Year-End Movie Survey, Question 2

Provide a list of your 10 favourite movies of 2005, with comments.

For starters, my Top 10 list only has five on it this year. The one sharing trait among them has to be that they are all big screen pictures:

1. The Aristocrats
2. Head-On
3. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
4. Last Days
5. War of the Worlds

Steven Spielberg's throwback to Close Encounters (although Dallas Observer's film critic, Robert Wilonsky, claims the 9/11 allegory borrows from the director's entire filmography, including Schindler's List--referring to the scenes of helpless civilians running as scared from the military as they are from the aliens) is about as first-class summer blockbuster as you can get. There's CGI candy at all four corners of the screen but not to the degree of overkill that the typical multi-zillion dollar budgeted fare boasts (i.e. talking beavers in Narnia, midgets rowing down a river of cocoa like they're in a Snickers commercial in Chocolate Factory). No, this War is one for the back-in-my-day kinda popcorn moviegoer: it's one continuous chase (smacking of pre-Gen X's Raiders of the Lost Ark), filled with multiple plot contrivances (does the minivan really survive the plane crash?), and with a straw man front and center who, despite whether you loathe the leather jacket on-screen or the nervous breakdowns on daytime TV off--engagingly leads you to a ridiculous happy ending in Boston, where, at the end of a dilapidated road, his sister's brownstone is unmolested. (Sha!) Though by then, the ride is well over--and a damn good one at that--so the nitpicker in me let Spielberg off least until December.

War Of the Worlds

Meanwhile, there's Last Days, Gus van Sant's final installment in his "silent trilogy" released roughly one month later (in my market anyway). I'm not sure if Michael Pitt's one-man-show of a would-be Kurt Cobain emits the same sort of psychedelic vibe on DVD as it does in the theater. Again, I've only seen it once--on the big screen. I speculate, though, given cinematographer Harris Savides' work (Birth, Gerry, The Yards), the existential rock show does not translate as it should at home--unless one has the Tony Soprano deluxe home theater system to encompass the vividly entertaining canvas of Van Sant's, Savides', and Pitt's show about, in the acid-hazed spirit of Seinfeld, nothing (and I mean nothing: Pitt's character--for legal reasons referred to as "Blake"--sloughs around his Seattle ruins with a soggy bowl of cereal for 90 minutes). If Capote is the film about celebrity, then Last Days is the anti-celebrity yarn. We see a gangly, heroin-binged, scraggly rock star practicing the Greta Garbo mantra to the n-th degree. He's not the egotistical, self-serving "artist" depicted in so many rock star icon biopics (of course Oliver Stone's The Doors comes to mind before any). This rock star doesn't want to get blowjobs in elevators or drown in sorrows in a bathtub with whiskey. He doesn't want to be worshipped. He just wants to be...alone. But his music--and Savides' visuals--stun. So what if you only have a 27" Panasonic at the house? Crank it up to the now-film-student-famed scene where the lens pulls back from the house at a crawl while Blake blasts a wild mélange of reverb out the half-open windows.

In Tommy Lee Jones' Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, rancher Pete (Jones) avenges the death of his titular ranch hand (Julio Cedillo) by having his accidental killer/border patrolman (Barry Pepper) re-bury the corpse in the title character's hometown. In turn, Pete and the officer find themselves in the midst of an amazing journey of both mind and spirit. It might sound like a genre-take on Weekend at Bernie's II, except this flick has non-linear narratives and biblical metaphors that Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman could never pull off in those god-forsaken Hawaiian button-downs. Jones admitted in the press notes that his debut in the director's chair (for theatrical release anyway) borrows unendingly from the greats such as Kurosawa and Godard. But this beautifully shot peyote drama (not that there's drug use; well maybe on the viewing end) is of a classification bigger than just auteur homage. I stand by what I wrote earlier this year (as if blogging isn't masturbatory enough, then I'll quote myself), that it's "one helluva Western, actually one of the finest existential versions of its kind, right up there with Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia! and Erich von Stroheim's silent but deadly Greed." Jones chasing a barefooted Barry Pepper through the Mexican desert and into a snake den gets my vote for Scene of The Year.

If I could carve up the sections at Blockbuster for a day, I'd shelve Head-On in the "Foreign Sexy Tragic Love Story" aisle, along other such titles as Israel's Late Marriage, France's The Girl on the Bridge and The Hairdresser's Husband, and China's Ju Dou. I'm not lumping all these films together to show what an esoteric moviegoer and impressive global citizen I've become (pffth!--fuck knows I get out of town maybe once or twice a decade--how can I with my Netflix queue breaking the 150 point?), but rather, to give a sense of the sort of exotic landscape Head-On immerses you in. In Fatih Akin's case, the 32-year old director uses the streets of Hamburg and Istanbul, where you get to watch the lives of two grieving singles--the middle-aged burnout Cahit (Birol Unel) and the archetypal train wreck of a twenty-something (Sibel Kekilli) crash into one shitty instance after another: rehab, infidelity, substance abuse, rape, murder, bitchy sister-in-laws--every horrible thing you can imagine that weaves in and out of the unsuitable marriage. (With a heart-pounding soundtrack, I might add.) And what perfect casting for the doomed bride: Kekilli was formerly of German porno fame before Akin got his, ahem, lens on her. You might recognize such titles as Teeny Exzesse 68: Kesse Bienen, Hotel Fickmichgut, or Lollipops 16. If not, then maybe Eric Cartman's mother can translate.

The only viable argument I have for why The Aristocrats belongs exclusively on the big-screen isn't for the wonderful visuals of Gilbert Gottfried's gum line or Jackie "The Jokeman" Martling's halitosis. It's definitely for the theater acoustics, because the spastic laughter deserves an amount of air space much larger than a 700 square-foot apartment. (Well, again, unless your aunt and uncle own a furniture store and an interior design firm or something. I don't know.) I have a drinking buddy who totally dismissed the movie as, basically, one rail-your-grandma-up-the-tukis joke after another. But it's way more than that: he forgot about the humors of bestiality, cacophilia, racism, pregnancy, the casting couch with talent agent, Joe Franklin--the list goes on and on. On a less serious note (bah-dum-bum), what Penn and Teller achieve with this 80-some-odd minute bit on the telling and retelling of one lousy joke is how jokes get constructed, deconstructed, and within that there's this unspoken exploration about what's so wonderful and truly heartwarming about how it's so-okay to use the most foul-mouthed language on the planet. In short, The Aristocrats makes me feel like a better person.

I'm not ready to provide a complete Top 10 list just yet. I still haven't seen key movies like The New World and Match Point. I am willing to discuss some titles that are definitely going to be on my Top 10 list.

Hustle & FlowHustle & Flow: Craig Brewer's hip-hop tale about a Memphis pimp trying to save himself by making a crunk demo was the most exiting national debut of the year. Like 8 Mile, Saturday Night Fever, and Mean Streets, Hustle & Flow pulses with the vitality of life. Brewer may be the first filmmaker to capture how hip-hop has become the most vital form of expression for those who've been marginalized by society. The fact that hip-hop has become even more integrated into our society than rock 'n' roll shows that both styles of music are cut from the same cloth. (The continual perception of hip-hop as being a predominantly urban--i.e., "black"--form of entertainment says more about peoples' prejudices than all of the good-intentioned dramatics of Crash.) At the center of the movie is the year's best performance by Terrence Howard as Djay, a small-time pimp who is starting to feel stunted by the daily grind of degrading his girls and himself. At once scary, then scared, then defiant Howard's performance is a portrait of a man trying to find his voice. The scenes of Djay creating his demo tape, beat by beat, rhyme by rhyme, were the most exciting sequences I saw all year. With this film, witer-director Craig Brewer enters the ranks of Tarantino, P.T. Anderson, and Scorsese as one of the most important American filmmakers working today.

Junebug: The best movie about the South since Altman's Nashville. Director Phil Morrison shows a remarkable sensitivity in seeing that what binds families together is the element of revelation that comes from discovering something new about the people you love. In telling the story of Prodigal Son George (Alessandro Nivola) and his new "exotic" wife Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), who decide to return to George's home for a visit, Morrison and screenwriter Angus MacLachlan perfectly execute a delicate comedy about how returning home requires you to assume the role that was given to you on admittance, whether it be as son, brother, or daughter-in-law. As Ashley, the very pregnant wife of George's rage-filled brother Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie), the extraordinary Amy Adams provides the movie's tender soul as the embodiment of all that is good about families--and the South.

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan: Leave it to America's finest director to make the definitive documentary about America's finest singer-songwriter. Martin Scorsese's overview of Dylan's '60s heyday is really an exploration of the burst of creative energy that marks all great young artists and how one goes about handling fame, adoration, and the need to grow. For Dylan, the answer was to destroy his image in order to save his soul. For Scorsese, it is the continual search for personal expression within a system that celebrates financial success over artistic success. Both men have a lot in common. Only one seems to have come to terms with his pass. It's up to you to decide which one it is.

no direction home

1. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room: Obviously indebted to Michael Moore, especially Roger and Me, but I don't think Moore's muckraking has uncovered anyone as blandly creepy as Ken Lay or Jeff Skilling. I only knew the Enron story in very broad outline going in--the workings of corporate finance are a foreign language to me--so I found the nuts and bolts of Lay's and Skilling's machinations quite compelling and reasonably accessible. I will watch their trial with interest when it begins. I hope they get sent away for a long, long time. (My friend and I were killing ourselves over the one lower-level executive who had a fondness for strippers, met one and married her, and got out of town just before the big fall.)

2. The Squid and the Whale: I felt like I'd seen something unique leaving the theatre, and it continues to stay on my mind. Something odd I related to: the nasty competitiveness between Jeff Daniels and his oldest son when they play ping-pong. My family used to own a ping-pong table, and I remember a time in high school when I'd play my dad and, because I thought I was pretty good, get infuriated if he beat me; I vaguely recall hurling a racket at the wall after one game, much as Daniels does in the movie. There's one music-related point that stretches credulity: that a high-school kid could play a well-known song from Pink Floyd's The Wall at a school talent show in 1986, claim it as his own, and not have a single student call him on it. The film's good enough that it's a minor conceit.

3. New York Doll: I liked this just slightly less than the Ramones documentary from last year, but it was really good in ways I didn't expect; I'm going to place it behind two films I was less predisposed to like, but this could just as easily occupy the #1 spot. I'll again bring up Michael Moore (enough already, Phil!) in connection to director Greg Whiteley's treatment of Arthur Kane's Mormon co-workers. They all come across as sane and articulate, and even with the two older ladies who generate some laughs, one of them has a beautifully dignified moment when Arthur dies. I think they would have been caricatured in the hands of Moore; not necessarily cruelly, but I think he would have handled them condescendingly, and would have treated their religion as a joke. (It's true that Whiteley's a Mormon himself, but, based in part on a Q&A he did after the screening I saw, I think his balance is more a matter of temperament.) The scene that will stay with me the longest from New York Doll is when David Johansen arrives for the first time during the Dolls' practice sessions for their London reunion show. First of all, it's hard to find words that adequately convey the depths of Johansen's cragginess--I even had to consult the dictionary to check "cragginess." And the way he saunters into the room as the band plays "Out in the Street" and slowly starts to join in--still the star of the show, the guy who knows that all eyes are on him (especially Arthur's, having waited a couple of decades for this moment) but kind of half-pretends to be just one of the guys--is brilliant; possibly staged to one degree or another, but brilliant anyway.

4. Mad Hot Ballroom: It's amazing how much this is conceived and structured in the shadow of Spellbound, right down to the introduction of a wild-card contender for the crown at the last possible moment. It's not as good as Spellbound--the kids aren't as indelible, and obviously dancing just isn't as kinesthetically exciting as spelling--but I liked it a lot, and so did my class. Favourite character: the young teacher who's like an Oprah/Dr. Phil self-parody, all choked up because her boys and girls are turning into "little men and women" before her very eyes. When her dancers are eliminated in one of the qualifying rounds, they start blubbering uncontrollably. It comes as a real shock.

Mad Hot Ballroom

5. Inside Deep Throat: Boogie Nights was a recreation of the '70s pornography industry, and this is a recreation of Boogie Nights; if life imitates fiction, then it stands to reason that a documentary might do the same. Lenny Camp, Deep Throat's "location manager" ("Okay, Lenny, listen up--for scene #7 we need an unnaturally barren room with beige walls and a couch"), is something to see: in a narrative film you'd accuse him of chewing up scenery shamelessly, but he's not, he's just a helpless nutcase. I wonder if Mark Felt got a chance to see this.

6. The Last Mogul: The Life and Times of Lew Wasserman: This look at the former head of MCA is the mirror image of that creepy Robert Evans vanity project from a couple of years back (which looked much worse when I watched some of it for a second time on TV). It was Evans who had a hand in The Godfather, but it was Wasserman's life that could have served as the blueprint for Puzo and Coppola's invisible-hand conception of Mafioso power: so circumspect that there was virtually no existing file footage of Wasserman, but reputedly powerful enough that even after Wasserman's retirement, director Barry Avrich still had a hard time finding anyone willing to be interviewed for his film. (Evans is more like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas and Casino, a free-wheeling showman with the self-destruct switch permanently turned on.) I was especially interested in the big scandal concerning MCA cutouts that Wasserman was implicated in during the late '80s; I bought a number of John Coltrane LPs on MCA/Impulse for three and four dollars around that time which must have filtered down from that.

7. March of the Penguins: A friend told me this wasn't anything special if you spend any time watching the Discovery channel; I don't, so I found it thoroughly absorbing. I used to be afraid of penguins thanks to Burgess Meredith and Danny DeVito, but now I'm a big fan.

8. Crash: This got a lot of great reviews early on, and then a backlash seemed to set in; when you turn on the TV and see Oprah Winfrey devoting a think piece-type show to it, that can't help. I feel like I've got a "politically naïve" sign hanging around my neck for saying so, but I thought at least two scenes--Terrance Howard and Thandie Newton's confrontation with the cops, and Newton's admittedly trumped-up rescue from her car wreck--were harrowing and moving. It all falls apart about three-quarters of the way through--Ryan Phillippe's sudden meltdown is especially implausible.

9. No Direction Home: I taped this, and I need to watch it a second time; I was really tired the first night and drifted in and out of sleep for about an hour. You quickly realize it's Dylan's film and not really Scorsese's, which is just fine, it's a grand enough story that it's got its own momentum.

10. Los Angeles Plays Itself: I'm listing this for all the great film clips, but I didn't think it was nearly as good as its first-place finish in last year's Voice documentary poll had me anticipating. The biggest problem for me was the director's narration, which I found oppressive--he seemed to complain about every last misrepresentation (according to him) of L.A. in the movies, no matter how trivial.  Admirable, in a way--I can get pretty nitpicky too about certain subjects--but I've discovered that the signage at some L.A. intersection in 1953 isn't one of them. The Speed network was showing the original Gone in 60 Seconds (1972) the other night, which gets a lot of attention in Los Angeles Plays Itself; I was kicking myself for not finding out until well after it had started.