Top 10 Films of 2005 (plus many more)

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(Note: I've seen roughly 12 of the 200 films in the Village Voice critics poll, and only a few among the City Pages critics' Top Tens--I've reviewed even less; the film titles below link to whatever I've written. So consider these my hopelessly inadequate notes toward a more complete 2000s list, and a recommendation of my colleagues' lists.)

1. Walk the Line It's not as if there weren't already hints that Hollywood could come up with a fresh version of classic visual storytelling and apply it historical melodrama. Seabiscuit sustained a similar spell until the sentimentality of the final third, and Ray rocked its first half hour before turning into a mindless parade of achievement. But Walk the Line never panders or hits autopilot. It's better than those pics, "bio" or otherwise, and more felt than any other fiction film about popular music that I can think of. (Check Blender's recent Top 100 rock movies for comparison.)

As steady, sustained, knowing, warm, and ironic as a great Johnny Cash recording, the picture is bound only by its mission to tell a real-life person's story simply and faithfully, which means packing scenes with portents and structuring for economy. Yet the big moments never thud, and the drama is liberated from the notion that great acting is impersonation. Only the period details are perfect, though they're there to be ignored.

I've talked to music experts who call this the greatest TV movie ever made, and others who insist that some of the songs sung by Joaquin Phoenix (as Johnny Cash) and Reese Witherspoon (as June Carter) are better than the original. I think the mysterious power of Walk the Line lies in the fact that it never stops being about something: about finding your voice as an artist, and finding your partner, and how those two things might be connected. Nothing James Mangold directed before suggests his command here, bringing it all together and bringing it home, without ever spelling it out. (More notes here; official site; I respectfully disagree with J. Hoberman's and Jim Ridley's eloquent reviews.)

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2. Serenity The movie is pressed for time, and saddled with a climax more violent than memorable. But this film is nonetheless one of the more thoroughly entertaining and striking sci-fi/adventure/action films of my adult filmgoing experience--seriously. I won't describe the plot: It's enough to say that the movie gives CG a good name (in the hot blur of spaceships roaring through daylight) and that Gen X fans of the Milennium Falcon will find it truer to the spirit of Star Wars than any of the recent sequels (and a subversive homage to Star Trek as well).

Yes, I am a fan of writer-director Joss Whedon (he of TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel), and yes, I dug the failed TV series Firefly, which served as prequel, and which I consumed entirely on DVD (right up through the commentary on the final episode). But even the non-Whedon fans I know who've seen Serenity seemed carried along--thrilled, laughing, moved. The key words here are "seen the film." Like In Good Company below, the picture was handicapped by oddly wrongheaded ads and poster art, and without even stars to sell the film on talk shows. (Official site; Whedonesque blog; Firefly fan site; interview with CG supervisor; Jim Ridley's review.)

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3. North Country I found this film impossibly moving, both for the story itself, which is better than you'd guess, and for the obvious care that went into telling it. Even if you've never been to Northern Minnesota, you can see right away that the filmmakers went to some lengths to get the details of place, accent, and regional culture right. That kind of thing means something these days. There are no stock townies here, no hints of an antisocial screenwriter pandering to producers' notions of the rural.

In structure, the film resembles such Hollywood working-class issue/Oscar vehicles as The China Syndrome, Silkwood, and Norma Rae, and courtroom drama variations such as The Accused, John Girsham's The Rainmaker, and Erin Brockovich. Charlize Theron's performance belongs in that company: She doesn't just sound Minnesotan, as a female miner fighting sexual harassment in the early '80s. She looks, acts, and emotes like an Iron Ranger. (I say this as somebody who is in love with one.) But this picture is a cut above, and might be looked back on with more enthusiasm once the career of director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) takes off. Adapting a 2003 book about a real-life lawsuit at the Mesabi mine--the first class-action suit for sexual harassment--Caro and screenwriter Michael Seitzman don't just pit the mean against the conscientious, but show how the silent tribal codes of a tiny community can be persuasive even among decent people. It's telling that the film, unlike Brockovich, takes an interest in the children and parents who turn away from the protagonist--they aren't just something else to brave. (Even the female lawyer for the mining company is presented as being smarter than clients she despises.)

It's also telling that North Country doesn't show much interest in the lawyer's side of the story: The trial is half after-thought beside the drama in the mines. You'll read criticism that the film hammers on its point, but that couldn't be further from the picture I saw, which doesn't waste a single moment, and manages a surprising amount of humor and color. The slow amplification of harrassment, and the women's reaction to it, simply makes for exciting cinema, as well as good screen melodrama. There's no sense, as in The Accused, that by giving ourselves over to a story, we're being made better people. The scene where Theron's character addresses a union hall (I won't give any details away) lasts not a second longer than it should, and is as good as Sally Field's holding up the union sign in Norma Rae. It's about courage, not guilt, though the film hardly massages our liberal conscience. The movie never pretends that evil group behavior is solely the product of evil individuals.

I've also read complaints about a painful flashback scene (again, I won't give details). The criticism is that it doesn't trust the audience to trust the lead character. I think this sequence says something about how small-town reputations are fragile, and about how men rewire their brains to the needs of ego. If the melodrama cracked the film's realism, I never noticed (perhaps thanks to the best and best-used cast in an American film this year: Sean Bean, Woody Harrelson, Sissy Spacek, and especially Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins). I wept without feeling the tears had been jerked. And when the lights went up in the theater where I saw the movie, half the audience was still sitting there, looking quietly into space. (Official site; Rob Nelson's rave; IMDB; many more links here.)

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4. The White Diamond If Herzog is making the same film over and over again, this is the best version, a documentary about the maker of the smallest blimp in the world, and why this beautiful and dangerous thing should be flown into a remote rain forest of Guyana. (Werner Herzog site.)

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5. In Good Company [2004 film, with a general release in 2005] A comedy romance that shows how far the goal posts have been moved: It's not a satire of corporate culture, per se (like Office Space), but rather a satire of the hyper-corporate type and mindset that takes over when even larger corporations buy out existing companies. The human story at the center also features the first performance by Scarlett Johansson that I can stand--she manages a spectrum of difficult emotions with second-nature naturalism, and brings out a softer, less TV-geared side of That '70s Show's Topher Grace. The script might go slack where it could snap, but I kind of like the easygoing, understated feel of this one. (Official site; Melissa Maerz's review.)

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6. Grizzly Man I think the nature-film-within-the-documentary-film deserves slightly more credit than it's getting, even considering that Timothy Treadwell got himself and his girlfriend eaten by a bear. He should be judged for that, of course, and he showed other signs of mania on camera before the end. Yet the bear footage posthumously pieced together by Werner Herzog is like nothing you've ever seen. And if Treadwell hadn't acted recklessly around a bear he could tell regarded him as food, we might be spared Herzog's (minor) speechifying about how you really shouldn't mess with nature. (Werner Herzog site; official film site; Terri Sutton's review.)

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7. The Woodsman [2004 film, with a general release in 2005] Redemption of a child molester not through guilt, which was there all along, but through empathy. This is one of those few films that actually deserves the overused adjective "brave." Credit director Nicole Kassell for getting the material: You can see why so many good actors wanted to be a part of it, and give their best: Kevin Bacon, David Alan Grier, Eve, Kyra Sedgwick, Benjamin Bratt, and Mos Def. (Official site; I respectfully disagree with Jim Ridley's thoughtful review.)

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8. Batman Begins What can I say? Either you think the Batmobile's hilarious and really cool or you don't. (Official site; more here.)

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9. Rize Clown dancing and "krumping" in black L.A. get a great hour-long doc that would be utterly classic TV, but with a tacked-on music-video coda to become feature length. Still a great story, and told largely by the dancers themselves. (Official site; more photos here.)

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10. Wedding Crashers As imperfect, to say the least, as any other Wilson/Farrell/Vaughn "Frat Pack" film--yet far funnier. The montage of wedding antics is cheesy warmup, and plenty of other moments go thud: You'd think a movie about knowing your audience would avoid the line about feeling like Jody Foster in The Accused--not offensive, exactly, just deadly unfunny. Christopher Walken (who shakes up even Gigli) is somehow wasted here, and like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the film is structured to redeem itself (bo-ring!). Yet there's some spice in the formula: While Owen Wilson's aging player becomes lovestruck (and less funny, falling for his latest conquest after years of crashing weddings to seduce women), the Vince Vaughn character gets funnier as he becomes more lovelorn. Vaughn is the key to the film, really, finding his first good role since Made as a glutton for the abuse he so richly deserves.

Like the nympho mom, the "gay son" character is a big miss (the psychotic artist son in Flirting With Disaster at least had style), but I don't find it homophobic. The gags in these comedies are almost always at the expense of the machismo and/or strenuously avowed heterosexuality of the straight male leads. (The exception being that awful scene in Anchorman where one machoman practically comes out to his buds; the concept there is played for homophobic discomfort. But even then, it's borderline.)

Think of the DVD commentary on Arrested Development's second season, where creators admit to having re-shot a particular David Cross scene because it was "too homophobic." You could wonder about that "too." But humor about homophobia is not the same thing as homophobic humor--note the difference in tone and subtext between "I'm gay" jokes in Three's Company and those in Friends (a nuance in which you could measure the effects of queer activism and influence over two decades). Ditto sexism and ditto racism, by the way. (Job's black puppet in Arrested Developement is funny exactly because of Job's racism, not in spite of it.)

Anyway, the guy-guys in Wedding Crashers are just nerdy enough (with their elaborately numbered system of rules, and open fear of emotional vulnerability) that the empathy they generate is hardly about male-bonding, no matter how many "Maxim babes" director David Dobkin (of the way lamer Shanghai Nights) throws at his story. For counterpoint, the bad guys are like a preppie nightmare version of the heroes. (I respectfully disagree with Molly Priesmeyer's and Jessica Winter's eloquent pans; official site; ILE "Frat Pack" thread.)

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11. War of the Worlds The happy ending is too roundly pat, and the youth-to-war scene is painfully simplified. But I think this film's pessimism about human nature in times of chaos is pretty persuasive, its flirtation with ugliness daring. Tom Cruise is a convincingly shitty father who slightly improves out of necessity. (The peanut butter scene is to this Spielberg aliens picture what mashed potatoes or pizza were to previous ones.) I also think the sound and sights are just really scary. They evoke our modern fears, but then so did every other version of the story. (I respectfully, and more from my gut than anything else, disagree with Rob Nelson's and Stuart Klawans's thoughtful pans; official site.)

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12. The Ballad of Jack and Rose The first anti-'60s-utopian film in years that might actually have a point: A commune owned by a rich environmentalist (Daniel Day Lewis) has dwindled down to himself and his daughter (Rose Slavin), who share a bond so close that it borders on sexual tension. Since dad is terminally sick, he brings the world into their Eden rather than venturing out (or sending her away), inviting his girlfriend (Catherine Keener) and her sons to move in--with chaotic results. The film was widely panned, but to me, the characters are so creatively drawn, well acted, and sensitively directed that it's easy to look past writer-director Rebecca Miller's seeming (and only occasional) inability to place a camera. The writerly flourishes and blatant symbolism are also minor: This is a meaty drama, and it very plausibly deepens from awkward bedroom farce into an idealist's tragedy--the Day Lewis character comes to see the wetlands-emptying neighbor (a very good Beau Bridges) as his opposite number. (IFC site; Terri Sutton's lonely praise.)

13. The Green Bus V. the White House What I feared would be another canonization of Paul Wellstone turns out to be an expertly paced campaign-trail doc covering the last three weeks of the 2002 U.S. Senate race in Minnesota--a race that, for Republicans, became a dry run for defeating Kerry in the 2004 presidential election. The film just happened to be in progress when the Wellstones' plane went down, and now emerges as a time capsule of its moment. A remarkable work from a first-time director, Sally Hanley, who slants left, but with eyes open, and has no hang ups talking to anyone in the room. (Hanley Productions site; blurb.)

14. No Time For Cold Feet Minnesota cuteness bordering on mania is the subject of this other well-told doc, this time about the St. Paul treasure hunt. (Official site.)

15. Minnesota Stories Great to see a good idea pan out better than anyone had any right to expect: online, anyone-can DIY doc videography done funny and fast. (Official site; blurb.)

16. Mondovino [screened in Minneapolis in 2004 at Get Real] The politics of wine turn out to be a lot like the politics of every other globalized industry, but with more colorful characters and dogs. (Official site.)

17. March of the Penguins For some, he's maxing out his welcome, but I could listen to Morgan Freeman read my phone bill. This time he narrates a story everyone really should know, the not-quite-so-winged migration of penguins in the Arctic--and it turned out the mass audience agrees that these birds are just fun to watch. Also the year's most erotic film. (Official site; Caroline Palmer's review.)


Also worth renting (* = cheesy fun):

The 40-Year-Old-Virgin [overrated, but still funny]
930 F Street (review; blurb)
The Amityville Horror*
Bad News Bears
Crash
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (even better is this SNL rap video about it)
Fantastic Four*
Hip-Hop Colony
Hitch
Inexplicable: Mission of Burma (work in progress; blurb)
The Island*
Lord of War*
Mysterious Skin [though I'd recommend this only to Araki fans]
Sin City [also overrated, but solid for a half hour or so]
Spectrum: Minnesota Soundtracks Vol. 3 (blurb)
Twisted*
We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen
The Wild Condition (reviewed as work in progress)


Re-releases/repertoire:

Scene Minneapolis: 1977 - 1986 (preview; blurb)
The Sound Unseen edition of Search and Rescue (included a great film with New Orleans footage; blurb)
Two by Scorsese (beautiful print of Italian American; blurb)
Sign O' the Times (preview; blurb)
Vagabunden Karawane
The T.A.M.I. Show
East of Eden
Artie Shaw: Time Is All You've Got
Destijl Presents...


Disliked:

The Aviator
Guess Who
Ripley's Game


Hated:

Assault on Precinct 13
The Dukes of Hazzard
Imaginary Heroes
The Phantom of the Opera
Must Love Dogs
The Ring 2


TV on DVD/video:

Deadwood Season 1
The Wire (scroll down) Seasons 1 and 2
Arrested Development Seasons 1 and 2 (official site; fan site; ILE thread)
Curb Your Enthusiasm Season 4
Six Feet Under Season 4


Film event/performance:

DJ Spooky's ReBirth of a Nation (summary; preview)


2004 films on DVD (* = cheesy fun):

Before Sunset
Fat Albert*
Hotel Rwanda
In Good Company [see above]
Lightening In a Bottle
Los Angeles Plays Itself
Million Dollar Baby
Sideways
The Take
Tarnation
Team America: World Police
Venus of Mars
The Village


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Best rumor:

"Christopher Walken for president"


More 2005 film lists: City Pages Top Tens, Village Voice critics poll, Rob's Voice ballot, Roger Ebert, David Edelstein (leaving Slate), the Onion, David Thomson, Anthony Lane (on the dire state of cinema), Stuart Klawans (his defense of Munich), Metacritic, list of movies released in 2005, DVD Talk, IMDB, the AFI, "industry insiders" at IndieWire, BBC, and the film section of Rex's 2005 list of lists.



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