They Put a Spell on Me: The Best (and Worst) Films of 2005

belleshadowCamilla Belle, doubled by her shadow, in Rebecca Miller’s sublime The Ballad of Jack and Rose (IFC Films)

Best

1. The Ballad of Jack and Rose (Rebecca Miller)

2. Saraband (Ingmar Bergman)

3. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee)

4. El Cielito (María Victoria Menis)

5. The World/The New World (Jia Zhang-ke/Terrence Malick)

6. Ellie Parker (Scott Coffey)

7. Touch the Sound (Thomas Riedelsheimer)

8. My Beautiful Girl, Mari (Lee Sung-gang)

9. Roma/Lost Embrace (Adolfo Aristarain/Daniel Burman)

10. Forty Shades of Blue (Ira Sachs)

It really shouldn’t be cause for an onset of neuroses – putting together lists of what moved, amused, or appalled me at the cinema the past twelve months. 2005 stands out as the year I lost interest in movies: lost interest in seeing them, certainly in writing about them. The thinness of the art form became the dominant texture at some point, and it’s difficult to continue to care when the good die quick deaths and the truly awful are amply rewarded. The art form, if that’s what it amounts to, begins to seem an embarrassment: why am I not curled up in bed with a novel by Willa Cather or Edith Wharton? And the conversation about movies, what passes for writing in such abysmal papers as City Pages and The Stranger, as well as the ejaculations of David Edelstein’s “Movie Club,” has contributed immeasurably to the numbing sense of boredom at which I’ve arrived. The twelve films sandwiched into my 10-best list all evoked visceral responses from me – proof that movies can still reach me on occasion. All of these films are flawed, some more so than others, and I know that. If I were playing by a set of rules, and readers of this website don’t need me to tell them that I’m not, I’d name Marco Tullio Giordana’s The Best of Youth as the greatest film of 2005. But I won’t, because it’s on last year’s list for the 10-best of 2004.

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Why did The Ballad of Jack and Rose meet with such uncomprehendingly stupid, dismissive reviews? The problem isn’t with the film, but with the reviewers. A friend of mine said the movie’s failure to catch on made him depressed – because it shows that a film with a literary sensibility will be lost on “critics” who can’t relate to anything other than comic strips. Of course, that isn’t the only reason Rebecca Miller’s loss-of-Eden story made reviewers agitated. It is very clear early on, without being spelled out, that the father and daughter played by Daniel Day-Lewis and the mesmeric Camilla Belle are in love. Each regards the other carnally, and that apparently is even more difficult to accept than the love between Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar. There’s a moment in The Ballad of Jack and Rose, after the father and his 16-year-old daughter have lain side by side in her treehouse, when the erotic sensation both feel in their closeness is unmistakable. (In their immediate separation, each projects a quality of being spent, as when a round of lovemaking’s finished.) It isn’t the subject matter that’s taboo – it’s the dignity with which Miller treats her creations: there is no irony to hide behind. Worse still, from the “perspective” of the average alt-weakly moron who’s employed as a critic, the picture is also scathingly funny – in its own gentle way. Even on my third go-round with the DVD, I whooped it up when Catherine Keener, as Jack’s girlfriend, makes her mad dash in flight from a copperhead. Keener, who typically plays unappetizing urban neurotics, flowers under Miller’s sensitive, buoyant direction. Perhaps playing a blue collar, hard-scrabble character liberated her: Keener has never before been so strong and lusty on-screen; it’s a pity that her work here went unrecognized, as opposed to her highly acclaimed sleepwalking in the underwritten Harper Lee role (we learn nothing about the author) in the almost entirely worthless Capote.

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I hope I don’t lead casual readers into believing Jack and Rose is a film about incest. It isn’t. Late in the movie, however, there’s a kiss between parent and child that strays into another realm of intimacy. In editor Sabine Hoffmann’s hands, this sequence becomes a cinematic hall of mirrors, a dream within a dream, through which we intuit that this is hardly the first such accidental kiss Jack and Rose have shared. She’s his buttercup, and he’s nearly all she knows of the world; the desire, if repellent, is never less than fully understandable.

Miller’s dialogue is often extraordinarily good; she’s an entertainer in a way that her late father, the playwright Arthur Miller, never was. And for her husband, Day-Lewis, she has written some delirious zingers on the state of the modern world. The environmentalist Jack, who speaks in a lilting Scottish brogue, and who’s been bouncing on planks of plywood in a house still under construction (built by developers over once-protected wetlands) informs Rose: “I solemnly believe that humanity is now officially descending the ladder of evolution. In a thousand years, human beings’ll be the size of gerbils, and they’ll have one thought a year – in December. They’ll think about what they want for Christmas.”

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Before moving on, I wanted to mention the magnificence of the haircut scene that’s scored to Nina Simone’s version of “I Put a Spell on You.” Earlier, Jack invites his lady friend Kathleen and her teenage sons Thaddeus and Rodney to move in with him and Rose, to invade their isolated island paradise. Miller plants suggestions of something supremely comic, from the instant that the overweight Rodney announces, “I’ve been studying to be a woman’s hairdresser.” Not since the young Audrey Hepburn sacrificed her luxuriant locks in Roman Holiday has there been a coiffure as delicious as the one Rodney (played with adroit timing by Ryan McDonald) gives Rose. Camilla Belle, an actress as ravishing as she is talented, shares with Hepburn a similarly bewitching gamine quality. Miller’s mise en scène and Hoffmann’s editing, to say nothing of Ellen Kuras’s fluid cinematography, create magic from choices that may sound mundane to describe, yet are wonders to hear and behold: the moment when Rose first sees her newly shorn mane in a mirror, a saxophone wails its first chorus in Simone’s song.

Sometimes the emotions in Jack and Rose are too speeded-up. I didn’t believe that Rodney would immediately burst into tears when his heterosexual half-brother calls him a faggot. But at least Miller peers through the right end of a telescope, which can’t be said for George Clooney, Campbell Scott, Rob Marshall or any number of tenth-raters huddled behind the lens.

littleskyMan and baby: Leonardo Ramirez bonds with Rodrigo Silva in Little Sky.

Tender, paternal longings are also at the heart of the splendid Argentine film El Cielito, or Little Sky as it was called for its fleeting appearance at the Seattle International Film Festival. It’s shameful that this exquisite movie, about a down and out country bumpkin who unexpectedly grows to love a child (as if the adorable toddler were his very own), never received U.S. distribution, though it did air on the Sundance Channel last fall. Almost nothing in English has been written about El Cielito, certainly not the raptures of praise that the leading man Leonardo Ramirez deserves for his heartbreaking, haunting performance. About the only “review” I found was a specious bit of malarkey penned by perpetual graduate student Darren Hughes, at his blog called Long Pauses. Without a word as to how well the director María Victoria Menis captures a certain kind of love that only innocent, helpless babies inspire in us, Hughes sniffed that he found Little Sky predictable or that he could see where it was going from miles away or some such rot. Would Hughes call Shoeshine or The Bicycle Thief or Umberto D predictable? That’s what El Cielito is – a contemporary South American equivalent to Italian neo-realist masterpieces. And by the way, film scholars: it’s the journey, not the destination. It’s the how, not the why. But explain that to anyone who subsists on the thin gruel of Jarmusch.

Honorable Mentions: Heights, 3-Iron, Life in a Box, Caterina in the Big City, Ballets Russes, The Constant Gardener, The Exiles, The White Countess, The War Within.

heights_posterSome favorite performances: Glenn Close in Heights, Leonardo Ramirez in El Cielito, Erland Josephson in Saraband, Rip Torn in Forty Shades of Blue, Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, and Roberta Maxwell in Brokeback Mountain, Q’Orianka Kilcher in The New World, Danny Huston in The Constant Gardener, Jae Hee in 3-Iron, Rosita Londner in Lost Embrace, the entire cast from Ballad of Jack & Rose, plus Naomi Watts and Rebecca Rigg in Ellie Parker. Warmest, most engaging presence in a documentary: Dame Alicia Markova in Ballets Russes. The most wonderful music: Evelyn Glennie and Fred Frith improvising in Touch the Sound.

Best cinematography in an otherwise undistinguished film: The Weather Man (photographed by Phedon Papamichael, who sculpted the icy waves of a Great Lake in winter into rigorously textured visual poetry).

Worst

1. Diary of a Mad Black Woman

2. Me and You and Everyone We Know

3. Imaginary Heroes

4. Gunner Palace

5. The Upside of Anger

6. Monster-in-Law

7. A Love Song for Bobby Long/Madagascar

8. Head-On

9. Last Days/Memoirs of a Geisha

10. Capote/The Squid and the Whale

Not much to be said for the cinematic dregs, except that, once again, a number of these duds drew copious amounts of unmerited accolades. Miranda July’s scatologic feature film debut proved invaluable – for spotting a phony. To admit to liking July’s lame-brained minimalist gush is to out oneself as a pose-striking hipster, a vampire for all things trendy. There was no more sickening celluloid example of the Emperor’s New Clothes than Me and You and Everyone We Know. Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s thoroughly repulsive Gunner Palace opportunistically exploits the misguided liberals in the audience who “support the troops” while condemning the war in Iraq (as if such a schizoid position were humanly possible). The filmmakers come across as vultures with a case of the soft fuzzies. Gus Van Sant’s stoner anti-epic Last Days did not follow through on the promise of his exceptional Elephant. One critic I know sees late Bresson in Van Sant’s dyspeptic dithering; a writer-director I interviewed this year told me he loved Last Days, yet even he admitted that the movie is “indefensible.” Whatever it is, the film wastes Michael Pitt, fresh from his inspired turn in The Dreamers, in such a non-entity role (Kurt Cobain as a stumbling space cake, over whom we’re meant to drool), Van Sant might as well have called the picture The Boy Can’t Help It.

danielslinneyTrapped: Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney, as good as they are, can’t entirely compensate for Noah Baumbach’s rancid misdirection in The Squid and the Whale.

Who would be more likely to occupy the place of honor at a dinner party in Hell – Tyler Perry or Noah Baumbach? One is a man who cross-dresses as an overbearing elderly woman, the other dolls himself up in intellectual drag: both are grossly untalented, a pair of surface opposites hawking distortions, and they deserve each other. Having resided in Georgia’s capital city, I’ll concede that Mad Black Woman’s nominal director, Darren Grant, gets one or two details right regarding buppies in Atlanta, but his movie is a sadistic, agonizing mess. Misogyny is the disorder of the day in Baumbach’s well-acted ode to male dominance, The Squid and the Whale. Have any of the alt-weakly critics slobbering over this picture noticed that the three men in the family are viewed omnisciently while the mother/wife is seen only as her sons and ex-husband see her? Could it be that Baumbach has no interest in the woman’s point of view? Or even an awareness that there is such a thing as the woman’s point of view? If you don’t believe me that The Squid and the Whale is a sleazy debacle, will you please just look at how Baumbach treats the character played by Anna Paquin? He sets her up as a sex toy. There’s the undercurrent of lust between her and her writing instructor, Jeff Daniels, a has-been old enough to be her pa-pa. But the moment when Baumbach’s true hatefulness reveals itself is this: a tense, mostly silent exchange between Paquin and Jesse Eisenberg, as the high-school aged son of Daniels and the off to the wayside mom, the always welcome presence Laura Linney. Paquin and Eisenberg sit on a bed together, he nervous and fidgety with desire. The camera fixates on Paquin’s panties-clad crotch: Baumbach very nearly shoves the young actress’s vagina in our faces, lest we miss the point that the girl’s only potential is for sex. Then comes the so-called joke: Eisenberg accidentally swings his elbow into her face. We hear the bone-crunching sound effect – he’s broken her nose. Well, that’s what you ladies get for not being men, Baumbach says. Not surprisingly, the (male) film editor at City Pages, who also fell hard for the Henry Darger poseur-fest In the Realms of the Unreal, wrote not one but two articles in gleeful ecstasy over this reprehensible junk, slurping swill as if it were champagne.

Dishonorable Mentions: Mrs. Henderson Presents, Match Point, Saving Face, Deep Blue, Campfire, King of the Corner, Look at Me, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, Happy Endings, Off the Map, Mirror Mask, Melinda and Melinda, Turtles Can Fly, Après Vous, Broken Flowers, Proof, and the Soderbergh segment of Eros.

Michelangelo Antonioni on the set of <i>The Passenger</i>.

Michelangelo Antonioni on the set of The Passenger.

Vastly overrated: Good Night and Good Luck, Paradise Now, 2046, March of the Penguins, Tropical Malady, The Passenger. Best quote worthy of revival: “If vacuity had any weight, you could kill an ox by dropping on it Michelangelo Antonioni’s latest film,” thus wrote John Simon in a 1975 issue of Esquire. What was true then remains so now.

Good performances trapped in very bad movies: Sam Neill in Sally Potter’s Yes, Jeff Daniels and Jesse Eisenberg in the aforementioned Squid and the Whale.

You couldn’t have paid me to sit through: Dear Wendy, Palindromes, Police Beat, The Aristocrats, Grizzly Man, Shopgirl, Syriana, King Kong, Elizabethtown, Munich, A History of Violence.

A note on those last two. After sitting through Spider, War of the Worlds, and The Terminal, I have neither need nor reason to endure anything by David Cronenberg, a name synonymous with pseudo-intellectual pornography, or by Spielberg ever again. The latter’s latest manipulation boasts the premise of a snuff film, ladled with a soupçon of political relevance, just enough to keep the susceptible debating in circles and thereby deflecting scrutiny from his dire shortcomings in the storytelling and personal integrity departments.

Ghastliest performances: Maria Schneider in The Passenger, Tyler Perry in Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Gwyneth Paltrow in Proof, Robert Downey, Jr. in Eros, Miranda July in Me and You and Everyone We Know, Joan Allen in The Upside of Anger, Off the Map, and Yes, Jane Fonda in Monster-in-Law, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, Scarlett Johansson in A Love Song for Bobby Long, Gong Li in Memoirs of a Geisha, Jeffrey Wright in Broken Flowers, Will Ferrell in The Producers and Melinda and Melinda, and the entire cast of Après Vous.

January 3-4, 2006

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