by Tony Dayoub
Sorry for the delay. I've had a heck of a stomach virus. Today, I continue my series of posts assessing the best films of the decade, spotlighting my favorite films of 2005. Steven Spielberg deserves special recognition for giving us two of the best films of the decade in one year, a cautionary science fiction tale and a historical thriller, both of which address post-9/11 concerns. A reminder: I cannot judge movies I haven't seen, so if you feel a film you like was unjustly left out, it might be that I never saw it. At the end of the month, I'll post my ten best for 2009. I will then follow up with my 10 best films of the 2000s.
And now, in alphabetical order, the ten best films of 2005...
2046, director Wong Kar Wai - An entrancing companion to Wong's In the Mood for Love, it follows that film's lead, writer Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), through a string of affairs in the wake of his failure to consumate his love for the previous film's Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung). It's a wonderful excuse for Wong and Christopher Doyle to photograph some of the most fascinating Asian actresses out there: Li Gong, Faye Wong, and Ziyi Zhang. And it's likely the only time you'll see a fusion of science fiction, period drama, and romantic thriller in any film, much less a Hong Kong art film.
The 40-Year-Old Virgin, dir. Judd Apatow - Sweet, silly, filthy, and uncannily on target, Apatow's film directing debut is also one funny movie. Steve Carell (The Office) plays the anti-Michael Scott, a sexually naive, but not entirely ignorant, stereo store clerk. His charming performance as an amiable dork helps ameliorate Apatow's occasional inclination toward (over-) extended dialogue riffs that are just this side of offensive.
The Constant Gardener, dir. Fernando Meirelles - Ralph Fiennes' diplomat, Justin Quayle, may be the onstensible hero in this exposé on pharmaceutical misdeeds in Kenya, adapted from John le Carré's 2001 novel. But the true heart and soul of this film resides in Rachel Weisz's portrayal of Quayle's spirited activist wife, Tessa. Her murder is the film's inciting incident, but Weisz's engaging performance— captured in impressionistic flashbacks woven into the chronologically fractured narrative—hangs like a spectre over the rest of the corporate espionage thriller.
Grizzly Man, dir. Werner Herzog - The German director fashioned much of this haunting documentary from found footage of Timothy Treadwell, an idealistic environmentalist who died as he lived, among dangerous grizzly bears in Alaska. At the outset of the film, Treadwell doesn't seem any stranger than your average animal documentary host (it takes a certain kind of person to fill that position). But as the movie progresses his quirks—and anecdotal evidence from those who knew him—pile up to form an image of a man not unlike the misguided, obsessive protagonists of Herzog's fictional narratives.
A History of Violence, dir. David Cronenberg - One of the best arguments for using graphic novels as source material, Violence is easily Cronenberg's best and most accessible film in a decade full of such films from the usually cold and cerebral director. Cronenberg (The Fly) examines the effects of violence on a small-town family after Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) defends his coffee shop from a hold-up. The director implies that violence begets more violence, and explores the idea that perhaps it is hereditary; Stall's son (Ashton Holmes), often picked on by bullies, begins to display a knack for ending fights as well; and Stall's brother (William Hurt in an Oscar-nominated role as a Philly gangland boss) has a propensity for violence as well. What it boils down to is not whether violence is genetically ingrained, but if a person has the will to overcome those tendencies.
Munich, Dir. Steven Spielberg - Spielberg's second film of the year (see War of the Worlds below) finds him still working out some of his feelings post-9/11. His cultural background comes into play here, as the story explores the price paid by an Israeli Mossad agent (Eric Bana) when he becomes all too aware of the complicated feelings and repercussions that arise when he seeks retribution for the murder of 11 Israeli athletes in 1972's Munich Olympics by Palestinian terrorists. Look for Daniel Craig in a supporting role, first showing some of the leading man potential used to great effect in Casino Royale just one year later.
The New World, dir. Terrence Malick - Malick averages one film every decade. But if they all achieve the glorious transcendence which this film does, it's fine with me. Here, he fuses the fact and mythology behind the legend of Pocahontas (exquisitely portrayed by the young Q'orianka Kilcher) and John Smith (Colin Farrell), continuing his exploration of man's tendency towards violence and its effect on nature. The two lovers overcome cultural differences to create a harmonious oasis of peace in an unforgiving world. Malick overcomes the limitations of language both aural and visual to convey the beauty of paradise lost.
Sin City, dirs. Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez - Forget The Wrestler (well not really, it's quite good). Marv, the beat-up but never broken bruiser at the center of Sin City's best segment, is the role that heralded Mickey Rourke's comeback. Even under a thick layer of prosthetics, nifty effects, and a mannered performance dictated by the neo-noir stylings of Frank Miller's graphic novels, Rourke's gravel-inflected voice and brawler's physique help convey the sweet soul of this pitiable but heroic loser. His performance helps close the circle begun by the noir films that inspired Miller's comics in the first place.
Syriana, dir. Stephen Gaghan - Gaghan's film is as much a primer on the forces driving U.S. dealings in the Middle East as the film he won the Oscar for writing, Traffic, is a primer on the drug trade. The great ensemble cast includes Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, Chris Cooper, William Hurt, and Christopher Plummer. But the two standouts are Alexander Siddig (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) as the wise young Prince Nasir, and George Clooney in his best performance as CIA agent Bob Barnes, a stand-in for the former agent whose exploits provided the source material for the film, Robert Baer.
War of the Worlds, dir. Steven Spielberg - The first of Spielberg's 2005 diptych addressing the post-9/11 temperature (see Munich above) sees the director creating sympathy for a (usually) absent father (Tom Cruise) forced by circumstances to own up to his responsibilities. This is quite a turnaround for the older, wiser director whose usual focus on broken families rarely sides with the father while typically idealizing him (Dreyfus in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Ford in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). Here, Cruise is presented warts and all, usually bumbling into a heroic save.
For more of this ongoing series, click here.