More and more, it seems as though the business end of the film business is dividing into what you might call the blue-city end and the red-city end, with blue cities being defined as cities with audiences capable of supporting art houses and generating support for unusual films, and red cities as those that aren't. In what you might call the good old days for critics, prior to 2004, distributors would send us DVDs of all their most interesting films, in hopes that we would give them a good boost for awards season. That stopped when the Motion Picture Academy realized it led to pirating of the films. In any case, this didn't matter to a critic who lived in a blue city, but I happen to live and work in a red city and have to schedule myself to include enough blue cities and international film festivals in my year to make sure I don't miss out on too much.
And although 2005 had more than its quota of clinkers - you can fill in the blanks here - it also had a marvelous selection of commercial, independent and foreign releases that were at the very least well worth seeing. More than that, this year's international festivals gave us the best collection of foreign films in ages - films that either never got a U.S. release or played just the American festival circuit (a phenomenon that's grown to such proportions - more than a hundred of them and counting - that it's become another whole channel for distribution, and worth a story of its own).
So it seems logical this year to make two lists: one for films released in some kind of commercial manner, and one for those that weren't, or at most played a week or two at something like a Landmark theatre in a very blue city.
List One: my choices for the ten best commercial releases of the year.
10. Crash - Paul Haggis's roundelay of life at all levels in L.A., and how those levels cannot help but intersect with each other, is a brilliantly constructed piece that flaunts both its genius and its weakness. The genius is Haggis's ability to write eight characters who each are complete in themselves; the weakness is the inevitable artificiality of a round structure, something that cannot occur in nature. Nevertheless, the film has a great deal to admire.
9. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang -- Shane Black's noir comedy is about a New York thief who finds himself working as an apprentice private eye in L.A., with great sight gags and witty lines coming at us every couple of minutes. Robert Downey Jr. and his detecting teacher Val Kilmer have the time of their lives playing with this one. The film was in and out of theatres in about a minute, but should enjoy a long life as a cult classic on DVD. Be sure you get your copy; you'll end up playing it at every party.
8. Mad Hot Ballroom - Sure, it's like "Spellbound," but what's wrong with that? Marilyn Agrelo and Amy Sewell follow three New York City public school fifth-grade classes through to the finals of a citywide ballroom dancing competition; by the climax you'll want to get up and dance the merengue with them. In any case you'll fall in love with the kids, and the great bilingual teacher from Washington Heights.
7. Downfall - Oliver Hirschbiegel's powerful story of what it was like to be in the bunker with Hitler and his acolytes in the last days of World War II. As Hitler, the extraordinary Bruno Ganz captures both the power and the disintegration of the man who could happily kill six million people in order to rule the world with his new order.
6. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - The story gets darker and the plot more complex, but with number four in the series director Mike Newell has found a way to make his film coherent and still powerful enough to match the book, in which Ms. Rowling takes us and our trio of adolescents to a new and different place.
5. The Constant Gardener - It was a brilliant idea to choose the Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles ("City of God") for this film, made from the John LeCarré novel about a mediocre diplomat in Nairobi (Ralph Fiennes) who loses everything but gains his dignity and an ultimate kind of satisfaction after going up against the people who killed his wife (Rachel Weisz). A sad but beautiful film enhanced by Meirelles's ability to use montage as few other directors working today can do.
4. Pride and Prejudice - The young star Keira Knightley as Elizabeth is so beautiful she would seem to distort Jane Austen's description of her as the plain sister, except that she is such a good actress we quickly forget her looks and find ourselves enthralled by the story all over again. And she is matched perfectly by Matthew McFadyen as Mr. Darcy, the sullen, insecure, yet perfect match for Elizabeth. To watch the two of them in their mating dance is one of the exquisite pleasures of the year.
3. Syriana - Writer-director Stephen Gaghan has challenged any number of film conventions by making a movie in which five distantly related stories are all enlisted in a searing portrait of - oil. Oil and its power over people, corporations and countries, including of course the power of life and death. The film is not perfect; Gaghan should not have feared giving it more texture, more air, giving more life to the human beings who illustrate his text. Still, this is an important statement about the way in which the world works. George Clooney and Christopher Plummer stand out in a fine cast.
2. Good Night, and Good Luck - Clooney has directed and cowritten a re-creation of the months - the fall of 1953 to the spring of 1954 - in which Joe McCarthy reached his apotheosis and crashed under the pressure of, well, the forces of democracy. It's a powerful story and a powerful film, about the way CBS's Edward R. Murrow (a perfect David Strathairn) took on the job of challenging McCarthy in the face of some corporate slithering and backsliding (by Frank Langella as William S. Paley). Certainly essential viewing for those who weren't around at the time.
1. Capote - The utterly compelling story of how a gay novelist, a quintessential cosmopolite who'd never written a piece of journalism in his life, came to transform the profession by deciding to cover a multiple murder in rural Kansas. Philip Seymour Hoffman gives the performance of the year as Truman, and Catherine Keener as his friend and blocking back Harper Lee (yes, that one) shows her acting chops as well. The film extends over the five years it took for Capote to find an ending to his story; a beautiful, resonant film.
Some more favorites: In no particular order, I had a very good time at these films, and so will you:
Lord of War
Me and You and Everyone We Know
Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
List Two - Festival films:
2005 was a banner year for non-Hollywood films, most from other countries, and most of which never got U.S. distribution but are at least as worthy as the very best of the American crop. And just as exciting is the fact that some of them come from countries whose filmmakers, to say nothing of a film industry, were previously unknown. We can thank the programmers of film festivals for letting us in on their work. And if you missed them at the festivals, you should look online for the DVDs.
Having said that, the great treat of the year was the re-release for festivals of Charlie Chaplin's film "The Circus," in a crisp new print. Hardly ever shown commercially since its original release in 1928 (it was overshadowed by the advent of sound), this is in my view his most purely comic film, even funnier than "Modern Times." In any case it is essential viewing for anyone interested in film.
4 - Yes, the number four is the title of this first film by the Russian Ilya Khrzhanovsky, in which two men and a woman meet at a bar (the bartender is the fourth) late one night and exchange lies about their lives and their work. A piano tuner claims to be a scientist; a manager of a meatpacking firm claims to supply the Kremlin with mineral water for the president; a prostitute claims to be an advertising account executive. The film then follows each of them after they leave the bar, to the end of their lives and/or careers. From its startling opening, a night shot of four dogs lying in the street until a huge jackhammer strikes the pavement, to its strange ending, this is a powerful work from someone destined to be a major filmmaker. Its only flaw is taking a bit too long to get to that ending, but don't let that bother you.
3-Iron - South Korea's Kim Ki-Duk has made an elegiac film about a man who robs empty homes by leaving pizza menus on their doors and then checking back to see who didn't come home to take them off. One day he finds himself in a house where the battered wife shows up unexpectedly and the two begin a strange, almost wordless relationship, until her husband reappears. Beautifully shot, sad and witty at the same time, this is a film that gets its power from understatement.
Angel on the Right - Made in 2002 but nearly unknown here till now, this comedy by Tajikistan's Jamshad Usmonov is the charming story of a Moscow criminal who comes home to his little town in Tajikistan because his mother is dying, except that she isn't, and has other plans in mind for him, which include his reconnecting with his old girlfriend and the now-10-year-old son he abandoned at birth. There's more, including a problem with the town's corrupt mayor and with a couple of men he owes money to, but everything gets sorted out by the end.
Good Morning, Night - In case you were wondering whatever happened to the brilliant 1960s filmmaker Marco Bellocchio, who made "Fists in the Pocket" (1965) and "China is Near" (1966), he's back with the story of the 1978 kidnapping of Italian president Aldo Moro by a group of anarchists, told from the point of view of one of the kidnappers, a young woman who begins to have doubts about their act. The film is set in the apartment they've rented in which to hide Moro; we follow the police searches by watching television as the kidnappers do. Over time Moro himself, blindfolded and bound, begins to exert the kind of power over the group that an articulate older person sometimes has with the young; the effect on the film is electric.
Green Hat - Chinese filmmaker Liu Fendou's comic drama deservedly won the best film award at the 2004 Tribeca festival; it's the story of a brave police captain who risks his life in a hostage situation but suffers from a bad case of erectile disfunction. Startling, funny and sad all at the same time.
Heir to an Execution - Filmmaker Ivy Meeropol is the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and her remarkable documentary uses interviews with her father Michael Meeropol and his brother Robert, the Rosenbergs' children, to tell the excruciating story of the 1953 executions and their aftermath, including the way in which the families remain shattered to this day.
Innocent Voices - Director Luis Mandoki finally finds his voice (after "Message in a Bottle" and "When a Man Loves a Woman") with this powerful film about the 1980s civil war in El Salvador. He tells it through the eyes of Chava (Luis Padilla), an eleven-year-old boy in a small town that's occupied by the government forces but is under attack by the rebels. Based on the memoir of that boy, the film reaches its climax when the government forces start recruiting 12-year-olds and Chava must choose whether to stay or join the rebels.
Nobody Knows - A childlike woman who happens to be the mother of four children keeps leaving them on their own (the film is based on the true story of a Tokyo family) for longer and longer periods until she finally disappears for good. The oldest son, played by 12-year-old Yuya Yagira (who won Best Actor at Cannes in 2004 for his performance) must hide the others and still provide food and some kind of life for them in a cramped apartment. Director Hirokazu Koreeda finds a way to show us both the unspeakable sadness and the pleasures of a child's life in ways that criss-cross each other every day. This film will haunt me forever, as it will you too.
On the Sunny Side - Who knew that Slovenia had a film industry? And who knew that it could produce one of the most delicious coming-of-age comedies in, well, ages? Writer-director Miha Hocevar follows two Bosnian brothers, eleven and eighteen, through a summer at their aunt's house in Ljubljana, with their discoveries of everything from sex to the meaning of life in exile.
Red Dust - A powerful drama from South Africa about two men confronting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about atrocities committed under apartheid. Chewetel Ejiofor is now a member of Parliament and a witness against an Africaaner policeman. Hilary Swank is his attorney, come back from New York to the town of her birth to help him. Director Tom Hooper makes sure the film doesn't settle for clichés but keeps taking us in unexpected directions. And yes, it's odd that Swank's name didn't get the film any U.S. distribution.
2046 - Wong Kar-wai's sort-of sequel to "In the Mood For Love," "2046" is a room number in a cheap hotel that holds memories for a second-rate journalist (Tony Leung Chiu Wai); it also provides him with interludes of loneliness and missed love with three of the most beautiful women in the world: Li Gong, Ziyi Zhang and Maggie Cheung. If you haven't had the chance to enter the hermetic world of Mr. Wong's films, this is the perfect vehicle to do it.
Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire - General Dallaire was in charge of the United Nations contingent in Rwanda during the genocide of 1995, when he was forbidden from acting to save the victims. Now, ten years later, he returns to the country to examine both its recovery and his own conscience. Dallaire himself narrates the film, and he is unsparing about what happened and who among the countries of the world are responsible for allowing the genocide.