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The Top Ten Films of 2005*



10. Land of the Dead - George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead is still my choice as the scariest horror film of all time. Something about the existential nature of the living dead themselves, once human, now filled with an unthinking desire to carry on, strikes me at my very core. In Land of the Dead, Romero extends that potent metaphor, with sharp rhetorical intent, initially presenting the zombies as the complacent, exploited masses, making this new film a different kind of scary. Like Joe Dante’s Homecoming, Land uses its undead to initiate the uprising that the living masses seem incapable of themselves. In a year flooded with impotent, obvious political message movies (Good Night, and Good Luck., Syriana, Munich, etc…), it was up to the zombies to confront viewers with a call to arms that was so hilarious, yet so intensely felt, that it couldn’t be dismissed as mere grandstanding.


9. The Beat That My Heart Skipped – James Toback’s fatalistic and self-consciously arty Fingers is far from a favorite of mine. It was doubly surprising, then, that in remaking it French director Jacques Audiard not only discarded its macho posturing but also made it genuinely hopeful. All the while, he retains the nervous energy that has helped the original to endure despite its flaws. Much credit must for that energy must go to Romain Duris’ feral performance, which is easily one of the year’s best. He sets the tone here, and Audiard’s stylish camerawork keeps up, moving like the protagonist, mostly by night, through the streaked lights of the city, never settling down for more than a moment. That this mood lends itself so well to the central character’s growth is the film’s greatest surprise. It is, improbably enough, a tense film that mines its greatest suspense from its hero’s self-improvement.


8. War of the Worlds – There’s no question in my mind that were it not for the absolutely spellbinding first act of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds remake, it would be absent from my annual ten-best list. The fact that it has thirty minutes where it thrills better than anything the sci-fi genre has offered in decades, however, earns this twisted mirror of Close Encounters a rightful spot. After some of the most deftly relayed exposition ever to grace a Hollywood blockbuster, Spielberg really gets down to business, brutally recycling imagery from the 9/11 attacks (the first violence is seen on a video screen, the dust and debris as people flee, etc…) to make his horror show resonate with our modern anxieties. Thematically, it’s about the attempt to maintain humanity when faced with the primal fear generated by an enemy that we can’t comprehend. When, the shell-shocked Dakota Fanning asks, “Is it the terrorists?” the film snaps into focus, taking on an importance that eludes most CGI epics.


7. Howl’s Moving Castle - The worst that can be said about Miyazaki’s latest is that it doesn’t break new much ground, as if someone unquestionably at the top of his field needs to reinvent himself to please. In many ways, his latest feels like the culmination of years of work, but perhaps that’s only because Miyazaki has remained so true to his thematic concerns throughout his career, and once more investigates them here, albeit with greater dramatic weight than usual. Pitched midway between Miyazaki’s last two features, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, Howl’s is incredibly dense, as animated works go. It takes place in a chaotic world where the rules seem to be made up as the plot unfurls, but it coheres because everything makes perfect emotional sense. Generous beyond any reasonable expectation, it manages a strong anti-war message by appraising each side with the utmost empathy.


6. Capote - Focusing on precisely the right moment in its subject’s life, Capote encapsulates not only the full dimensionality of Capote himself but also the precarious compromises he made while accomplishing his greatest achievement. Easily one of the great films about writing, it avoids the overbearing, over-familiar character arc that crushes so many biopics, instead taking the unusual tract of begging us to hate its subject. It arrests our attention by making Capote’s desperation for literary transcendence its subject, but then confounds the audience by confronting us with the lengths that he went to in order to succeed in his quest. When the film ends, it refuses to dictate an attitude toward the man, leaving it up to each viewer to decide whether or not the end justified the means.


5. Match Point - With few exceptions, the sexual thriller is a disreputable genre, but this year Woody Allen, of all people, delivered the best seen in years, ironically restoring to him much of the critical esteem that he’s lost during the last decade. Exhibiting remarkable control, especially during the nigh-unbearable tension of the third act, Allen’s direction is beyond reproach. Functioning as modern-day Henry James, the script is chock full of nuanced character detail and persuasive class conflict. As in Allen’s comedies, the most perceptive moments come when one observes the differences between a character’s actions and his words. It might be movie that shows a director content to cover familiar philosophical and dramatic territory, but it’s executed with such unmistakable skill that it has to be defined not as a retread but as a refinement.


4. 2046 – In choosing how to frame the faces of 2046’s actors, Wong Kar-Wai scores the formal coup of the year. Throughout the movie, which knows all too well that to remember is to fetishize, Wong keeps his camera close to his actors. Faces dominate the frame, with the backgrounds generally reduced to hazy, imprecise blur. The cumulative effect is stunning, creating a synesthesia where color and music and motion conspire to recreate a pungent morass of lost love. To look at any of Wong’s compositions is to be reminded of the intensity of Chow’s haunted memories, not to mention our own memories of In the Mood for Love. Vastly more ambitious than what Wong Kar-Wai has done before, it stands as his defining achievement to date.


3. A History of Violence – Situated at the crossroads between a half-dozen iconic movie genres, Cronenberg’s ambitious A History of Violence defies easy characterization. Whether it’s a straight-up gangster revenge drama, an American pastoral gone wrong or merely a sly subversion of the way we all get our kicks when we go to the movies, it seems to be the most divisive film this year, even among its most ardent supporters (it’s been described both as too Cronenbergian and not Cronenbergian enough). An examination of the psychic toll that the guilty pleasures of violent moviemaking have taken, it implicates us not just with shock inserts but also with our willing acquiescence to the mayhem. With rigor and humor and a great deal of suspense, it questions the foundation of both our choice of entertainment and our personal character.


2. Tropical Malady - After only a few works, it’s obvious that Thai filmmaker Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul has no interest in the conventions of narrative cinema, and narrative cinema couldn’t be better off as a result. Creating in Tropical Malady a work of nearly unparalleled ambition and remarkable control, despite what's perhaps his most confounding narrative rug-pulling yet, he so exceeds the boundaries of onscreen romance that he makes this year’s Brokeback Mountain brouhaha seem the quaint blathering of the uninitiated. The rush of the mythic closing moments of Tropical Malady, in which its myriad themes coalesce into the orgasmic consummation of its lovers’ infinite promise, is one of the most transcendent expressions of love in all of cinema. For a brief, exalted moment, the film achieves an ideal. Through his unconventional means, Apichatpong poetically expresses the transformative quality of love, realizing a kind of intense depth of feeling that simply could not be reached in any other medium.


1. The New World - A breathtaking film that is at once profoundly emotional and profoundly intellectual, The New World is complexly structured, yet surprisingly intuitive at every step. From snippets of personal experience, Terrence Malick builds a communal truth, leaving no point of view unexamined in his unshakable experience of the Jamestown colony. Indulging in a historical myth to serve as a firm historical corrective, the film primarily focuses on John Smith and Pocahontas. Their story works on operatic and personal terms simultaneously, ensuring viewer investment in its characters’ fates while it serves as a narrative engine through which Malick can investigate, once more, the loss of Eden. Deceptively simple at its start, the Malick begins layering perspectives and drawing parallels until any compartmentalization of people, places or cultures becomes impossible. The strong philosophical core at the movie’s heart never overtakes the viewer’s heart, however, resulting in a final act that’s as moving as any cinema has offered.



The Next Ten: Brokeback Mountain, Assisted Living, Shopgirl, Bad News Bears, Proof, The Intruder, The 40-Year Old Virgin, Oliver Twist, The Interpreter, Caché





Achievements in Individual Categories:

Best Director – Terrence Malick – The New World  (Runner-up: Apichatpong Weerasethakul - Tropical Malady)

Best First Feature – Assisted Living (Runner-up: The 40 Year-Old Virgin)

Best Ensemble – Brokeback Mountain (Runner-up: Hustle & Flow)

Best Actress – Q'Orianka Kilcher, The New World (Runner-up: Gwyneth Paltrow, Proof)

Best Actor – Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote (Runner-up: Romain Duris, The Beat That My Heart Skipped

Best Supporting Actor - Colin Farrell, The New World (Runner-up: Jason Schwartzman, Shopgirl)

Best Supporting Actress – Ziyi Zhang,  2046 (Runner-up: Scarlett Johansson, Match Point)

Best Original Screenplay – Terrence Malick, The New World (Runner-up: Woody Allen, Match Point)

Best Adapted Screenplay – John Olson, A History of Violence (Runner-up: Dan Futterman, Capote)

Best Editing – Richard Chew, Hank Corwin, Saar Klein and Mark Yoshikawa, The New World (Runner-up:  

Best Cinematography – Emmanuel Lubezki, The New World (Runner-up: Christopher Doyle, Kwan Pun-leung, and Lai Yiu-fai, 2046

Best Art Direction – 2046 (Runner-up: Oliver Twist)

Best Costumes – 2046 (Runner-up: The New World)

Best Sound –  The New World (Runner-up: War of the Worlds)

Best Sound Editing – The New World (Runner-up: Tropical Malady)

Best Visual Effects – War of the Worlds (Runner-up: Jarhead)

Best Makeup - Brokeback Mountain (Runner-up: A History of Violence)

Best Original Score – The New World (Runner-up: The Beat That My Heart Skipped)

Best Documentary – Grizzly Man (Runner-up: Rize)

Best Animated Film – Howl's Moving Castle

Ten Best Foreign Language Films – Tropical Malady, 2046, Howl's Moving Castle, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, The Intruder, Caché, 3-Iron, Three... Extremes, Nobody Knows, Lila Says

Ten Best ‘04/’05 Undistributed Films - Takeshis', A Tale of Cinema, Clean, Three Times, Drawing Restraint 9, Manderlay, Iron Island, A Perfect Couple, Samaritan Girl, Tideland

DVD of the year – Unseen Cinema – Early American Avant-Garde Film (Runner-up: The Val Lewton Horror Collection)


*The criteria used in determining eligibility was a U.S. commerical theatrical premiere in 2005.


Jeremy Heilman