American movies are alive and well. Never mind what the grubbers in the counting houses think.
Imagine it this way -- 2005 was the year that American movies moved to Australia, i.e., it was the year the world turned upside down and the seasons reversed themselves.
It was, that is, the year that summertime brought anger and despair and fall and winter brought hope and glorious sunshine.
Nothing looked as moribund and hopeless as American movies during a garbage summer of remakes, retreads, shamelessness and creative bankruptcy. (What else is there to say about a season that began with Ridley Scott's pompous mumbo jumbo about the crusades "Kingdom of Heaven" and "promised" before its close the likes of "The Dukes of Hazzard," "Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo" and "Herbie: Fully Loaded").
Box office numbers plunged. And why, amid such a cavalcade of rubbish, wouldn't it?
Who, confronted with such evidence of cloudland contempt, wouldn't prefer video games, iPods, the Internet (or, for that matter, parcheesi and checking the dog for ticks)?
And then came the fall festivals and the snow and evidence of creative sunshine that the great American megaplex is still basking in (and will be, for another month, at least).
Bad box office? Bosh. That's THEIR problem, not ours. Lovers of movie boldness wound up having a glorious year and, in at least one case, an epochal one.
The 10 best movies of an upside-down year (listed in alphabetical order):
"Brokeback Mountain" directed by Ang Lee. Not the great movie of 2005 but assuredly the great movie story. It's not just a cinematic milestone but also a cultural one. This is the movie that confirms that nothing has so marked the sissification of the American heterosexual male for the past 80 years than a refusal to fully confront male homosexuality onscreen. Here, from heterosexual actors and filmmakers, is a movie about love, not sex, whose finale is guaranteed to move anyone made of flesh and blood. While the "gay cowboy movie" won't silence religious objectors, it renders garden variety American homophobia pointless.
One other thing struck me as I watched it: This is what it must be like for gays to watch love and sex scenes in ordinary (i.e. heterosexual) American movies -- physically alien but, at best, with an emotional universality anyone can understand.
"Crash" directed by Paul Haggis. Still the great movie of 2005. Just as "Brokeback Mountain" looks at the struggles of homosexuals, "Crash" looks at an L.A. where racism is always the prejudice of first resort, even for people who pride themselves on not being racist. It too is universal about what defines us all beneath the superficial differences.
"Good Night, and Good Luck" directed by George Clooney. This was the year that Clooney -- in this and in "Syriana" -- turned into a one-man levee against the floodtide of B.S. and meretriciousness in the movie world. His suave, subtly acted tale of Ed Murrow vs. Joe McCarthy was easily seen as a parable of the press in post- 9/1 1 America.
"A History of Violence" directed by David Cronenberg. A movie that has us, eventually, watching ourselves. "Violence" said a radical activist once "is as American as apple pie." Here is a movie that shows us that the most violent man in a small town is the fellow at the corner cafe who serves you your apple pie. At the same time, the movie is, by turns, sexy, funny and troubling too. It's elegant and original.
"King Kong" directed by Peter Jackson. It's a great movie in EXACTLY the way its audience wants it to be. How often can you say that about a movie?
"Lord of War" directed by Andrew Niccol. The most underrated movie of the year, by far. Niccol's portrait of the international arms trade had a sulfurous black comic tone only dimly known from literature (Celine, Malaparte) but one we'd never seen before at the movies. Even more than "A History of Violence," it's a total original.
"March of the Penguins" directed by Luc Jacquet. In a movie year rich with brilliant, wildly varied documentaries (from "Murderball" to "Inside Deep Throat"), this tale of birth, parenthood and survival at 80-degrees below zero introduces us to the miraculous instincts of all warm-blooded creatures. The kind of movie that gives the phrase "feel-good movie" a good name.
"Match Point" directed by Woody Allen. Not only was the greatest Hitchcock movie of 2005 made by Allen of all people (for his best in more than a decade) but -- get this now -- there was so much confusion at recently merged Dreamworks Studios that they hadn't set a Buffalo opening date until recently (it's now tentatively scheduled to open Jan. 20th.) No matter. No movie this exceptional -- and starring Scarlett Johansson -- could fail to open wide. Eventually.
"War of the Worlds" directed by Steven Spielberg. The best Steven Spielberg movie in a great Steven Spielberg year (that also saw the political fearlessness of his just-opened "Munich"). Just as Peter Jackson did in "King Kong," Spielberg took a beloved primal movie classic and showed what modern technology and a great cinematic imagination can do with it.
"The Wedding Crashers" directed by David Dobkin. Some might substitute "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" here. But in a year of wonderfully raunchy comedy, Vince Vaughn continues to invent sublime variations on a brand new character in our movies -- the big, motormouth blowhard who is, just beneath his merciless narcissistic conviviality, just as big a jackass as a man can be.
Top 10s for sure in another year: Fernando Meirelles' "The Constant Gardener" with its remarkable lead performance by Ralph Fiennes; Stephen Gaghan's confounding "Syriana," Bennett Miller's "Capote" with the performance of the year by Philip Seymour Hoffman; Jim Jarmusch's "Broken Flowers" with Bill Murray, once again, defining middle-aged bemusement in a way never seen in movies before him; Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette's heroically raunchy and funny "The Aristocrats," Anand Tucker's "Shopgirl" with its subtle and lovely performance by Claire Danes; Mike Binder's "The Upside of Anger" with its amazing lead performances by Joan Allen and Kevin Costner; Sam Mendes' too-easily dismissed "Jarhead", a movie about one Gulf War with echoes in another and George Lucas' last and best of the "Star Wars" films, "Revenge of the Sith."
Overrated movies of the year: "Batman Begins" and, despite Jeff Daniels' tremendous lead performance as a self-absorbed intellectual fool, Noah Baumbach's sensitive but vehemently minor "The Squid and the Whale."
Underrated movies of the year (besides "Jarhead"): Harold Ramis' audition to be an honorary Coen Brother "Ice Harvest" and the " 'Die Hard'-on-a-Budget" thriller "Hostage."
What you get when you combine well-done with ho-hum: "Walk the Line" and "Memoirs of a Geisha."
What you get when you combine nastiness and ho-hum: Terry Gilliam's "The Brothers Grimm." The good news is that Gilliam's profoundly unwatchable "Tideland" with Jeff Bridges was revealed to be so bad at the Toronto Film Festival that it will never open wide.
Worst news for women: "Chick Lit," in its movie incarnation, bombed at the box office. As good as it was, no one went to see "In Her Shoes." It was, in general, not exactly a stellar box office year for movies about women.
Hold the phone: "Cinderella Man" was a good, if corny, movie but opened to mediocre box office, whereupon Russell Crowe pitched a telephone at a hotel concierge and the rest is history. Who knows how much success the movie would otherwise have had?
Honoring the dead: Chris Columbus tried to stay faithful to creator Jonathan Larson in his movie version of "Rent."
Dishonoring the dead -- maybe: Whether or not the late, great critic Pauline Kael would be pleased to share her book title with Shane Black's movie "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" is something we'll never know. If it came to a vote, we'd all be well-advised to take the point spread on "no."
Dishonoring one's former self: Jane Fonda was doing bad dinner theater all through "Monster-In-Law," her return after a long layoff. On the other hand, her autobiography "My Life So Far" pretty much delivered the goods (nobody ever accused her of leading a boring life.)
More than just "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang": Michael Bay revealed an actual working brain in "The Island." Not that anyone cared. (The movie tanked at the box office.)
Must love dogs: A love of profoundly bad movies was the only way to watch "Must Love Dogs," "The Great Raid," "Derailed" and "The Dukes of Hazzard." On the other hand, you'd have to admit that "The Dukes of Hazzard" did a lot more for Jessica Simpson's movie career than "Derailed" did for Jennifer Aniston's and "Must Love Dogs" did for Diane Lane's.
Drowned on purpose: As thrillers go that remake Japanese horror movies, Walter Salles' "Dark Water" starring Jennifer Connelly didn't begin to deserve its total abandonment by Disney. It wasn't nearly that bad.
Pulp to the bone: Robert Rodriguez's lip-smackingly unwholesome "Sin City" was what pulp fiction for the screen would look like. We'd never seen anything like it before.
Most lovable catastrophe: Cameron Crowe's "Elizabethtown" was about as much of a mess as a movie can be. Kirsten Dunst, though, was wonderful in her updated screwball comedy performance.
Most unpleasant triumph: Everything about "North Country" -- including Charlize Theron's lead performance -- was all well and good except that the movie itself gave off unmistakable fumes of contempt for ALL blue collar work, which wasn't exactly the best way to valorize the first class action suit against sexual discrimination. People, accordingly, stayed away.
Performances of the year: Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Capote," Heath Ledger in "Brokeback Mountain," and, some say, Felicity Huffman in "Transamerica." All three in different degrees are about gender crises and same-sex relationships. After 2005, the shaven-headed genie with the earring isn't going to go back into the bottle.