This is the year where everybody stayed away from the theaters and watched DVDs. At least that’s what Hollywood would have you believe. I’ve read articles claiming that 2005 hit a record low for attendance in theaters, and other articles claiming that if you look at the numbers, that just is not an accurate statement. All I know is how good the movies were. Maybe this year didn’t seem as great as last year because the last minute Oscar rush just wasn’t as impressive. Well, that’s just fine with me because it means better quality films spread throughout the year, and not so much of high-minded traditional Oscar fare. If I had to notice one trend, it would be that movies got more political than usual. Besides George Clooney’s overt one-two punch of “Syriana” and “Good Night, and Good Luck,” you had Fernando Meirelles’ tricky “The Constant Gardener” and Steven Spielberg’s brutal “Munich.” Even mainstream sci-fi movies like “Serenity,” “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith,” and “War of the Worlds” could be read as cautionary metaphors for our current political climate. Now “Brokeback Mountain” is pushing political hot-buttons for its gay love story between two cowboys. The reason these movies all succeeded? They remain grounded in the emotional and not the political. If there’s one thing Hollywood has learned, it is to involve the heart first to challenge the mind. Ironically, the best movie I saw last year had nothing to do with politics. Check out what J.D. and I thought about 2005′s movies and best of luck in 2006!
- “Broken Flowers” : More than any other film this year, “Broken Flowers” tackles life’s ambiguous big picture and comes up with– guess what?–more ambiguity. A compelling portrait of loneliness tied together by a mystery plot, this meditative film has a wide-open array of interpretations. What it does subtlely and surely, by putting Bill Murray’s imminently likable face on a character who stands in for our own existential nightmares, is ask us to face our own past and future. Does examining one’s regret require a complete flameout like Murray’s unfortunate Don Johnston, or will the inevitable march of time deal us cards of redemption? Murray keeps his hand close to his chest, wearing his best Poker face, and standing in for the viewer throughout. Devious in its simplicity, “Broken Flowers” has two transcendent moments of truth for every one silly and charming moment. Murray is alternately heartbreaking and hilarious in a role that director Jim Jarmusch wrote specifically for him, and there are no two better supporting performances this year than the ones by Frances Conroy and Jeffrey Wright.
- “Munich” : Steven Spielberg puts his skill as an director of thrillers to a different kind of use in “Munich,” a movie that is set in the early 1970s, but is also grappling with issues so timely that they force one to confront today’s terrorism threats and current Israeli/Palestinian conflict as part of an ongoing, unsolvable cycle. Despite objections raised over its basis in fact, Spielberg’s soul-shaking film is also unwavering and violent, asking whether history is doomed to repeat itself. “Munich” puts the viewer in the hot seat, rooting for Eric Bana and his conscience-stricken team of Israeli assassins, but at the same time challenging the viewer to weigh the human consequences of escalating a war of terrorism. It is a mature, thought-provoking work from a director who, despite complicated turmoil from his own political camp, is not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve.
- “King Kong” : After reading what I wrote about “Munich,” you may chuckle to see this season’s ultimate escapist adventure next on my “Best of” list. The greatness in “King Kong” however, lies squarely in the fact that it accomplishes so much more than escapist fun. Peter Jackson has made his dream movie, one that mixes state-of-the-art special effects, an imagination run wild, and fabulous 1930s-era art direction while expanding to perfection the timeless doomed love story and ironic metaphor for America’s Great Depression. I’ve seen it three times in the theater, and there’s more to discover every time. Yes, at three hours it’s a little bloated, but that is petty criticism for something chock this full of old-fashioned movie magic and modern-day special effects marvel. Throw in one of the most convincing and tragic love stories of this year and you’ve got yourself a modern classic.
- “Sin City” : Robert Rodriguez makes the first great film of his career, co-directing with Frank Miller on a slavishly faithful adaptation of the latter’s graphic novel series. Using the comic book not as a template, but as an actual storyboard for the movie, the pair have pushed the melding of two different art forms to its most extreme level. Miller’s story is all film noir with hard-boiled dialogue and harder cartoon-style violence. Shot in high contrast black and white in front of green screen backgrounds almost exclusively, “Sin City” is a wake-up shot across the bow for those who think computer animation is the only visually creative outlet left in film.
- “Grizzly Man” : In another year of great documentaries (“Murderball,” “Enron:The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “The March of the Penguins”), this one stands head and shoulders above the pack because of two things; its fascinating central character and the unusual way in which his story is told. Legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog (“Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” “Fitzcarraldo”) again tackles the nature vs. man debate, narrating the story of the late Timothy Treadwell with interviews from his friends and found footage shot by Treadwell himself in an Alaskan wildlife preserve. What begins as a nature documentary quickly turns into a brutally honest expose of a deeply troubled man trying to find meaning in his life. As Treadwell bares his soul on camera in footage that no one was meant to see, Herzog struggles to find a transcendent meaning in his suicidal quest to “save the bears.” An absolute original.
- “Serenity” : Recently released on DVD so everybody can see what they missed in the theaters, Joss Whedon’s genre-tweaking entry into the modern sci-fi/adventure sweepstakes has what George Lucas’ recent “Star Wars” trilogy was missing- urgency. That, and a winking sense of humor. The premise– a ragtag group of misfits fly across the universe carrying a dangerous passenger who is wanted by an all-powerful government agent; may seem a bit corny, but in Whedon’s clever hands, it is by turns thrilling and even touching. A western-in-space that’s overflowing with great moments and an allegorical awareness of anti-colonialism, it is one 2005′s most overlooked films. Rent it now and we may be lucky enough to get a sequel in three or four years.
- “A History of Violence” : In David Cronenberg’s darkly funny parable, a family is torn apart by allegations of their father’s violent past. This is a director that understands the natural attraction we all have to violence, and is equally comfortable exploring our innate revulsion as well. Subtle performances from Viggo Mortensen, a durable leading man, and Maria Bello, the film’s emotional anchor, ground their family’s conflict in a formerly idyllic reality. Alternately, a bizarre turn by William Hurt gives the film’s conclusion a peculiar and fantastic feel. “A History of Violence” is no bland “think” piece, but rather, an engaging film with an ending that is oddly inevitable.
- “The Upside of Anger” : The best performance of the year in any movie was Joan Allen’s funny and fearless turn in a misrepresented film called “The Upside of Anger.” Terry Ann Wolfmeyer is the razor-sharp creation of writer/director Mike Binder and, though you may think from the ad campaign that it is a touchy-feely family film, you’ll know from the moment you see Allen’s manic and alcoholic mother dismiss her daughter’s dreams in a cruel verbal barrage that you are in for more than you bargained for. Snappy dialogue is a rare find in Hollywood these days, and nobody delivers it better than Allen and her co-star Kevin Costner in this wonderful movie.
- “The Constant Gardener” : The follow-up to director Fernando Meirelles’ amazing “City of God” is that rare espionage thriller that weaves a web of intrigue and also deepens the relationship of its two main characters. Set against the vivid backdrop of (as shot by Meirelles’ dizzying hand held camera) an impoverished Kenya and the terrible conditions of corporate pharmaceutical experimentation, this John LeCarre adaptation turns out to be a tale of love and understanding between the imperfect couple played by Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz. If the combination of Fiennes and desert sand has you thinking about the staid atmosphere of “The English Patient,” then think again. Meirelles’ movie is both exhilarating and moving.
- “Elizabethtown” : Cameron Crowe’s road picture-in-reverse may not be a perfect movie, but the man still has an uncanny ability to fashion poignancy out of the mundane. Certainly the sprawling narrative of Orlando Bloom’s journey to finding himself is unfocused, but then again, isn’t life? Along the way, Crowe crams in enough hilarious and iconic scenes to fill two pictures, and introduces us to the unnaturally perfect and forgiving character of Claire, played with enthusiastic buoyancy by Kirsten Dunst. As I mentioned before, great dialogue is a rarity these days, and Crowe has whole scenes to spare here.
- “Munich” : Steven Spielberg’s most recent masterstroke “Munich” is the stuff of cinema legend. Framed around the terrorist attack at the 1972 Olympics, “Munich” details the effects of violence and retribution on the men charged with carrying out Israel’s response to the senseless massacre of their Olympians. Eric Bana is phenomenal alongside Geoffery Rush and David Craig in Spielberg’s best ensemble cast since “Jaws.” As important as any of Spielberg’s previous works, “Munich” re-asserts his place at the very top of the list of all-time best directors. Its themes and graphic violence should keep audiences talking all the way to Oscar time.
- “Good Night, and Good Luck” : For David Strathairn, his role as Edward R. Murrow in “Good Night, and Good Luck” may be just another in a long list of exemplary acting credits. For the rest of us, it is the chance to watch Strathairn give the performance of his career in the George Clooney-directed tale of the skirmish for liberty between Murrow and “red scare” fear baron Senator Joe McCarthy. “Good Night,” done marvelously in black and white, is a story that has tremendous relevance today as many of us wonder where mainstream journalists lost their teeth and which of our most precious rights are being nibbled away at by modern McCarthys, more saavy than their predecessors.
- “Everything is Illuminated” : If under-appreciation was equal to box office currency, “Everything is Illuminated” would have better numbers than “Kong.” The story of Jonathan Safran Foer, both the character and the author of the novel on which the film is based, is fantastic. It has the distinction of being one of my top films of the year and the book is the best piece of literature I’ve read in five. Elijah Wood hasn’t insisted on holding out for lead roles in blockbusters since “Lord of the Rings,” and it has paid off. Between memorable supporting roles in “Eternal Sunshine” and “Sin City” and his role in this stellar ensemble, Wood has proven that he can make extraordinary choices, post-Frodo.
- “Murderball” : “Murderball” gets my vote for best documentary of the year, as well as one of the absolute top movies of 2005. Most scripted films are not this well edited or told. “Murderball” follows the American and Canadian Quadriplegic Rugby teams as they clash and compete in competitions around the world, all the while revealing the tragic and triumphant stories of the individuals involved. Inspired film making to be sure, “Murderball” is a documentary for people who think documentaries are boring.
- “Sin City” : Taken straight from the pages of author Frank Miller’s “Sin City” graphic novels (those are fancy comic books for all you kids who never played D&D), the film “Sin City” reeks of original movie-making. The most unique cinematic experience of the year, “Sin City” is a gripping series of vengeance stories with solid gold heroes and villians. With thrilling film noir-style dialogue and an unstoppable cast–notably Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen and Bruce Willis–”Sin City” is unconventional in every sense. Shot primarily in front of green screen, co-directors Robert Rodriguez and Miller use a stark black and white color palette brilliantly disturbed by blood red and one yellow villian. By far the most daring treatment of a comic book story so far, “Sin City” is everything it’s cracked up to be.
- “The Constant Gardener” : “The Constant Gardener” was the out-of-the-blue-surprise contained in the end of the year onslaught of films for our consideration. It is a clever love story that actually kept me guessing from beginning to end. Rachel Weisz and Ralph Fiennes turn in outstanding performances in director Fernando Meirelles’ (“City of God”) tale of betrayal and conspiracy in Kenya. It’s also nice to see a movie about someone else screwing up for once, in this case the British High Commission. This type of back stabbing embarrassment and the general bungling of International Affairs in films is so often left in the capable hands of Americans.
- “Elizabethtown” : I’ll admit “Elizabethtown” is not Cameron Crowe’s best film. It is however, the best film he released in 2005. The Director’s Cut DVD should be out soon and I’m chomping at the bit to get a look at the rest of “Elizabethtown.” I love the way Crowe’s movies make me feel. I left “Elizabethtown” the same way I left “Almost Famous” or “Say Anything”– more sure than I was going in, that with the right soundtrack and the perfect girl, things just might turn out all right.
- “Batman Begins” : Undoing the damage previously inflicted on the “Batman” franchise is no small feat. Sans O’Donnell and Silverstone, Christian Bale and Gary Oldman remind us why the Bat in Black is so damn cool in the first place. Now if someone would just sack up and make “The Dark Knight Returns.” After all, thanks to Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller has hard earned directing credits, and who better to bring one of the best graphic novels ever to the big screen than its author? Aside from “Sin City,” this was the best of this year’s comic book-to-film adaptations. Oldman, as usual, is brilliant as a young Commissioner Gordon and Liam Neeson proves that his Midiclorian count hasn’t totally gone in the tank after that whole Qui-Gon fiasco with “actor’s director” George Lucas. With the exception of the future Mrs. Cruise, “Batman Begins” is well cast and well acted. It is a fresh update on the “Batman” saga and since it was a prequel to the previous mess, there’s plenty more stories from Gotham to tell.
- “Broken Flowers” : Why is it that Bill Murray sitting around in a track suit, saying almost nothing, makes for such a good movie? I really don’t know, it just does. Jeffery Wright was the best part of the unremarkable “Syriana,” and he may be here in “Broken Flowers” as well. Director Jim Jarmusch may be the king of deliberately inaccessible films, but “Broken Flowers” was just different enough from his previous art-fests to be interesting.
- “Brokeback Mountain” : Whatever this film has been labeled, “Brokeback Mountain” is a classic American love story. Directed by the sure hand of Ang Lee (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) and written by Larry McMurtry (“Lonesome Dove”), “Brokeback Mountain” is a slow burn. The pace of the film may lack explosive energy, but its expansive Wyoming backdrop and Oscar-worthy characters make it one of this year’s best. Heath Ledger deserves an Oscar nomination for his captivating portrayal of Ennis Del Mar, and Michelle Williams proves there is life after “Dawson’s Creek.”
Eric’s Runners Up : “Match Point,” “The Forty Year Old Virgin,” “Murderball,” “Proof,” “War of the Worlds,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Hustle & Flow,” “Batman Begins,” “Pride & Prejudice”
Eric’s Most Overrated of 2005 : “Crash,” “Cinderella Man,” “Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride,” “Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire,” “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe,” “Red Eye”
J.D.’s Award for Most Unfortunate Performance in a Major Motion Picture : William Hurt “History of Violence” Runner-Up : Jack Black “King Kong”