The 10 Best Films of 2005

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Article by Mark Dujsik

One could, if one were so inclined, flippantly dismiss half of the films on my list as simple entertainments. Was 2005 such a weak year that I am simply filling my list with hokum? Far from it. It seems more a sign of the times, and certainly something quite noteworthy. It seems Hollywood is finally getting the message about what movies can be. There weren't too many films this year that chiefly drove my intellect, but from the following list it's quite obvious there were quite a few that got my blood pumping with the joy of seeing considerable visions executed with cinematic aplomb. They are primarily entertainments, yes, but let us consider ourselves lucky that this year provided so many films that truly entertained visually, viscerally, emotionally, and, even to a degree, intellectually. Then there's the other half—the "important" films. It's not every year that the top four spots are filled with near-masterpieces. Now, my list of the ten best films of 2005:

10. Sin City
Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez, and guest director Quentin Tarantino's chivalric nightmare is the first comic book movie to look and feel just like a comic book without any kind of flashy editing tricks, weird inserts, or cheesy sound effect title cards. Based on Miller's cult graphic novel series, Sin City is film noir on a full-out bender. The film is sensory overload, complete with episodic plot structure and twisted turns, grotesque characters, stylized, hard-edged dialogue, and gruesome violence. Shot almost entirely in black-and-white with vibrant flashes of color (blood reds, sickly yellows, cool blues, and melancholy greens) and staged mainly against computer-generated backgrounds, this is a visual feast, but its central running theme of seeing chivalry as the "virtue" of protecting women, the potentially hypocritical actions that usually result from such machismo, and a view of corruption's cyclical nature give the film an added weight to accompany the technical prowess. The ensemble is dead-on in their presentational performances of the material, with Mickey Rourke as a monstrous thug, Clive Owen as a murderer out to save every woman he meets, and Bruce Willis as perhaps the only main character with a true sense of chivalry. There will be sequels, and I am genuinely psyched for them.

9. The Producers
If I had to pick a favorite film on this list—one that I would categorize as my "addiction" movie—this would probably be it. Choreographer and first-time film director Susan Stroman, who directed and choreographed the show on Broadway, has taken the most popular stage musical in years, which also single-handedly revitalized the musical comedy, and made one of the classiest movie musicals I've seen. Surprising, of course, because the musical is adapted from Mel Brooks' crass 1968 film, one of my favorite comedies. This version of The Producers, though, is its own animal entirely. Forgoing the visceral flash of recent movie musicals, the film is a nostalgic throwback to screen musicals of the past. The camera hangs back, letting us appreciate the musical numbers. Too many have criticized the film for this, pointing the finger at Stroman for lazy, incompetent direction, but on the contrary, this is strong, minimalist work. Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick pale in comparison to their screen alter-egos, but again, this isn't the original. Their work fits just right here, especially Lane, whose performance recalls Zero Mostel while still making the character his own, is almost transcendent, and Gary Beach shines as the director who makes a hilariously flamboyant Hitler.

8. King Kong
I have seen King Kong three times in the theater now, and I'm still amazed with Peter Jackson's sheer audacity in exponentially upping the stakes of the 1933 original while still honoring it. Jackson not only gets the myth of the giant gorilla from Skull Island right, but he lends it such a surprising sincerity that the final act plays out with the inevitable momentum and cathartic weight of Greek tragedy. Before that, though, the scope of his action/adventure scenes outdoes almost anything before it with its outlandishly exhilarating set pieces, including but not stopping at a royal rumble between Kong and three Tyrannosaurs. It's the kind of staging that induces laughs of utter disbelief—not because it's ridiculous, but because it's ridiculous and actually working. The performances are serviceable, but I may have been too dismissive of Naomi Watts in my initial review. Yes, she has a great scream, but there's a lot more going on in her performance in the scenes with Kong than I gave her credit for. And Kong itself is a remarkable technical achievement, a completely convincing computer-generated creation that actually managed to choke me up. This is the best kind of remake, one that feels like a new production of established material and not an inevitability.

7. Stay
Marc Forster's overlooked gem is a brain-twister with a heart and soul. Stay certainly fits the mold of what is semi-popularly known as a mind-f**k movie, and it certainly does what the description implies. What sets it apart from other similar fodder is its singular purpose and vision. Forster is quickly defining himself as a chameleonic director, adapting his style to fit whatever material he is presented, and this is easily his greatest success to date. With dreamlike editing and even more surreal cinematography, the film weaves a rich tapestry of images adding up to an unexpectedly heartbreaking and surprising conclusion at which I will not even hint. David Benioff's script weaves common themes and events that all make perfect sense in the end while still holding the audience at bay as to the truth lying underneath the trickery. The cast is solid, with Ewan McGregor as an Ivy League professor with a shaky American accent who serves as our entryway into the life of Ryan Gosling's conflicted and suicidal student. How this film went completely under the radar of critics and audiences is a shame, but hopefully its strong potential of having a word-of-mouth cult following once it is released on DVD will be realized.

6. Batman Begins
Anyone who thinks a long-thought dead franchise can never find new life need only look as far as Christopher Nolan's re-imagining of the Batman legend. Batman Begins' title is far too appropriate on two levels. First, it portrays Bruce Wayne's transition from orphaned millionaire to superhero, and second—and more importantly—it restarts the series from a blank page. Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer ignore the formula of the genre and focus almost entirely on the psychological and sometimes philosophical nature of the character. Instead of icons, we have flesh and blood characters on display, and they inhabit a world that stood only as eye candy in previous installments but feels like a living, breathing city here. These choices lend a sensation of realism to the proceedings, one that spreads even to the film's action sequences and special effects. Batman's gizmos have some founding in reality and so do his foes and allies. Batman faces off against a mobster, a hallucinogen-pushing psychiatrist, and the leader of a covert vigilante group and finds friends in a young, idealistic detective, a mind-his-own-business R & D guru, and his father-like butler. The great cast includes the likes of Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, and Michael Caine, and Christian Bale manages to play both sides of the Wayne/Batman persona successfully. This is perhaps the best superhero movie ever captured on film.

5. Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith
The space opera ends on one of its highest notes. George Lucas has taken a lot of flak for the prilogy of films, but Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith is far superior to either of the previous installments (for some folks, that's not saying much) and, in terms of what we expect out of a Star Wars movie, ranks right up there with the two best installments of the original trilogy. The fact that it gives us more than we've come to anticipate, though, is what makes this a great film onto itself. Lucas' storytelling has never been this mature and assured as it is here, connecting this story to everything that comes before and after it while still maintaining a relentless but natural narrative flow to the chapter proper. The story of the specifics of Anakin Skywalker's downfall is the darkest one in the sextet of films, and it is also the first time the story set out by the prequels is involving on its own merit. Again, Lucas and his special effects team have created fantastic new worlds, and the performances are surprisingly strong. Hayden Christensen finally seems comfortable in playing Anakin, and an all-digital Yoda gives a tangible performance. The standouts, though, are Ewan McGregor (again), bringing Obi-Wan Kenobi full-circle, and Ian McDiarmid, creating a dastardly silver-tongued villain.

4. The New World
Accuse me of over-exaggeration if you must, but Terrence Malick is a cinematic poet. The New World portrays the story of Pocahontas (who is never mentioned by name in the film) with historic accuracy, but Malick's expansion and exploration of the possible emotional core of the tale brings it right back into the realm of legend. It's a testament to Malick's singular vision that I do not want to think of this story happening any other way than it does here. Overflowing with sumptuous visuals, philosophical and spiritual musings, and wise emotional honesty, the film is meticulous in every way. Malick's filmmaking demands and deserves thoughtful viewing, but his film washes over you, enveloping one in the kind of transcendent experience that comes only when witnessing an artist at his prime. There's much to ponder and reflect upon here—in the way our country was founded at the expense of those who had already called it home, at the way there may be no such thing as resolving lost love, and even what it means to live a life truly worth living—but it is all seen through the eyes and connected to the experience of one of our country's most enduring female legends. The film features solid performances by Colin Farrell and Christian Bale as Pocahontas' suitors, and Q'Orianka Kilcher makes a stunning debut performance in bringing Pocahontas to life.

3. Capote
Here is a superbly crafted film that illuminates and expands upon our perception of another work. The other work is Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, the masterful account of the effects of a grisly quadruple murder in rural America and the lives of the seemingly unconnected killers, and Capote is in itself an expertly realized character study of how Capote's personality influenced his journalistic eye and how his indomitable, ruthless determination to complete his art and achieve his greatest success may have cost him his life. Bennett Miller's debut film is a deliberate exploration of Capote's process of writing his controversial masterpiece and how the decisions he makes to tell the story affect him. The presentation of Capote is beyond the caricature of his famous public image and delves directly into the heart of the man, seeing him as a manipulator of people and an envious observer of others' fame. He is fascinated by the victims, the townspeople, the investigators, and the killers, and once he has gotten what he needs from one, he quickly ignores them and moves on to the next. The main question here, one that is left wisely unanswered, is does he feel genuine sympathy for these people or are they merely the means to an end? Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of our foremost character actors, and he has his greatest success to date as Capote. His performance and Miller's sympathetic direction make the writer's moral downfall not a deserved, forgone conclusion but a tragic ruin.

2. Downfall
Oliver Hirschbiegel's tale of madmen and monsters is perhaps the definitive fictional account of the final days of the Third Reich. Hirschbiegel directs with the intimacy and immediacy of a documentary, but Downfall also has emotional, philosophical, and political trappings that are quite near Shakespearean in their complexity and resonance. Hirschbiegel and screenwriter Brad Eichinger (adapting the written works of Joachim Fest and Hitler's secretary Traudl Junge) do something incredibly courageous in portraying the players within Adolf Hitler's bunker as human beings, a move that accentuates not undermines the true scope of their evil. Hitler, as depicted by an exceptional Bruno Ganz, is not a frothing lunatic but a cold, calculating, and delusional man at the end of his rope, determined that if National Socialism is to end so will the entire German nation (hypocritical blaming the German people for putting him in charge in the first place).  On a personal level, the majority of them have decided to commit suicide before accepting defeat, and in one horrifying scene, Magda Goebbels systematically murders her five children in their drug-induced sleep. The film goes beyond a depiction of those in charge, venturing into scenes involving soldiers hopelessly trying to hold back the Soviet army and a few civilians who had hoped the Nazi party would bring dignity back to Germany after the humiliation and resulting Depression that occurred after surrendering in the Great War, only to find their country on the brink of complete destruction. In a word, the film is brilliant.

1. Munich
Steven Spielberg is arguably our greatest modern cinematic storyteller, and Munich is perhaps his most artistically and thematically mature work to date. The film is challenging, complex, and ambiguous—words most people wouldn't think to associate with the director—and no matter what anyone says it is not a simplistic call to peace or action. No, Spielberg and screenwriters Tony Kushner and Eric Roth realize the necessity of confronting terrorism in certain cases but also recognize the potentially devastating effects such acts can have on the souls of those directly involved in the fight and the soul of the nation enabling them. In presenting the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, in which a group of sleeper Mossad agents hunted down and assassinated those believed responsible, Spielberg takes no sides and presents both parties in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in a similar light. The result is a poignant and melancholy reflection of how two groups of people with similar longings and desires can look past their similarities and hope for the destruction of the other. While the Mossad team organizes their hits—each less concerned with the safety of innocent people than the last—we see their targets as learned men, family men, and friendly, eager-to-talk men. And we witness the leader of the assassins, hauntingly portrayed by Eric Bana, as he undergoes a psychological downfall, which is book-ended by two scenes recalling the massacre.

Munich has no easy answers and is not looking for any. The end of the film leaves no shred of hope, which is a departure for Spielberg, who is often criticized for finding happy or hopeful endings even when the material doesn't seem to warrant them. There are no winners here. As one character intones, "There is no peace at the end of this," and that—in the simplest and saddest of terms—is more than likely the truth.

Honorable Mention:

Grizzly Man, Kingdom of Heaven, Kung Fu Hustle, Lord of War, Murderball, Shopgirl, War of the Worlds

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.