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Winter 2006 | Volume 29, Number 1 | Books & Film

Response onScreen

2005’s Best: Twenty-Seven Movies Worth Watching

It was another year of crowd-pleasing blockbusters. George Lucas wrapped up his Star Wars saga with the third, effects-saturated “prequel.” Peter Jackson fulfilled his lifelong dream, re-making King Kong. Andrew Adamson illustrated The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on the big screen, setting off debates about religious art and fidelity to C.S. Lewis’ novel. And raunchy sex comedies such as The Wedding Crashers and The 40-Year-Old Virgin became surprise box-office success stories.

Sure, some of them achieved memorable moments. One or two might have been worth a second viewing. But will they make a difference to anyone? Will any of these blockbusters be remembered as the most artful, meaningful films of 2005?

If you’re interested in films that entertain and challenge you, films that engage your brain rather than bypassing it, you’ll need to look beyond the big moneymakers. Of the hundreds of hours film critics spent in theaters and exploring DVD releases during 2005, a fair number made the endeavor worthwhile. But many were poorly marketed or received limited screenings.

Here are 27 films that went above and beyond the call to merely dazzle. They dug deep into timely issues and intriguing questions, and did it with style and, on occasion, profound beauty. Catch them while you can, or watch for them on DVD.

Please note: Some of these films explore areas that can be dark and disturbing. While it is often redeeming and necessary for artists to ask us to consider and interpret such troubling visions, viewers should proceed with discernment and conscience, and note the “Caution” warnings included here.

Millions – directed by Danny Boyle – now available on DVD

Danny Boyle’s enchanting film follows two young boys who recently lost their mother. When their father moves the family to a new home and a new start, the boys discover a suitcase packed with money beside a nearby railroad. The older brother decides to use the cash to become the coolest kid at school. But the younger, Damien, is a child of deep faith and great ambition. He wants to use the money to save the world. He learns, much to his annoyance, that helping people is a complicated affair, especially when grownups get involved. Damien’s unrelenting optimism and ability to believe in God's benevolence are an inspiration in this cynical age.

It's not a flawless film — the spooky bad guy is a clunky cliché, and there's an occasion of shameless tear-jerking about 20 minutes before the end. But the rest is bursting with creativity. Boyle brings the energy that made films like Trainspotting and 28 Days Later memorable to a story of childlike wonder, imagination, compassion, and vibrant hope.

And here's the best thing about it: Your grandparents, your kids, and your college pals — even those teens that are “too cool” for a family-friendly film — they’ll all love it. While many 2005 films were more challenging and sophisticated, you may not find any that fill you with a zeal to save the world the way this one does.

(Caution: Rated PG for mild violence, harsh language, and evidence of adult sexual misbehavior.)

A History of Violence – directed by David Cronenberg – now in theaters Munich – directed by Steven Spielberg – now in theaters Caché – directed by Michael Haneke – playing in limited release

Three strangely similar films about violence arrived this year. They all followed characters damaged by violent attacks who struggle with whether or not to retaliate violently. Each protagonist’s past influences the way he responds — in fact, his past may explain why his attacker is so full of hatred toward him. All three characters are married men who find that the violence threatens to destabilize their family lives. And all three learn that striking back does not necessarily make things easier or resolve anything. Like so many great films, from Apocalypse Now to The Godfather to Unforgiven, these movies show the devastating effects of violence on the souls of those who employ it with good intentions.

CAUTION: All three are R-rated for profanity, graphic violence, and (with the exception of Caché) occasions of explicit nudity and sexuality.

David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence looks at the effects of violence from a variety of angles even as it balances on a razor's edge between drama and satire, between the dark surrealism of Blue Velvet and the moral conflict of Unforgiven. Viggo Mortensen, who played Aragorn in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, is fantastic as the mild-mannered owner of a small-town diner who defends his customers from thugs. Honored as a national hero, he becomes a role model to his son. But his legendary act may have set the wrong example, and worse, it may have attracted the attention of men who are more dangerous than mere thugs. Violence is dark, less than optimistic, and ends with an aching question rather than an answer. But it's enthralling, and it encourages us to check the impulse that leads so many to celebrate films that endorse vigilante justice and violence (including last year’s Man on Fire). Moreover, it's powered by a variety of excellent performances, including Oscar-worthy work by Maria Bello, Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris, and William Hurt.

Munich is more ambitious. Steven Spielberg's movie is both a riveting thriller and compelling study of ethics, looking back at the Palestinian terrorist attacks that killed 11 Israelis at the 1972 Olympic games in Munich, and Israel's pursuit of the "architects" of that terror. This is the first film Spielberg has directed without the help of storyboards. The result is a faster, rougher, grittier piece of work than anything he's made in decades. As an exploration of violence — both malevolent violence and justifiable self-defense — it's an important contribution to this year's series of films on the subject. Further, Spielberg considers the effects of even the most justifiable military action on the hearts and souls of the men who carry it out. It's enough to restore faith in a great director who, in his other recent films, has seemed unable to resist sentimentality and contrivance. Further, it admirably avoids preaching, its spirit of urgent inquiry coaxing us to think for ourselves. Some have accused Spielberg of oversimplifying tough questions — but look closer. Is he really claiming to answer the questions, or is this story just what he says it is … “a prayer for peace,” driven by humankind’s inability to pull ourselves out of the abyss we’ve opened up?

Caché is the most challenging of the three. How would you feel if someone anonymously delivered tapes revealing that your home is under video surveillance? How would you feel if someone left frightening, grisly drawings in your mailbox? Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife, Anne (Juliette Binoche), feel threatened. And when the tapes keep coming, revealing that the cameraman knows more about Georges and his past than Georges can explain, he becomes agitated to the point of violence. Plagued by nightmares and memories he would prefer to keep buried, Georges follows a hunch and targets his prime suspect. Before long, what seemed a prank has Georges digging back in his memories and into France's political history. Caché illustrates that sins — personal and national — will find us out. And it shows how paranoia and fear can lead to devastating and misguided actions.

The White Diamond – directed by Werner Herzog – available on DVD

Sometimes the joy of a film comes not so much from a predetermined storyline, but from the unexpected blessings during an exploration. Almost all of Werner Herzog's films, both fiction and nonfiction, are about individuals whose passions drive them to become freaks, geniuses, or madmen. In this documentary, he follows one of those figures on a trip that he'll never forget, and thanks to his vigilant cameras, neither will you.

Graham Dorrington is an aeronautical engineer at London University, and he's a fascinating character. Dorrington, with Herzog’s help, is trying to build a special, personal airship that will let him float dreamily along above the lush rainforest canopy in Guyana and search for new medicines among its mysterious plant life. It's tougher than it sounds. And dangerous. In fact, one of the motivating factors in Dorrington's journey is the pain and the guilt he feels over the death of cinematographer Dieter Plage, who was killed in Sumatra during a dreadful airship accident in 1993.

Highlights of the journey includes breathtaking images caught by Herzog's camera when he heads out to the rainforest; the huge, awe-inspiring, perilous, chocolate-brown wonder known as Kaieteur Falls; an spectacular, natural bird sanctuary; and a man named Marc Anthony Yhap, a Rastafarian native who has a rooster that he dearly loves.

Tony Takitani – directed by Jun Ichikawa – coming to DVD in February

In a one-of-a-kind motion picture, Jun Ichikawa adapts a short story by Haruki Murakami into a visual poem. Issei Ogata stars as an artist who is deeply lonely. When he finally finds true love with a woman who loves to shop, his world is transformed. "She wore her clothes naturally," we're told, "as though enveloped by a special breeze." She tells Tony that the purchases "fill up what's missing inside me." When Tony finally expresses some concern about her obsession, his world is transformed again. It's a sad, sad story that provides a subtle commentary about the overlapping of Eastern and Western culture, shot with mesmerizing style that gives the film a dreamlike flow.

March of the Penguins – Luc Jacquet – available on DVD 2046 – directed by Wong Kar-wai – available on DVD Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow – directed by Theo Angelopoulos – DVD-release unscheduled

Three of the year's most ambitious films were also the most visually awe-inspiring … without the help of digital animation.

You’ve probably already seen March of the Penguins, Luc Jacquet’s awe-inspiring documentary about the extraordinary lifecycle of the Emperor penguin. But it’s worth revisiting for the exhilarating experience of so much natural beauty, even if Morgan Freeman’s narration contains too many assumptions and too much sentimentality regarding the penguins’ thoughts and motivations.

Wong's film, 2046, is a sequel to In the Mood for Love, a story of betrayal and passion in which the aesthetics were as important as the plot. 2046 is about love, the pain of losing it, and the futility of trying to make the same thing happen again. As Tony Leung's despondent writer, Mr. Cho, thinks back on the love he lost in the previous story, he enters into several frustrating, rollercoaster love affairs with a prostitute (Zhang Ziyi), a gambler (Gong Li), a pixielike writer (Faye Wong), and others. At the same time, he's writing a science fiction novel, in which these women appear as exotic androids, emphasizing his own engagement with them as a consumer rather than a true lover. Even viewers puzzled by Wong’s complex, cerebral narrative may find the film captivating, for no one has a visual style as exquisite as Wong’s. But the story is intriguing too — as reckless, indulgent, cruel, and foolish as Mr. Cho can be to these women, his story is a testament that love cannot be seized or forced, and that sexual indulgence is a path that leads us far from true fulfillment.

(Caution: The film earns an R rating for Cho’s sexual misbehavior and cruelty.)

The first film in a new series by Theo Angelopoulos, Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow, offers a different kind of visual beauty altogether. The director captures whole neighborhoods on the screen, emphasizing that his characters’ private convictions affect the whole world around them, and history as well. In the middle of his vast canvases, a passionate tale of forbidden love plays out, capturing fear, passion, beauty, and loss. Angelopoulos follows the 1919 journey of Greek refugees from Odessa to a place they call “New Odessa,” near Thessaloniki. There, an orphan named Eleni is taken into the care of a family, where she falls in love with the young Alexis. But when an elderly widower determines to marry Eleni, she and Alexis flee into unknown territory, into the dangers of a cruel dictatorship and the coming world war. You will see images that you will never forget: refugees fleeing their flooded town on rafts, a field of billowing sheets, extravagant parties, and torrential downpours that make you wonder if Angelopoulos hired God for special effects work.

(Caution: The film is unrated by the MPAA, but contains some violent scenes and suggestions of sexual misbehavior.)

The World – directed by Jia Zhang-ke – available on DVD in February

Beijing has a theme park that welcomes visitors with a banner that says, "See the world without ever leaving Beijing." And since the employees of the park are unlikely to ever travel beyond China’s borders, it becomes a bitterly ironic slogan for their lives of big dreams and harsh realities. Jia Zhang-ke's 2004 film The World takes us behind the scenes of the park’s extravagant, unusual pageantry, into the desperate lives of the workers there who travel this false world dreaming about the realities represented there. A monorail carries international tourists around the 115-acre park, giving them glimpses of remarkable, miniature replicas of the world’s architectural wonders, from a ¼-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, to the Pyramids, to the Taj Mahal. Staring at a stunning recreation of the Manhattan skyline, a guide boasts that their World Trade Center towers are still standing. Similarly, Jia captures many of the world’s central conflicts in miniature as he imagines the personal dramas of the dancers, security officers, and tour guides. From political tensions to personal heartbreak, we see the impacts of capitalism on those who live within China’s stifling restrictions, and the dilapidated, disintegrating conditions behind the flashy façade. The World is a dazzling, ambitious, unique, and ultimately mournful masterpiece.

(Caution: The film includes scenes of sexual behavior and harsh language that would earn the film an R rating.)

Broken Flowers – directed by Jim Jarmusch – available on DVD

Bill Murray stars in this offbeat comedy about an aging “Don Juan” who learns from an anonymous letter that he may have fathered a son 18 years earlier. Encouraged by Winston, his neighbor who is preoccupied with sleuthing, he hits the road to revisit his former lovers in hopes of discovering which one sent him the letter. Each visit confounds his expectations: the race-car widow, the prefabricated-home saleswoman, the animal therapist, and two more with more unfortunate stories. Jarmusch is a thoughtful storyteller who tends to be more interested in unusual characters and spontaneous moments than in compelling plotlines. This is his most accessible film for mainstream audiences. While Murray is occasionally funny, his performance serves to illustrate the angst of a man who lives with deep wounds and damage resulting from a life of promiscuity and self-absorption.

(Caution: These R-rated characters occasionally use foul language and make foolish decisions about sex. There is one scene of explicit nudity. But the film does not glorify misbehavior — in fact, it illustrates the cost of it.)

Grizzly Man – directed by Werner Herzog – available on DVD

Another compelling documentary directed by Werner Herzog, Grizzly Man tells the strange and tragic story of Timothy Treadwell, a man who became so obsessed with “protecting” the grizzly bears of Alaska’s Katmai National Park, living among them, and boasting of his intimacy with them that eventually he lost his life. Herzog shares highlights of Treadwell’s 100-plus hours of footage, in which he cavorted with the bears, educated school children about their lives in the wild, and spewed bile and rage toward everyone from the U.S. government to poachers to the National Parks to God. We learn about Treadwell’s seemingly ordinary upbringing and his adult struggles. (He fell into depression after losing a part on the series “Cheers” to Woody Harrelson!) But even though it’s dramatic and horrifying to consider the bloody end of Treadwell’s life — and his girlfriend’s as well — Herzog is more interested in bringing our attention to the “invisible boundaries” that human beings should not trespass. Even as he insists, as an atheist, that the universe is a place of chaos, he is strangely drawn to the “meaning” of Treadwell’s life, and the idea that there are rules and designs to be respected. It’s a fascinating contradiction at the heart of an amazing film.

(Caution: Treadwell uses a great deal of profanity, and the story of his death is horrifying.)

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan – directed by Martin Scorsese – available on DVD

Martin Scorsese's revealing documentary about the first stages of Bob Dylan’s career does not explain this enigmatic songwriting legend, nor does it provide a comprehensive biography. What it does do, powerfully, is illustrate the great divide between art and the failed attempts of politics and culture to understand and control it. Focusing primarily on Dylan’s rise to fame during the cultural turbulence of the early 1960s, Scorsese peruses fantastic behind-the-scenes footage of Dylan in personal moments and backstage encounters. Interviews with Dylan himself, at his most candid, and with colleagues and collaborators from Joan Baez to Pete Seeger, give us new perspectives on famous moments in rock-music history. There is a great deal to consider here as we consider the difference between commercial entertainment and art, and as we look at how different talented individuals have walked paths of integrity, compromise, or total surrender to the exploitative nature of pop culture. Dylan endures as a heroic artist of unparalleled vision and integrity, even if his personal life has had its lapses into indulgence and recklessness.

(Caution: There is some harsh language thrown around here, as well as footage of drug abuse.)

Batman Begins – directed by Christopher Nolan – available on DVD

Many have praised Christopher Nolan’s version of the Dark Knight as deeper and richer than other versions of the comic character. But comic books at their best are a serious literary form that converges with visual brilliance, and Nolan brings that level of artistry to the screen in Batman Begins. With a first-rate cast that includes Christian Bale, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, and Cillian Murphy (and, yes, Katie Holmes), Nolan tells the story behind the hero and finds more than just a spectacular action film — he lets Bruce Wayne do a fair bit of soul-searching. The story asks troubling questions about the decadence of American culture, the origins of terrorism, the ethics of vigilante justice, and the nature of justice. Nolan finds a compelling story in Wayne’s moral struggle and his attempt to reckon with a painful past. While Sam Raimi and Brian Singer took comic book films to a new level with their Spider-man and X-Men films, Nolan has taken things ever higher and set a new standard.

Other challenging, unforgettable films from 2005 worth renting:

Downfall – Up close and personal with Hitler and his cronies during the last hours of World War II.

Nobody Knows – Call it “Lost in Tokyo” … a harrowing narrative about young siblings abandoned by their mother and left to fend for themselves while the big city overlooks them entirely.

The Squid and the Whale – Noah Baumbach’s devastating portrayal of the effects of divorce and joint custody on two traumatized brothers, featuring Jeff Daniels’ finest performance.

Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit – The year’s best animated film was handcrafted from clay by Nick Parks and the artists at Aardman.

Pride and Prejudice – Joe Wright’s two-hour abbreviation of Jane Austen’s classic is a vivid, energetic delight, and the year’s most impressive directorial debut.

The Ballad of Jack and Rose – Rebecca Miller, daughter of the great playwright Arthur Miller, directs her husband, Daniel Day-Lewis, in this troubling tale about the decline of an idyllic commune, and a man whose frustrated dreams lead to the corruption of his relationship with his daughter.

Winter Solstice – Anthony Lapaglia turns in a deeply moving performance as a widower struggling to raise two teenage sons in this quiet, meditative film.

Dear Frankie – When a single mother tries to hide the painful truth from her son about the character of his father, her whimsical inventions lead to a crisis in which she enlists the help of a reluctant, fatherly imposter.

Murderball – MTV’s documentary on the rivalry between the American and Canadian paraplegic rugby teams takes us into the personal tragedies and triumphs of several amazing individuals.

Serenity – The year’s best and most intelligent adventure film. Reviewed in-depth in the Summer 2005 issue of Response.

Born into Brothels - Reviewed in-depth in the Spring 2005 issue of Response.

CapoteReviewed in last month’s Response OnScreen.

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