2005 started out badly at the movies. The dreary offerings that typically populate the first few months of the new year continued well into the spring and summer. Had the fall/winter crop not come in, we'd be calling 2005 the Year of the Movie That Should Have Gone Straight to DVD.
As it is, I had no problem coming up with a 10-best list that I can not only live with but champion. But before I get down to that, a few thoughts about the year as a whole.
Socially-conscious prestige pictures made a splash this year. Some, such as "Good Night, and Good Luck" and "The Constant Gardener," were better than others, such as "Syriana" and "Munich." The political realities of modern life usually slink into Hollywood movies through the back door, if at all. The reason these films are so atypically forthright about such issues as Big Oil, Big Pharma, terrorism, and government censorship is because the realities are just too big to ignore anymore, even in the realm of popular entertainment.
Then there are the prestige pictures of a different stripe - the Oscar-bait movies like "Cinderella Man" (this year's "Seabiscuit") and "Memoirs of a Geisha," which achieved the impossible: It starred Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li, and Michelle Yeoh, and yet it was boring. In the low-budget "independent" world, the pickings were slim - "Junebug," "Down to the Bone," "Nine Lives," and "Transamerica" had their moments, primarily because of the performances, but overhyped remains the watchword in the land of the underfunded.
The franchise business proceeds apace in Hollywood. George Lucas says he's all done with "Star Wars." We'll see. "Fantastic Four" wasn't fantastic, which I hope means we won't be seeing a "Fantastic Five." And I couldn't wait for "Batman Begins" to end. On the other hand, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" was pretty terrific and so was the latest "Harry Potter." "King Kong" is a success, but I sincerely hope that Hollywood doesn't succumb to sequelitis and try for another, even if it makes a gajillion dollars (which is slightly more than it cost).
Most of the movies I admired this year were solidly traditional, even somewhat old-fashioned, which may have less to do with my predilections than with the fact that most of the "trailblazing" movies didn't blaze many new trails for me. But that's OK. I take my good movies where I find them.
Here then, in alphabetical order, are my Top 10.
Jacques Audiard's revamping of James Toback's cult classic "Fingers" stars Romain Duris in the year's most electric (and jittery) performance as a classical pianist turned gangster. You may not buy into the conceit for a moment, but the typically Gallic mixture of existentialism and pulp goes down very well, indeed.
Ang Lee's film, starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in matching breakout performances, is the first major Hollywood movie about male homosexual love. But it is so deeply felt that to characterize it in such a way is to miss the point of the film: It's about the rarity of love, any love.
After seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, I'm prepared to say that he may be one of our greatest actors. What he does is so far beyond mere mimicry that you just sit there awestruck at the alchemy that allows for such a gift. Director Bennett Miller and screenwriter Dan Futterman delve into the psychology of what it means to be an artist - or at least this one.
Howl's Moving Castle
Hayao Miyazaki's fantasia is almost as hard to follow as "Syriana," but infinitely more pleasurable. Miyazaki is one of the last champions of hand-drawn animation and is its finest living practitioner.
This film has been knocked by critics for being too well-made - as if such films were in large supply these days. It's a beautifully realized tragicomedy starring Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins and the blitz. What more is there to life? Stephen Frears is the director who stands accused of the crime of craftsmanship; his coconspirator in the docket is screenwriter Martin Sherman.
The most underrated film of the year. Roman Polanski is the first director to bring out the Dostoevskian depths in Dickens (who was much influenced by the Russian). It's a harrowing accomplishment with a near-great performance by Ben Kingsley as Fagin.
The people who complain that this movie isn't like the book haven't read the book. The spirited intelligence of this production, directed by Joe Wright, is very Jane Austen-like indeed, and I'll be hornswoggled if Keira Knightley doesn't fit herself right in.
Almost certainly Ingmar Bergman's last film, this sequel (of a sort) to his "Scenes From a Marriage" is so passionately focused that the misery of its characters comes through without the slightest adornment. Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson and the amazing Borje Ahlstedt head up the world-class ensemble.
If "Oliver Twist" was the most underrated great film of the year, this sad German comedy was the most underseen. Directed by Michael Schorr with an almost supernal grace, it's about an aging accordianist who becomes entranced with zydeco and ventures to America to get his fill.
Jia Zhang Ke has a mellifluous style that keeps everything in lyrical suspension. The friends and lovers who work in the international theme park that gives the film its name are brought to life with surpassing poignancy.