Whether a reflection of mainstream cinema’s desire to promote more intellectually challenging entertainment, or simply an indication that hot-button topics are increasingly profitable ventures, socio-politically-minded Big Idea films were all the rage in 2005. From Syriana’s oil industry exposé to The Constant Gardener’s pharmaceutical conspiracy theory and Munich’s examination of terrorism, and from Brokeback Mountain’s assessment of gay repression to the portraits of diverse sexual identity that color Rent and Breakfast on Pluto, high-toned prestige pictures tackled controversial topics with a mix of artistry and self-aggrandizing pedantry. While such liberal-minded films dominated the headlines, religious conservatism also exerted an amplified multiplex presence, whether through explicit allegories like The Chronicles of Narnia or via the covert messages of The Island and Aeon Flux. More compelling spirituality, however, was offered by foreign and independent iconoclasts like Werner Herzog (whose banner year included the docs Wheel of Time, Grizzly Man and The White Diamond) and Gus Van Sant (with the Cobain-ian Last Days), two directors who were joined by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Tropical Malady), Robert Rodriguez (Sin City), and Claire Denis (L’Intrus) in pushing the boundaries of visual and narrative experimentation. True, a typical avalanche of mind-numbing drivel crowded theaters each weekend. Yet there remained a heartening number of exciting, thought-provoking high-profile projects crafted (more or less) from within the studio system, including David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, the Farrelly brothers’ Fever Pitch, George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck and Wes Craven’s Red Eye. And moreover, when it came to pure artistry, no work—mainstream, independent or foreign—was equal to Terrence Malick’s The New World, Slant Magazine’s unanimous 2005 Film of the Year. Nick Schager
1. The New World (Terrence Malick)
A great film starts on the big screen and works its way into the mind, encasing itself within the confines of other lasting memories. I will never forget the first chapter of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times or every flabbergasting image of Terrence Malick’s The New World, a film whose sociological and emotional heft is encased in a reverie of hallucinatory images. Malick is a poet who approaches the story of John Smith and Pocahontas as if it were a specimen of lost time trapped in amber. He turns the fossil in his hands, reflecting the light of the sun through the resinous shell of history and onto his characters from many remarkable, expressive angles. The image of Q’Orianka Kilcher swaying her arms in the wind toward the heavens isn’t easily forgotten, though sometimes the soundtrack I give this vision of the actress in my head is not James Horner’s menacing score but Aphrodite’s Child’s “Rain And Tears.” One could say great films also allow us to generously mix and match the memories they give us.
2. The Best of Youth (Marco Tullio Giordana)
From a summer day in Roma in 1966 to a winter night in Norway in 2003, The Best of Youth chronicles some 40 years in the lives of the Carati family and their friends. If not as visually attention-grabbing as Emir Kusturica’s Underground or Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900, this epic elegy to family and country is no less seductive as a towering work of narrative fiction, giving itself generously to the people of Italy in the same way Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children offered themselves to the people of Colombia and India, respectively. Over the course of six riveting hours, Giordana weaves a delicate tapestry of human ecstasy and misery, paralleling the ups and downs of a family with the rise and fall of a country.
3. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
In a scene from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady, Keng (Banlop Lomnoi), a young soldier, grabs country-boy Tong’s (Sakda Kaewbuadee) leg inside a movie theater, to which an excited Tong responds by trapping Keng’s hand between his thighs and grabbing his shoulders with his arm. The twisting of arms and legs becomes a stirring expression of romantic passion and movie love. It also anticipates the tangle of trees that likewise bind the two lovers during the film’s audacious second half. Both love story and folk tale, Tropical Malady intersects eros with cultural ritual, heralding the thrill of the chase and asserting that the deepest romances are not sexual but spiritual in nature. Literally.
4. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg)
Through a series of grisly acts of violence at once exciting and shocking, David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence interrogates the way we respond to bloodshed in movies, but it’s cheap to say the director is content reducing his audience to a pack of Pavlovian dogs. The film’s prodding isn’t one-way. Indeed, Cronenberg’s jabs encourage a very critical engagement between the audience and the emotional, corporeal surface of his film. In the end, more important to him than any plain critique of movie culture’s history of violence is how one man’s relationship to his gun reflects a very specific American legacy of lone-wolf, vigilante justice.