Plagued by war and Katrina, riddled with scandal and dubbed “the worst year ever” by Rolling Stone Magazine, 2005 clouded the American horizon with uncertainty and doubt. Stepping up to the challenge of articulating the nation’s pain, American cinema has been exceptionally eloquent while voicing our fears.
2005 marked a resurgence of the political movie, with “Crash,” “Good Night and Good Luck,” “The Constant Gardener” and “Syriana” leading the charge. But the best of the year’s films dealt with a profound loss of trust in all facets of society. In “A History of Violence” and “Brokeback Mountain,” men lead secret lives hidden from their families. In “The Squid and the Whale,” parents going through a divorce leave their children to fend for themselves. In “Munich” an entire country betrays one of its own, and in “Crash” no one can be trusted.
All these films deal with a distrust of government, of friends, of spouses and even, in the case of “A History of Violence,” of self. Although some express a strong sense of outrage, a bleak question seems to run through them all: In this age of terrorism and wire-tapping, can any American truly feel secure?
10) Capote — Bennet Miller’s character-rich dramatization of the writing of “In Cold Blood” successfully blends the allure of nonfiction with the excitement of narrative.
9) Shopgirl — A magical tale about modern love, “Shopgirl” features a superb performance from Claire Danes and an insightful script from Steve Martin.
8) Munich — Spielberg’s howl of pain in the face of the endless Palestinian-Israeli revenge cycle has a keen understanding of the absurdity of it all. Tony Kushner contributes a chilling screenplay with moments of horrific humor recalling the best of “Apocalypse Now.” On the aesthetic side, the camera-work is absolutely beyond the skill of any other team working today.
7) Me and You and Everyone We Know — Almost a retort to the bleak worldview of “Crash,” Miranda July’s whimsical film argues in favor of the goodness of humanity. In a series of superbly-scripted interlocking vignettes, July suggests at depravities involving, among other things, the possibility of pedophilia and rape, only to let the danger pass, showing that such fears were unwarranted. Defusing the climate of fear surrounding our lives, July gently assures us that the world is far more gentle than we think.
6) Grizzly Man — Lost somewhere in that magical place between fact and fiction, Werner Herzog’s documentary about a man eaten by the bears he loved is both strange and captivating. Narrating his own film, Herzog faces off against the animal kingdom, using the film’s tragic true story as a jumping point to discuss topics ranging from man’s lost innocence to the purpose of cinema itself. Over the course of the journey, he changes documentary filmmaking forever.
5) Crash — Last year, Paul Haggis gave us the best-scripted film of the decade in “Million Dollar Baby.” This year he brings the same dark poetry to this interlocking narrative about racism. While not revolutionary in structure, the film deals abrasively with the rage boiling below the surface in everyday life.
4) The Squid and the Whale — Funny until it suddenly isn’t, Noah Baumbach’s unsettling portrayal of a family going through divorce cuts right to the painful truth.
3) Syriana — A political jigsaw puzzle that manages to mix intrigue and emotion without seeming manipulative, “Syriana” goes straight for the oil industry’s jugular. Stephen Gaghan, another writer (“Traffic”) turned director, lets the pieces slowly come together, building to a climax in which the U.S. commits a terrorist act and a terrorist becomes a hero. It is a testament to Gaghan’s skill that both sides of this struggle can be understood, if not equally empathized with. “Syriana” is a smart and prescient lesson in international relations and also in well-constructed cinema.
2) Brokeback Mountain — In the wide, empty expanses of Wyoming and Texas, two rough and tumble cowboys fall in love. For this quietly devastating take on doomed romance, wives and cowboys alike give nuanced performances, but it is Heath Ledger who delivers one for the ages. His hat slicing across his face, always hiding his eyes, Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar stands strong and tough. Yet at the same time, he struggles to keep his inner feelings corralled, safe from the intolerance of the world. Ledger maintains such control of his face that the faintest of twitches seems a cataclysmic breakdown. Director Ang Lee similarly controls his frames, composing angular, lonely images, the top half always reserved for the cold, indifferent sky. Larry McMurtry’s haiku-like screenplay blends perfectly with the bleak landscape. Pockmarked with silences, it speaks of a place where words come with difficulty and are chosen with care. A masterpiece both emotionally and politically, Lee’s spare Western revitalizes the genre while ushering a gay love story into the ranks of high tragedy.
1) A History of Violence — David Cronenberg rewrites all the rules with this unexpected tour de force. A film about action films, the American conscience and even family relationships, “A History of Violence” is genre-less, moving adeptly from mood to mood, gloriously untethered. An anti-Tarentino, Cronenberg uses our own emotions against us, delighting us with violence, but then immediately showing the messy corpses, the unglamorized gravity of death. In this moment of shame and guilt, we see cinema for what it is: one big, potentially dangerous lie. William Hurt and Viggo Mortensen give out-of-the-box performances as unpredictably compelling as the film itself. The dialogue is punchy and fresh, ironic yet exhilarating and strange. Two revolutionary sex scenes advance onscreen romance to a new plane of honesty. In short, “A History of Violence” is the most exciting and disturbing thing to happen to cinema in a long while.