Two kings ruled Hollywood this year: Kong And Clooney. Peter Jackson’s epic eased the pain of 2005’s sagging box office (down eight percent from last year). And George Clooney, taking on Big Oil (Syriana) and Big Media (Good Night, and Good Luck), eased the pain of audiences starved for challenge. The best movies, from David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence to Paul Haggis’ Crash, came from renegades eager to light a fire of provocation about the way we live now. You could see the flame from Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain to Steven Spielberg’s Munich. Burn, baby, burn.
1. A History of Violence: The best movie of the year. Why? Because it stays with you the longest, stands up to repeat viewings and shoots out exciting ideas with a velocity and power no gun could match. Thank David Cronenberg for that, and for turning a genre film about a small-town husband and father (Viggo Mortensen), who may be a stone killer, into a study of how we wrap our jones for violence in God, country, family and any other excuse that’s handy. You know the drill. So does George Bush. Mortensen is so good that you don’t fully appreciate the gravitational pull of his performance until you take it home and let it live inside your head. Maria Bello is a force of nature as his lawyer wife, who is both frightened and turned on by the stranger she finds in the man she married. The acting is flawless, with a special nod to the mesmerizing, mind-bending William Hurt for a demonically funny portrait of evil. You won’t forget the words “Jesus, Joey” once you hear Hurt say them. What Cronenberg offers here is a master class in directing. The slaughter in the front yard is a scene for the time capsule. The man with a genius for locating what festers beneath fragile flesh in films such as The Fly, Dead Ringers, The Brood Videodrome and Spider has never won an Oscar, or even been nominated for one. Jesus, Joey.
2. Brokeback Mountain: Two Wyoming cowboys, played with piercing emotional honesty by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, meet in 1963 and spend the next twenty years hiding their passion from their wives and an intolerant society. For those who find no current relevance to Ang Lee’s stunning visualization of Annie Proulx’s short story, try counting the number of states in which gay marriage is legal. Or better yet, just settle into the year’s most trenchant and deeply affecting love story.
3. Syriana: George Clooney, As Actor and executive producer of this political fireball, has had to endure rave reviews that complain about how complicated it is to follow the hairpin turns of the plot. “Should a movie be this much work?” asked one critic. Wow, we’ve reached an age where even reviewers have to apologize to audiences for a movie that asks them to use their brains instead of just sitting back and letting Hollywood formula work them over. Director Stephen Gaghan has written a corrosive, many-tentacled script that actually lets you see the links between the oil crisis in the Middle East, Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism and the collusion of the White House with business interests whose main concern — to quote a great Gaghan line — is providing “the illusion of due diligence.”
4. Good Night, and Good Luck: George Clooney, as actor, director and co-writer of this riveting look at TV news, has some people asking what’s the point of dredging up a fifty-year-old battle between TV newsman Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn in a performance that deserves to be legendary) and the infamous commiehunter Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Everyone knows that TV news is impervious to bullying from advertisers and political opportunists. Everyone knows that Murrow’s fear about television was ungrounded — the box would never be used as an instrument to “distract, delude, amuse and insulate.” Clooney merits credit for the uniformly strong acting, notably from Frank Langella as the wittily imperious CBS chairman, Bill Paley, and Patricia Clarkson as Shirley Wershba, a reporter coping with working in a world of men. Clooney’s direction is so assured that only in hindsight do you realize the extent of his achievement. Shooting in black-and-white (cheers to cinematographer Robert Elswit) to evoke the Fifties, Clooney eases us smoothly through the hermetic world of the newsroom until we can almost inhale the cigarette smoke and the creative energy of journalists doing their best work under siege. As a piece of direction, it’s a tour de force.
5. Munich: Another chunk of history, this time dealing with the revenge that was ignited when eleven Israeli athletes were massacred at the 1972 Olympics by a group of Palestinian terrorists known as Black September. This mournful masterpiece is Steven Spielberg’s harshest film yet, which is saying something, given Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. Working from a script co-written in a spirit of ethical inquiry and unforced compassion by Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner, Spielberg focuses on an Israeli hit squad, led by former Mossad agent Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana). They’re sanctioned by Prime Minister Golda Meir (a forceful Lynn Cohen) but given no official standing as they go about their vengeance business, with only one contact (Geoffrey Rush, all steel and given a last line that could freeze blood) to bark orders. The other members of the team are played by Daniel Craig (guns), Mathieu Kassovitz (bombs), Hanns Zischler (forger) and Ciaran Hinds (cleanup). As an operative who works both sides of the fence, Michael Lonsdale slyly steals every scene he’s in. The film moves like a thriller, and a tremendously exciting one, as the men travel to London, Paris, Athens and Beirut to eliminate the names they take on faith as the architects of the Munich massacre. There’s a lock-step feeling that seeps into the killings, but the cumulative effect is devastating, which is precisely the point. There is never a moment when Spielberg and Kushner are not also measuring the human toll these executions are taking on the executioners. Though Spielberg insists his $70 million film is “inspired by real events” and not historical fact, controversy is already dogging him, with some Israelis objecting to what they see as a sympathetic portrait of the Palestinians, and vice versa. It’s a long-standing conflict that this movie (or any other) won’t solve. But a movie can illuminate, and Munich writes its most compelling passages on the face of Avner — Bana is magnificent in the role, a man at war with his own conscience who hides his wife and child away in Brooklyn but can never escape his bad dreams. Spielberg saves the graphic sequence of the Munich slaughter for a climactic flashback, reminding us of a wrong that cannot be undone and of the self-perpetuating futility of vengeance. No easy answers, no happy ending, no hero who can lead by example. This is new territory for Spielberg, and he completes the journey with honor.
6. Capote: Philip Seymour Hoffman’s colossal performance as gadfly author Truman Capote is a show in itself. But he’s not the whole show. First-time feature director Bennett Miller, working from a first-rate script by Dan Futterman, creates a movie that digs deep into an enigma and emerges as a striking meditation on the intersection of art and life. Capote leaves the cocoon of his Manhattan social life in 1959 and travels to Kansas to research and write In Cold Blood, a nonfiction novel about the murder of a local family by two drifters. The work crowned his career and brought out all his demons. Hoffman takes you in close, and Miller doesn’t flinch.
7. The Squid and the Whale: The battleground here isn’t in a war zone, it’s at home — and though the wounds are emotional, they leave bruises. Writerdirector Noah Baumbach puts us in the crossfire of his parents’ divorce. Dad (a never-better Jeff Daniels) is an academic. Mom (Laura Linney) is a writer. Their twelve-year-old son (the remarkable Owen Kline) is a serial masturbator. His sixteen-year-old brother (Jesse Eisenberg) —Baumbach’s surrogate — hits on a student (Anna Paquin) who’s sleeping with his dad. Forgive the laughs for sticking in the throat. The film is set in Brooklyn in the Eighties, but most children of divorce won’t have trouble acclimating. If there’s a braver, better acted, more brutally honest film about family life this year, I haven’t seen it.
8. The Constant Gardener: Rachel Weisz is extraordinary as a hell-raiser who gets killed trying to find out who’s using innocent Africans as guinea pigs for drug testing. And Ralph Fiennes is indelibly moving as her husband, a timid British diplomat who toughens up to search for her killer and finds hard truths that bring him closer to her and to Africa. It’s a love story between a man and a ghost. Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (City of God) provides a political and emotional resonance that’s hard to shake.
10. Wedding Crashers
…King Kong: Tenth place traditionally goes to the movie that gave me the most escapist fun. This year it’s a tie. Wedding Crashers, Owen Wilson and the pricelessly funny Vince Vaughn, qualifies as comic heaven. And there is no resisting King Kong, not with Peter Jackson turning on the thrills full-throttle and Naomi Watts turning on everything else, including the ape and the audience.
Best Of Rest
Runners-Up: Woody Allen’s Match Point is his sharpest drama since Crimes and Misdemeanors; James Mangold’s Walk the Line draws enough power from Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon to obliterate those biopic cliches; Terrence Malick’s The New World is history as visual poetry; Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada catches the spirit of Sam Peckinpah; Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know is indescribably unique; Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City shimmers with visionary graphics; Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane shatters with its tale of a life come unglued; Anand Tucker’s Shopgirl makes delicate magic; Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man is his purest human drama; and Judd Apatow’s 40-Year-Old Virgin is pure impure laughs.
Best Animated Film: Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride. Runners-up: Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle.
Best Foreign Film: Park Chanwook’s Oldboy. Runners-up: Agnes Jaoui’s Look At Me, Michael Haneke’s Cache, Marco Tullio Giordana’s Best of Youth, Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and qeen and Hany AbuAssad’s Paradise Now.
Best Documentary: Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. Runners-up: Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro’s Murderball, Alex Gibney’s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, David LaChapelle’s Rize, Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s Ballet Russes and Paul Provenza’s unapologetically raunchy The Aristocrats.