Amid Hollywood's zillion-dollar explosions and computer-enhanced trickery, plenty of quieter, better films sneaked into theaters virtually unnoticed this year. Following are our reviewers' favorite overlooked movies of 2005. Some of them never made it to local screens, but many have since made it to the video store:
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
This lyrical film from Chinese director Dai Sijie, who based the drama on his own semiautobiographical novel, is set in the early Seventies, during the Cultural Revolution. Balzac concerns two university students who are sent to a re-education camp in a remote mountain village. There both young men fall in love with the tailor's vivacious granddaughter. Discovering a cache of forbidden Western literature Balzac, Flaubert, Dostoevsky they introduce her to a world of art, music, and literature. With an oddly nostalgic feel that belies the tumultuous period during which it's set, this poetic, bittersweet film extols the importance of ideas and the power of the imagination.
The Beautiful Country
The questing hero of this drama of discovery is a slender, big-eyed Vietnamese farmboy (Damien Nguyen) who's an outcast in his own land because his father was an American soldier. He dreams of freedom, and his harsh journey from home to Ho Chi Minh City to a dirty refugee camp in Malaysia to an overheated kitchen in New York takes on the power of myth. Made by Norwegian Hans Petter Moland, this fearlessly observant film deserves a place of honor among the great movies about emigrant tenacity. By the time its young seeker comes to ground on a windswept Texas prairie, he has liberated us too.
CSA: Confederate States of America
Writer-director Kevin Willmott's picture was bought by IFC Films at the 2004 Sundance festival and then buried. It saw only limited release this year and spent most of its time cooling its heels on the film-fest circuit a shame, given its absolute genius. It's a mockumentary dolled up as a made-for-Brit-TV documentary about the U.S. as though the South had won the Civil War, complete with antique photos and film footage subverted in order to tell an alternate history, in which slavery is still legal and abolitionist Canada is our enemy. This is easily the nerviest film about race, religion, and American imperialism ever made.
Hubert Sauper's outraged but carefully measured documentary begins with the introduction of a predatory food fish, the Nile perch, into Lake Victoria and telescopes into a harrowing meditation on globalization and the new look of colonial cruelty in black Africa. In their filthy work camps, the fishermen subsist without medical care, while the boundless greed of European profiteers extends even to abetting African violence by their importation of the deadly weapons used in bloody conflicts nearby. This is a vivid feat of reporting that stirs the conscience and enrages the soul. It is stunning as a punch in the face.
A contemporary ensemble drama about a group of New York artistic types whose lives intersect over one 24-hour period, this film from director Chris Terrio inexplicably came and went in less than a week. Glenn Close gives one of her finest performances to date as a grande dame of the theater, whose personal life demands as much pretense as her stage roles. Before the night is over, most of the characters (including lovely performances by Elizabeth Banks and James Marsden) will be forced to face bitter truths about themselves and those they think they know.
The protagonist of this deeply moving, uncomfortably intimate film is the captive of demons only he can hear, wandering around New York City in search of his missing daughter a girl who may not be missing at all, who may not even exist. Played with frightening intensity by Damian Lewis (Major Winters in Band of Brothers), obsessed William Keane is the kind of pariah urban dwellers do anything to avoid: He shuffles foot to foot, he screams in strangers' faces, he slams his vodka warm. But by the time writer-director Lodge Kerrigan gets done with us, this portrait of mad despair lets us inside the claustrophobic prison of its victim's heart.
Kingdom of Heaven
Yes, it arrived in theaters with much fanfare, but few people actually saw it. And it's a shame, because everything Ridley Scott got wrong in Gladiator he got right in this, a medieval epic with well-drawn characters and comprehensible battle sequences. Orlando Bloom may not be the ideal action hero for a guy movie like this, and the finale is more of a whimper than a bang, but Kingdom of Heaven still feels more like a true heir to the likes of Spartacus than those other pale imitations we've seen from Wolfgang Peterson and Oliver Stone.
Had this movie been made in English, it would be a massive hit by now. Set and shot entirely in the Budapest subway system, Nimrod Antal's energetic feature debut chronicles a night in the life of underground ticket inspectors, with touches of comedy, suspense, and ultimately allegory. Our heroes might be souls in limbo waiting to ascend to a higher plane, or they could just be fuckups barely prevailing at a straightforward, thankless job. Antal doesn't give a definite answer, but Kontroll is engaging either way. Some enterprising producer is bound to snap up the U.S. remake rights.
As a change of pace, director Gregg Araki (most recently of the 1999 comedy Splendor) reins in his typically flippant, nihilistic tendencies to reveal a never-before-expressed sensitivity and depth. In the process, he achieves his most satisfying and involving film. He's aided immeasurably by the performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (a giant leap from his days on NBC's Third Rock from the Sun), who plays one of two young men whose lives have been irrevocably damaged by the sexual predator who coached their little league baseball team.
This quietly harrowing Japanese film is all the more unnerving for having been based on actual events. It stars five children, excellent actors all, whose mother abandons them in their small apartment with only a little money. For a long time, the two oldest manage well, cooking and cleaning and entertaining the toddlers. Then, as the money drains, the situation becomes increasingly dire. The pace is slow, with director Hirokazu Koreeda taking time to notice and document incremental changes, such as fraying clothes and smudged faces. What the children learn, and how they cope, is mind-blowing and heartbreaking all at once.
Jarhead was a nifty, sharp film about the boredom suffered by soldiers waiting for their chance to kill or be killed, but it presented a stylized fiction only loosely based on one man's sorta-kinda fact. This movie is the real deal, an unsettling, occasionally profound, and ultimately devastating chronicle of six weeks spent with the groggy, pissed-off, and homesick men of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, stationed in Fallujah in early 2004, just before the insurgents claimed that bloody town as their own by hanging and burning alive several U.S. contractors. When they're not on patrols, rousting people they don't blame for being pissed, the soldiers are getting shot at, arguing political motivations, and waiting ... for something, for anything. Thanks to the fine filmmaking of Garrett Scott and Ian Olds, you are there, in cramped confines in the middle of nowhere, and will come to wish that you, like these soldiers, could be anywhere else in the world.
Seventeen-year-old Claire (Lola Naymark) works at a supermarket in her hometown in rural France, where she is pregnant and deeply unhappy. Through a friend, she meets Madame Melikian (Ariane Ascaride), an older woman who has lost her son in a motorcycle accident. Claire has a talent for embroidery; Madame Melikian embroiders for Parisian designers, including Lacroix. So begins the women's strained working relationship, which slowly grows into something more. It's a slender plot but a very rich movie, with deeply felt silences, gorgeous camerawork, and a tender understanding of many kinds of grief.
Director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball) has a tendency toward the pretentious, especially when it comes to filters, split-screens, and editing trickery. And in this weird mystery/thriller, he found a story that perfectly suits his style. Ewan McGregor stars as a psychiatrist who starts to lose his grip on reality after meeting a suicidal young artist (Ryan Gosling). The final twist isn't hard to guess, but it's almost beside the point Forster absolutely nails a certain kind of dream logic, the type in which the dreamer occupies more than one body within the narrative. 20th Century Fox didn't have the confidence to screen the film for critics, but it's well worth screening at home once it shows up on DVD.
Mike Mills's adaptation of Walter Kirn's novel is a dreamily gorgeous portrayal of a family from the perspective of its searching teenage son. In psychological terms, Justin (Lou Pucci) is the "identified patient" the family member seen as broken and in need of fixing. (The title refers to Justin's oral fixation.) What Mills's film understands is that Justin is expressing the conflicts that other family members can't, or won't. His coping mechanism is stigmatized, but it's no different from any other (drinking, smoking, drugs, sex) except, perhaps, that his mechanism isn't hurting anyone. In Thumbsucker's world, everyone has issues. Same goes for our world too.
The Upside of Anger
The ending is silly and the film occasionally leans toward cliché, but Upside remains a satisfying and spirited comedy. Joan Allen gives a crackling performance as an oblivious mother whose every attempt to connect with her children results in insult. Her daughters played by Keri Russell, Evan Rachel Wood, Erika Christensen, and Alicia Witt are independent-minded and alive, acting out in sad, hilarious, and believable ways. Even Kevin Costner, playing a washed-up baseball player (for a change), manages to come across as authentic.
The cinematography is ugly and the marketing campaign was even uglier, but Waiting ... is a movie made to be discovered on cable or video. Just as Office Space ultimately found its audience among viewers who could relate, so too should Rob McKittrick's comedy, which perfectly skewers the idiosyncrasies of customer-service work at a low-end chain restaurant. Star Ryan Reynolds was terrible as a straight man in The Amityville Horror remake, but in this kind of raunchy comedy, he's golden. And Anna Faris should be his leading lady as often as possible.
The War Within
This thoughtful drama, which follows an Islamic militant on a terrorist mission to New York City, garnered far less attention than the similarly themed Paradise Now (which concerned two Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel). Yet The War Within goes places Paradise Now didn't dare go, with none of that film's ambiguity in its conclusion. The screenplay loads up on believable tension and suspense while eschewing melodrama, and director/co-writer Joseph Castelo is more than willing to follow through on the grim setup.
The Year of the Yao
In this delightful, warmhearted documentary about Chinese basketball sensation Yao Ming, directors James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo follow their subject through his 2002-'03 season with the Houston Rockets, his first in the NBA. The film begins as Yao prepares to leave China and ends as he returns for the offseason. In between, we watch as the world-famous recruit is thrust into a maelstrom of culture shock, media attention, and intense professional pressure. In fact Yao is really the story of two rookies: Ming and his translator, Colin Pine, a charmingly green twentysomething equally stunned by the blinding headlights of obsessive media attention.
Its an unavoidable trend if two movies make a trend, that is so much so that if you Google the phrase the return of the R-rated movie, the first hit takes you to the tsk-tsking Family Media Guide's article about the very topic, along with its list of some 3000 titles touted as profanity-free, family-friendly alternatives. To which, of course, we offer a hearty Fuck that shit.
Those who would damn the R-rated comedy as more evidence of the coarsening of America miss the point of films such as Wedding Crashers and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which are essentially chick flicks only masquerading as dick flicks. Both movies the former about two horndogs reluctantly settling down, the latter about a virgin reluctantly getting down bury within their vulgar exteriors mushy, conventional love stories.
R-rated comedies are a necessary evil, because they offer a more truthful version of their audiences everyday life; the 21-year-old is more likely to see himself (or herself, for that matter) reflected in the nasty, desperate shenanigans of Virgin than the beautiful, timeworn poetry of Pride & Prejudice. Someone you know is far more likely to go off on a rant about cocks and ass and tits and butthole pleasures ... and the Cincinnati bowties and the pussy juice cocktail and the shit-stained balls than proclaim his love on bended knee by insisting, I would have to tell you, you have bewitched me body and soul, and I love and love and love you and never wish to be parted from you from this day forward.
Fact is, the R loses money by cutting its target audience by half, but sometimes thats a risk worth taking. Richard Linklaters PG-13 Bad News Bears remake was gutless and irrelevant because it wanted so badly to say something, to tread the same debauched but illuminating territory as Terry Zwigoffs crude classic Bad Santa, but felt emasculated and self-censored by its rating. Theres a reason National Lampoons Animal House, Stripes, Caddyshack, and even the first American Pie endure: We speak in R-rated language, think R-rated thoughts, and express R-rated feelings. -- Robert Wilonsky
Some of us go to the movies to escape into fantasy, others to cry at tragic drama. Then there are those who simply enjoy a couple hours of shock treatment. Maybe its cathartic, or maybe its just sick, but it was unquestionably a good year for connoisseurs of the grotesque. Here are our favorite moments:
Finger paining: For all the elaborate deathtraps in Saw II, the most intense scene occurs when the cop played by Mark Wahlberg decides to break the Jigsaw Killers fingers. Tobin Bells acting sells the pain better than any contraption.
Method acting gone wrong: George Clooneys separation from his fingernails in Syriana was seriously wince-inducing. Falling to the ground later in the scene, he really injured his back.
Barrels of fun: Were used to seeing shotgun blasts in movies, but seldom with the visceral splatter that accompanied Ed Harriss demise in A History of Violence.
Everything Zen? Dont think so! Bush lead singer Gavin Rossdale played a demon in Constantine and ended up getting his face melted.
Hammer time: Oldboy not only showed how to take on a corridor full of thugs armed only with a hammer, but it also demonstrated how to extract teeth with same. Now thats versatility.
Family recipe: The opening credits havent finished rolling on the Japanese horror anthology Three ... Extremes before we see, in graphic detail, the secret ingredient of Bai Lings dumplings. You guessed it: aborted fetuses.
I take his weapons. Both of them: What to do when confronted with a mutated, yellow-skinned rapist? If youre Bruce Willis in Sin City, you take his knife and then rip his nuts off with your bare hands.
I want to eat something alive: In Oldboy a movie that centers around a plot to trick a man into committing incest, and also involves tongue slicing and amateur dentistry the most memorably disturbing scene was also one of the simplest. Our hero Oh Dae-su, freed from years of captivity, enters a sushi bar and scarfs down a live, wriggling octopus. Four cephalopods gave their lives for this scene, and live octopus tentacles briefly became a dining fad in Hollywood. Very briefly. -- Luke Y. Thompson
Hollywood served up no shortage of literary adaptations in 2005, but only one of them see Thumbsucker as soon as possible was an unqualified success. Even Andrew Adamsons Chronicles of Narnia was largely a disappointment. Sure, it had its charms (namely a pair of adorable beavers), but most of the film was a bust, advertising its grandeur and its pathos rather than digging into the drama of either. There were other notable letdowns.
Liev Schreiber, an actor respected for his intelligence and erudition, botched his adaptation of Everything Is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foers astounding debut novel. Schreiber stripped the book of its folkloric magical realism, then altered the plots defining events so as to make no sense. What is supposed to be illumination becomes obfuscation, and what is supposed to be a brave look at the atrocities of the Holocaust becomes a sentimental apology for not having done so.
Equally plagued was Bee Season, an adaptation by Scott McGehee and David Siegel of the best seller by Myla Goldberg. This film was over as soon as it was cast: Richard Gere is simply not believable as a towering Jewish patriarch, nor does Juliette Binoche make sense as his distant, obsessive wife. And instead of delving into the Kabbalistic teachings at the heart of the novel, the film merely dabs, attempting via clever graphics to paint the picture of a young girls otherworldly talent for spelling. Thats lazy storytelling, and it doesnt work.
Joe Wrights Pride & Prejudice won critical praise, and its first half-hour is fun. But then it dissolves into such silly faux-romanticism that it misses the point. Jane Austen was nothing if not arch: She saw the absurdity of her situation. To have no career and no hope of advancement other than marriage was not a happy state of affairs for a woman, and Elizabeth Bennet strains against it, even as she falls for the sullen, tight-assed Darcy. In Wrights version, Elizabeth and Darcy melt into woozy teenagers who believe in True Love, and trundle across hill and dale, tresses flying, to proclaim it. Feh.
Other dishonorable mentions include Steve Martins syrupy Shopgirl; the overly chipper Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio; and the generalized disaster of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. All are united by their primary achievement: reminding us of the power of books. -- Melisa Levine
War is hell, but it can also be high drama. In boots-on-the-ground documentaries like Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland, we got a discomfiting look at the brutal realities and moral ambiguities of Americas war in Iraq, where the death toll rises along with the administrations rhetoric. I want some answers, an army private first class says in Dreamland (directed by Garrett Scott and Ian Olds), which chronicles a few months of infantry action in the doomed city of Fallujah. I want some clarification of what were doing. Stephen Marshalls Battleground provides a few bewildering hints as insurgents openly talk about their hatred of the U.S. and an Iraqi interpreter blithely explains that the invasion was a result of an American economic collapse. Inside Iraq: The Untold Stories, is a lesser piece of work. Its maker, ABC-TV freelancer Mike Shiley, has cluelessly boasted that he joined an army tank unit as a gunner and earned a civilian combat award after firing in a village along the Syrian border.
The Iraqi-made doc The Dream of Sparrows may be the most disturbing of all, a glimpse of life under occupation in which Iraqis directly address Western viewers in tones ranging from despair to anger to guarded hope, and The Control Room is a revealing portrait of Al Jazeera, the satellite news giant that attracts 40 million Arab viewers every day and gives a far bloodier (and more local) view of the war than American TV.
With truths like these, theres scant need for fiction. But Sam Mendess star-studded Jarhead (Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx) provided a look at Marine Corps culture in the first Gulf War, and writer-director Stephen Gaghans Syriana (with George Clooney and Chris Cooper), a political thriller set in an unnamed Persian Gulf nation, has plenty of harsh things to say about intrigue and corruption in the global oil industry.
Given 2005's output, can filmmakers now declare Mission Accomplished where Iraq is concerned? Hardly. -- Bill Gallo
Until this year, nature documentaries generally found their homes at PBS and Animal Planet, enjoying modest audiences made up of children and scientists. Then came March of the Penguins, which earned close to $80 million at the box office and is still playing in some areas six months after its release. Thats a long run for a bunch of tubby butlers Charlie-Chaplining their way across the ice. So why the fuss? Here are four answers:
They bring the cute. If nothing else, March makes a very strong case for the emperor penguin as single most adorable animal ever, waddling its impressive bulk for 70 miles at a stretch and using its ample, glistening belly for sliding as well as warmth.
Penguins are like us. Admit it: Seen from afar, that long, black line of travelers looks strikingly human. Their massive group-search for a mate, in which every penguin sizes up every other penguin for some unknowable something, is natures answer to the high school prom.
Theyre tough little buggers. We begin in the garden, then leave on a quest, descend into darkness, suffer through immense hardship, lose companions to death, and emerge into the spring, with kids. This is The Odyssey with beaks.
You cant do this at home. Its not easy to get to Antarctica, or to stay there, and director Luc Jacquet did both, passing day and night with the penguins for nearly a year. His footage is immensely moving, as when an inexperienced father drops his egg or a mother loses her newborn to the cold. Its also breathtaking, featuring grand vistas of sea, ice, and sky.
In the end, March of the Penguins is almost more of a drama than a documentary, and a dark one at that. (The U.S. marketing strategy made the film out to be a love story a disingenuous move.) After nearly a year with these brave and hilarious creatures, weve been through something as harrowing as it is absurd, and we have forged a bond. The film doesnt merely surpass most nature documentaries; it surpasses most movies of any genre. -- Melissa Levine
Social conservatives may have put the brakes on gay marriage, but there isnt much they can do about gay movies, which arrived like a biblical flood in the last months of 2005. Along with Capote, a vivid portrait of the most celebrated gay writer of the Sixties, Ang Lees romantic tragedy Brokeback Mountain, the story of two lean cowboys who fall in love and stay there, on and off, for twenty years, might signal a startling shift of attitude in mainstream Hollywood. The film was adapted from a much-honored short story by Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Proulx, and it stars two of the industrys most respected young actors Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Breakfast on Pluto, directed by The Crying Games Neil Jordan, might not draw as well, but Cillian Murphy puts in an energetic performance as an Irish cross-dresser who gets entangled in an IRA bomb plot in London. Looking for a companion piece? In the offbeat comedy Transamerica, Felicity Huffman portrays a pre-op transgender candidate who learns she once fathered a son, now a teenage gay hustler in Manhattan, and they take a mutually revealing cross-country road trip together.
In The Dying Gaul, a gay writer runs afoul of a Hollywood producer over a screenplay about his lovers death from AIDS, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, an exercise in mock pulp fiction, features Val Kilmer as an L.A. private detective known as Gay Perry. The movie version of the Broadway rock hit Rent is amply stocked with a lesbian couple, a transvestite, and a gay man. A couple of otherwise hetero movies also feature prominent gay characters: Trying to ensure that their Broadway musical The Producers bombs, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick sign up a cross-dressing director and instruct him to keep it gay. In Mrs. Henderson Presents, the wartime nudie revues financed by well-heeled widow Judi Dench are anchored by a gay leading man. -- Bill Gallo
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