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Reverse Shot's Best of '05: "Kings & Queen" and 9 More

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire January 3, 2006 at 11:53AM

A grab bag of 2004 festival faves just getting "wider" releases. Misunderstood studio experiments. Inventive indie charmers. It becomes increasingly ridiculous to try and separate one year's best-of list from the next in any sort of edifying ideological, spiritual, or political manner, as the disparity of visions and points of view from around the globe just happen to be reflected in a handful of films lucky enough to see the light of a projector. So, at Reverse Shot, as always, our notion of a panoply of critical voices never seems more appropriate than when compiling a top ten. As with last year's poll, each staff writer voted for ten films, with the first-place ranked film receiving ten points, the second-place getting nine points, and so on. Of the resulting films, each is assigned to a writer who has a special place in his or her heart for that particular title. We wish we had the space to herald more than just this arbitrary amount, for there was much passion for our very close runners-up (Lucrecia Martel's "The Holy Girl," Jia Zhangke's "The World," Steven Spielberg's "Munich" and "War of the Worlds," Hirokazu Kore-eda's "Nobody Knows," Rob Zombie's "The Devil's Rejects," Gus Van Sant's "Last Days"). Apologies to RS readers, but blame the slow distribution process for the umpteenth appearances of some of these titles, which have been in heavy rotation since Cannes '04. And in '06, keep an eye out for repeated appraisals of our festival picks from '05... sure to be seen right here come January '07. Stay tuned though, cause we'll do everything we can to keep things fresh.
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A grab bag of 2004 festival faves just getting "wider" releases. Misunderstood studio experiments. Inventive indie charmers. It becomes increasingly ridiculous to try and separate one year's best-of list from the next in any sort of edifying ideological, spiritual, or political manner, as the disparity of visions and points of view from around the globe just happen to be reflected in a handful of films lucky enough to see the light of a projector. So, at Reverse Shot, as always, our notion of a panoply of critical voices never seems more appropriate than when compiling a top ten. As with last year's poll, each staff writer voted for ten films, with the first-place ranked film receiving ten points, the second-place getting nine points, and so on. Of the resulting films, each is assigned to a writer who has a special place in his or her heart for that particular title. We wish we had the space to herald more than just this arbitrary amount, for there was much passion for our very close runners-up (Lucrecia Martel's "The Holy Girl," Jia Zhangke's "The World," Steven Spielberg's "Munich" and "War of the Worlds," Hirokazu Kore-eda's "Nobody Knows," Rob Zombie's "The Devil's Rejects," Gus Van Sant's "Last Days"). Apologies to RS readers, but blame the slow distribution process for the umpteenth appearances of some of these titles, which have been in heavy rotation since Cannes '04. And in '06, keep an eye out for repeated appraisals of our festival picks from '05... sure to be seen right here come January '07. Stay tuned though, cause we'll do everything we can to keep things fresh.

#1: Kings and Queen (Arnaud Desplechin, France, Wellspring)
The most sprawling, scrawling accomplishment of a year in cinema was -- like its protagonists -- a compelling, melodramatic mess. "Kings and Queen" found space for the best and worst of movie moments: an astringent, posthumous father-to-daughter hate letter that hisses like a blotch of acid, burning into every scene around it; a "endearingly quirky," cutesy break-dancing interlude that brings the movie to a screeching, pile-up halt behind it. Perhaps it's much too unfocused, lumpy with bafflingly protruding scenes and awkward shifts, to comfortably shoulder the burden of Masterpiece-dom, but who needs great, banefully consistent movies when you can have a grab bag that's this crazily overstuffed? Throughout, each cast member is ready with an ambiguous smile to flash on at the oddest of times -- some lovely bit of guidance is obviously behind them. For all the crazy contortions of Desplechin's movie, no one outside of Philippe Garrel (whose father, Maurice, plays the aforementioned letter's author) has shown as much intent interest in something as simple and essential as the hidden stories of a human face. -- NP

#2: Cache (Michael Haneke, Austria/France, Sony Pictures Classics)
The year's biggest head trip, the year's most prescient film, a thriller without release, an expansive perspective lacking identity, a purveyor of clear truths hidden in plain view -- Michael Haneke's "Cache" challenges the way we look at the world by destabilizing the very act of looking. From an opening establishing shot paused and rewound to a concluding one that refuses to validate and follow the action, Haneke's film demands nothing less than a reawakening, a rehabilitation of the viewer's lazy eye. For as his film so thickly demonstrates, any reckoning with how things really are--or simply might be -- requires kicking out the crutch of appearance. Maintain biases and expectations (be they visual or social) at your own risk: the risk of missing everything. If Haneke were merely out to bait, baste, and bake the bourgeoisie -- as some critics have asserted -- he'd have spent more time goosing his characters in a Bunuelian manner rather than allowing them reasonable human responses to their mounting discomfort. If Haneke's self-described bobos were easy to mock, if their fears were overplayed, then why is "Cache" so terrifying? Seeing things, be they right before our eyes or conveniently buried in the past, can be devastating. But the consequences of ignorance--proven this fall by post-"Cache" Paris's burning -- can be much worse. -- EH

#3: A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, U.S., New Line)
If 2005 saw the absolute nadir of big-screen graphic novel adaptations with Robert Rodriguez's "Sin City," then I suppose we could offer the beleaguered form an olive branch by arguing that David Cronenberg's "A History of Violence" stakes out a more positive claim on its viability. But why should we reduce the complexity of this fully-formed, intricately assembled film to the mere two dimensions and limited palette afforded a comic book? It's hard to believe that anything in the original text could compare to the subtle unease of Cronenberg's coolly modulated compositions or those moments of discomfort wrought out by its internal dissonance -- what's instantly cinematically recognizable here clashes with its filmmaker's burning philosophical agenda. This latest work by a director more known for taking his audiences to surreal locales presents a small-town Indiana simultaneously so utterly familiar and so completely disorienting that by the end, the odd countenances and performances of his actors (if Viggo Mortenson and his family all look and act as though they might have stepped from another planet, then William Hurt's goateed and Philly-fied turn stems from another universe entirely) combine with a narrative that always takes the most interesting wrong turn to create the year's most plausibly implausible masterwork. -- JR

#4: 2046 (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, Sony Pictures Classics)
Cinematic lyricist Wong Kar-wai's "2046" elicited what felt like a collective sigh of enraptured relief upon its long-awaited theatrical release earlier this year as it proved to be that rarest of achievements--worth every second of the clamorous anticipation. Like last year's emotional stunner of a sequel "Before Sunset," Wong's film is not a retread of its predecessor "In the Mood for Love" so much as an exploratory continuation and voluptuous development of character. Its heady stylistic evocation of lost love and longing makes it another movie-to-swoon-to in the way of vintage Wong, but "2046" remains far more hauntingly elusive and, for this reason, powerful, leaving in its wake an expanding impression of mood and colors and slowness rather than a straight recollection of narrative details--almost as soon as you behold it, it slips out of your grasp. This enticing opacity owes something to the delicate connective tissue holding together its mysterious movements between past and future but also has to do with an enthralling probing of the secretive possessiveness of memory itself. And perhaps this is the best you can say for any visual endeavor--that it nearly escapes words. -- KM

#5: The Intruder (Claire Denis, France, Wellspring)
During an interview in 2004, Claire Denis told me that she was "horrified" by suggestions that "The Intruder" was in any way "obscure." It wasn't until I revisited it a few weeks ago that I was inclined to agree. What initially scans as impenetrable (but fascinating) reveals itself, upon a second viewing, as visionary and wholly unpretentious. In adapting Jean-Louis Nancy's autobiographical text about the alienating effects of his own heart transplant, Denis has crafted a film of crystalline beauty and startling ambition. It's a story about an aged soldier of fortune (Michel Subor) journeying from Jura to Pusan to Tahiti in an elaborate, potentially misbegotten gesture of reconciliation towards his estranged son. Now here's the startling part: His voyage is related to us as a waking dream in which binary distinctions between literal and figurative representation have been casually obliterated. Internal conflicts are represented externally: a group of marauders threatening Louis's cabin along the French-Swiss border may also be harbingers of his own failing cardiovascular system. Clear themes do emerge--as always, Denis is fascinated by rituals of cultural exchange and finds time for two or three characteristically temperature-raising seductions--but decode the film at your peril. Denis comes by her ellipticism honestly, and her magnificent film is a force to be reckoned with. -- AN

#6: Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, Strand)

2005's most radical break from narrative occurred as a literal break in celluloid: Halfway through "Tropical Malady," the greatest experiment yet by the world's latest-greatest experimental narrative filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the screen zaps out. What was formerly a completely disarming naturalist romance suddenly, through some wondrous cinematic alchemy, becomes a supernatural mythological treatise on the nature of love itself. But no mere diptych is this--the minimalist folk legend functions as the mirror image of the realist love story that provides accessible entryway into Apichatpong's philosophies. Relentlessly confounding as the film may be to some, its charms are in its simplicity: When was the last time a contemporary romance ended in Buddhist enlightenment? With its shimmering twilight jungles and cricket-chirping soundtrack, "Tropical Malady"'s unnervingly becalmed artwork enveloped me in its rhythms more than any other film this year--so pure and primal it's like watching love reinvented before your eyes. -- MK

#7: The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, U.S., Samuel Goldwyn)
Noah Baumbach's "The Squid and the Whale" is a drama that hits the ear like a farce: characters talk past one another in dialogue at once succinct and realistic, a series of flares fired into the air that effectively communicate nothing but crisis. Words fail two accomplished writers (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney) as they dissolve their union, leaving melodramatic Pink Floyd lyrics and an inarticulate tennis- playing philistine to speak most clearly for two boys lost in lonely tailspins of anxious adolescent self-definition. The entropy of divorce sends the boys bouncing between action and regret before they retreat to mirrors and monuments in moments that capture all the helpless, directionless frustration required to come of age. Sexual discovery is often undignified, and here the boys' simultaneous confrontation with their parents' sexuality rips loose the moorings of their world. The effect is as comic as it is tragic--demanding tears for the inherent pathos of adolescence and laughter for the familiarly absurd--in this peerless incarnation of a timelessly unhappy family. -- LK

#8: The New World (Terrence Malick, U.S., New Line)
"The New World"'s opening and closing credits roll over images of maps being drawn, which is appropriate enough: Cartography, after all, is a lot like history --it starts with the real (land masses, mountains, seas) and provides an imaginary order (names, borders) born of the arbitrary authority of human interpretation. History, too, offers an intelligibility that is largely imaginary; the telling of history turns real places into settings, real people into characters, reducing them all to the logic of narrative. "The New World" resists narrative, though, instead plunging headfirst into the experience of history, not as Event but as Emotion, as Image, as Aspiration, as Loss. Terrence Malick doesn't offer answers, just as he never invokes the authority to call Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher, in an exquisite debut) by her name. He's more interested in posing questions--about the narratives we tell, the coherences we map, the names we give, none more piercing or inadequate than the "Rebecca" hurled by white civilization at his Pocahontas, achingly human despite her symbolic import. Some critics have taken Malick's refusal to aspire to historical fact (if such a thing exists) as evidence that he isn't concerned with history at all, that his "tone poem" is preoccupied exclusively with allegory. History, though, is the heart of the matter. "The New World" is defiantly anti-commercial and utterly unapproachable with the conventional tools of film criticism (which may be why many reviews of it seem so glib and dismissive). It isn't perfect; still less is it coherent. Those are among its chief virtues. Intellectually rigorous, aesthetically challenging, and breathtakingly beautiful, "The New World" doesn't belong to our disposable film culture of opening weekends, awards-blogging, and capsule reviews. -- CW

#9: Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, U.S., Lions Gate)
In a year of strange beauties, Werner Herzog presented one of its most compelling protagonists: Timothy Treadwell, defender of the wild, emblem of a culture of narcissism. A withering counterpoint to the season's bigger nature hit, "March of the Penguins," "Grizzly Man" is essentially a conversation between the starry-eyed Treadwell and the pessimistic Herzog. Guess who wins. Where Morgan Freeman's voiceover for "Penguins" was a breath of warm air over the Antarctic landscape (not to mention worth several million dollars at the box office), Herzog's imperious narration chills the New Age nirvana of Treadwell's Alaskan summers. Part tribute, part rebuke, Grizzly Man critiques the hubris that masquerades as humility in mindless eco-worship. (It's as much about human nature as nature itself.) Herzog's disagreement with Treadwell the idealist, however, is leavened by his kinship with Treadwell the artist. By piecing together a scrapbook of a life, Herzog has constructed a breathtaking mosaic of an untouched world -- we can see how Treadwell was seduced. The poetry -- in the images, in the ironies, in Treadwell's tragic end -- can be touching, but it is, as Herzog reminds us, the product of chaos, not design. -- EV

#10: Junebug (Phil Morrison, U.S., Sony Pictures Classics)
That "Junebug" manages to circumvent the precociousness and self-conscious whimsy of so many forthrightly indigenous Amerindies is somewhat of a miracle--especially considering that on paper, this delicate portrait of empty spaces and blind spots, both in landscape and in the family unit, sounds little more than rote culture-clash. Phil Morrison's utter surprise of a movie has been both praised and misread for its blue state-meets-red state fish-out-of-water narrative, and its depiction of North Carolina locals and eccentrics has been seen as both condescendingly specific and transcendently universal -- yet what Carolina native Morrison really achieves, along with a nuanced screenplay by Angus MacLachlan that refuses to promise easy resolutions for festering conflicts, is something far more profound than geographic specificity: a state of almost holy unity, a home-and-hearth portrait at once concrete and somehow liminal. The glowing, glorious Embeth Davidtz, in a more difficult and rewarding role than her more ballyhooed costar, Amy Adams, is our surrogate, a sophisticated Chicago art dealer joining her new husband (Alessandro Nivola) in a trip down South, both to meet his family but also to court a possibly autistic "outsider" artist. Morrison's film is lovingly humane, emotionally multifaceted, and even above all that, aesthetically daring. The filmmaking is so "on" in "Junebug" that just about every scene reveals something new and wonderful, among people and the environments they inhabit. More memorable than any exchange of dialogue (of which there is nary a wasted moment between any two characters) are the spaces (empty rooms, quiet nighttime forests) that Morrison leaves open for contemplation. From erstwhile choirboy Nivola's spirit-shaking impromptu hymn to the epiphanic, cathedral-like silence that falls upon the family's modest abode when the cast has walked out of frame, "Junebug" says the most when the words simply won't come. -- MK