When assessing the 2005 movie year, it keeps coming back to the glass.
Specifically, as I pore over a list of the 160 motion pictures I screened during the past 12 months, I'm struck by the adage involving the glass being half-full or half-empty. If I conclude that the past year was half-empty, then the fact that I saw no films that warranted a 4-star review would weigh heavily on my mind. I'm traditionally tight-fisted with the highest rating on the scale anyway, only blessing two or three pictures a year with that designation (in 2004, only Million Dollar Baby and Sideways earned my exaltation). But 2005 couldn't even reach my annual average: I saw many powerful films during the year, but none quite reached the level of a religious experience for me. (As a friend once quipped, "So to give a movie four stars, you basically have to see God appear in the auditorium, right?")
On the other hand, if I decide the past year was half-full, then I can take comfort that movies mattered in a way in which they haven't in a long time. And it wasn't just cinema that became cognizant of the state of the union: Pop culture in general seemed to wake up and smell the corruption and chaos. It wasn't that long ago that Dixie Chicks CDs were being tossed onto bonfires (not unlike the book burnings in Nazi Germany) and Michael Moore was being booed off the Oscar stage for -- gasp! -- daring to question the war in Iraq. But finally -- finally -- more Americans than not seem to be shaking themselves out of their Survivor-induced slumbers and realizing that the Bush regime is destroying the very fabric of not only this nation but the entire world -- and that the gluttonous heads of Big Business are aiding them.
Fortunately, the film industry understood all this long before the masses did. And because it was ahead of the curve, it had been releasing movies all year long that criticized the insidious right-wing agenda. For the most part the political warnings were front and center, where everyone could see and absorb them: Syriana, Good Night, and Good Luck, The Constant Gardener, Jarhead and Munich (to say nothing of several documentaries) were just some of the movies that managed to comment on the powderkeg world in which we live. Whether by accident or design, political brickbats could even occasionally be found in mainstream popcorn pictures such as Revenge of the Sith and Batman Begins. In short, it was an explosive 12 months for cinema, and real-world circumstances suggest the medium will keep lighting the fuses for the foreseeable future.
Of course, not every politically minded film succeeded -- the confused Lord of War was a blown opportunity -- but the cream of the crop can be found comfortably cocooned within my list of the best movies of 2005. It was hardly a year in which only serious, torn-from-the-headlines cinema need apply. My picks are inclusive enough to make room for an animated dog, an iconic superhero and a sheltered geek who's never been laid. Pound for pound, 2005 may not have been a great year for movies, but its diversity provided it with some measure of import.
THE 10 BEST
1. THE CONSTANT GARDENER (Fernando Meirelles). The best picture of 2005. It didn't take long for Fernando Meirelles to prove that his Oscar-nominated work on City of God was no fluke, as the Brazilian director, along with scripter Jeffrey Caine (adapting the John Le Carre novel), crafted an exquisite motion picture that's solid as a political thriller and even better as a love story. A meek British diplomat (Ralph Fiennes) stationed in Kenya learns that his outspoken activist wife (Rachel Weisz) has been murdered; his mission to discover the truth not only forces him to reevaluate key incidents from their marriage but also awakens his inner activist once he realizes the extent to which the western world is sticking it to an impoverished African nation. The Constant Gardener rages with righteous indignity, yet it's never preachy or condescending, choosing instead to make its points in the context of a riveting yarn. But for all its hot-button excitement, it's the relationship between the characters played by Fiennes and Weisz (both sensational) -- a real marriage, full of sincerity, suspicion, miscommunication and, most importantly, an affinity that transcends all else -- that earns this a spot at the head of the table.
2. BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (Ang Lee). The director of films as diverse as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Sense and Sensibility again demonstrates his range by helming this deeply moving drama about two cowboys (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) forced to conceal their love affair over the course of two decades. Beautifully staged and shot, the movie is a sober meditation on the manner in which strict societal expectations can upend lives and cause anguish where none was intended. (Just before press time, we learned that the film's Charlotte opening has been moved up a week from January 13 to this Friday; see next week's CL for a full-length review.)
3. WALLACE & GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT (Nick Park & Steve Box). After headlining a trio of award-winning shorts, Nick Park's clay creations -- the befuddled, cheese-loving inventor Wallace and his more intelligent canine companion Gromit -- finally score their first full-length feature. The end result could scarcely be more delightful, as the pair must unearth the mystery surrounding a veggie-munching creature of the night. Junk like Chicken Little and Robots may gross the big bucks, but more discerning viewers will prefer the clever wit on view in this guaranteed good time.
4. GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK (George Clooney). George Clooney, coming into his own as a director, writer and unassuming character actor, has made the most topical movie of 2005 -- even if it does take place in 1954. This black-and-white beauty centers on an inspiring moment in US history, when legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) stood up to Joe McCarthy, the venal Senator whose Communist witch hunts were destroying lives left and right. Clooney seamlessly integrates actual newsreel footage into the fictionalized framework to produce a chilling cautionary tale for the Bush era.
5. A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (David Cronenberg). A family man (Viggo Mortensen) becomes a national hero after killing two psychos in self-defense, but a closer examination reveals that he might be hiding from his own blood-soaked past. In much the same manner that David Lynch deconstructed the myth of the squeaky-clean small Southern town in Blue Velvet, so too does David Cronenberg take a hatchet to the façade of bland Midwestern homeliness; the hypnotic result is a dizzying examination of this country's love-hate affair with its own brutal impulses.
6. BATMAN BEGINS (Christopher Nolan). One of the finest superhero films ever made, Batman Begins returns a once-proud franchise to its former glory. Never afraid to peer into the darkest recesses of the mind, Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia) creates a brooding picture that has as much in common with his previous works as it does with the storied saga of the Caped Crusader. To dismiss this as escapist fare would be to ignore the myriad adult themes that bulk up the picture, issues ranging from the duality of man to the politics of fear. In short, this is that rare summer blockbuster in which thought often speaks louder than either actions or words.
7. THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN (Judd Apatow). The year's most unexpected surprise finds Steve Carell in a breakout performance as the title sad sack, whose shot at romance arrives in the form of a sexy divorcee (excellent Catherine Keener). Not since There's Something About Mary has a movie mixed honest sentiment and raunchy humor in such an engaging manner. If nothing else, this at least deserves credit for a brilliant tossaway line involving the Six Million Dollar Man's boss.
8. GRIZZLY MAN (Werner Herzog). His relationship with the late Klaus Kinski and his own heart-of-darkness filming of Fitzcarraldo long ago proved that Werner Herzog is no stranger to obsessive -- even dangerous -- behavior. In Timothy Treadwell, he found a fascinating subject, a high-strung individual who spent years living in close proximity to the bears he dearly loved -- until the day he and his girlfriend were torn apart and eaten by one of the intimidating beasts. Herzog's fascinating documentary works on many levels, and reminds us that the boundary between man and nature must always be respected.
9. ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM (Alex Gibney). Trying to untangle all the whos, whys and whats of the Enron scandal would appear to be a daunting task on the order of reading War and Peace in Pig Latin, but this remarkable documentary manages to relate the entire sordid saga in a comprehensive and utterly engrossing fashion. It also begs the question: Why aren't white-collar scumbags like Ken Lay (Bush's buddy) and Jeff Skilling cooling their heels on Death Row alongside the hardened murderers? Certainly, their crimes against honest Americans are no less despicable.
10. THE UPSIDE OF ANGER (Mike Bender). Joan Allen delivers a smashing performance -- yes, another one -- as a wife and mother who falls apart once it appears that her husband has run off to Sweden with his secretary. Keeping herself perpetually boozed up and painting her every utterance with wide swaths of bitterness and sarcasm, she wallows in self-pity even after she takes up with a fellow alcoholic (Kevin Costner) who genuinely cares for her. Writer-director Mike Binder (who also appears as Costner's sleazy pal) has made a disarming movie about ordinary people trying to avoid the punches that life throws their way -- and he tacks on a memorable twist ending for good measure.
The Next 10 (Honorable Mentions): King Kong; Broken Flowers; The Squid and the Whale; Hustle & Flow; Downfall; Rize; Madagascar; Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang; Pride & Prejudice; Breakfast On Pluto
Best Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote; Ralph Fiennes, The Constant Gardener; Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain; Terrence Howard, Hustle & Flow; Pierce Brosnan, The Matador
Best Actress: Joan Allen, The Upside of Anger; Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line; Naomi Watts, King Kong; Felicity Huffman, Transamerica; Charlize Theron, North Country
Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Costner, The Upside of Anger; Ed Harris, A History of Violence; Terrence Howard, Crash; Ludacris, Crash and Hustle & Flow; Michael Lonsdale, Munich
Best Supporting Actress: Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener; Catherine Keener, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Capote and The Interpreter; Scarlett Johansson, Match Point; Gong Li, Memoirs of a Geisha; Amy Adams, Junebug
Overrated: Mrs. Henderson Presents; North Country; Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior; Robots
Disappointments: Bewitched; Elizabethtown; Fantastic Four; Kingdom of Heaven; The New World
THE 10 WORST
1. ALONE IN THE DARK Most bad movies at least possess occasional lulls in their ineptness, brief moments salvaged by, say, a clever line of dialogue or an interesting character insight. This amateurish horror yarn defies that assumption, stumbling from one astonishingly awful sequence to the next until the viewer's head feels like it will explode Scanners-style. Tara Reid (mispronouncing "Newfoundland," by the way) portrays a brainy anthropologist, the most mind-boggling bit of miscasting since a Bond flick offered Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist who strutted around in short-shorts.
2. YOURS, MINE AND OURS Considering that Steve Martin's Cheaper By the Dozen made my 10 Worst list for 2003, I thought I was being crafty by skipping its just-released sequel altogether. But I got stung anyway: This insufferable Thanksgiving turkey might as well have been called Cheaper By the Dozen 1.5, given that it offers the same mix of low-brow humor, cloying characterizations and unearned sentiment.
3. THE WEDDING DATE The Pretty Woman blueprint has turned pretty woeful when it comes to this torturous comedy about a ditz (Debra Messing) who hires a man-whore (Dermot Mulroney) as her escort to her sister's wedding. To say that the script for The Wedding Date is bottom-of-the-barrel would be too kind; this one was already decomposing under a mountain of mulch before Messing unwisely fished it out.
4. DOMINO The release of the acclaimed Pride & Prejudice couldn't have been more timely, as it allowed everybody to forget that star Keira Knightley had made a lousy picture just a few months earlier. The real-life exploits of the late bounty hunter Domino Harvey are fascinating -- for once, truth is stranger than fiction -- but director Tony Scott basically ignores them in favor of his usual migraine-inducing light & sound show.
5. THE BROTHERS GRIMM Perhaps not since Eddie Murphy's The Adventures of Pluto Nash has a late-summer release cost so much in terms of dollars and yielded so little in terms of entertainment. This fractured fairy tale is one ugly movie, with a visual look and a ham-fisted script both more disturbing than any of the creatures encountered by the Grimm boys (Heath Ledger and Matt Damon).
6. MISS CONGENIALITY 2: ARMED AND FABULOUS This ghastly sequel again finds Sandra Bullock cast as FBI agent Gracie Hart, this time set adrift in Las Vegas (yes, there's the obligatory Wayne Newton wisecrack). Many bad movies at least make an effort to earn their box office; this one was content to simply lay there, like a fat tick gorged on the blood of complacent moviegoers.
7. THE AMITYVILLE HORROR / HOUSE OF WAX Hollywood has lately become obsessed with remaking long-established horror mainstays, and this past year gave us two such debacles. The Amityville Horror is a junky rehash of a 1979 film that wasn't very good in the first place. Arguably, House of Wax is the more offensive of the pair -- one, because it's a remake of a beloved Vincent Price classic, and two, because it brought Paris Hilton to the big screen.
8. HIGH TENSION / WOLF CREEK France's High Tension and Australia's Wolf Creek both center on rural maniacs who get their jollies by carving up innocent bystanders (mostly women). What's it all mean? Simply that the United States isn't the only country capable of churning out lousy slasher flicks.
9. WAITING Writer-director Rob McKittrick obviously views his pet project -- a comedy about chain-restaurant employees -- as the next Clerks, only he forgot to inject any semblance of genuine wit. Instead, the puerile humor -- tired gags involving phlegm in food, bathroom quickies and unkempt pubic hair -- wouldn't even pass muster with impressionable 10-year-olds.
10. THE MAN It wasn't that long ago that Eugene Levy was collecting a New York Film Critics award for his deft work in A Mighty Wind. Yet in 2005 alone, he appeared in The Man, Cheaper By the Dozen 2 and the straight-to-DVD sequel American Pie: Band Camp. The latter pair look too painful to endure, but The Man, a wretched "buddy action" film co-starring a constipated Samuel L. Jackson, more than warrants the actor's dishonorable mention on this list.