This past year won't exactly go down as a high-water mark in the history of cinema. Feb. 24 kicked off an unprecedented 19-week box office slide that carried well into the normally lucrative summer movie season. By the close of 2005, attendance had dropped 11 percent and the box office was down more than five percent from 2004 (which isn't exactly chump change when you're talking about an $8.4 billion industry). The most likely culprit? Bad films. Despite a wealth of Oscar bait that just missed the mark (Cinderella Man, Walk the Line, North Country) and megawatt blockbusters that weren't quite up to snuff (Fantastic Four, War of the Worlds, Stealth), 2005 did manage a few standouts. This, then, is my collection of this year's best of the best:
Batman Begins—Let's see: A summer blockbuster with an intelligent script, a serious director (Memento's Christopher Nolan) and a talented cast of actors as opposed to movie stars (Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman). And it's still a smash hit? Perhaps there's a lesson for Hollywood in there. Maybe it isn't the amount of money you pay Will Smith or the number of explosions you insert that make a movie successful. Every struggling movie franchise in creation (James Bond, are you listening?) would do well to heed this smartly revamped series.
Brokeback Mountain—It's not a “gay cowboy movie.” It's just a movie about cowboys. Who are gay. It's also a watershed romance in Hollywood history. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal bring Annie Proulx's heartbreaking short story to life as two ranch hands who share a tent one lonely night and kick off a lifetime of repression, secrecy and unfulfilled emotion. Director Ang Lee's beauteous style mirrors the film's melancholy message with poetic economy.
Good Night and Good Luck—George Clooney's second outing as director (after 2002's underrated Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) achieves perfection in simplicity. With its raw cinematography, nonexistent score and quiet acting, Good Night and Good Luck seems more documentary than film. But this biopic about pioneering broadcaster Edward R. Murrow (the Oscar-worthy David Strathairn) is also this year's most clearheaded swipe against America's current political culture—a rousing, “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it” call for vigilance.
A History of Violence—Cult director David Cronenberg (Videodrome, eXistenZ) came out of the woodwork to prove he can make mainstream action films with the best of them. But, to show he's even better than that, he secretly (and quite subtly) turned this simple comic book adaptation into a dark, deeply philosophical rumination on violence in America (and American movies). Another simmering performance by Viggo Mortensen (Lord of the Rings), matched step-for-step by the increasingly incredible Maria Bello (The Cooler).
Howl's Moving Castle—I love the work of Japanese master animator Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away). His films will invariably end up on my top 10 lists. There may, one day, be an exception to the rule, but this rich adaptation of the young adult novel by British writer Diana Wynne Jones isn't it. Presenting a fantasy world as fully realized as the one in Wizard of Oz, this dark fairy tale touches on everything from war to patriotism to responsibility to puberty to the good and bad nature in all of us with masterful skill.
Jarhead—I assume everyone was expecting either a rousing war film or a nasty rip on messieurs Bush and Bush. How else to explain the cool reception to Sam Mendes' (American Beauty) visually striking adaptation of Anthony Swofford's autobiography about life during Operation Desert Storm? Watching bored soldiers with lots of firepower and nothing to shoot at seems more like a near-surreal episode of “Seinfeld” than an update of Platoon—which is precisely the point. Maybe war isn't good or bad. Maybe it's just nuts.
King Kong—Peter Jackson's epic redo of Merian C. Cooper's classic monster movie is pure popcorn perfection. This is what good, old-fashioned moviemaking is all about: action, drama, romance and a cast of thousands! Kong takes special effects into the 21st century, creating a digital character that is as real as any human being. Once the technicians did their job, it was up to Jackson to sell us these characters—and he did, delivering the most thrilling and touching screen romance this year. (Sorry cowboys.)
Kung Fu Hustle—In a year that seemed to suck most of the fun out of going to the movies, it took a two-year-old Hong Kong film to show us what movies are all about. Writer/director/star Stephen Chow mixes old-fashioned martial arts, high-tech Matrix-inspired special effects and a heaping helping of Chuck Jones-style cartoon-fueled mayhem to create this comic gem. It's Chow's unbridled love for all things cinematic that makes this over-the-top-and-back-again mixture of Bruce Lee and Bugs Bunny such a kick in the funnybone.
Look At Me—Agnés Jaoui's intimate social satire works because--for all its criticism of the human condition--it is a deeply humane film. This sharp-witted, deeply perceptive look at how all the stupid, selfish things we do screw up our relationships with others focusses on two intelligent, upscale French families and the repercussions (both good and bad) that occur when their two orbits start to intermingle. With the tiniest of strokes (and, it must be acknowledged, the best of actors), Jaoui paints richly realized portraits of characters who--for all their flaws--are hard to hate and easy to sympathize with.
Munich—Steven Spielberg's timely take on the 1973 Olympic massacre and (more importantly) Israel's subsequent program of retaliation against the terrorist instigators has been very controversial, mostly because of its noncommittal moral stance. But that's the bravery of Spielberg's film; he wanted to kick off a discussion about the nature of reprisal and revenge, and he has. Viewed simply as a political thriller, the film is right up there with the best of the suspense genre. But, with its final, quietly shocking image, Spielberg is asking us the same fundamental question that Good Night and Good Luck proposes: Have we forgotten our history, and are we doomed to repeat it?
(Also rans: The Aristocrats, Broken Flowers, Capote, The Constant Gardener, Crash, Junebug, Head-On, Oldboy, Sin City, The Squid and the Whale)