Last year I ignored the tradition of limiting my honorable mentions to ten. After all, it's an arbitrary number, and I had more than ten films I wanted to recognize. I planned on doing the same this year, but for whatever reason--maybe it's just how I feel today--I chose not to shoehorn in more than the artificial limit. Sorry Terrence Malick, Wong Kar-wai, and others. It was very tough to keep some of these out of my top ten for 2005, but suffice it to say that although these films just missed the highest tier of cinema for last year, all of them come highly recommended by me.
(Late addition: I totally forgot about CLARA AND I, which I saw at the Cleveland International Film Festival. To my knowledge it has not been released in the United States, which is the main reason why it slipped my mind when forming this list. So disregard the whole obsession with ten honorable mentions. It's eleven now.)
BATMAN BEGINS (Christopher Nolan, 2005)
Christopher Nolan's post-9/11 BATMAN film succeeds as much in exploring trenchant ideas of fear, both personal and civic, as in fulfilling the comic book poses.
CLARA AND I (CLARA ET MOI) (Arnaud Viard, 2004)
Arnaud Viard’s feature directorial debut starts as a breezy romance between Julien Boisselier and Julie Gayet as Antoine and Clara. On the verge of turning 33, Antoine resolves to get married. The problem is that he isn’t seeing anyone. He and Clara meet cute on the train, and before they know it, they’re head over heels in love. Their match seems fated when out of nowhere they sing a song along the river on their first date, a sublime and delightful moment as unexpected as finding someone with whom you immediately click. The easy early days give way to turmoil that tests their relationship. There’s nothing that sets CLARA AND I apart from other French cinematic explorations of l’amour, but Viard’s deft navigation of Antoine and Clara’s ups and downs and Boisselier and Gayet’s appealing performances make this mature romance a Francophile’s indulgence.
CRASH (Paul Haggis, 2004)
Paul Haggis' eloquent examination of race relations posits more questions than answers, but it offers redemption to those struggling with these issues in contemporary America. Superbly acted and fluidly directed to connect multiple storylines, CRASH brings stereotypes and prejudices to the forefront in hopes of breaking them. Matt Dillon and Thandie Newton give two of the best performances among this excellent cast.
DOWNFALL (DER UNTERGANG) (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004)
Oliver Hirschbiegel dramatizes much of the same material found in the too-dry doc BLIND SPOT: HITLER'S SECRETARY for this gripping inside story of national political madness. Bruno Ganz's great performance as Hitler is chilling because he plays him not as a monster but as a human, albeit a profoundly disturbed one who perpetuated some of the past century's greatest evil.
DUMA (Carroll Ballard, 2005)
Carroll Ballard's DUMA is the stuff of classic children's stories. A boy and his cheetah hike across the African wilderness in this beautifully photographed film. The undeservedly overlooked DUMA is thrilling, warm-hearted, and intelligent. It's the perfect anodyne for the loud and crass children's films that garner more commercial favor.
THE EDUKATORS (DIE FETTEN JAHRE SIND VORBEI) (Hans Weingartner, 2004)
Hans Weingartner’s THE EDUKATORS taps into youthful feelings of anti-capitalist rebellion a la FIGHT CLUB, without the violent outbursts, and idealistic self-doubt, the kind that plagued Mark Wahlberg’s character in I ♥ HUCKABEES. The Edukators consist of two young men who break into the vacant homes of the wealthy, rearrange their possessions, and leave notes proclaiming sentiments such as, “Your days of plenty are numbered.” Their motivation is to make the victims uneasy about their accumulated wealth, not to steal or destroy. Scenes of the political pranksters at work are playful and tense. While THE EDUKATORS has affection for the young radicals played by Daniel Brühl, Julia Jentsch, and Stipe Erceg, the final destination isn’t apparent from the outset because their principles get put to the test when a mission takes an unexpected turn. THE EDUKATORS' complex political message is also sprinkled with humor and a romance that interjects some JULES ET JIM tension.
FEVER PITCH (Bobby Farrelly and Peter Farrelly, 2005)
The track record of Nick Hornby book-to-American film adaptations (HIGH FIDELITY and ABOUT A BOY) goes three for three with FEVER PITCH. This ANNIE HALL for baseball fans is one of the best romantic comedies of the last ten years.
GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK. (George Clooney, 2005)
George Clooney's nimble direction and David Strathairn's riveting embodiment of legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow anchor GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK. This snapshot of the Senator Joseph McCarthy era looks great in stark black-and-white with accents of billowing cigarette smoke. In addition to being a history lesson, GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK. is undoubtedly meant to play as an allegory for the current state of politics and journalism. Murrow's successors are beckoned to follow his lead.
MILLIONS (Danny Boyle, 2004)
Two motherless boys find a gym bag full of money in MILLIONS, a children’s film that gets the directorial energy that Danny Boyle brought to TRAINSPOTTING. The younger boy believes the money is a gift from God and and is determined to distribute the cash to the needy, much to the chagrin of his older brother. Boyle demonstrates that a family film with a moral message mustn’t necessarily be a musty affair. MILLIONS asks hard questions about faith and charity in entertaining and imaginative ways.
OLDBOY (Park Chan-wook, 2003)
A man is abducted and held prisoner in a room for fifteen years. He has no idea who is imprisoning him or why he is being kept. Then he is mysteriously set free. Naturally, he seeks revenge on his anonymous captors. One of the best examples of Asian extreme cinema, OLDBOY is an exciting, twist-filled vengeance tale that isn't for the faint-hearted. It boasts a great fight scene in which the protagonist, who has a knife stuck in his back, wields a hammer to fend off a hallway packed with his enemy's thugs.
WALLACE & GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT (Steve Box and Nick Park, 2005)
Who says traditional animation is dead? The superb stop-motion animated feature WALLACE & GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT gave fans of the cheese-loving inventor and his loyal (and smarter) dog one of the most purely entertaining films of the year. Puns and visual gags abound in this funny film for kids of all ages.