In this year’s Movie Club, three critics (Scott Foundas of the LA Weekly, Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, and A.O. Scott of the New York Times) will disagree with me over which of the films of 2005 are masterpieces, which are noble failures, and which are mere irritants. But I hope we’ll agree that movies matter again. In an age in which the true workings of the world are either concealed from us or repressed by us, in which language is used to obfuscate more often than enlighten, it’s a tonic to find cinema, the most hypnotic and demagogic of media, doing its bit to bring us back to reality. 2005 was a year in which the most potent critiques of our popular culture came from within—a glint of hope in a darkening age.
As usual, I have too many favorites—and am too self-indulgent—to settle for a “10-best” list. However, the movies below are in order of preference, so the rigorous and decimal-minded among you may feel free to lop off numbers 11 through 20.
3. Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
4. Me and You and Everyone We Know
5. War of the Worlds
6. The Aristocrats
7. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
8. Ballets russes
9. Grizzly Man
10. Nobody Knows
11. Mysterious Skin
12. The Best of Youth
13. Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic
14. Funny Ha Ha
15. Skeleton Key
16. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
17. Darwin’s Nightmare
18. Nine Lives
19. William Eggleston in the Real World*
The asterisks signal a prejudice in favor of two old friends. Michael Almereyda directed William Eggleston in the Real World, one of the most inspired documentary portraits of an artist I’ve ever seen. Not only does Almereyda illuminate the method in the photographer’s madness, but with his own empathic camera helps you to see the world through Eggleston’s eyes—to perceive the eternal in all the crumbling ephemera. Homecoming, directed by Joe Dante from a script by (my friend) Sam Hamm, is an episode of Showtime’s Masters of Horror series—a cartoonish but passionate and incendiary tale of American soldiers who rise from their coffins to cast votes against the administration that sent them off to war under false pretenses. Dante put it concisely in the Village Voice: “This pitiful zombie movie, this fucking B movie, is the only thing anybody’s done about this issue that’s killed 2,000 Americans and untold numbers of Iraqis? It’s fucking sick.”
Speaking of which: I’ve gotten hate mail in the last few days about my review of Munich, a film that dramatizes the foggy border between self-defense and vengeance. But merely to say that is to invite the fiercest denunciation. A reader forwarded my review to one of the film’s more severe critics, who responded: “There is a huge difference—a great moral division—between the goals of the two sides in these conflicts. The failure to see that gap isn’t realism. It is moral blindness and that is a malady that seems to afflict many of our intellectuals and those who pretend to be intellectuals these days.” I don’t pretend to be an intellectual—more like a pragmatist (as well as a fervent supporter of Israel’s existence) who would rather see an end to the killing on both sides than to cling righteously to the high ground, either moral or geographic. Munich is both a revenge film and a colloquium on revenge—a rare thriller that builds to a devastating implosion.
As for War of the Worlds, the other Steven Spielberg movie on my list: Some critics were appalled that the director would use imagery that evokes 9/11 in the service of a “popcorn” sci-fi blockbuster. Forgive me, but I thought movies—even big-budget summer sci-fi movies—were supposed to help us work through our national traumas. (The original Godzilla, of course, was a haunting Japanese reworking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) Spielberg’s fluid mastery is breathtaking. And H.G. Wells’ larger point—that a superior force can be undone by a lack of understanding of the foe on a micro level—is not exactly irrelevant to our current predicament, either. Tom Cruise gives the best and least fussy performance of his career. Too bad he had to distract us from that with the worst and fussiest performances of his career—as himself, on TV.
For a decade, maybe longer, Spielberg seemed washed-up, a victim of his own precocious talents and unprecedented success. His style had become too self-consciously limpid, and his films had lost the texture of reality. He didn’t need the real world: He could afford to build his own. I was hopeful when I heard of his interest in making a “Dogma”-style film—in taking a vow of poverty and curbing his Hollywood-mogul reflexes. But I never dreamed I’d see a run like this.
You can read my reviews by following the individual links, but some of my choices beg for explanations. Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know has been largely viewed in the context of its twee solo-performance-artiness or its depiction of childrens’ fascination with all things sexual. What makes it work for me is its amazing portrait of an increasingly solipsistic culture. This is a meditation on the mediated life, in which face-to-face encounters are extraordinarily fraught and people reach out via online chat rooms or performance art—or, failing the above, retreat into fantasy.
Skeleton Key and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang won’t make too many 10-best lists. The first is a straight genre (horror) film, the second a jokey, reflexive noir. But Skeleton Key, directed by Ian Softley, is packed with marvels, from its New Orleans and New Iberian settings (the last glimpse of the “old” New Orleans we’ll ever have?) to a plot that turns—hauntingly—on historical racial injustice and the gris-gris that meets it more than halfway. And what performances by Kate Hudson and Gena Rowlands! Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is both a hilarious dismantling of the gumshoe genre and a triumphant assertion of its right to exist. And what a great comeback by Robert Downey Jr., with all his boyish handsomeness and morbid self-disgust intact!
Four films that I didn’t review in Slate are The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Ballets russes, Darwin’s Nightmare, and Nine Lives.
Three Burials … is directed by and stars Tommy Lee Jones, from a script by Guillermo Arriaga. Like Arriaga’s other scripts, 21 Grams (which I detested) and Amores Perros (which I admired), this is a tale of redemption—implicitly if not explicitly Christian in construction and imagery—in which Old Testament vengeance is choked off and a man of violence, after enduring a horrifically sustained punishment, is reborn. The syntax in the first third is overly fancy, and a key relationship (between Jones’ rancher Pete and Julio Cesar Cedillo’s Melquiades, the hired Mexican hand found dead in border country) isn’t especially well dramatized. But once Pete begins his long journey on horseback with Melquiades’ killer (a border patrol officer played by Barry Pepper) and his ghoulishly decaying corpse, the movie begins to breathe and then get into your bloodstream. Three Burials … has the year’s best widescreen cinematography (by the great Chris Menges) and the best minimal score (by Marco Beltrami). And Jones—never better than when he plays a mean S.O.B. with only the teensiest flicker of humanity—is just about peerless.
Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s documentary Ballets russes retraces the history of the company (largely Russian emigres at first) that essentially brought ballet to the New World, and it’s 100 cc’s of pure pleasure. The historical footage of ballets that form the foundation of modern dance would be enough. But it’s the weave of those fragments with the lucid narration and the brilliant, tart, affectionate, witty, poignant reminiscences of the surviving dancers (many of whom look astonishingly fit in their eighties, their “instruments” bent but unbroken) that makes this a miraculous experience, an enduring tribute to the most ephemeral art—and the ephemeral bodies that give it life. Ten cc’s of pure displeasure comes from Hubert Sauper’s Darwin’s Nightmare, which depicts the last twitches of life on the shores of Tanzania’s Lake Victoria. In this Darwin-forsaken place, the imported Nile Perch has consumed virtually every other species in that vast body of water, and a multi-tentacled ecosystem—natural, human, economic—appears on the brink of extinction.
Nine Lives, directed by Rodrigo Garcia, is nine stories with nine protagonists, each tale told in a single traveling shot. It’s a gimmick and it isn’t—because the mixture of real time and skillful dramaturgy creates unbearable tension and makes for a movie that’s Epiphany City. Some of the episodes are more devastating than others, but there are no outright duds. And the movie boasts the best performance of the year, by Robin Wright Penn as a very pregnant woman who bumps into her old flame in a supermarket. As she circles the store with her grocery cart, her face alternately flushed and ashen, it’s as if we’re looking directly into her soul.
And, you know, I could keep going … to the riotous Kung Fu Hustle, Head-On, Kings and Queen, Broken Flowers, Pride & Prejudice [sic], Breakfast on Pluto, March of the Penguins, Murderball, The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices, and After Innocence—heartbreaking and infuriating tales of people freed from long-term incarceration and even death row by DNA evidence.
Another underrated film of 2005 is The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, the story of a housewife and mother (played by the sublime Julianne Moore) who fulfills her creativity in the only way her (’50s) culture lets her: by composing poems and jingles for the corporations that help to keep her down.
Call me every kind of sicko but I still love Sin City. And not since Diner has Mickey Rourke been as magnetic as he is under pounds of latex that take our attention off his own peculiar physiognomy and, paradoxically, allow the ravaged yet tender soul to shine through.
There are so many heartening developments to discuss. For instance, the spate of films about the challenges of being gay or transgendered in a less than welcoming culture, released into a culture that might or might not be welcoming: Breakfast on Pluto, Saving Face, My Summer of Love, Transamerica, Brokeback Mountain. … And then there’s all the preposterous anti-globalization conspiracy movies that I find so unexpectedly convincing: Syriana, The Constant Gardener, even the annoying wine documentary Mondovino. (Don’t imbibe before you see it or the camerawork will make you puke.) And let’s not forget the Revenge With a Guilty Conscience Genre, embodied most vividly by A History of Violence. I had problems with the movie’s have-it-both-ways pulpiness, but on its own terms (direction by David Cronenberg; screenplay by Josh Olson; acting by Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, and William Hurt; virtuosic splattery and bone-crunching brutality; two remarkable sex scenes) it works like gangbusters.
I’m going to save my list of the worst movies and best performances of 2005 for later in the week. And I’ll refrain from commenting on Terrence Malick’s The New World until Jonathan Rosenbaum can fight back. Jonathan and I had a spirited discussion of Malick’s last film, The Thin Red Line, in Slate’s very first Movie Club back in 1998. I’m delighted to welcome him back (along with Scott and Tony) for this, my final Movie Club, as I’ll be (sadly) leaving Slate for New York magazine at the end of—my God, Thursday. No time to waste. Let’s shake hands and come out punching.