I feel awkward calling this a “top ten,” with the implication that these are the “best” films of 2005 when, with the exception of Crash, none of these is a “great” film or would necessarily have been considered for listing in some other year. Instead, these are the ten films I most enjoyed, for whatever peculiar, often personal, reason. A number of them I saw at 4 o’clock, so to speak, in an empty theater. Which is another way of saying that un-hyped films I “discover” for myself have an easier time satisfying me than the heavily promoted blockbuster I instinctively, reactively, try to find fault with. (I find I said the same thing last year, but this year, unlike 2004, the films I’ve chosen more clearly justify this disclaimer.) That said, the runaway winner for best picture perhaps deserves even more credit for coming to me in a full, first-run theater.
- Crash. I liked the characters, the interlocking stories, the comments on race relations (an Andover teacher showed it to his class on Martin Luther King day this year), but best of all – especially for a Hollywood movie – was the moral complexity: every character had good qualities and bad, and just when we’d made up our mind about someone, we had to think again.
- Travelers and Magicians. When I saw this movie at the Oak St. Cinema, I didn’t know where Bhutan was, let alone that I would be going there this year. The landscapes it revealed were gorgeous, but it was the story that truly captured me. The movie started slow, it contained a fable-within-the-story that gave me pause, but then my body rhythms slowed, my heart opened and I became enchanted. When the film ended I heard a sigh from the audience at the loss of the friends we had been traveling with.
- Murderball. An altogether remarkable achievement: a movie about quadriplegics in which you see them as characters in the story and don’t feel any pity for them as quadriplegics. I like movies that introduce me to a new world, and although the geography was familiar, this was a new world. It also had the moral complexity of, and a lot more crashes than, my top film.
- Junebug. This movie (shown on the plane trip to Bhutan) said more about America today than anything else I saw all year. The contrast between the Embeth Davidtz gallery-owner character and Amy Adams as a rural North Carolina self-help newlywed spoke quiet volumes about the Blue-Red divide in our country. Realistic touches abounded, and we had that moral complexity again, in people we could only feel sorry for.
- Pride and Prejudice. Enough of moral complexity! – how about one of the all-time great love stories, set in merrie olde England, with the regiment, country balls, a buffoonish clergyman, the vicissitudes of primogeniture, and one of the happiest-ever endings, lit up by the spectacular Keira Knightley. Knowing the story, we could just sit back and enjoy every minute as it came.
- Sahara. There was more political truth here than in the heavier-handed Syriana and Constant Gardener (well, maybe not more), but that was hardly the point. Once you accepted Penelope Cruz as a WHO doctor working to prevent a plague in West Africa, you were in for a thoroughly delightful ride, with the great Steve Zahn and William H. Macy providing the laughs, Matthew McConaughey, Cruz and Morocco the scenery, and classic rockers the sound track.
- Me and You and Everyone We Know A deliciously quirky movie, full of hilarious bits, many of which had the added weight of social relevance. Almost all the characters were fun to watch, but writer-director Miranda July was a plain-Jane heartstopper. More evidence that a wonderful movie doesn’t have to cost a lot, it just has to have real people.
- Grizzly Man. A master of psychological intensity brought us this haunting psychological study of a limited individual with a photogenic and ultimately fatal mania: living with grizzly bears. Werner Herzog expertly mixed Timothy Treadwell’s own footage with postmortem interviews. Slowly it dawned on the viewer that Treadwell was crazy. But that didn’t make the issues the film also raised – mostly about man and nature – go away.
- Separate Lies. In so many stories, it’s the romance that gets dramatized and we leave the couple on their wedding day. How they will get along thereafter, once the romance has faded, is the harder story, and that’s the genre this film by Julian Fellowes fell into. It will rarely be as uplifting as the romance, but more often it will seem real.
- Tony Takitani. Matters moved slowly on screen, and not much happened, and the ending was sort of arbitrary. The simple story – of a woman’s clothes-shopping addiction and her husband’s obsession with her – was told in an unusual manner, with the characters’ voices picking up the narrator’s thread. It was different, it was mellow, it was Japanese.
Honorable Mentions to Good Night and Good Luck, Saraband, The Squid and the Whale, Layer Cake, Hustle and Flow and, left over from 2004, In Good Company.
Biggest Disappointments: Broken Flowers, Kung Fu Hustle, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Syriana, Brokeback Mountain, Walk the Line.