The best and most notable films of the year can be put in several categories – those you saw and loved, those that were the most entertaining, even if they were not the most critically acclaimed, and those that nudged convention and broke the mold. Finding good films in this era of remakes and sequels isn’t easy. Still, there were bright spots to the year. And many of them didn’t involve non-humans.
1. King Kong – It’s been a while since I’ve seen a film as satisfying as Peter Jackson’s magnificent King Kong. Sure, it’s a remake in a way, though it’s more of an homage, but it delivered on so many levels, which so many films these days simply don’t do. It is too long and a tad over-indulgent at times but what it lacks in brevity it makes up for in sheer audacity and imagination. One of the most memorable moments of the film is the first time Kong hears Ann Darrow’s high-pitched scream. The emotion of the story was true. It could have gone on another hour and I would have loved it as much. Admission prices keep going up and half the time the filmmakers cater to the lowest common denominator. King Kong is perhaps the largest scale art house movie ever made.
2. Good Night, and Good Luck – George Clooney delivered a perfect film. The writing, acting, and directing are all top notch. Clooney never shows or says too much but tells his story of Edward R. Murrow with all of the grace and style of a jazz musician, feeling it as it goes along and knowing when and how it should end.
3. Grizzly Man – documentary genius Werner Herzog paints a chilling portrait of Timothy Treadwell, shining a light into the soul of a crazy man. It was so sadly and desperately human of Treadwell to forget he was dealing with predators, to anthropomorphize the grizzlies, and at the same time deifying himself. The former alcoholic/surfer/actor was fascinating in every way – especially as revealed by Herzog, who poured over Treadwell’s own footage to find the man in the mirror.
4. Crash – There are few films that change the way we view ourselves and have the potential to change the way we behave. Paul Haggis’ study of a day-in-the-life of Los Angeles was an uncovering of our racist boundaries, how we judge people without even thinking about it, how one random act can send all the dominos falling. Though released early in the year, the film hasn’t faded and has, if anything, become all the more remarkable.
5. The Constant Gardener – It begins as a story of politics and the evils of pharmaceuticals but becomes, instead of that, a sweeping love story. Ralph Fiennes delivers his best performance in years – a suspicious husband who doesn’t even know the most fundamental thing about his own wife. His discovery of who she is leads to his own peace and his own heartbreak. Directed by the talented Fernando Meirelles, The Constant Gardener remains uplifting, even in the face of tragedy.
6. Pride & Prejudice – The story has been told before, many times before, but in Keira Knightley a new Elizabeth Bennett is born – and a new Scarlett O’Hara, and a new Dorothy while we’re at it. A scrappy tomboy whose own spiritedness is challenged by events that help her grow up a little, or a lot, Knightley’s Lizzy is a revelation. A cool and refreshing drink of water and perhaps a way in to Jane Austen for our beleaguered youths.
7. Capote – You have to be a bit twisted to love this film because Capote, as realized by the masterful Philip Seymour Hoffman, is so complex he doesn’t let you in. One minute he’s the life of the party and the next minute, he’s paralyzed by self-absorption. It isn’t a film that ties things up in a neat little bow – it is haunting to the very last. Capote was and remains a great mystery.
8. Syriana – For a film to attack the oil industry, our government, terrorists and citizens takes a lot of cajones. Writer and first time director Stephen Gaghan nails it, especially leaving it in the hands of the versatile and capable George Clooney, among others. The film makes its point in a few well-places scenes towards the end where, in typical Gaghan fashion, the intertwining storylines come to a head.
9. Match Point – Woody Allen isn’t back because he doesn’t return to form so much with this latest thriller so much as he ventures into new territory, not bad for a 70 year-old. With Scarlett Johansson as the resident psycho-dame, and his able English cast, Allen was able to effortlessly leave his home of Manhattan, and all of the clichéd characters who live there, part ways finally with his need for laughs and give the audience something weighty to ponder. There isn’t a dull moment in the film, which just gets better as it goes along.
10. Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Howl’s Moving Castle – We waited a long time for Nick Park and crew to come out with the first Wallace and Gromit movie and, five years later, the wait was worth it. Flawless and hilarious, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is every bit as good as the hype.
In fact, it was a very good year for animated films. While Hayou Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle isn’t as good as his masterpiece, Spirited Away, the master was once again in rare form, and is also worthy of mention here.
11. This is a not silent protest that there have to be only ten. The March of the Penguins was one of the better nature docs ever put to screen, not just because the filmmakers trekked the Artic tundra to study the stoic birds but because something about the penguins was captured on film that has never been seen before: the way they love. And we loved them for it.
Unfortunately, some of the films that would probably be among my top ten must be left off because I’ve not yet seen them. I know, for instance, that Brokeback Mountain will be high on my list. Number one on most critics’ top ten list and the current film to beat for the Best Picture Oscar, directed by the brilliant Ang Lee. It is the film everyone is talking about yet somehow it slipped through the cracks in this reviewer’s schedule. It joins Walk the Line, The Squid and the Whale, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, The New World and Kings and Queens, as the best films I have yet to see. But don’t let that stop you.