At the Crossroads.
Many critics, filmmakers, stars, and other industry types claim that 2005 was a watershed year in Hollywood film, a year that witnessed daring approaches to subject matter, breaks with long-held taboos, and renewed creativity in film form. Even the most casual observer can divine this running argument/mantra from recent award ceremony acceptance speeches (more than usual), on the pages of interviews and star profiles in the New York Times and other major publications, and over the idle chatter of talk show hosts and morning lifestyle TV programs. It is as if the mainstream American movie industry is turning a blind eye to reality and believes if they just keep repeating “There’s no place like home” they will find themselves comfortably back in Kansas — a place free of iPods and piracy, gaming consoles and first-person shoot-em-ups, and HBO and HD. Or better put, a place where these things are drowned out and overshadowed by the high-quality Hollywood-branded sounds and images one finds on screen at your local movie theater.
For years, the argument has always been technical — bigger, louder, three-dimensional, full color — a richer, more immersive sensory experience. Now, that richness is delivered in terms of content: the Art of Cinema in the Age of Experience. Tonight, we will likely see Brokeback Mountain, Good Night and Good Luck, March of the Penguins, Crash, The Constant Gardener, Capote, and Walk The Line variously rewarded; Hollywood will dutifully stay on message. And, while these films do contain promising bits, most especially strong acting, as complete works they were just so-so, my interest and delight ebbing not long after the first reel. Yes, even the penguins felt a bit re-hashed from earlier triumphs like Winged Migration (Perrin, 2001). Please don’t send hate mail!
I’m not saying these movies were bad, just that they weren’t that good, you know? In your heart of hearts, was it really that great of a year for American cinema? Even lions of independent film didn’t live up to previous heights: Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, and Linklater’s Bad News Bears remake were largely missed opportunities, great filmmakers on cruise control if not asleep at the wheel.
To clarify, I’m not making the mistake of claiming that all movies fell short, that the history of cinema has seen its last days (this time for real). No no, quite the contrary. I am sure that many hours of amazing work is out there, perhaps much of it from Asia and Europe. No doubt more rigorous moviegoers can attest to this but I can only comment on the few dozen that I did get a chance to see, and if I were to speak honestly, many of them were stinkers.
But not all. While Hollywood and the Culture Industry place value and reward accomplishment in all the wrong places, I found plenty to celebrate too.
Film continues to thrive, continues to adapt and absorb, and to provide seemingly limitless opportunities to inspire and move, delight and entertain, and, on those rarest of occasions, challenge and shock one’s sensibilities. In compiling these best of lists every year, I am at once applauding and acknowledging this elasticity as well as the specific accomplishments of individual artists, and from a reverse angle, marking my own fleeting yet lasting moments of insight at the intersection of the two.
Top 5 Movies of 2005 (theatrical screenings or otherwise):
Caché (Hidden) (Haneke)
The puzzler of the year — full of questions and few answers, an exercise in self-reflexivity, genre splicing and indeterminacy, a staging (I hesitate to say critique) of bourgeois values — in other words, the latest chapter in the continuing adventures of Michael Haneke, author of the equally profound and provocative Code Unknown and The Piano Teacher. With Caché, he juxtaposes two lives lived, that of a middle class talk show host, and an Algerian immigrant, two trajectories, one haunting and harassing the other, threatening to reveal its secrets, false assumptions, and self-induced and self-serving delusions. It’s also very much a “movie’s movie” in the sense that it articulates the act of constructing and decoding narrative cinema and it calls attention to the assumptions and strategies that we as an audience rely on and trust. That is not to say watching Caché is an overly analytical experience. Rather, its long takes, formal manipulations and cool detachment has quite the opposite effect, creating a palpable sense of dread, of tense discomfort and, with its celebrated closing shot, ultimately refusing to satiate.
The Squid and The Whale (Baumbach)
A well-made and well-acted tale of a dysfunctional Brooklyn family enduring the ugliness of divorce and the challenges of adolescence and pre-adolescence. Noah Baumbach’s thinly veiled memoir is mannered, wordy, and stiff but starkly honest and unapologetic at the same time. Thanks to SG for dragging me to see this one.
Batman Begins (Nolan)
I was pleasantly surprised by this latest installment in what had become a tired and bankrupt franchise. Christopher Nolan’s and Christian Bale’s caped crusader beats out all the hype, stylistic bravado, and titillation of Sin City (Miller, Rodriquez) hands down. The most entertaining Hollywood movie of the year.
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan Disc 1 (Scorcese)
Never a major Dylan fan like most of my friends, I think this was the key I needed to open the door, and it may have arrived at just the right time. No Direction Home provides an illuminating view of his early years and beginnings with classic Scorcese confidence. You can skip Disc 2.
Grizzly Man (Herzog)
I’m still undecided on this one. I found it both impossible to take seriously and all too serious. I couldn’t help but doubt the veracity of the images. It feels like a put on, too fantastic to be anything but a grand hoax, and yet it isn’t. The raw footage survives, the Herzog voice-over and selective editing provides critical distance, and we are served a unique portrait of one man’s choices, obsessions, and ultimate demise.
Honorable Mention: Nine Lives (Garcia)
Top 5 Repertory (seen for the first time in 2005):
The Saddest Music in the World (Maddin, 2004)
Les Bonnes Femmes (Chabrol, 1960)
Lost Highway (Lynch, 1997) (former “Best First Reel” winner)
Down By Law (Jarmusch, 1986)
The Cooler (Kramer, 2003)
Finally, in the spirit of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s F.W. Murnau award, the one movie I saw in 2005 that most impacted my appreciation and understanding of film history and confirmed my faith in cinema was Dziga Vertov’s Man with A Movie Camera (1929). A long-time gap for me, I’ve read enough about this film over the years that it felt as though I had seen it already. While dated at times in its politics and… how should I say this… enthusiasm for the potential of the medium to influence and inform society, the avant-garde inventiveness, tightly-constructed grammar, and sheer velocity of this one-of-a-kind film essay is unsurpassed.