2005's Top Ten Films

When critics bemoan the state of movies, I try to stay optimistic. But it can be difficult sometimes. Not too long ago I wanted to see Mrs. Henderson Presents, the new film from acclaimed director Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity). Guess how many theaters in the entire greater Washington metropolitan area were playing the film? Two, with none in suburban Maryland or northern Virginia. Meanwhile, Underworld: Evolution, a film not even screened for critics, was playing everywhere. Sigh.

2005, as we all know by now, was a down year for the box office. Maybe every other film wasn’t adapted from a video game or an old TV show, but it sure seemed that way. Even teenagers, too often the primary target of studio marketers, tuned out. The year did have it’s share of successes, both critically and commercially. But all too often I’d look at what was playing and find little interesting. And many people I know told me of similar experiences.

“What about the art house theaters?” you might be asking. Yes, they are a godsend, but there are problems here too. Many independent films and a few foreign films vie for the limited number of screens at these theaters. The films’ distributors are either unwilling, or, more often, unable to launch a decent advertising campaign. So the smaller films are drowned out by the big-budget offerings and have a small chance of succeeding right away. As such, the art house theaters move these films in and out very quickly. Even if people hear good things about the film, it might be gone before they can see it.

Despite all of this craziness, there were plenty of worthwhile films last year. Sometimes you just had to look much harder to find them. In all fairness, we also had some excellent big-budget flicks. You can find a couple of them in my “Honorable Mention” list (in alphabetical order):

Batman Begins
A History of Violence
In Her Shoes
King Kong
Me and You and Everyone We Know
Mrs. Henderson Presents
The Squid and the Whale

In a year where so many films felt like retreads, my favorites were those that were different somehow. For a few it was telling a story that had never been told before. Others told a more familiar story but did so in a fresh and original way. They all proved that there’s still room for true creativity:

10. The Matador (dir. Richard Shepard) - A crime comedy, even a comedy about a hitman, is nothing unusual. What makes The Matador unique is how Shepard, who also wrote the film, explores the hitman’s loneliness and social inadequacy. Pierce Brosnan delivers the best performance of his career as the burned out assassin who latches on to an ordinary businessman (Greg Kinnear) because he simply needs a friend. Brosnan and Kinnear have wonderful chemistry and Shepard gets laughs from playing them off each other. He lets you see how the two characters feed off their differences. Shepard keeps the film moving briskly, making the most out of his witty script while still giving his actors room to shine. Perhaps the most surprising part is that The Matador, while very funny and immensely entertaining, also has a real heart at its core. If the rest of Brosnan’s choices are as dead-on as this one, he should have a fine career post-007.

9. Brokeback Mountain (dir. Ang Lee) - Yes, it’s “the gay cowboy movie.” Yet it’s not about homosexuality per se, but two people with a love that they can’t even really understand, let alone handle. Lee has always shown an affinity for characters struggling with their feelings, and does so again here. While a film like The Matador succeeds because it moves quickly, Brokeback Mountain works because it takes its time, slowly engrossing you into the lives of the two ranch hands as they drift together and apart. Many have noted the fine scenery in the film, but it’s more than just a beautiful backdrop. Lee uses the vast, cold landscape both as the characters’ refuge and as a metaphor for their isolation. Heath Ledger builds on the promise he showed in Monster’s Ball with his intricate, restrained portrayal of the taciturn Ennis Del Mar. He works well with co-star Jake Gyllenhaal, but does some of his best acting when he’s alone. The skill, craft, artistry, but most of all the emotion in Brokeback Mountain are resonating with people who would normally never see a “gay cowboy movie.”

8. Jarhead (dir. Sam Mendes) - Jarhead is unlike any other war movie mainly because there’s no war. Mendes is not interested in combat but rather the minutiae and culture of the military. Loosely based on Anthony Swofford’s book about his service in the first Gulf War, Jarhead shows a unit that arrives after the fighting is all but over. Jake Gyllenhaal as “Swoff,” Peter Sargaard, and a talented crew of young actors bring you into the mindset of soldiers who have no outlet for their pent-up aggression. They are practically crying out for a release, and by the end of the film you can understand why. Mendes shows the soldiers boredom and frustration without making the audience bored and frustrated, no easy feat. He also explores the role that war movies and the media play on soldiers. Look for another standout performance from Jamie Foxx, who gives a more nuanced portrayal of a drill sergeant that you see in most war films. Perhaps because of it’s lack of combat, Jarhead didn’t connect with many moviegoers, but hopefully through DVD it will garner the appreciation it deserves.

7. Crash (dir. Paul Haggis) - Crash was certainly the most polarizing film of 2005 (yes, even more than Munich). Many film critics proclaimed it one of the best films of the year, while others called it among the worst. This tale of inter-connected Los Angelenos was attacked for its lack of realism, for being preachy and for a simplistic take on racial issues. No, it’s not that realistic. The odds of all the events happening to these characters within 36 hours is slim at best. But to me it works as a heightened reality, almost a fable. As for racism, the film is anything but preachy. It illustrates that racism can impact us all even if we don’t know it. It questions everyone’s attitude rather then attacking overtly racist straw men. Haggis, who also wrote the film, skillfully weaves a tale of moral complexity with all too human characters. He gives enough time to each of them while ensuring that no one is lost in the shuffle. Crash features many strong performances, with exceptional work by Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, and Terrence Howard. The film shows a rare understanding of prejudice and truly questions how we treat our fellow human beings.

6. Good Night, and Good Luck (dir. George Clooney) - In some ways Good Night, and Good Luck is a message film. The lines “Dissent is not disloyalty” and “We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home” certainly have meaning in our current times. But Clooney does not hit you over the head with his point. He is more interested in an ode to television journalism’s early days, when famed newsman Edward R. Murrow went after Joe McCarthy. Robert Elswit’s beautiful black-and-white cinematography and Dianne Reeves’s jazz melodies, wonderfully evoke the 50s. Grant Heslov’s script wisely keeps the action in the newsroom, where journalistic integrity is weighed against the personal and professional risks involved. Clooney shows no vanity as a director, relegating himself to a supporting role and spotlighting David Strathairn’s brilliant, understated portrayal of Murrow. Even more than a message film, Good Night, and Good Luck works best as an elegy for a kind of courage in journalism that we don’t see much anymore.

5. Sin City (dir. Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller) - Sin City is a “comic book movie” in the best sense of the term, in that it takes all that is best about comic books and puts it on the screen. Rodriguez and Miller’s visual inventiveness places their characters in an actual comic book setting. They also faithfully translate Miller’s tight, crisp storytelling from the page to the screen. The combination is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Think film noir on acid. It’s outlandish, violent, and incredibly fun. Sin City also features some fine performances, none more so than Mickey Rourke’s turn as Marv, the brutal ex-con out for revenge. Rodriguez and Miller are already working on a sequel, and I can’t wait.

4. The Constant Gardener (dir. Fernando Meirelles) - Meirelles burst onto the world scene with his international hit City of God. His follow-up is very different but no less ambitious. The Constant Gardener is based on John le Carré’s book, and it certainly succeeds as a le Carré thriller. Only this time the all powerful enemy is not the Soviet bloc but huge pharmaceutical companies, or “Big Pharma.” A mid-level British diplomat (Ralph Fiennes) stationed in Kenya learns his activist wife (Rachel Weisz) was murdered. He then uncovers how his wife was planning to expose treachery by “Big Phrama” before she was killed. Besides a thriller, The Constant Gardener can also be considered a “message film,” as it illustrates the shady deeds of Big Pharma in Third World nations. Yet, most of all, The Constant Gardener is a touching love story. The diplomat, in discovering his wife’s work, grows closer to her after her death than he was when she was alive. It’s a tribute to Meirelles direction and Jeffrey Caine’s screenplay that all these different elements blend together so seamlessly. Meirelles’s shots of Kibera, a poor Kenyan town, give the story an unmistakable base in reality. His naturalistic camerawork also keeps the spotlight on his talented actors. Fiennes shines in a quiet, internalized role, and Weisz gives a career performance as the diplomat’s fiery wife. The Constant Gardener shows that the move to English language films and bigger budgets in no way diluted Meirelles’s skill or creativity.

3. Happy Endings (dir. Don Roos) -Think of Happy Endings as an “Altman-esque” comedy-drama, but with more structure and acerbic wit. Roos returns to the territory of his 1998 gem The Opposite of Sex in looking at deception and convoluted sexuality. The many inter-connected characters are almost all deceiving themselves or someone else. Roos, who also wrote the film, deftly weaves the stories together while still letting us get to know each character. He uses a third-person text “narrator,” which could have been hokey but here gives the film more depth and perspective. Just as she did in The Opposite of Sex, Lisa Kudrow shows an acting range that she rarely gets to display on TV. Roos also draws out fine work from Maggie Gyllenhaal, Steve Coogan, and Tom Arnold, of all people. Unfortunately, Happy Endings flew under the radar of most moviegoers, but I’m hoping (as I am with Jarhead) that it will find a second life on DVD and cable.

2. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (dir. Alex Gibney) - Everyone knows about Enron, but how many know exactly what happened and why? Gibney, working off the book by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, manages to explain all of this in ways that make sense to people without a business degree (like me for instance). But the real feat is that Enron is not just enlightening but also entertaining. Gibney fills his film with dark humor as he examines the mindset of the perpetrators and how they were able to get away with their scams for so long. He produces some amazing footage, including video of Enron speeches and their self-parodying skits. Most amazing are audio tapes of Enron traders discussing their manipulation of the California energy markets, which contributed to the state energy crisis and rolling blackouts of a few years ago. Gibney also ties Enron to flaws of an American society where few questions are asked if you’re making money. Even people who normally flee from documentaries will enjoy and be outraged by this clever, thought-provoking film.

1. Capote (dir. Bennett Miller) - In the 1960s the non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, and the later film adaptation, fascinated and shocked many Americans. Who would have thought that the story behind the book could be just as gripping? The film depicts Truman Capote’s immersion in the aftermath of the 1959 killing of a Texas family as he prepared to write his landmark non-fiction novel. First, Capote subtly draws attention to the culture clash between the openly gay, literary New Yorker and the conservative Midwesterners. Then Miller, working off a pitch-perfect script by Dan Futterman, shifts the focus to Truman’s Faustian bargain with the killers, whom he befriends and assists in an effort to glean more information. While Truman increasingly sympathizes with and identifies with the killers, he also becomes more determined than ever to finish his book. These two impulses eventually conflict with each other. It is here that the film reaches a higher level, as Truman struggles with himself. Capote asks real questions about journalistic integrity. But most of all it’s a riveting character study, thanks largely to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s mesmerizing performance in the title role. He simply inhabits Truman Capote, so much that after a while you almost forget you’re watching an actor. Capote also boasts fine supporting work by Clifton Collins, Catherine Keener, Bruce Greenwood, and Chris Cooper. To top it off, Capote features the best last line since Memento, a fitting end to a compelling film.

Adam Spector
January 31, 2006

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