Panic! At the Cinema

The Academy Awards are right around the corner, and when I was at the Pitt News this time of the year was when we did our top 10 lists for movies. So why not carry on the tradition?

For all the ballyhooing from critics like Roger Ebert -- by the way, Rog', could you please call it quits? Please? Please. -- about how great 2005 was for movies, when you break it down it was pretty lame. The biggest movies of the year were sequels, prequels or remakes, the most anticipated films were sequels, prequels, remakes or adaptations, and most of the critically acclaimed films were nothing more than trite pap that would have been laughed off the screen if this were 1999, for example.

Of course, there were movies that hit the bull's-eye, and when a movie did hit it did so astutely. And I think that's what the list below is a reflection of. In some cases, the films were major releases that had a decent amount of buzz behind them; in others, the films were sort of dumped off in indie theater oblivion to die a quick death while awaiting the DVD afterlife.

But no matter the situation, release or size, the films listed below are what I thought to be the best cinematic works of 2005. Read, discuss, argue. Mischief, mayhem, soap.

10. (tie) 2046, New York Doll

"New York Doll" and "2046" both caught me off-guard, but for different reasons. I had an idea of what "2046" was going to be because I had seen "In the Mood for Love," but I wasn't prepared for the veritable visual buffet it offers or the crazy-style narrative, twisting and turning in seemingly no direction in particular. "New York Doll" was a film I knew virtually nothing about, but I wanted to see because a documentary about a member of the New York Dolls sounded intriguing. The film ended up being much more than that -- it's a documentary of unusual power and resonance that sucks you in and spits you out emotionally exhausted. The way the filmmakers handle the journey of NYDolls bassist and born-again Mormon Arthur "Killer" Kane is strikingly honest and unmanipulative. But what both "2046" and "New York Doll" have in common is that they offered refreshing times at the theater, even if they weren't exactly groundbreaking.

9. The Beat That My Heart Skipped

Many, many directors care to evoke France's New Wave in their work as a sort-of catch-all wink-and-nod, one that both film geeks, older audiences and moviegoers with even a limited knowledge of filmmaking will appreciate. But largely, such evocation, like with Jonathan Demme's wholly uninspired love letter to the New Wave, "The Truth About Charlie, falls flat. (Doubly so in Demme's case because not only is he ripping of the New Wave, but also the classic "Charade." His film plays like a copy of a copy, and it certainly feels as such.) "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" escapes this fate. It's a French film, yes, so if any filmmaker should be able to replicate the French New Wave it would be a French director. And it's also a remake -- redoing the 1977 American film "Fingers." But despite its copy-of-a-copy nature, "Beat" is always engaging. It never paints itself as the second coming of the New Wave; instead, it uses New Wave conventions and motifs to effectively tell its story. From its characters to the narrative to the camerawork, Godard, Melville and Truffaut are prevalent on every frame. And for that alone "Beat" is worthwhile -- but it also helps that it's one damn fine film.

8. Syriana

"Syriana" is a difficult film if only because you need to be absolutely, one hundred percent committed to being engaged in what's happening on-screen. More and more, audiences are having trouble doing that. But if you can muster the energy to stay focused, what you'll find in "Syriana" is an explosively compelling look -- even if it is heavy-handed -- at the perils to everyone and every culture of the oil business and a reliance on it. Stephen Gaghan certainly can craft a picture; this film and his similar script for "Traffic" are evidence of that. But stellar performances from George Clooney, Matt Damon (!), Alexander Siddig and the always-intense Christopher Plummer push the film over the top. (Read my original review here.)

7. The New World

When you go into a Terence Malick film, you can be sure of two things. First, the pace is going to be slower than molasses. And second, what you'll see is going to be beautiful. Check to both in "The New World." In only his fourth major film in a 33 year career -- but his second in seven years (Kubrick eat your heart out) -- Malick translates the tale of John Smith and Pocahontas into a finely woven tale of love found and lost, while exploring his interests in the effects of man on nature and the corruption of money and violence. Disney this is not. But that's OK, because this is a film only Malick could deliver. A nice surprise is a beautiful score by James Horner that sounds more like a symphony placed into a movie rather than a score developed specifically for a film.

6. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

When you see the name "Shane Black," chances are most casual filmgoers won't know who he is. But they'd certainly know his writing -- "Lethal Weapon," "Last Action Hero," "The Last Boy Scout" -- and they've certainly felt his effects on Hollywood -- Black single-handedly fired-up the "spec script" market in La-La-Land, leading to notable hits and failures (among which "The Last Boy Scout" and "Last Action Hero" can be counted, despite their amazingly original -- and funny -- scripts). After retreating from the glitz and glamour of the movies, Black returned in 2005 with his directorial debut, the acerbic, literate and hilarious "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang." The film boasts some of the smartest dialogue found in any film in 2005, and once it hits DVD it should become, if not a huge hit, at least a cult favorite. (Read my original review here.)

5. Match Point

Woody Allen gets knocked around a lot anymore. Hell, I've done it myself. Most of his output over the past five or six years has been uninspired and derivative. Worse, he's being derivative of himself most of the time. And when that happens, perhaps it's time to step away from writing and directing. But in "Match Point," a film with many, many similarities to "Crimes and Misdemeanors," Allen reveals he's still got some fight left in him. Great performances all around, a black-as-night story and glorious camera work highlighting the beauty of London ("Match Point" is Allen's first foray outside the confines of New York) make this film one of Allen's best. You'll even find yourself forgetting how eerily similar the film is to "Crimes and Misdemeanors" thanks to the film being utterly devoid of screwy humor -- or is it humour?

4. Good Night, and Good Luck

George Clooney is an amazing director. His first film, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," was a taut comedy-thriller that coaxed incredible performances out of Sam Rockwell and Drew Barrymore while announcing to the world that Clooney is more than just a matinee idol. Unfortunately, his close working relationship with Steven Soderbergh rubbed off too much and you'd be hard-pressed to find any shots in the film that didn't look like they belonged in a Soderbergh film. But all of that's gone in "Good Night, and Good Luck," an economic retelling of Edward R. Murrow's battle with Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the '50s. The film is striking for its small-scale, star-studded cast (Clooney, Jeff Daniels, Robert Downey Jr., Frank Langella, Patricia Clarkson) and its efficient storytelling. But what's most noteworthy is the film's cinematography. Black-and-white has never looked this good -- maybe in the '50s, but no modern film shot on black-and-white can hold a candle to it. Mix into that a lush jazz score of '50s tunes performed by Diane Reeves and what you have is a recipe for success -- and a sign of brilliant things to come from the directorial eye of George Clooney. (Read my Pop Matters blurb here.)

3. Last Days

Say what you want about Gus Van Sant. He might be pretentious and a bit too self-indulgent, but if the results are films like "Last Days," by all means keep on keepin' on. In a fictional account of what Kurt Cobain's final days might have been like, Van Zant drops us right into the beginning of the end, with his Cobain stand-in, Blake, played with haunting intensity -- and very Cobain-like -- by Michael Pitt, and shows us the minimalist depression and fame-induced overextension faced by Blake. Through the use of extremely long takes and a looping narrative, Van Zant makes us feel an extreme amount of emotion towards Blake despite never really telling us about him. Perhaps he uses our own feelings towards Cobain and his death as a catalyst, but it's still impressive that Van Zant can accomplish so much with so little. (Read my original review here.)

2. Capote

While not a biopic in the traditional sense of the term, anyone who ever endeavors to make a film about a real person or the events experienced by a person should use "Capote" as a blueprint. Director Bennett Miller perfectly captures the mood and atmosphere of the '50s cosmopolitan environment Truman Capote existed in as well as the stark nothingness in comparison of the Midwestern town where two men murdered an entire family -- the impetus for Capote's "In Cold Blood," the writing of which is chronicled in the film. But it's Philip Seymour Hoffman's blindingly remarkable performance as Capote that gives the film its emotional oomph. He captures perfectly Capote's lilting inflection while portraying him perffectly as the at-once user-friend of the two murderers. Central to the film is the question of how far should you go for art, for your work? And how much of your sanity and well-being, and that of the people around you, are you willing to give up in that pursuit? This is a heady film, to be sure, and not one easily quantifiable. It defies genre as well as the conventional wisdom of how to craft a biopic (for comparison, view "Capote," "Walk the Line" and "Ray" back-to-back-to-back and the differences between "Capote" and the other two films are striking). "Capote" was by far one of the best films of the year, but it was also one of the biggest surprises.

1. Munich

Like "Capote," "Munich" is a biopic as well as dealing with very heady issues, like revenge, nationality and national pride, freedom and what that word means, and what are the core traits of a good human being as well as a good Jew. If the film were only that, it would be number two while "Capote" filled the one slot. But what "Munich" has is a career-defining moment by director Steven Spielberg. Up to now, Spielberg has been all too willing to simply state issues concerning his Jewish roots in black-and-white terms. When push came to shove, he never engaged in the tough exploration of hard issues. You could say he lived in a fantasy world of Good versus Bad, both of which are easily defined, and where Good will always triumph over Bad. And you'd be right in that estimation. That is, until he released "Munich." This film, his second of 2005 (the other being the loathsome "War of the Worlds"), is demonstrative of an amazing truth -- Spielberg, even as he approaches the 60 year-old mark, can still evolve as a filmmaker. "Munich" is an amazing film -- the cast is perfect, John Williams' score is one of his best in recent memory, the direction is taut, and the narrative engaging. It's in Spielberg, though, where the power of the film lies. He could have easily taken the material for this film about the terrorist murders of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, made once before into a film (the made-for-TV "Sword of Gideon"), and continued with his track record of being pro-politically correct issues at the expense of his film. Luckily it wasn't, and despite the fact that "Munich" will always be overshadowed by "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan," history will be kind to this film -- and perhaps it will one day take its rightful place as Spielberg's best work. (Read my original review here and my Pop Matters blurb here.)

Other notable films: Jarhead, Brokeback Mountain, Walk the Line, Pride & Prejudice, Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith, Batman Begins, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Broken Flowers, March of the Penguins, Red Eye, 40 Year-Old Virgin, Corpse Bride, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Wedding Crashers

Worst Film of 2005
Mysterious Skin

When people ask me what I think the worst movie ever made is, I usually say "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines." The reason for this is its budget, cast, lack of story, pitiful action, awful special effects, and the rendering of moot the previous two -- better -- films in the series. But after seeing "Mysterious Skin," I think my Worst Movies list found a new topper. Any way you slice it, this is one atrocious sin of a movie. From the wholly manipulative way director Gregg Araki twists his characters and the scenarios they find themselves in to elicit some sort of sympathy from his audience to the piss-poor acting (these characters are supposed to be Southern, yet Heath Ledger, an Australian, had a better Southern accent than every American member of this cast!) to… Oh, fuck it, everything about this film is bad, and the more I think about it the more things I find to be angered about. Watching the film, I felt totally used by Araki, who seems to think that throwing a bunch of child molestation on a screen is equal to a frank depiction of child abuse -- which is how many critics have described this movie ("Boo!" to all of you overpayed, underqualified hacks who thought this!). I'm sorry, but seeing a child -- a child -- who is supposed to be a victim of abuse initiate said abuse doesn't equal child abuse. If that same child enlists other children into abusive situations, that child is the person who should be vilified on screen, no celebrated. If that child participates -- nay, suggests -- sex games with adult males that requires him and other kids to see how far they can shove their small arms inside the adult, that child is a monster, not a martyr. Yet, Araki would want you to think just the opposite on every account. And when there is a character that warrants some honest sympathy, he's treated as a freak. Why? Well, it would seem that in Araki's world, anyone who's not a gay hooker, who isn't a sexual predator, who isn't a drug addict, who isn't a fucking scumbag, is worthy of nothing but scorn -- and somewhere, even Bret Easton Ellis is squirming at this idea. The word "hate" is too tame to describe my feelings towards this piece of trash -- and that, my friends, is not a word I use lightly.

Most Overrated Film of 2005

Like "Mysterious Skin," "Crash" is a very manipulative picture. Unlike "Mysterious Skin," though, "Crash" doesn't manipulate the audience for some nefarious purpose -- at least, it doesn't seem that way. Rather, it tries to preach to those watching the film things viewers probably already know: people are racist, usually for no good reason, and, wow, black people get the brunt of such racism. To hear people and critics discuss this film as one of the best, if not the best, films of 2005 (Ebert listed it his number one film of the year), is very disappointing. Has everyone forgotten that racism has existed for as long as America has and, for as long as there have been motion pictures, racism has been dealt with to various degrees of success? "Crash" is in no way revelatory. Exploring the social ramifications of racism is something done much, much better in the exponentially more interesting "Do the Right Thing," among other films. When I saw the film at a preview screening, I was there to gauge audience reaction, and one woman came up to me and said it was the worst film she had ever seen. I don't agree with her (see the write-up above), but I do agree that this film is nothing special. If nothing else, it's a glorified Hallmark original with dirtier language and more sexually explicit situations. Plus, whenever you have a cast with Matt Dillon, Don Cheadle, Ryan Phillipe, Brendan Fraser and Sandra Bullock and Ludacris is the best of the bunch, you've got a bad situation on your hands. How this was nominated for Best Picture is beyond me; how critics like Ebert can think it should -- and will -- win the award is even more baffling. Did critics take total leave of whatever little sense they had left in 2005?