Star Wars and Batman and Harry Potter and Narnia and King Kong may have made the big bucks in 2005, but for the most part it was indie and low-budget films that made the biggest impression. Hereís my Top 10:
1 LAST DAYS | In Gus Van Santís transcendent film, a death watch over a musician much like Kurt Cobain, Michael Pittís Blake is a ghost in his own house. Although the place might be inescapable, the time spent there is fluid. Van Sant cuts up the narrative and pastes it together with repetitions, sometimes from different points of view. Like the camera always drawn back to the house of doom, the editing returns to some moment of truth. The shotgun to the head? Donít be so sure. Near the end, Blake sings: "Itís long, lonely journey from death to birth." Viewers will agree, and some will find it worth the trip.
2 THE SQUID AND THE WHALE | Some things you donít expect movies to do very well. Tone. Point of view. Stories about teenagers that arenít exploitative. Noah Baumbach does them all. Then again, itís his story. Jeff Daniels, who plays the father, wears the kind of clothes Baumbachís father did during that period, and that same authenticity applies to the rest of the cast. And as close as he is to the story, Baumbach doesnít impose meaning but instead allows it to form its own epiphanies.
3 DARWINíS NIGHTMARE | Hubert Sauper points out that Lake Victoria, the birthplace of humanity, might also foretell humanityís death. Once a teeming habitat, Victoria now has one species ó the Nile perch. Itís eaten everything else; now itís eating its own young. Sound like a metaphor for capitalism? As the mainstay of the Tanzanian economy, the perch fillets fly out to rich people in Europe while the heads are left for the locals. Sauper tracks down each nuance of this nightmare like a photojournalist, but also like an artist. Itís a metaphor that is poetic, and real.
4 2046 | The title of Wong Kar-waiís film refers to the date in which the hero sets his pulp sci-fi stories. But 2046 is also the number of the hotel room he lives next to. He keeps tabs on the changing tenants, all women with whom he engages in destructive romances. Some of these women reappear in his science-fiction story as melancholy androids, but all are lost through inaction, folly, or the simple passage of time. Whatís the point? Perhaps that itís not the love thatís lost but the moment, and the loser is condemned to relive it forever.
5 CAPOTE | In 1959, Truman Capote takes a break from his Manhattan partying to investigate a mass murder in Kansas for the New Yorker. An article turns into a book and an obsession as Capote is drawn to the two killers, especially the pitiful Perry Smith. Smith will be the muse that inspires Capoteís masterpiece. But for Capote to finish, Smith must die. Talk about a deadline. Director Bennett Miller and actor Philip Seymour Hoffman approach their film with dark hilarity, but at heart Capote is as cold a look at the boundaries of art and life as was the book that inspired it.
6 WALK THE LINE | For most, Johnny Cash is an icon, the man in black draped in platitudes. Not in James Mangoldís version. Guilt lies behind the inky garb, driving Cash to Hell and redemption. As Cash, Joaquin Phoenix seems slow and gentle, but heís got crazy eyes; what makes him walk the line is his "angel," June Carter (an ebullient Reese Witherspoon). Phoenixís performance transcends mimicry: he transforms himself, as did Cash, from a chaos of rage and talent into the voice that tames the savage beasts of Folsom prison and wins the heart of the woman he loves.
7 GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK | Before there was Fox News, there was Edward R. Murrow. In the 1950s on his TV program See It Now, Murrow took on the powers that be and made them come clean. His biggest fish was Senator Joseph McCarthy, the demagogue behind the Red Scare. George Clooney re-creates this history with meticulous and stirring verve and detail. He keeps the intensity high with overlapping sound and a roving camera reminiscent of Robert Altman, and the black-and-white photography evokes a world inside a kinescope tube. But itís David Strathairnís Murrow ó arch, chain-smoking, undaunted ó who makes the movie.
8 GEGEN DIE WAND|HEAD-ON | The opening scene of German director Fatih Akinís masterpiece lives up to both its German title and the English translation: Cahit, a Turkish Berliner, drives his car into a wall. He ends up in a psych ward where suicidal fellow Turk Sibel targets him. The only way she can free herself from her family is by marrying a Turkish man; the only way Cahit can free himself from tragic memories is by marrying Sibel. So why doesnít this marriage of inconvenience work out? Such reasonable arrangements donít figure on the unknowns of love and jealousy. Gegen die Wand is an exhilarating experience; the performances crackle, and Akinís dynamic editing, dark imagery, and hip soundtrack enliven its downbeat themes.
9 A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE | The title of David Cronenbergís graphic novel adaptation is open to interpretation. Does it refer to a perpís bloody past? The causes of such behavior? Or maybe all history, for what history isnít one of violence? The film addresses each of these definitions with cold-blooded efficiency and cryptic detachment. Tom Stall, proprietor of a small-town diner, wears an apron until two thugs walk into his establishment and he has to act. Thereafter, Tom no longer knows himself, and his history threatens to turn into his fate. Cronenberg traces violence to its origins and demonstrates its effects with graphic brutality.
10 GRIZZLY MAN | For years, grizzly advocate Timothy Treadwell lived with the bears in Alaska, making videos of his interactions. Then he, and his girlfriend, got eaten. Most of the footage in Werner Herzogís portrait is Treadwellís own: on screen heís a mix of goody-goodiness and conflicted emotions, a Mr. Rogers with issues. The bears look on with good-natured contempt; a pair of foxes steal the show. In the end, as Herzog puts it, Treadwell justified his cause by making great cinema.
Issue Date: December 23 - 29, 2005
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