This has been a screwy movie year for me. Of the films that would end up on my Ten Best list, only two opened theatrically in the United States in the first half of 2005. As I put it recently to another editor, "You could say that film in 2005 was a matter of several days in September at the Toronto Film Festival." Whatever the reasons, there was a long, highlight-challenged stretch from the Seattle bow of 2004's best picture, Million Dollar Baby, in the first week of January 2005 and the diamond-dust storm of fine films that has swirled around us in the last four months of the year.
1. Tommy Lee Jones' THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA
I announced my top film experience of 2005 when I wrote about Toronto's festival in the Sept. 28 News, and no subsequent movie has shaken that opinion. The film won't get a public showing in our city till February 2005; that's a bummer, but not a dealbreaker. I don't expect a repeat of 2004 when my top choice went on to win the Academy Award (the first time that had happened since, well, the previous time Clint Eastwood was voted the Oscar, for 1992's Unforgiven). But this Western/black comedy/revenge fable is such an amazing, gladsome movie, teeming with life and fresh vision, often laidback and galvanizing in the same instant. The screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga is as intricately structured as his scripts for Amores Perros and 21 Grams, but under Jones' direction the film unreels like a man lazily stretching his muscles in the sun, and keeps taking us to places, moments and moods we never could have anticipated. Chris Menges' supple, gorgeous cinematography is in the no-frills tradition of James Wong Howe, and the soundtrack includes the drollest cinematic uses yet of a car-door bonging and a cellphone ring tune. Drinks and dinner for the entire cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Melissa Leo, Dwight Yoakam, January Jones (apparently no relation), Levon Helm.
2. Noah Baumbach's THE SQUID AND THE WHALE
And not just because I personally know the real-life counterparts of the characters and lived for a year in the house that is one of the principal locations. The source material is the late-'80s breakup of the writer-director's parents' marriage. Baumbach steers dear of sentimentality and treats the characters, including his own surrogate, with unflinching honesty. "Brutal" honesty would be the customary phrase, yet for all their indiscretions, prevarications and colossal failures of self-recognition, there's an extraordinary tenderness toward the characters and an order of reconciliation that is achieved through artistic wholeness and lucidity rather than group-hug emotionalism. Plus, the movie beautifully captures the ambience of a Brooklyn rarely tapped by the media or hinted at in pop-culture cliché; and it's one of the best jobs ever on writers and would-be writers, intellectuals so steeped in their profession and devoted to their self-images that they become critics forever watching the movie of their lives. Jeff Daniels' portrait of the father is the performance of the year, and Laura Linney is nearly as good - but you knew that. Like Three Burials, the movie is frequently very, very funny, yet not exactly a comedy.
3. David Cronenberg's A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE
One of the drollest touches in Gus Van Sant's To De For (1995) was casting the great Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg as a crisply efficient hitman. As far back as his unclean early effort They Came From Within, Cronenberg showed an intimacy with horror from the inside out, and in such later works as The Dead Zone, Videodrome, Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch he evidenced the sharp, superdefinitive eye of a graphic novelist. A History of Violence had its origin as a graphic novel by somebody else, but it drops into place in the Cronenberg canon like a blade into a groove. The slightly italicized heartlandness of the early scenes hints at the selective contrivance of the hero's "average" lifestyle and nudges the movie toward myth. Then horror erupts, is awful, then is ... accommodated. Life goes on. Brave, powerful, spot-on performances by Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello, and an aria of lunacy by William Hurt.
4. Michael Haneke's CACHE'
Another "inside" movie, Haneke's magisterial meditation on the fabric of modem reality and the tenuousness of personal fictions locks on from the first image, which turns out to be the image of an image, framed by no eye we can account for. With one conspicuous, throat-clutching exception, this movie is at its most shocking and disturbing when most ordinary. Daniel Auteuil is superb. It opens in January.
5. Ang Lee's BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN
The Taiwanese-American Ang Lee has moved from familial chamber drama to Jane Austen adaptation to Chinese martial-arts fantasia with quiet mastery and unassuming authority. In 1999 he even made a near-great, and strikingly original, Western, Ride With the Devil, that too few people saw. His new, modern Western Brokeback Mountain doesn't so much shake up this genre as reconfirm its strengths and eloquence from a fresh angle that audiences from the heartland to the metropolises are happily embracing - and being enlarged by. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michele Williams contribute heartbreaking performances. And Heath Ledger: Who knew?
6. Fatih Akin's HEAD-ON (GEGEN DIE WAND)
Nothing is as mysterious as character, and this compelling two-hander from Germany and Turkey battens on and bleeds from that conviction. Three minutes of looking at Cahit (Birol Ünel) convinces you that driving slam into a wall is the best thing he can do for himself and everybody else. Then Sibel (Sibel Kekilli) appears, a half-healed razor cut on her wrist and an insouciant grin on her face, and asks, "Would you be willing to marry me?" Cahit spends a long time resisting, as obtuse as he is disheveled (and surely odoriferous). Eventually a marriage of sorts is made, with digressions into screwball-worthy comedy as unexpected as it is bracing. But this strange pot is only beginning to boil. The movie may be the most illuminating look we've had at the new, multicultural Europe. That's secondary, though, to the enigmatic and moving story of two particular people and the journeys they take separately and together.
7. Steven Spielberg's MUNICH
Quick, what was the last great thriller we've seen? No, I can't think of one either. Spielberg and Tony Kushner's fictional, yet recognizably reality-based, account of a Jewish hit team of odd men out getting even for the 1972 murder of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes by the Palestinian Black September vouchsafes one breath-bating suspense sequence after another. It also develops an ever more complex and devastating ambiguity than kneejerk partisans of any political persuasion can be comfortable with. After a series of faltering attempts to groom him as an international star, Eric Bana - as the leader of the team - makes good on the promise of his early, Australian tour de force, Chopper; along with sharp work by Ciarán Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Daniel Craig, Hanns Zischler (the other guy in Wim Wenders' majestic Kings of the Road), Marie-Josée Croze, Ayelet Zorer, Geoffrey Rush and Lynn Cohen, I especially cherish Mathieu Almaric and the eternal Michael Lonsdale as the philosopher-kings of pan-European skullduggery.
8. George Clooney's GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK.
Clooney's impeccable slice of '50s cultural and political history is, like The Squid and the Whale, a film so concentrated and efficient in its scrutiny of a finite subject and a self-contained world that it completes its business in less than an hour and a half. Whereas Baumbach's film opens windows on the richness and messy contradictoriness of life and experience, Clooney's remains deliberately hermetic, scarcely ever leaving the precincts of the TV studio and corporate/professional zone in which Edward R. Murrow (an unimprovable performance by David Strathairn), his producer Fred Friendly (Clooney, totally subsumed in a letter-perfect ensemble) and their CBS News colleagues heroically plied their trade. Finally it's a mite too self-contained for my liking, and a touch cut-and-dried if you happen to remember, vividly, what its events were like the first time around. But millions of viewers don't remember or appreciate that those events took place, and for adjusting that condition the film is invaluable, and inspiring.
9. Jim Jarmusch's BROKEN FLOWERS
I didn't see Broken Flowers when it first came out, chiefly because the reviews and the rather overextended cult of Bill Murray made me feel as if I already had. That's usually a mistake and it was this time, too. Jarmusch's celebratedly minimalist style has never been more eloquently or probingly deployed, and this deadpan odyssey of a roué seeking missed human connections in his checkered past and on a rental-car pilgrimage into the tenderly observed American land accumulates a piquant charge.
10. Peter Jackson's KING KONG
Some things only movies can do, and Peter Jackson's loving reimagining of one of the cinema's unaccountable masterworks does them beautifully. Attention must be paid.
CLOSE, AND BY ALL MEANS A CIGAR: Arnaud Despleschin's Kings and Queen (Rois et reine), the movie I expect will continue to grow on me; Neil Jordan's exhilaratingly directed, insuperably sweet Breakfast on Pluto with Cillian Murphy's Kitten Braden front and center; Craig Brewer's Hustle & Flow, a Frank Capra movie about a pimp and would-be rapper, with Terrence Howard's breakout performance; Im Sang-soo's The President's Last Bang, Bennett Miller and Dan Futterman's Capote, Stephen Gaghan's Syriana (a Clooney byblow), Gus Van Sant's Last Days
GOOFS, CHARMERS AND CLASSY ENTERTAINMENTS: Sin City, War of the Worlds, George A. Romero's Land of the
Dead, Serenity, Four Brothers, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Batman Begins, Sahara, The Wedding Crashers