The Top Ten Movies of 2005

Popcorn makes you fatThe Top Ten Movies of 2005
By Mercurio D. Rivera

In this year of declining tickets sales, the major studios continued their tradition of saving the best for last, releasing the majority of 2005’s best movies in December. This practice, along with the quick turnaround of movies from the big screen to DVDs, has contributed to audiences opting to stay at home to enjoy the slim pickings from the comfort of their living room sofas—not a bad strategy for those movies that don’t rely heavily on visual effects. Despite the dearth of quality during the first half of the year (with just a few exceptions), overall it proved a strong year for film, with an emphasis on the political thriller and gay/transgender subgenres.

As always, I begin by mentioning those critically acclaimed movies that are notably absent from my list. Among the year’s many political dramas, the ambitious and convoluted Syriana tops the list of the most overrated. Its multiple, murky storylines span the globe and left me scratching my head, perplexed by the plot and characters. Likewise, The Constant Gardener’s unintelligible, conspiracy-driven plot ruins a strong love story set in a striking African setting. While biopic Walk the Line has garnered some attention for the stellar performances of its leads, Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, the truth is that its TV-movie script is utterly average and ─ unlike last year’s unapologetic Ray ─ makes a boatload of excuses for its protagonist’s bad behavior. Speaking of average-fare movies, I still don’t understand the firestorm over the beautifully shot March of the Penguins, which resembles any other wildlife special you can find on the Discovery Channel. David Cronenberg’s widely acclaimed History of Violence has a riveting beginning before settling into ho-hum comic book gangster violence. And Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man, although technically well executed, simply fails to engage the viewer’s emotions until its final few minutes (in part due to the lack of chemistry between its leads, Russell Crowe and Rene Zellwegger, sporting bad Brooklyn accents).

But enough about the also-rans. Let’s get to the ten best movies of 2005:

10. Batman Begins ─ Christopher Nolan’s reinterpretation of the Dark Knight wisely focuses on the disturbing psychological aspects of the character, the childhood traumas and phobias that drive Bruce Wayne to play the part of millionaire playboy by day and bat-clad vigilante by night. More of an homage to Bob Kane’s Batman comics of the 1930’s and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns rather than its garish predecessor movies or the campy series of the 1960’s, there is a concerted effort to ground the character in the real world, which works to the film’s advantage. Christian Bale is terrific as tormented Bruce Wayne and he’s supported by a formidable cast that includes Michael Caine as paternal butler Alfred, Cillian Murphy as the demented Scarecrow and Liam Neeson as a villainous ninja and former mentor. Dark is good.

9. Match Point ─ Woody Allen’s engrossing drama stars the intense, pouty-lipped Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a former tennis pro and ambitious social climber who marries into a wealthy, upper crust British family and then risks it all by engaging in an adulterous affair with his brother-in-law’s American girlfriend (a smoldering, equally pouty-lipped Scarlett Johansson). Where the story heads is fairly predictable, but how we get there provides some surprising twists and turns. Unlike most Woody Allen flicks, there are no neurotic nebbish-y characters, no lame humor; these intelligent, self-absorbed characters play it dead serious. Reminiscent of Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, this suspenseful, cynical drama ruminates on the subjects of adultery, amorality, luck and making our own destinies.

8. The Squid and the Whale ─ This low-budget, high-quality, slice-of-life drama about a dysfunctional family set in 1980’s Park Slope, Brooklyn provides an entertaining and honest portrait of complicated characters facing turbulent times. Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels play literary intellectuals going through a messy divorce that forces their two sons to choose sides. Daniels is particularly effective as the family patriarch, an insufferably pompous penny-pincher and has-been writer who dismisses A Tale of Two Cities as “minor Dickens.” With terrific dialogue and superb acting, The Squid and the Whale reminds us that the dysfunctional family subgenre is alive and well.

7. The 40-Year-Old Virgin – Director Judd Apatow, the creator of the brilliant short-lived TV series Freaks and Geeks, brings that same sensibility ─ a deft straddling of the line between crudity and mushiness ─ to this, the year’s best comedy. Steve Carell is hysterical as the gentle-souled protagonist who’s reluctantly agreed to be tutored by his obsessive co-workers ─ Paul Rudd, Seth Rogan and others with plenty of relationship problems of their own ─ on the art of “getting some.” Despite reveling in vulgar gags involving speed dating, bar pick ups and porn, the movie never gets nasty. The characters remain real, so we care and laugh. And when Carell and his sweet girlfriend (the appealing Catherine Keener) finally get it on, well, let’s just say they bring new meaning to “making beautiful music together.”

6. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire ─ The latest installment in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is the second-best of the bunch (only behind the original). Darker and more intense, the movie plays to its strength: the child actors’ development into gawky teenagers. Harry doesn’t merely face the challenge of participating in the Tri-Wizard Tournament; he also has to deal with his best friend’s jealousy over his selection and worry about getting a date for the Hogwart’s dance. The plot succeeds not so much because of its action sequences and spectacle – of which there are plenty ─ but because of the equal attention it gives to the adolescent angst of its characters. Also, Ralph Fiennes, oozing malevolence, is one heck of a frightful Voldemort.

5. Memoirs of a Geisha ─ Rob Marshall’s unfairly maligned follow-up to Chicago is a spectacular, lavish production that transports us to pre-World War II Japan, to the exotic and mysterious world of the geisha, women treated like “walking pieces of art.” Faithful to Arthur Golden’s bestseller, this captivating film traces the life of Sayuri, a girl from a remote fishing village who’s cast into indentured servitude after the death of her mother and eventually undergoes schooling to become a geisha. Kudos to Gong Li who eats up the screen as the tempestuous Hatsumomo, the most famous geisha in Kyoto and Sayuri’s jealous foil and rival. It’s a shame that the controversy over the casting of three Chinese actresses – Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh (all superb) – as Japanese geisha kept this movie from getting the acclaim it deserves. Its visual splendor, unusual subject matter and epic Hollywood romance easily make it one of the year’s best.

4. Pride and Prejudice ─ Having sat through plenty of yawn-inducing, period-piece costume dramas, I have to confess to approaching the latest adaptation of a Jane Austin novel with a few preconceptions and, yes, prejudices  but walking away completely charmed. This delightful take on the Bennets, an eighteenth century British family, and their comical, almost hysterical, efforts to marry off their five daughters pulls you right in and never lets go. Brenda Blethyn is funny and likeable as the single-minded family matriarch, and the incandescent Kiera Knightly “wows” as Lizzie, the film’s intelligent and witty protagonist who refuses to marry purely for monetary gain. Clever, funny and exceedingly romantic, even the most hardened cynics (yeah, that includes me) are guaranteed to fall prey to its charms.

3. Brokeback Mountain ─ Ang Lee’s heart-wrenching meditation on frustrated love is set in the beautiful backdrop of 1960’s Wyoming and explores a lifelong secret affair between two tough-guy sheepherders (Jake Gylenhaal and Heath Ledger). Ledger steals the movie with an Oscar-caliber performance as the gruff, taciturn rancher who rarely speaks about anything, let alone his forbidden feelings. The characters’ suffering is as palpable as it is poignant when they go their separate ways to meet only on occasional “fishing trips.” And their emotional absence also takes its toll on their respective marriages. (Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway are terrific as the tormented wives). Simply put, understated script + amazing acting + the agony of thwarted love = a movie that leaves a lasting impression. It deserves the accolades it’s received.

2. King Kong ─ Pass the extra large bucket of popcorn — it’s three hours long — for the year’s most exhilarating, action-packed adventure. As with his Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson’s magnificent, heart-stopping remake transports us to another world — this time two vivid settings actually, 1930’s economically depressed New York City, and the fog-enshrouded, dinosaur-filled Skull Island—but not before carefully fleshing out characters we grow to care about, including starving actress Ann Darrow (an Oscar-worthy Naomi Watts) and manically self-centered movie director Carl Denham (Jack Black). As a result, there are few “nameless extras” killed in the epic adventure that follows. Despite knowing the movie’s basic plot going in, it still manages to provide surprises and thrills aplenty, not to mention — yes, here we go again — the sadness of thwarted love. Peter Jackson is now officially the biggest gorilla in Hollywood.

1. Crash ─ Paul Haggis’s follow-up to his Million Dollar Baby screenplay is an electric, unpredictable and provocative exploration of racial and ethnic stereotypes in America — and provides no pat answers. Set in L.A., the cleverly plotted drama follows multiple storylines with sympathetic characters of different ethnicities — all angry, desperate and arguably racist. When the plotlines inevitably intersect during a crazed 36-hour period, it results in a combustible, thought-provoking “crash.” The all-star cast includes standout performances by Thandie Newton, Sanda Bullock (who knew she could act?) and Terrence Howard (playing a rich, straight-laced director, a character diametrically opposed to the rapping, misogynistic pimp he portrayed in this year’s Hustle and Flow). It’s rare to be surprised at the movies in this day of the dumbed-down formula flick and unending sequels. Crash surprised me and moved me and left me thinking. It’s the year’s best movie.

11. Good Night, and Good Luck (George Clooney’s relevant, stylish, black-and-white recreation of the on-air battle between Edward R. Murrow and Commie-hunting Sen. Joe McCarthy); 12. Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman disappears into the role of the egocentric author who stops at nothing to exploit the subjects of his book, In Cold Blood); 13. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (unfairly compared to Lord of the Rings—a comparison guaranteed to work to any movie’s detriment—this gorgeous and engaging children’s fantasy actually compares quite favorably to the Harry Potter movies); 14. Munich (Steven Spielberg’s grey, political drama about an Israeli assassination squad sent to retaliate against the terrorists who executed its athletes at the Olympic games is intelligent and ruminative, refusing to preach and providing no easy answers); 15. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (the acting is wooden and the dialogue stilted, but somehow—I’m not sure how—Lucas manages to connect all the dots and put together a dark, magnificent spectacle).

2 Replies to “The Top Ten Movies of 2005”

  1. I may be the only person to utter such a sentence but I loved Episode III. And I give big kudos to Lucas for making obvious references to Bush with lines like: “So this is how liberty dies. With thunderous applause.”

    I don’t think I saw any of the other movies, but thanks for giving me some ideas for DVD rental.

  2. With Lord of the Rings each installment was terrific and by the end of the third movie there was a consensus to honor Peter Jackson for the trilogy, showering him with Oscars. Well, with Star Wars Episodes I-III, even though Episode III was terrific there was still some lingering resentment against Lucas because of Episodes I and II. Perhaps it’s unfair, but I know that instead of focusing on how outstanding Episode III was, I found myself thinking “*Finally* he got one right! It’s about time!” One of the pitfalls of doing a trilogy, I suppose, (certainly in this case) is that the three movies tend to be judged as a whole.

    Finally, Lucas cannot write dialogue.

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