Every year I keep on putting off getting my Academy ballot in, perhaps because each year I don’t think that anything I want to vote on will end up on the list of final nominations. However, this year there were so many good films released and eligible for the awards that, inevitably, I HAD to get a few of them past them. Here, in alphabetical order (if you don’t count the occasional French article) are the movies that I considered good enough that I’d have no problem seeing again. The films whose name is followed by an asterisk are those that I ended up putting on my ballot. The fact that one of them actually won is a source of complete shock to me. I’m going to check my pulse now.
1. BAD EDUCATION – While not quite up to the level of some of Almodovar’s previous efforts, this is still a very strong story about identity (both personal and sexual). It’s lead character, played intensely by THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES’ Gael Garcia Bernard, is a fractured, sad, at times pathetic creature who we slowly learn to love and empathize with.
2. LES CHORISTES – Some have called this film soft-minded, a French version of STAND BY ME combined with MR. HOLLAND’S OPUS. But I found the film, about students at a French countryside boys school for truants, who are transformed when a new teacher comes and introduces them to the healing powers of chorale music, quite genuine and entrancing in its own right. Along with an extraordinary use of music, this is a deceptively simply told story. The key to it are a series of performances which feel completely genuine while appealing to the heartstrings.
3. CLOSER – This is a tough film to like, but it knocked me over. Fiercely intelligent, in an old-fashioned sort of way, the film shows it roots as a stageplay by Patrick Marber. It seems intensely focused on its characters and its dialogue, all theatrical. But director Mike Nichols dealt with similar styles in CARNAL KNOWLEDGE to stunning effect, and if you enjoyed that film, you’re going to like this one. Natalie Portman is utterly believable as is Clive Owens, as two characters of the four modern Londoners who do an elaborate ballet dance around each other as they trade partners and lies. A rather condemning view of modern love, the film still manages to make its characters work as people who must do what they do, because they can’t see any other way to be in love.
4. COLLATERAL – Tom Cruise’s genius in this film was to get the hell out of the way and let Jamie Foxx do his job as a Los Angeles taxi driver who comfortable world is upended when he accepts Cruise’s hitman into his car. The film, told in one long Los Angeles night, manages to take a character who could have been completely clichéd (Foxx carries a picture of a beautiful desert island on his visor to give him a sense of peace) and make his story utterly believable.
5. ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND* – Without a doubt, one of my favorite films of the year (and one of the five films I nominated for Best Picture), this is Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s hearwrenching look into the awful truths about love. Jim Carrey plays a man who has been dumped by his girlfriend, a delightful Kate Winslet. The Kaufman-esque part of the film (and the reason why people not familiar with Gondry’s previous music video work mistakenly call this a Kaufman film) is the Winslet has, after many months with Carrey, has engaged a doctor (played by Tom Wilkinson) to erase all part of her memory that involve Carrey. When he discovers this he asks Wilkinson to do the equivalent for him – erasing Winslet from his brain. However, part way through the process, he realizes that as painful as being the middle of a difficult relationship can be, there are some things that are worth fighting for. The bulk of the movie is all about Carrey trying to evade the attempts by the doctor to erase one memory of Winslet after another. [SPOILER ALERT] By the end of the film, when Winslet tells Carrey that if they get together there are going to be times when they’re going to hate each other and Carrey says that he’s willing to try it anyway, I was in tears.[END SPOILER ALERT] I’ve now seen this film four times and its construction and its emotions never fail to suck me in.
6. FINDING NEVERLAND* – Here’s another film I nominated for best picture. It’s also a story of love gone off the rails as Johnny Depp (as J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan) tries to revive his moribund life – a tired playwrite and husband – as he tries to bring a young child’s life back into happiness after the death of that boy’s father. The boy, of course, becomes the inspiration for Peter Pan and Barrie ends up remembering the joy and magic through the relationship. This is a film that sounds clichéd as all hell when I describe and it is a testament to Depp’s extraordinary talents that it isn’t.
7. GARDEN STATE – A true delight and another movie about reconnecting with life’s joys. Returning home for his mother’s funeral, Hollywood actor Zach Braff meets up with the people, the town and the lifestyle that he left behind when he moved to Los Angeles. He also is forced to deal with the abuses and beliefs that his misguided psychiatrist of a father forced on him during his adolescence. Braff doesn’t meet a young Peter Pan, but he does meet his own version of this Peter Pan, in the shape of Natalie Portman, in a role diametrically opposite (but just as strong, if not more so) from her role in CLOSER. Portman, who has as many psychological problems as Braff, happens to have different ones. And the two of them together manage to show each other a place where they might, just might, begin to conquer all of the things that held them back in their lives.
8. HOTEL RWANDA – Now try this one on for size – a depressing, upsetting, rip-roaring political drama, based on a true story and set amidst the very real and horrifying slaughter of uncountable numbers of Tutsis in the ethnic violence in Rwanda. Told through the point of view of the manager of a wealthy hotel who ends up becoming the savior of hundreds of refugees when he allows them to hold up in his abandoned hotel, this biopic (as opposed to RAY and KINSEY) is intently focused on both one short period and one series of incidents. As a result, it has a sharpness that the other films (along with many biographies) lack.
9. HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS – Wow, and now for something completely different. I haven’t seen HERO yet, so I can’t speak to how similar it is to this film, done by the same director, but by itself, this is a stunning visual joy ride. It’s more interesting than most action films, because it is all about character, though it is its beautiful set pieces which have gotten all of the (justifiable) attention. Set in feudal China (Hong Kong??), this is the story of warring factions – with the government on one side, and an ancient group of warrior women on the other. Set across space and time, this story has epic scale but is always grounded in the small – how two men look the one woman who they both love. How she looks at them, even when she is blind. The action sequence, including a fight in a forest with flying daggers, and a sword fight that ranges from a meadow in spring seamlessly into a snow-filled landscape, are staggeringly beautiful to watch while not getting in the way of the characters and the story.
10. I’M NOT SCARED – This movie has been sadly overlooked, as it was a small film that came out in the early part of the year. Yet it is just as powerful as many of the other films in this category. Set in 1960s Northern Italy, it tells the story of a young boy who is living with his parents in a small town when he discovers a small boy locked away in a dirt hole. The boy, who is the son of a wealthy Italian, has been kidnapped as part of the political violence of the times (as well as a blatant money-grab). What unfolds as the boy learns the story of the kidnapped boy shakes his faith in everything that his parents have told him about right and wrong (hmmm, that sound suspiciously like a quote whore statement, but it does have the advantage of having a ring of truth to it).
11. KILL BILL – VOL 2 – As different a movie from Volume 1 as the second half of Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET was from the first. This follows Uma Thurman as she returns to the United States to avenge the murder of her husband-to-be and her own near death. Quite simply, Thurman is superb in the film and she better be – she’s in nearly every frame of it. And, as we follow her movements as she learns where Bill is and why he wanted to have her killed, she (and we) also learns quite a bit more about herself. It also has the rare distinction of having a small performance from Larry Bishop (the director of MAD DOG TIME, which I edited years ago) as the owner of a bar who likes to torture Michael Madsen.
12. MARIA FULL OF GRACE* – Another one of five Oscar nominees, this film is an intensely personal and upsetting view of the life of a young Mexican woman who, fired from the only job in her job – de-thorning and packing roses for American flower shops – takes up the lucrative but dangerous role of a mule for drug smugglers. But what this film is really about is the struggle of a innately proud woman, against everything and everyone who is telling her to forget her pride and her sense of self, and just get by. It’s a haunting story and one I won’t soon put to the back of my mind.
13. MILLION DOLLAR BABY* – Another haunting story, though told in a very traditional garb. Clint Eastwood plays The Man With No Name (actually, he has a name, but his character isn’t that far removed from all of the other characters he’s been playing, way back to the spaghetti Westerns he did in the late 60s/early 70s). He’s always a bit angry, always alot detached. Into his life comes Hilary Swank, spawn of trailer park trash, with more determination than talent as a boxer. As other people have pointed out, this is basically a father/daughter story, with two people who aren’t related by blood. Each needs something and gets it, though not without costs. It’s a passionate, really great Hollywood film. I don’t know that it will bear up to repeated viewings, but Eastwood’s spare directorial style is perfectly complemented by the cinematography and editing.
14. THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES* – We’re down near the bottom end of the alphabet, and some of the best of the best are sitting down here. This film, directed by one of my favorite directors – Walter Salles (BEHIND THE SUN, CENTRAL STATION) – is another one of his pentrating character studies which, at the same time, manages to be all about social situations as well. This film, about a long cross-country (actually, cross-continent) trip by a young and impressionable, pre-political Che Guevara, and his older friend, is about many things. It is about a young man’s falling in love with his country and then falling into hate with those who would exploit his countrymen. It definitely isn’t a political movie, but it makes some phenomenally poignant political points.
15. THE SEA INSIDE* Now here is a movie which is overtly political, though in very personal terms. Javier Bardem plays Spaniard Ramon Sampedro, an adventurous man who, years before, lost the use of all of his limbs in a diving accident. Now he is a strong presence but desperately begging for death from a country that doesn’t believe in assisted suicide. Unabashedly one-sided in this political debate, the film nonethess manages to achieve a humanity which drives it forward thanks to Bardem’s inspired performance.
16. SIDEWAYS* There was, apparently, a Sideways backlash leading up to the awards this year, which is unfortunate, because an argument could be made that this is the more adventurous film of the three major contenders. While THE AVIATOR was an excellently directed tale with a terrible script, and MILLION DOLLAR BABY was a well-directed tale with a well-written script, this film is a well-directed tale from a well-written script of two men-children confronting their failures. Very much unlike AMERICAN BEAUTY, it does share the sense of "How did my life get to this point?" mid-life crisis context. But it is light, famciful and downright charming. It is also one of the films that succeeds on every level – from its direction to its production design to its casting to its (yes) editing.
17. TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE - For sheer laugh-out-loud pleasure this film is at the top of this year’s bundle. I can’t think of another film in which I cackled while watching the DVD on my laptop under headphones in my living room (causing my daughter to come in and look at me with a worried look). Not unlike the running gags in AUSTIN POWERS (the succession of "Dick" jokes still makes me cackle out loud when I think about them), this film is based on a silly premise – puppets masquerading as marauding Americans try to save the world from politically correct Hollywood actors who are being manipulated by Korean leader Kim Il Jung for horribly nefarious ends. It’s neither political commentary, nor great acting. It’s just fantastic fun.
18. A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT - Jean-Pierre Jeunet, in his previous films (among them - DELICATESSEN, still my favorite post-apocalyptic film of all time, CITY OF LOST CHILDREN and AMELIE) seems to have his head permanently connected to another dimension. Now he hooks it up to another time as well. In this film, AMELIE’s Audrey Tatou plays a young, waifish, slightly crippled French girl who’s boyfriend goes off to fight in the horrows of World War I and is reported killed. She, however, doesn’t believe that he is dead and the movie spends its entire length following her attempts to unravel the political mystery as to what actually happened in the trench Bingo Crepescule where her boyfriend was among a small group of men sentenced to death for trying to maim themselves to get out of serving in the war. Party anti-war film, part anti-government cry, and part a passionate love story of a driven woman, this movie features fantastic performances all around, including Tatou, and long-time Jeunet collaborator Dominique Pinon (who played seemingly hundreds ofdwarves in LOST CHILDREN and the lead in DELICATESSEN).
19. THE WOODSMAN - Apparently a success at 2004’s Sundance, NYU Film School graduate Nicole Kassel’s film about a child molester who is out of prison and grappling with his own inner demons, is a surprisingly bright film. Another filmmaker would have gone purely for Kevin Bacon’s inner torture. Instead, she goes for his desire for normalcy, even as he struggles with the twin bugaboos of his continuing attraction for young girls and his desire for a more normal relationship with Kyra Sedgwick. Superbly well acted (including a great, though under utilitzed performance by Mos Def as a detective who seemingly is trying to undertsand Bacon, while continually hounding him for his past acts).