The best films of 2005
BACKSTAGE PASS - Lanz Leviste () - January 6, 2006 - 12:00am
Let’s skip talk of the disastrous box-office slump and focus on the pertinent: 2005 was one hell of a year in film, full of gay cowboys, a mighty ape and politics, politics, politics. Agendas were abundant – some subtle, others worn on their film’s sleeve – and ranging from Syriana’s criticism of American oil companies in the Middle East to Good Night, and Good Luck’s attack on McCarthyism to Munich’s take on counter-terrorism after the Olympic murders. Per usual, one stood out as the best; not only was it perfectly made, but was also groundbreaking and important. This could not be said for the worst film of the year, which opted for a more insipid approach.

Here is my list of the best and worst films released in the United States in 2005.
The Best Films Of The Year
1. Brokeback Mountain – Until you see it, and despite all that has been said, you have no idea what you’re in for. Absolutely unforgettable and undeniably significant, film students will be studying it 50 years from now. The much talked-about tale of two male ranch hands who fall in love in the summer of 1963 Wyoming is not only the year’s best, most revolutionary film, but the defining cinematic love story of the decade. Stunningly told by the extraordinary Ang Lee with a simplicity and palpable reality that is able to achieve the sweeping romantic grandeur of a Casablancan romance, Brokeback Mountain is based on the 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning short story by Annie Proulx. As the taciturn Ennis Del Mar, Heath Ledger gives the best male performance of the year, one of astounding grace and brutality; Ennis is a man of few words, terrified to cope with the feelings inside him, and the internal struggle Ledger so potently brings to the surface, with a gravelly Southern drawl and perpetually furrowed brow. Not once in this new century has love been so true, so triumphant, and so heartbreaking on celluloid than in this masterpiece. But the real tragedy of this distinctly American, albeit unconventional Western, is not the unfulfilled feelings, but how a world so muted does not let its characters comprehend such emotions; never is an "I love you" uttered, and yet the passion between the two men – two men that could have easily appeared in any such John Ford film – is absolutely bracing. It is the film’s victory that through its unassuming absence of the polemic, and with its utterly breathtaking vulnerability, Brokeback Mountain resonates as a flashback that is sad and true, of a world of fear and ignorance and intolerance we once had and is very slowly progressing from. But Ennis and Jack’s relationship is also a plea of urgency, and with a chronicle of their affair this monumentally powerful and genuinely affecting, Brokeback Mountain is a movie with the power to change to world.

2. Me and You and Everyone We Know
– Miranda July’s astonishing debut is deliciously perverse, outlandish, offbeat, but wholeheartedly true. More than a meditation, Me and You and Everyone We Know is a simple yet penetrating statement on the complexities of human connection in the 21st century, portraying the desperation, the sadness, the ridiculousness, the delicacy, the exhilaration of the need for communication. By intertwining the lives of a number of ordinary Everybodies in unnamed Anywhere, USA, writer-director-actress July crafts the most quietly revelatory film of 2005; simultaneously hysterical, wrenching, terrifying, life-affirming and uplifting. She is one of the most original voices of our time, and yet everything she presents is already right before our eyes. People are all around us, she says, and yet we cannot learn to acknowledge them, learn from them, communicate with them; we need people to survive, find solace, hope, beauty, love in, yet we are lost from them. Miranda July is an artist, an auteur, in every single sense of the word, and Me and You and Everyone We Know is the rare film that fulfills the capabilities and functions of art to define impressionistic human existentialism. Learn from it, be enthralled, but be warned: you’ll never see the world the same way again.

3. King Kong
In a time when remakes almost always prove pointless and the blockbuster loses its ability to amaze, Peter Jackson creates an overtly lavish celebration of cinematic commercialization with his $200 million ode to the 1933 classic. He puts that chunk of change to good use, having a blast in the way he could not with the Lord of the Rings trilogy: by utilizing the most impressive digital effects technology available today, Jackson not just walks the line between what is necessary and what is vulgarly extravagant, but toys with it, setting a new standard for the tentpole blockbuster. King Kong though would not work if not for the beating heart within the giant ape: Andy Serkis, evidently tired of the horribly overdone catchphrase he had written into pop culture history as You-Know-Who, dons another motion-capture suit as the titular Kong, giving a deeply moving performance most live-action actors working today could not achieve. And as in the original Kong, Ann Darrow is the epic’s true star: Naomi Watts transcends the basic two-dimensional plaything of Fay Wray’s Ann to become a woman truly in love with a beast in the most luminous, most tender, most poignant way possible; this is the best female performance of the year. (Yep, I said it. No, it isn’t Felicity’s, nor is it Reese’s.) King Kong is an extraordinary feat of epic filmmaking; with today’s audience so exhausted with what they see on screen, it is rare for a film of this kind to shock and surprise with its visuals. Jackson does it with wide-eyed glee, like a fanboy holding a rare King Kong collectible toy, resulting in a movie that is so shameless with its excessive, overindulgent ambitions that you can’t help but smile along with him; that is, before you pull out the Kleenex.

4. Caché (Hidden) –
Once in a while, there comes a film that, totally out of nowhere, takes out a knife and slices it through your throat, enjoying the sadistic pleasure of watching you then squirm on the floor as you drown in your own pool of blood (to those who have seen this flat-out brilliant French thriller, you know what I mean). Starring Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche as a married couple harassed by a mysterious stalker, Caché is a film that is as disturbing as it is downright genius. Writer-director Michael Haneke, in his best work that trumps even 2002’s The Piano Teacher, speaks the cinematic language of Hitchcock: shots are alternately long, disorienting, frustrating and tight-rope tense, with homages to everything from Rear Window to Vertigo. No film this year is as psychologically literate, employing the style of Hitchcock and the substance of Lynch; this is a thriller Hollywood can only dream of crafting, one that terrorizes the brain before tearing it out of your skull with its jaw-dropping final shot. Fifteen minutes after the credits started rolling in the Manhattan cinema I saw Caché at, the room had still not emptied, people still in their seats talking about what exactly they had witnessed. A week later, it still lingers in my head.

5. The Squid and the Whale –
Humor is abundant in Noah Baumbach’s razor-sharp observation of divorce and the poor pretentious fools that suffer it, though when you laugh, it often hurts. Baumbach approaches the topic of a family being torn apart with a no-holds-barred cruelty, but what is most excruciating to watch is how much of it rings true. Jeff Daniels gives a career-best performance as the painfully hilarious father, as does Jesse Eigenberg, as his deluded son full of admiration. Laura Linney and Owen Kline round up one of the year’s strongest ensembles. No doubt The Squid and the Whale succeeds because of its searing autobiographical honesty: in perfectly capturing a decade and a city through the eyes of one family, Baumbach’s wistful yet never nostalgic fourth feature expands a personal domestic tragedy of 1986 on all directions, way across the canvas.

6. Good Night, and Good Luck
– Director George Clooney, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Grant Heslov, treats Edward R. Murrow’s famed final four words for every episode of his 1950s CBS newsmagazine See It Now as a wish for a "happily ever after." Rightfully enough, Good Night, and Good Luck plays out like a fairytale of sorts, of a man who honored truthful and objective journalism for a greater good during a dark time of American history. Lefty politics aside, this black-and-white time-capsule tour de force about Murrow’s televised conflicts with Senator Joseph McCarthy is a striking tribute: in a brisk 93 minutes, Clooney makes a determinedly compelling case to why this man must be celebrated, for his audacity, his fearlessness, and his unrelenting suaveness. David Strathairn molds Murrow into a dashing debonair, a connoisseur of charm and thrillingly elegant sophistication; the film, in most ways, is the same. Stylish and smart, Good Night, and Good Luck is, to paraphrase the Peabody Awards’ praise for See It Now, a simple, lucid, intelligent analysis of an era and an industry, using a strikingly effective format for presenting its issue and the personalities involved with humor, sometimes with indignation, and always with careful thought.

7. Pride & Prejudice
Never has Jane Austen been this sexy and delicious than in the year’s finest, most spirited romantic comedy. This millionth adaptation of the author’s greatest novel (also check out Gurinder Chadha’s exuberant Bollywood musical Bride & Prejudice) is the best ever to be put to film, upping even the beloved 1995 BBC miniseries. The first to forgo literal-mindedness and the blatant antifeminism of past adaptations, Pride & Prejudice, with a screenplay by Deborah Moggach, acknowledges the tinges of Austen’s comic irony and wit, unafraid to be contemporary, mischievous, realistic, satiric and gritty in separate doses. Director Joe Wright is playful with his editing of the book, and Keira Knightley, in a surprisingly glowing performance as the famed Elizabeth Bennet, fleshes out a feistier, fresher version of the heroine we’ve all come to know. It is rare that a costume period piece is this much fun, and this grounded in the present; even less frequent is a film that stays true to the all-too-oft misinterpreted ideals of its source material.

8. A History of Violence
– This is a blow to the face, then a gunshot to the heart. A History of Violence is a classic American tragedy, and an homage to classic American cinema. Simultaneously a Western, a noir thriller, a quiet domestic drama and a sensitive fable, David Cronenberg tackles themes of violence, lust and family with a vicious eye for gratuitous violence and sex. But this is where he turns his best film yet into a critical social experiment: we find humor and entertainment in the violence and sex presented, and he doesn’t let us get away with it. Oftentimes over-the-top and startling, Cronenberg seduces us with carnal pleasures before having it blow up in our faces, crossing the border into horribly horrific visual masochism. Viggo Mortensen, and Maria Bello especially, give top-notch performances, and by the time William Hurt cameos, it’s like the bloody icing on the sick burnt cake.

9. Capote —
Capote is what I wanted Sylvia to be; not in a long while has a film so eloquently and poetically illustrated the method of an artistic genius like Bennett Miller’s feature debut, about the road that led Truman Capote to write his opus In Cold Blood, ushering in the genre of the non-fiction novel. Frankly, the film is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who doesn’t play Capote as much as become him: That voice, those mannerisms, that transcendent humanity; going beyond mere impersonation, Hoffman’s investment into the role defies the ability of description. Yet the screenplay from actor-turned-writer Dan Futterman further elevates Hoffman’s performance, unafraid to show the ruthless, gentle, clever, flamboyant, and benevolent inner workings of one of America’s greatest authors of the indulgent glitterati.

10. Munich –
With enough expertly choreographed set pieces to induce anxiety attacks, Steven Spielberg’s Munich is one hell of a great thriller. But a politically charged examination of modern terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Not quite. While Spielberg is able to impartially confront and present an issue nowhere near balanced, he restrains from taking a strong stance, neither answering questions nor raising any new ones. He is, though, able to paint a disturbing image of the psychological consequences of violence and vengeance, using Eric Bana’s Avner, an operative hired to assassinate those involved in the murder of 11 Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics, as a guinea pig for a distressed conscience. Sweeping through Europe with a tightly concentrated sense of hypnotic tension, the film is manic and artful in the way only a Steven Spielberg film could be; his best since Minority Report.
Honorable Mention
Crash – To quote the Tony-winning Broadway musical Avenue Q, everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes. Million Dollar Baby screenwriter Paul Haggis agrees, sharing the same sentiment in his directorial debut about race relations in L.A. My relationship with Crash is one that has been perpetually rocky: one minute I love it for its startling ferocity and unflinching honesty, the next I hate it for its flamboyant hubris in force-feeding its audience an already obvious message. At times I was moved almost to tears, other times I was disgusted in the way it insulted my intellectual and emotional capacity, with its unabashed exploitation and the way it felt the need to strain credulity. But after stepping back and letting the film breathe, it struck me: whatever you may feel about Crash and its polarizing handling of a polarizing subject, the intensity of its convictions is so fiery it sets itself aflame. Most movies today lack passion for what it is trying to convey; thus Crash, in many ways, must be celebrated for choosing to know to be different.
The Worst Film Of The Year
Memoirs of a Geisha – Diluting the soapy pleasures of Arthur Golden’s literary phenomenon, Memoirs of a Geisha flatlines from the very first frame. Director Rob Marshall, losing the brassy flair of his superb Chicago, seems to have no concept of an audience’s narrative involvement, using embarrassingly clunky voice-overs to tell the story for him. Granted, this very well may be the most gorgeous film of the year – the costumes are nothing short of sumptuous, the cinematography handsome and delicate – but Marshall thinks he can hide behind the ersatz aesthetics. Under its silk kimono, the film sweats pretension and pompousness in buckets; I was outraged and colossally disappointed by this failed Oscar-or-bust production. It makes you wonder what type of film Marshall was hoping to make: surely it couldn’t have been one as safe, sanitized and innocuous as this ready-for-a-focus-group disaster of filmmaking arrogance. Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li struggle with keeping to their highly-accented English, but it is the language of vapidity that reigns throughout. "Three cheers for blandness, synthetic prestige and our $80 million budget!" exclaims Marshall with his three muses, raising his sake cup up high. Like Gemma Ward in the pages of Vogue, the women of Memoirs of a Geisha live in a flat, two-dimensional world of gloss and fashion. Only because of a film this terrible (and terribly boring) must you cancel your subscription.
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