Every year people ask me what my top ten films of the year are. And every year I have to tell them the same thing.
“I don’t know. Ask me again in a couple of years.”
Because that’s how long it’s going to take me to see all the really notable films of any given year. Yes, I watch lots of movies. But most of what I watch comes from other points in the 100+ years of cinema history. Sure, I’ll get around to seeing all the big releases of 2005. But it’s going to take me awhile. And since I get out to the theatre less and less these days, I have to wait for the DVD release of everything but the most essential movies that DEMAND my presence on opening weekend.
Top-ten lists of this nature are bullshit anyway. No film critic sees every movie that gets released. They’re happy to sit on their bloated asses and stare at whatever distributors decide merits a domestic screening. None of them hunt for those rare finds, underground classics, and imported oddities. So what the hell do they know?
In the interest of getting people off my back, I offer this humble list of some of my personal faves of the last year. Only a few of them were actually released in 2005, but they were all new films to me. And a great new find from 1939 is every bit as important to me as a great new find from last Friday. There’s twenty of them because it was already hard enough trimming the list down that far.
20. Zero Day
Forget the execrable Gun Van Sant snooze fest, Elephant. This is the real Columbine movie. My recent high-school reunion only served to remind me just how many teenagers out there fantasize about mass murder every bit as much as sex.
19. Alexandra’s Project
Revenge has been a major theme in cinema these last couple of years. Usually they’re tales of blood and guts and heads coming off. Not this one. Yet it probably manages to be the nastiest of the bunch.
18. Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary
Up until this movie, I found Guy Maddin films to be nigh unwatchable. I love his style, but the content always felt too much like sitting through a boring film class. Despite being a silent film set to Mahler and featuring lots of ballet, this manages to be one of the most faithful adaptations of Dracula ever put on the screen. Go figure.
17. Good Bye Lenin!
The fun premise of fooling a newly-awake coma victim into thinking the cold war is still raging is only the surface of this film, which has a lot to say about the lies we tell each other and the motivations behind them.
16. The Fog of War
Sure, Robert S. McNamara may be playing to the camera, looking for sympathy by being shockingly frank, but this is one of the most compelling documentaries I’ve ever seen. The Philip Glass score only adds a great feeling of dread to the whole affair. Ah, remember when our war criminals were clever bastards, unlike the incompetent fucktards we have running the show today?
15. The Battle of Algiers
This oldie enjoyed a sudden revival when it was revealed it had been put on a White House must-see movie list. The Bush administration thought their staff could glean some tips on how to win the war in Iraq by watching this tale of Muslim insurgency against the French. Do you think any of them clued in to the fact that all this film has to tell them is why they can never actually win their war? Sadly, I doubt it.
One of the few mega-classics I had never seen. Now I know why it’s such a classic. Forget it’s a western and think of every movie in which a diverse group of people undertakes a great journey and faces a major peril or disaster. There’s too many of them to list here, but I’m sure you can come up with a dozen titles off the top of your head if you think about it. Well, this movie was the template for all of them.
13. Land of the Dead
I can’t tell you how delighted I was that George Romero‘s fourth zombie film turned out to be a good as it was. A lot of filmmakers lose their spunk when they get older, but George still has his balls on. While all his imitators focus on gut-munching, Romero continues to layer in actual political and thematic content to address contemporary American issues. And then dumps a lot of gut-munching on top of it.
12. Napoleon Dynamite
I saw it late, compared to everyone else, with the warning I might find it really annoying. Nope. It was great. One of those comedies where you either get on the same wavelength as the filmmakers or you disconnect. If you manage to get in their headspace, it’s hilarious.
11. King Kong
I’ve been waiting years to see what Peter Jackson was going to do with one of the most beloved movies in history. Too bad it was timed to come out in the middle of this glut of crappy remakes, because this is what remaking a film as all about. It isn’t a slavish shot-for-shot recreation (like Psycho), nor a radical departure that ignores the source material (like…well…all too many modern remakes, frankly). Peter approaches the material with a loving reverence, but isn’t afraid to reinterpret or reinvent to surprise and delight Kong fans, even when he’s making direct references to the original film. Running nearly twice as long as the 1933 version, it’s fascinating to see what the ultimate Kong fan fleshes out and what he casts aside. Yes, it’s too long, yes it’s incredibly self-indulgent at times, yes that subplot with the sailors goes nowhere. But who cares when you can feel so much love radiating off the screen? And the V-Rex fight is the hands-down best action scene of the year. When Ann Darrow looks at the big boy after that scene, you totally know she would so do him right then and there.
I saw this leading up to last year’s Oscars. Suffering from overexposure, many people didn’t know what to make of this quirky little relationship-type movie, and I’ve heard a lot of backlash against it. But once it clicked for me that the whole film was really about timing (not as in the pace of the film, but timing in life) and that wine was being used as a metaphor for that, I was totally onboard.
9. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
The first part of Park Chan-Wook‘s revenge trilogy is just brilliant. With only a few films, he’s established himself as one of the top filmmakers in the world today. The key word in the title is “sympathy” because in the world presented here, everyone who’s got it comin’ is also a victim in their own right.
8. Batman Begins
I knew Christian Bale was a star from the moment I saw him as a child actor in Empire of the Sun in 1987. I was disappointed when he wasn’t cast as the new Bond (although, given the toilet bowl that series currently finds itself circling, maybe it’s for the best). But hiring him as young Batman was a masterstroke. After the original four-part series drove itself off a cliff, it seems like a miracle that Christopher Nolan resurrected the character this well. That’s what’s so cool about Batman though. He’s an icon that can be reinterpreted a million different ways, but he’s always Batman no matter what you do to him. What I love so much about this version is that it’s a character study in which we see someone’s personal philosophy evolve over time. In that way, it’s a superhero origin story more akin to Malcolm X than X-Men.
7. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
I’ve waited too long for Shane Black to write another movie. When he finally came back to the silver screen, he returned wearing a director’s hat as well. This past year saw two gigantic achievements in post-modern film noir and this is one of them. Probably the most self-aware movie every created, it never fails to be fantastically amusing and inventive. I expect this to be the biggest DVD cult hit of the year once everyone who missed it in its initial run rents it off the new releases shelf and gets knocked flat by how good it is.
6. The Americanization of Emily
A Julie Andrews movie? No, a Julie Andrews movie written by Paddy Chayefsky, the patron saint of all screenwriters. No one did American satire better. I won’t bother to summarize it, just see go it.
5. Aguirre, the Wrath of God
Werner Herzog vs. Klaus Kinski in their first collaboration. Spanish conquistadors travel the Amazon in search of El Dorado and only find a journey into the pits of hell for their trouble. The same could be said for the film crew, who endured what must have been one of the most difficult shoots in history.
I was thrilled by how harsh this love/hate story was willing to get. Mind you I’m still a little concerned I enjoyed a film that stars the likes of Julia Robert and Jude Law. I keep telling myself it’s all Mike Nichols‘s fault.
3. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
I wanted to see this movie for decades. It took a DVD release for me to finally get my hands on it. I expected to be gravely disappointed. I like Sam Peckinpah, but I don’t love him. And could this gritty little crime flick hope to meet my expectations? Meet and surpass it turns out. Universally despised when it came out, Garcia even managed to make it into The 50 Worst Films of All Time by mentally handicapped critics/authors Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss. Such is the fate of most films that are decades ahead of their time. By modern standards, you can see how this is one of the most influential movies ever made. Case in point…
2. Sin City
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is just one of dozens of obvious sources of influence for this, the template for so much future cinema to come. Violently ripped from the pages of Frank Miller‘s Sin City, this is not only the most faithful adaptation of a comic book ever put on the screen, I also declare it the most brutal American film of all time. Rodriguez and Miller would never have gotten away with it if the results weren’t so hyper-stylized. Even then, I’m shocked those hypocritical tools at the MPAA even assigned a rating to this movie that didn’t condemn it straight to DVD. Like it or loath it, expect to see a lot more of it from now on. This is the film, above all previous efforts, that proves digital filmmaking and virtual sets are not only viable, they’re the future.
Part two of Chan Wook-Park’s revenge trilogy. And wow. Simply, wow. I don’t think I care to elaborate much beyond that. Rent it. It will be more fun if you go in knowing nothing about it.
And that’s my list. Which inevitably leads us to the question, “So what were the worst movies of the year?” Well, I don’t like to pick on bad movies. I see plenty of them, but most of them are good in their own special way. Bad movies tend, more often than not, to be failures that were trying to do something new and interesting and wholly different. They just fell on their asses in the attempt. This was the year I saw They Saved Hitler’s Brain, Double Agent 73, Olga’s Girls, The Brown Bunny (Roger Ebert was right the first time), War of the Worlds (no one will ever have to argue which Spielberg film is the runt of the litter again), Catwoman, Street Corner, and Secrets of Sex.
But if I absolutely HAD to make a worst movies of the year list, it would read like this:
It kept me out of the rain on my last day in Dublin nearly a year ago.