding gorilla behavior in which Willis O’Brien created the Kong effects in 1933 was a sort of sainted state—duplication of the results of that state would, of course, be deemed arrogance or insensitive folly, or at least misguided, yet at the same time some would have us believe that using knowledge of primates available in 2005 is supposedly evidence of lack of imagination, or the good folks at Weta Digital resting on their prodigious techno-laurels. (Never mind that a bit of action that gets one of the film’s biggest laughs, when Kong breaks the jaw of a T.rex and then toys with it quizzically, is a direct lift from the animation of Willis O’Brien.) The truth is, those who created this new Kong, from Andy Serkis, who gave the beast a human template, (much as he did Gollum), to the CGI geniuses who allow us so much suspension of disbelief, to Watts, who reflects a character in her eyes who was never really there, should all be happy in their brilliant achievement. And audiences should be happy to be able to revel in it, a giant movie worthy of the legacy of Willis O’Brien, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, and worthy too of the old movie palaces (like the one I saw it in) that used to routinely show movies like King Kong (1933), and the underrated Dino DeLaurentiis King Kong (1976), and, now, King Kong (2005)—you know, the kind of movies they don’t make any more. One of the glories of Jackson’s rousing adventure movie is the discovery that it turns out they sometimes still do.
9) FUNNY HA-HA (Andrew Bujalski) An unexpectedly charming comedy of 20-something indecision. The movie is anchored by Bujalski’s teasing, unpretentious style, the near-lyrically halting curlicues of the dialogue that disarmingly dance around their true meaning and intention, and the lead performance by Kate Dollenmayer, who conveys more in a single nervous glance than two out of the last three Best Actress Oscar winners (watch out, Halle and Charlize) could ever hope to put across. All that, plus the most perfect ending of a movie since The Station Agent.
10) MYSTERIOUS SKIN (Gregg Araki) A tough film that lurches, rather than glides, along the connective tissue holding together the separate stories of two teenagers, a gay hustler and an asexual boy prone to nosebleeds who believes he was once abducted by aliens, who share a terrible secret—abuse at the hands of a Little League coach when they were both eight years old. Ambivalent and sometimes difficult to endure, the film’s devastation lies in the realization that the moment where redemption might come in a lesser work is instead the moment here where the horror clicks in and each boy now finds himself faced with a future even more daunting and desperate and agonized than the past with which he's struggled to come to terms. Araki has retained the power of the shock tactics he so readily employed in earlier films, but has added a tenderness and reserve of emotion that carries the film far beyond a shallow flirtation with immoral violation to become an artful and devastating revelation, one of the best films I’ve ever seen about the tortured, tangled relationship between the abuser and the abused.
The Second 12:
11) MUNICH (Steven Spielberg) In a recent comment about the film, George Jonas, on whose book Vengeance the movie was based, drew a distinction between the two works, claiming that his book was about the moral distinctions between a terrorist act and an act of retribution, whereas Munich is based upon the premise that terrorism and state-sponsored “vengeance” are morally equivalent. He’s right about the film, but not about that equivalence being a deficiency. Spielberg attempts to grapple with the questions the film raises through character and drama, not by posting easily read signs, and his assurance as an pure action director (despite some late, murky cutting between an Israeli assassin’s reunion with his wife and the 1972 Munich massacre) make Munich a thrilling, agonizing, intelligent thriller worth chewing on.
12) UNLEASHED (Louis Letterier) Another stunning piece of action cinema, and an emotional ambush as well—I was unprepared for how deep these filmmakers would go into the heart of this grim, yet openly sentimental tale of a man (Jet Li) trained by a Scottish thug to become a deadly attack dog who discovers a normal life, and the secrets of his past, through his friendship with a blind piano tuner (Morgan Freeman) and his daughter (Kerry Condon). The best thing Luc Besson (here, the screenwriter) ever put his name on.
13) BATMAN BEGINS (Christopher Nolan) A franchise revitalized, artistically this time… and I liked the new Batmobile too.
14) OLDBOY (Park Chan-wook) Revenge spurred by madness, and madness brought on by revenge…
15) THE WHITE DIAMOND (Werner Herzog) Herzog’s other brilliant documentary of 2005, an impressionistic, ethereal portrait of cockeyed achievement haunted by death and indifference; some of the most offhandedly beautiful imagery of any documentary film…
16) THE ARISTOCRATS (Paul Provenza, Penn Jillette) The art of the dirty joke, and its peak, courtesy of Sarah Silverman…
17) RED EYE (Wes Craven) Terror delivered in close-up; what better eyes in 2005
than those of Rachel MacAdams and Cillian Murphy?
18) UP FOR GRABS (Mike Vranovics) While sports talk radio hosts fell all over themselves promoting the ghastly remake of The Longest Yard this past summer (and, like Dan Patrick of ESPN Radio, promoting their own cameo appearances in it), this entertaining, incisive documentary, about the legal battle over Barry Bonds’ 73rd home-run ball was ignored by everyone, most egregiously the very audience who would have appreciated it most…
19) HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE (Hayao Miyazaki) Surreal and ethereal, even by Master Miyazaki’s standards…
20) WEDDING CRASHERS (David Dobkin) and 21) THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN (Judd Apatow) The best and biggest laughs of the year, and in the case of Virgin, surprising sweetness as well…
22) SKY HIGH (Mike Mitchell) Without a doubt, the biggest, most disarming surprise of 2005; if only its sly intelligence and absurd humor were the new template for Disney pictures, instead of the happy exception it more likely is…
In a perfect world, there would be no need to say I still need to see THE NEW WORLD, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, CRASH, CAPOTE, GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, SYRIANA, SARAH SILVERMAN: JESUS IS MAGIC, KINGS AND QUEEN, TROPICAL MALADY, LAST DAYS, TONY TAKITANI, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW, CAFE LUMIERE, SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM, NOBODY KNOWS, MURDERBALL and MILLIONS, but, unfortunately, I do. I’ve got Kings and Queen, Last Days and Tropical Malady in house courtesy of Netflix right now, so if I get a chance to see any or all of them in the next week, it’s entirely possible my top 10 might swell to 13.
The Bottom 10 (in descending order):
THE FAMILY STONE (Tom Bezucha) The tyranny of the progressive, done up all cuddly and symmetrical, and frustratingly well-acted…
STAR WARS EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (George Lucas) What now, Mr. All-I-Really-Want-To Do-Is-Make-Avant-Garde-Cinema?
CHICKEN LITTLE (Mark Dindal) Breathless, spastic and wit-free…
ONG BAK: THE THAI WARRIOR (Prachya Pinkaew) Tony Jaa’s athleticism is inarguable, but there’s no movie there…
THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (Scott Derrickson) You got courtroom drama in my horror flick! No, you got horror flick in my courtroom drama!
SAINT RALPH (Michael MacGowan) Deadly earnest sports drama made by people who come off as if they’ve never heard the way real kids act and speak… and a criminal waste of Jennifer Tilly too…
THE LONGEST YARD (Peter Segal) A bubbling pot of incoherent action, relentless fag fear and laugh lines that drift off into dead air; Robert Aldrich’s terrifically entertaining, cynical, bone-crunching, hyper-masculine original looks downright enlightened by comparison…
THE RING 2 (Hideo Nakata) Listless, condescending and absent a single decent shiver; an inexplicable, ostensibly creepy attack on our beleaguered heroine and her Shyamalan-esque son by a pack of CGI deer bucks is instead the year’s nadir in dumb special effects…
A DIRTY SHAME (John Waters) Anarchic sexual expression is good… Refusal to buy into movie's wacky premise, proof of your own repression? The satire here is pitched to the choir (at this point, Waters and who else, exactly?) who might find this wacky ribaldry bracingly honest and funny. Could it be that pop culture has finally caught up with John Waters? The convincing evidence is in just how hard he has to work to seem "shocking," and in how desperately far he falls short of the mark. The man who made Pink Flamingos finally seems conventional. This is Waters' worst movie.
DOOM (Andrzej Bartkowiak) Could be the last nail in the coffin of the lingering Stallone/Schwarzenegger imprint on the American action film… Well, I can hope, can’t I? Semper fi, motherfucker…!
Worst Movie I Saw in 2005 (regardless of year of release)
THE ROOM (Tommy Wiseau) Do yourself a favor: click on the link, and if you’re not yet a registered IMDb member, become one immediately and read some of the hilarious user comments (some 45 and counting) regarding this stupefying cinematic achievement—they’ll convey the experience much better than I can at this point, as I’m still, some two months after seeing it, still reeling. Writer-director-star (and crafts services guy, for all I know) Tommy Wiseau is a one-of-a-kind auteur; we honestly may not have seen his like, his unique blend of the sincere and the utterly, heartbreakingly inept, since the halcyon days of Edward D. Wood, Jr. and Glen or Glenda? I must stop now, before I say too much. If you find the user comments intriguing at all (and how could you not?), pack yourself off to one of the midnight screenings you can find in various cities around the country, or better yet, rent the DVD-- it’s available right now! (O Lord, we can only hope for an audio commentary!) There’s simply no further excuse— drop what you're doing and get thee to The Room!
MOST REVELATORY SCREENINGS OF 2005:
Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the first movie I ever saw at the Mission Tiki Drive-In…
Experiencing Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, both on the big screen, surrounded by Leone-minded friends…
And seeing Showgirls again, for the first time…
ACADEMY OF THE UNDERRATED
The Ringer, Saw II, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Assault on Precinct 13, Fantastic Four, The Dukes of Hazzard and The Skeleton Key (the movie I’m most embarrassed about walking out of when I initially saw it; a second chance at the drive-in proved to me what a clod I’d been)
ACADEMY OF THE OVERRATED
Even though I like it a lot (and it’s number 19 on my list), Howl’s Moving Castle didn’t live up to Spirited Away or even Kiki’s Delivery Service, despite all the insistent voices claiming that it did; also, War of the Worlds, Broken Flowers, Sin City and, most heartbreakingly, for me, Land of the Dead (though I do see a second shot on DVD in my future…)
MOVIE I DIDN'T LIKE BUT AM GLAD EXISTS
The Family Stone, because the actors in it, particularly Diane Keaton, Rachel MacAdams, Luke Wilson and, in isolated moments, Sarah Jessica Parker, are as good and funny and inspired as the script and direction are pat and formulaic and smug and overly tidy…
MOVIES FOR KIDS (and their parents)
I’ve already mentioned the wonders of Wallace and Gromit and the most-welcome surprise of Sky High, but two other features made taking the girls to the movies this year supremely pleasurable and offset the grim task of sitting through Chicken Little, Robots and My Little Pony: A Very Minty Christmas (don’t laugh—my teeth are still aching). Tim Burton’s perversely inventive Charlie and the Chocolate Factory scared my six-year-old right out of the theater, but when I took my three-year-old a second time, to see what we missed when we had to leave the first time, she reveled in the candy-colored wizardry of the movie’s ever-so-slightly-twisted vision; and I loved Johnny Depp’s freakishly funny Wonka and the inspired work turned in by Deep Roy as the multitude of Oompa-Loompas (in grand, catchy Bollywood-style production numbers fueled by Danny Elfman), and the bubbling-under-the-surface bitchery of the World’s Most Frightening Stage Mom, Mrs. Beauregarde, as essayed by fearless actress Missy Pyle. Both the girls and I also had a surprisingly good time at Disney’s lovely purplish pastoral, Pooh’s Heffalump Movie, a delightful cartoon (and delightfully short too, at 68 minutes) that, in its lavender color scheme, its narrative argument against preconceived notions and its plea for tolerance and acceptance, is the best defense Tinky Winky never got. Put that in your oversized bag and repress it, Jerry Falwell!
MOVIE THAT BEST PARTIES LIKE IT’S 1969
Herbie Fully Loaded
MOVIE MOST LIKELY TO DATE BADLY
The Island (evidence: the continued relevance of Logan’s Run)
MOVIE MOST AHEAD OF ITS TIME
Serenity (still waiting to explode and become something other than a browncoat phenomenon) and, for reasons obvious, and not so obvious, 2046.
BEST IMPERSONATION OF GLORIA GRAHAME IN THE BIG HEAT
Ed Harris, A History Of Violence
MOST TASTEFUL DIRECTORIAL CHOICE OF 2005
Werner Herzog listening to the tape of Timothy Treadwell’s gruesome demise, but not allowing the audience to hear it, and then advising Treadwell’s friend to not only never listen to the tape but to, in fact, destroy it (Grizzly Man).
MOST MEMORABLE DEATH SCENE(S)
Kong’s slow fade off the top of the Empire State Building, of course, but also Lumpy the cook’s slow ingestion by one of those impossibly grotesque vagina dentata slugs, in King Kong. (And kudos to Andy Serkis who, by both providing the human template for Kong’s movements, and by also playing Lumpy, is the first actor I can think of to die twice, and so memorably both times, in the same film.)
BEST RESISTANCE TO UP-CLOSE EXPOSURE TO MOLTEN LAVA
Ewan MacGregor, Hayden Christensen, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith
BEST ARGUMENTS FOR VEGETARIANISM
Land of the Dead, the sushi bar scene in Oldboy, and just how yummy all those carrots and cabbages looked in Wallace & Gromit and the Curse of the Wererabbit
BEST PUNCH LINE
“Joe Franklin raped me.”—Sarah Silverman, The Aristocrats
THE YEAR’S GIDDIEST SPECIAL EFFECTS
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
BEST ENDINGS OF 2005
Funny Ha-Ha, The Devil’s Rejects
I think I’ll take my cue right there. Good night, and good luck!