2005: Good Movies

My review of the year 2005 continues with the top ten movies I saw in cinemas. They had to play either on general release or in a festival, thus North by Northwest in a one-off at the Regent and Cremaster 3 in Film Society were not considered.

1. Grizzly Man – Werner Herzog
Nothing else screened in 2005 could approach the brilliance of Herzog’s Grizzly Man. In the guise of a nature documentary, the great Bavarian sums up life, the universe and everything, and in doing so embraces the darkness that defines our existence. More than in any of his other films I’ve seen, more even than in Lessons in Darkness, Herzog stares into the abyss and refuses to turn away; rather than trying to lionise a very troubled human being, he condemns his madness while at the same time celebrating him. Only Herzog could produce an effective film that both damns and praises its subject, while at the same time turning his gaze to the audience and demanding that they re-evaluate their own lives. It fits perfectly with his overall body of work, and stands in my opinion as one of the greatest films – documentary or fiction – ever made.

2. My Summer of Love – Pawel Pawlikowski
I had high hopes for this on the back of Pawlikowski’s excellent debut Last Resort, not to mention the presence of the incomparable Paddy Considine; still, I was stunned by how good this was. Virtually everything about this film was perfect. The screenplay was very focused on character, involving a sequence of events that make up a plot (rather than a plot that drives a sequence of events). Each scene seems to top the last, and the dialogue is powerful and real. The cinematography is first class, just beautiful in places. The acting (essentially a three-role film) from Considine and leads Nathalie Press and Emily Blunt is as good as you’ll see. The use of music is unequivocally the best of the year. The directing, man… absolutely perfect. Seriously, when I start making movies, this will be my model for a perfectly directed film. No shot is wasted, no aspect of the actors’ performances left untapped; with few locations, few actors and relatively small crew, Pawlikowski creates the most affecting and believable film story of the year. Only the ending prevents me from placing it at #1 – while excellent, it was so surprising as to seem a bit out of place. On second viewing, I’m sure it’ll seem more right. See this one, at all costs.

3. DiG! – Ondi Timoner
Like Grizzly Man, this was a documentary mostly about one completely mad guy. It was also one of the funniest and most entertaining films of the year. You would keep wishing that Anton Newcombe would just give himself a break sometime, but he would always trump himself by doing or saying something even more ridiculous (sending the Dandy Warhols shotgun shells with their names on stands out as a particularly insane act). Taking place over 7 years, this documents Newcombe’s constant rise and fall, and his rivalry with the Dandys’ Courtney Taylor (who narrates). As good a film about rock and roll as has been made, you come to the end feeling as though you personally know the principal figures, which I always think is some sign of success.

4. Palindromes – Todd Solondz
Solondz, the master absurdist, again makes fun every single member of the audience whatever their views are. It’s not as simple as that, though; he’s not merely taking aim at our collective ridiculousness through the medium of film. It’s not a protest. It just shows us for what we are: opinionated, narrow-minded fools who search for meaning everywhere in our lives when there simply isn’t any. I saw this the day after Grizzly Man, which was somehow fitting; both films are audacious enough to say that everything in our lives is absurd and trivial, but convince us that it’s nothing to worry about. It’s just the way we are. I see Palindromes not as an exploration of the abortion debate on film, but an extension (and improvement upon) the director’s earlier Happiness – an offering of freaks and outliers of society that represent all of us far better than the winners.

5. Sideways – Alexander Payne
I really need to see this again, since I’ve only seen it the once back in February. In any case, it was clearly going to be one of the year’s best even as early as that. The combination of Payne and Jim Taylor’s screenplay with a fine four-piece acting ensemble resulted in a wonderful reworking of the buddy comedy and road movie genres. Several scenes are great (most memorable being Miles’ lines on the beach), but they all contribute to an overall tone and theme that leaves you thinking for days. This is an extremely genuine film, amusing and (for a film about wine drinkers) remarkably free of pretentiousness. If for no other reason, see it for Paul Giamatti’s superlatively great performance; if you need another, see it for the skill of Payne, who after only four features has honed his craft to near perfection.

6. The Constant Gardener – Fernando Meirelles
A powerful, angry thriller by John le CarrĂ© was expertly transformed into a provocative and affecting film by the soon-to-be legendary Brazilian Meirelles. Filmmaking is rarely as politically charged as this, and because it was handled well, I was happy to climb aboard with the film’s agenda. It’s well acted and well shot, and as well as making you think, it’s a damned good thriller; structurally Meirelles messes you around, before slowly joining the threads back up. Some scenes could have been handled better, and it is a little difficult to handle the influx of information in the third act, but overall it is a quality exercise in filmmaking. And anyway, a film that so clearly states that it wants to change your opinion should be applauded for being so up front.

7. Sin City – Robert Rodriguez
The most brutal film of the year was also one of the most hyped, but for once, it lived up to great expectations. I’ve never been much of a fan of Rodriguez, but the technical skill on display here is so mindblowing that it has to be seen to be believed; it really is as if a comic book has come to life. And what a violent comic book it is. Many, many moments are excruciatingly grotesque (several of them, unbelievably, involve Elijah Wood), and contribute to an overall sense of sub-baseness that pervades every frame. This is all style and absolutely no substance… but what style, man. It’s so much fun it’s practically a guilty pleasure, and I must say, I’m quite looking forward to instalments 2 and 3.

8. Batman Begins – Christopher Nolan
None of the trailers or stills excited me, and the pedigree of the previous Batman films was not a little off-putting, but the presence of Nolan as director and Christian Bale as star forced me along to see this on opening night. I was far from disappointed; in fact, I really bloody liked it. This immediately re-states the parameters for Bruce Wayne/Batman, removing any comparison with the earlier films; if it seems a bit odd for the first half hour, don’t worry, you’ll eventually settle into it. This is a rare blockbuster that focuses on character rather than action, offering one of the most entertaining and enthralling screen heroes of the new millennium. Unfortunately, while a lot of the action is bad-ass, most of the fight scenes are epileptically edited with seemingly billions of cuts per second – the only disappointing aspect of an otherwise fine film.

9. Inosensu: Kokaku kidotai – Mamoru Oshii
English title: Ghost in the Shell: Innocence. This is a sequel to the 1995 original, Ghost in the Shell, which was a very direct influence on The Matrix, and I found it to be a better film. Typically for an Oshii work, it was very confusing and often totally violated all traditional rules of film storytelling; still, that never derailed a fascinating, beguiling film. I’d need to see it again to understand it, but I was happy to just be swept up in the wonder of it all – it’s visually extraordinary with its mix of traditional and CG animation, and always mindblowing. Probably only good for anime fans, and probably needs to be seen on a big screen; fortunately, I and the venue fit these criteria, so I enjoyed it very much.

10. Gegen die Wand – Fatih Akin
English title: Head-On (literally Against the Wall, a much better title if you ask me). This film’s first hour and a half is so good, I just wish they could have kept it up for the final half hour. Still, that doesn’t stop this being a powerful film, well directed and acted and with great use of music. It creates characters that we quickly care about and want to see succeed, despite their extreme anti-social qualities; however, we also quickly know that everything isn’t going to end well, so it is difficult to hold out hope. Winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin and Best Film at the European Film Awards, this signals the arrival of a major new directing talent, and looks closely at lives without any sort of direction. It’s tough and shocking at times, but well worth your time.

One thing to note: the first four spots are all taken up by Film Festival films, which goes to show how shitty the general release slate was last year. I get the feeling we’re on an unstoppable slide: 2004 was good overall, 2005 rubbish with great moments, so 2006 will surely be the worst year for studio film yet. I hope I’m proved wrong.

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