30 January 2006

The best movie that I saw last year was A Canterbury Tale, which was made in 1944, and the most entertaining was Contraband, which was made four years earlier. Even if you didn't end up at the Michael Powell retrospective at Lincoln Center, though, this was the best year for movies in a long time, with superlative movies of every size and genre, and a handful that rank among the best ever made. It was so good, in fact, that there isn't even room for Batman Begins:

1. 2046. The tip of a pen hovers above a sheet of paper, unable to write, and a beautiful android stares silently out the window of a futuristic train. Hours later, the pen is still motionless, and the android's face is unchanged. These are emblems of the emptiness that remains when love is gone, and only two of the images that make this the most visually beautiful movie I've ever seen.

2. Ballets Russes. Dance is the most evanescent form of art, because it perishes not only with death, but at the end of every performance. The men and women who devote their lives to dance are what Pindar called epameroi, or creatures of a day, and this miraculous movie is their dream of a shadow.

3. Munich. The ultimate thriller, a movie so technically accomplished, so complex, and so problematic that it makes most other action movies look lame. It recalls the great atmospheric thrillers of the 1970s, but couldn't have been made until last year, with the world's most gifted director drawing upon unlimited resources and the accumulated craft of decades.

4. King Kong. In 1971, when trying to raise funding for Napoleon, Stanley Kubrick wrote: "It’s impossible to tell you what I am going to do except to say that I expect to make the best movie ever made." King Kong is the first movie in years that seems to have been conceived with the same sort of audacity. The result is jaw-dropping, but also tender and generous, and not nearly long enough.

5. Brokeback Mountain. A cosmically absurd movie, yes, but absurd in the way that love always is, especially if it happens to be tragic. In the end, it isn't the absurdity that stays with me, but the genuine sense of loss and regret. "This life came so close to never happening," says Brian Cox at the end of 25th Hour. This is a movie about the life that never happened, and its closing shot will haunt me forever.

6. The Squid and the Whale. My favorite moment, out of dozens, is when Jeff Daniels quotes Breathless (and pauses to explain the reference) while being loaded into the back of an ambulance. This is a movie like High Fidelity, so smart, funny, and observant that a lot of dissimilar people will insist that it is all about them.

7. The Aristocrats. When Bob Saget is dead and gone, this movie may seem as melancholy as Ballets Russes. In the meantime, we can enjoy Robin Williams and Drew Carey telling the same dirty joke in parallel ("Know it? I wrote it!"), and Sarah Silverman, who, with a single perfect punchline, enters the pantheon of the immortals.

8. The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Comedy is hard work, and most movies are content to settle for the easy laugh, which is why this humane and lovingly observed movie is such a treasure. It's a lowbrow comedy with a cerebral spirit, made by people who cared, and as a result, it's about eighty times better than it had to be. The world is a happier place because it exists.

9. Match Point Like Closer, this is a tragedy made bearable by beautiful people, textured cinematography, and marvelous interior design. It's also terrific entertainment, a parable about the disconnect between good manners and moral behavior, and a gallery of perfect, unobtrusive supporting performances coaxed out by a director whose craft, in its modest way, is as accomplished as Spielberg's.

10. Grizzly Man. A model of restraint and understatement about the weirdest story ever told. The movie's defining moment is a shot of Werner Herzog listening, through headphones, to the death screams—unheard—of Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend. His advice to Treadwell's friend: "You must never listen to this tape."

There were also a lot of good pieces of flawed movies, especially the first half of War of the Worlds, the second half of The New World, and the good parts of Elizabethtown, which consist of roughly half the movie, passim. (Elizabethtown is the new Beyond the Sea, which means that it's a movie of questionable quality that I would sooner watch again than many of the movies listed above.) Movies I regret having missed: Serenity, Shopgirl, In Her Shoes. And yes, I did finally see Crash...but that's a topic for a whole other entry.

And the worst movie of the year? Charlie and the Chocolate Factory certainly qualifies as a major disappointment, but in terms of sheer waste, nothing comes close to the last two-thirds of Eros, which, to paraphrase Roger Ebert, is the first movie I have seen that did not improve on the sight of a blank screen viewed for the same length of time.

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