Saturday, December 31, 2005

Hooray for Hollywood

It's the last day of the year, the time when film critics and cultural commentators name their best and worst experiences of the past 12 months.

Since I'm not a professional film critic, I don't get to see every movie that gets released. I see more movies than the average American. According to the National Association of Theatre Owners, "The average number of trips to the cinema in 1970 was 4.5 per person. In 2004, the average American went to the movies 5.2 times." I don't keep track, but my guess is that I go to the theatre to see movies at about 8 to 10 times that rate. (I saw 16 films over four days at the Virginia Film Festival in October, so it's not accurate to say I actually saw one movie per week.)

Still, I miss a few movies here and there. I haven't seen critically-praised movies like Crash or Capote yet, nor have I seen the end-of-the-year blockbuster from Peter Jackson, the remake of King Kong. And some films of 2005 simply haven't reached my local cinema yet and won't be viewable until January or February.

My ten-best list is limited to films released during the calendar year, otherwise I would have to say the best movie I saw was Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder or George Cukor's My Fair Lady, two that I saw on the big screen (at, respectively, the Virginia Film Festival and the Paramount Theatre in downtown Charlottesville). In fact, I can list a whole collection of movies I saw in the past few months that are better than the movies that came out this year (All the President's Men, It's a Wonderful Life, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Paths of Glory, to name four) but it's hard for any single year's output to match or exceed the classics that have stood the test of time.

I also exclude movies I saw on television or DVD. (I seldom watch movies on a small screen, anyway.)

So, with those caveats, here is my list of the ten best movies of 2005.

Good Night, and Good Luck
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Ladies in Lavender
Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont
The Producers
Sophie Scholl: The Last Days
Star Wars - Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
Steal Me
I've written about Downfall elsewhere, where I compared it to Star Wars - Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Both are studies of evil -- Downfall of the consequences of evil, Sith of its origins.

Good Night, and Good Luck may be criticized for its politics, though it is hard to defend Joe McCarthy with a straight face. We know now that there were Communist agents who infiltrated the U.S. government in the early days of the Cold War. McCarthy was right about that, to be sure, in the sense that even a stopped clock is right twice a day, but his ham-handed, alcohol-soaked methods set back the anti-Communist movement by years.

My reason for putting Good Night, and Good Luck on this list is that director George Clooney has done such a marvelous job at evoking the era of the mid-1950s. Robert Elswit's black-and-white cinematography is virtual sculpture of light, shadow, and -- especially -- cigarette smoke.

If only someone would take on the task of filming the story told in The Lavender Scare, which demonstrates that far more people lost their jobs and had their lives and careers ruined by the government's relentless persecution of gay men and lesbians during the "McCarthy era" than did those pursued as Communists. Young filmmakers, take notice!

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
does more than just continue the story of Harry and his friends (and foes) from the first three films in the series. It deepens the characterizations and darkens the plot and atmosphere. Director Mike Newell brings a different sensibility with him as he takes over from Chris Columbus and Alfonso Cuaron. The actors, too -- especially Daniel Radcliffe -- are developing a more profound understanding of their roles. These are no longer merely special-effects-laden action flicks for the pre-teen set; instead, they are beginning (like Downfall and Revenge of the Sith) to reflect on the meaning of evil's presence in our midst and how we must react.

Ladies in Lavender
and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont should be considered in tandem, since both star British actresses of a certain age who would not normally be considered for leading roles in romantic films, yet here they are. Ladies in Lavender may have been released too early in the year for consideration by the awards-givers, but both Maggie Smith and Judi Dench rate special recognition for their work as sisters living in an isolated seaside village in the mid-1930s. And any film with Daniel Brühl is worth seeing -- after making his mark with Good Bye, Lenin!, this German actor will soon become an international sensation. (Having Joshua Bell play Brühl's character's violin solos was a nice touch, too.)

In Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, Joan Plowright gives what will probably be the last major performance of her long and distinguished career. Like Ladies in Lavender, Mrs. Palfrey tells the story of an elderly woman's interaction with a young man who suddenly enters her life. It is romantic, but not in the sense one comes to expect from that term. It also introduces a future star in Rupert Friend, who plays Ludovic, Mrs. Palfrey's surrogate grandson. (Mrs. Palfrey also has a great backstory in terms of how it was made, with a script by an 85-year-old first-time screenwriter, Ruth Sacks.) Speaking of nice touches: Millicent Martin, among other Hotel Claremont eccentrics, sings along to "It's Never to Late to Fall in Love," a song she introduced on Broadway in Sandy Wilson's The Boy Friend.

Some have criticized the new musical version of The Producers of being too broad, suggesting that Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick failed to tone down their on-stage personas for the hotter medium of film. I think those criticisms are wrong. Lane and Broderick are spot-on in recreating their Broadway roles, and Susan Stroman may have single-handedly revived the tradition of big, broad, colorful film musicals best exemplified by what came out of MGM in the 1940s and '50s. Unlike Rob Marshall (another first-time film director at the time), who reworked Chicago to make it more palatable to the naturalistic eye of movie audiences, Stroman returns to the film-musical conventions of what we thought was a bygone era, and she does it quite satisfactorily.

More than that, under the watchful eye of Mel Brooks, Stroman has, through set decoration as well as direction of her actors, virtually recreated a shot-by-shot replica of the non-musical scenes from the original version of The Producers. Broderick may be less convincingly hysterical than Gene Wilder, but he still comes across in a suitably manic manner.

It was somewhat disappointing to learn the film left out some of the musical numbers (notably "The King of Broadway", and shortening the "Springtime for Hitler" segment) but the overall experience is daffily satisfying.

One of the films I saw at the Virginia Film Festival is Germany's entry for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2005 Academy Awards, Sophie Scholl: Die letzten Tage (The Last Days). Based on recently uncovered transcripts of interrogations of White Rose dissident Sophie Magdalena Scholl by a Nazi investigator, this movie has a certain staginess to it that may be offputting to some viewers.

What Sophie Scholl does best is to juxtapose the normalcy of life in Germany in 1943, portrayed in deep colors (thanks to cinematographer Martin Langer), far from the front where the war was going on, while highlighting how the regime could engage in psychological brutality to deny basic human rights to the German people, including the due process rights of the accused in legal proceedings, which we take so much for granted.

The scenes in which Sophie verbally duels with her interrogator are fascinating and compelling. Who could expect that debates about political philosophy could take place in such a setting? Yet they did, far from an audience yet stirring nonetheless because one young woman was willing to stand up for her beliefs, even up to the moment of her certain death.

Sophie Scholl: The Last Days deserves wide distribution and should be seen in high-school classrooms across the country.

What can I say about Revenge of the Sith that has not already been said? In it, George Lucas provides the bridge between the two Star Wars trilogies, and answers all the unanswered questions we have had for nearly 30 years. Revisit my posting about it here for my immediate reaction.

Steal Me and Thumbsucker are unlikely to appear on many other ten-best lists this year, but they do not deserve to be overlooked.

Melissa Painter's Steal Me focuses on a 15-year-old drifter who insinuates himself into the lives of a typical middle-class family in small-town Montana. He's a kleptomaniac but he is also a keen judge of character, far more street-smart than anyone he meets in the family or the town, and oozes sexuality, leading to an affair with an older woman who lives nearby. Steal Me is also the most highly charged example of homoeroticism in filmmaking this year, exceeding even what one may find in the "gay cowboy" movie, Brokeback Mountain. Danny Alexander, in his first leading role, carries the film on his shoulders and succeeds without stumbling. We will be seeing more from him, as well as from Hunter Parrish, who plays his friend-rival-unspoken love interest, Tucker.

Thumbsucker, too, concerns a troubled teenager, this one in a typical middle-class household in Oregon. Tilda Swinton plays the mother, something of a dreamer who gets herself a job in a rehab facility so she can get closer to a soap-opera star she idolizes. Newcomer Lou Taylor Pucci plays Justin, whose life is transformed (for the better) when he begins to treat his ADHD with Ritalin. He hits his target for both the ADHD and post-ADHD Justin, and there's a realism at play when he chooses to stop medicating himself with the prescription drugs so that he can stand on his own two feet.

Thumbsucker also includes performances from Vince Vaughn, Keanu Reeves, and Vincent D'Onofrio as you've never seen them before.

My one quibble with Thumbsucker is with the way it portrays competitive, interscholastic, high school debate. No movie ever gets that right, so I won't complain too loud or too long. I'd rather just recommend this movie and let others judge for themselves.

Some honorable mentions:

The Aristocrats -- More laughs per minute than any other movie of the year. I wrote about it as soon as I saw it.

The Squid and the Whale
-- Jeff Daniels is turning into a fine character actor; his cold, calculating father in the midst of a divorce and custody battle in this film is miles away from his TV executive in Good Night, and Good Luck. But the center of this movie is Jesse Eisenberg, who will probably be able to play teenagers for the next 15 years, but with each turn -- he'll be compared here to his role in Rodger Dodger -- he ratchets up yet contains his emotional velocity. The intimacy and intensity of this movie may be too much to take for someone who has experienced an actual family break-up.

Brokeback Mountain -- The "gay cowboy" movie that's getting so much attention during the last weeks of the year was something of a disappointment to me. Ang Lee's direction and Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography are classic. But I had trouble buying the characters portrayed by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. (Gyllenhaal's Jack was easier for me to take than Ledger's Ennis.) Discussion of Brokeback Mountain is not going to end anytime soon, however -- WorldNetDaily calls the film "Rape of the Marlboro Man." (For an opinion that differs from mine, and from WND's, see Tim Hulsey, here.)

Little Manhattan -- A lighthearted companion piece to The Squid and the Whale, I can almost guarantee that you haven't seen this movie, which apparently has appeared on only about three dozen screens nationwide. Like The Squid and the Whale, the premise of this movie has divorcing parents (Bradley Whitford and Cynthia Nixon) and a child coming to terms with the new situation (Josh Hutcherson). Here, however, the focus is on the pre-teen's own first love, with an 11-year-old classmate. The best thing about this movie, though, is the way New York City is not just its setting, but a character all its own.

Kids in America -- This film has its civil libertarian heart in the right place, but its execution leaves a lot to be desired. It came and went quickly; the night I saw it, there were just three or four other people in the theatre. Some nice moments, though, and a strong anti-authoritarian message that should resonate well with high school students and others who have had their freedom of expression stifled.

Cry_Wolf -- I shouldn't let the year go by without a mention of this first feature by Charlottesville native Jeff Wadlowand his producing partner, Beau Bauman. Another near miss, this teen slasher flick shows a lot of promise for its creators. Had they had a larger budget -- they were hampered by the terms of the million-dollar Chrysler prize -- they might have achieved a better result. Jon Bon Jovi is terrific in a supporting role that carries some surprises with it. Bauman and Wadlow deserve special kudos for their mentoring of the teams of young filmmakers who compete in the Adrenaline Film Project at the Virginia Film Festival.

One dishonorable mention:

The Fever
, starring Vanessa Redgrave as a neo-Marxist bobblehead doll who romanticizes brutal totalitarian regimes that claim to stand for "the poor" and "the people" even as they put both under the heel of their hobnailed boots.


Tim said...

Ian Frazier wrote a marvelously vicious essay about why critics shouldn't say that a setting functions as a "character."

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