It may not go down as a great year for movies, but 2005 has certainly been a great year for movies worth talking about. With an unexpected surge of politically provocative films such as Syriana; Good Night, And Good Luck; Munich; Lord Of War; and A History Of Violence, narrative features finally caught up with their documentary counterparts in addressing the issues of the day. At year's end, moviegoers are engaging in animated discussions over oil and gun trafficking, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, gay tolerance in Middle America, and the potentially wacky consequences of siring dozens of children. Not wanting to ruffle any feathers, The A.V. Club has hailed Noah Baumbach's funny, sharply observed coming-of-age film The Squid And The Whale as our consensus favorite. Okay, we'd actually be happy to ruffle feathers, but we just really like that movie. And that doesn't mean we excused ourselves from the debate. What follows are the best, the worst, and the most stupefying movies the year had to offer.
1. The Squid And The Whale
Unlike Noah Baumbach's mannered early comedies, this unflinching dissection of an academic family in decline has the visual immediacy of a French New Wave film or a vérité documentary. It's structured like an especially punchy New Yorker short story, and set in a grimy mid-'80s Brooklyn milieu that's the literati version of squalor. At the center of the story is Baumbach's alter ego, a teenage narcissist whose overanalytical parents have taught him that being an asshole is some kind of heroic act. When he realizes their mistake, he drops from smug surety to blind panic, in ways that are both hilarious and terrifying.
2. Brokeback Mountain
3. Cinderella Man
Journeyman middlebrow craftsman Ron Howard has finally made a great film, combining the themes of Parenthood and Apollo 13 with the visual dazzle of the overrated Oscar-winner A Beautiful Mind. Though Cinderella Man's optimistic boxing hero doesn't dwell on the depression of The Depression, Howard certainly does, making the contrast between the civilized suburbia of the movie's opening scenes and the devastation that follows into an almost post-apocalyptic vision of America in the '30s. But the movie's ultimate message is that hard times are like boxing matches, in that competitors have to have faith that when the bell rings, the punching will stop.
4. Mysterious Skin
5. My Summer Of Love
Though Pawel Pawlikowski's moody love story is funny, heartbreaking, and thoroughly accessible, it's still the kind of movie that's more about how it sounds when a man pulls up a blade of grass than about who that man actually is. The three-way romance—between a Bible-thumper, his bratty sister, and her rich friend—plays out like a Biblical parable, with an Edenic small town having its peace threatened by a snakeskin-clad, apple-eating harlot. But Pawlikowski mainly uses the primal story hooks to pull the audience into a world of cinematic texture. The whole movie has the quality of an unplanned nap on a grassy hill.
7. Kung Fu Hustle
8. Nobody Knows
9. Tony Takitani
10. A History Of Violence
Love springs darn near eternal in movies around the world: In Kim Ki-Duk's 3-Iron, two bruised young lovers break into strangers' houses, looking for a perfect fit. In Fatih Akin's Head-On, a marriage of convenience becomes an impossible romantic ideal. In Jacques Audiard's The Beat That My Heart Skipped, an aspiring concert pianist tries to prove himself worthy of the love of thugs and aesthetes alike. In Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice, a dour but noble aristocrat wins the heart of an independent-minded commoner. And in Mike Mitchell's Sky High, teenage superheroes fight hormones as well as villains.
Nearly every year, the paucity of good roles for women means there are more praiseworthy performances by actors than actresses. But this year, the quality of top female turns makes up for the diminished quantity. In the leading and supporting categories alike, indelible work was done by actresses Sasha Andres (She's One Of Us), Rachel McAdams (Red Eye), Nathalie Press (My Summer Of Love), Tilda Swinton (The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe) and Maria Bello (A History Of Violence). But the most memorable performance came in Walk The Line, an otherwise hit-and-miss movie. Alongside her co-star Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon brought the romantic struggles of June Carter and Johnny Cash to vivid life, and Witherspoon in particular provided a unique insight into a country-music legend who acted like a ditz onstage but kept a family together through the force of her righteousness.
Miranda July's feature-filmmaking debut Me And You And Everyone We Know has an offhanded, "this is a moment in time" quality, and her actors look and behave like people trying not to be self-conscious about the camera pointing at them. July finds a thick streak of prosaic romanticism in her low-rent L.A. suburban milieu, but her emotional range runs from cute to smarmy, and what's missing are recognizable human relationships. Sex comes up a lot in Me And You, but it's exclusively theoretical. July doesn't give her characters depth enough for the audience to imagine them being intimate, or even lusty. They're paper dolls, all of them, and July's the type of annoyingly quirky person who thinks paper dolls should hang in art galleries.
Director Curtis Hanson makes a valiant attempt at transforming the artificiality of chick-lit into something more like life with In Her Shoes, which follows the scattered love interests and family members of two mismatched sisters. Hanson arguably gets more out of location shoots than any other contemporary mainstream director, and here he contrasts Philly's lived-in spaces with a Florida retirement community, while framing them both in off-center compositions that emphasize how people talk past each other, not to each other. He takes the episodic, melodramatic material seriously, and films it like shambling '70s-style Cinema Americana—more Five Easy Pieces than Bridget Jones's Diary.
Writer-director Richard Ledes puts enough style into his debut film A Hole In One to suggest that maybe it won't be entirely forgotten, but only if he makes something better someday. On its own terms, A Hole In One is hopelessly nutty, right down to a premise that has Michelle Williams playing the lobotomy-craving moll to gangster crooner Meat Loaf. Intrepid souls who dig it out of the dollar bin a decade from now can look forward to the scene where Meat Loaf sings a jazzy rendition of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" to his hired goons. They shouldn't anticipate much else.
It probably isn't polite to kick a well-meaning documentary like 39 Pounds Of Love, which just wants to tell a nice story about the simple aspirations of a severely handicapped man. But when soft-soap feel-good tripe like this makes the short list for the Academy Awards' Best Documentary category while great films like Grizzly Man, Double Dare, Reel Paradise, and the all-but-unknown Sheriff get overlooked, it's time to get a little cranky.
1. A History Of Violence
How did David Cronenberg make an unapologetic piece of pulp that's also a subtle investigation into the violent instincts still lodged next to the human heart? Slowly. After a shocking opening, the film lulls viewers into a comfortable portrait of small-town America and a happy family—led by Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello—that calls it home. Then a bloody act of heroism ruins it all by revealing what's been there all along. The film's central plot point could easily have been an eye-roller, but the combination of Cronenberg's austere approach, Mortensen's beneath-the-skin performance, and the intense support of Bello, Ed Harris, and William Hurt make it profound.
2. The Squid And The Whale
3. King Kong
4. Brokeback Mountain
Wong Kar-Wai's follow-up to In The Mood For Love reportedly began life as a very different movie. Somehow, it assumed the shape it was always supposed to have. A more or less direct sequel to Mood, 2046 spins science-fiction asides out of Tony Leung's post-Mood heartbreak as he finds comfort in a series of doomed romances and never-to-be infatuations. Wong captures the beauty in Leung's sadness, in a tribute to love's losers, beautiful and otherwise.
6. Grizzly Man
7. Pride & Prejudice
There are enough uninspired literary adaptations out there to make the whole enterprise of turning classics into films seem questionable. Then there are films like the Joe Wright-directed Pride & Prejudice that make it all seem worthwhile. A lean, cinematic take on Jane Austen's most beloved novel, Wright's film captures the comedy and the heartache of early 19th-century courtship without a dollop of extra starch. It made most of this year's contemporary romantic comedies look behind the times.
8. Batman Begins
9. The New World
What do Nobody Knows—Hirokazu Koreeda's harrowing story of four abandoned children—and Nick Park's claymation mock-horror movie Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit have in common? Apart from their ability to immerse viewers in previously unimagined worlds, not too much. But that's part of why we go to movies, isn't it? The experience never has to be the same. Some of the best films of 2005 played with expectations: In Broken Flowers, Jim Jarmusch took Bill Murray on a Homeric journey for a lost child that revealed much about its hero even as it deepened his confusion. Steven Spielberg's Munich begins as an almost-conventional political thriller and ends as a trip into the dark heart of underground politics. And as for that dumb sex comedy The 40-Year-Old Virgin, was there a film with bigger laughs or a more sensitive romance last year? (Answer: no.)
Every gesture counts in Jeff Daniels' performance as the failing patriarch in Noah Baumbach's The Squid And The Whale. Nobody gets off easy in Baumbach's semi-autobiographical chronicle of an '80s divorce. But Daniels' character—with his comic self-regard, toxic arrogance, and unquestioning sense of rightness—gets off least easily of all. It's a credit to Daniels that, working beneath a beard that acts as a mask and staying within an emotional register that seldom rises above a four, he finds a character who's human after all.
Hooray! Ingmar Bergman made another movie. Boo! It's Saraband, a tortured return to well-worn themes that's unattractively shot on DV and feels about three hours longer than its two-hour running time.
It was either the best terrible movie of the year or the worst great one, but once seen, it's hard to shake Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown. A film straight from the heart, it takes a big risk in asking audiences to follow along through a highly personal film about failure, loss, and magical, life-affirming pixie women. It also fails big. Orlando Bloom is inscrutable as the lead, Kirsten Dunst does the best she can with an impossible part, and you can almost hear the life draining out of some scenes. (It's that low, fizzing noise beneath all those Tom Petty songs.) And yet somehow it remains an affecting depiction of how to use family, friends, and transcendent bits of pop culture to patch a life back together. Crowe believes it so strongly that it's hard not to believe along with him.
For one brief moment, technology, the popularity of Hilary Duff, and the availability of Heather Locklear conspired to create The Perfect Man, in which the terminally chipper Duff tries to cheer up mom Locklear by becoming her online secret admirer. Unintentionally creepy? You bet. But not quite as creepy as the film's attempt to co-opt online culture. "Hey, all you bloggers!", Duff begins one entry in her online diary. Coming soon to a little-visited corner of the Netflix warehouse near you.
Honestly, worse movies than Dirty Love were probably released this year. But none were as singularly terrible. Written by star Jenny McCarthy and directed by her husband John Mallory Asher (the pair had separated by the time of the publicity tour), it would be just another living-and-loving-in-L.A. comedy if it weren't for, you know, the scene where McCarthy floods a supermarket with her menstrual fluid. (Much slippin' 'n' slidin' ensues.) Or Carmen Electra's virtual-blackface performance as McCarthy's gun-toting, Ebonics-slangin' pal. Or the scene where McCarthy bares a puke-covered breast. The list, sadly, goes on.
1. The Squid And The Whale
2. A History Of Violence
3. My Summer Of Love
4. Me And You And Everyone We Know
5. Grizzly Man
6. Broken Flowers
At some point, Bill Murray will probably have to stop playing wealthy, stoic, depressed misfits in delicately wrought, bittersweet comedy-dramas about complicated, inexpressive men wrestling with mid-life crises. But when the results are as consistently transcendent as Rushmore, Lost In Translation, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, and this year's Broken Flowers, it's hard to begrudge Murray a character type that's paid such rich creative dividends. Jim Jarmusch's sadly beautiful road comedy-drama Broken Flowers takes Murray's late-period minimalism to lovely, lyrical new places, building slowly but surely into a powerful meditation on aging, the passage of time, relationships, and the fragility of human connections.
7. Brokeback Mountain
8. Kung Fu Hustle
Between Peter Jackson's King Kong and Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle, 2005 might very well go down as the year critics and audiences alike learned to stop worrying and love CGI effects. Stephen Chow's deliriously fun, exhilaratingly kinetic kung-fu comedy brilliantly uses computer effects to expand the vocabulary and possibilities of action-comedy, creating a fusion of live-action silliness and surreal, cartoonish exaggeration the likes of which Frank Tashlin could only dream about.
9. King Kong
The eye-popping CGI setpieces and kick-ass fights featuring red-hot giant-ape-on-dinosaur violence might lure the masses into the multiplexes, but the quieter moments in King Kong resonate the strongest and linger the longest, from Naomi Watts trotting out her old vaudeville tricks to entertain the eponymous simian to the lyrical sequence in which Kong discovers ice. Who could have guessed that one of the year's most poignant cinematic relationships would be between a melancholy actress and a 25-foot ape with anger-control issues?
10. Nobody Knows
Along with the usual surplus of bloated monstrosities, American studios turned out a surprising number of stellar big-budget spectacles this year. Two of the best were Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan's masterful, refreshingly dark resurrection of the venerable hero, and War Of The Worlds, an edge-of-the-seat triumph of old-school thriller craftsmanship and new-fangled technology courtesy of Steven Spielberg. The overachieving Spielberg also turned out Munich, a haunting examination of the consequences and nature of vengeance that's also an elegant allegory for the War On Terror. Judd Apatow and Steve Carell's "coming-of-middle-age" sex-comedy The 40-Year-Old Virgin wasn't anywhere near as heavy, but it was unexpectedly tender and multi-dimensional, nicely balancing goofy sex gags with more character-based comedy. Lastly, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit brought Nick Park's beloved man-dog duo to the big screen with their low-key humor and distinctly British charm intact.
As the incandescent, inscrutable beauty, Emily Blunt has by far the flashiest role in My Summer Of Love. Blunt's beguiling, self-styled "fantasist" propels the film to dizzying heights, but Nathalie Press, as the young woman drawn to her, carries Pawel Pawlikowski's haunting coming-of-age movie, investing her winning protagonist with equal parts vulnerability and strength, plus a deceptively sardonic sense of humor. In her own inconspicuous way, she's every bit Blunt's equal.
Woody Allen once invited sky-high expectations, but these days the bar has been set so low that critics are ready to hail anything not as egregiously awful as Anything Else as a miraculous return to form. This year, Allen interrupted his long string of listless, unfunny comedies with the muddled half-comedy/half-drama/total disappointment Melinda And Melinda and the stiff, uninvolving, overrated drama Match Point, which deals with class in the same clumsy, ham-fisted, subtext-free manner in which Crash deals with race. Sure, it looks great, and Scarlett Johansson's performance is strong enough to make viewers forget she's reprising Anjelica Huston's role in Crimes And Misdemeanors, but Match Point does little to refute the notion that Allen has perhaps permanently lost his ability to create engaging, multi-dimensional characters or convincing dialogue.
Neil Jordan's Breakfast On Pluto is the kind of quirky, self-consciously minor sleeper that tends to get lost in the shuffle unless it gets loaded with awards. Jordan's adaptation of Patrick McCabe's novel does little to hide its literary origins: It's less a streamlined narrative than a series of whimsical, episodic adventures united by an unforgettable protagonist. Cillian Murphy, so terrifying as the scariest Batman villain ever in Batman Begins, does a complete 180 as the film's pixieish lead, a sweet little transvestite who stumbles through funny-sad encounters with a colorful cast of characters, including Stephen Rea's sad-eyed magician, Brendan Gleeson's rage-filled theme-park employee, and an unexpectedly creepy Bryan Ferry.
What really needs to be said about a movie that begins with the world's longest explanatory crawl, plus a long expository flashback, and still manages to be wildly incomprehensible? Or a movie in which the casting of professional party-girl Tara Reid as a brilliant, bespectacled museum curator registers as its most plausible and realistic aspect? Only that it's the wonderfully awful Alone In The Dark, yet another mind-boggling, hilariously convoluted video-game adaptation from Uwe Boll, a Teutonic super-hack seemingly angling to become Europe's answer to Ed Wood.
Are We There Yet? boasted a marginally more toxic nails-on-chalkboard quality, but it'd be hard to beat Monster-In-Law for brittle, ugly misanthropy. If Jane Fonda's sad return to acting after a 15-year hiatus were merely an awful, desperate, flailing, brutally unfunny Meet The Parents knockoff, it'd be depressing enough. But the film's reprehensible gender politics and raging misogyny are what make it the year's worst.
Oldboy starts off with an irresistible premise—without explanation, unseen captors imprison a drunken lout in a dingy apartment for 15 years, then unexpectedly release him. South Korean director Park Chan-wook then turns the story over to his protagonist's obsessive, horrifically violent attempts to find and confront his captor. A near-overload of visual style, a viciously dark sense of humor, and a breathlessly unfolding story made this one of the year's most memorable and unnerving cinematic experiences.
2. Grizzly Man
Yet another in Werner Herzog's long line of films about reckless madmen who get lost in their dreams, this stunning documentary revolves around the extensive video footage that misanthropic wildlife activist Timothy Treadwell took of himself living among, discussing, and interacting with Alaskan grizzly bears, one of which eventually killed and ate him. Narrating his own life and unwittingly revealing the deep neuroses and personal contradictions that drove him into the wild, Treadwell makes his footage into riveting train-wreck drama, and Herzog frames and contextualizes his story expertly, with sympathy but without romanticizing Treadwell's fatal choices.
3. The Squid And The Whale
4. Pride & Prejudice
5. Howl's Moving Castle
6. Nobody Knows
The drama of this Japanese feature builds up slowly, as four young children abandoned in a Tokyo apartment attempt to survive on their own. It's far from the first film to follow children caring for themselves and each other, but the naturalistic, winning performances that director Hirokazu Koreeda wangles from his very young cast are breathtaking, and they lend powerful weight to the film's shattering melancholy.
8. Broken Flowers
9. Sin City
In spite of its unlikely false-uplift ending, Stephen Spielberg's War Of The Worlds was a vividly realized portrait of the panic, despair, and disassociation that come with war; the special effects were terrific, but the raw power of the human element made the movie. A similar humanism was also key to The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which brought authentic pathos to its seemingly trashy, glib premise, and to the John Le Carré adaptation The Constant Gardener, which star Ralph Fiennes made into a deeply personal tale of anguish. The Aristocrats was a lively, entertaining discussion of how comedians all slap their own human elements into the dirtiest joke ever told. But humanity had little to do with the success of Nick Park's charming, lunatic claymation feature Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit; the dog-and-bunny elements were far more crucial.
Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice has been adapted numerous times, but Joe Wright's luminous version brings it to fresh new life, and key to that life is Keira Knightley as the emotional cornerstone of her impoverished and at-times-intolerable family. Effortlessly flowing between pride, vivid young love, and self-righteous, wounded indignation, Knightley brought moderation but deep intensity and conviction to a complicated role that would have been all too easy to oversell or overplay.
True, A History Of Violence features terrific, memorable performances from a stellar cast. But they're laboring against a generic potboiler plot that fails to either ramp up the stakes or allow insight into the characters; once the killing starts, it's just a rote exercise in set-'em-up, knock-'em-down all the way to the end.
Critics savaged it and audiences completely missed it, but Liev Schreiber's directorial debut, Everything Is Illuminated, is worthy of notice as a quirky road movie that primarily serves to bring the English-challenged narrator of Jonathan Safran Foer's cult-hit novel to life. The film version pares the book down to essentials, losing a lot of its winning surrealism, but leaving behind a tight, richly comical story that's exquisitely shot and acted.
Expand a classic short story up to overblown feature size, run out of money to complete it, slap it halfheartedly together a few years later, throw in some random CGI beasties, ignore the gaping logical gaps, and you have A Sound Of Thunder, a science-fiction action feature that jumps back and forth millions of years through time, but can't keep plot points straight from 20 minutes back into the storyline. And hey, slap on a pretentious, self-satisfied tone and a lot of blithery pseudoscience for good measure. Why not? Who's actually going to see it?
The year certainly featured crasser, clumsier, and just-plain-crappier films, but was any 2005 movie as disappointing and excruciating to sit through as Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown? Borrowing the most obnoxious character dynamics from Garden State (desperate, clinging need is cute; emotional constipation is almost noble; obsessive neurotics are charming) and further romanticizing the central relationship until it dripped with inauthentic sweetness and pretentious gravity, Crowe made the longest two-hour movie of 2005.
1. Brokeback Mountain
3. The 40-Year-Old Virgin
Calling the debut feature of Freaks & Geeks creator Judd Apatow the greatest sex-comedy ever made isn't saying all that much, but viewers who spent their adolescences scanning through Porky's sequels and Julie Strain vehicles can appreciate its subtle twist on the genre. One nerd's quest to get laid is a common theme in these films, yet The 40-Year-Old Virgin replaces their frathouse cruelty with sweetness and camaraderie while still supplying plenty of raunchy fun. And that's no minor accomplishment.
4. Memories Of Murder
5. The Devil's Rejects
Rob Zombie's brilliantly executed follow-up to House Of 1000 Corpses recalls The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Last House On The Left in its devotion to horror realism, creating a heightened sense of danger without the added assurance that everything is going to be all right. Like those films, The Devil's Rejects may take several years to get the appreciation it deserves, but '70s-horror fans will feel like they've taken a time machine to the drive-in. Oddly enough, this would make a perfect double feature with Munich: Both films deal with the corrosive effects of revenge, and in doing so, comment indirectly on 9/11 and its aftermath.
6. Grizzly Man
7. A History Of Violence
8. The Squid And The Whale
9. Tropical Malady
There was no more radically experimental feature released this year than the latest from Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Blissfully Yours), whose elliptical love story about a country boy and a soldier turns entirely abstract in the second half, when it abruptly shifts into a jungle folk tale, complete with a talking baboon. The two halves may initially seem like separate movies, but they mirror each other in strange and beguiling ways, suggesting that desire brings out our animal nature.
In a year filled with great movies about revenge, nobody provided more of it than Korea's Park Chan-wook, whose mega-revenge thriller Oldboy is a triumph of baroque excess. Nobody Knows is a lyrical testament to the resilience of young people, while My Summer Of Love reveals their intense vulnerability in matters of the heart. Pride & Prejudice may be the year's biggest surprise: What looked like a middlebrow costume drama turns out to be thrillingly cinematic, the best Jane Austen adaptation since Persuasion. Of course, nothing was more cinematic than Peter Jackson's King Kong, a gargantuan spectacle that's also nimble and full of heart.
Performance Of The Year
Playing a Wyoming cowboy who pursues a love that can never be openly expressed, Heath Ledger turns inexpressive in Brokeback Mountain, growling his lines as if he were pushing them through a mouthful of Skoal. In many ways, he personifies traditional Western masculinity as a simple cattle wrangler whose actions speak louder than words. And yet his inarticulateness—bound in shame, self-hatred, and powerful, unrequited desire—gives the film its quiet soul.
In any other year, Luc Jacquet's sleeper hit March Of The Penguins might have been utterly charming and irresistible, an inspiring tale of survival featuring astonishing footage from one of the harshest locales on Earth. But this was the year of Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, which exposed its themes of love and fidelity in the animal kingdom as pure anthropomorphic fantasy. True to form, Academy members preferred the fantasy.
Perhaps the most thorough critique of American values since Dogville, the vicious black comedy Pretty Persuasion absorbed similarly hyperbolic disdain from some stateside critics, which is what happens when a movie hits home. As a manipulative Beverly Hills high-school student who fabricates sexual-assault charges against her drama teacher, Evan Rachel Wood recalls Nicole Kidman in To Die For, but she's oddly the most sympathetic character in the film, a violated girl taking the power back. Rarely has misanthropy seemed so righteous.
Future Film That Film Forgot
Somebody keeps telling studio executives that the kids of today are into one marginal sport or another, and that anyone who taps into that underserved market will look like a genius. No doubt the makers of Supercross had visions of MX bikes conquering dirt mounds across the nation, but even racing enthusiasts didn't bother to show up. The film's fate may ultimately rest with fans of teen idol Aaron Carter, who puts in a brief but dreamy cameo appearance. Will they keep him in their hearts?
There were lousier films than Woody Allen's Melinda And Melinda this year—Son Of The Mask, Alone In The Dark, and Diary Of A Mad Black Woman, just to name a few—but none more dispiriting in their creative bankruptcy. The first of two Crimes And Misdemeanors rehashes that bookended 2005 (Match Point is the other), Melinda takes the same McDLT approach to its comedic and dramatic halves, but you know you're in trouble when it's hard to figure out which part is supposed to be funny.