The Best Movies of 2005

top ten 2005
This is the official end of the 2005 Project, which followed last year’s Summer of ’92 in my obsessive quest to determine what is the best movie of my lifetime. The “closing ceremony”, so to speak, is a list of my top ten favorite movies of that year.

I’ve always remembered 2005 as one of the best years of my life. It mostly has to do with a number of personal reasons, but I was 13 at the time, which makes it right around the time I was discovering “grown-up” movies and television. However, fond memories and contemporary realities are different, and my taste has changed quite dramatically since then. Back then, my favorite movies of the year were A History of Violence, Match Pointand The Squid and the WhaleOnly one of those three movies remains in my top ten. Wanna find out what movies are on the list and why? You just have to keep reading…

Top ten best movies of 2005

Disclaimer: There are a couple of movies I wanted to watch before writing this article, but couldn’t find a decent copy of. I’ve made peace with catching up with most of them at some point in the future, but the one I’m really bummed I couldn’t get a hold on is Romanian director Cristi Puiu’s Cannes-winning The Death of Mr. LazarescuIt is, by all accounts, an essential film, and I couldn’t write a “best of 2005” list without mentioning it.

Grizzly101. Grizzly Man
(Dir. Werner Herzog / 103 min. / USA)
One of the most unique and excellent cinematic experiments. The Discovery Channel had loads of footage to make a movie about the life and tragic death of Timothy Treadwell. But instead of just making the movie, they handed the footage to Werner Herzog, a man whose personality can only be described as the absolutely opposite of Treadwell’s. The result is a magnetic dialogue in which Treadwell’s love for nature blooms from the afterlife, and Herzog tries to re-assemble the life of a mind he can barely grasp.

Film Title: Munich.2. Munich
(Dir. Steven Spielberg / 164 min. / USA)
A strong contender for Spielberg’s greatest movie, Munich is now more relevant than ever. Clearly a response to 9/11 and the war on terror, Spielberg boldly says what no one was willing to say at the time, and what most people are still unwilling to admit: violence will only bring more violence. And he did it by examining one of the most difficult subjects in all of contemporary politics. Years from now, this will be one of the key movies to understanding the politics of our world. We will hopefully look at it as a sign of change, and not an early omen of our failures.

pride083. Pride & Prejudice
(Dir. Joe Wright / 129 min. / UK)
The most delightful experience on this list. Jane Austen is obviously a genius. Literary adaptation are often dully swallowed by their own prestige. The beauty of Wright’s movie is in how excited he seems to be not only to be telling this story, but to be telling it as a movie. Lighting, costumes, sets, camera movements, editing, score, sounds, choreography… no cinematic elements goes unexplored in turning this into a movie that shares the lively enthusiasm of Austen’s prose and its main protagonist.

squid074. The Squid and the Whale
(Dir. Noah Baumbach / 81 min. / USA)
Of all the movies in this list, this one hit me in the most personal way. The life of the characters in Baumbach’s autobiographical movie has enough small similarities with my own personal history as to make me identify and consider some of the most upsetting elements about the aftermath of this disturbed family’s divorce. But it’s not that it only speaks to me, the level of detail Baumbach puts into the movie makes it ring true. There is enough here to find multiple ways into the mind of these characters. It’s not a “nice” movie, but it’s a deeply genuine one.

proposition pearce5. The Proposition
(Dir. John Hillcoat / 104 min. / Australia)
A perfectly made Australian western, The Proposition follows in the tradition of the genre by using its conventional set-up to explore deeper and darker elements of the soul. It not only makes reference to the most violent passages of Australia’s history, but it uses the wild frontier to examine the nature of justice, and how the cold and analytical nature of reason is easily defeated by the boiling hot passion of our humane feelings. These feelings make us human, but are they our greatest strength, or our biggest flaw?

newworld066. The New World
(Dir. Terrence Malick / 135 min* / USA)
I have a limited experience with Malick, but this is the only one of his movies that has truly spoken to me. The visuals, aided by genius cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, are amazing, and the structure of the pre-existing history of Jamestown and Pocahontas give Malick solid ground to build on. It might seem a little too new age-y at the start, but as it goes on, The New World reveals that by being fascinated with the world of the natives, John Smith is as complicit as anyone in Pocahontas’s tragic end. There is no way of approaching the virgin land without changing it forever.

threeburials057. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
(Dir. Tommy Lee Jones / 121 min. / USA)
There are imperfect elements to this screenplay, but the fact that both of Jones’s movies as a director have gotten as little recognition as they have is just criminal. In this beautiful allegorical tale, the friendship of a rugged all-american rancher and an undocumented Mexican immigrant is put to the test in the form of a typical Western quest across the Texan border. It’s quite a magical movie, full of poetic metaphors and heartbreaking parables about the human relationships between the two countries. On a more superficial level, Jones speaking Spanish is a delight.

warworlds088. War of the Worlds
(Dir. Steven Spielberg / 116 min. / USA)
Dismissed as corny and poisoned by Cruise’s bad publicity upon release, just a decade has been enough for me to recognize the gigantic intentions of this movie. Sure, the more corny aspects are still there (it is, after all, Spielberg), but then again, this *is* Spielberg. And this might very well be the quintessential disaster movie of our time. A movie that, through imagery and directorial strength, harkens back to the most primal fears of humanity in a world that has met the holocaust, 9/11, and global warming.

chappelle099. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party
(Dir. Michel Gondry /  103 min. / USA)
I considered this a fun movie when I first saw it. Nine years later, it shines as a defiant political document. Its most radical characteristic? It’s optimism. Chappelle is a great performer, but he is also a very intelligent man. On the face of the Bush administration back then, and on the face of gentrification and police violence now, Chappelle’s love-letter to the “hood” becomes an idealistic and powerful cry towards tolerance, community, and understanding. The funniest, most entertaining deeply radical film you’ll ever see.

Qi Shu10. Three Times
(Dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien / 120 min. / Taiwan)
Determining the 10th spot was quite hard for me. I seriously considered Brokeback Mountain, Cacheand Kiss Kiss Bang Bang for this spot, but at the end, even if I wasn’t *completely* in love with Hou’s multi-temporal love stories, there are very few movies that can compare to the very best moments in Three Times. I wasn’t a big fan of the obtuse modernity of its third act, but the second act is as audacious a filmmaking exercise as you’re going to find, and the first act is one of the most gloriously romantic segments I have ever seen in any movie. And even with my reservations towards some of the segments, the juxtaposition of these three love stories is quite powerful.

Honorable Mentions: Brokeback Mountain, Cacheand Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

And in case you’re curious, here are my favorite performances of 2005:

Lead Actor: Steve Carell (The 40 Year-Old Virgin), Robert Downey Jr (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), Tommy Lee Jones (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada), Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), Ray Winstone (The Proposition)

Lead Actress: Joan Allen (The Upside of Anger), Q’Orianke Kilcher (The New World), Keira Knightley (Pride & Prejudice), Qi Shu (Three Times), Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line)

Supporting Actor: Jeff Daniels (The Squid and the Whale), Val Kilmer (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), Barry Pepper (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada), Mickey Rourke (Sin City), Donald Sutherland (Pride & Prejudice)

Supporting Actress: Amy Adams (Junebug), Taraji P. Henson (Hustle & Flow), Catherine Keeener (The 40 Year-Old Virgin), Laura Linney (The Squid and the Whale), Jena Malone (Pride & Prejudice)

2005 Project Batch 10: The Proposition, Three Times, and L’Enfant (The Child)

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It took longer than I expected, but I expected it would. In any case, the 2005 Project has finally come to an end. This is the last batch of reviews. Next week, I’ll be on vacation at the beach, but don’t worry, I will come back a week from now with my Top Ten Movies of 2005, and since the semester’s over, the summer should allow for more writing than usual. In the meantime, here are my thoughts on three pretty good movies…

propositionposterThe Proposition (Directed by John Hillcoat)
John Hillcoat’s breakthrough movie is a violent and stylistically beautiful Australian western. And like any great western, ‘The Proposition’s depiction of the struggle to “civilize” the Australian outback is really an allegory for something deeper and grander. In this case, we are dealing with the conflict of inner judgment, and everyman’s division between pragmatic rationalism and emotional justice. The age of reason, and the law of savages.

Representing the side of reason is Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone). He is introduced to us as a villain, the “corrupt sheriff” type you could find in many westerns. As the movie goes on, however, his every move is revealed to be influenced by purely rational reasons. He presents himself as a tough guy in front of the outlaw Burns brothers because he knows that’s how he will get them to cooperate with him, and he wants to “civilize” the outback because that’s the only way his wife (Emily Watson) will survive in a world of ultraviolent men. It’s reason that drives him to strike a plan with the Burns clan, but the logical choice is rarely the most satisfying one, or the one that “feels right.” Reason doesn’t hold a candle in a world as passionate as this one.

Representing the thirst for emotional justice is Arthur Burns (Danny Houston), a fugitive bandit who is feared by both the British and the natives, who call him “dog man.” Arthur’s compass is purely based on passion. He lays at night looking at the stars and talking about how there’s nothing more valuable than love and family. He might sound like a Romantic hero, a lovable criminal, but he is a beast. A feral creature of pure instinct.

The most fascinating -and depressing- thing about ‘The Proposition’ is that here, the triumph of emotion over reason results in the most horrible outcomes. When Arthur and Stanley finally meet, Arthur doesn’t even have to try to beat Stanley into the ground. Passion is stronger, passion drives us, but passion also destroys us. Standing in the middle is Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce), the silent-cowboy type, trapped between doing what feels right, and what sounds logical. He is the man looking for redemption, his is the soul at stake in this bloody game. The answers aren’t easy, but ‘The Proposition’ is a hell of a ride.


threetimesposterThree Times 
(Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s ‘Three Times’ is divided into three stories, each of them starring Chen Chang and Qi Shu as lovers. You’ll have to excuse my ignorance, but this is the first time I’ve seen a Hou movie. What I knew going in was that he is regarded as one of the key directors in the ‘slow cinema’ movement, and that his often impenetrable movies have generated ardent fans and many haters.

On the front of being slow, there is no denying that there is very little plot to ‘Three Times’. As for it being impenetrable, well, one has to get used to its rhythms, but it doesn’t mean that it is not a rewarding experience. In fact, I found the most kinetic of the chapters to be the dullest one. Anyway, let’s talk about said chapters: “A Time for Love” is set in 1966, as a young army recruit falls in love with a pool girl. “A Time for Freedom” is set in 1911, during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, and sees a concubine unable to act on her love for a radical student. “A Time for Youth” takes place in 2005 Taipei, as a self-destructive pop star cheats on her girlfriend and hooks up with a photographer.

Saying that one of the three chapters seems counter-intuitive, because the movie is clearly designed as a conversation between them. Each chapter has its merits, and is enjoyable in its own way, but they really gain a deeper resonance when taken as a whole. The beauty of having watched ‘Three Times’ is that one can start to throw around theses about what exactly Hou was trying to say with each segment.

But if we’re going to talk about favorites, “A Time for Love” was the most enjoyable one, which makes sense, since it’s the most optimistic and utterly romantic of the three. “A Time for Freedom” is the most formally audacious one -being a silent movie with inter-titles and everything- and adopts the kind of melancholy tone I’m a sucker for. It’s “A Time for Youth” that I’m not completely sold on. It’s in this segment that the lovers’ sexuality is the most explicit, but they’re simultaneously at their most disconnected. Is Hou trying to critique modern love? That would be reductive, and quite frankly, not that interesting. I think he is trying to say much more. What, exactly, I’m not quite sure.

‘Three Times’ can turn into a little bit of a tedious viewing experience, especially towards the end, but it is also often an overwhelmingly beautiful watch. Hou’s paused musicality, the way he moves his camera, and the way the characters interact on the frame without speaking, they say much more than most movies can say in a million words. I’m still not quite sure about that last segment, but Hou is a master of the craft, and I’ve been thinking so much about ‘Three Times’ greatest moments since watching it last night.

l'enfantposterL’Enfant (The Child) (Directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne, and Luc Dardenne)
Since today was the closing ceremony of the 2015 Cannes Film Festiva, I decided it would be nice to finish my 2005 Project with a look at the movie that won the Palme D’Or ten years ago. ‘L’Enfant’ was the first Dardennes movie I ever saw, back in the late 2000s. Since then, the only other Dardennes I’ve seen is last year’s ‘Two Days, One Night’, which I really liked. As you might have inferred from my lack of devotion to the brothers’ career, I wasn’t exactly blown away by ‘L’Enfant’ back when I first saw it (although I liked it). I thought it was time for a second chance.

I hate to be anticlimactic, but I still think ‘L’Enfant’ is good, not great. It’s the story of a young couple Bruno (Jeremie Renier) and Sonia (Deborah François). Sonia has a baby. Bruno is the father. They’re both essentially kids. But while Sonia wants to do whatever she can to be a good mother, Bruno spends his life living off of petty crimes. Just as the “manchild” was starting to become a staple of American comedy, the Dardennes were making the ultimate “manchild” movie, only this wasn’t a comedic fantasy, it was an hyper-realistic drama.

But even if it’s fun to read it that way, ‘L’Enfant’ was not designed to be a response to America’s man-children. The Dardennes, from what I’ve gathered, are mostly interested in working-class parables influenced by Bresson and Italian Neorealism. As such, I’m not quite sure what to make of ‘L’Enfant’s themes and what the Dardennes are trying to say about class, need, and immaturity.

I will say this: I admire the Dardennes boldness to come up with such a tricky premise. Minor spoilers ahead, but the big plot point of the movie (which is otherwise light on plot) is that Bruno decides to sell the child. Sonia is understandably furious, and thus, begins Bruno’s quest to get back the child and gain back Sonia’s favor. Now, I don’t need to tell you that selling children is wrong. Neither do the Dardennes. They’re not trying to give us a circumstance in which such an action could be understandable, they’re trying to do something else… I just don’t know what it is.

When I first saw it, I took ‘L’Enfant’ at face value, and I thought it was a really well made movie. I still think it is. What’s more, now I think there’s something going in here thematically. I think the Dardennes had something to say with this story, and while I can’t help but invest in the lives of Sonia and Bruno, I don’t really know if the execution is giving me enough hints of the theme behind the movie. I understand that part of the Dardennes beauty is their love for the objective gaze on the face of moral dilemmas. I just don’t think the movie is giving me quite enough to fully engage with it.

2005 Project Batch 9: Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Brick

Screen shot 2015-05-13 at 1.36.44 a.m.I’m sorry it took a while (I’ve been really busy with school), but the 2005 Project continues…

blockpartypostDave Chappelle’s Block Party (Directed by Michel Gondry)
The thing that makes ‘Dave Chappelle’s Block Party’ so good is that it doesn’t assume that the mystery Block Party organized by one of the biggest comedians of the last decade changed the world forever. That sort of self-important attitude is what makes a movie like ‘Woodstock’, for example, so unbearable to watch. Chappelle’s Block Party is a gift to the ‘hood, and Michel Gondry’s movie is not as much a documentation, as it is trying to capture the essence of why Chappelle decided to invest his time and money in such a gift.

On the surface, the answer is fun. Gather a bunch of exciting artists and get a lot of people to come together and have a good time. But if you look at it deeper, it is a love letter to working class neighborhoods and their communities. It’s a subtle attack on gentrification precisely because it doesn’t feel like an attack. The movie is so relaxed and casual that you can’t help but fall into its groove. The movie will make you have a great time, and thus, you will appreciate the greatness of people coming together and sharing something with each other.

Everything about ‘Block Party’ works in its favor. The improvised cinematography, Chappelle walking around telling jokes, the interviews with the many people in the neighborhood, the marching band kids and the old ladies from Ohio, the power of the musical acts, and the way Gondry and the editors juxtapose images to turn this fun day into a utopian experience. This is a truly democratic movie. It wants to be a good time, and it ends up being so much more.

kissbangpostKiss Kiss Bang Bang (Directed by Shane Black)
Fun, and funny, and meta. What else can I say about Shane Black’s ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’? Not much, I’m afraid, except that I really like it. 2005 seems like an interesting year in that we had two neo-noirs that have endured in popularity and estimation with cinephiles (the other is Rian Johnson’s ‘Brick’). Black is a clever guy who likes writing clever dialogue, but does his movie transcend its surface pleasures? (the same question can be asked of Johnson’s ‘Brick’).

Black’s exploration of the meta-narrative and artificiality of the main character of a noir being the one that tells his own story is very funny, but doesn’t seem to want to comment on the artificiality of cinema beyond spicing up the movie with a playfully unreliable narrator. That is basically the thing that keeps me from outright loving ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’, the fact that, in the end, it is an incredibly solid movie, but doesn’t come through with the dark ending of something like Altman’s ‘The Player‘.

That being said, the movie is a lot of fun. This is the role with which Robert Downey Jr demonstrated he was ready to come back to stardom. After seeing ‘Age of Ultron’ and realizing how his schtick has reached Johnny-Depp-in-the-‘Pirate’-sequels levels of sleepwalking, I was so happy to be remembered of how fresh and exciting his resurrecting career once was. The same goes for Val Kilmer, an actor who most directors don’t seem to have any idea of how to use, but gives the best performance of his career as a gay private detective.

untitledBrick (Directed by Rian Johnson)
I admire Rian Johnson’s ‘Brick’ more than I like it. As a first film, it’s quite something. As an exercise on the functional understanding of cinematic genre, it is even more. The idea of taking the plot, feel, and aesthetics of a film noir and setting it in a contemporary high school sounds ridiculous, but there was something in the air ten years ago that gave us both ‘Veronica Mars‘ and this movie.

As far as a movie can be called effective, or well-constructed, or successful, ‘Brick’ is all of those things. Props must, and have been given extensively, to Johnson for being able to get away with having Joseph Gordon-Levitt and other high schoolers talk like hard-boiled detectives in a dead-serious movie. The guy knows how to tell a story, he knows where to place a camera, how to stage a scene, and how to cut it in order to make it sing. Why, then, does ‘Brick’ leave me feeling impressed, but also pretty cold?

Well, perfection can be alienating. I understand ‘Brick’, but I don’t feel ‘Brick’. I have little affection for the characters, which isn’t always a huge impediment to connecting with a movie. No, I think my big issue with ‘Brick’ is how difficult it is to make out the philosophy of its themes. What is the movie about? It’s a pretty cool movie, but what is it trying to say? What I’m saying is -and I feel like I’m repeating what I said about ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’- I can appreciate a well-made movie, but I can’t love a movie that doesn’t transcend into the world of meaning.

2005 Project Batch 8 aka Tarantino Edition: Domino, Hustle & Flow, and The Devil’s Rejects

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The 2005 Project continues. This time, I decided to do something a little different, as my research on the popular critical opinions of ten years ago landed on Quentin Tarantino’s list of his favorite movies of 2005. QT’s favorite movie was Sin City, which I’ve already written about (shocking that his favorite movie was the one in which he was a guest-director, isn’t it?), but here is a look at his other three favorites. I can’t find the original source of this information, so a little part of me thinks these may not be his real favorites, especially since, once put together, they look like a very obvious list of “movies Tarantino would like”. Anyway, here are my thoughts…

dominoposterDomino (Directed by Tony Scott)
It took a lot of people -myself included- way too long to realize that, out of the two Scott brothers, Tony was the more interesting auteur. While Ridley has made a career out of coasting on the goodwill of ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’, Tony was at the forefront of pushing a certain filmmaking style to its limits. And ‘Domino’ seems to be the culmination of said push.

If you thought Michael Bay movies couldn’t be more chaotic and mindless, it’s because you haven’t seen this movie. Based on the true story (“sort of”) of bounty hunter Domino Harvey (who Tony Scott was friends with), ‘Domino’ is a piss-yellow pastiche of schizophrenic editing, unnecessarily complicated plot, and hyperactive cinematography. Judging from this film, Scott doesn’t believe there is a scene that wouldn’t benefit from more shots, more cutting, more sound effects, more everything. If it sounds like too much, it’s because it is. Watching ‘Domino’ is exhausting.

I kind of admire Scott going all-in on such an aggressive aesthetic, but there is practically no way of defending ‘Domino’ as a good movie. Personally, I can’t handle its suffocating style, and the content of the movie doesn’t help. Supposedly, Scott hired screenwriter Richard Kelly (of Donnie Darko fame) to pen the movie after reading his script for ‘Southland Tales’. Those who have seen ‘Southland Tales’ will know it to be one of the most incoherent movies ever made. ‘Domino’ has very little to envy ‘Southland Tales’ as far as incoherence is concerned.

The story of a badass female bounty-hunter sounds like the premise for a movie with at least attempts at some feminist undertones, but ‘Domino’ seems too interested in giving male audience members a boner (be it through “tits”, or be it through violence), that I can’t really find an alternative reading. But believe me when I say that ‘Domino’ is such a bonkers movie that I tried to like it. At the end of the day, though, I couldn’t.

hustleandflowposterHustle & Flow (Directed by Craig Brewer)
I’m conflicted about ‘Hustle & Flow’. On the one hand, director Craig Brewer does a pretty fantastic job of immersing us in the world of these characters and the poorer parts of town during an unbearably warm Memphis summer. Brewer is a longtime Memphis resident, so that might have something to do with this. He crafts a movie that is almost always entertaining, and very committed to its main character and its themes of redemption on the face of impossibility.

The most memorable part of the movie, for me, is Taraji P. Henson’s performance. She has become a huge star playing a smart music executive in Fox’s ‘Empire’, but in her breakthrough role, she plays a shy pregnant prostitute who gets a small glimpse of a more fulfilling life. The expression on Henson’s face is priceless, as if the character were feeling these feelings for the first time in her life.

It’s a moving performance, that is nonetheless undercut by the blatant misogyny of the piece. The story of Henson’s characters (and the other prostitutes, if I’m being honest) is much more interesting to me than DJay’s. Terrence Howard was nominated for this role, but it’s hard for me to sympathize with a character and a movie that seem to think (at least on one level) that this man can’t achieve his dream because all these women are keeping him down.

The refrain of the song that is supposed to be DJay’s masterpiece basically says that “It’s hard out here for a pimp” because his money situation will result in a “whole lot of bitches jumping ship”. There are a couple of moments when we see the true ugliness of the relationship between this pimp and his women, but for the most part, he is sacrificing himself for his makeshift family. It’s a well made and well acted movie that nonetheless rubs the wrong way.

devilsrejectsposterThe Devil’s Rejects (Directed by Rob Zombie)
Rob Zombie’s ‘The Devil’s Rejects’ is a movie that is simply not made for me. Despite having a very dark and very stupid sense of humor that I really appreciate (the scene with the film critic is fabulously absurd), the movie doesn’t really apply that funny bone to its thrills and its carnage.

Sure, this is a movie about despicable people being despicable to one another (and I have to commend a movie so boldly twisted that it asks us, without any irony or redemptive arch, to sympathize with a group of serial killers), but the problem here is that Zombie pays too close a tribute to the exploitation movies of his youth. The obvious comparison when talking about homages to the 70s is Tarantino, who is a guy that, for all his flaws, knows how to create interesting characters and good stories within the stylistic frames of the B-movies he likes. Zombie skews so close to his inspirations, that his movie is similarly limited.

Limited in what way? Well, horror movies are not known for having good characters, and this one is no exception. Why lose time developing personalities when the characters are going to be killed off? It makes sense, in a practical way, and thus ‘The Devil’s Rejects’ ends up being a particularly gross movie with much appreciated touches of dark comedy. Which isn’t too bad, but it’s a pity, when you consider how much more interesting it would be if Zombie’s sense of humor and his thirst for extreme violence were better integrated. There are moments in this movie that made me laugh, and moments that made me quiver, but there were no moments that made me do both.

2005 Project Batch 7: The Constant Gardener, The Descent, and The Squid and the Whale

theconstantgardenerbanner

The 2005 Project continues with two disappointments, and a movie that revealed itself to be much more meaningful to my life than I remembered.

ConstantGardenerPosterThe Constant Gardener (Directed by Fernando Meirelles)

Fernando Meirelles’s style of filmmaking has gotten very tired in very little time. I mean, it has been ten years, but we still have shaky, faux-documentary style thrillers, but in comparison to more precise directors like Michael Mann and Paul Greengrass, Meirelles seems like an amatuer. The reason? There is a lot of cutting, a lot of shaking, a lot of coverage, a lot of angles, but the saturation of images doesn’t seem to be saying much at all.

This is not to say that there aren’t good things about ‘The Constant Gardener’. It’s cinematography is messy and incongruent, but the editing (by Claire Simpson), creates some interesting rhythms. Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz are at the top of their game in the lead roles of a couple trapped in the middle of a pharmaceutical conspiracy. As a matter of fact, the nature of the relationship (why does Weisz’s fierce activist marry Fiennes’s cowardly diplomat) is a bigger and more interesting mystery than the one suggested by the plot. We all know pharmaceutical companies are bad, we don’t need the fact to be revealed in a three-act structure.

In a way, ‘The Constant Gardener’ embarks in a doomed mission. It is the type of movie that has an agreeable, humane, message, but fails in execution. This is the problem of being (or at least looking like) an “important” movie. You can’t be imperfect, you can’t be silly. If you are, then you’re less “important”, and you fail. ‘The Constant Gardener’ doesn’t exactly fail. But it is unsubtle in a way that doesn’t help yet another movie about African suffering that has a straight white male as its protagonist.

descentposterThe Descent (Directed by Neil Marshall)

By and large, horror movies are not my thing. At least not in the traditional definition of the genre. I appreciate movies that succeed at being particularly haunting, but if we’re talking straight-up horror, well, I tend to only like those if they are particularly fun (like Drag Me to Hell), or extremely well-made (like last year’s The Babadook). Neil Marshall’s ‘The Descent’, while not without merit, is neither of those things.

‘The Descent’ was widely praised upon its release, so why don’t I like it? I think it’s because I’m a big character guy, and horror characters, for some reason, tend to be bland and forgettable (maybe so we won’t miss them when they die?). The women of ‘The Descent’ are a decent try at making interesting, psychologically complex characters, but they don’t do it for me. The first part of the movie, before the “adventure” begins, is insipid both in style and in substance. Once we get into the cave, the stage is set for jump-scares and gory violence. There are some decent sequences here, but at the end of the day, I just don’t care.

On a more positive note, what does ‘The Descent’ get right? The feeling of claustrophobia. The scariest parts of the movie are not when the Gollum-like creatures attack, but when the cave starts to crumble on top of our protagonists. Call me crazy, but if your idea of fun is to go into a deadly narrow cave, then I think you probably deserve to die in there.

squidandthewhaleposterThe Squid and the Whale (Directed by Noah Baumbach)

I saw this for the first time in early 2006, I kind of loved it, but I couldn’t really figure out why. I was still a very impressionable movie watcher, and a couple of elements jumped out and stayed with me ever since. Watching it again for the first time, removed (at least a little bit) from my teenage years, turns out to be revealing. I see a lot of myself, and my life, in this movie. The things that happen here are a little nastier than my own experience (or at least that’s what I like to believe), but there is enormous, honest truth in ‘The Squid and the Whale’.

Setting the more personal stuff aside, the more I watch from Noah Baumbach, the more I’m impressed and interested in him as a director. He made this one after co-writing The Life Aquatic, and it was produced by Wes Anderson. You can see some of the influence in the dialogue, but unlike Anderson’s calculated surfaces, ‘The Squid and the Whale’ has a guttural sense of immediacy (maybe influenced by Cassavetes?). The movie it reminded me the most of, is last year’s Listen Up Philip by Alex Ross Perry, another fascinating director.

I’m afraid I can’t write much more about ‘The Squid and the Whale’ (maybe I’ll try in the future). But I think it is a hilarious movie, often infuriating, touching. Some of the things that happen here, and some of the characters’ points of view make me feel particularly uncomfortable, but only because I can see myself in them. This might be too personal a reason to like a movie, but if what we search in movies is “truth”, then this is a successful movie.

2005 Project Batch 6: Match Point, Sin City, and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

MatchPointCover
I’m having so much fun watching all the movies in this 2005 Project, I hope you’re having fun reading these write-ups.

MatchPointposterMatch Point (Directed by Woody Allen)

The first time I saw this, I was thirteen years old. It was my first Woody Allen. I knew at the time (as I do now) that it was a weird place to start, but I loved it nonetheless. The second time I saw it, it was in my Theater 101 class. We were talking about modern interpretations of what constitutes “tragedy”. There was a lot of talk about luck, punishment, and Dostoyevsky.

This is my third time watching the movie, and the time I’ve enjoyed it the least. I still think it’s a pretty good movie, I just don’t love it like I used to. I won’t lie and say that this is not influenced by the fact that I’ve since watching ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’, which this movie resembles a lot. The themes are similar, but to be honest, I prefer ‘Crimes’s exploration of guilt more than I do ‘Match Point’s exploration of luck (it just isn’t as interesting a topic).

What ‘Match Point’ does wrong is that it over-explains its themes, especially in the hallucinatory sequence towards the end. What ‘Match Point’ does well, is present us with a Woody who can still flex certain unexpected muscles. It might seem like faint praise to like ‘Match Point’ because it’s so different to Woody’s other movies, but it kind of is the reason why I like it.

Also, Matthew Goode is so cool. We need more Matthew Goode in our movies.

SinCItyposterSin City (Directed by Robert Rodriguez “and” Frank Miller)

How come ‘Sin City’ was greeted with a fairly positive reception back in 2005, and its sequel, ‘Sin City: A Dame to Kill For’ was outright despised when it came out last year? After rewatching ‘Sin City’ (which I thought was ok on its original release), I can only conclude that critics and audiences were responding mostly to its visual style (which was a novelty at the time), and were turning on the blinds towards its ridiculously backwards ideologies.

Yes, on the one hand our internet culture has (thankfully) evolved in a way where a movie as misogynistic as this one can no longer be released without a thousand think-pieces criticizing it. On the other, more people should’ve complained back when it premiered.

Frank Miller is a terrible writer, and ‘Sin City’ shows why translating a comic book verbatim to the screen is a bad idea. You know what they say, “everything works on paper”, but Miller’s prose cannot survive a journey to the movies. I am just not patient enough to deal with two hours of righteous, old, white, tough, invincible, brooding, anti-heroic men. This is male fantasy bullshit both its in sexual politics and its violence (I can’t believe how many people are stabbed, sliced, or shot in the dick).

That being said, there are some bright spots. I particularly enjoy Brittany Murphy, who seems aware of how ridiculous the words she’s saying are. And particularly great is Mickey Rourke, who takes the whole thing seriously and gives into a fascinatingly problematic and fucked up character.

MelquiadesEstradaThe Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Directed by Tommy Lee Jones)

‘The Homesman’, the second feature directed by actor Tommy Lee Jones is one of the best movies I saw last year. Despite it being absolutely amazing, not many have even heard about it. The same can be said for ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’, which was Jones’s first feature, and despite winning two awards at Cannes (actor for Jones, screenplay for Guillermo Arriaga), didn’t get much attention when it was released stateside.

Both movies are very similar in structure. They’re both revisionist westerns, and they both center on two opposing characters going together on a mission that has an ending more melancholic than satisfying. But the things they have to say about the Western -which is the genre best suited to represent America and its history- are quite different.

At the center of ‘Melquiades Estrada’ is the relationship between the United States and Mexico. Jones’s character, Pete, is American, and his buddy Melquiades (Julio Cedillo) is Mexican. Melquiades gets killed, and its up to Pete to fulfill the promise of taking his body south of the border to his family.

The big symbolic element here is Melquiades himself, or actually, Melquiades’s corpse, which Pete treats with a love and devotion that has only been seen… well, in any two male characters who bond in a Western. -With Brokeback Mountain, and now this movie- was 2005 a banner year for pointing out the homoeroticism in the mythical American West? In any case, there has to be some sort of symbolism in an American carrying and caring for the corpse of an undocumented Mexican worker.

You shouldn’t doubt the symbolism is there, because like I said before, the movie was written by Guillermo Arriaga, the unsubtle man responsible for writing ’21 Grams’ and ‘Babel’. Luckily, this is his best screenplay. lt’s not flawless (we spend more time than necessary with certain supporting characters), but it’s slick and ripe for interpretation.

Jones is a great actor (and he gives one of his best performances here), but he is an equally great director. He should make more movies, and more people should see and analyze ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’.

2005 Project Batch 5 a.k.a. The Romance Edition: Brokeback Mountain, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, and Pride & Prejudice

brokebackmountainWas I in a romantic mood? I don’t know, but the 2005 Project churns along with three movies about love, and the many ways in which it can be complicated.

brokebackposterBrokeback Mountain (Directed by Ang Lee)

Although I’ve always found ‘Brokeback Mountain’ to be a really good movie, there’s always been something that keeps me from outright loving it.

I don’t know what it is, because I do believe this is the perfect update of a classic, old-fashioned forbidden romance for the 21st century. It is not really trying to make a political statement by using the cowboy image and applying it to homosexual rights and relationships, but rather making a political statement by virtue of the inner life of its own characters.

This movie’s power lives within its characters, and so does its conflict. The movie’s biggest success is that it is not a story about star-crossed lovers being kept down by society, but the story of two men (and Heath Ledger’s character especially) who are the worst enemy of their own relationship. Ennis Del Mar just wants to be a “regular” guy, with a wife and family. He is a product of the society he grew up in, and can’t help himself in his tragedy. “Love is a force of nature” was the movie’s tagline, and it’s surprisingly loyal to the film’s themes.

And yes, it is incredibly well made. Heath Ledger’s performance in particular is beyond moving, and Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography nostalgic in its distant elegance. What, then, keeps me from loving the movie? I think there’s something about the pace of the film (compromised of mostly short scenes and sequences) that is the issue here. Because other than that, I can’t really find anything else that I don’t like.

corpsebrideposterTim Burton’s Corpse Bride (Directed by Tim Burton, Mike Johnson)

The title, as it appears in the opening credits, makes it seem like Burton is the protagonist of his own movie. Considering how much ‘Corpse Bride’ follows his patented visual style, I guess he kind of is.

Like most Burton films, though, ‘Corpse Bride’ starts out with a pretty cool premise, and doesn’t really know where to go with it except to the most conventional places imaginable. It’s curious, isn’t it, that one of the most idiosyncratic directors when it comes to visual design tends to so often go for traditionally and predictably structured screenplays.

Being familiar with Burton’s style means not being surprised by ‘Corpse Bride’, which houses a bunch of clever gags and a couple of lovely scenes (mostly when characters play the piano), but also falls in the trap of being as much like the animated movies that have come before it as it can. Not necessarily in its morbid fascinations, but in its structure. The music by Danny Elfman is forgettable, as are most of the supporting characters. In short, ‘Corpse Bride’ is a neat idea that the filmmakers didn’t know how to stretch into a feature.

It’s worth noting that this is one of the first features animated by Laika, one of the best animation studios working today. The animation is a little rigid compared to her later iterations, but not less beautiful (it might have more to do with the design of the characters than the quality of the work). Visually speaking, even if a little familiar thanks to the Burton connection, ‘Corpse Bride’ looks very good. Luckily for Laika, they later found better scripts to work on.

prideandprejudiceposterPride & Prejudice (Directed by Joe Wright)

We all have our favorite directors. We follow them anywhere, no matter how bizarre their next project sounds, and we often (but not always) forgive and forget their mistakes. Some of my favorites, like Wes Anderson and the Coen Brothers, are loves that many cinephiles will share. A much more singular love of mine, I’ve found out, is my admiration for the work of Joe Wright. I don’t seize to be amazed by the exciting twists and turns Wright’s career has taken, especially when most filmmakers couldn’t have gone anywhere but down after bursting into the scene with a first feature as perfect as his.

Wright’s ‘Pride & Prejudice’ is a triumph. It is the rare literary adaptation that is actually excited to be cinema, as it looks at the world around it with the same curiosity as its protagonist. And Wright’s cinematic “tricks” are not here because of edgy impatience, but merely in order to best serve the material, communicating through images and not only with words (something that most novels forget when they make their way to the screen). I simply can’t resist the tableaus Wright (and cinematographer Ronan Osin) create with the moving camera, and how pages of the novel are translated into a single image.

Lizzie Bennett (played wonderfully by Keira Knightley) is one of the greatest female heroines, and ‘Pride & Prejudice’ one of the finest novels by one of the finest writers ever. You would have to be a huge idiot to screw this movie up, so I’m incredibly thankful that someone as inspired and passionate as Wright got to make it. Some of the most impressionistic images in this movie could be described as outright delicious. I don’t care that not many people are as into Wright as I am, I am more than happy to have him all to myself.