In case you hadn’t heard, gay cowboys are so hot right now.
It was a phenomenal year for film, from the sweeping majesty of love under the Wyoming sky in Ang Lee’s masterful “Brokeback Mountain” to the long-awaited return of the Dark Knight in Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins.” And who could have guessed that onetime Bruce Wayne George Clooney could write and direct one of the year’s most acclaimed films with “Good Night, and Good Luck?” Add to that a sly and riveting turn in the brilliant “Syriana,” and the former “E.R.” star had a pretty good year.
But if 2004 was the year of the biopic, 2005 was all about broadcasting the voices of dissent and discontent. “Crash” tackled the unsavory specter of racism, while “Munich” probed the quagmire of Israeli-Palestinian violence. In a time of continuing political uncertainty, Hollywood and the American public stepped up to prove that this country is, now more than ever, committed to confronting these social issues – both within the darkness of a local multiplex as well as in the national dialogue such topical films have spurred. We live in a marvelous era when 50-year-old lifelong conservatives can, with open minds, appreciate hot cowboy-on-cowboy action.
Now, to coincide with the recent announcement of the Academy’s picks for the top films of the year, the Michigan Daily’s film critics and junkies offer up our own takes.
1 Brokeback Mountain
An emotionally transcendent experience – Ang Lee demonstrates a singular ability to frame characters with a preternatural sense of time, mood and circumstance. And while much of its appeal lies in its universality, make no mistake: The film’s subject matter does lend to its power. This is revolutionary work.
2 A History of Violence
A visceral jolt of pure, brutally inspired moviemaking. David Cronenberg’s most readily accessible film is also his most pointed, at once a playful noir, a fascinating character study and, in its own way, the most politically subversive movie of the year.
3 Match Point
It’s telling that the finest moments in “Match Point” come after its big twist. Woody Allen’s ingenious play on simple notions of luck and morality is among the most patient studio movies in years, carefully building toward its narrative hook and then actually taking the time to consider it afterward. The final shot ingeniously closes the film with smug, teasing confidence.
With “Syriana,” Stephen Gaghan cements his reputation for crafting audaciously complex visions of international politics that make up for what they lack in lucidity with taut, nervy and keenly entertaining storytelling. The film raises more moral and ethical questions than it can answer, but then maybe that’s the point: not so much to convince as to provoke.
5 Grizzly Man
The rare documentary with such comprehensive access to its subject that it completely envelopes us in its stark, almost voyeuristic grasp. The film paints a disquieting portrait of Timothy Treadwell, a funny, unusual brand of activist who exhibits stunning recklessness and finally unconscionable devotion.
An unrelentingly graphic Korean revenge epic steeped in a bizarre ideology of violence and institutionalized horror. The images it evokes are unforgettable – less because of the actual physical torture (though it’s in no short supply) and more for its hauntingly creative pageant of human suffering and redemption.
Told in increasingly powerful segments, “Capote” offers both a large-scale and a small-scale story brimming with moral and intellectual grey zones. But what’s really at stake here – and what really makes the movie – goes deeper than its (already compelling) surface story and into the mind of its subject, masterfully invoked by soon-to-be Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman.
8 Turtles Can Fly
The first film out of Iraq since the war began is an apolitical, harrowing tale set in the weeks before the war began. The film’s focus is Satellite (eagerly played by Soran Ebrahim), a brilliant 13-year-old orphan/local businessman rendered with a complexity rarely seen in screen youths.
Steven Spielberg’s careful, beautifully written and directed depiction of the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Olympics terrorist attack is not the polarizing indictment that many might expect but rather a searching, conflicted thriller intended to raise retrospective questions rather than reignite deeply imbedded cultural fire.
10 King Kong
The kind of gorgeous, outrageously high-minded spectacle we’ve come to expect from Peter Jackson. True to form, he’s as interested in the possibility of the special effects as he is in the emotional core of the story – but in the future, he would do well to crack a smile now and then.
1 A History of Violence
The most affecting and eerily subversive film of the year, David Cronenberg’s apparently mainstream masterpiece is a stunning indictment of a culture of violence. Operating on several levels and boasting outstanding performances from leads Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello, the film is an unmitigated triumph.
For sheer political brashness and bravado, it’s hard to beat Stephen Gaghan’s outstandingly ambitious and ultimately brilliant portrait of the many faces of the oil trade. On an artistic level, the film is splendidly executed, with riveting performances and a director unafraid to challenge his audience.
3 The Squid and the Whale
Unjustly overlooked this year, “The Squid and the Whale” is an achingly honest and witty character study of a crumbling Brooklyn family. Writer/director Noah Baumbach guides the production with assurance and Jeff Daniels is better than he’s ever been.
Germany’s awesome and emotionally horrific journey into Hitler’s last days gets so deep into the psyche of the Nazi party, and so close to the simultaneously seductive and appalling dictator himself, that the result is a rare and starkly real nightmare of a film.
5 Match Point
It’s whatever you want it to be: a cultured Europhile’s dream vacation (can you hum along to “La Traviata?”), a dazzlingly written, Dostoevsky-riffing meditation on the role of luck and chance in life or simply an excuse to watch the luminous Scarlett Johansson sear the screen.
6 Good Night, and Good Luck
Filmed in black, white and a conspiracy of shadows, complete with the snaking spirals of cigarette smoke and seamlessly blended McCarthy-era footage, George Clooney’s arresting film doesn’t talk too loud, but what it says is stunning.
7 Brokeback Mountain
The visual splendor, the painfully sincere performances and above all, the careful and elegant direction of Ang Lee transformed a pop-culture punchline (they’re gay, get it?) into a dramatically moving story of American isolation.
The Faustian bargain Truman Capote made to publish his most brilliant and enduring work, “In Cold Blood,” is a story of such slow descent and unsettling moral ambiguity that it cries out to be told. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s nuanced portrayal of the sometimes-tortured writer is simply amazing.
9 King Kong
Unquestionably the best blockbuster of the year, Peter Jackson’s almost unbelievably ambitious film pushes visual technology (not to mention narrative storytelling) to the absolute limit. Yet firmly at the core of all its grandeur is a gentle love story told with a refreshing lack of cynicism and irony.
Steven Spielberg’s return to important filmmaking is an exquisitely directed and sharply penned reflection on the corrupting and ultimately self-defeating nature of revenge. The level of filmaking artistry is only surpassed by the audacity of its thematic intent.
1 Good Night, and Good Luck
Written and directed by George Clooney, the film is a 93-minute capsule of the media battle between newscaster Edward Murrow and infamous politician Joseph McCarthy. Cleanly composed in rich black and white, “Good Night” delivers a message as clear as it is concise.
2 King Kong
Even if it suffers from the bloat of an extra hour, “King Kong” makes the cut for sheer entertainment value alone. Once Kong hits the screen, you simply can’t turn away. His illustrious fight scene with a trio of “Jurassic Park”-esque carnivores finally capitalizes on all the movie magic CGI can offer.
Wong Kar Wai’s latest film shines with soft, dazzling visuals. In a small role, Ziyi Zhang (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) struts about with 10 times the sultry charisma her rather bland “Memoirs of a Geisha” protagonist ever mustered.
4 Brokeback Mountain
Ang Lee’s cowboy drama deserves far more credit for its careful, lyrical pacing than the homosexual theme which has sparked so much media attention. And while Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger give solid performances, the Wyoming landscape certainly doesn’t hurt in filling out the screen.
5 The Squid and the Whale
One of the year’s best indies, “Squid” is a regular showcase for top-notch performances, most notably Jeff Daniels as a writer whose snobbish literary taste is made all the more sad by his own failing career. Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg (“Cursed”) and child actor Owen Kline complete his dysfunctional family.
6 The New World
If you don’t like slow, you won’t like “The New World.” The contemplative pacing has led director Terrence Malick’s long-awaited movie to receive relatively little press. But Malick has an incomparable eye for pretty, and poetry in motion doesn’t come much closer than his lush visual storytelling of the legend of Pocahontas.
7 Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
First-time director Shane Black penned Mel Gibson’s “Lethal Weapon” series, so he’s no stranger to the action-movie formula that he half-satirizes in this fast-paced action comedy featuring the caustic buddy combo of Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer.
8 The Upside of Anger
Kevin Costner has rarely been more entertaining than here as a former-baseball-star-turned-pothead-radio-show host, while Joan Allen perfects the slow burn as a jilted housewife. It comes to an unexpected close with one of the year’s most satisfying and revealing endings.
9 Sin City
Perhaps a little jumbled and lacking a fulfilling conclusion, “Sin City” still deserves placement at the year’s top for its original visual style. Robert Rodriguez faithfully brought Frank Miller’s dark comic-book world to the screen with borderline camp and a fantastic cast.
10 Wedding Crashers
Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn have never been more charming in their absolute lack of charm than when stumbling through the inane antics of this (ultimately romantic) comedy.
1 Good Night, and Good Luck
No film this year featured better political intrigue in either the original context or its modern implications. Writer/director George Clooney has received due praise for his portrait of Edward Murrow and “See It Now’s” power in exposing the evils of Joe McCarthy’s witch hunts.
Steven Spielberg finally returns to the form he showed in “Saving Private Ryan” and “Schindler’s List” after years of bloated, feel-good action films. Last year, biopics may have dominated, but this year’s nonfiction entries are even more powerful.
3 Brokeback Mountain
Who knew that the best love story of the year would be between two cowboys? The film may not carry the same weight someday when homosexual love is no longer so culturally taboo, but Ang Lee’s direction and the top-notch cast provide a moving and devastating tale of impossible love.
4 King Kong
Sure, at nearly three hours, “King Kong” is not the year’s tightest film. But once the great ape makes his long-awaited return to the silver screen, it’s hard to look away. Peter Jackson loves the source material and it shows even more than in his heralded “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
Philip Seymour Hoffman has been overlooked for years. Finally, he gives the performance of his career in the best biopic of 2005. It doesn’t hurt that the story behind “In Cold Blood” is nearly as good as the book itself.
6 The 40-Year-Old Virgin
Welcome back, gross-out comedy. While “Wedding Crashers” got most of the hype, the sweet, hysterical Steve Carell-led comedy is the better film by a long shot. The natural dialogue and laugh-a-minute pace set it apart.
Instead of playing on emotions via the misfortune of its quadriplegic subjects, the film celebrates the dangerous sport that reinvigorated their spirits. And no fictional character this year was more entertaining than the real-life Team U.S.A. captain Mark Zupan.
8 A History of Violence
David Cronenberg had made a career out of off-the-wall strangeness. This film marks his semi-return to the mainstream by teaming him with A-list talent like Viggo Mortensen and William Hurt, but you can still feel Cronenberg’s fingerprints all over it.
9 Match Point
Woody Allen has made a film that barely feels like his own. While the first and second halves of the film don’t exactly mesh seamlessly, the Dostoevsky-esque finale is brilliant. And Scarlett Johansson steals yet another movie.
10 Batman Begins and Sin City (tie)
These two films brought fully realized versions of their comic-book source material to the screen in never-before-seen ways – and both were equally dark. “Batman Begins” finally got the Dark Knight right, while “Sin City” creators crafted one of the most aesthetically striking visions ever put on film.
1 Batman Begins
In the year of the political thriller, it’s the caped crusader who tops this list. This revival of the “Batman” franchise is dark and intriguing yet manages not to take itself too seriously. Fast paced and rendered with masterful direction and acting, this is without question my favorite film of the year.
2 The Constant Gardener
A complex, edge-of-your-seat thriller about pharmaceutical companies in Africa, “The Constant Gardener” works gorgeously on many levels. It weaves the plight of forlorn Africa into a compelling story of murder and conspiracy in British high society.
3 Good Night, and Good Luck
The account of the McCarthy menace of the ’50s has misleadingly been called a historical film. But it’s more about the present than we’d like to believe, with a sharp message impossible to overemphasize in today’s America.
Perhaps the most controversial film of the year, “Crash” is a blunt reminder that racism is far from dead in this country. It’s contrived and oversimplified, but to just the right effect.
The most violent and riveting thriller in a year filled with thrills, “Munich’s” message is powerful, yet it has been debated and criticized extensively. Anytime both sides make accusations of bias, though, you’ve probably done something right.
6 Kingdom of Heaven
Ridley Scott’s epic Crusades drama also functions exceptionally well as a commentary on the turbulence in the Middle East today. It asks the right questions and pulls no punches in its quest to show the contradictions inherent in the world’s longest-running political conflict.
7 Cinderella Man
When you produce quality work consistently, some of it is bound to get overlooked, and that’s what happened this year to Ron Howard and Russell Crowe. Brilliantly acted and deeply compassionate, “Cinderella Man” is an uplifting addition to a rather gloomy year.
8 King Kong
Breathtaking scenery and cutting-edge CGI are just the beginning of what makes Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” so spectacular. Within the framework of this classic adventure story lies a touching tale concerning the most basic of human weaknesses – selfishness and greed.
9 Walk the Line
A story about the human struggles of Johnny Cash, “Walk the Line” shows how much more there is to a legend’s life than just what happens on stage. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon’s powerful performances make this one of the most compelling biopics of the year.
10 Brokeback Mountain
Behind its controversial cover, “Brokeback Mountain” is a somber story of an America so often ignored. Ironically centered around our country’s most enduring archetype – the cowboy – the groundbreaking film shows the fallacies inherent in a traditional reading of the nation’s social fabric.
1 Batman Begins
Director Christopher Nolan single-handedly reinvents the comic-book movie with the re-launch of the famed franchise. More than just a big-budget extravaganza, it’s an intriguing and complex character study.
2 Good Night, and Good Luck.
George Clooney pulls a hat trick by co-writing, directing and co-starring in a story about the true definition of integrity and character, all filmed in gorgeous black and white. The film also boasts a riveting performance by David Strahairn as famed TV journalist Edward Murrow.
3 Broken Flowers
Indie auteur Jim Jarmusch’s story of a man discovering he may have a son is much more intricate than it lets on. Bill Murray – still doing his midlife crisis shtick – is in fine form, and the film’s open-ended conclusion is immensely satisfying.
4 The Upside Of Anger
Joan Allen is brilliant as a tart, alcoholic mother whose husband leaves her. Writer/director Mike Binder’s poignant film also proves this: Kevin Costner is a decent actor once in awhile.
5 Hustle & Flow
Writer-director Craig Brewster’s tale of a pimp in the sweat-drenched South trying to break into crunk music is remarkably engrossing, and features Terrence Howard’s high-wire breakthrough performance.
6 Walk The Line
Focusing on the rise of the late Johnny Cash and his personal struggles, this is the typical, mainstream biopic done right. The film also features dead-on acting by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Whiterspoon.
7 The Squid and The Whale
A brutal tale of divorce set in 1980s Brooklyn, writer/director Noah Baumbach’s very personal story features unsympathetic parents, disturbing touches of humor and all the emotional baggage that comes when parents split up. And Jeff Daniels – is there anything that he can’t do?
Philip Seymour Hoffman loses himself in his flawless portrayal of famed writer Truman Capote. Yet what makes this biopic so different than most is that it presents Capote at his best (talented and social) and his worst (dark and manipulative).
9 Match Point
All the hype is true: This is Woody Allen’s best film in years. Ditching his beloved New York for London, Allen philosophizes on the nature of opportunity and luck, and isn’t afraid to show the darkness and vulnerabilities of humanity.
10 Brokeback Mountain
Ang Lee’s tragic love story is gorgeous to look at, but also haunting, poetic and subtle. The film also has the year’s best ensemble, widely made up of former teen stars proving their chops.