For the first 10 months of the year I was willing to write 2005 off as among the most unexceptional year for films in a while. And then it happened – all at once, the early little films that I had missed showed up on DVD and the predictable studio Oscar contenders settled into theaters with a holiday flurry. As usual there was loads of mindless crud, a ton of beautiful small films, and another very small handful of top-notch big budget star-laden Hollywood epics. Like most years I tended to prefer the little films – the ones with perfect soundtracks that seemed to mirror the curious performances or swirling big screen theatrics that often left you momentarily lost before sweeping you along. Of course I missed a few this year, and picked up a bunch from last year, but I’m sure this whole list will be available on DVD next month. You should see and savor them all.
1. Syriana – Dir. Stephen Gaghan (George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright)
This one is pretty obvious. Rock-star cast, intriguing and topical premise, big enough to look really good, ridiculously good screenplay – it couldn’t possibly suck. Far from it, “Syriana” is a film that makes you think. Although you often get lost in its complicated parallel storylines, this disorientation helps establish more a state of mind than overcomplicated distraction. I suppose the global oil business is filled with so many shades of gray that certainty about anything, except for the price you pay at the pump, is an impossibility. As long as we acknowledge that this film is a “film,” and a damn good one about corruption, commerce, and globalization – accept it as great. I do and I will.
2. Caché (Hidden) – Michael Haneke (Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche)
Over six months after the gushing press from Cannes announced “Caché” as the finest film of year it arrived. Result: yes it is brilliant. Although in some ways I prefer Haneke’s grittier, more sadistic films (“Funny Bones,” “The Piano Teacher”) this time around he creates a creepy, skin-crawling sense of anxiety without having to employ even the slightest amount of pure shock value. This is a patient film showcasing the always compelling Auteuil and Binoche, as they scramble to uncover the stalker and motives who is plaguing them in the most psychologically painful ways. Throughout the film we are teased with moments of revelatory relief and infuriating ambiguity, but ultimately this is piece of art, a meditation on the nature and motives of evil. The story is neatly book-ended by beginning and closing scenes that will no doubt cause for deep reflection weeks after the film.
3. Good Night and Good Luck – Dir. George Clooney (David Strathairn, Patricia Clarkson)
There is something delicious about the crystalline look and feel of this film. Shot in elegant and smoke-filled black and white to capture the spirit of the age, it also works as a metaphoric statement about the nature of McCarthyism which was neither black nor white. In easily one of the best actor performances of the year David Straithairn delivers the crisp poetic reporting of Edmund Murrow with the same intensity and passion as the man himself. “Good Night” is also the second Clooney triumph of the year proving that he is dead set on mirroring his own career to that of Robert Redford, making largely important films with an uncompromising independent spirit.
4. Crash – Dir. Paul Haggis (Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Thandie Newton)
There hasn’t been a film like this since the inferior “Grand Canyon” many years ago. Largely an examination of the unavoidable hypocrisy of racism, this is an epic delicately interlaced journey into a handful of intersecting lives. Like an Altman film where everyone and everything eventually belongs to the same length of thread wrapping around the same spool, “Crash” is a film that allows us to bury the cynicism of coincidence and get into the minds of the characters. With more primary characters than almost any movie this year, the film’s greatest accomplishment is that each of the dozen or so characters is a perfect portrait. If there was a film this year that could have fallen victim to clichÃ© it was this one, but “Crash” is an understated triumph.
5. The Squid and The Whale – Dir. Noah Baumbach (Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney)
Of the many perfect little films this year, “The Squid,” was, in many ways, the best. Like “Tadpole” and “Igby Goes Down” before it, the story revolves around two precocious New York (well technically Brooklyn) children and a crumbling familial infrastructure that leads to all sorts of reactive behavior. With razor sharp dialogue and some of the best individual performances of the year, the movie is extracted perfectly from the 80’s Brooklyn backdrop. With a soundtrack that helps move the film cleanly through the littered emotional highway, director Noah Baumbach’s autobiographical tale is impeccably authentic and tragically honest in a way that makes you laugh when you could just as easily cry.
6. Brokeback Mountain – Dir. Ang Lee (Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal)
At this point everyone likely to see this film knows that it is “much more than just a gay cowboy movie.” More about loneliness and life spent in big open spaces than it is, Ang Lee captures a kind of pastoral magnificence and presents the love between two men as more of a genuine inevitability than anything else. Big sweeping open skies and plains play out as a good metaphor for open minds and hearts in a time when the rest of American society was emotionally closed off. This is a lovely, unsentimental but genuine piece of impeccably acted art.
7. Me, You and Everyone I Know – Dir. Miranda July (Miranda July, )
This is an uber-hip, strangely beautiful low budget jewel that should be required viewing for self-proclaimed film aficionados. Unlike the hippest indie films, this one relies not on a killer soundtrack, celebrity cameos, slick cinematography or a gimmicky plotline, only on being what it is, a simple story about a few people. Set in an innocuous cityscape it is basically an examination of a handful of largely off-kilter people (parents, children, singles, and old folks) looking for something that seems suspiciously like love. Written and directed by the much loved Miranda July, the film could easily have slid dangerously into pretension or frustrating ambiguity, but instead clings to something much more authentic. Although not much happens in the film’s breezy 90 minutes, it feels like you have eavesdropped intimately into the lives of us all.
8. Mysterious Skin – Dir. Greg Araki (Joseph Gordon Levitt, Brady Corbet)
This film is not for the weak of heart. Repeat for those who do no like a bit of squeamishness, see something else. Without question, Greg Araki’s harrowing story of pedophilia is far and away the most effective ever shot on the subject. The film looks beautiful, has an addictively compelling narrative storyline, and the performances – specifically “Third Rock’s” David Levitt are spellbinding. Part modern day “Midnight Cowboy” part middle America suburban nightmare, Araki has pushed things right up to the edge and from that point you can see everything that you need to but not an ounce more. In any other hands this film would be either too much or riddled in clichÃ©.
9. Kung Fu Hustle – Dir. Stephen Chow (Xiaogang Feng, Stephen Chow)
Every year I get suckered by some incredibly innovative way to re-spin the slow-mo, super choreographed Kung Fu genre. But unlike films like “Hero” or “The House of Flying Daggers” which adds vibrant colors and slick cinematography to the old formula, “Kung Fu Hustle” is a “Delicatessen” style tripped out art-house film filled with a surreal narrative and a broad array of beautiful effects. With any film like this you need the right state of mind, but if you hit it at the right time in the right frame it is hard to imagine that there was anything more fun in 2005.
10. Hustle and Flow – Dir. Craig Brewer (Terrence Howard, Taryn Manning, Ludacris)
From the very first scene, an incredibly rich diatribe about the nature of man and mankind, the film reeks of “cool” even though there is hot sweatiness that seems to ooze out of the hot Memphis air. This is a pimp and ho film unlike any I have ever seen, largely because of the raw ambition conveyed by Terrence Howard in his second role of 2005 that deserves Academy consideration. Howard’s “DJay” is a man who has spent his life in a kind of constant scrap to survive, and although mostly he gets beaten down his drive and passion to succeed humanize him a way that is quite remarkable.
11. Junebug – Dir. Phil Morrison (Alessandro Nivola, Embeth Davidtz)
Little films can be perfect in ways that bigger Hollywood fare almost never can. It is almost like the more sophisticated a film becomes the less realistic it appears. “Junebug” is a simple film (no visual effects, no elaborate score, no particularly crafty editing) about simple people living in a simple rural town somewhere in the South. In many ways it is a perfect film. Largely the story of a grown man who returns home with his new bride, a well traveled, educated and sophisticated art dealer from the big city (Chicago), to visit his provincial country family. Ultimately the film is a collection of impeccable character studies with each performance quietly expressing something about the brittle nature of familial interaction. Accompanied by the perfect soundtrack by Iron & Wine, there is something comfortably awkward about coming home and “Junebug” just kind of lays it out without having to explain.
12. Head-On – Dir. Fatih Akin (Birol Unel, Sibel Guner)
I knew nothing about this film before seeing it other than that it was supposed to be good. It was. Largely the story of two German-Turkish self-destructive punkish losers who meet in the recovery ward of a hospital after failed suicide attempts. From there the film peers into the reluctant hearts and often shockingly violent outbursts that seem to be as natural as breathing to them. But with a kind of Zen like restraint the film steady’s the course of these spiraling lives without having to resort to sentimentality. Although at its most basic level this is a love story, almost nothing goes as you would expect, launching it into a realm far above the rest.
13. The Constant Gardner – Dir. Fernando Meirelles (Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz)
Some movies carry a suspenseful weight almost effortlessly by combining surefooted cinematography and a seamless story. “The Constant Gardner” is a mesmerizing puzzle that grows stronger as its leading characters grow weaker. It is this unraveling of both the plot and the protagonists that feed the energy and mystery. Ralph Fiennes is, as always, heroically compelling as a man tortured by loss, while Rachel Weisz solidifies her status as one of the most versatile actresses around. While the story needs to be swallowed as pure fiction, it does make one consider realities of modern Africa – both brutal and stark and at times strikingly beautiful.
14. Capote – Dir. Bennett Miller (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener)
It would be surprising if even the most passive film audience couldn’t identify how good a performance Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote. Sure, playing someone with as distinctive a set of annoying idiosyncrasies as Capote might be construed as easier then having to flesh out the more subtle ones like those of co-star Harper Lee, played wonderfully by Catherine Keener. But to actually become someone this genuinely affected is a feat even the best actors rarely get the chance to achieve. This film happens to have a great story attached to it and performances that give it a new life. The only thing more criminal than those in this story would be in not seeing the film!
15. Thumbsucker – Dir. Mike Mills (Keanu Reaves, Lou Pucci, Tilda Swinton)
There is nothing better than stumbling into a movie that you know almost nothing about (other than the fact that it has a great cast, cool poster, and hip creative director), and having it be great. “Thumbsucker” was that movie for me. Based on the story by Walter Kirn, it tells the story of an almost tragically normal middle class family in suburban Oregon, and follows the transformative voyage of a high school outcast played wonderfully by Lou Pucci. Like most outcasts, he longs to be accepted but doesn’t have any particular plan for doing so. His journey towards change is mirrored by the parallel voyages of the adults in his world: his new age dentist played by Keanu Reeves, his mother – a star struck nurse, father – an ex-high school superstar athlete emotionally crippled by his unfulfilled expectations. Pucci’s journey takes a series of weird and wonderful turns, captured perfectly under the surreal gaze of director Mike Mills.
16. Grizzly Man – Dir. Werner Herzog (Timothy Treadwell)
Shy of the melodramatically annoying narration of director Herzog, “Grizzly Man” is one of those perfect documentaries. The story is just one of those with a distinct beginning, middle and end. “Grizzly Man” was so thoroughly documented by its protagonist, over almost decade, that at times it almost seems like it might have been a fiendish collaboration between filmmaker and subject. Obviously this wasn’t the case, but what Herzog is able to piece together is the gradual unraveling of a man losing his perspective: a perversely compelling watch.
Once again, very much worth your while, but one most draw a line somewhere:
Kings and Queens – Dir. Arnaud Desplechin (Emmanuelle Devos, Catherine Deneuve)
Paradise Now – Hany Abu-Assad (Kais Nashef, Ali Suliman)
Munich – Dir. Steven Spielberg (Eric Bana, Daniel Craig)
Downfall – Dir. Olivier Hirshbeigel (Bruno Ganz, Juliane Kohler)
Broken Flowers – Dir. Jim Jarmusch (Bill Murray, Jeffrey Wright)
Shopgirl – Dir. (Steve Martin, Claire Danes)
Murderball – Dir. (Henry Rubin, Dana Shapiro)
Match Point – Dir. Woody Allen (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Scarlett Johansson
The Ice Harvest – Dir. Harold Ramis (John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton)