Top Ten Films of 2005

Ed Symkus and Luke Baumgarten argue about their favorite movies of the year

Luke, here's my list:

10. Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith -- George Lucas did what all of his hordes of critics said he could never do: He finished off the Star Wars sextet in style, neatly and imaginatively tying together the first set of three films with the second set. Fortunately, he also made Sith the best in the series since The Empire Strikes Back (which most folks forget was directed by Irvin Kershner). Sure, this one was a bit over the top, but it definitely satisfied the Star Wars jones so many fans were carrying.

9. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang -- The most entertainingly offbeat film of the year was also quite funny as it made mincemeat of Hollywood, its industry and its weirdo denizens. And I'd never seen a movie literally wink at an audience to this degree and frequency, basically inviting them in on the inside jokes, i.e. a voice-over narrator saying, & quot;I'll be your narrator. & quot; And I couldn't believe the warm feeling I got all over my body when I saw Michelle Monaghan in that skimpy Santa suit.

8. A History of Violence -- This was probably David Cronenberg's most accessible film, smoothly switching from a study of happy small town family life to an examination of how the same family could become completely dysfunctional almost overnight. The film featured an & quot;is he or isn't he & quot; plotline revolving on whether or not quiet diner man dad (Viggo Mortensen) was once a vicious hit man. Oddly, I didn't know if I was supposed to laugh or squirm when creepy guys Ed Harris and William Hurt were onscreen. OK, I thought about it: Laugh. They were both great.

7. Match Point -- Woody Allen's detractors are going to have to sit back and shut up for a while. He is back in form -- writing and directing this time, not acting -- in a film that hearkens back to the style of Crimes & amp; Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives. This is serious stuff, with a central plot about hopeless and helpless infidelity, and how it's going to ruin the lives of a bunch of people we really want to like. Near the end, Woody offers up some great writing twists. Opera replaces jazz on the soundtrack, but as usual, everything is brown.

6. Cinderella Man -- This one was woefully overlooked by the audience, or maybe there was an error by the marketing people. Then again, it cold have been Russell Crowe's real-life hotel mishaps just as the film was being released. Whatever the reason, audiences missed a good old-fashioned story about an underdog boxer during the depression and how both his dogged manager (Paul Giamatti) and his loving wife (Renee Zellweger) kept his head above water. Amazing boxing scenes and very impressive fantasy sequences helped make this one of Ron Howard's best films.

5. Memoirs of a Geisha -- I don't generally compare books with the movies they're turned into, but this is one of those rare cases where it worked extremely well. Obviously a lot of details from the Arthur Golden novel about the travails and triumphs of a young Geisha in pre-WWII Japan are gone. But the essence of the story, the mood, and seemingly all the right, important parts are here. Gong Li is quite malevolent as Hatsumomo. Beautifully, stunningly lit and photographed, the film offers a complete immersion into another world.

4. King Kong -- It's too slow in the first third, which ends up making the whole film a little too long, but once we reach Skull Island in Peter Jackson's long-awaited remake of the film that floored him as a child, there's no turning back. It is the biggest piece of excitement of the year, as well as being kind of sad and even a little romantic. Visual effects of New York City in 1933, especially from atop the Empire State Building, are the best I've ever seen.

3. Sin City -- Director Robert Rodriguez teamed up with comics artist Frank Miller, and had a little help from Quentin Tarantino, to forge an original film event. Eye-popping cinematography helped to shape some unique visual explorations in three stories of utter nastiness and pitch black humor. A tip of my hat goes to Mickey Rourke, who I didn't recognize till almost halfway through his performance, and who was the best part of the film.

2. Crash -- The best ensemble film of the year came from first time director Paul Haggis, who also wrote the script. This is another, and very different, look at Los Angeles, told through the eyes of a bizarre mix of people, none of whom, it seems, is having a good time of it; all of whom are in some kind of trouble. Within the mix and clash and blend of stories, there is lots of intensity. There should be Oscar nominations for Thandie Newton, Matt Dillon, Sandra Bullock (whew!), Ludacris and Terrence Howard. Or maybe just one for the whole cast.

1. Munich -- Steven Spielberg doesn't get any better than when he puts his heart and soul into a serious story that he considers important. This one is about what the Israeli Secret Service decided to do about the murders of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes in 1972, and how the hunt for the Palestinian killers was carried out. It is very violent, but only in select places, and when it happens, it's usually fast. Screenwriter Tony Kushner has also successfully woven in a bit of lightness around the camaraderie formed between the agents sent out to do the job. & r &

-- ED

Dearest Ed, here's the list (at the bottom). It might be in a state of flux, depending on what I think of Munich, The Producers, Memoirs of a Geisha and/or King Kong, but I feel pretty solid about the list as a whole. If one were to get bumped, it would be Mysterious Skin, which is far from a perfect film but made the list on the sheer horrifying beauty of the way it handles sexual assault. Alternately languidly dreamlike and painfully visceral, it was a film I couldn't get out of mind for months.

More solidly on my list, 40-Year-Old Virgin was a sick-out, sex comedy par excellence with plenty of juvenile humor (which I go for every time). What put it on a level above say, Wedding Crashers, which was the same kind of film at the same level of comedic competence, was the compassionate way it treated its characters. That narrative tone made it something of a morality play. No one saw that coming.

I liked History of Violence for exactly the same reasons you did. William Hurt was amazing in those closing scenes. Same with Sin City, which was so lovingly close to the original graphic novel it brought nerds like me to tears. That level of faithfulness, ultimately, is what lifted Sin City above Batman Begins, which was also very well done.

I don't think I've seen a better performance in like five years than Phillip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal in Capote. Unbelievable throughout. The way the film captured his flaws (rampant jealousy, narcissism, etc) ultimately made for a far more compelling and satisfying picture than the biopic on your list, Cinderella Man. I like Ron Howard, but I hate how often he goes for the cheap emotions, especially sentimentality and nostalgia. Cinderella Man was way too heavy on that for me.

Near the top of my list I have this triumvirate of kind of kitschy, jokey, indie flicks. Me and You and Everyone We Know is a gorgeous debut film. Fantastically smart and insightful. The Squid and the Whale feels very similar, a family dramedy of startling honesty, complexity and humor (and far superior to The Life Aquatic, both of which were written by Squid director Noah Baumbach). Jeff Daniels would be my pick for best actor if not for Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Junebug is one of those fish out of water family films that everyone is so sick of by this time of year. What sets Junebug apart so beautifully is the story it tells, certainly, but also the way the film tells it. So much depends on the unspoken interactions between the characters. This hints at lifetimes worth of backstory that films that things like flashbacks and exposition can't even broach. The best part, though, is with how much respect the film treats a family that might easily be written off as a bunch of ill educated rednecks.

Syriana blew me away simply with the ease that writer/director Steven Gaghan tells this intricately woven story of backroom deals and government complicity in big business. It's a far more complex story than Traffic (which he also wrote), but it's also, somehow, easier to access. An amazing and timely film. Crash is another one of those intertwined plots, not because it's trying to unearth a conspiracy, but because it's trying to hint at the depth and pervasiveness of both alienation and prejudice in America. Again, an amazingly timely and poignant bit of filmmaking. There are more than a few scenes in Crash that I'll never be able to get out of my head.

That's it for now, let me know what you think of the list

-- Luke

Luke, I very much enjoyed The 40 Year Old Virgin. But aside from the chest waxing scene, and some great background characterizations, I soon forgot about it. I was disappointed in the flat performance by Catherine Keener (who I've had a crush on since Box of Moonlight).

Aside from the magnificent performance by Hoffman in Capote, the film left me kind of cold. I went in hoping to see a story about him, rather than about just one small portion of his life. And again, an uncharacteristically flat performance from Keener. But my biggest problem was in the script. Toward the end, after Capote finally got a detailed description of the killings from Perry, he still went around saying he didn't have an end for his book. Did I miss something? Did I nod off? Was he waiting for them to be executed? I didn't know and I don't know.

I certainly appreciated the three films you kind of lumped together -- as will I. Me and You, The Squid and the Whale, and Junebug were all well made, thoughtful films, but I could see the INDEPENDENT stamp in bold face all over them, and they each needed a little tightening. Me and You came across as just too precious (although the business about the little kid and the possible danger with the Internet was quite nerve-wracking); Junebug had a couple too many really annoying characters; and while I mostly agree with you about Jeff Daniels' acting in Squid (by the way, he's nastier and better in 2 Days in the Valley), I thought the film was too heavy on the metaphors, and the abrupt ending made me think that Baumbach either ran out of money or had to meet a deadline.

Ok, pal, put on the boxing gloves. Syriana? Are you kidding? Or are you a smart guy and I'm a dummy? I read the newspaper every day (but I do the comics before the front page) but I had no idea what was going on here. I felt that Gaghan expected viewers to know everything there was to know about the Middle East, oil, and governmental wrongdoings. And I couldn't figure out who was a good guy and who was a bad guy -- or if they were switching allegiances while I was watching. I thought that Traffic worked much better because even though it had multiple clashing storylines, they all tied together in the end, unlike in Syriana, where I was left scratching my head. One more thing -- what the hell does the title mean?

We totally agree on Crash. I couldn't shake this film for a week, nor did I want too. One hell of an emotional ride, especially the scenes with Matt Dillon and Thandie Newton. And another example of a film with lots of stories that all manage to tie together.

So, I am anxiously awaiting your reply. Hey, this is kind of fun -- Ed

Ed, what you consider a flat performance from Keener in Virgin, I kind of thought was a nice, sweet departure from the strong, cold roles she usually plays. To go from that to something this subdued, furtive and lovelorn proved to me that she could play more than variations on bitchy (granted I'm not THAT familiar with all of her work, just her more recent stuff). Same with her performance in Capote, which was still another type of character, someone demeaned by a male-dominated writing community (indeed, deprecated even by Capote himself) who still had the courage to write and the empathy to understand Truman perfectly, warts and all.

About the ending, the execution was exactly what Capote was looking for, so that he could give his book finality, which is why he became reluctant to continue helping with the killers' appeal. He'd gotten what he wanted from them and wanted them to go away. That's one of the realities of Capote's character that just chilled me to the bone.

In Junebug, which characters did you think were annoying? I thought they were all really well drawn. Ashley grated on my nerves at times, but she was the film's moral center, and I think that was a bold choice. The performance by the kid from the OC was magnificent and the David Wark character (the & quot;retarded artist & quot;) was utterly unique. They were all people I wanted to spend lots of time with.

I'm not sure I agree that Jeff Daniels was better in Two Days in the Valley. Here, his Bernard Berkman has so fully bought in to the idea of being an & quot;intellectual & quot; that he's completely disassociated himself from his wife, his children and, ultimately, from reality. He's an asshole, for sure, but he's so entrenched in his narcissism that he can't even function, even when he wants to try and make things work. That gives him a powerful sadness that I thought Daniels really nailed.

No, Syriana wasn't completely explicable, but by the second half Gaghan had locked the basics down and I was able to follow the story well (and I definitely don't read the paper every day). I went with some buddies and afterward we sat down and talked through it. That not only helped piece all the little nuances together, but it encouraged debate, which is what political thrillers should do. The performances were striking (Jeffrey Wright in a role unlike any he's ever played) and the realities of our government's complicity in propping up dictatorships is infuriating and heart-breaking at the same time. According to your criteria, this would be my number one, I wanted to re-watch it immediately.

-- Luke

Luke -- My problem with Keener in both films probably has more to do with the way her character was written -- that's the flat part. I know she can play sweet and vulnerable, which she did so well in Lovely & amp; Amazing. Then again, maybe I just always want to have her as Maxine in Malkovich. Hers was a character I lusted after!!!

I guess I didn't pick up on what you found to be one of Truman Capote's nasty attributes -- that he was all through with those guys. I certainly understood that he was in it only for the money (or the fame, or both). But I thought he also had a thing going for the Perry character. Again, I liked the portrayal much more than the movie.

A lot of things annoyed me about Junebug, yet it was an original vision, and I'm glad I saw it. Ashley might have been at the film's moral center (and it was another solid performance), but I didn't have the patience to spend any more time with her. I wanted her to go into one of those empty rooms the camera kept lingering on, and stay there. Benjamin McKenzie [previously: OC kid] did indeed play Johnny well, but I simply did not like the character -- and not enough information was given to me as to why he was such a jerk.

You certainly hit one nail on the head with Syriana -- Jeffrey Wright, who, once again, I didn't recognize. What an amazing chameleon. But I have no desire to see that film again. I did not find it compelling, just confusing and unpleasant.

Munich, too, is unpleasant, but it was one of those can't take my eyes off the screen experiences

-- Ed

ED, I think you might be right, that Capote DID have a thing for Perry, but he also had a thing for getting his book done/getting that undying fame. Ultimately the latter won out, but that haunting closing scene suggests volumes about how torn he was between those two facets of himself and may hint at why he never wrote again.

Regarding Ben McKenzie [OC kid, in Junebug], I kinda liked that we weren't told what was wrong with him. I've known a lot of kids like that (growing up in a poor rural community), with all this misplaced rage. I think a lesser film would have copped to an abused bipolar orphan type back story to explain that anger away. I liked that writer Angus MacLachlan didn't pander like that. AH! And speaking of the empty rooms! I LOVED how we'd often be left alone in a room to hear conversations happening throughout the rest of the house. It really added to the sense of cramped quarters with thin walls. Very unsettling.

At least we can agree about Wright. He's the best character actor around (the multiple roles he played in Angels in America blew me away). He should get the praise people like Philip Seymour Hoffman get, but doesn't for some reason. It's a scandal.

Let's turn it back to you though, Ed, if we may. You can honestly say that, of all the films you saw, Episode III was in your top 10? With it's atrocious dialogue and orgy of Computer Generated everything? Was this a sentimental choice? -- Luke

No no no. Not a sentimental choice at all. To be honest, I'm not much of a Star Wars fan. The only [other] film of the series that really grabbed me was The Empire Strikes Back, probably because it was so dark.

But Sith worked for me because Lucas went balls to the wall from the opening frame. The first 20 minutes of the film left me breathless. And when that slowed down, the idea -- but not the dialogue -- of the love story also worked for me. True, Natalie Portman can't act a lick and Hayden Christenson is more of a walking piece of wood than one of Tolkien's Ents, but I liked their characters together. I understand that a lot of people weren't satisfied that Anakin's turn to the dark side didn't have an important enough reason to go with it, but I wasn't bothered by that.

As I mentioned earlier, I thought the tying up of the story -- especially that creepy birth of Darth Vader business, when we saw what was happening to him from his point of view -- was very cool. But more importantly, the film featured one of the best supporting actor stints of the year -- Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine. Very solid stuff from him.

But back to your question -- why was this in my Top 10? Besides being very entertained by it, maybe because I wasn't willing to put Spielberg's name in it twice, and I really dug War of the Worlds and, if you couldn't guess, science fiction.

-- Ed

Ed, I just saw Munich and I'm a little disappointed. Until about the last 30 minutes, I was completely engaged. I especially liked the way the assassins lost sight of the impetus for their assassinations amid focusing on the assassinations themselves. It felt like Spielberg was taking pains to meditate on the alienation of revenge and how vengeance tends to become its own self-supporting end. Then that whole creepy flashback/sex-scene thing at the end made realize that Spielburg wasn't making any kind of statement, he'd just failed to make the two ends of the story (the killing of the Israeli atheletes and the subsequent vengeance killings of the Palestinian conspirators) cohere. Still a good film, just a disappointing one.

-- Luke

Luke -- That whole sex scene near the end absolutely tore me out of the film's mood, and I still can't understand why someone didn't get through to Spielberg that it was a bad idea.

And the last speech by the East River didn't work because it didn't go anywhere. But when those two guys walked off camera, and I very slowly became aware that the Trade Towers were looming in the distance, I absolutely shivered, and couldn't get that image out of my head.

I thought just everything before those scenes was among the best stuff he's ever done. My favorite character was Louie's father.

-- ED

Ed, I guess that's what this hinges on. I really liked what Spielberg did throughout. I loved the way the film looked like it was from the 70s, the understated homages to films like the French Connection and the Conversation ... not sure why Gene Hackman movies came to mind, but that's definitely what I was feeling. Especially with those weird zooms. Totally from The Conversation. Loved it. But those last scenes utterly it for me. Completely. It sucks too. Only by meditating really hard on those previous 2 plus hours did it even make my top 10.

Thanks for doing this Ed, it was fun. -- Luke