Click here to read the 2005 Movie Club discussion.
In this year's Movie Club, three critics (Scott Foundas of the LA Weekly, Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, and A.O. Scott of the New York Times) will disagree with me over which of the films of 2005 are masterpieces, which are noble failures, and which are mere irritants. But I hope we'll agree that movies matter again. In an age in which the true workings of the world are either concealed from us or repressed by us, in which language is used to obfuscate more often than enlighten, it's a tonic to find cinema, the most hypnotic and demagogic of media, doing its bit to bring us back to reality. 2005 was a year in which the most potent critiques of our popular culture came from within—a glint of hope in a darkening age.
As usual, I have too many favorites—and am too self-indulgent—to settle for a "10-best" list. However, the movies below are in order of preference, so the rigorous and decimal-minded among you may feel free to lop off numbers 11 through 20.
3. Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
4. Me and You and Everyone We Know
5. War of the Worlds
6. The Aristocrats
7. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
8. Ballets russes
9. Grizzly Man
10. Nobody Knows
11. Mysterious Skin
12. The Best of Youth
13. Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic
14. Funny Ha Ha
15. Skeleton Key
16. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
17. Darwin's Nightmare
18. Nine Lives
19. William Eggleston in the Real World*
The asterisks signal a prejudice in favor of two old friends. Michael Almereyda directed William Eggleston in the Real World, one of the most inspired documentary portraits of an artist I've ever seen. Not only does Almereyda illuminate the method in the photographer's madness, but with his own empathic camera helps you to see the world through Eggleston's eyes—to perceive the eternal in all the crumbling ephemera. Homecoming, directed by Joe Dante from a script by (my friend) Sam Hamm, is an episode of Showtime's Masters of Horror series—a cartoonish but passionate and incendiary tale of American soldiers who rise from their coffins to cast votes against the administration that sent them off to war under false pretenses. Dante put it concisely in the Village Voice: "This pitiful zombie movie, this fucking B movie, is the only thing anybody's done about this issue that's killed 2,000 Americans and untold numbers of Iraqis? It's fucking sick."
Speaking of which: I've gotten hate mail in the last few days about my review of Munich, a film that dramatizes the foggy border between self-defense and vengeance. But merely to say that is to invite the fiercest denunciation. A reader forwarded my review to one of the film's more severe critics, who responded: "There is a huge difference—a great moral division—between the goals of the two sides in these conflicts. The failure to see that gap isn't realism. It is moral blindness and that is a malady that seems to afflict many of our intellectuals and those who pretend to be intellectuals these days." I don't pretend to be an intellectual—more like a pragmatist (as well as a fervent supporter of Israel's existence) who would rather see an end to the killing on both sides than to cling righteously to the high ground, either moral or geographic. Munich is both a revenge film and a colloquium on revenge—a rare thriller that builds to a devastating implosion.
As for War of the Worlds, the other Steven Spielberg movie on my list: Some critics were appalled that the director would use imagery that evokes 9/11 in the service of a "popcorn" sci-fi blockbuster. Forgive me, but I thought movies—even big-budget summer sci-fi movies—were supposed to help us work through our national traumas. (The original Godzilla, of course, was a haunting Japanese reworking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) Spielberg's fluid mastery is breathtaking. And H.G. Wells' larger point—that a superior force can be undone by a lack of understanding of the foe on a micro level—is not exactly irrelevant to our current predicament, either. Tom Cruise gives the best and least fussy performance of his career. Too bad he had to distract us from that with the worst and fussiest performances of his career—as himself, on TV.
For a decade, maybe longer, Spielberg seemed washed-up, a victim of his own precocious talents and unprecedented success. His style had become too self-consciously limpid, and his films had lost the texture of reality. He didn't need the real world: He could afford to build his own. I was hopeful when I heard of his interest in making a "Dogma"-style film—in taking a vow of poverty and curbing his Hollywood-mogul reflexes. But I never dreamed I'd see a run like this.
You can read my reviews by following the individual links, but some of my choices beg for explanations. Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know has been largely viewed in the context of its twee solo-performance-artiness or its depiction of childrens' fascination with all things sexual. What makes it work for me is its amazing portrait of an increasingly solipsistic culture. This is a meditation on the mediated life, in which face-to-face encounters are extraordinarily fraught and people reach out via online chat rooms or performance art—or, failing the above, retreat into fantasy.
Skeleton Key and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang won't make too many 10-best lists. The first is a straight genre (horror) film, the second a jokey, reflexive noir. But Skeleton Key, directed by Ian Softley, is packed with marvels, from its New Orleans and New Iberian settings (the last glimpse of the "old" New Orleans we'll ever have?) to a plot that turns—hauntingly—on historical racial injustice and the gris-gris that meets it more than halfway. And what performances by Kate Hudson and Gena Rowlands! Shane Black's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is both a hilarious dismantling of the gumshoe genre and a triumphant assertion of its right to exist. And what a great comeback by Robert Downey Jr., with all his boyish handsomeness and morbid self-disgust intact!
Four films that I didn't review in Slate are The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Ballets russes, Darwin's Nightmare, and Nine Lives.
Three Burials ... is directed by and stars Tommy Lee Jones, from a script by Guillermo Arriaga. Like Arriaga's other scripts, 21 Grams (which I detested) and Amores Perros (which I admired), this is a tale of redemption—implicitly if not explicitly Christian in construction and imagery—in which Old Testament vengeance is choked off and a man of violence, after enduring a horrifically sustained punishment, is reborn. The syntax in the first third is overly fancy, and a key relationship (between Jones' rancher Pete and Julio Cesar Cedillo's Melquiades, the hired Mexican hand found dead in border country) isn't especially well dramatized. But once Pete begins his long journey on horseback with Melquiades' killer (a border patrol officer played by Barry Pepper) and his ghoulishly decaying corpse, the movie begins to breathe and then get into your bloodstream. Three Burials ... has the year's best widescreen cinematography (by the great Chris Menges) and the best minimal score (by Marco Beltrami). And Jones—never better than when he plays a mean S.O.B. with only the teensiest flicker of humanity—is just about peerless.