Are we there yet?: the best films of 2005

Posted by · 12:00 am · December 19th, 2005

Not to start my “Best of the Year” column off on a down note, but from the word go I had the slightest, nagging inclination that 2005 was going to be one of the most disappointing cinematic years we’ve come across. In many ways, my fears were realized – in some cases ten-fold.

It all began with my annual glance ahead at the Oscar race, what may or may not figure into the hunt, what this film or that had to offer. What I saw so long ago looked to be a fairly non-eventful race. All of the givens seemed too familiar, too apparent. Even with recent lessons learned like Oliver Stone’s Alexander, it seemed to me a rather clearly discerned awards season was on the horizon. We now find ourselves in an intriguing pickle, but even still, nothing not organic to the season has cropped up on the “surprise” meter, as it were.

Searching elsewhere I hoped at least for some popcorn fun to start the year. The Michael Keaton starrer White Noise had a cool premise and a sufficiently creepy trailer. But it wound up remaining one of the worst films of the year without question – even from an entertainment standpoint.

Nothing arrived worth writing home about throughout the spring, including the very disappointing Sin City from Frank Miller-faithful Robert Rodriguez. However, my second most anticipated film of the year arrived in June, fulfilling every ounce of potential I had hoped it would. That film was Batman Begins, but it would remain in lonely company throughout the year.

The summer brought with it disappointment after disappointment. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Kingdom of Heaven and War of the Worlds hit rather shy of expectations, especially the efforts of Tim Burton and Ridley Scott, while one of the better adult dramas of the year, Cinderella Man, really took a blow with a lack of sufficient box office intake.

Then the summer ended, with the first major disappointment of the awards season, Fernando Meirelles’s The Constant Gardener – the most overrated film of the year.

Once through September and into the fall Oscar season, nothing but misfires: Transamerica, The World’s Fastest Indian, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, The Libertine, Mrs. Henderson Presents, The New World and Shopgirl ranged from bad to terrible, while Grizzly Man, Jarhead, Match Point and Syriana performed well below expectations. Even Capote couldn’t offer much beyond a fantastic central performance.

And then, two of the most buzzed films of the year came in the forms of King Kong and Munich, both trying for aspirations that remained far out of reach, making the fall from attempted glory a long and damaging one in many cases.

The biggest tragedy of the year for me was watching the best hour of film yet presented in a Harry Potter film, only to see Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire flail about after the mid-point. So cruel.

Of course, I speak for myself, as many of these films have avid champions. And much has already been written (absurdly so) in the comments sections of many a blog entry here at In Contention about my “loss of passion” for film, or what have you. Such statements couldn’t be further from the truth. I have a heated passion for film, without which there would be no In Contention, there would be no Movie City News column, there would be no daily analysis of the film awards season fit with continuous film commentary. Without passion, I would assuredly be elsewhere.

No, 2005 simply came up extremely short for me. I ask no one to share the opinion, though the opinion is surely shared by many in the film-going community. Every once in a while this happens. The collective enterprise of filmmaking hits a wall, however subjective the notion. Your wall may have been my favorite year for movies, for instance. That is the very nature of opinion. Regardless, 2005 has come and nearly gone, and I couldn’t be more thankful.

NOW – will all of those morose words spoken (or typed, rather), how does one weed through the disheartening examples for a cross-section of commendable cinematic product from 2005?

The task was a daunting one, but I can at the very least remain assured that my favorites from the year, while not art-form-altering across the board by any stretch, hold very dear and passionate places in my heart. The films that hit the mark in 2005 did so with an abrupt authority, and while the list of great films is even smaller than ten, I’m very appreciative of each of the following endeavors.

Before getting to the top ten, however, it is customary to run through the films that vied for position amongst the year’s greatest. Those films that eventually fell oh-so-shy include:

TIM BURTON’S CORPSE BRIDE

Recalling strands of Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas, Tim Burton’s animated fall endeavor far exceeds his dreadful summer outing, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The film’s witty screenplay combines with a bombastic Danny Elfman score and a heightened level of production value to make for the director’s best effort of any sort since 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, and perhaps since 1994’s Ed Wood. (Review)

MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA

Rob Marshall’s sophomore effort is a refreshingly unique and layered tale of twisted and hidden love, repressed desires, and the art of deception, both as a profession and as a necessity. Chinese starlet Ziyi Zhang holds the weight of the film on her shoulders as if born to do so, while Gong Li ignites the screen with every waking moment she inhabits it, peering through her dangling hair like some sultry sorceress lying in wait. (Review)

NEW YORK DOLL

Greg Whitely’s heartfelt portrait of New York Dolls bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane is the best film no one saw in 2005. Serendipitously revealing the lifelong desire of a man in the autumn of his life, this documentary feels like a real life dream-come-true. At the very worst, it can serve as the springboard for further exposure to one of the most dynamic, raw and raucous bands in rock and roll history.

THE UPSIDE OF ANGER

Joan Allen lights up the screen in a sexy, delightful and heartbreaking performance, while Kevin Costner offers one of the finest supporting performances of the year in this touching dramedy from writer/director Mike Binder. An early berth kept it (sadly) off of the latter year radar of awards prognostication, but the film still holds its own as a seminal humanistic experience.

Generally that list of “also rans” is much longer, but nevertheless, all of the above-mentioned titles offered varying degrees of unique or otherwise praise-worthy distinction amidst the rubble.

Next up, the runner-ups:

#15
THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE

Considering the film is Andrew Adamson’s first live action endeavor, it is highly impressive to note that the director does such a fine job with the things that matter. The heart is truly touched by the connection made to the children Pevensie in this sprawling, exciting epic based on the novel by C.S. Lewis. Battle scenes play more like a defining character moments than they do aspects of plot, but shining above all else, this was one of the most enjoyable cinematic experiences of a terribly disappointing year. Georgie Henley is a sensation in a difficult role for any child actor. (Review)

#14
MURDERBALL

Henry Alex Rubin’s and Dana Adam Shapiro’s look the fascinating world of full-contact rugby amongst paraplegics is one of the best documentaries of the year. Going leaps and bounds beyond merely representing the world investigated, the filmmakers take careful time digging to the heart of their subjects, presenting not just an event and its peripherals, but the souls and lives that are its reason for existence.

#13
KISS KISS, BANG BANG

Surprisingly fun, excitingly catty and ultimately one of the greatest guilty pleasure film experiences of the year, Shane Black’s directorial debut (following a lengthy career writing action films) serves as a worthy addition to the canon of the American buddy/cop film genre he helped to create with 1987’s Lethal Weapon. An absurdist’s plot, full of holes, blatant devices and an irreverent decaying of the fourth wall, the film is loose and tasteless – and it KNOWS it. Robert Downey, Jr. is miraculously and fascinatingly on point throughout. (Review)

#12
CINDERELLA MAN

Ron Howard’s most seasoned and mature film to date transcends the label of “sports film” while presenting a larger than life persona in relevant and relatable terms. Russell Crowe’s performance as boxing hero James J. Braddock fits easily amongst the actor’s consistently top tier work, and the film boasts some of the most exquisite fight scenes committed to film this side of Raging Bull and Ali.

#11
LORD OF WAR

A look at the darker side of human nature through the lens of international arms dealing, Andrew Niccol’s third directorial effort is every bit as affecting and scathing as any other satirical inkling he’s committed to print. Nicolas Cage’s leading performance as Yuri Orlov is a gripping one, adding Niccol’s multiple dimensions to the character with a particular ease. This is what compelling filmmaking should be. (Review/Niccol Interview)

The top ten films of 2005:

#10

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN
Directed by Ang Lee

E. Annie Proulx’s short story about lingering, passionate and unavoidable connections is one of the most lacerating statements on the grand theme of “love” that has dominated much of the literary works of the civilized era. Originally appearing in The New Yorker in 1997, the tale generated a reaction that initiated a long and unsure journey to the screen in the form of a cinematic adaptation.

Finally realizing that trip’s consummation, Brokeback Mountain is now one of the best films of 2005. Directed with a professional grace and brilliance by Ang Lee, the film breaks down all expected boundaries, all the usual questions are absent. His film – featuring a stunning performance by Heath Ledger – speaks to universal elements and succeeds in transcending unjustified labels and prejudices. The most seminal film for the LGBT community, yes – but a grounded proclamation of raw humanism first and foremost. (Review)

#9

THE WEATHER MAN
Directed by Gore Verbinski

Without question the most downbeat film to come out of a major studio this year, The Weather Man announces Gore Verbinski as perhaps one of the most underrated working filmmakers. The steady hand he applies to the film’s themes forces something of a retrospective of what he has accomplished in his past work. This is a man quite capable of creating visual tapestries with the most mundane and accessible of materials.

Having his best year in ages, Nicolas Cage affords his most concentrated work since Leaving Las Vegas. At once corrosive and magnetic, he heads a miniscule ensemble (including the fabulously down-tuned Michael Caine) that makes every beat count, every nuance the proper foundation for fundamental exploration. From the film’s opening shot – the most sadly beautiful and poignant of the year – Verbinski uses every tool at his disposal to create a rather searing character study that ultimately flew well below the radar for much of the fall.

#8

THE FAMILY STONE
Directed by Thomas Bezucha

The warmest film in a year dripping with passionate disregard for emotional uplift is Thomas Bezucha’s sophomore effort, The Family Stone. The film tells the story of an annual family Christmas gathering at which the latest addition to the pack is introduced in the form of an impeccably problematic fiancée. The layers built into such an elementary (at first glance) set-up mark the work of a truly wonderful new storytelling talent.

Performances hit the bull’s-eye across the board, in every piece of dialogue, every bit of offered subtext. The true standouts are Diane Keaton and Craig T. Nelson as the heads of the rambunctious household. Nelson’s performance in particular is one of the most understated but polished turns of the year, while Rachel McAdams, Sarah Jessica Parker and Luke Wilson each let loose their best work ever. (Review)

#7

GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK.
Directed by George Clooney

George Clooney was chastised some years ago when the war in Iraq was underway for considering it the duty of every American citizen to question the authority that dictates aggressive military action and passive diplomatic conversation alike. In a time of fear, anxiety and paranoia, he was deemed unpatriotic for his constitutional right to disagree. In Good Night, and Good Luck., he gets the last laugh as he puts forth the all-to-relevant story of journalist Edward R. Murrow’s stand against Senator Joseph McCarthy.

One of the finest performances of the year comes from David Strathairn, who wears the role of Murrow like a comfortable double-breasted suit. The supporting cast – most notably Frank Langella and Ray Wise – fills out one of the better ensembles of the year, while Clooney’s steady, assured and confident hand guides the viewer through a mist of carbon monoxide and graying nostalgia. This is the greatest cinematic example from 2005 to announce the arrival of an unmitigated artistic talent. (Review)

#6

HUSTLE & FLOW
Directed by Craig Brewer

Craig Brewer’s vision of DJay, a Memphis pimp with dreams of becoming a hip-hop sensation, reaches so far beyond the label of exploitative cinema that a synopsis reading could conjure. In Hustle & Flow, the writer/director subtly weaves an epic of the highest level into the fabric of urban culture, fit with wondrous nuances and clever bits of expressionism that I’d be just as happy to learn were of my own interpretation alone.

Terrence Howard’s breakout year afforded a capable supporting turn in Crash, but here he detonates the screen with the single greatest performance of the year – of the decade. His work boasts droplets of anger and self-pity, all the while lurking on the outskirts of insanity and rage. In the hands of a lesser thespian – even with such a fantastic screenplay – the film could have easily gone the way of that all-too-potential label mentioned above. (Review)

#5

MARCH OF THE PENGUINS
Directed by Luc Jacquet

The best documentary of the year is one of the most awe-inspiring film experiences of the year. March of the Penguins, a re-constructed, re-imagined look at the majestic mating habits of Antarctic emperor penguins, is everything Winged Migration was not. Dubbed a “love story” above all else, there are some who argue against that point for whatever reason. But in so doing, the beauty and inspiration of the cinema’s possibilities is grossly ignored.

Director Luc Jacquet, however, quite clearly recognized the filmic possibilities of the natural and wondrous yearly migration of the penguin population to a breeding ground in the center of the continent. The tale that unfolds is at once touching and heartbreaking, a vicious and loving account of nature’s highest highs, and lowest lows.

#4

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE
Directed by David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg offers in A History of Violence his greatest work to date. It could quite easily be the film for which he is remembered, and on which his body of work is reflected. Using the graphic novel by John Wagner as a spring board for digging at the soul of what drives violence, aggression and inner-fury, the film – written by Josh Olsen, to whom credit is assuredly due – could play as a great companion piece to a film that fails miserably in announcing such thematics, Steven Spielberg’s Munich.

Viggo Mortensen plays the leading man with the same charisma that made him a standout amidst the pack in prior endeavors. He puts forth lesson after lesson on the beauty in acting’s subtleties, how the slightest of glances can convey more than the longest of soliloquies. However, the real acting showcase in the film comes from Maria Bello, who melts the screen with the intensity of her conviction. William Hurt and Ed Harris do equally stellar jobs at pushing forth the atmosphere of the tale as part of one of the most underrated ensembles of the year. (Review)

#3

BATMAN BEGINS
Directed by Christopher Nolan

In sixty years of trying, no filmmaker has captured Bob Kane’s Batman in a manner worthy of the master’s initial intentions. Even director Tim Burton’s dark and twisted version was too psychotic a character to be deemed true to the mythos created so long ago. To this reader, Kane’s Bruce Wayne is truly one of the most fascinating characters in all of literature, and his potential on celluloid has been drastically underestimated.

Christopher Nolan took the reins on a new endeavor, Batman Begins, with the grace of a man confident beyond reproach that what he was committing to film was not “merely” a comic book genre incarnation. He was the first filmmaker to understand the realism of the world Batman inhabits, and his inspired (and largely requested, from a legion of hopeful fans) casting of Christian Bale in the role of the Dark Knight proved his intentions were to put forth a character-driven piece above a star vehicle. The seasoned ensemble, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson and Gary Oldman not least among them, make for one of the finest cast performances of the year.

#2

CRASH
Directed by Paul Haggis

Paul Haggis “arrived” in the eyes of many last year with his acclaimed work on Clint Eastwood’s Best Picture winning melodrama Million Dollar Baby. It was 2005’s Crash, however, that announced a singular talent, challenging the modern social order. The film debuted at the 2004 Toronto International Film Festival to less than emphatic applause, though upon release in May it was met with stellar reviews and surprisingly successful box office.

Providing a penetrating analysis of stereotypes and the age old issue of racial discourse, Haggis’s screenplay (co-written by Robert Moresco) is one of the most powerful and affecting films of the year. The film’s finely tuned ensemble covers the gamut of societal intrigue. Heading the charge, Matt Dillon and Sandra Bullock offer their finest work to date, while co-stars Don Cheadle, Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton fill out equally demanding roles with ease.

#1

LAST DAYS
Directed by Gus Van Sant

Only four films in the lineage of cinema’s history have put me in the frame of mind that Gus Van Sant’s Last Days did. They were Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. There is something to be said for creating atmosphere through the artistry of filmmaking, but there is something else entirely to be said for manifesting it and sustaining it.

Van Sant’s ode to the persona, psyche and privately loathed stardom of rock icon Kurt Cobain, here in the form of “Blake” (portrayed flawlessly and without fuss by Michael Pitt), is so much more defining than recent, similar efforts Elephant and Gerry because it’s self-awareness is suitable to the subject, and to the subject matter. The ascent of Blake’s soul at the end of the film is as worthy a silent farewell as the artist could have ever dreamed. I knew it the moment I saw it. Last Days is the best film 2005 had to offer.

There we have it. Be sure to check back Wednesday as year-in-review week continues with my personal Oscar ballot, and back again Friday for a smattering of this viewer’s opinionated awards deservees (I guess we can call it the “In Contention Awards”)

Top Ten of 2005 Recap:

01. Last Days
02. Crash
03. Batman Begins
04. A History of Violence
05. March of the Penguins
06. Hustle & Flow
07. Good Night, and Good Luck.
08. The Family Stone
09. The Weather Man
10. Brokeback Mountain

[Photo: Fine Line Features]




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