December 31, 2005

Top 15. And more.

From over here in Berlin, it's seemed that the studios' specialty houses, the neighborhood some call Indiewood, loaded "For Your Consideration" season (late November through December) even more heavily this year than last. Pointing to dozens of takes on each of these films has certainly helped me sort out my priorities when they eventually hit theaters here in the coming weeks and months, so thanks for another great year of rage and praise. The occasional yawn, the saddest reaction a film can elicit, has been helpful, too. Here's to a great 2006, and in the meantime, Craig Phillips has been slipping out of the GreenCine office in San Francisco and into theaters more often in the past couple of weeks so we can offer you...

Craig's Top 15 of 2005 List

Whereas compiling a Ten Best list last year at this time was a bit of a struggle, this year it was a challenge narrowing the field down. That's how much better the quality of films in 2005 has been; hence, a longer "Best of" list. Meditations on the sad chaos that is the Middle East, on man and nature, and on love gone awry (and on the perils of growing your own vegetables) are just a few of the themes linking these otherwise remarkably disparate and memorable cinematic visions. While article after article came out this year wondering about declining attendance numbers, cinema shrugs its shoulders and marches on regardless. It doesn't mean, of course, that there weren't plenty of depressing nadirs coming from the studio system this year, but there were enough signs of life there - and a ton of quality work coming from around the globe and from American independents - that rumors of the demise of moving pictures have been greatly exaggerated.

Capote 1. Capote: Bennett Miller's first feature and first collaboration with longtime friend actor Dan Futterman is an artistically fruitful one, a remarkably assured and near-flawless film that manages to hone in one seminal period in the titular writer's life while also capturing the gist of his career arc. It's hard to imagine anyone else in the lead than Philip Seymour Hoffman, who captures the oft-imitated writer with complete dimensionality, a long way from caricature. He's ringed by admirable support: Clifton Collins is just right as convicted killer Perry Smith, Catherine Keener as sharp as always as Harper Lee, and Bruce Greenwood touching as Capote's long-suffering boyfriend, writer Jack Dunphy. Superb.

2. The Squid and the Whale: Noah Baumbach's inevitably compared to his cohort Wes Anderson but this sharply written, darkly funny work digs deeper and feels less controlled than even Anderson's best work. One of the best films ever about the pains of a divorce, with biblically-bearded Jeff Daniels splendid as the narcissistic, bitter professor/writer father and Jesse Eisenberg his near-equal as the parroting son. The sharp dialogue stings like pin pricks and ultimately the film shows how when people reach a crossroads at the same time, some of them thrive and some quietly drown.

You won't give yourself a more important, timely double-feature this year than these next two:

Munich and Paradise Now 3. Munich: Spielberg effortlessly merges a taut thriller with a political meditation without any of the sentimentality or bias his detractors expected (with a large assist from Tony Kushner and Eric Roth). A throwback not only to Spielberg's best work of the 70s but to that decade's best political thrillers. Tense, appropriately harrowing, and complex. Rounded out by a fine cast (Eric Bana nails the lead, pre-Bond Daniel Craig mesmerizes, chameleonic Geoffrey Rush is spot-on as always). Provocative and powerful, the film makes you forgive the director for his recent transgressions.

4. Paradise Now: Director Hany Abu-Assad's film is similar to Jarhead in that its politics are ambiguous, if it can be considered political at all, in that it doesn't pass judgment on the suicide bombers depicted here who begin to question their mission. In fact, it's a terrific film that's all the more so for its contradictions, while naturally weaving in moments of black comedy. Tremendously suspenseful and provocative viewing.

5. Turtles Can Fly: Haunting children of war-torn and isolated northern Iraq are at the center of this heartbreaking, unforgettable drama that is less a war movie than it is about the people war displaces. Like Paradise, the film fluidly weaves dark comedy with tragedy. That the cast is comprised of non-professionals only adds to the film's miraculousness.

6. 2046: As slow, languid as you'd expect from Wong Kar-Wai, but surely one of the most beautiful films of the year - aesthetically and emotionally. If it's not a masterpiece, it's still masterful, a moving painting, a rhapsody and a ballad. The work of the remarkable cast that adds weight and depth to the film; along with Tony Leung as the lounge-lizardish sci-fi writer, some of China's best and brightest actresses are on hand - Faye Wong, Gong Li, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi. Wry humor is woven throughout while hearbreak lurks underneath all the characters. As Antonioni-ish as Hong Kong cinema gets, 2046 is a striking oasis of art in a cinematic red desert.

Kontroll 7. Kontroll: Hungarian filmmaker Nimród Antal's first feature makes for an impressive debut. Set among the hapless subway fare inspectors of Budapest, the film effortlessly shifts from dark comedy to mystery and, in the film's final act, pretty near horror. Teeters precariously on the verge of disjointedness, but is strong on atmosphere and pacing that it scarcely matters. But it's the hangdog cast of characters who will remain in my memory most firmly.

8. Downfall: The best depiction of the final days of the Third Reich, as Berlin falls and Hitler's reign collapses, the film is brought to another level by Bruno Ganz's frightening, three-dimensional portrayal of the unhinged leader. Worries that it brought too much humanity to the man behind the Holocaust were misguided; by showing what horrors are possible from human kind, it's a sobering reminder what could happen again if we let it. Harrowing and riveting.

9. Brokeback Mountain: If it's intermittently repetitive, melodramatic and aimless as a drifting cowboy, Ang Lee's film comes together in an extremely moving final act. Beautifully shot and acted, Brokeback is also likely the most groundbreaking studio film of the year. Heath Ledger's perfect performance in the lead, and Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana's appropriately terse - and occasionally even funny - script (from Annie Proulx's short story) give the film its backbone.

10. Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit: Animation by hand and from the heart (you can literally see Aardman animators' fingerprints on some of the clay characters). Whimsical and hilarious, with perfectly realized set pieces. Gromit is as real to me as Kong, at 1/1000 the budget. Cracking good.

11. A History of Violence: David Cronenberg's noirish thriller (with Western elements) veers close to exploitation and absurdity and somehow doesn't cross too far over; this is pulp friction, as perversely funny as Cronenberg's best work, and almost as cold. Viggo Mortensen strikes just the right balance of humanity and dark-heartedness for a film that is more about character than about the straightforward vengeance plot that it seems on the surface.

12. Murderball: A truly great documentary about paraplegic athletes that is not a sports movie as much as an intimate examination of the nature of disabilities. And "disabled" is the last thing you'd call these intense guys. An exuberant, life-affirming movie that will kick your ass.

Grizzly Man 13. Grizzly Man: This excellent, appropriately non-judgmental Werner Herzog doc about an idealistic, and foolhardy, nature activist living among Alaskan bears is a (self-)portrait, an essay and a close-up look at an impressive animal. This is not your ordinary anthropomorphized look at the cuteness of nature; it's a film you won't soon forget.

14. King Kong: I think I cried more at the end of this film than in Brokeback Mountain, which possibly reveals more about me than the films, but also demonstrates how successful Peter Jackson and company (not to mention actor Andy Serkis, portraying him at times for Naomi Watts to play off of) were at creating a fully dimensionalized beast to Watts' beauty. Jackson is in thrall of the magic of cinema and fully aware of how to push an audience's buttons; rather than feeling manipulated, I just went on the ride. Jaw-dropping at times (plodding in a few others, but forgivably), it's essentially one helluva good-looking B-movie, in the best sense.

15. Head-On: Fatih Akin's uncompromising film is both a gritty love story and an exploration of cultural identity. Breathless, to say the least, even out of control, but the film manages to be both brutal and tender. No small feat. Akin's a director to watch.

Honorable Mentions:

Mysterious Skin

Guilty Pleasures:

Should Have Had a Wider Audience Award:

The Wish I'd Seen Them So I Could Consider Them For This List Award (aka the Impoverished Overworked Critic Award)

My Summer of Love

The Glad I Didn't See Them Award

At Least This Didn't Fully Suck Award

The Just Plain Suck Awards (or, the Please Stop Breeding Award)

What The...? Award

Best Performance by a Flock of Sheep

  • Brokeback Mountain

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Posted by dwhudson at December 31, 2005 8:22 AM


Saw II wasn't that bad. Bouseman is no Hitchcock, and I am no horror movie fan but it was definitely less than utter suck. I think you should have put Walk the Line somewhere up there, in the good-movies part, just on Joaquin Phoenix's performance alone.

Posted by: Unfortunate Bastard at December 31, 2005 9:05 PM

Thanks! Actually, regarding Walk the Line, I am remorseful that it was yet one more film I was unable to see before this list was compiled. I would like to see it, and, if it's of any value, my film buff sister really liked it ("despite its flaws" she adds), and I hope to see it soon. But I have to be honest, I missed it.

Re: Saw II - I did see the first one, and, while it's technically well-crafted and I can understand why some horror buffs liked it, I found it so exceedingly unpleasant - and heard the second one was even more so - that I couldn't bring myself to sit through it. A matter of personal taste, I suppose, but I get tired of sadistic horror filmmaking.

But Walk the Line, yes, I've heard Phoenix is amazingly good.

By the way, people are welcome to contribute their own year end lists here in the comments field, if we haven't referenced them somewhere on the Daily already.



Posted by: Craig P at January 1, 2006 7:02 PM

I wish I'd remembered to add "Best of Youth" to my "The Wish I'd Seen Them So I Could Consider Them For This List Award" - but I've remedied that oversight now. Can't wait to finally see that on DVD soon!

Posted by: Craig P at January 3, 2006 9:45 AM

great list, Craig!

Posted by: Erin at January 3, 2006 4:50 PM

May I be forgiven for pimping here my own sort-of best-of?

Posted by: James Russell at January 4, 2006 6:34 AM

Good heavens, yes. Really glad you did - I've added a link in today's "Lists" entry, too.

Posted by: David Hudson at January 4, 2006 7:27 AM

Pimp away!

And thanks Erin.

Argh! I forgot Howl's Moving Castle was released this year, too. I wouldn't put that in my top 15, but it would've gone on my ever-expanding Hon Mention list. Ah well. Batman Begins could've made it to HM too, but I felt like I had enough big Hollywood studio fare on there already...

and, as I said in the subject of my own blog's reposting of this list, mine was just "yet another meaningless year end list" - but they sure are fun, and it sure is a kick to see what everyone else is listing.


Posted by: Craig P at January 4, 2006 9:26 AM

I recently saw "Cache." I had high hopes but ultimately I thought the film was pointless.

Kudos for getting "Turtles Can Fly" on the list.

Posted by: Joe at January 5, 2006 8:01 AM

Still want to see Cache but perhaps I should lower my expectations a tad. His previous films have mostly left me cold, but I thought Code Unknown was brilliant and this one sounded promising...

Anyway, thanks!

Btw, Duma was never supposed to be on the "guilty pleasure" list above; it was supposed to be its own "Should've Had a Wider Audience" category. Dunno why I didn't notice that til just now but I'm fixing it. Sorry 'bout that.


Posted by: Craig P at January 6, 2006 1:53 PM