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The Best Films of the Year?
The Best Films of the Year?
December 25, 2005
The Best Films of the Year
Rome in Six Hours and Four Decades
By A. O. SCOTT
THIS list is intended neither as prophecy nor as summing up. It is impossible to predict which of the many fine movies released in 2005 will still claim our attention 10 years - or even 10 weeks - from now. Nor do the titles below represent, as far as I can see, any important trends in world cinema. Many of them belong to the year just ending by sheer happenstance, having been shown at festivals long before their (often brief) runs in American theaters. What they have in common is only that I loved them, that each one caused me, temporarily, to let go of my critical preoccupations and experience the absorption and surprise that made me want to be a critic in the first place.
No movie did that quite as powerfully or completely as "The Best of Youth," Marco Tullio Giordana's six-hour chronicle of recent Italian history told through the lives of an ordinary Roman family. Originally made as a mini-series for Italian television, this film gestures back toward the tradition of politically astute historical filmmaking exemplified by masters like Luchino Visconti and Bernardo Bertolucci. It is an intellectual as well as an emotional feast, with dozens of superb performances, especially from Luigi Lo Cascio and Alessio Boni playing two brothers caught up in the social and political turmoil of the 1960's and 70's. Mr. Giordana has made a movie so full of life that even after six hours of screen time and four decades of history, you wish it would go on.
I'm not sure I would wish for more of "The Aristocrats," Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette's scholarly inquiry into the world's filthiest joke. On the other hand, the point of this documentary is that filth knows no limits, and that exploring the far boundaries of taste and propriety demands fortitude, hard work and a commitment to craft. The craft in question is stand-up comedy, and the battalion of performers and writers gathered together here - Sarah Silverman, George Carlin, Paul Reiser and Bob Saget among them - offer a fascinating glimpse at the lore and tradition that sustains them.
In (yet another) year of excellent documentaries - as well as too many that take easy routes to sentimental uplift or political indignation - Hubert Sauper's "Darwin's Nightmare" stands out. An unflinching, rigorous examination of the ecological and human effects of globalization on the African nation of Tanzania, Mr. Sauper's film is not always easy to watch. But it peers so deeply at one of the central and largely invisible crises of our time that the conventions of cinéma vérité acquire an almost visionary intensity, as if William Blake were behind the camera.
In her second feature, "The Holy Girl," the 39-year-old Argentine director Lucrecia Martel shows herself to be one of the most original and insightful younger filmmakers working today. With self-confidence that more than matches her formal daring, she turns the story of a young girl's sexual and religious awakening into a lyrical, psychologically charged puzzle. María Alche's performance in the title role is at haunted and haunting, sensuous and otherworldly. Her character, Amalia, is a perfectly ordinary teenager who lives with her divorced mother in a provincial hotel, and her collisions with the adult world are at once comical, creepy and numinous. The film is oblique, sometimes to the point of obscurity, but in its astonishing final scenes it reveals a deep, almost shocking coherence.
It was a shock of the most pleasant kind to discover, in Woody Allen's "Match Point," that one of our most maddeningly prolific (and recently underachieving) filmmakers was back in top form. Revisiting some of the themes of his earlier work - most obviously "Crimes and Misdemeanors" - Mr. Allen reminds his long-suffering admirers what a skilled and disciplined writer he can be. Trading Manhattan for London and working with an excellent, youthful cast (with outstanding performances from Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Emily Mortimer and Scarlett Johansson), he mixes high artifice with acute insight, and presents an entertainment that is so glittery and diverting that you almost miss the cruel, chilly darkness at its heart.
Perhaps the purest dose of pleasure on movie screens this year was provided by Nick Park and his comrades at Aardman Animations, makers of "Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit." Bringing their jug-eared English inventor and his loyal pooch to the big screen after three short adventures, the Aardmanites staked out a place of honor for old-fashioned stop-motion Animation in a world dominated by digital technology. It is good to know that such solid virtues as loyalty, hands-on ingenuity, absolute silliness and the love of cheese still have a place in modern cinema. Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter lend their voices to this noble cause.
American independent cinema is full of stories of young men coming of age, which is fitting enough given that young men still dominate the Sundance/art-house nexus. One of the best recent examples of the genre - which is to say a picture that transcends the genre entirely - was Gregg Araki's "Mysterious Skin." Mr. Araki, once the wild child of the New Queer Cinema, remains fearless, but this adaptation of Scott Heim's novel is also tender and beautiful. Two terrific young actors, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet, play two boys growing up in Kansas in the 1980's, linked by a childhood trauma they share without knowing it. The story is painful, but Mr. Araki's way of telling it is funny, humane and unpretentious.
Another coming-of-age story, "The Squid and the Whale," hit me where I live, and not only because it was filmed a few blocks from where I really do live. Noah Baumbach's scathing, heartbreaking comedy of bad manners and failed romance traces the unraveling of a Brooklyn literary family. In tracing the shifting alliances between two brothers and their separating parents, Mr. Baumbach lays bare the vanity and cruelty of people who fancy themselves creatures of superior refinement and taste. And yet it is impossible not to feel a tug of sympathy for all of them. Jeff Daniels, as the pompous, narcissistic dad, gives one of the best performances of the year, and Mr. Baumbach's sharp, quick scenes give his movie the texture and economy of a first-rate novel.
Movies about aimless young people have hardly been scarce in the indie world, but Andrew Bujalski's "Funny Ha Ha" rises above the slacker pack. Mr. Bujalski made this super-low-budget feature with a bunch of friends (notably Kate Dollenmayer, who may be the thinking nerd's Parker Posey) in Boston, and he turns the affectlessness and indecision of overeducated 20-somethings into a genuine style. Unassuming to the point of diffidence, this film turns out on closer examination to be formally bold and slyly insightful. It's both a (whispered, half-swallowed) generational statement and the announcement of a formidable talent.
Steven Spielberg's "Munich" was no sooner hailed on the cover of Time as a "secret masterpiece" than it was subjected to a pre-emptive backlash, mainly from pundits accusing Mr. Spielberg of moral relativism and manipulation. The initial praise may have been overdone, but the attacks have more to do with the need certain ideologues have for fresh hobbyhorses to ride than with anything the movie is actually doing or saying. "Munich" is complicated, even to the point of confusion, but it is also ethically serious in a way that few large-scale commercial films dare to be. It is fundamentally about the challenge that fighting terrorism poses for liberal societies, but it is hardly a brief for defeatism or evenhandedness. Doing the right thing has costs, which are sometimes terrible. Once again, Mr. Spielberg displays a command of filmmaking technique that has, at the moment, no equal.
That makes 10, but why stop there? Those are the movies that had, for one reason or another, the deepest personal impact on me. But there were plenty more - more than usual, it seems - that I found reasons to admire. 2005 was a very good year for good movies, and I can't let it end without mentioning some more of them, in no special order and without comment. To accompany the 10-best list above, then, here are the 20 second-best movies of 2005: "Capote," "Good Night, and Good Luck," "Good Morning, Night," "Syriana," "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," "A History of Violence," "Schizo," "Brokeback Mountain," "Nobody Knows," "Look at Me," "Shopgirl," "40 Shades of Blue," "Kings and Queen," "Howl's Moving Castle," "My Summer of Love," "Gunner Palace," "Broken Flowers," "Head-On," "Casanova" and "King Kong."