For the past 15 years the annual project of refining a list of the best films has been a task I’ve relished, no less this year for being the last time. I’m delighted so many very good 2005 releases played in local theaters, although we’ve seen fewer celebrated foreign-language films than I’d like. This is a good year for me to leave the public role of film critic. In a retirement without weekly deadlines, I hope to rekindle my ardor for cinema.
The films selected here speak to hot issues in today’s world, such as those aflame now in the Middle East. The films Munich, Syriana and Paradise Now illuminate aspects of these conflicts. The limitations and betrayals of nationalism in a new world of complex interrelationships are variously addressed in Munich, The New World, The Constant Gardener, Paradise Now and Syriana. Endemic racism’s corrosive effect on culture is vividly illuminated in Crash as well as Hustle & Flow and The Constant Gardener. And the deadly results of our trigger-happy, violence-prone culture are explored in A History of Violence, The New World, Capote, Crash and Hustle & Flow. The dilemma of gays in straight society is shatteringly shown in Brokeback Mountain‘s love story and is a salient subtext in Capote.
But beyond each film’s historical context and contemporary relevance lie the conflicted, complicated human desires at the heart of such serious-minded subjects. In the following films, I most admire those with a central character willing to redefine herself or himself in response to a changed world and to take responsibility for the consequences of such a decision.
For more information about the films selected here or the 10 other good films listed from 2005, consult the original reviews (dates given) online at EW archives at www.eugeneweekly.com.
1. Munich (Review)
The first time I saw Munich, the graphic footage and re-enactments of the horrific events in Munich during the 1972 Olympics stunned me. Eleven Israeli athletes were murdered by Palestinian gunmen who climbed a locked security gate (with the help of friendly passersby) to get inside the compound. The mission to assassinate those who masterminded Munich is ordered by Prime Minister Golda Meier (Lynn Cohen), who offers the mission to a young Mossad intelligence operative, Avner (Eric Bana). She reminds him that he looks like his mother. Avner’s wife (Ayelet Zurer), opposed to the secret mission she can’t know about, reminds him he doesn’t have a mother. “Israel is your mother,” she says. If the nation state is Avner’s mother, his father is his Mossad case worker (Geoffrey Rush).
The second time I saw Munich, the flow of events was the background from which I observed Avner as a tool of what a friend called “the consuming impersonality of nationalism.” Avner sets aside humanism and his questioning self to re-invent himself as a cold-blooded killer. He trusts no one but his own team, especially not the questionable source he employs to find the next man on his hit list or even his Mossad handler. Then Avner meets the affable, canny dealmaker behind his source, Papa (Michael Londsale), with whom he develops an intriguing but mutually respectful relationship. When Avner refuses to reveal Papa to his Israeli contact, his relationship with Mossad ends sourly.
Throughout this ordeal, Avner’s wife and child represent the positive, balancing forces in his life. When he returns to them a shattered man, used up and rejected by those he served, his wife’s earthy love and forgiveness soothe his madness and allow him time to invent himself again as a man of peace.
Steven Spielberg has finally found a mature character (not a child) worthy of holding together his most ambitious and most accomplished film to date, thanks to writers Tony Kushner and Eric Roth.
2. Brokeback Mountain (Review)
After their first summer together on Wyoming’s Brokeback Mountain herding sheep and living outdoors, young lovers Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) try to pick up ordinary life where they left it. Ennis would like to go back to the safety of never having met Jack, and his tragedy is that he almost succeeds in excising this love from his life. Jack would like to re-invent the two of them as life partners working a little piece of land with cattle somewhere out West. But they are not able to turn the clock forward, and 1963 was not a year to come out of the closet in this country.
For Ennis there is no principled way to go back on his promise to marry Alma (Michelle Williams). But Jack always knows he doesn’t love his wife Lureen (Anne Hathaway) as much as he loves Ennis. So Jack chooses a double life, being a loving father but living for his time with Ennis. The lovers pretend to be fishing buddies who take off for Brokeback a couple of times a year, but Alma sees the men kiss and knows what’s going on.
The political paranoia of the time infects their secret love affair. Ennis, whose queer-hating father took him to the site of a horrific crime when he was only nine years old, is vulnerable in ways Jack doesn’t understand. True, Jack’s father did not love his son and ridiculed his ambitions to be a rancher, but he did not scare the boy to death.
The depth of Ang Lee’s respect for the film’s characters extends beyond the men and their wives to the waitress (Linda Cardellini) who loves Ennis and the daughter (Kate Mara) who wants more love from her dad. But Lee’s great gift as a filmmaker is to universalize Ennis and Jack’s story, to make this love story resonate in the hearts of all those, regardless of gender, prevented by time and circumstance from being with their beloved.
3. The New World (Review)
Terrence Malick’s sublime vision of the 1607 meeting between the first Europeans to attempt to colonize what is now Virginia and the people who had lived there for more than a thousand years is more satisfying than mere historical re-enactment. This film is a creative re-imagining of the moment, based on history but not limited by it, a dream that enfolds the viewer in an unforgettably pure cinematic experience.
The early sequences as the sailing ships come into view from the lightly forested land are shot like silent film, charged with the movement of near-naked bodies and the transparent emotions at play on painted faces peering out at the unfathomable spectacle before them. Such cinematic magic is so rare and ephemeral we scarcely register it emotionally before it is gone.
The characters at the center of the film — John Smith (Colin Farrell) and a young Indian princess (Q’Orianka Kilcher) — discover each other (and their new selves) in a dramatically altered reality. In place of a common language, Malick gives viewers voice-overs of the characters’ thoughts, questions, customs. Their early meetings have a dream-like, silent film quality as well. Gesture, expression and movement carry meaning as in dance, but naturalistically.
After the imperialistic goals of the Europeans to stay become apparent, the Algonquian kingdom ruled by the girl’s father resists the intruders. Gunpowder and European weapons prevail, as new war-making technologies do. But the fragile connection between human life and the natural world is foreign to the settlers.
Pocahantas is sent away by her father. She forges a new identity as a Christian among the settlers after she is told John Smith died on his way to England. Seduced by the European notion of new worlds, Smith claims lands for the mother country but loses his soul, but the lovely woman accepts her new life with dignity. When she travels to England for a visit with the King and Queen, ordinary people in the street recognize her royalty. When the former lovers meet again, she forgives him.
4. Crash (Review)
Filmmaker Paul Haggis deftly weaves the interlocking stories of 14 citizens during a busy 36 hours around Christmas into an emotional tapestry of urban intolerance in the City of Angels. Hostility and violence are inseparable from LA’s car culture. In this city, people from one neighborhood never have to interact with people very different from themselves. And when they do, racial and ethnic stereotypes provide a readymade response to the shock of otherness.
Second only to transportation as a means of separating people from different economic, racial and ethnic strata is the city’s gun culture. Easy access to cheap guns results in shootings when an individual from one group or another feels disrespected or afraid. Paranoia, fear and intimidation evoke extreme emotions and precipitate desperate actions and inflammatory words rather than restraint and tolerance.
Within the constraints of the film’s artificial timeline, Crash highlights a number of situations in which an individual grows beyond his or her first impression to recognition of the humanity of the other, but the reverse is equally true. Re-inventing yourself begins in the heat of the moment.
Racism rules the day. A minor car accident involving two LA detectives who are also lovers leads to flashbacks of two African American men who decide on a lark to carjack a vehicle from a white D.A. and his Brentwood wife. Looking for the stolen car, two white cops, a rookie and a snarky veteran, pull over an upscale African American married couple. The bad cop humiliates the man through sexually using the woman. The rookie cop is appalled, but before the night is over, he, too, makes a serious error in judgment. Among the 10 individuals involved in the film to this point, five are African American, one is a Latina, and four are white. None think of themselves as racists. Some discover they are.
5. Capote (Review)
When an entire family is murdered in their farmhouse outside a small town in Kansas in 1959, New York urbanite and fey wonder of the literary social scene, writer Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman, decides to cover the story for the New Yorker. He plans to show how the people of Holcomb are affected by the horror in their midst. But that isn’t the story Capote writes, and it isn’t the story the movie reveals. The story we get begins with Capote’s sudden train journey west with his childhood best friend, Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), the only person he allows to tell him the truth about himself.
Something happens to Truman when he first sees killer Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), a self-revelation that changes the writer profoundly. The life of the party gives way to a more somber personality, despite numerous back slides. Capote tells Nelle he recognized that he and Perry were “the same” because both suffered from parental neglect and abandonment. The only difference between them: “I went out the front door,” he says, “and Perry went out the back.”
Nelle thinks she sees through Truman’s subterfuge, and by the end we may agree. Maybe Capote opportunistically grabs the chance to befriend a killer and scoop the inside story of a horrific crime, thus creating a new non-fiction form not seen before and ensuring his fame. The latter is what the historical Capote did, brilliantly.
But in Bennett Miller and Dan Futterman’s film, are Capote’s efforts to provide Perry and his accomplice legal representation spurred only by ambition? Or was Capote convinced that as outsiders, like but unlike himself, the men had been denied the protection of the law? All that’s really clear is Capote’s deep decline into alcoholism until his death. Perhaps what changed Capote was not his choices but that as a writer he fell under the spell of the subject he was writing about and was swallowed up by the work.
6. The Constant Gardener (Review)
Like all films in this list, a second viewing is not only required to understand this complicated film but also more rewarding than you might expect. An unusual love story wrapped around John le Carre’s brilliant spy novel brought to the screen with Third World sensibilities by Fernando Meirelles (City of God), the film is about a man’s re-invention of himself as a detective following his wife’s political murder. His transformation requires an unflinching re-evaluation of who she was and what their marriage was about.
Set in Kenya, the film stars Ralph Fiennes as Justin, the grieving husband and a career diplomat, and Rachel Weisz as Tessa, the dead woman, a fearless, outspoken activist for African health issues. Justin uncovers a world of connections, betrayals and international criminal collusions between countries and huge pharmacuetical interests he never suspected. The knowledge imparts a sinister inflection to the pompous hypocrisy of nationalism.
But the desire to understand Tessa brings with it Justin’s own decision to finish the work she started. He unravels the betrayals and ethical lapses among his co-workers but finds help from Tessa’s colleagues. He recalls their time together in loving detail and falls more in love with her than before. Justin willingly accepts the dire consequences of unmasking the truth about the West’s aid for Africa with its insidious, racist disregard for African lives, and brings to completion his enduring love for his wife.
7. A History of Violence (Review)
Canadian director David Cronenberg sets up the film’s beginning with a meaningless murder by thugs who kill because they can. Thrill-seeking losers, they go looking for new victims in a small Indiana town. Around closing time, they wander into a diner run by Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) and set about creating mayhem. From the moment Tom vaults himself over the counter with a weapon in his hand to brief seconds later when the two killers lie dead on the floor, Tom’s life is changed.
On second viewing, I observed how relaxed Tom was during the most intense parts of this encounter. His movements are lithe, assured, athletic. His demeanor is focused. He seems oblivious to everything but the targets, which he takes down in a few, rapid strokes. This is a man who knows his way around a gunfight.
Born and bred to such violence, as it turns out. Tom re-invented himself in the desert over many years to be who his wife, children and community take him to be — a law-abiding, tax-paying, loving husband and father. But when other unsavory folks from the city start appearing in town and calling Tom “Joey,” his wife (Maria Bello) and teenaged son (Ashton Holmes) want to know what’s going on.
The couple’s passionate lovemaking before and after the killings registers the not-so-subtle changes in their relationship. Tom explains his deception, but that does not fix the problems his criminal past has brought to their door. Tom’s son shows surprising facility with a firearm, allowing Cronenberg to suggest a genetic propensity for violence in American culture passed on from generation to generation. Tom chooses to re-inhabit Joey long enough to settle his differences with his kingpin brother, Richie (William Hurt), for good. But, once introduced, is violence ever over?
8. Hustle & Flow (Review)
Set in a hot Memphis summer, Craig Brewer and John Singleton’s film is about a small-time hustler named DJay (Terrence Howard) who re-defines himself as a rapper and tries to hip-hop out of his dead-end lifestyle with a break-through hit record.
Howard is nothing short of astonishing in this performance. DJay’s persuasive, expansive patter pulls into his record project the two whores he pimps, a white girl (Taryn Manning) and a pregnant African American woman (Taraji Henson). He also recruits a high school friend turned sound engineer (Anthony Anderson) and a mix-master genius (DJ Qualls). The goal of DJay’s ambitious music project is to cut a demo to place in the hands of successful Memphis rapper (Ludacris), who’s hit the big time.
This gem of a film is about the power of music to pull together people from disparate backgrounds and fuse them into a working collaboration. It is a joyous and infectiously upbeat film, yet the depth of DJay’s transformation in how he thinks about himself is no less significant than any of the other characters in any of the other films examined here.
Hustle & Flow‘s reception represents Hollywood’s racial biases. No African American film nor black film star will be taken seriously unless she or he has played a certain type of character — a good character or one who has learned to be good. No pimp-rapper is going to win an Academy Award. Likewise ignored are performances by Henson and Manning, whose characters find self-respect for the first time in their lives and flower because of it. But Julia Roberts and Jane Fonda have played the kind of prostitutes Hollywood is bent to recognize.
9. Paradise Now (Review)
This is one of the few important foreign films to reach U.S. shores, and I’m grateful the Bijou brought it to Eugene. Made by an international film crew from Palestine, the Netherlands, Germany and France under dangerous conditions in the West Bank and in Israel, Paradise Now presents a view of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict not often represented in films we see. Made by Hany Abu-Assad and Bero Beyer, the film is nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign-language picture.
A couple of boyhood friends, Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), live in the town of Nablus where they eke out a precarious existence as auto mechanics. Their lives change one day when Said is approached by an older man (Amer Hlahel) from the Muslim community and told he and Khaled have been chosen as martyrs to carry out a suicide mission together in Tel Aviv. On the same day, a young Palestinian peace activist (Lubna Azabal) comes to the garage to get her car fixed. Said likes her very much.
With the forces of life and death lined up just so, the young men spend a restless period of introspection. Each must translate his choice to participate into a new identity that cannot be shared with others. Both are subjected to the impersonal rituals of conversion required by the faithful. Both undergo transformations. One changes his mind; the other does not.
10. Syriana (Review)
I saw this film twice to understand the characters and the oil interests they represent. In this century of dwindling petroleum resources, the film showed me that we see only the edge of the convoluted relationships that run the industry. Syriana is a big-oil saga that spans five continents and involves a lot of players with conflicting agendas and a staggering arsenal of weapons at their disposal. Written and directed by Stephen Gaghan in a fashion not unlike his screenplay for Stephen Soderbergh’s Traffic, the film is episodic yet turns on the actions of a few key players.
Two seemingly insignificant players, immigrant oil field workers, turn out to be important. Suddenly terminated when a Chinese corporation takes over their contract, the men can’t find work. A charismatic cleric in a local madrassa shows the young Pakistanis a way to vent their anger by training to become terrorists.
All plots sound simplistic when described, but as the stories pile up, then overlap one another, a bigger picture emerges. Each story centers on one or two characters, such as two Arab princes, brothers. Both are eager to assume the throne when their aged father dies. One is a playboy, the other a social progressive. Guess whom the West backs and why.
Syriana takes place in the machinations behind boardroom and courtroom doors, where complex power plays are cloaked in arcane language. More actively, George Clooney plays a U.S. spy who changes his mind about his agency, while Matt Damon plays a family man who imagines himself a real player. But ultimately there is no central character to pull the whole film together. It’s a near miss.
Good Night and Good Luck (Review)
Mid-century America comes alive in George Clooney’s homage to the golden era of television news. In the 1950s, the CBS news program “See It Now” was led by newsman Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) and producer Fred Friendly (Clooney), with the mixed-blessing of CBS board chairman, William S. Paley (Frank Langella). At the height of the Cold War “red scare,” the ruthless Sen. Joseph McCarthy found a Communist under every pumpkin in the patch. But when McCarthy turned the country toward paranoia and loyalty oaths, Murrow and Friendly took on the powerful demagogue and exposed him through their program, using McCarthy’s own words in his own voice. Terrific movie.
Grizzly Man (Review)
Werner Herzog’s brilliant, paradoxical film is about grizzly bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell, a California native who spends his summers in Alaska befriending and naming the wild animals in his vicinity. Herzog’s own take on nature is very dark. But despite Treadwell’s delusions, he shot disturbingly beautiful footage of the grizzlies in their habitat. Treadwell’s death and the unforgivable death of his woman friend paint a less-wholesome ambition at work and encourage a more realistic appraisal of the correct distance between humans and wild, instinctual creatures of tooth and claw.
Phil Morrison and Angus MacLachlan’s film about a newly-wed couple visiting the groom’s parents in the Deep South takes a clear-eyed but generous look at the peculiarities of family. The prodigal son (Allessandro Nivola) and his New York art-dealer wife (Embeth Davidtz) make waves with his prickly-pear mother and his rage-filled younger brother but are accepted by his quiet father and enthusiastically loved by his brother’s very pregnant, very lonely and very eager-to-please wife (Amy Adams). The resulting emotional roller coaster is hard, but resonant moments that transcend the ordinary grace the viewer.
King Kong (Review)
Peter Jackson’s outrageously over-the-top remake of the Hollywood classic is about making movies. When we first meet ambitious movie-maker Carl Denham (Jack Black) he’s trying to get money out of reluctant backers to make an epic-extravaganza romance-adventure. Denham persuades out-of-work actress and dancer Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) to join the project when she learns New York playwright Jack Driscoll) will write the screenplay. Denham starts rolling the camera onboard a tramp steamer with a dark past, but his real movie requires an island populated by zombie natives, a giant gorilla and toothy, hungry dinosaurs. The principals barely escape but bring the gorilla back to New York, where the ending of the movie takes place. Jackson gets to have a hoot while making the most singularly (if overlong) entertaining movie of the year.
Match Point (Review)
Woody Allen moves his focus of energy from Manhattan to London and gains clarity in the process. His interest remains the posh trappings of the wealthy class, but instead of a nebbishy hero womanizer at the center, he gives us a cool social-climber capable of murder to get what he wants. The film is elegant, well-written and directed and not concerned with the thoughts or emotions of its beautiful people. Match Point is a tailored, mannered, brilliantly crafted, class-related melodrama, accompanied by Enrico Caruso’s operatic singing. Hands down, Woody’s best film in years.
My Summer of Love (Review)
Pawel Pawlikowski’s wonderful film slipped in and out last summer but deserved a wider audience. Mona (Nathalie Press) gives an eye-opening performance as a recently orphaned girl living with her comical, newly religious brother Phil (Paddy Considine) above her parents’ pub. Mona’s trapped, but Pawlikowski never falls into the pitfalls of genre summer romance between two girls. A continually surprised and delighted Mona is swept away by a bored, boarding-school girl her age, Tamsin (Emily Blunt), who is indeed a bad influence. The girls swap stories, some of which are pure fantasy, and Mona finds a new self through Tamsin’s hedonism. Drunk on love and enjoying her freedom, Mona is not about to go back to living in a narrow world. Blunt’s performance should have received an Oscar nomination, but Pawlikowski’s whole picture is great.
The Squid and the Whale (Review)
Noah Baumbach’s autobiographical sketch of his family during the time his literary parents Joan (Laura Linney) and Bernard (Jeff Daniels) separated and divorced is a privileged kid’s coming of age. Sixteen-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline) have mixed feelings about their parents. Bernard is an overbearing egoist, but Walt parrots every clever saying. Joan wants out of the marriage and has a more successful career than Bernard, which Walt holds against her. Confused Frank defends his mom. Messy, complicated and nuanced movie could have benefited from a sharper title.
Wang Kar-Wai’s 2046 defies categorization but is the evolving story of the lovers from his previous film, In the Mood for Love. Except that it isn’t about them or their doomed love affair, merely about the hotel room from that film and the lonely Mr. Chow (Tony Leung), who comes back many years later to live in the room next door. 2046 is an abstraction from Chow’s writings from the 1960s about a series of extraordinary lovers (Gong Li, Ziyi Zhang, Faye Wong, Maggie Cheung), but it is less narrative and more a cinematic examination of visual pathways, from its sci-fi beginning to its sadness over the vulnerability of memory to the passing of time.
Walk the Line (Review)
James Mangold makes the story of Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) and June Carter Cash (Reese Witherspoon) an epic love set in the music world of the mid-1950s, when both singer, songwriters were making their solo careers. Phoenix and Witherspoon sing the songs here, and they sound really good. I loved it when Meryl Streep sang in Mike Nichols’ 1990 Postcards from the Edge. Playing such well-known musical icons made singing in their own voices much more risky for Phoenix and Witherspoon but makes them more human to us.
Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Review)
No listing of the best films of the year can ignore this clayanimated, stop-motion, debut film feature by Nick Park and Steve Box starring the talkative, cheese-loving inventor Wallace and his silent partner, Gromit the dog. Their home is a marvel of ingenious devices, all of which serve to make life and business run more efficiently. The business is Anti-Pesto, an outrageous pest removal company with a centralized contraption of vacuum tubes and a glass bubble that humanely dispatches garden-invading rabbits. Peter Sallis is the voice of Wallace; also with Helena Bonham-Carter and Ralph Fiennes. Gromit just rolls his eyes.