Seeing movies in a theater has become decidedly unpleasant, and the home experience is quickly approximating the big screen, so it’s not surprise that ticket sales and grosses plummeted last year. Still, there was much to rejoice about. Seriously. Even the summer slag was cool (Batman Begins, Wedding Crashers) and the fall brought a slew of vital, uncompromising, and politically charged films: Brokeback Mountain, A History of Violence, Munich, Primer, Hustle and Flow, The Constant Gardner, Capote, Syriana, and Grizzly Man. Whether or not the theater industry continues its self-asphyxiation (hey guys, even if ads before movies boost sluggish sales, did you ever think they are the reason for sluggish sales?) or if exponential technological growth creates a theatrical renaissance, the current cultural and aesthetic climate of films could be a lot worse.
#1: Brokeback Mountain
Miraculous. Risking hyperbole, Brokeback Mountain was the most remarkable, engrossing, and passionate film of the year. Ang Lee, who before this film I would unhesitatingly call the most overrated director in the world, controlled the film with such subtle skill and resonance I would’ve thought it was some dreamy amalgam of Altman and Herzog.
Heath Ledger, who has been one of the worst actors with the worst tastes (A Knight’s Tale, The Patriot, Lords of Dogtown, anyone?) was the second coming of Paul Newman in Hud. Simply incredible—never has an actor so definitely lame been so celestially good. And Larry McMurtry and Diana Osanna elegantly adapted a perfect piece of literature—Annie Proulx’s original indelible story.
Perhaps most amazing is the way this film is playing around the country. Where I live—a neighborhood of many luxury SUVs and “W. The President” bumper stickers—I saw the film to a sold-out house that started out laughing uncomfortably and ended enraptured. Such is the power and greatness of Brokeback—it succeeds as a cosmic paean of love, an aesthetic triumph, and a natural and unpretentious unifier.
#2: A History of Violence
No critically acclaimed film was more reviled by casual viewers. And some supposed film buffs said to me something along the lines of: “That movie sucked. People who like it are just saying that because they feel like they have to.” Well, okay. My response would be that such is the chutzpah of David Cronenberg that he could give a rat’s tail whether people, even film aficionados, even his fans, respond to his relentless vision. See, A History of Violence was not like other great films—it messes around, it’s deliberately cheesy and plastic, it juxtaposes brutal scenes of violence with oddly disquieting moments of Norman Rockwell serenity.
What’s the point to all of this? As in all of Cronenberg’s films, he seeks the recesses—the hidden rot and lust behind our culture. In this case it’s violence, and how it’s the crucial pulse behind our heroes, our morality, our sex, our familial unit, our regimented fears. That he ties this bleak and heady theory up in a nifty and accessible thriller with the echoes of real emotion is a cinematic sleight of hand so deft I truly believe it sailed over many heads. But I’m just saying that because I feel like I have to.
Spielberg was in a bad place before Munich. For the last seven years he had made movies that at best were sprightly, inconsequential fun (Catch Me if You Can) and at worst saccharin, leaden affairs (The Terminal, War of the Worlds)—as if he never wanted to do anything that wasn’t tidy, happy, and clean.
Then in just a few months he made Munich—the least sentimental, grittiest film of his career. The tale of Israeli retribution over the Munich Olympic terrorist massacre by way of covert assassinations and bombings throughout Europe, Munich plays with the nervous clockwork tension of The Conversation. It is functionally a great thriller, complete with a team of vivid characters and tricky, hair-trigger scenes of Hitchcockian suspense. But with co-writer Tony Kushner (Angels in America), Munich is always weighted down by the moral considerations of political violence and revenge. Spielberg’s coup is his brave ambiguity. Munich refuses to take sides or come up with answers to a conflict so bracingly complex and divisive. Finally, Spielberg lays off the fairy dust and proves himself to be an unparalleled chronicler of human and global conditions.
Okay, Primer came out in 2004 (hopefully I will not get fined by the Critic List Proctor). Made for less than $5,000 by working engineers in the Dallas metroplex, Primer is the most realistic time travel film ever made. Two engineers unwittingly discover a time machine and first reap the benefits banally (betting and stocks) before the whole relative time thing catches up to them. Those who complained that the last third of the film was indulgently convoluted missed the point that Primer was seriously and deliberately trying to grapple with the real consequences of time travel.
The wonderful surprise of this movie is its emotional gravitas. The amateur actors are magnetic, the cinematography is stately, even the score (by director/ writer/actor/editor Shane Carruth) is lovely. Primer shows how much you can do with nothing and announces the endless talent of Carruth. If some gutsy studio gave him a modest budget we could have a true successor to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
#5: The Squid and the Whale
Another tiny budgeted masterpiece, Noah Baumbach’s autobiographical film about the disintegration of an intellectual, bohemian family in Brooklyn is damn near perfect. Jeff Daniels, as the pompous, stingy, morose, and artistically declining patriarch, essentially summarizes what Wes Anderson has been attempting with his last two films. The rest of the clan is uniformly iconic and heartbreaking: Laura Linney is sublimely frumpy and narcissistic, the great Jesse Eisenberg (Roger Dodger) is Baumbach’s perfect youthful doppelganger, and Owen Kline (Kevin Kline’s son) effortlessly gives the most raw, nuanced child performance since the kids in Lilya-4-Ever.
Unlike Wes Anderson’s recent movies, which were always dampened by the anxious need to be quirky, cool, and oh-so-smartly retro, The Squid and the Whale is resolute in its honesty and unattractiveness. A tough familial tale, Squid is filled with awkward, biting comedy and backed by a cool soundtrack of Bert Jansch and 80s-era Tangerine Dream.
#6: Hustle and Flow
What a surprise this was. After all, it was backed by MTV, which has earned my endless ire for portraying my generation as a bunch of cut, barb-wired tattooed zombies who do body shots off each other to the worst soundtrack in the history of time. But Hustle and Flow was a great, gritty rags-to-riches tale that simmered with a loving attention to detail. Led by the mesmerizing performance of Terrence Howard, and the shockingly lived-in country weariness of lead hooker Taryn Manning, Hustle and Flow is gripping in its old-fashioned storytelling. When the misfit crew of a pimp, a sound engineer, and a gawky, white church organist come together in a dingy Memphis bungalow and cut a crunk rap track, Hustle and Flow literally glows with some of the greatest art-making scenes I’ve ever seen. Compulsively watchable, it was the strangest but most undeniable fun/feel-good film of the year.
#7: The Constant Gardener
This one got lost in the shuffle because it came out in the dog-day dregs of August (I think it opened the same weekend as Deuce Bigalow: European Gigalow). That’s a shame because Fernando Mereilles’ adaptation of this bitter and quick John Le Carre book is a gas. Led by the slow-burn precision of Ralph Fiennes and the sultry smarts of Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener looked great, was brilliantly edited and scored, and possessed a genuine and palpable outrage. This was also one of the first Western films that didn’t make Africa look like a tourism ad. The Constant Gardner dared to discuss and criticize large, depressing, and controversial topics, but still did not forget that movies should never be pamphlets. After the explosive City of God, Mereilles is proving himself to be both a political firebrand and a giddy cinematic whiz.
Capote is the least perfect film of this list, be it the noxious, overstuffed soundtrack (like Satie on Quaaludes playing in a Barnes and Noble) or its jolting, pretentious silent ending on an airplane (hasn’t U2 made a video like this?). Still, Capote is a bracing and fearless dive into the nature of artistic exploitation. Buoyed by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s virtuosic performance and a holographic evocation of time and place, the film leads the vanguard of new biopics—ones rooted in personal failings, the scope of the subject’s moral capabilities, and the elegiac impermanence of life.
Everyone complained how bewilderingly confusing Syriana was. Hey, that was the point. Geopolitical oil-maneuvering is complex, bleak, cutthroat stuff. And it doesn’t have a tidy plot line. Stephen Gaghan’s directorial debut thrusts us into a world of shifting alliances, backstabbing, pay-to-play political arenas, and the exploitation of the poverty-stricken. It’s not fun, nor light stuff. It is thrilling in its own twisty, brazen way. A beefy George Clooney is the film’s shell-shocked heart-beat, while a large ensemble (especially the Middle-Eastern actors) flesh out the gray canvas with mature understatement. Syriana is a tough, important movie that tanked—depressing in its own right. But its evocation of Arab aristocracy, pasty-faced CIA scheming, and terrorist training camps are forceful and will last.
#10: Grizzly Man
Thank God, the man is back. After the depressingly awful Invincible, my favorite director Werner Herzog returns with an effervescent documentary of narcissism, delusion, and the inevitable destruction of private Edens. Grizzly Man harvested the 100 hours of footage that supremely odd and clueless man-child Timothy Treadwell filmed of himself and wild grizzly bears in the Alaskan wildlife refuge. He stopped filming because, after 13 years of living with bears, one finally ate him and his girlfriend. In the wrong hands, Grizzly Man would have been a crass roast of a dead fool. Instead Herzog sees Treadwell as he sees many of his filmic protagonists—doomed dreamers sinking in the quicksand of their own selfish innocence. The hard truth of Grizzly Man is how the film is an allegory for all of us who get off on our self-purported nobility. The beauty is that Herzog, speaking seemingly from the heart with his magical Schwarzenegger cum Bruce Brown narration, does not condemn, but sees fleeting beauty in his joker vagabond.
The Year’s Worst: Sin City
Once again, I did not have the time, money, nor inclination to see The Fantastic Four, Aeon Flux, Chicken Little, Elizabethtown, ad infinitum. So there is only one “worst.” I’m sure you all can discern what’s terrible by myriad ways (posters, ads, reviews, etc.) If not, then more power to you. Seriously, the world is probably much more fun if you like everything.
I saw this movie after working for 20 hours straight. All I wanted was to be diverted and entertained in my half-comatose state. Instead, watching Sin City is the equivalent of watching someone play their PSP for 2-1/2 hours while waiting for a delayed flight in the Houston airport. This film, which played itself as edgy and stylish and groundbreaking, was really just the masturbatory fever dream of Robert Rodriguez and company. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a big-budget movie that was so hermetic. This was for people who were predetermined to love it. Everyone else was left sinking in their seats to this embalmed wax-museum phantasmagoria. Is it a coincidence or riddle that it’s by far the favorite movie of my former personal trainer and my former mulleted (by toupee) record-store-owning employer who was fond of using “boss” as an adjective? You tell me.
See the Movie Index to find more 10 Best Lists for other years.