Film-Forward Review: [THE BEST OF 2005]

Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Although all of the following films received positive reviews here, two films, Head-On and Mysterious Skin, have grown in our estimation since their theatrical release. All received only limited distributed (with the exception of two - you can guess which ones), but the good news is that six of these films are already available on DVD (as indicated in parenthesis). It’s only happenstance that the list is evenly shared by documentaries, foreign films, and American indies.

Besides the three documentaries that made the cut, there was a healthy crop of solid docs to choose from: New York Doll, the late-in-life comeback of a former glam rocker; the three-way marriage of Three of Hearts; A State of Mind, an eye-opening look on cloistered North Korea; and Werner Herzog’s fascinating exploration of the delusional Grizzly Man. Other notable films, now available on DVD, include: the droll Broken Flowers; Brothers, the Danish war drama with Connie Nielsen in her best role yet; the teenage twisted fantasy, My Summer of Love; and the rambunctious and optimistic The Edukators from Germany. So now, here are the Top 10 Films of 2005:

This celebration of the artist’s life has the year’s highest average of engaging anecdotes per minute. Directors Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine have caught lightening in a bottle, featuring many of the celebrated dancers who were members of two competing and trend-setting ballet companies in the 1930s-1950s. Both were inspired by the Russian choreographer Serge Diaghilev. Many of those interviews were in their 80s and 90s and still leading vibrant lives, suggesting the elixir of youth may be found at the barre.

Ideal for DVD viewing, this sweeping six-hour Italian family saga proves a soap opera can be intelligently written and gripping without resorting to melodrama. Beginning in the mid-‘60s, two idealistic brothers go their disparate ways, concluding in the present with a stop in the turbulent ‘70s with the Red Brigade. Lyrical and intimate, the ensemble features some of the best Italian actors today: Luigi Lo Cascio, Adriana Asti, and Maya Sansa. (Available February 7, Miramax DVD)

Heath Ledger (L) as Ennis &
Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack
Photo: Kimberley French/Focus

It may be too soon to tell if the pop culture success of this romancer between two ranch hands may overshadow the film itself, much like how The March of the Penguins' surprising success upstaged what is basically a conventional but beautifully filmed documentary. Underneath this Western’s iconography is a lovely film, not only because of the vistas but the telling details of the actors and the faithfully adapted screenplay, which impressively expands upon its source, Annie Proulx’s short story. Regardless of its outcome at the box office or at awards time, Ang Lee’s film will likely age well. It helps that it’s set in the recent past and thus a period piece, but unlike other similar-themed dramas (Making Love, anyone?) this perceptive look on the ripple effect of repression is less likely to ever have a passé quality to it.

The adrenaline rush from this January release still lingers. Set in Germany, this in-your-face drama of two hedonistic Turks in a sham marriage (she wants to please her traditional parents, he just wants her to stop trying to kill herself) is as ferocious as Sid and Nancy and Chungking Express in its self-destructive attitude, exuberant soundtrack and dark sense of humor. Celebrated actor Birol Ünel and relative newcomer Sibel Kekilli (in her first feature role outside of the skin flick industry) sustain the film’s energy even when the party is over. (Strand DVD)

In a year of exceptional feel-good documentaries, this is The Sound of Music of the crop. Serendipitously, first-time director Marilyn Agrelo follows three diverse elementary schools during a New York City ballroom dance competition, including one that makes it to the suspenseful finals. An obvious two-hander and deceptively lightweight, this is a pertinent lesson on cooperation and taking direction. (Paramount DVD)

MURDERBALL's star quad rugby player Mark Zupan
Photo: THINKFilm

A slamming and unsparing sports doc that’s at once triumphant and melancholic (someone has to lose). The first-time directing team of Henry-Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro follow the US quad rugby team battling their despised Canadian rival in the 2004 Paralympics. The competition is a sidebar. The directors balance the exciting footage of the wheelchair-bound men in action with in-depth profiles of these indomitable, cocky jocks. Empathetic yes, patronizing no. With these men, that’s not even possible. (Velocity/THINKFilm DVD)

Besides Head-On, no other movie captured a character’s downward spiral as harrowingly and poignantly as that of teenager hustler Neil McCormick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt in an image shattering performance). He and another teenager, UFO-obsessed geek Brian (Brady Corbet), were molested years earlier by their hunky little league coach. This memory is a point of reverie for Neil, while it serves as a cryptic recollection for Brian. Although Neil outwardly flaunts his sexuality in numerous, hard-hitting encounters, he’s just as cut off from his feelings as Brokeback’s taciturn Ennis, played by Heath Ledger. With intense performances by the leads and a strong narrative, director Gregg Araki comes of age. (TLA DVD)

Jesse Eisenberg as Walt
Photo: James Hamilton

This dark domestic comedy is the year’s best prototypical Sundance film, with its middle-class family splintered by divorce, angry adolescents, awkward sexual awakenings, and narrowly-focused parents. While father Bernard (Jeff Daniels) blusters like a bull in a china store, his mocking ex-wife, the subvertively nasty Laura Linney, is his self-absorbed equal. (Teachers are bound to have encountered this type of out-of-touch parents.) Straight to the point and always engaging with self-deprecating humor, the film’s appeal is due in no small part to the effortless performances by Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline as the couple’s two bewildered sons.

Forget Crash. This vivisection of race and class, set in the Czech Republic, offers no easy redemption, if any. Two Czech black marketers sell a South Asian baby to a buffoonish hooligan and his wife (the film’s only underwritten character), while in an intersecting story line, an ailing and aloof professor reunites with his long-estranged and embittered wife only to ask for a divorce, causing one of the most tense family reunions in some time (The Family Stone has nothing on this fractured clan). Veering from black comedy to domestic drama and far from schematic, writer/director Jan Hrebejk’s incisive take on the upheaval of the global village is a strong follow-up to his Oscar-nominated Divided We Fall. (Sony Pictures DVD)

A heartwarming fable from Israel, Ushpizin is the type of well-written and thoughtful family film that some may have been clamoring for since the hugely successful and hugely formulaic My Big Fat Greek Wedding. A childless Orthodox Jewish couple only want to do the right thing. Their will power is tested when two men from the husband’s past, convicts on the lam, crash their religious observances. The film has the year’s best McGuffin - the couple’s rent money, which is just waiting to be discovered by the two uncouth criminal guests. Kent Turner, Film Review Editor

January 2, 2006


The Best of 2004


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