I thought, every critic thought, that Steven Spielberg's Munich might cap off a year of politically engaged movies. After Fahrenheit 9/11 ripped open the documentary category in 2004, ending up one of the biggest box-office draws last year, surely left-leaning Hollywood would grab at Michael Moore's coattails, right? And with the Iraq war, the Patriot Act, and Bush himself growing ever more unpopular—even in the red states—the time seemed right for Good Night, and Good Luck, The War Within, Paradise Now, The Constant Gardener, and other features that placed war, politics, and terror front and center in their storytelling. Some of those movies worked well, and some—like Munich—did not.
I personally made—and lost—a bet by placing the Iraq war documentary Gunner Palace on our cover back in March, thinking that its topicality and you-are-there quality would make it a must-see. Sorry, but the thing fizzled after two weeks; apparently Seattle moviegoers were already tired of seeing that movie played on CNN every night.
As it turns out, only one "political" film made my 10-best list (The Constant Gardener), and that's probably because it also functioned so well as a love story. Maybe we're still too close to the current war and White House to extract superior movies from current events. For 2005, as always, my 10 best films are my personal favorites, not op-ed pieces with agendas to push.
1. Grizzly Man Out this week on DVD, Werner Herzog's documentary about the life and death of self-styled grizzly bear defender Timothy Treadwell didn't even make the final list of Oscar-eligible docs, owing to the idiots at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (See Tim Appelo's thoughts on the matter.) That organization, much like Seattle International Film Festival voters this year, prefers cheerier, overcoming-the-obstacles fare—March of the Penguins, Murderball, Mad Hot Ballroom, etc.— as opposed to Herzog's dark vision of nature ("chaos, hostility, and murder"), where the obstacles eat people.
2. Nobody Knows Speaking of horror, Hirokazu Kore-eda (After Life) adapted a true story of four kids left by their single mother to fend for themselves. They're led by 12-year-old Akira (Yagira Yuya, Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival), who solemnly shops for groceries, counts their dwindling funds, and tries to keep his rebellious hormones in check. There's an unblinking, lulling, almost documentary-style aspect as we watch them do laundry, prepare instant noodles, and bathe in a public park after their utilities have been turned off. As they turn feral and face death, the movie only seems shocking and incredible until one remembers the story of Seattle's own notoriously negligent mother from 1997, LaDawn Jump.
3. Me and You and Everyone We Know In her auspicious film debut, SIFF's opening-night gala feature, artist Miranda July explores the careening connections among her characters in a working-class neighborhood. She plays a needy performance artist who develops a crush on a somewhat ditsy karma-spouting shoe salesman (John Hawkes), who declares, "I am prepared for amazing things to happen." He's open and optimistic, like the rest of July's thrift-store universe. Me and You is an art film where everyone is entirely artless. Unlike most Sundance-indie fare, it hasn't got an ounce of mockery or hipster condescension. It brings its gaze up from the navel.
4. 3-Iron Another SIFF favorite, this 90-minute love story from South Korea's Kim Ki-duk (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter . . . and Spring) is almost entirely wordless. A poor but tidy nomad moves into temporarily vacant homes not to steal but to borrow others' happy households. He finds a battered wife in one, and brings her along. They've got nothing in common and nothing to talk about—so they don't. With enormous economy and tact, and not a few surprises, Kim shows how his homeless lovers construct their own cozy structure out of silence.
5. Capote It's going to be awfully hard for Oscar voters to choose between Philip Seymour Hoffman and Heath Ledger for Best Actor, but I give the slightest nod to Hoffman for showing us Truman Capote's true character through his motor-mouthed insecurity and self- aggrandizement. Playing a laconic, heroic cowboy seems a little easier. I rate Capote slightly higher than Brokeback Mountain for making us admire a guy who doesn't behave very admirably while befriending and betraying a condemned killer.
6. Shopgirl An imperfect but loving look at imperfectly loving people, this adaptation of Steve Martin's novella is also generous and more than a little sad. You know from the start that Martin and Claire Danes can't last as a couple; they're too far apart in age and experience. What you couldn't predict is how that mismatch will be both damaging and mending. It's almost enough to make you forgive Martin for Cheaper by the Dozen 2 and next year's Pink Panther redo.
7. King Kong OK, OK, it's too long, and Jack Black and Adrien Brody are annoying distractions to the main story, but what a grandly realized story that is. Peter Jackson takes a beloved original—which has, frankly, some rather racist and disturbing aspects—and purifies it down to the love between a misunderstood monkey and the woman who lets him show his better self.
8. The Constant Gardener Ah-ha, finally some politics. But Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (City of God) takes a big fat John le Carré thriller and makes it considerably more colorful, nimble, and international in its outrage over the lingering, postcolonial Western mistreatment of Africa. (Here, Kenya's not a place to be ruled but just another market—populated with guinea pigs, not lions.) Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz are especially fine as a couple whose romance is only revealed in flashbacks, as he attempts to solve the mystery of her murder.
9. Brokeback Mountain Ah wish ah knew how to quit lovin' this movie—and every other critic in America feels the same way about Ang Lee's high-country valentine. Leads Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal both deserve their praise, and the movie would've risen even higher up my list if it hadn't bloated into Same Time, Next Year toward the end. (Like Peter Jackson, Lee needs to find his scissors.) For viewers of any sexual orientation, it's the date movie of the year.
10.The 40-Year-Old Virgin And here's the comedy of the year. Steve Carell and director Judd Apatow are way too smart for American Pie–style raunch; instead they make real and ridiculous characters out of our horny hero, his unhelpfully helpful co-workers, and wonderful Catherine Keener (also in Capote). It's a movie about boners that refuses to be boneheaded.
Honorable Mention (alphabetical, and most are on DVD to add to your Netflix queue): The Best of Youth; Cowards; Bend the Knee; Cinderella Man; Crash; The Exiles (from 1961, but new to Seattle); Good Night, and Good Luck; Gunner Palace; Head On; Hotel Rwanda (a 2004 movie late to Seattle); The Island (my guilty-pleasure Michael-Bay-trash classic of the year); Junebug; Kontroll; Kung Fu Hustle; Layer Cake; Look at Me; Los Angeles Plays Itself; Memories of Murder; Millions; Murderball; My Summer of Love; Mysterious Skin; Oldboy; The Sea Inside (another 2004 spillover title); Sin City; The Squid and the Whale; 2046; The Upside of Anger; Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit; War of the Worlds; The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. And three notable New York–L.A. titles I've seen but that won't open here until 2006: Terrence Malick's The New World (Jan. 13), Woody Allen's Match Point (Jan. 20), and the French thriller Caché (Jan. 20).