NOTE: This is a loooooong post. You’ve been warned.
“Top 10” lists are so arbitrary—why not make it eight or 42 or (to make it really hard) just two?
I do think there’s a legitimate reason not to reduce it all the way to one, which Matt Zoller Seitz articulated in a review of The Terminal. As Seitz points out, it’s a rare thing for a single movie to fulfill all of our aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional needs. Such perfect movies come to us, like shining gifts, about once a decade. Maybe less. Rather, great films (and great filmmakers) are like friends. We love a certain best friend for a certain trait—say, her generosity—but must turn to another if we want, say, good advice. “Human beings,” wrote Seitz, “are too complex and imperfect, so we must content ourselves with seeking out friends who satisfy one or two needs, three if we’re lucky.”
A critic who tells us her favorite movie of the year performs a service for herself by forcing herself to think long and hard about what matters to her most about movies as a art form. It’s a wonderful to crystallize how you think, but it’s mostly internal, useful more for the critic than her audience. But the critic who tells us his favorite ten movies reveals to his readers his tastes. The audience gets a broader sense of the range of his aesthetic. Telling us that you loved The 40-Year-Old Virgin is instructive, but telling us that eight of the ten movies you loved most were raunchy comedies is telling. If a critic’s favorite DVD release of the last five years was the Stan Brakhage retrospective, I know she’s an avant-garde buff. But, if the Marx Brothers box set and the Troma collection are her second and third choices, respectively, I’ve got a much more accurate barometer of her critical range, of what she considers to be her aesthetic friends.
And so the friendship theory applies to film critics as well as filmmakers. Seitz is probably my favorite working critic. I love his generosity, genial nature, we’re-all-in-this-together attitude towards his readers, quiet wit, and the warmth he radiates toward the form, even when he’s discussing movies he loathes. But he’s sometimes too openhearted, getting gooey-eyed over crap like Revenge of the Sith and Shrek.
So, the editors of New York Press made a smart move—one of its precious few—in pairing Seitz’s Dr. Jekyll with the best—or worst, depending on your perspective—Mr. Hyde he could ever hope for.
I would say that Armond White is the yang to Seitz’s yin but, honestly, White is the yang to everyone’s yin. Arrogant, combative, strident, often contemptuous towards those who disagree with him, and sometimes just plain ugly, White seems to relish picking fights with other critics. About twice a year, his editors give him space to vent in a feature article; these tirades generate angry letters for weeks afterwards. Sometimes, he’s got such a big ideological ax to grind that he doesn’t get around to describing the film supposedly under discussion enough to be helpful. I used to read his columns to see how long it would take before I said, “Fuck you, Armond,” and stopped when he pulled it off in the first sentence… two weeks in a row. I rarely agree with him—I paid money to see Two Can Play that Game, Marci X, Femme Fatale, and Deliver Us from Eva, all based on his recommendations, so I won’t trust him ever again.
But I still read him. He’s one of the few black critics (on any art form) who gets regular column inches; and he doesn’t duck from writing about race, class, and politics in his commentary. He’s a contrarian’s contrarian, to be sure, but he’s sincere about what he loves, and he’s the only critic I see who’s as unapologetic about his love for Steven Spielberg as I am. His fire-breathing tactics, and his near-complete lack of a sense of humor, hide his deeply humane and challenging vision of what movies should be.
So it’s a surprise that White and Seitz write for the same paper, much less that they have anything in common. But both seem to be guided by a sort of “friendship theory.” Last year, White pulled off something very interesting, and something I’ve never seen a movie critic do.
Every critic and his dog posts a top-10 movie list at year’s end. At the end of 2004, Seitz and White did it, too. But, two weeks earlier, White had gone one further. In a essay entitled “Dirty Dozens,” White lists the ten most overpraised and over-marketed movies he saw, and pairs them with lesser-known films that better fulfilled the function of the former. It’s not quite a top-10 list, but it puts movies with similar thematic concerns in tandem.
It’s a neat idea, in part because it acknowledges, like Seitz, that different movies serve different needs. So, in the spirit of friendship (and remember that friends are sometimes cruel to be kind), here’s my top five—well, six. The “>” indicates that the movie to the left is greater than the one to the right. I’ll just list my five honorable mentions. Let the flames commence.
6. The War of the Worlds > Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith: George Lucas might be the most visionary producer since D.W. Griffith, but he’s a shit director and an even worse writer. Revenge of the Sith wants to be a parable about democracy, but its understanding of politics is so muddleheaded that we’re not sure—even after six movies and countless hours—how the intergalactic federation actually runs. People make statements that sound portentous, but they’re nothing beneath them. That’s sorta like the world Lucas has created. It’s beautiful, shining so prettily that I almost didn’t notice how plastic and arid it is. The aliens, the spaceships, and the landscapes all move so pristinely, so immaculately, that the effect is probably the opposite of what Lucas intended: it seems less than human, and not fully lifelike. Lucas shoots in panoramas, the better for us to take in what he’s spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing. Constantly showing us everything, of course, means that he doesn’t have to make choices about what to show us, and how. Our eyes sweep over, and are saturated by, the big, cluttered, colorful light show. ROTS is grandiose but not epic. Anakin Skywalker doesn’t have the depth to be a tragic hero; the characters are too poorly defined to be mythic; the computerized environment is too artificial and ornamental to absorb us fully. Lucas intends to be baroque, but he’s merely rococo. We’re supposed to be impressed. War of the Worlds, however, gets intimate, and makes a century-old sci-fi novel into a contemporary meditation on post-9/11 life. The special effects are outstanding, but Steven Spielberg isn’t interested in them in and of themselves. Rather, he shoots the movie like a war reporter—the graininess and herky-jerkiness is reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan. We see the aliens and their rampant destruction, but only as the characters see the chaos—in furtive glimpses, in echoes muffled by collapsing walls, from behind doors. The camera is subjective; we’re right there with Tom Cruise and his family, running like hell. When we see the aliens in a full panorama, the vision inspires fear, not awe. By the end of it all, our nerves are shattered, because we’ve become accustomed to listening intently for creaks, for paying extra-close attention to the blip at the edge of our vision that we think we saw. The movie captures a moment of national paranoia and melancholy. It’s a two-hour evocation of post-traumatic stress disorder—the taped-up flyers on walls, calling out for missing people, remind us of the days just after 9/11; the pervasive melancholy of the months after the massacre are tangible. Most of all, what Spielberg gets right is the weariness, the emotional drain caused by a large-scale terror that congeals into unmanageable trauma. It’s a bid-budget disaster movie that turns inward, that’s more interested in emotion than spectacle. Its images, fleeting though they are, stay with us long after the credits roll.
5. Kung Fu Hustle > Sin City: Both movies cram as many genre allusions into them as they can, both are action-packed, both parody and mimic genre conventions, and both are so stylized as to be set apart from reality. Kung Fu Hustle is funny as hell, a Chuck Jones cartoon come to life. For the first time outside of a Pixar movie, rampant use of CGI seems justified, because it amplifies our understanding of the characters. The sheer energy and loopiness of the movie, the audacity of the CGI (which doesn’t even try to simulate reality), emerges from the characters. Stephen Chow gets that Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, broad and vaudeville as they are, can come to identify us. Sin City is just cynical and mean. Every set detail has been workshopped to look like the perfect film noir, but Robert Rodriguez doesn’t get the underlying moral paranoia and inquiry in most noir films. He’s just after the look. The violence is splashy because it looks cool, and will sell well to the teenagers at the multiplex. There’s no depth, just hipness. That makes its gruesome deaths, and latent misogyny, even more repulsive, because you get the feeling that nothing means anything in the movie. In Spy Kids, Rodriguez used effects that looked handmade, and whose vigor matched the wonder and guffaws of Kung Fu Hustle—but not here.
4. The Constant Gardener > Good Night, and Good Luck: Both films are liberal, and obsessed with contemporary politics, but they’re opposites in practically every way. TCG infuses its politics with moral complexity, heartbreak, and color. Women are the civilizing, radicalized force in politics, while the men believe in the status quo until kicked in the ass by the women. It’s the network of women, using the internet and private correspondence, that differentiates Gardener from so many politico movies. The females—mothers, wives, caretakers, nurses—are the ones on the frontlines of every movement, who bear the immediate brunt of our political actions. They’re witnesses to our moral degradation but, in Gardener, they won’t stand for it. Its hero, the luminous and righteous Ralph Fiennes, is lost and bereft at the movie’s beginning, despite the orderliness of his life. It’s only as he uncovers the mystery behind his wife’s death—and life—that he develops a true moral conscience. Gardener’s vibrancy surprises us; the camera leaves us as woozy and punch-drunk as its hero, but also a little wiser. Too bad Good Night, and Good Luck’s rigidity doesn’t allow room for women. They’re rarely seen, even as housewives, and exist only on the sidelines. The mighty Patricia Clarkson is wasted in a subplot that goes nowhere. Dianne Reeves sings luscious jazz, but has nothing to do with the plot. (She’s window-dressing; as the one black person in the movie, I guess she’s intended to give GNGL a much-needed dose of hipness.) The movie is staid, overly formal, and every composition and every speech (and there are lots of them) is so meticulously detailed as to induce sleep. I agree with George Clooney’s conclusions about McCarthyism, but that doesn’t mean his movie isn’t tedious. The perfect black-and-white sheen inspires false reverence in the audience. The color palette and stately rhythm intends to convey Serious Intent, and so they do. But that’s all they do. The movie’s hermetically sealed set design means that we never see the reporters living outside of the newsroom—I can’t remember a single exterior shot—and so we don’t see how fear of communism or of McCarthyism truly affected people. The entire movie is a closed loop, feeding back homilies to itself about the righteousness of exposing political bullies. The Constant Gardener instead searches and yearns for justice; it exists entirely outside of the newsroom, meandering through villages, private parties, and bedrooms to give a complicated picture of the uncomfortable coziness between British diplomats, African governments, and pharmaceutical companies. The movie’s not afraid to run headlong into danger, to flood your eyes with color, to experiment with film stock and haphazard framing. It’s not slapdash—its politics and comprehension of human motives are better-structured or more complicated than those of GNGL—and it’s designed to break free of arid policy-wonk debates, and to move directly into your soul.
3. Born Into Brothels > Rize: Two documentaries showcasing the empowerment of poor kids through art—it’s enough to make you tug at your heartstrings like a good little liberal, right? Well, yes, at least for Born Into Brothels. A British filmmaker gives eight Indian children, who are all literally children of prostitutes, and teaches them to document their world. Or, rather, worlds. Each of the kids shoots in a different way, approaching the same subjects with utterly original takes. One’s an Abstract Expressionist in the making; one’s a dry comedian; one sees unbearable sadness where another finds sweetness and light. As the kids grow more comfortable with photography, we see how the cameras become extensions of themselves. The documentarians understand that the kids are the core; they step out of the way. We see lots of the kids’ prints, watching them slowly improve their art and, miraculously, their lives. Rize, god help it, is nothing but a pose for filmmaker David La Chapelle. He’s less interested in exploring the klowning and crumping phenomenons of Los Angeles—so uninterested that he doesn’t help us distinguish between the two styles—than he is in showing how hip he is to the dancing. We never get the last names, or ever the real first names, of any of the dancers. He refuses to show us any side of the dancing life that might make us think less of it—eight-year-old girls perform “stripper” dances, and there’s not a single parent here who doesn’t think that’s okay? The interviews are banal, when they’re not confusing and contradictory. The last 20 minutes (and it’s only an 80-minute feature) are devoted to slow-motion, saturated-color filming of dances we’ve already seen. La Chapelle tries lamely to connect the dancing styles to African tribal dancing, but he can’t be bothered to tell us which tribes, what kind of dancing they’re doing, or give us any historical context. All that would be too much work. So we’re stuck with a lot of energetic gesticulating by black bodies, and little more. Rize reduces the complicated lives of poor black folk to a fashion portfolio for the flyest white guy around.
2. Brokeback Mountain > Crash and Syriana: Crash and Syriana are broiling soups, with everything under the sun thrown into them. Subplots weaves around main plots, until you can’t tell which is which. Each movie has a cast of at least ten significant characters, few of whom are well-defined enough to fascinate us. The characters lecture instead of talk, like policy wonks, even in their own beds. They’ve siphoned off John Sayles’s moral and political vision, but left behind his humanizing tendencies. The camera and editing is antic and forced, so the music has to be spare, blip-hoppy, and vaguely New Agey in a foreboding way. Neither is as smart as it thinks it is. Neither asks us to invest a lot in its characters, though Crash’s protagonists each get moments of rawness that transcend punditry. (Thandie Newton gets at least two scenes of righteous, uncontrolled fury. Don Cheadle lends gravitas to a scene simply by entering the room.) Both are more interesting to talk about than to sit through. (The conversations within each are noticeably shrill.) They’re both shot with searing light and color than bleeds into faces, as if they’re being pressure-cooked. Brokeback Mountain is cold and spare, almost to the point of being clinical, and focuses intently on a single relationship. The vistas are spellbinding and still; you suck in your breath when you see some of those mountains. Ang Lee holds faces in our faces for agonizing seconds, and refuses to turn away from the most shameful, painful moments of his characters’ lives. Because he’s so intent on having us see these lives, we invest a lot in even their smallest gestures. When Heath Ledger hugs an old shirt, late in the movie, I fell to pieces. Without ever using the words “gay” or “homosexual,” Brokeback is more defiantly political and impassioned than any single scene in Crash or Syriana.
1. Munich > Everything else I saw in 2005: Critics have slammed Munich for precisely the reasons that it’s phenomenal—because it absolutely, positively refuses to deny people their humanity, and because it will not offer a viable solution. Spielberg does not argue that Israel didn’t have the right to retaliate against Palestine after the latter killed 11 Israeli Olympians. Rather, it ponders the trauma that the massacre created, and how revenge against Black September stained the soul of Israel even as it rid the world of a few terrorists. Killing is killing, Munich says, no matter how justified it seems or may be, and murder leaves a mark on us all. It’s a startling rebuke to every revenge fantasy I’ve ever seen, but it still manages to thrill continually. “Thrill” isn’t the right word—that seems too banal. For the movie’s entire running time, I felt a low-level fear that occasionally jolted me—with a car bomb, with the sudden death of a hero, with a little girl picking up a telephone—and left me rattled. The movie does not release tension, and its final shot, of the World Trade Center, takes the movie’s concerns right into the present without presenting the neat-and-tidy resolution we want. Because it’s not there. Eric Bana’s soulful eyes and Daniel Craig’s hard stare imply that we’re still living the trauma of Black September. In practically every frame, the characters find themselves looking back at themselves. They see their reflections on car windows, on phone booths, in the still pools of coffee in their mugs, on polished mahogany tables. Even amidst the clockwork of their assassinations, they’re looking into their souls. They can’t escape themselves, though the desire to do so becomes greater as the movie progresses. For all the globe-hopping, Munich tells us to look inward, to look not at the elegantly executed action sequences (beautifully shot, but muted in their effect—Spielberg’s not trying to wow us here) but at why we orchestrate them in the first place. As the death toll piles up, the reasons behind it get more complicated and harder to defend. For all of my verbiage, the movie is best viewed as an exploration of the concept of “home.” Spielberg questions what it means to have a homeland, when home is worth defending, and how you can lose the ability to return home even as you defend it, and how that loss can scar the soul. The protagonists talk, but never lecture. The political machinations hit you at gut level—this ain’t ethereal dorm-room philosophizing. The characters, drawn in quick strokes by an expert cast, lure you into Spielberg’s world, and then change on you. Munich’s visual tone—slate greys, drizzling rain, cold blues, India-ink nights, harsh white light—is melancholy and thoughtful, like overcast skies before a major storm. The whole movie is like that—threatening and brooding, but with a chance to wash you clean as well.
Honorable mentions (in no particular order):
Pride & Prejudice: Joe Wright does well by Jane Austen, shooting genteel, image-obsessed Victorians with a neo-realistic, naturalistic eye. The juxtaposition works wonders.
The Wallace and Gromit Movie: It’s slightly padded—the first three Wallace & Gromit adventures are each 30-minutes slices of perfection—and the pacing’s a little slack at times. Still, it’s unbelievably entertaining and inventive. Gromit expresses more emotion without a single word than a dozen Looney Tunes cartoons. I don’t mean that as an insult to Chuck Jones, but as a high compliment to Nick Park.
The Legend of Zorro: There’s nothing new about this swashbuckler, except that it’s done so stylishly, so coherently, and with so much graceful wit. Antonio Banderas has found a way to parody the smoldering Latin stereotype and be it, all at once. And I dare you to take your eyes off Catherine Zeta-Jones, even when she’s not actually onscreen.
Bunty and Babli: Electric, nutso, sexy and hilarious, this is the first musical I’ve seen in five years that didn’t make me gag. It’ll make you want to dance in the aisles.
Murderball: This documentary poo-poohs the inherent schwaltz of the storyline—quadriplegics decide to play competitive wheelchair rugby—and instead concentrates on the toughness, irascibility, and raunchy wit of its stars. The players show no pity to their rivals, and roll their eyes whenever we start to pity them. Damn straight.
And finally, because it’s only fair, here are 10 movies I didn’t see in 2005 that probably would have changed the nature of this list:
The Best of Youth, Corpse Bride, Duma, Funny Ha Ha, Grizzly Man, Howl’s Moving Castle, Junebug, Match Point, The New World, and 2046.