2005: The Year in Reviews

From a National Catholic Register article

By Steven D. Greydanus

Like classy, left-leaning politically themed films? 2005 was your year. George Clooney led the way with the one-two punch of Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana, but there was also The Constant Gardener and Steven Spielberg’s Munich, while fans of lefty documentaries had Gunner Palace and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room in lieu of a new Michael Moore offering.

Jarhead and Kingdom of Heaven offered centuries-apart portraits of Western warriors pointlessly mired in Middle Eastern quagmires, while veiled critiques of the war on terror were seen in David Cronenberg’s meta-thriller A History of Violence and even George Lucas’s third and final Star Wars prequel Revenge of the Sith.

Why Bush opponents didn’t object to the summer’s best film, Batman Begins, as a neocon apologetic, I’m not entirely sure. (The enemy is the distinctly al-Quaeda–esque “Legion of Shadows,” a secret society led by the Arabic-named Ra’s al-Ghul and dedicated to exterminating decadent societies through weapons of mass destruction. They even use decapitation. Their weapon is literally terror, and the Dark Knight’s battle against them is thus a literal war on terror… This kind of stuff is there if you’re interested in it, which I’m not particularly.)

Spielberg’s other film of 2005, War of the Worlds, also seemed to have post-9/11 angst on its mind, if not much to say about it. Nor was there much of a political vision in Sidney Lumet’s The Interpreter, with its ballyhooed UN location shooting, apart from the implicit notion of the UN as a significant player on the world stage.

For what it’s worth, I let the more overtly political films of 2005 pass without comment, not because I think them unimportant, but because for whatever reason I find that politics is a subject about which I have almost nothing to say. C. S. Lewis once wrote, “I don’t like detective stories and therefore all detective stories look alike to me. If I wrote about them I should infallibly write drivel… Let bad tragedies be censured by those who love tragedy, bad detective stories by those who love the detective story. Then we shall learn their real faults.”

The Return of Family Films

Another 2005 trend about which I do have something to say is the comparative wealth of decent family fare. True, none of this year’s crop quite stacks up to the brilliance of the previous year’s The Incredibles, but then in 2004 The Incredibles was just about the only family film worth getting excited about. (About the only other 2004 title I would mention is Two Brothers, though some might cite Shrek 2, Shark Tale, Ella Enchanted, or The Polar Express.)

Yet look what 2005 did have to offer: Duma, Millions, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Because of Winn-Dixie, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Robots, The Greatest Game Ever Played, March of the Penguins. And that’s not even mentioning the latest Harry Potter, the imaginative but flawed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Zathura, or the harmless but uninspired Sky High.

Even some of the lame family films of 2005, like The Legend of Zorro and Fantastic Four, represent a notable trend of rethinking family entertainment outside the box of animation or sitcoms about large families. This trend perhaps began with the previous year’s National Treasure, a Jerry Bruckheimer–produced thriller–action film starring Nicholas Cage that five years ago would almost certainly have been a hard PG-13, but for some reason got made without unnecessary sex and violence, and wound up a PG-rated hit. (Actually, Bruckheimer’s very first experiment in this direction was probably the dreadful Kangaroo Jack, but that one seems to have been an accident.)

With the qualified exception of the okay National Treasure, this new trend has yet to produce a movie that’s actually any good, but if Hollywood keeps at this genre they’re bound to make some good ones eventually. Once upon a time, Hollywood could make a terrific entertainment like Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark at a PG level — movies good enough for grownups, but also reasonably kid-friendly. There’s no reason they couldn’t start doing it again. Family audiences are getting tired of being force-fed pabulum like Madagascar and Cheaper by the Dozen 2.

The other side of the equation, of course, is the return of the raunchy R-rated sex comedy (The Wedding Crashers and The 40-Year-Old Virgin). Perhaps the real lesson of 2005 is going all-out for a specific audience, whether families, young adults or whomever, may ultimately be a more successful strategy than trying to please all the people all the time with the perfect Zen-like focus-group PG-13 balance of everything.

Year of the B-plus?

The lead story out of Hollywood this year, of course, was the crash at the box office. Hollywood still made a big old pile of money, of course, but it was less than any of the previous three years, and that hasn’t happened in a quarter century. Worse, ticket sales and overall attendance continued to slide. Pundits pointed to a plethora of culprits: DVDs and plasma TVs, cellphones and instant messaging, high ticket prices and endless advertisements. Oh, and then there was this novel idea: Maybe the movies just aren’t very good.

Like a lot of moviegoers, I spent a fair bit of time this year wringing my hands over the quality of the movies. Looking back, though, it seems to me that the family-film pattern mirrors the overall year: a dearth of A-level films, perhaps, but a bumper crop of B-pluses: Corpse Bride, Just Like Heaven, Revenge of the Sith, King Kong, Serenity, Walk the Line, plus of course all the B-plus family films listed above.

The Year’s Best

For a couple of years now, I’ve ranked my top 10 list from 1 to 10. This year, in part due to the number of films I’m including that I haven’t yet reviewed or rated, I’m leaving the list unranked, at least for now. For summary purposes, I’ve paired two sets of similar films, but this should not be interpreted as suggesting a “tie.” As always, I’ll be filling in the missing reviews as soon as possible, and changes in the list may be made at any time.

The Decent Films Guide Top 10 Films of 2005

Downfall & The Ninth Day
Two stunning German films about the Third Reich, one an unbearably persuasive excursion into absolute yet deeply human evil, the other a tortured but ultimately triumphant vindication of heroic virtue. Bruno Ganz is heart-stoppingly authoritative as Adolf Hitler in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall, a mesmerizing, almost documentary-like account of the last days of the Third Reich seen from the infamous bunker. Ulrich Matthes, utterly chilling as Nazi propagandist Göebbels in Downfall, has a diametrically opposite lead role in Volker Schlöndorff’s The Ninth Day as weary, wary Abbé Kremer, a Catholic priest whose brief furlough from Dachau’s infamous “priest block” provides the occasion for an extraordinary moral drama casting rare light on the role of Pius XII and church leaders during WWII.
Downfall contains graphic scenes of wartime violence and surgery, suicide and killings, and a sexual scene with brief nudity. The Ninth Day contains horrific but restrained depictions of concentration-camp atrocities, some crude language, and mixed perspectives on the role of Pius XII during WWII. Both are mature viewing. Subtitles.

Dear Frankie & Millions
Two exceptional British not-quite-family-films, each a moral parable about an exceptional boy being raised by a single parent, and that boy’s interactions with person (s) who may or may not actually be there. Shona Auerbach’s Dear Frankie, set in Glasgow, centers on the correspondence of a deaf lad (Jack McElhone) with his absent father, whom he believes is a sailor on a ship. Danny Boyle’s Millions is about young Damien (Alex Etel), whose inner life is dominated by the lives of the saints, to such an extent that they appear to him. The saints themselves make less of an impression than Damien’s deep and simple faith, and the moral seriousness with which he faces the duffel bag full of money that drops down out of the sky — not to mention the spiritual state of his departed mother.
Dear Frankie contains some profane language and a couple of sexual references. Millions contains fleeting but clear implication of a nonmarital affair, brief depiction of juvenile curiosity in online lingerie ads, recurring strong menace, and some mildly objectionable language. Both are appropriate for teens and up.

Batman Begins
Christopher Nolan sets the bar high for future super-hero films in this dark, mature take on the soul of the Dark Knight, a brilliant reinterpretation of the caped crusader’s origins, methods and moral struggles. Christian Bale heads a top-notch cast that includes Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy and Katie Holmes.
Recurring menace and frightening imagery, much stylized action violence, at least one instance of profanity and some minor profanity and crass language.

Brothers
Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier’s harrowing film tells the story of two brothers, Michael (Ulrich Thomsen) older and responsible, Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) younger and dissolute, whose lives are forever changed when Michael, a military man, is lost and presumed dead in Afghanistan, and younger brother Jannik assumes an unwonted degree of responsibility for Michael’s wife Sarah (Connie Nielsen) and two daughters. Written and directed by Bier with great intelligence, humanity and unexpected humor, Brothers explores themes of guilt, obligation and reconciliation with wrenching honesty and deep feeling.
Recurring obscene and crude language, some profanity, disturbing war-related and domestic violence, sexual references. Mature viewing; discernment required. Subtitles.

Cinderella Man
Russell Crowe is James Braddock in Ron Howard’s well-crafted biopic about a rare movie boxer who isn’t a morally checkered, socially alienated single man with a history of extracurricular violence and troubling relationship issues, but a wholly decent, self-controlled, devoted family man who loves his wife (Renée Zellweger) and children and boxes solely to put bread of the table.
Much brutal pugilism violence; recurring profanity; mild sensuality; a couple of sleazy taunts.

Duma
Carroll Ballard, director of Fly Away Home and The Black Stallion, outdoes himself in what may be the year’s best family film, the story of a boy and his cheetah. Young Xan (Alex Michaeletos), a white South African boy whose pet cheetah becomes a pressing liability when tragedy forces him and his mother to relocate from the family farm to the city, and sets out to return him to the wild. Eamonn Walker plays a drifter they meet along the way who could easily have become that cliché, the “magic black man,” but Ballard’s sure hand steers the film clear of nearly every pitfall.
Some tense and menacing sequences and animal gore that could be disturbing to sensitive children.

Pride & Prejudice
Given the authoritative 1995 BBC five-hour miniseries, was there really any need for a new feature adaptation of Pride and Prejudice? Yes. For one thing, there’s always room for a version that doesn’t bother about being authoritative and doesn’t take five hours. For another, where the BBC version, invaluable as it is, is also a bit stodgy and stagey, Joe Wright’s exquisite, joyous retelling feels lived-in and vibrant. Nothing in Keira Knightley’s résumé remotely suggested she was capable of this rendition of Elizabeth Bennett; her performance is both a revelation and a sheer delight.

Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
Wallace and Gromit’s leap from short features to their first feature film is a cracking success, sustaining their trademark loopy invention, gonzo energy, sublime silliness, and brilliantly satiric mastery of the conventions of classic genre films at feature length almost as well as their impossibly dense shorts. Yes, the comedy’s a bit broader and there’s a sprinkling of rude humor, but all in all it’s a wonderful return of two old friends.
Comic menace and excitement, mild rude humor, including some comic belching and a few double-entendres; fleeting comic religious references involving an Anglican clergyman.

Runners-Up

Black: Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s unconventional Bollywood film eschews music and candy colors for uplifting melodrama with a first act closely modeled on Arthur Penn’s Helen Keller biopic The Miracle Worker, followed by a second act that takes the teacher-student relationship into new emotional territory.

Because of Winn-Dixie: Wayne Wang’s superior girl-and-her-dog film upholds Walden’s track record of faithful adaptations of acclaimed children’s books. If only Walden’s other big film this year, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, had followed suit.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: Andrew Adamson’s big-budget adaptation gets Lewis’s story and meaning about two-thirds right, good enough to stand with the best of this year’s bumper crop of decent family films.

Corpse Bride: Tim Burton’s macabre fantasy turns a ghostly Russian-Jewish folk tale into a touching meditation on the meaning of wedding vows and contemporary fear of commitment in an age of prenuptial agreements and no-fault divorce.

The Greatest Game Ever Played: Is Bill Paxton’s visually inventive film the greatest golf movie ever made? I don’t know, but it’s probably the one most likely to appeal to golfers and non-golfers alike.

Just Like Heaven: Reese Witherspoon shines in a charming romantic comedy with a distinctly pro-life bent. Director Mark Waters seldom missteps, and the story is smarter than the typical rom-com.

King Kong: Peter Jackson’s homage to pulp cinema is stuffed full of inspiration, though the parts don’t always make a whole. Kong (Andy Sirkus) and Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) are wonderful together, but when they’re offscreen Jack Black and the rest of the cast can’t hold the picture together, even with the “help” of dino stampedes, killer savages, and giant cockroaches.

March of the Penguins: Luc Jacquet’s crowd-pleasing nature documentary boasts stunning Antarctic landscapes and an extraordinary narrative of the lengths to which the Emperor penguin must literally go to bring baby penguins into the world.

Robots: This retro-future fantasy from Ice Age director Chris Wedge is a triumph of character design over characterization and whimsy over taste, but Robots stands tall with sly social commentary and clever craftsmanship.

Serenity: Joss Whedon’s big-screen continuation of his short-lived “Firefly” deep-space Western is rife with Whedon’s trademark sparkling dialogue, cliché-defying innovation, and ruthlessly individual vision.

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith: The failure of the first two prequels undercuts the power that the final chapter might have had, but Revenge of the Sith still manages to deepen the original trilogy with evocative echoes of crises and dilemmas that recur in later chapters.

Walk the Line: Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon astonish as Johnny Cash and June Carter in the year’s most passive-aggressive Hollywood love story. It’s a warts-and-all portrait that doesn’t make excuses for its hero; all it lacks, and it’s a serious omission, is Cash’s rediscovered faith.

Honorable Mention

Broken Flowers; Caché [Hidden]; The Exorcism of Emily Rose; The Great Raid; Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; Howl’s Moving Castle; Mad Hot Ballroom; Murderball; Nobody Knows; The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio; The Weeping Meadow; The White Diamond; The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill; Winter Solstice

Worth Noting

Bride and Prejudice; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Confession; The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; Grizzly Man; The Interpreter; Sky High; War of the Worlds; Zathura

Not Recommended

Brokeback Mountain; Constantine; Fantastic Four; The Island; Kingdom of Heaven; The Legend of Zorro; Match Point

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