This Top 10 is actually a 20, because sometimes ten just isn’t enough.
Actually, it’s because that’s how I wrote it back when it was originally published a decade ago, and if I’m bothering to re-post it I may as well re-post the whole thing, right?
This stop on my time-traveling Top Ten tour takes us back ten years to 2005, to what is probably my most controversial #1 pick ever. (And also one of the most controversial Best Picture winners of an Academy Award ever, too.) I won’t spoil it here, but if you’re familiar with the year (and my tastes), then you probably know it already.
And you know what? I still stand by that choice a decade later. Looking back on these lists sometimes make me want to rearrange things, and occasionally makes me want to omit a choice entirely in favor of something else. Something that seems great in the moment doesn’t always stand the test of time. There are movies on this list — and any list — that don’t end up provoking much thought down the line, that I never bothered to watch again, while others are still as viscerally amazing now as they ever were and have been rewatched several times since.
Of course, picking the best films of any given year is not an exact science, especially when you’re in the moment, rather than looking back on the year with some context at a future date. So, on that note, you’ll read what I had to say about each film then, and I’ve also decided to include notes at the bottom of each entry explaining what my relationship to the film is now, and how my opinion may have differed.
Got it? Okay. Let’s go back in time.
True to his trademark, Terence Malick meanders through his narrative and lingers on gorgeous shots sometimes too often and sometimes too long. But at its best, the film is lyrical and beautiful, and Q’Orianka Kilcher (fifteen years old, ladies and gentlemen!) is a marvel as Pocahontas. When Malick uses Richard Wagner’s “Vorspiel” as score when his characters discover lands they’ve never known, it really does feel like he’s unveiling a whole new world (and painting with all the colors of the wind, too).
(I haven’t revisited this film since its release, probably in part because I do remember it being slow and rather slight. This is probably the Malick film I’d be most curious to revisit, however.)
19. HUSTLE & FLOW
For a movie so immersed in its authentic, down-and-dirty Memphis locale, Hustle & Flow makes it look awfully easy to get out if you just have a dream. But what the film lacks in plausibility, it makes up for in kinetic fun, and the rap tracks are awfully catchy. (It is, indeed, hard out here for a pimp.) Terrence Howard, as the pimp-turned-musician, shows again that he’s an underrated actor.
(A decade later, Howard is enjoying a bit of a renaissance, and this is another film I haven’t seen since 2005. I wasn’t impressed with much of what Howard or director Craig Brewer did afterward, though I think for #19, this is in the right spot.)
18. NINE LIVES
Rodrigo Garcia tells nine separate stories of women (not cats, as you might think from that title) that unfold in a single take. The most brilliant thing is that we barely notice. Robin Wright Penn, Holly Hunter, Kathy Baker, Glenn Close, and Dakota Fanning are just some of the names in a uniformly superb cast.
(I love me some Rodrigo Garcia, but this is the film of his I remember the least. I’d recommend Mother & Child and Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her before this one.)
17. ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW
Miranda July wrote, directed, and stars in this quirky indie piece about a kooky performance artist and the equally kooky people around her. With material that in any other movie would feel edgy, July simply makes us laugh. A lot.
(I remember July’s The Future better than this one, probably because I saw it more recently. The thing I remember best is that it inspired a particularly nasty Cards Against Humanity card, which I suppose should count for something.)
16. THE CONSTANT GARDENER
Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz bring more gravity than usual to the standard “big bad corporation kills people” thriller. The urgent direction by Fernando Meirelles is definitely above par… it’s a classy movie that makes us feel smarter for watching it. And maybe we are.
That the film’s title refers more to an illicit way to end a massage than to a cheerful conclusion to this story is telling of the film’s sense of humor. Early on, Lisa Kudrow’s character is hit by a car, but a title card tells us not to worry, “she doesn’t die.” (Lisa Kudrow being hit by a car tends to be funny, and can also be found in Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion.) Happy Endings is the kind of indie ensemble that requires a good deal of explaining to give a sense of what it’s truly about, so I’ll just mention who’s in it — Kudrow, Laura Dern, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tom Arnold, Jesse Bradford, and Kevin (son of John) Ritter — and promise that they are all very good. (Yep, even Tom Arnold.) The film presents likable characters in very unusual predicaments, and watching them play off each other is alternately funny and touching. As for a happy ending, well… see for yourself.
(Aha! Finally a film I have seen again since 2005. Happy Endings has held up really well, in my opinion, and if I had it to do over it would probably be in my Top Ten.)
14. HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE
As I’ve heard from Potterphiles on several occasions, J.K. Rowling’s fourth installment in the series is meant to transition into darker, more adult themes. Whoops! Alfonso Cuaron did that last year with the excellent Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, conjuring directorial panache that made the story’s magic come alive in ways Chris Columbus never did (and making the series a treat for older audiences, too). British director Mike Newell takes a step or two back with more traditional (though still competent) direction and less urgent pacing. Goblet of Fire still delivers all the Potter goods, from the three engaging leads (aging well, I must say), a colorful ensemble of stalwart British thesps, and razzle-dazzle to spare. Though the film’s climax doesn’t have quite the punch it should, it certainly leaves me eagerly awaiting the next installment.
(The only Potter film I’ve seen more than once is Azkaban, and it remains my favorite. Most of these middle entries tend to bleed together in my memory, up until the 7th and 8th, which came across as more distinct.)
Felicity Huffman gives the year’s best performance and goes a long way in making this occasionally convoluted story compelling. As Bree, a pre-op transgendered male-to-female, Huffman disappears into her role in a way that not even Charlize Theron was able to do in her Academy Award-winning turn as Aileen Wournos in Monster, nor Hilary Swank in her Oscar-winning role in Boys Don’t Cry. It’s almost too bad Huffman is a household name thanks to Desperate Housewives, or else people would be wondering whether she was, in truth, a man or a woman. Bree is not the carefree, in-your-face, take-no-prisoners character you might expect (and surely have seen) from a story with a transsexual protaganist — she is a mild-mannered, righteous person who would be very at home at a ladies’ garden club meeting if not for her penis.
As the title suggests, Transamerica is a road movie in which Bree gets to know the son (Kevin Zegers) she never knew she had, whose highest ambition is to be in gay porn. The dynamic between Bree and her son Toby is pitched just right and it’s what makes this movie work. What so easily could have been cheaply melodramatic and preachy becomes emotionally affecting and very watchable instead, and if the story itself isn’t always convincing, the characters sure are. What the screenplay and direction lack the actors more than make up for, transcending the material and providing entertainment that urges us to just accept it for what it is.
(This movie still strikes me as a little shaggy around the edges, and fairly hovers outside my Top Ten. It’s particularly interesting to look at it during what has been the biggest year in trans visibility to date, with Transparent and Bruce Jenner dominating awards shows and magazine covers. Transamerica is the first film I know of that got this ball rolling, and deserves some credit for that.)
Joss Whedon turned a failed movie into a hit TV series with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Here, he attempted to do the opposite and did not succeed. Apart from fans of the cult sci-fi series Firefly, audiences stayed away from Serenity, which is too bad — with rousing action, witty characters, smart direction, genuine surprises, and laughs and scares alike, it’s the movie Star Wars Episode III should have been. A space odyssey in which we actually care about the characters? Now that’s out of this world. This is the year’s best popcorn movie.
(Joss Whedon certainly did alright for himself, didn’t he? Serenity was a necessary step on the ladder that rather quickly landed Whedon The Avengers… which turned out to be a very good popcorn movie, too. Although I think, for what it is, Serenity might be even better.)
11. CINDERELLA MAN
Preachy marketing and an inappropriate summer release date kept Cinderella Man from being a bona fide hit, and Russell Crowe’s real-life can of whoop-ass overshadowing subject Benjamin Braddock’s didn’t help either. But what audiences missed were spectacular performances from Crowe, Renee Zellweger, and Paul Giamatti, solid direction by Ron Howard, and a true feel-good story (that is not quite as ra-ra America as the initial marketing proclaimed). Script, cinematography, performances, direction, and everything else come together to tell this story just the way it should be told. Sometimes the big studio dramas really do get it right.
(And sometimes you completely forget about them. I haven’t seen Cinderella Man since its release, and to be honest, I haven’t really had an urge to. This particular brand of Hollywood movie doesn’t age well in my mind, though I’d have to watch it again to confirm that fairly.)
And now for the real Top Ten…
In a year in which critics and audiences hailed Wedding Crashers, a ribald comedy that, in terms of cohesive, coherent storytelling, simply wasn’t very good, we can be extra grateful for The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which tells a solid story that would be good even if there wasn’t a single laugh in it. (Fortunately, it’s hilarious too.) The script and direction are shaggy and imperfect at times, but at its center is a sympathetic and (dare I say) believable protagonist who consistently encounters the dark side of casual sex that is so often overlooked.
Steve Carrell must face the obscenely drunk girl, the raging whore, and other frightening foes before he finds the woman of his dreams, played by the wonderful Catherine Keener (who goes a long way in making this movie so likable). Yes, there are some raunchy parts, and the script is skewed toward a male demographic, but at its center the movie is sweet and charming — the off-color laughs being a fortunate bonus. As a crowd-pleasing comedy, The 40-Year-Old-Virgin is the rare one that actually delivers.
(I still think this is Apatow’s best work.)
There’s something very sexy about Nola (Scarlett Johansson). More than her husky voice, more than her smoldering looks, more than that predatory confidence she displays, there’s a vulnerability behind it all that makes her irresistible (though we all know it’d be much wiser to resist her). Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) certainly sees it, and if he’s a little sketchy as a character it’s because we’re meant to identify with him as he marries into the lifestyle of the rich and fabulous. That lifestyle, of course, comes at a price — the price being that his wife is too perfect, and things are a bit tedious when he’s with her. He wants her upper crust life but can’t identify with it — instead, he identifies with the similarly-classed Nola, and fixates upon her.
Match Point is a movie about wanting what we can’t have — or at least shouldn’t have, for then we must pay the price… and Allen is clever enough to know that even acceptance from the mighty isn’t quite enough to ever belong. That is the basis for the fatal attraction between Chris and Nola. The well-to-do are completely clueless about the ambitions and desires of the have-nots in this movie, and it’s just as well — they’d rather not know. Certainly one of Woody Allen’s darkest films, this one displays his long-dormant talent for compelling characters and sharp dialogue. Gone is the typical neurotic, rambling Woody character he often portrays himself, though Chris is not too far off — chasing an ideal. The difference is, Chris is ruthless enough to have it, whereas Woody never has been. ‘Til now.
(I haven’t revisited this film in a long time, though it did mark an important turning point for Allen. He still misses as often as he hits, but he’s made a few very worthwhile films in the vein of this one, whereas his frothier comedies are not usually so compelling.)
This film is a good film, but the title is the main reason why it’s on my Top 10. It is the reason I went to see the movie. Don’t get me wrong — the film is good enough to belong on this list, and that is partly because its title so neatly defines what this movie is about — a clash of the titans. To outsiders, the spats between Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney would seem nothing more than lovers’ quarrels between two people who are no longer right for each other, but experienced through the eyes of their two sons, their battles are epic, larger than life.
The Squid And The Whale gives each member of the family equal consideration, and equal importance—somehow we see things through the naive eyes of its adolescent protagonists and also see the truth beyond what they can see in the thick of things. The parents are flawed people who make real mistakes, and this is the unusual film that does not ask us to like or dislike them as people. The same is true of the children. There are no conclusions to be drawn from this simple, honest, truthfully-acted film, and no lessons to be learned. It is merely a study of a family falling apart and coming together, again and again, the way real families do.
(Sorry to be redundant, but I haven’t seen this one again either. I’ve really enjoyed some of Baumbach’s subsequent work, though — Frances Ha in particular — so I’d love to go back and revisit this.)
There’s quite a lot left out of Good Night, And Good Luck that most writers would have included — the film almost feels too slight for its own good. But George Clooney’s luminous drama about the McCarthy era depicts what is on screen just right — complete with fine acting and a convincing atmosphere, all in glorious black and white. David Strathairn’s performance is certainly Oscar caliber, and the shadowy cinematography sublimely reflects a society scared into silence.
Journalism is the central character in this film, with real news footage edited into the film’s depiction of behind-the-scenes politics at CBS, and at the end we feel grateful for bold journalists like Edward R. Murrow. Without their opposition the course of our nation might have been dramatically altered… and we’d never see a movie like this.
(This is still the peak of George Clooney’s career as a director, although he’s certainly made himself a staple at the Oscars one way or another ever since. That said, this film is not discussed often, and I’m guessing that the look and Straitharn’s performance remain its most notable attributes.)
The film’s title could very well speak for the career of the film’s director, David Cronenberg, who also has a history of weirdness in his films… and this one is no exception. The world in A History of Violence is just this side of reality, though its dramatization of the innate violence inside us is utterly truthful. Viggo Mortensen portrays Tom Stall, a man who has successfully contained the aggression within — until a holdup at his diner compels him to kill again.
That one act of violence, though in self-defense, triggers a chain of further bloodshed… people act out in ways they didn’t expect of themselves, unleashing inner demons they didn’t know they had. Tom’s son gets into fights at school, Tom and his wife engage in some very aggressive love-making… it’s not just the heroes and villains who’ve got a history of violence here. For delving deeper and darker into these characters than most stories would, A History of Violence is one of the year’s most compelling films. Is it better to confront our true nature or deny it and live in a contained harmony?, the films asks, but never quite answers.
(I still haven’t caught up with most of Cronenberg’s early work, but I’ve seen every one of his films since this one, and I always appreciate the off-kilter weirdness he brings to stories that could be much more straightforward in other hands… he ended up on my 2014 Top Ten, too. This is still probably his best film of the bunch.)
It’s ironic that such a quiet, introspective film has received so much publicity for its unapologetic portrayal of a homosexual relationship. Ennis and Jack certainly wouldn’t want such a fuss. Brokeback Mountain, in fact, should be applauded for how revolutionary it isn’t — it makes no compromises for the fact that its romantic leads are men, nor does it add anything to the story that wouldn’t be necessary if it was a romance between Heath Ledger and Maggie Gyllenhaal. It is like any other story of doomed lovers, and the combination of the time, the place, and their gender just happens to be what keeps them apart.
As directed by jack of all genres Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain uses the ambling pace and wide-open, spartan iconography of typical Westerns to ground the story, leaving all traces of progressiveness to the media coverage. Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger are both convincing, thankfully without “playing gay.” Much is made of Brokeback Mountain being a love story, and it is… but I prefer to think of it as a buddy movie with benefits.
(Brokeback Mountain is still iconic, largely because Ledger passed away just a couple years later, and this was his defining performance up until The Dark Knight won him an Oscar posthumously. It’s both a romance and a tragedy, an important sign of its time, when homosexual pairings were still viewed much more suspiciously than they are now. It’s kind of amazing to view this movie as a response to that, and see how different things are just a decade later. That said, I never thought this movie should have won Best Picture, though it certainly would have been more symbolically significant.)
Joaquin Phoneix’s performance may be less showy than Jamie Foxx’s Academy Award-winning turn in Ray last year, but that’s part of what makes Walk The Line such a great film. Phoenix embodies Johnny Cash so naturally, you forget you’re watching a biopic… you’re watching a fascinating character who just happens to come up with some of the greatest country songs ever recorded along the way. Sure, the typical musician biopic staples are in place — childhood trauma, disapproving parents, womanizing, drug abuse — but what helps Walk The Line rise above that is that, at heart, it’s a real love story between two dynamic people (and not just checking the “love story” box off the biopic checklist).
Reese Witherspoon shows off her acting chops as June Carter, an equally compelling character who is afraid to be with Johnny for the same reasons she loves him. The songs featured in the movie are not just placed there because Johnny Cash sang them, but are actually fueled by June and Johnny’s relationship; they help move the story along. It’s refreshing to see a movie about a musician that seems like it would exist even without the iconic artist in question. Walk The Line contains not only love for Johnny Cash the musician, but who Johnny Cash was a man — lonely, brooding, and one of a kind.
(This movie gets a bit of flack for being too biopic-y, but I still love it. I wouldn’t want to take Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar away, given his untimely death, but I do prefer Phoenix’s performance as Johnny Cash.)
Munich is no Schindler’s List, and that’s one of the best things that can be said about it. Though the heavy subject matter isn’t far from his 1993 masterwork, Spielberg does not attempt to recreate or outdo his Oscar-sweeping triumph and instead delivers a taut thriller that resonates with moral ambiguity to prove that, even as the best-known filmmaker of the past several decades, he’s still maturing as a storyteller.
Munich takes place in 1972 but, even better, feels like it was made back then, when studios spent big money to let autuers tell large-scale, lengthy masterpieces (and people went to see them). We empathize with the assassins in Munich, though we do not necessarily believe what they are doing is right, or what anyone is doing is right. The characters sometimes question whether what their actions are helpful, without questioning whether or not they should carry them out. Violence begets more violence, vengeance begets more vengeance, and at the end there is not more peace, but more bodies. There is no trace of the too-saccharine Spielbergian ending that marred this year’s otherwise-excellent War of the Worlds… there is no conclusion at all, the only fitting ending to a story with so many wrongs and no right.
(This film holds up pretty well in Spielberg’s canon, a cut above more recent efforts like War Horse and Lincoln. It’s his best film in the last decade, though I’d like to see him outdo it, since it’s still not amongst his top five or maybe then top ten.)
2. MYSTERIOUS SKIN
While Brokeback Mountain will go down in history as 2005’s groundbreaking gay love story, Gregg Araki’s haunting, little-seen Mysterious Skin is, for my money, edgier, deeper, and far more affecting. In the film, two eight-year old boys are molested by their Little League coach one summer; by the time the boys are 18, one of them is a prostitute while the other has convinced himself the “missing hours” from his life are attributed to an alien abduction. Neil and Brian don’t know each other; the film tells their stories separately until Brian begins to remember another boy who may have been “abducted” too.
The film covers all its bases without resorting to tired cliches about sexual abuse — from what we know about Neil, it was almost inevitable he’d become a hooker with or without his coach’s influence. He remembers that summer fondly. Brian, however, internalizes his trauma to the point of asexuality. By showing us two widely contrasting characters dealing with the same trauma, the film wisely avoids an oversimplified, after-school special mentality. Araki is fearless, delving into the film’s darkest material headfirst to show how a sexual predator might charm his way into the life of a boy under the guise of a father figure.
The performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbett are some of the best this year. Gordon-Levitt, in particular, should be commended for making what might have been a teen-whore caricature real and vulnerable. When the boys finally meet again in the film’s haunting final scene, it suggests that the most intriguing, most hopeful part of this story lies just beyond the closing credits — we can only imagine how their lives unwind from here. The need they have for each other at that moment is far greater than love and certainly not motivated by sexual orientation — it’s something even Ennis and Jack could envy.
(I still think this is one of the great underrated indies of the past decade. My admiration has only grown. It was the first real display of Gordon-Levitt’s chops, which have been much heralded since, though I wish Araki would make another film that lives up to this one.)
Everyone’s a little bit racist. Cowriter/director Paul Haggis takes this hot-button issue so head-on, some critics and moviegoers felt sideswiped… and listening to lovers and haters try to defend their Crash position is one of the year’s best cinematic debates. In any event, that this is one of the most divisive films of the year only proves that Crash is doing something right.
Crash, like many films before it, takes a group of barely-connected strangers and weaves them together on a string of coincidences — here, the forum is race relations in Los Angeles. What many of its detractors missed is that Crash is a metaphor — the characters say blatant, bigoted things to people of other races, things that are often left implied but unsaid in today’s PC world. They’re speaking what is unspoken… the characters experience the world not the way it is, but the way it seems.
Take the film’s most powerful scene, during which a black woman (Thandie Newton) is trapped in a burning car, and a white police officer (Matt Dillon) tries to save her. She tells him to go away — why? Because this is the man who molested and humiliated her the night before. It is unlikely that the exact same man who harassed the woman less than 24 hours ago would find himself pulling her out of a burning vehicle, but it is very likely that the woman, having just been violated by a white policeman, would refuse help from a white officer even when her life depends on it. But during this crucial moment, a new relationship is formed… she is a person who needs help, he is a person who can help her. In a matter of life and death, both put aside their preconceptions and do what most people, no matter how bigoted, would. They fight to preserve human life.
Some call Crash preachy because the white officer “learns something” in this scene — but who could come so close to death and learn nothing? Does he feel guilt now for molesting this woman the night before? Probably. Does it change his life? Does it make him a nicer person afterward? We don’t know, but I bet not. Crash expertly does what it sets out to do, and it is a touching, funny, suspenseful, scary, tragic, superbly acted, beautifully shot, and balanced film, with not one but two of the most emotionally affecting scenes in a movie this year. I could speak volumes more praise for Crash, but suffice to say you either buy into it or you don’t. Trust me on this, though… those of us who do are the lucky ones.
(Yep, I still really enjoy Crash, and I’m still on board with it winning Best Picture in this roster. While it gets a bad rap for highlighting flaws in the Academy, people tend to forget it was a tiny-budget indie that would ordinarily fly under the radar, and it’s kind of amazing that such a small movie could soar to such heights. I find that inspiring, to be honest. I still find myself defending Crash all the time. Every time I watch it, the emotional beats always land just right… except one, involving Ryan Phillippe’s character. I think the film is very misunderstood, and in terms of Best Picture winners, there are certainly more egregious upsets in the years since… Argo and The King’s Speech, for starters.)
And now, my awards for the actors, writers, and directors. These awards aren’t wildly original this year. A lot of my picks are already the frontrunners in their races, or at least in the running. A year in which the most deserving people actually get awarded? It’s crazy!
Felicity Huffman, Transamerica
Reese Witherspoon, Walk The Line
Q’Orianka Kilcher, The New World
Laura Linney, The Squid and the Whale
Joan Allen, The Upside of Anger
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Paul Giamatti, Cinderella Man
Terrence Howard, Crash
Brady Corbet, Mysterious Skin
Matt Dillon, Crash
Jake Gyllenhaal, Brokeback Mountain
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Catherine Keener, Capote
Scarlett Johansson, Match Point
Thandie Newton, Crash
Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener
Amy Adams, Junebug
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Crash – Paul Haggis
Match Point – Woody Allen
The Squid and the Whale – Noah Baumbach
Nine Lives – Rodrigo Garcia
Me And You And Everyone We Know – Miranda July
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Munich – Tony Kushner
Brokeback Mountain – Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana
Mysterious Skin – Gregg Araki
The Constant Gardener – Jeffrey Caine
A History of Violence – Josh Olson
BEST ENSEMBLE CAST
Good Night, And Good Luck.
Me And You And Everyone We Know