17 January 2006

The Top 10 Films of 2005

Naturally, I don't see everything (especially Match Point, which hasn't come to Pittsburgh), but I try.

1. Saraband

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starring: Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson, Börje Ahlstedt, and Julia Dufvenius
written and directed by: Ingmar Bergman
R, 120 min, Sweden


Ingmar Bergman, that grand lion of the cinema, takes the art form he helped mold to the limits of his lifetime in this sequel to 1973's Scener ur ett äktenskap (Scenes from a Marriage). Filming in digital video, Bergman follows Marianne (Liv Ullmann) as she visits her ex-husband Johan (Erland Josephson). It is the sort of haunting, captivating work we expect from Bergman but rarely get from anyone else. He has said this is his final work and if it is, this is a master filmmaker going out on top. Instead of fading away, he leaves with a roar. A fitting, if not perfect, final chapter to an amazing body of work.

2. Yes

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starring: Joan Allen, Simon Abkarian, Sam Neill, and Shirley Henderson
written and directed by: Sally Potter
R, 100 min, UK/USA


Featuring dialogue written entirely in iambic pentameter and a virtuoso performance by Joan Allen, Sally Potter's Yes is a haunting, mesmerizing, and infinitely fascinating love story. With echoes of both Shakespeare and Eminem, this is the type of bold filmmaking we so rarely see. Potter takes chances at nearly every opportunity, and while they don't all work, they are all interesting, if not inspired. She seems to have no fear of failure, allowing her work the freedom to blossom with a strange beauty. It is by no means perfect, but makes a case for greatness, which is really all you can ask for.

3. Brokeback Mountain

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starring: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, and Anne Hathaway
written by: Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana, from the short story by E. Annie Proulx
directed by: Ang Lee
R, 134 min, 2005, USA


In a rare turn of events, the Oscar front-runner is actually one of the best films of the year. Few directors understand the emotions inherent in an epic about two cowboys in love nearly as well as Ang Lee, who subverts a wholly macho genre into something beautiful and delicate. There's always been a sliver of a homosexuality in the westerns, or at very least an odd sort of kinship, and here it's brought to the forefront in a mature examination of its effects on the men and their immediate families. Heath Ledger's performance may be the surprise of the year. A great film and a worthy addition to the Best Picture family.

Read my original review

4. Munich

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starring: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Mathieu Kassovitz, and Geoffrey Rush
written by: Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, from the book by George Jonas
directed by: Steven Spielberg
R, 164 min, 2005, USA


Steven Spielberg's Munich is a risque film that dares question the motives of a nation exacting revenge for a terrorist attack, strives to show the humanity of allegedly evil men, and ultimately makes a compelling argument for peace. That alone would make it a film worth seeing, but even apart from all the political undertones Munich succeeds splendidly as a pure thriller. Eric Bana gives his best performance since Chopper (2000) and Janusz Kaminski provides some beautiful images in what should eventually be regarded as one of Spielberg's best films.

Read my original review

5. Good Night, And Good Luck

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starring: David Strathairn, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, and George Clooney
written by: George Clooney and Grant Heslov
directed by George Clooney
PG, 93 min, USA


George Clooney's homage to the glory days of network news serves as a timely reminder that journalistic integrity once meant refusing to serve as a glorified public relations department and standing up to the government despite the risks. The crisp black and white images convey that necessarily vintage feel and Clooney, to the surprise of many, further displays his talents behind the camera. If he weren't such a fine movie star he'd be a great director, as he has an innate feel for the medium. David Strathairn leads an impressive cast in this finely tuned drama about television's inner workings.

6. The Squid and the Whale

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starring: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, and Owen Kline
written and directed by: Noah Baumbach
R, 80 min, USA


When watching The Squid and the Whale I'm a bit torn between being thrilled to get this performance out of Jeff Daniels or annoyed that he's been holding out on us for all these years. As for the film, imagine, if you will, that Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach were in the same screenwriting class and were given the assignment of writing about dysfunctional families headed by insecure patriarchs. Anderson writes The Royal Tennenbaums and Baumbach writes this. They are so grounded in the same ethos and literary universe that you fully expect to see Richie Tennenbaum playing tennis on the adjoining court.

Read my original review

7. Syriana

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starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, and Alexander Siddig
written by: Stephen Gaghan, from the book by Robert Baer
R, 126 min, USA


Call it, if you will, Traffic 2: the Hunt for Oil, but that doesn't hide the fact that no film this year is as effective in feeling as real and immediate as Syriana. Stephen Gaghan blurs the line between reality and fiction to the point where you really start to wonder if he's managed somehow to insert Matt Damon and George Clooney into the evening news and is film some odd riff on the documentary form. Clooney has never been better as a CIA operative suddenly cast adrift in a film that asks vital questions about both our dependence on oil and the steps we so willingly take to obtain it.

Read my original review

8. Crash

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starring: Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Terrence Howard, and Ryan Phillippe
written by: Paul Haggis and Robert Moresco
directed by: Paul Haggis
R, 113 min, USA


Crash is the type of film that shows no fear of being politically correct by making a point to examine as many aspects of our racial diversity as it possibly can. If America is truly a melting pot, then just how well are we mixing? How well are we all getting along? If Paul Haggis is to be believed, not well. Haggis probes the fears that inform our interactions with those outside our comfort zones, both the accurate and the offensive ones, and the inevitable results when we collide. This is a film that aims to make the world a slightly better place, and because of that it has a tendency to veer off course, but that does not diminish the message and ambitions of a courageous bit of cinema.

9. A History of Violence

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starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, and William Hurt
written by: Josh Olson, from the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke
directed by: David Cronenberg
R, 96 min, USA


With themes that echo Unforgiven, David Cronenberg's film about a man looking to hide from a past that won't leave him alone is an engaging character study of the fundamental principles of human nature. Try as he might, our hero can never fully become the family man who owns a diner in a small town, for the killer instincts that served him so well in his past life will never allow it. Cronenberg and Mortensen slowly reveal facets of his nature, much to the horror of his family. When he can hold it back no longer, he erupts in an impressive display of cunning and brutality. But no matter how hard he tries, his life can never be the same.

10. Me and You and Everyone We Know

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starring: Miranda July, John Hawkes, Miles Thompson, and Tracy Wright
written and directed by: Miranda July
R, 91 min, USA


The type of small, personal indie film that can tend to drive people crazy, Me and You and Everyone We Know manages to avoid that fate with a delicate blend of quirkiness and thoughtfulness. It is a balancing act to be sure, but first time director Miranda July does it admirably by making the perverse innocent and extracting a quiet joy from the mundane. The film works a lot in metaphor, be it a street or sexual fetishes or a burning hand, and because of this there are parts that seem ill-advised, but when viewed in the larger context, they tend to take on a new dimension. Rarely has a sense of whimsy been so weird and at the same time delightful.

Jury Prize: Lost

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When initially compiling this list, it was starting to look as if 2005 was a poor year for cinema, with no clear-cut choice for the top spot, let alone the other nine. But the year finished strong, as it usually does, and I found more good films than I had spots for. I usually reserve the top spot for a film that really hit me hard, so for a long time a TV show held that spot on my list. It seems odd, but really it isn't if you think about it. Some of the greatest achievements in cinema have been originally developed for TV (Dekalog and Scener ur ett äktenskap, to name a few), so why do we automatically disregard American television when discussing the year's best? It's the same basic medium, and if you watch it on DVD without commercials you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference sometimes. Lost, in my opinion, is easily the most engaging, thrilling, and addictive thing to come along in several years and has the potential to become the best series in television history (provided the writers don't get lost inside their own story and lose focus). The key word there (and reason I moved it off the list) is "potential". Ultimately I couldn't justify leaving a deserving work off the list in favor of a film that isn't over. The first chapter may be brilliant, but there's no saying if it'll maintain that level. So, until the story concludes, I can't bring myself to list it as the year's best, but it still is the one thing I plan my entire week around, and for a guy who doesn't watch TV, that's saying something.

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