For the first time, Movie Habit added a bit of math to its top ten list. Previous years’ lists were the conceit of Marty Mapes, with occasional input from Matt Anderson or Andrea Birgers.
This year, each writer who wrote a review of a theatrical release was invited to submit a top ten list. Each list was weighted by the total number of contributions by that author. The results were tallied. The following list is our first combined Movie Habit top ten list.
On the side, you can check our individual lists, along with honorable mentions and overrated exclusions.
So get those rent lists ready (click “Add TITLE to your list” to start a list on Movie Habit), and enjoy!
10. Sin City, Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller (and Quentin Tarantino)
In reviewing the year, I only came up with five "favorites" rather than a Ten Best:
I'd have an easier time with a Ten Most Overrated...
... or Ten Worst:
- The Constant Gardener
- Good Night, and Good Luck
- Darwin's Nightmare
- Batman Begins
- The New World
- Walk the Line
- Brokeback Mountain
- Match Point
- Sisters in Law
- Grizzly Man: It was hard to forget Werner Herzog's portrait of an animal-loving zealot's one-man quest -- and subsequent failure -- to be the first human a bear would tolerate in their midst. Interspersed with the footage made by Timothy Treadwell during his stints living with Alaskan bears, up until when he is eaten by them, and interviews with the people who interacted with him, Herzog weaves meditations on the boundaries between humans and animals, delusion, and creatures' natural capacity for violence. Herzog never strives for an objective presentation; his stance is much less romantic -- and lethal -- than Treadwell's.
- Crash: This fascinating look at intolerance bred by proximity and sheer number among the City of Angels' various immigrant and local populations rang true in its unflinching look at prejudice.
- Millions: I was charmed both times through Millions, a fanciful story of a boy and his brother and a large amount of cash, which they find just before England is to convert to the Euro. Writer-director Danny Boyle's playful storytelling and cinematography allow disbelief to fade in the wake of a great story, generously told and happily ended.
- March of the Penguins: Oh, the suspense and drama of it all: Will the mothers return with food before the fathers and their eggs freeze or starve? Will the father be able to cover the egg with his body before it freezes? Will the clan allow a bereft mother of a frozen baby to steal another baby? And could there be a single person in the world who doesn't enjoy listening to Morgan Freeman for an hour and a half? I didn't think so.
- No Direction Home: At last, Martin Scorsese gives of a view of Dylan as a person and not just a legend, a symbol of a movement, a relic of a movement, a messiah….
- Syriana: This may seem an odd choice when I only gave it two-and-a-half stars in my review. But the substance of the film has stayed with me, and no one besides writer-director Stephen Gaghan has ever let me see behind the scenes of the oil barons, suicide bombers, CIA lackeys, and corporate lawyers who are shaping our world.
- Satellite: Satellite is one you won't likely see. It's a fine but to-date sadly unreleased romantic adventure story by director Jeff Winner, screened at the Denver International Film Festival this fall.
- Bee Season: Bee Season took interesting risks and failed at times in its exploration of the dynamics of family interactions, but its moments of clarity made the film worthwhile.
- Brokeback Mountain
- Batman Begins
- The New World
- Separate Lies
- Brokeback Mountain
- Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
- Walk the Line
- The Beautiful Country
- The Aristocrats
- The Best of Youth
- Directors Label DVDs
- March of the Penguins
- Match Point
- Pride & Prejudice
- Schultze Gets the Blues
- The Upside of Anger
- Sin City
- The Constant Gardener
- Batman Begins
- Grizzly Man
- King Kong
- The Devil's Rejects
- The Nomi Song
- Me and You and Everyone We Know
There are a million stories in Basin City, affectionately referred to as Sin City, and this film adaptation of Miller’s series of graphic novels tells three of those tales. It’s a stunningly faithful adaptation, oozing with loads of violence, attitude, and bodacious bodies.
It’s a simple concept told in eye-popping fashion, but there’s virtually no redeeming value. Some would say that makes Sin City more pure. In either case, Sin City does manage to create a giddy sense of sick, twisted fun as the unflappable good guys battle the Hell-bound bad guys.
9. The Constant Gardener, Fernando Meirelles
Academy Award nominated director Fernadndo Meirelles (City of God) is back with The Constant Gardener, a highly charged thriller that hardly gives you room to breathe between its intricate premise and intense visuals. Being an exhilarating mystery and a heart-throbbing romance — with some dirty political schemes mixed in — this film is sure to entertain and move you.
Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) suspects foul play in the death of his British wife in Kenya. The official cause of death was a bandit raid, but Justin learns that it could potentially have been a cover-up. After finding some of her notes buried in their closet, he launches his own private investigation on what Tessa had been researching. He finds that she was unraveling a conspiracy, and it is now up to him to finish. He dives into the harrowing details of her research on AIDS victims in Africa and the involvement of a large pharmaceutical company. His determination to solve the puzzle becomes suicidal; the deeper he digs, the more his life is threatened by the same people who killed Tessa.
Instead of the standard disclaimer about the movie’s events being fictional, Le Carre writes a personal note that, although the story is fictional, “thank God, it is a picture postcard” compared to what he actually discovered doing his research.
With the non-stop suspense and endless revelations, Meirelles doesn’t even leave room to blink; nor do we want to, with the beautiful cinematography and spectacular acting.
8. Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee
Too much hype can kill a good movie. Yes, the story of the gay cowboys has been covered to death, and it’s sure to show up on all sorts of year-end “overrated” lists (including two here at Movie Habit). And yet, Ang Lee’s sincerely told story, Rodrigo Prieto’s (21 Grams, 8 Mile) wonderful wide-open cinematography, and Heath Ledger’s outstanding performance really are that good. Brokeback Mountain may be overhyped, but it’s not overrated.
7. Munich, Steven Speilberg
The first ten minutes tell the story of the assassination of Israeli athletes at the hands of Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympic games. (Rent One Day in September, a gripping documentary on what went wrong.)
From there, Spielberg follows Avner (Eric Bana), a Jewish agent hired by Mossad (the Israeli CIA) to assassinate the assassins. One of the most riveting scenes belongs in the “political thriller” genre. Our team has planted a bomb, but the target is surrounded by innocent family members. We want the assassination to work, but we don’t want there to be any collateral damage. Spielberg and long-time editor Michael Kahn play the scene beautifully, pulling the audience to edge of its collective seat.
If you’re able to think above the gut level, you may realize that it’s not the greatest feeling to be rooting for an assassin. As Avner begins to lose his soul, our own doubts begin to surface. Spielberg smartly makes the assassinations “fun” for most of the movie. Not only does it keep the audience’s attention, but when we start to question the value of revenge, we have our own complicit enjoyment to account for.
By the end, we see that revenge has wrought havoc on Avner’s life. We never get to gloat or say “I told you so” because we were right there with him all along.
6. Separate Lies, Julian Fellowes
The plot of Separate Lies is a fairly straightforward thriller. There is a love triangle, a coverup, and a too-nosy detective. But writer/director Julian Fellowes does practically everything right and practically nothing wrong, so calling it “straightforward” seems a disservice.
James (Tom Wilkins) is a well-to-do solicitor with a house in London and one in the country. His wife Anne (Emily Watson) is a good British wife. An accident has happened near their estate: the husband of their housekeeper was thrown off his bicycle and killed.
What follows is 90 minutes of moral, ethical, and legal wrangling over justice, blame, and revenge. Different characters climb the moral high ground — usually for their own convenience — only to tumble down again under some new development or revelation.
The writing is sharp, rich with irony and themes, and never contrived. Our two leads are excellent; Watson may not have been this good since her breakout performance in Breaking the Waves. There are details in cinematography, music, and dialog that reveal a mature, intelligent, and in-control filmmaker. The only thing missing is a really original plot. But considering how well-crafted everything else is, it’s something I’m willing to forego.
5. The New World, Terrence Malick
Point your canoe out into a nature preserve, if you can find one far enough away from highways and flyways. Drift at evening and simply listen. There are birds and insects, there is the rustle of trees, and there is the sibilant sound of water on your hull.
It may not be possible to do that on this continent anymore, but you could 400 years ago. Director Terence Malick has imagined what it might have been like and created it on film.
Malick’s style is not so much about storytelling as about mood-setting. One could say that The New World is “about” Pocahontas. It does tell her story from the arrival of Captain John Smith through her death in England. Malick even finds a way to smooth out the rough edges that are so apparent in an episodic movie But there is so much more to the movie than its events.
4. Murderball, Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro
Murderball covers a lot of ground in 88 minutes. It introduces us to the sport of “quad rugby”. It introduces us to quadriplegics in general, answering questions able-bodied people always ask (including the ones about sex). And finally, it tells the story of the 2004 season, in which the Americans hope to take the title back from the Canadians.
A worse documentary would simply follow team USA, hoping that the story arc would happen naturally. But Murderball is an excellent documentary. It was obviously sculpted by smart editors from a huge amount of footage.
The best subplot, one that almost seems too good to be true, is the salvation of American-turned-Canadian Joe Soares. The filmmakers introduce him with a freeze frame and a title card just after he has yelled “fuck you, bitch” at some hapless usher. Most documentarians wouldn’t dare to choose such an unfortunate moment to introduce a subject to an audience. But directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro did, and they have good reason to. Joe’s story is almost good enough to be the subject of its own movie.
Rubin and Shapiro clearly shot a lot of footage, hoping they’d find a story in the editing. They didn’t just find one, they found many. These real stories of human drama — containing a range of human behavior from ugly to noble — are more impressive than any film about a comeback season. Murderball proves their dedication and talent as filmmakers.
3. Oldboy, Chan-wook Park
Oldboy, a Korean film released there in 2003, is the first wonderful surprise of 2005. There are scenes that will put off many filmgoers, but underneath them lies an operatic tragedy worthy of Shakespeare.
Oh Dae-Su is kidnapped and held against his will in some sort of strange apartment. It’s not an actual prison, which means some private individual has created this carpeted one-room hell-hole. Occasionally the room fills with some sort of knockout gas while his captors change the towels. Narrating from the future, Dae-Su tells us he will be held here for fifteen years, but after about six, he begins his Monte-Cristo-like plan for escape.
There is a beautiful symmetry about the story, which is entirely justified by the characters. The excellent cinematography sometimes feels like an Escher drawing. But what really makes Oldboy delicious is that it is unabashedly a tragedy. Oldboy is very violent and very bloody. It is not for kids or squeamish adults. It acted directly on my id, bypassing my ego entirely. All my conscious mind could do in the face of such emotional wrenching was to marvel at the power of film and a well-told story to completely change one’s emotional state.
2. Capote, Bennett Miller
The publication in 1966 of In Cold Blood, made author Truman Capote more famous than he had ever been, but also may have destroyed his ability to write another book.
Capote, a biographical film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as the celebrated gay writer, explores the depth of Capote’s immersion in the story of the townspeople and the murderers. Hoffman could have simply played Capote as a collection of mannerisms, yet it is the film’s screenplay that helps the actor reveal the writer’s compassion and willingness to build his reputation on the misfortune of the two notorious murderers. The combination of Hoffman’s portrayal and the masterful storytelling reveal the writer’s obsessive brilliance.
1. Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan
Sure, the catalyst for why Bruce Wayne donned cape and cowl is well known: the cold-blooded murder of his parents right in front of his 8-year-old eyes. But why would a billionaire risk it all and adopt such a dangerous hobby? Take a look at billion-dollar weaklings like Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, and Richard Branson. They’re too busy pimping for yet another buck to make a real difference in the world.
Bless the bat heavens, then, for Christopher Nolan, who explains it all in an oh-so-smart story that puts to shame the standard comic book movie formula. Make no mistake about it, this is not Adam West’s campy TV Batman. This is the real thing, the really dark Dark Knight.
What makes Batman Begins all the more exceptional is its story, finely crafted by Nolan and David S. Goyer. Interested more in developing the internal machinations of Bruce Wayne, this is, ultimately, the most un-comic book of all the comic book movies. Batman Begins plays more like a sensational thriller than an in-your-face summer special effects extravaganza.
Amidst all the character development and action sequences, the film’s simple underlying theme of falling, failing, but getting back up again plays well in this grim fairy tale. Even though he falls hard and often, Batman is, undeniably, in the best shape of his historic career and more than ready to take on the new millennium.