Finally, I can put this out with confidence. I've seen enough (too many) of the movies released in 2005 and through much grueling effort, I can now (with good conscience) publish my own top ten film list.
Although 2005 was a funky year for movies, with the documentaries probably ruling once again, it wasn't the best or the worst. There were good movies (Cinderella Man, A History Of Violence, Red Eye, Capote, Mad Hot Ballroom, Mrs. Henderson Presents, Batman Begins, The Family Stone, Good Night And Good Luck) and really good movies (Heights, 2046, March Of The Penguins, Munich, Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, The Upside Of Anger, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe) and great movies (Me And You And Everyone We Know, 15 and Nobody Knows)...but still...something about this year was funny and a little overrated. Standouts were not common, and excellence in filmmaking was rare.
But here's my list. Most of these I've seen twice (okay, Nate? Happy?!) and have thought enough about them to give them credit where credit is due. And I think, for the most part, that I'll stick with this one until months later when I've reconsidered after the Oscar buzz/hype. Until then....here it is...from number ten to number one.
10. Brokeback Mountain -- There are two ways to watch this movie: (1) watch the movie as a critic of a character’s moral decisions or (2) watch the movie as if you’re living within this character’s 1963 context. The first time I watched Brokeback Mountain, I could only see the former; but on a second viewing the latter view seemed to give me well enough reason to include this on my list. Contrary to what many critics are hailing Ang Lee’s beautiful and haunting western drama as, Brokeback Mountain is not a “tragic” love story, but rather, a love story with extremely sad side effects. Here you have a story about two young cowboys—one from Texas, the other from Wyoming (which ironically is the same birthplace of Matthew Shepherd, the young gay man who was beaten to death and hung up on a barbed wire fence back in 1998 because he was gay)—who wrestle through their sexual identity within the highly prejudice 1960s context. The setup may sound a bit depressing, but thankfully Annie Proulx’ story steers clear of complete bigotry and minimizes the melodramatic clutter possible to one or two, still fairly poignant scenes. Illuminated by Gustavo Santaolalla’s wonderfully simple musical score, the film’s end conjures up an emotional response that is confusing and frustrating and difficult. But this is the true hidden genius behind this story: it could’ve been a one-sided political outcry for homosexual marriage, but instead it leaves you with ambiguous thoughts and real life dilemmas about a very complicated subject. The ones not solved overnight and the ones with few black-or-white answers.
9. Mysterious Skin --There are a lot of independent films out there dealing with child sexual abuse and many of them are powerful. But none of them come close to capturing the disturbing, yet emotional effectiveness that director Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin achieves. Based on the even-better breakthrough first novel by Scott Heim, the movie is about two boys who both experienced something horrible when they were young, but yet can’t fully remember the mentally blurred and distorted details. One boy grows up thinking he was abducted by aliens and obsesses over searching for answers, while the other boy ends up into being a hustler, selling himself (and his very hard heart) again and again to other men looking for sex. Although the movie treads over subject matter tackled by previous films such as My Own Private Idaho, L.I.E., and Twist, it’s stronger than all three of these combined. After all, it’s not just a story of recovering memories, exploring how adults often romanticize their childhoods to almost mythical, mystical and (of course) mysterious levels, but it’s a story of deep-seeded pain, inevitable family failures, the loss of sexual innocence, and most profoundly, it’s a story about discovery. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Angels In The Outfield, and TV’s 3rd Rock From The Sun) and Brady Corbet (Thirteen) give two of the most powerful, most engaging, and most underrated performances of 2005, balancing the wounds of their characters’ childhoods with near-perfect grace. In the end, the result is a harrowing, daring, hopeless yet, quietly hopeful work of art, with the film’s final scene—one that is so emotionally complicated, so cinematically profound, it could very well be the most deservedly moving scene put to a Sigur Ros song ever—lifting Heim’s novel up into the rafters of Christmas carolers singing, old wounds being uncovered, and two human beings sharing that intimate and rare moment of connecting over a very dark past. (WARNING: Mysterious Skin is rated NC-17, so I can’t say I’m recommending this for everyone. Some people do not need to see (and will never need to see) this one. But for those of us who can, I think it’s more important than most people think)
8. Walk The Line --James Mangold’s Walk The Line is this year’s Ray, except with a stronger story and much more endearing true-life love story. And although Academy Award voters snubbed it in the Best Picture category (Capote was clearly not Best Picture material, but oh well), Walk The Line will be the film from 2005 most people won’t soon forget (unlike many of the other Oscar nominees). Here, you have a story of grace—catapulting love and God and drug abuse and music together in one film—which blossoms into a truly moving story that is closer to the real story than to movie fiction (unlike other films released this year such as Cinderella Man). Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon are dead-on, performing all their character’s songs themselves, and matching the kind of cinematic chemistry not found too often these days in American cinema. And while some people may sigh and yawn at the thought of yet another “biopic” being made about a musical legend, let’s give them a break. Just because the formula works, doesn’t mean the movie will! Yet with Walk The Line, it is different. And the difference is in the uniqueness of the story. Family. Intervention. True friendship. Community. Faith. These are the themes and they go a very long way in this touching, ode-to-Johnny-Cash musical film tribute.
7. The Constant Gardener -- I knew back in 2003 when I first saw the visually arresting film City Of God that it wouldn’t be the last of Fernarndo Meurilles. And sure enough, after receiving a Best Director Oscar nod for City Of God, he went on to make this best-selling novel adaptation—part love story, part pharmaceutical drug thriller—with the same directorial genius that so marked his previous film. In The Constant Gardener, the global world’s eyes are on Africa, as an overseas pharmaceutical company attempts to find a cure for local people inflicted with the Tuberculosis disease. What sounds to be a noble attempt in bettering the wellness of these poor African people ends up being something much more complicated, as a British diplomat (Ralph Fiennes) and his wife (Rachel Weisz) come to find out on a trip to the country. What follows is a complicated (yet, in a way, very simple) web of paranoia, corruption, deceit, corporate greed, and a most unsettling ethical way of working the world over in one’s favor. In a sense, the movie tramples on previous territory—it’s sort of a cross between Hotel Rwanda, and Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room—but in my opinion, The Constant Gardener is better than both. Shot with intelligence, vividness, and a kinetic pacing that attempts to lessen the invisible wall setup between the screen and its audience, The Constant Gardener couldn’t be timelier, or more plausible, which is why it’s easily one of the smartest and most unsettling real-life thrillers to come along in years.
6. The Squid And The Whale -- The phrase, “Like father, like son,” couldn’t be more true. In a year filled with movies that fail to surprise, fail to inspire, and are as “okay” as a Sunday evening snack, Noah Baumbauch’s The Squid And The Whale becomes a minor miracle. In 81 razor-sharp melancholy minutes, the story of an intellectual couple (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney) and their two sons who must accept their recent news to get divorced (but with a sensible, joint-custody agreement) is as heartbreakingly funny as it is uncomfortably moving. The brilliance of the film, however, lies in the very commonness of their divorce experience. In modern day America, a social love affair with broken marriages seems to be the norm and Baumbauch treats this fact with judgment and grace. The father, played with a cunning brilliance by Daniels (his best performance in years) is a “Woe is me,” artsy-fartsy, jerk-of-a-dad, who is always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time even though he lives in a world where he is right and everyone who disagrees with him is always “not very intelligent.” The mother, played with perfect emotional conviction by Linney, is a “My life is me and your life is you,” self-absorbed, yet well-meaning woman, who’s always changing the man she shares the sheets with. Within that context, the film soars bravely and radiantly along in a matter-of-fact fashion, thanks to a solid thematic grounding in J.D. Salinger’s literary masterpiece The Catcher In The Rye, pertaining to the squid and the whale at New York’s Natural History museum. At times, laugh-out-loud funny, at times, bracingly authentic and witty and weird and dysfunctional, The Squid And The Whale is that tiny little treat that 2005 needed oh-so desperately.
5. Grizzly Man -- I’ve never used the word “transcendental” to describe a documentary before, but here it’s the only word to come even semi-close to capturing this film’s spirit. In what is sure to be the most memorable documentary for years to come (and possibly the most hilarious and most tragic), the world of humans is being lived out with one man as the centerpiece. On the breathtaking Alaskan landscape, T.T. and his 13-year-long love-relationship with a bunch of wild (as if this word needs to be placed before the next two words I’m using here) grizzly bears, is the setup. The rest of the story here, as narrated by W.G. points out, is found within those unintentional moments of rare natural wonder, where the eye of the camera lens captures sights beyond explanation. The animal world is chaotic, yet harmonious; and the inner heart of man seems (in comparison) to top even this, as T.T.’s rants and raves and confessions bleed into the light captured by the camera like a subtle, humble prayer. In a year filled with some wonderful documentaries (Murderball, Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, March Of The Penguins, Mad Hot Ballroom, and Rize) Grizzly Man stands tall above them all as an eerie, bigger-than-life-or-death rarity, that is both maddening and moving, sensitive and daring. Too bad Oscar voters were too lazy to see this for themselves.
4. King Kong-- There’s a much grander and bigger story going on here then what’s on the surface—one that has been going on for centuries really. Which is why I almost immediately fell in love with Peter Jackson’s ode-to-cinema-and-life-itself creature picture King Kong. Say what you will, but this is not just another Jurassic Park nor is it another New-York-City-gets-demolished action pic. It is first and foremost, a beautiful film with a text and subtext so rich and so simple and yet, so philosophically intriguing, it will be a shame if it doesn’t get a best original screenplay Oscar nomination. But King Kong is more than a throwback B-movie monster flick, and it’s more than a love story between a beautiful young actress and big, loud gorilla. The movie explores the endless dilemma of entertainment vs. reality, man vs. nature, love vs. obsession, and obviously, the inevitable undercurrent we know as ‘power’ running through them all. The things we love we often end up destroying, and as the U.S. divorce rate climbs, the race for world power/control continues to linger on every first and second and third world nations’ mind, Kong sits on top of the Empire State Building looking as beautiful and as natural as can be. And finally, like any work of cinematic art, King Kong ends up entertaining just as much (if not more) as it does enlightening.
3. Junebug-- I was born in Greenville, South Carolina and lived there for the first 10 years of my life. Words like “y’all” were apart of my daily vocabulary, and family was pretty much everything down there in the South. Which is maybe why I loved Phil Morrison’s Junebug so much. In this story of a somewhat snooty art dealer from Chicago falling for a North Carolina boy and then traveling down to his homeland to meet his family (but more importantly to her, to check out a local, eccentric, promising folk artist) there is a kind of world explored and visited where few movies dare to go: the world of the normal, Southern American family. Rather than treating their accents as comical crutches and reducing their religious faithfulness to blind-sided bigotry, Morrison pretty much leaves these people as they are. Because of this, Junebug never falls into trap of having the normal, one-dimensional, stereotypical Southern movie characters. For even if this family may seem simple and normal, their lives are complex and ambiguous. Family is treated here as family should be treated: not something to take lightly and not something with problems easily resolved by the end of a weekend visit home. But the two things I loved about Junebug the most were the people these characters reminded me of from when I was young (and no doubt, they will remind you of people you once knew too) and Amy Adams’ winsome, delightful, and heartbreaking best-supporting-actress-performance-of-the-year hands down. If she doesn’t win the Oscar on March 5th, it will be the stupidest mistake of the night!
2. Crash-- Crash, Paul Haggis' directoral debut (he wrote Million Dollar Baby) is as impressive as they come. And I’m willing to bet if it had been released in December instead of last May, it would be this year’s Oscar runaway hit. And even though I’m sure it will have a tough time beating out Brokeback Mountain for best picture, it is the only one of the five that truly deserves such a title. Crash is a melting pot of a movie about the melting pot that is, America. Set in L.A., the movie explores the city people’s lack of human-to-human contact through the lenses of culture, race and class, and does this with surprising clarity and insight. Essentially, the movie sees America as it is today—a world filled with language differences, culture clashes, and good and bad around every small town and big city corner. Like the smart and sassy Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle, Crash thrives on racial stereotypes—which could’ve been a disaster, but in this film it works almost perfectly—and touches on the unsaid and unspoken universal fibers running through just about every American. With some of the most haunting and intensely entertaining moments of 2005 captured on film in this movie, within those high and extremely high-level heart-pounding scenes, it’s no wonder Crash is film critic Roger Ebert and many others’ best film of 2005 pick. And although I can’t agree that it is the best, it’s the best second best movie of the year, ever.
1. Millions-- I’ve waited for a long time to say this: Millions is my favorite and the best film of 2005. Similar to my best of 2001 list, the number one pick (then, Moulin Rouge) was not even in my mind as the year’s best film upon a first viewing. But of course, repeated viewings allowed this overlooked, underrated family film from director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, and 28 Days Later) to be my pick for my favorite (and the best I think) film of 2005. It’s a movie about childhood, about faith, about money, about grief, yes; but more importantly it’s a movie about epistemologies. How people come to see and know the world around them—whether society or family or school or God shapes them—all come together in this appropriate titled film covering so much ground. The story is told through the mind of an 8-year-old, which plays out appropriately with the film’s plot as it hops from new scenes to new topics like the mind of any 8-year-old kid. Like the film’s visually spectacular and exhilarating opening sequence (reminiscent of such great openings as Amelie and Magnolia, although not as grand), the movie is enchanting…a word that describes no other movie I saw this past year. And so for the third year in a row, here’s me choosing another movie about childhood (but wow, it’s so much more than this) as my number one film of 2005. So don’t watch the trailer before you see it; just go rent it now. Watch it two or three times, and tell me there is not more to meets the eye in this wide-eyed meditation on the money, childhood, and the Gospel.