The Top Ten Movies of 2005
1) The New World
I love The New World. I don’t know how else to say it. Terrence Malick’s gorgeous, moving and occasionally frustrating depiction of the first contact between the Native Americans and European explorers is unlike any movie released last year. Many directors have tried to mimic Malick’s unique style, but none have been able to effectively recreate his ability to build an epic scene out of simple moments, even if he sometimes goes too far with the voiceover narration. As Pocahontas, Q’orianka Kilcher is nothing short of a revelation. What’s astonishing about her performance is that she’s not acting as much as she’s simply being. To the great frustration of many actors he’s worked with, Malick doesn’t create an environment that allows for traditional performances. Dialogue is thrown out right before the cameras roll and scenes are only half-completed all in an effort to get beyond artifice to a kind of unforced naturalism. Kilcher is perhaps the first actor that Malick has worked with that understands his style implicitly. She is the heart and soul of The New World and to feel the movie’s quiet power, you only need to look in her eyes.

2) Broken Flowers
What I love about Jim Jarmusch’s latest offbeat comedy is the layer of deep sadness that runs underneath the humor. Bill Murray is initially reluctant to embark on his journey to track down the mother of his supposed son, but by the end of the movie he’s desperate to find the answer…only to watch that possibility disappear perhaps forever. Like Terrence Malick, Jarmusch has an eye for detail, but where Malick is deeply in tune with man’s relationship to nature, Jarmusch understands man’s relationship to himself. He picks up on small character quirks that other directors often overlook, which makes him a perfect match for Murray since the erstwhile Ghostbuster’s main strength as an actor is his ability to underplay. Broken Flowers had some of the biggest laughs of any movie released last year and contained the most haunting final shot.

3) Reel Paradise
This documentary may be the slightest of the ten movies listed here, but it’s also the film that I identified with the most in 2005. When indie film guru John Pierson decides to move to a small Fijian island for a year to run the local movie theater, he invites his family and a camera crew to come along for the ride. The story of a movie buff and his family living overseas? Yeah, let’s just say I’m familiar with that experience. But with Steve Hoop Dreams James at the helm, the film is much more than a simple travelogue or home movie. Reel Paradise offers a very accurate depiction of what it’s like to live in a foreign culture. The way the different family members react to their new surroundings brought back a lot of memories. I’ve encountered people like them when I lived overseas and I’ve actually been like each of them myself at various points in my life. Like John, I occasionally got frustrated with local customs and conventions and like his wife Janet, I tried (sometimes too hard) to fit in to the local culture. And I know without a doubt that I went through dark moods like their teenage daughter Georgia, whose anger is exacerbated by her foreign surroundings. I’d also like to think that I was like their son Robbie, someone who was completely open to new experiences with no preconceived notions or ideas about other people. Reel Paradise probably won’t impact everyone in the same way, but for me it was a deeply personal movie and a very enjoyable one to boot.

4) Grizzly Man
I’ll confess that I’m not very familiar with Werner Herzog’s work as a documentary filmmaker, but if his other non-fiction films are anything like Grizzly Man, I look forward to discovering them. An excellent companion piece with The New World, Grizzly Man represents the dark side of nature, specifically the way that men can lose themselves so completely to the wilderness that they forget how dangerous it can be. The movie’s subject is a self-styled bear specialist named Timothy Treadwell, who is actually a failed actor that one day decided he was going to head up to Alaska and protect the bear population from outside predators, specifically hunters. Never mind that the bears don’t really want or need him there–deep down, his mission is more about him anyway. Convinced he’s some kind of warrior/savior, Treadwell films himself “protecting” the bears and actually becomes a minor celebrity, appearing in schools and even on late-night talk shows. It’s only a matter of time, of course, before he goes too far and is killed by one of the animals he’s sworn to guard. Herzog clearly considers Treadwell to be nuts, but he allows the guy to damn himself through his own video footage. Grizzly Man is ultimately a movie about obsession and madness and it tells Treadwell’s story with a depth and clarity that rivals any of the year’s great fiction films.

5) Mysterious Skin
I’m still not entirely sold on parts of Gregg Araki’s powerful rumination on self-destruction and child abuse, but the storyline involving Joseph Gordon-Levitt is strong enough on its own to make up for the plot thread that doesn’t quite work. After he was molested by his baseball coach as a boy, Neil (Gordon-Levitt) grows up into an angry young hustler who walls himself off from the rest of the world. Driven by a rage he can’t express in words, Neil deliberately and repeatedly puts himself in harm’s way all in an effort to avoid confronting his past. The other main character is Brian, another abuse victim who has channeled his own pain into becoming a believer in the paranormal. While this material isn’t as well-executed as Neil’s story, the final scene sews up the twin threads nicely. Mysterious Skin isn’t an easy film to watch, but it’s rare to see a movie that deals with the effects of child abuse so honestly and without the usual dramatic histrionics. And Gordon-Levitt delivers a devastating performance that marks him as an actor to watch.

6) Head-On
This German import was the first movie I saw in January ’05 and it still impresses a year later. Part romantic comedy, part tragedy, the film follows two Turkish immigrants living in Germany who enter into a marriage of convenience that soon becomes something more. But just when you think you know where the story is going, director Fatih Akin pulls the rug out from under the characters and the second half of the movie is a heartbreaking tour de force. Head-On provides a fleshed-out look at the immigrant experience and features great star turns by Birol Unel and Sebil Kekilli.

7) Oldboy/Save the Green Planet
I know that you’re supposed to avoid ties on a top-ten list, but both of these South Korean headtrips are so much fun, I honestly can’t decide between them. Park Chanwook’s Oldboy is a dark revenge story with one of the most twisted (and perfect) third-acts I’ve ever seen in a thriller. Meanwhile, Jun-hwan Jeong’s Save the Green Planet is a deranged black comedy that only gets more hilariously outlandish as the story progresses. Together, these films demonstrate why South Korea has become the new hotspot for movie buffs. Directors like Chanwook and Jeong are going places that American filmmakers can only dream about.

8) Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
A delight from start to finish, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit was 2005’s best animated film and deserves to be included on the short list for the greatest animated features of all time. Nick Park is one of modern cinema’s underrated geniuses and his first feature-length adventure starring his signature characters Wallace and Gromit contained all of the imagination and inventiveness of their legendary shorts. To watch Were-Rabbit is to see a master of his craft performing at the very top of his game. Bravo.

9) King Kong
If you only see one blockbuster from 2005, Peter Jackson’s epic reimagining of the 1933 classic King Kong has everything you could possibly want in a big-budget spectacle. There’s great action (check out Kong taking on three T-Rex’s), humor (someone cast Naomi Watts in a full-on comedy, stat!) and romance (Watts and the Andy Serkis-enhanced Kong are one of the year’s best screen couples). Yes, three hours is a long time to sit still, but if you’re like me, you’ll be cheering too hard to notice.

10) Brokeback Mountain
I resisted putting this movie in my top ten because of all the endless hype and awards it has already received, but in the end its sheer quality wins out. While I may not feel the overwhelming passion for Ang Lee’s classical Hollywood love story that others do, I can’t deny that it’s a moving and memorable film with only one major flaw–the somewhat cartoonish age makeup. With this one performance, Heath Ledger immediately erases all memories of underwhelming films like Ned Kelly and the rest of the cast (including my nemesis Jake Gyllenhaal) is effective as well, with special shout-outs going to Michelle Williams and Anna Faris, who nails her brief, but very funny cameo. It’s true that as stories about gay men go, this one isn’t particularly revolutionary in either form or content. But it’s a positive sign that the movie is being well received by audiences who have gone to see it, even in those dreaded “red states.” If the success of Brokeback Mountain can result in more studio pictures that deal with homosexuality openly and honestly…well, then that’s a significant accomplishment right there.

The Next Ten
11) Match Point
Maybe it’s just the change of scenery, but Woody Allen’s latest movie seems the work of a wholly different filmmaker. He’s discovered that not every scene has to be filmed as a master shot for one thing. This is the first time in ages that Allen has actually seemed interested in the movie he’s making and the cast seems to recognize that as well. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is extremely effective as the amoral social climber who marries one woman (Emily Mortimer) while continuing to lust after another (Scarlett Johansson). Allen’s dialogue is still a little shaky at times and the movie really should have ended ten minutes before it does, but Match Point indicates that there may be some life left in this veteran writer/director yet.

12) Munich/Syriana
Both of these movies about the thorny situation in the Middle East have similar strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, they each provide a nuanced look at their subject matter that leaves viewers with lots to think and talk about. They also feature some strong performances and strong writing. Unfortunately, they can also be dramatically inert and overly schematic in their approach to storytelling. But they represent a kind of filmmaking you don’t see very much anymore: the pointed political drama. For all their flaws, these movies are about real events and real issues and if they get you thinking and engaging with the material then they’ve done their job.

13) A History of Violence
David Cronenberg’s comedy/thriller about a small-town man with a hidden past functions as both an effective genre exercise and a genre critique. Never one to simply tell a story straight, Cronenberg purposefully distances the audience from the material in an effort to get us to think about how we respond to violence in movies. The movie is also a compelling examination of marriage and family, with Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello doing some of their finest work as actors.

14) Good Night, and Good Luck
This flashback to the world of McCarthy-era broadcast journalism is a small movie, but it’s also a very effective one that has been made with passion and intelligence. Character actor David Strathairn shines as Edward R. Murrow and he’s backed up by a strong supporting cast. Co-writer/director George Clooney draws on real news footage and transcripts to make the case that journalists should always ask tough questions of those in power, especially when they see injustice being done.

15) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The long-awaited movie version of Douglas Adams’ seminal work captures the zany spirit of the book/radio show/TV series. If you can’t stand this kind of humor than sitting through the film will likely be torturous, but if you are on the Hitchhiker wavelength, it’s a delightful ride.

16) Land of the Dead
After a string of mediocre horror movies, it was great to see a master (in this case George A. Romero) come back to show all the young whippersnappers how its done. While not quite up to the level of the original Dawn of the Dead, this fourth entry in his ongoing zombie series shows off Romero’s trademark mixture of horror, humor and political commentary to great effect. This was my favorite studio picture of the summer and I hope that the director gets the chance to take us back to this universe for one more chapter.

17) Mrs. Henderson Presents
Dismissed by too many critics as a piece of frivolous fluff this World War II-era British comedy actually packs a potent emotional punch. Director Stephen Frears hearkens back to whimsical, yet pointed 1940s movies like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, which effectively depict the toll of war without any onscreen bloodshed. Perhaps the reason for the movie’s failure in America has to do with our unfamiliarity with this kind of war film. That’s a shame because Mrs. Henderson Presents is a much better movie about war than a film like Jarhead, which purports to show us the “reality” of battle. Plus Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins are easily the year’s best onscreen duo.

18) The 40-Year-Old Virgin
A gross-out comedy with a big, beating heart, The 40-Year-Old Virgin did the world a favor by giving funnyman Steve Carell his first leading role, which he knocked out of the park. The most consistently hilarious American comedy of 2005 also had a wonderfully sweet romance between Carell and Catherine Keener, as well as a spot-on crew of supporting players from Paul Rudd to Seth Rogen.

19) The Edukators
It never really caught on with moviegoers (or critics) but I have great memories of this German film about a trio of young protestors who get in over their head when they kidnap a wealthy businessman. Sharply written and well-acted, this movie deserves to find a wider audience on DVD.

20) Three Extremes
An anthology of three short horror films from directors Takashi Miike, Fruit Chan and Park Chanwook, Three Extremes is a good introduction to Asian horror for newcomers and it’s also a lot of fun for viewers already familiar with the genre. And unlike a lot of anthologies, there’s not a weak short in the bunch. A perfect movie for Halloween.

Honor Roll
Batman Begins
Breakfast on Pluto
The Constant Gardener
Kung Fu Hustle
The Holy Girl
My Summer of Love
The Squid and the Whale
Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride
Wedding Crashers

Best Art House Release

Most Family Friendly Art House Release

Strangest Art House Release
Tropical Malady

Nicest Surprises
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
The Ice Harvest
Mad Hot Ballroom
Mangal Pandey: The Rising

Biggest Disappointments
The Aristocrats
The Interpreter
Howl’s Moving Castle
Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Somewhere in Between
Me and You and Everyone We Know
Pride & Prejudice
Sin City

Better Than They Had a Right to Be
Sky High

Almost…But Not Quite
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Cinderella Man
Kingdom of Heaven
War of the Worlds
The Weather Man

Guilty Pleasures
Bunty aur Babli
Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior

Best Performance of the Year
Q’orianka Kilcher in The New World
Runner-Up: Joseph Gordon Levitt in Mysterious Skin

Great Performances in Uneven Movies
Joan Allen in The Upside of Anger
Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote
Daniel Craig in Layer Cake
The Penguins in March of the Penguins
Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line
Uma Thurman in Prime
Terrence Howard in Hustle & Flow

Most Overrated
I admire what writer/director Paul Haggis is trying to say in Crash, but I can’t overlook the sloppy and dramatically false ways he goes about saying it. When you don’t believe in the story or characters, it makes it hard to believe in the message.

Most Underrated
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
Okay, Revenge of the Sith isn’t The Empire Strikes Back. And yes, George Lucas still hasn’t learned to write believable dialogue. But this is the first film since Empire to really recapture the epic feel of the Star Wars series. Once Anakin fully gives himself over to the Dark Side, the movie actually becomes rather thrilling. Sith doesn’t make the first two prequels any better and it doesn’t ultimately justify the need for this new trilogy in the first place. But at the same time, watching Anakin being reborn as Darth Vader couldn’t help but send a shiver down the spine of this childhood Star Wars fan.

Bottom of the Barrel
Alone in the Dark
Dear Wendy
Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo
Dirty Love
In My Country
Pretty Persuasion
Taj Mahal
The White Countess

Coming Up in ’06
The winner of the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, L’Enfant is a relentlessly sad film about a young drifter who willingly sells his own infant son to make a little cash…and then moves heaven and earth to try and get him back. Depressing, but moving.

Lady Vengeance
I think I have to check out Park Chanwook’s final entry in his revenge trilogy (which includes Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy) again because I’ve been reading a number of rave reviews and I can’t figure out if I saw the same movie. The one I saw was fractured and confused and a significant letdown after the highs of Oldboy.

Originally scheduled to come out last summer, this Russian vampire drama was repeatedly delayed and I’m still not certain that it will ever actually reach theaters. It’s too messy to attract a wide audience, but sci-fi/horror fans will probably get a kick out of it.

Unknown White Male
The first must-see movie of 2006 is a documentary about a man who wakes up one morning to discover he’s completely forgotten his name, job and entire personal history. Diagnosed with severe retrograde amnesia, he has to go about rebuilding his life and in the process becomes a new–and possibly better–person. What really makes the documentary unique is the fact that he shot hours of personal footage, which appears in the film. We see him meeting his family for the “first” time and revisiting his old friends in London, who now have no idea how to act around him. Unknown White Male is opening in limited release at the end of February and you should really make an effort to see it.

And in a Category All Its Own
Trapped in the Closet
It’s true that R. Kelly’s hip-hop epic didn’t screen in theaters in 2005, but I dare you to find a crazier movie than this one (provided it doesn’t come from South Korea). Watching it is like witnessing the second coming of Ed Wood or Menahem Globus, directors who are completely wedded to their vision, no matter how wrong-headed that vision is. I can’t wait to see parts 13 through 22.