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Best Movies of 2005

By Rob Vaux

There was panic in the streets in 2005, as Hollywood saw movie attendance drop for the third straight year. Finger-pointing was rampant: studios blamed the theaters for ruining the moviegoing atmosphere, while theaters blamed the studios for shoddy product. Both were culpable (though personally, I'm more inclined to fault the theaters: you never heard them complaining when past turds like Godzilla were running rampant), but the true root of the problem was changing times and tastes. With DVDs, pay-per-view, and online downloads more prevalent than ever -- and windows between the various platforms shrinking more and more -- a single question loomed large: was the box office downturn just a statistical hiccup, or was it the start of a greater trend... one that might end the theatrical experience as we know it?

Such a possibility isn't necessarily a bad thing. The explosion of entertainment choices means that many more films and filmmakers have a chance to flourish -- if not in the theaters then in other formats -- and that consumers who can't find limited or independent films in the multiplex can easily find them a short while later at Netflix or on satellite TV. While a changing environment may mean losing some part of the communal theatrical experience, it certainly won't spell the end of film.

Having said that, the movies didn't do much to justify our attention in 2005. Surprise hits were the order of the day, with titles like March of the Penguins and Wedding Crashers catching everyone off guard. There was a lot of foundering -- even quality blockbusters like Batman Begins didn't exceed expectations -- and while documentary filmmaking continued its remarkable run of the last few years, the signs of any really admirable trends were few and far between. The movies simply felt tired, struggling against new formatting that studios still don't know what to do with, and competing for an ever-shrinking attention span with video games, iPods, and cell phones that make really neat noises.

As always, however, there were still some worthwhile choices out there, whether at the multiplex or on the family couch. Some of them had to work harder to find an audience, while others vanished without a trace, but enough came through to remind us that -- no matter what the future holds -- filmmaking as a creative endeavor will continue to persevere. Below are 10 of my favorite efforts, organized from 10 to 1 as usual and topped by a quintet that examine the darkest corners of the human soul.

10. Double Dare. An unabashedly sentimental choice, Amanda Micheli's little-seen documentary features one of the most engaging personalities of the year: Zoë Bell, a New Zealand stuntwoman who served as the double for both Lucy Lawless on Xena and Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill films. Her rough-and-tumble ride through Hollywood -- aided by friend/mentor Jeannie Epper, who has been in the business nearly 50 years -- illustrates both the difficulty women still have in a male-dominated environment, and the fact that tough-guy stuntmen can't hold a candle to some of the girls in their midst.

9. Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. For pure entertainment, Nick Park's daffy dog-and-master duo still carries the day. Their gentle send-up of Hammer horror films gives them a brilliant feature-length platform to strut their stuff, while making Peter Jackson's only the second best King Kong homage of the year.

8. Capote. Philip Seymour Hoffman vanishes into the diminutive frame of one of the 20th century's most notorious enfants terribles, as director Bennett Miller brilliantly charts the creation of Capote's seminal book In Cold Blood -- and the attendant cost that its author was only too happy to pay.

7. Murderball. Yet another astounding documentary, covering the sport of quadriplegic rugby and the often difficult men who play it. By presenting its wheelchair-bound subjects warts and all (some of these people are the biggest assholes you will ever meet), it removes the clinging sense of pity that traditionally surrounds the handicapped. The players here are as tough as they come, and the film pays them that rarest of dignities by refusing to pull any punches.

6. Brokeback Mountain. In a year filled with unusual love stories, Ang Lee's powerful interpretation of Annie Proulx's short story reiterates the common denominator in all of them. Calling it a gay romance is unspeakably dismissive; the bond between Heath Ledger's Ennis Delmar and Jake Gyllenhaal's Jack Twist is as transcendent and reverberating as any ever put on-screen. That they lived in a time and a place where they couldn't express it lends them a profound sense of tragedy, undiminished by Lee's traditional distance from his subjects.

5. Downfall. Oliver Hirschbiegel's take on Nazi Germany's death rattle is a terrifyingly intimate portrait of history's greatest monsters and the chilling way in which unspeakable acts lie side by side with human normalcy.

4. A History of Violence. David Cronenberg lends a mordant, almost playful tone to this examination of the brutality at America's core. Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello deliver Oscar-worthy performances as a seemingly normal couple engulfed in Darwinian circumstances that test their every notion of right and wrong. One of Cronenberg's very best -- and, not coincidentally, one of his most accessible.

3. Batman Begins. Director Christopher Nolan and co-writer David S. Goyer delve deep into the roots of comicdom's most famous vigilante, and deliver what may be the definitive portrait of the Dark Knight. The film's psychological edge -- exploring Bruce Wayne's fears and the way he turns them towards positive ends -- becomes the central thesis, around which the always-nifty gadgets and heroics are mere garnishes. In an era that has seen some brilliant comic-book adaptations, this one sets a standard that may never be equaled.

2. Syriana. Stephen Gaghan probes one of the defining issues of our time -- the demand for oil and the unrest it generates -- in a work that should be seen by anyone who has ever filled up for gas at the pump. George Clooney, as both star and producer, continues his push for challenging material, and Gaghan's script -- easily the best of the year -- will leave viewers grappling with an issue that promises to dominate our world for decades to come.

1. Grizzly Man. The best films of the year all examined the murky waters of our own shadows. Werner Herzog -- no stranger to the dark side of the street -- found perhaps its purest expression in Timothy Treadwell, the would-be naturalist who embraced his abyss until it literally devoured him. Herzog's study of Treadwell, who spent 13 years recklessly interacting with the grizzly bears of wilderness Alaska, finds a purity unmatched by any other film this year, both in terms of sheer beauty and all-too-human folly.

Honorable mention goes to The Aristocrats, The Constant Gardener, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Good Night, and Good Luck, Inside Deep Throat, Junebug, Me and You and Everyone We Know, MirrorMask, Munich, and The New World.

I'd also like to note two films that I was unable to review this year, but which both brought a lingering smile to my face. Michael Wranovics' documentary Up for Grabs told the exasperatingly funny tale of Barry Bond's 73rd home-run ball (and the two nitwits who went to court over it); and Mike Mitchell's Sky High, a bubbly combination of superhero story and coming-of-age teen comedy, delivered the right amount of brightness to the often angst-ridden comic-book genre.

"Joe Franklin raped me."
--Sarah Silverman, The Aristocrats

Article published 12.31.2005.

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