I've been meaning to put this up for a few weeks now. Let the mild debate begin.
10. King Kong
Some movies have such tremendous upside that you forgive their limitations. Such is the case with King Kong, the most brazenly big movie in many a moon. Peter Jackson doesn’t just want to outdo the original, he wants to outdo every blockbuster ever made. That emphasis on size and spectacle diminishes some of the human elements, but Jackson knows that audiences don’t respond just to insightful characters – they respond quite well to being scared and thrilled and beaten across the face with unbelievable action set pieces. After being set up to be the year’s biggest box-office winner, this monster film has ironically almost become forgotten in the tidal wave success of Chronicles of Narnia. A reevaluation is in order – it’s still no deep piece of personal cinema, but what a show.
9. The Upside of Anger
Most of the attention for this little gem was centered around Joan Allen’s terrific lead performance, which deserved an Oscar nomination if enough voters could remember back to March. Allen plays an angry, grieving mother of four sexy, unique young women who’d rather drink herself into oblivion than face the truth that her no-good husband has walked out on them – and specifically her. In an equally nuanced turn, Kevin Costner plays the totally worst person for her to fall in love with, and much of Mike Binder’s film concerns the co-dependent relationship between two beaten individuals. The ending pissed off some people, but it was simply one more example of the film’s portrait of the bittersweet irony and unpredictability of this shitty, weird thing called life.
Writing about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I praised Jim Carrey’s performance by saying, “I can't think of a performance that encapsulated the essence of being dumped so vividly.” Tony Leung’s portrayal of a depressed man on the rebound comes very close. Like Joan Allen in Anger, he is devastated by love and so he acts out in ways that we might not condone but, trust us, we understand – we’ve all been there before. Compromising his art for bigger paydays, getting involved with several women who (despite their beauty and well-defined appeal) are merely time-fillers, and pining pining pining for the one who got away, Leung gives us a definitive portrait of that time in life when a person decides to destroy his old persona in order to escape himself and his past. I’m just about alone in preferring Wong Kar-Wai’s sequel to the original, but maybe it’s because its theme of loss – beautiful, agonizing, luxurious loss – is so rarely captured on film. And it also goes a long way to showing how the remembrance of a love is often more poignant than the love itself.
7. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
Not since The Straight Story has a cinematic travelogue worked so well at saying so much while not doing much of anything. Tommy Lee Jones directs himself as a small man with a big heart for his senselessly murdered friend whom he promised long ago to take back to his home in Mexico in the event that he died. Jones makes good on that pledge – and brings along his friend’s killer (an underrated Barry Pepper) as equal parts vengeance and life lesson. Jones does a great job deftly handling the film’s occasional moments of surreal oddness, but what comes across strongest is the unspoken bond between men, how years of marginal existence and buried disappointments don’t get resolved, they just change locale.
6. Nobody Knows
No one needs to know it’s based on a true story – these sorts of things creep up in the newspaper and the late local news all the time. Four young children are abandoned in a shitty apartment by their feckless mother and must learn to live on their own. But without any fancy manipulative tricks, filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda observes this social drama over agonizing months. Our hero is Akira, a 12-year-old boy played by Yuya Yagira who must learn to be a grownup too early in order to keep his siblings alive, and we come to love him, not because he’s adorable but because he’s pure of heart and brave and 12 years old with no guarantee of seeing 13. Instead of being sensational, the film is quiet, mimicking the lack of attention these lost children receive from the uncaring outside world. And by being so calm, Nobody Knows makes us angry – at their mother, at any society that lets these sorts of silent tragedies happen every day.
5. Brokeback Mountain
One feels almost defensive for loving this movie. Surely I got suckered in by the hype, right? Don’t I realize how obvious it is? Aren’t I aware how it fails to enumerate every hardship ever experienced by every gay person ever? Let history decide if Brokeback Mountain was too tame – right now it’s simply the best love story of the year, an intriguing twist on the “repressed love story” plotlines that were all the rage more than 10 years ago. The men have gotten enough accolades – as well they should – but the women deserve special notice too. No irritating bitches, no whining nags, Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway are lovely creatures who deserve good men and think they found them. And therein lies the tragedy – Jack and Ennis are doomed to unhappy lives, but so are those around them. The film doesn’t champion the rights of homosexual love as much as ask what kind of world do we want to live in if somebody somewhere can’t be free to be with the one he loves.
You’ve come to the end of your life. You’re in your 80s, you’ve had a distinguished career, you have adoring children and grandchildren, you’ve known the love of a few good women – here at the end, you can finally look back and smile, right? Not in an Ingmar Bergman movie. In his sequel to 1974’s Scenes from a Marriage, he brings back divorced couple Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson for an agonizing reunion after years of separation. Shooting in digital and staging his scenes theatrically, Bergman gives Saraband a jarring, otherworldly feel that becomes hypnotic – it seems like our planet, but one that’s infinitely more dramatic, emotional and painful than ours. Segmented into chapters – each one a lengthy conversation between the former couple, his seething son from another marriage and that son’s prodigiously talented and troubled daughter – the movie feels like one last passionate blast of contempt and sorrow before death comes knocking on the door, as much for the couple as for the filmmaker whose impressive body of intense masterworks draws to a close.
The best biopic of the year worked so well because nobody thinks of it as a biopic. Rather than imitating Truman Capote – although he gets the mannerisms and voice down nicely – Philip Seymour Hoffman offers an interpretation of the writer, one strengthened and supported by a screenwriter and a director who are less interested in a portrait and more jazzed by a theme. Traveling between the New York literary scene and the Kansas community where the shocking murders occurred, Capote is about success and art and failure and evil and how those things may or may not relate to the main character. Along the way, it dispels the notion that great art is made by great people – frankly, most of them are morally ugly people we’d be better off not knowing – and that great art can somehow redeem selfish intentions and callous souls. Hoffman has been one of those “great actors” who’s been searching for the right part – one that’s not simply showy but resonant and meaningful. Finally, here it is.
2. Batman Begins
It’s possible that Christopher Nolan may not be our purest action director. And, yes, I’m not convinced Katie Holmes was the best choice for the love interest. But those are about my only complaints with this very fine addition to one of Hollywood’s great franchises. As he did with Memento, Nolan shows a fascination with an antihero who exudes a noirish intensity and prefers to live out his days alone, haunted by a sad past. This doesn’t quite seem like the formula for a successful summer blockbuster, but without condescension or cynicism, the filmmaker just goes about his business making what might be the best comic book movie ever, one that’s very dark and also very funny and moving. Top to bottom, except for the above exception, the film is also extremely well cast – Christian Bale is tremendous playing what is essentially a twist on Patrick Bateman, the loathsome rich boy of American Psycho, but several character actors and Oscar winners litter Gotham with distinctive performances and not a one of them is just lazily cashing a check. In short, for the first time in a while, a big tentpole feels like a real film, a true work of art. And, c’mon, Gary Oldman is just terrific.
It’s an adjective rarely used to describe a film, but it’s all over the glowing notices for Junebug: true. This quiet little masterpiece of cultural divides is so small in scale that its momentous power comes from its trueness, from its ability to accurately depict the world we live in – its social mores, its fears, its institutions of marriage and family and religion – with quiet observation and no judgment. Amy Adams was the breakout star of a perfectly realized ensemble with no weak links – even the guy from The O.C. is great – which seems appropriate for a film that loves all of its characters and understands them all equally. The red/blue state hot-button topicality comes from the viewer’s personal reaction and not from Phil Morrison’s direction, which painstakingly asks us not to love hicks or to give the undereducated a chance but simply to notice how this rarely-chronicled world operates. Even the music by Yo La Tengo strikes the right note of dreamy, everyday wonderment. No pat morals, no big resolutions, no big deal – just a perfect time capsule of our country and all its many contradictions in the early 21st century.