But first, I should note that over the past year (and especially the last 6 or 7 months), my movie-watching, along with all my other culture-consuming, has undergone a significant shift. I have almost completely lost any desire I once had to "keep up with stuff." So, while I still saw a bunch of movies, I didn't go out of my way to see anything that, for whatever reason, really didn't interest me. For instance, despite all the good things I heard about Walk the Line, I just couldn't bring myself to see another movie that tried to dramatize the various influences and experiences that led to someone's unique contribution to American culture. My fear was that as with Ray or Pollock we'd be treated to scenes where one character explained to another exactly why this contribution was so important. I also was not looking forward to scenes where we learn about how Johnny Cash turned his Real Life Experience into Art. Ugh...
(Note to screenwriters: you don't need these kinds of scenes. For instance, in 24 Hour Party People, Frank Cottrell-Boyce doesn't try to force the exposition about why what we're watching is important into stilted exchanges between the characters: he just has his main character directly address the audience, and tell us why he (that is, the main character) thinks that what we're watching is important. And in a movie like Backbeat, the screenplay never makes a direct, connecting-the-dots link between the biographical stuff and the creating important art stuff. The movie assumes we can figure it out for ourselves.)
Now, for all I know, Walk the Line avoids both of these traps, but the risk that it might fall into them kept me far away from it. (I do plan to see it now that it is out on DVD, so, if you're a fan of the movie, don't bother to tell me that it doesn't contain the kind of scenes I'm afraid of - let me be pleasantly surprised).
Anyway, it wasn't until the month before the actual list party that I got the bug to really catch up with any of the stuff that I had missed at the theaters. (Thank you, Netflix).
A couple of technical notes:
1. This year I have an actual "Top Ten" list. This means that, yes, I did see a bunch of movies that I liked but did not make the list. This is intentional, if essentially arbitrary.
2. Usually, I don't bother to get too technical about release dates or whatever, but, at the last minute, I decided to leave Hana and Alice off the list, because it hadn't actually been released in America (I saw it at the New York Asian Film Festival) and none of my fellow list-makers had a chance to see it. Had I left it on, it would have been in seventh place. I doubt this movie will ever be released here, but maybe it will show up on DVD eventually.
3. There was one movie this year that I thought was significantly better than anything else I saw. This movie got my #1 spot. But the movies in the second to fifth spots I more-or-less liked equally, and, if I redid the list tomorrow, I might rearrange them. Likewise the movies in the sixth to ninth places. And the movie in 10th position could just as easily have been The Chronicles of Narnia, Millions, or Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Instead it was...
10. The March of the Penguins - Some critics of this movie have argued that it goes too far in its anthropomorphizing the penguins, reading human emotions into a story that is really about pure animal, survival. My take might be a little bleaker: maybe love is as good a word and concept for what these penguins do to make sure their next generation survives as it is for all the various human behaviors that we think it inspires. In other words, sometimes I feel we anthropomorphize ourselves a little too much.
9. The Aristocrats - This documentary is a lot like A Great Day in Harlem. In case you aren't familiar with Harlem, it is a documentary that pretends to tell the straightforward story behind the famous Esquire photograph of the same name, but is secretly about tradition and heritage and America's unique contribution to Western civilization. What's amazing is that it does all this while staying narrowly focused on that one image. The Aristocrats does the same thing, but this time the focus is a dirty joke. On top of that, the movie is extremely funny, and is filled with the some of the best performances of the year.
8. Throwdown - There are many sides to Johnny To: he makes goofy, crowd-pleasers like Love on a Diet and Needing You, snappy action-comedies like Running Out of Time and Breaking News, gritty-ish crime melodramas like The Mission and PTU. And he also makes far out, weird, artsy movies like Running On Karma and this one. Johnny To dedicated Throwdown to Akira Kurosawa, and the movie - about a former Judo champion, now wallowing in debt, despair, and drunkenness, who pulls his act together in order to compete One Last Time - definitely makes a nod or two to Kurosawa's Sugata Sanshiro, but it reminded me more of the kind of gangster movies Jean-Pierre Melville made after he had been ordained as the Godfather of the French New Wave. Throwdown, like Le Cercle rouge, Le Samourai, and Un Flic, is made up of pulpy, effective, off-kilter genre scenes alternating with beautiful, quirky, off-kilter artsy sequences. There's something extremely satisfying about this kind of movie to a middlebrow guy like myself.
7. Munich - I don't go to Steven Spielberg movies looking for in-depth commentary on complicated geo-political situations. I do go to Steven Speilberg movies for expertly-directed set pieces and passionate, expertly-handled melodrama. So, the arguments over what this movie does or does not say about the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seem to me to be focusing on a side issue in a way. I mean, no one I know looked to Saving Private Ryan for an analysis of the issues surrounding World War II (that's what reading Paul Fussell and John Keegan is for). Note: I understand the difference here (i.e., World War II is over), and I also understand that these kinds of arguments are taking place mainly because of the way the movie has been sold to audiences (i.e., that the movie is making an Important Statement). Still, I responded to the movie as a story about the possible psychological effects of having to kill for a cause (no matter how righteous that cause may be).
6. Good Night, and Good Luck - So, while I find the message of this movie pretty unconvincing, I thought it was a very fine piece of filmmaking. I appreciated its modesty and the fact that it was focused (like a laser) on one single event. In this way, it reminded me a lot of Miracle. Except for the scenes of Murrow's speech that bookend the movie, it never felt like it was trying to be Important. (Of course, people have responded to the movie as if it was Really Important, and while Clooney should probably take the blame for that, I can't bring myself to hold it against the movie itself).
5. Duma - Okay, from here on in, no more political controversy (I hope). So, Duma might be the best-directed movie of the year. It is definitely the best-looking movie of the year. And it was made by the guy who made what is perhaps the greatest children's movie of all time. But the studio never really got behind it, and it fizzled after being barely released. My sincere hope is that it becomes a big hit on DVD, but, as I wrote after I saw it, I kind of doubt this will happen. Duma is an old-fashioned children's movie - that is, it doesn't have some new shiny, flashy thing to look at every other second. Of course, not that many adults have the attention span for this kind of movie anymore either, so perhaps I am being unfair to today's children. (Note for fellow animal movie fans: the cheetahs in this movie are perhaps the greatest animal actors I've ever seen.)
4. Oliver Twist - Like Duma, this movie deserved a lot better than it got: a literary adaptation, directed by a world-class director whose previous film had won a bunch of Oscars, starring one of the greatest living British actors in a role that is designed to show off great British acting. But it sank without a trace when it was released and was conspicuously absent on the best lists of most professional critics. The movie opened in wide release, which was a really bad idea: it should have been allowed to build up an audience slowly by focusing its marketing more narrowly at the art house circuit - I mean, this is a Roman Polanski movie here. And it really is a Polanski movie: that is, Polanski's distinctive off-kilter sense for black comedy and absurdity is perfect fit for Oliver Twist (in a way that it wasn't for, say, Tess of the d'Urbervilles). I can only assume that the studio got a little antsy with the prospect of marketing a Roman Polanski movie about a child who is taken advantage of after he falls in with a dangerous crowd.
3. Me and You and Everyone We Know - This is like a (slightly) less artsy version of one of my favorite "cult" movies: David Byrne's True Stories. Both of these movies are a series of quirky, interrelated vignettes/set pieces. Both of the movies operate on their own frequency, and if you're not on it, they'll probably strike you as being unbearably cute. Me and You is about one of my favorite movie themes: the difficulty of making connections with other people, and the fragility and beauty of those connections once they're made (see also, Broken Blossoms, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Punch-Drunk Love). The ensemble is excellent: I especially loved the performances from writer/director Miranda July and the from underrated character actor John Hawkes. I almost always like Hawkes (he's one of the fishermen in A Perfect Storm), and it was nice to see him in a substantial role.
2. The Squid and the Whale - The kind of movie people think Wes Anderson makes and the kind of movie that Woody Allen used to make (once upon a time). This was my Sideways for this year: a film that scratches my itch for contemporary lit-fic about families and relationships and coming-of-age and mid-life crises. I know some people thought that the father (played by Jeff Daniels) wasn't given a fair shake, but that's not really how the movie felt to me: I was sorry for this guy who was completely tone-deaf when it came to the relationships he cared most about.
1. The Best of Youth - My brother thought that putting a television mini-series at the top of my list was sort of cheating. I can see his point: even though this was released theatrically here in the States, there're things you can do in 6 hours that you can't in 2 1/2. (Although the reverse is also true: King Kong proved there are things you can do in 90 minutes which just don't work when you try to stretch them over 3 hours). I found the first part of The Best of Youth completely engaging on a "what's going to happen next"-level, but it was during the second three hours that all the set-up really starts to pay off in scene after devastating scene. Without getting too hyperbolic on y'all, the second part of The Best of Youth gets pretty close to the special kind of greatness of movies like The World of Apu and The Godfather, Part II, where the sheer amount of time we've spent with the characters gives the story a genuine 19th Century Novel-like depth that is very, very rare in film.
So there it is: ten paragraphs to sum up (imperfectly) another year of movie-watching. Considering that I saw fewer movies in 2005 than I did in 2004, and fewer movies in 2004 than I saw in any year since I graduated from college, I'm not quite sure how much longer I'll be able to keep at this. Even now, I'd bet that there's a couple of movies that I missed (The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, say) that would have made this list had I been a more conscientious film buff.