This was an unusually good year for films. I rate films on a scale of -4 to +4 and almost every year there are one or two films good enough to get a +3. Maybe three more get a low +3. About half will be in the +2 range. This year, any film that was not good enough to be in the +3 range was an automatic "also ran." For whatever reason, this year had a bumper crop of really solid films. These were the ten I thought were the best.
1) THE CONSTANT GARDENER
This is a love story, an education about the chicanery of the drug industry's testing in the Third World, and above all a good political thriller. And it works as all three. Ralph Fiennes plays a minor British government functionary who marries a leftist activist (Rachel Weisz). When she is murdered he realizes he did not know her very well. This film packs a wallop right up to the final scene.
The final days of the leaders of the Third Reich have been portrayed in several dramatic films, but never so well. Much of the same territory was covered in the documentary HITLER'S SECRETARY. This account, without apologizing for the man, puts a human face on the bunker in those last days. It is a particularly good war film. This film could have been depressing but at least the adults do not deserve much sympathy.
3) GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK
Cinema finally gives a long overdue tribute to a great journalist Edward R. Morrow. David Strathairn plays Morrow and George Clooney, who wrote and directed, plays Fred W. Friendly. This docu-drama tells of how Morrow risked his career to face off against Red Scare congressman Joseph McCarthy. This is a short but potent film account of their struggle. The only obvious flaws are the interruptions for jazz songs, which are only superficially relevant to the compelling storyline.
4) BEE SEASON
A family's dysfunction and its members' inability to connect with each other on an emotional level are the subjects of this strange drama. At the same time it is a film studded with ideas. Based on a best selling book it is a film about psychological problems, about religious mysticism, and about intellect in various forms. Scott McGehee's and David Siegel's adaptation of the novel by Myla Goldberg has a sort of austere beauty of ideas.
5) EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED
This is a film that starts dryly and slowly, then moves into comedy, and then serious drama. An American Jew travels to Ukraine to find information about lost members of his family. Forgotten secrets of past are unearthed. The story elicits a wide range of emotions. It is a film with some laughter and some very affecting moments. It is a flawed film, but parts are really excellent.
6) MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS
Dame Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins shine in this 1930s and 1940s story of a widow who turns a cinema into a theater for live entertainment, founding an institution that becomes a symbol of the British spirit of resistance during the Blitz. This film is recommended to anyone not offended by some tasteful nudity on the screen. This is a warm comedy-drama--a confection of a film loosely based on the true story of the famous Windmill Theater in London.
Films about race relations and bigotry go back at least to D. W. Griffith's INTOLERANCE (1916) and his BROKEN BLOSSOMS (1919), both made in part to atone for his racist bad taste in BIRTH OF A NATION (1915). One would think that in 90 years everything that could be said on the subject has already been said. Not so. Several interlocking stories show--even overstates--the undercurrent of private bigotry in our country. Then the stories take unpredicted turns and the film finds something positive to say about the human condition.
8) KING KONG (2005)
If you love a film you don't want to see it remade. I love KING KONG (1933) and for years after seeing the terrible 1976 remake I hoped nobody would ever try again. Peter Jackson showed how to remake a great film. Jackson's film fills out the characters of Ann Darrow and Carl Denham. I still prefer the original but for many of the aspects this is a better adventure film. It certainly has enough visual spectacle for most filmgoers. And it manages to make a tender statement in the relationship between Darrow and Kong. It also has action without becoming a large video game.
9) THE GREAT WATER
In Macedonia, Yugoslavia, after WWII a boy whose parents opposed the Communists is sent to a camp/school intended to indoctrinate him in the new Socialist ideology. This is another film of unexpected turns and irony. THE GREAT WATER tells a great deal about totalitarianism and human nature. It is a timeless story about power. At times, however, this is a painful film to watch. In the last fifteen minutes it turns out to be a complex, ironic, and ultimately very powerful story.
A film portrait of Truman Capote that in its own way is both admiring and damning. Capote investigates the murders that he was to chronicle in his docu-novel IN COLD BLOOD. To make the story better he also manipulates events and people. He can be incisive, ironically charismatic, and treacherous. Philip Seymour Hoffman has his best role to date--perhaps the best he can ever hope to get.
Of special note: These two films came very close to being among the top ten. Unfortunately only ten films can be there. DEAR FRANKIE is a story about a boy who has never met his father, but keeps up a correspondence with him thinking he is at sea. In fact, his real father is neither sea nor very fatherly. It is his mother who had been writing back to Frankie. The day comes when Frankie needs to see a father in the flesh and his mother hires a stranger to pretend to be Frankie's father.
LORD OF WAR, written and directed by the very fine Andrew Niccol is along the lines of THE CONSTANT GARDNER in that it is really an expose about an amoral industry, in this case arms dealing. The story is good, but not quite as powerful as THE CONSTANT GARDNER is.
My taste seems to be going toward art house films. Only two films here played in the "neighborhood" theaters. I think all the rest are what we call "art house" films. The independent studios are making the best films.
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2006 Mark R. Leeper