Best of 2005: Richard Schickel's Best Movie Picks

  • Share
  • Read Later
COURTESY OF TIMOTHY TREADWELL / LIONS GATE

Grizzly Man: Timothy Treadwell and the grizzly bears of the Alaskan wilderness

- 1 -
Grizzly Man

Perhaps the year's oddest, and therefore most arresting, film, it is the story of a post sixties hippy names Timothy Treadwell, who spent every summer of his life, for over a decade, living dangerously--in close proximity to the great Alaskan bear population, and was, with his girlfriend, eventually killed by one of them. Treadwell pretended to be studying them and preserving their habitat. But he anthropomorphized the creatures and, indeed, began to think that he was one of them. Director-writer-narrator Werner Herzog, a man whose great subjects have been extremists (see Aguirre, The Wrath of God), combines hundreds of hours of video tape Treadwell shot over the years and interviews with people who knew Treadwell to create an ironic, dubious, compelling portrait of a man succumbing to madness without losing his chipper, childlike spirit. People keep saying that Treadwell "crossed the line" that separates man from beast, which is surely true. But he also crossed the line between sanity and insanity, and as intimate portrait of that process this film is both unique and unimprovable.

Movies: Our critics pick their favorites
Richard Corliss
Richard Schickel
Television: Battlestar Galactica is No. 1 for TV of 2005
Music: Kanye West tops the list with Late Registration
Books: Five fiction and five non-fiction greats of 2005
Children's Books: TIME selects the year's top titles for kids
Comix: The best graphic novels and comix of the year

- 2 -
Downfall

We're in the bunker with Hitler and his toadies as, above ground, the remnants of The Third Reich crash in flames. Bruno Ganz gives a towering performance as the Fuhrer, moving imaginary armies around on the map, succumbing alternately to grandiosity, rage and self-pity, while the rest of his court dreams either of suicide or escape. What's truly frightening about director Oliver Hirshbeigel's movie is that no one in it is portrayed as a monster; they're all recognizably, if sickeningly, human. We don't identify with them, let alone sympathize with them, but we are obliged to acknowledge them as people we have surely known even people we might have become, had we surrendered our best selves to noxious ideology. Downfall is not an exercise in idle, sensational historicism; it is a permanent parable about the human condition, how thin the line is between reason and the kind of madness true belief can impose upon us.

- 3 -
Memory of a Killer

How's this for a high concept? A professional hit man (Jan Decleir) is suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer's, but must still pursue one last bloody job. You can imagine what Hollywood might do with that idea. What you can't imagine is what Eric Van Looy, a gifted Belgian director does with it in his low key, persuasively realistic thriller. His killer, whose moral sense is completely intact, no matter what's going wrong with his less-than-total recall, learns that his wet work is designed to protect a ring of child vicious child abusers, whose members include highly placed government figures. He begins leaving enigmatic clues about the real criminals with a harassed detective and this unbalanced man ends up restoring something like balance to a complex and elegantly realized corner of the world—how many Belgian movies have you seen? Not often explored in the cinema.

- 4 -
The Weather Man

He has a funny name (David Spritz) and the studio tried, disastrously, to sell this Nicholas Cage movie as a comedy. It wasn't. It was about a Chicago weather reader dealing with an almost classic midlife crisis—a divorce, a disaffected child, an accomplished, disapproving (and dying) father (Michael Caine) the tempting possibility of taking his act from local to national TV. Steve Conrad's excellent script is directed as a sort of sad frenzy by Gore Verbinski and the result is a very affecting movie, offering a convincing portrait of middle class desperation that ends in unsentimental affirmation. If it could have been made as an independent production it might have had the cachet of something like The Squid and the Whale. Instead, it was an undeserved big studio flop. Still, there's always home video.

- 5 -
Munich

Even before its release, Steven Spielberg's movie—written by playwright Tony Kushner—is being misunderstood by ideologues. It is about one of the teams Israeli assassins assigned to wreck vengeance upon the terrorists who wiped out eleven of that country's athletes at the 1972 Olympic games in Munich. As such it functions as a well-made and suspenseful thriller. But that's not its main business. Neither is a hymn of hate to the Palestinian perpetrators of that heinous crime, which was the true beginning of modern terrorism, carried out in the full glare of the media spotlight. Spielberg believes the actions of the Israelis was fully justified. But mainly he stresses the human cost of counter-terrorism, the fact that it is not easy to kill anyone, even your enemies, up close and personal, that such acts inevitably involve the infliction of collateral damage, not to mention the equally inevitable loss of one's own colleagues. The director has called his film "a prayer for peace," an implicit plea for a negotiated settlement to the Israel-Palestine war. He doesn't think any movie can accomplish that, but Munich is a thoughtful, intricate, handsomely made, potentially popular step in the right—the only possible—direction. (Click for TIME's Cover)

- 6 -
Caché

Someone is stalking Georges and Anne Laurent (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche), an upper bourgeois Parisian couple (he hosts a TV book program, she works in publishing). Mysterious videos, showing a scary intimacy with their comings and going are left at their door, so are violent, childlike drawings. It soon becomes clear that this is payback for a childhood sin of Georges's. But plot is not the point of writer-director Michael Haneke's subtle, creepy thriller, which leads finally to an act of violence that is one of the most suprising and unsettling in movie history. What the movie is primarily about is the subtle destabilization of the Laurent's comfortable world, their feeling that they are doing very nicely in the world and expect to go on doing so. You can read the movie as a suspenseful thriller if you like, but it is really a parable about trying to maintain normalcy in an age where, at any moment, terror can brush your life and send it spinning out of control.

- 7 -
The Beat That My Heart Skipped

By day (and often enough by night) Thomas Seyr works for his thuggish father as a "property manager." Realistically speaking that means brutally removing tenants and squatters from apartment buildings so they can be converted to more profitable uses. But he is haunted by the career he abandoned—as a promising concert pianist, which his mother also once was. It's an improbably melodramatic premise—Golden Boy reset in Paris—and also a remake of the American film Fingers. But that reckons without the canny direction of Jacques Audiard and the appealing work of Romain Duris as the muscle man-musician. His efforts to reclaim himself are told with irony, a touch of almost unspoken romance and surprising, but plausible, results as the movie moves from noirish darkness to the more sunlit realms of artistic aspiration.

- 8 -
Crash

The Los Angeles car culture comes to a series of screeching interrelated halts as various forms of vehicular unpleasantness occur at every socio-economic level of the city. Show folks, politicians, criminals, and, yes, the cops who have to untangle the messes the make, work out their fates. To say that Paul Haggis's film is multi-layered understates the case. But there is great clarity in his direction, shrewd observation in the screenplay (which he wrote with Robert Moresco and rafts of terrific acting—most notably by Matt Dillon as a racist cop who becomes the reluctant hero of the piece—in this smart, intelligently observed film.

- 9 -
Cinderella Man

The truish story of a down-and-out pug, Russell Crowe's James J. Braddock, who overcame injuries, dire, depression era poverty, and a lackluster record to become, briefly, the World's Heavyweight champion, Ron Howard's movie was the year's most notorious flop. But it was a good, tough, well-acted, beautifully designed and photographed movie, sentimental without being squishy, inspiring without being a tear-jerker and featuring honest, honorable performances by Crowe as well as by Renee Zellweger as Braddock's fierce, brave wife and Paul Giamatti as the wise-guy manager who stands by his unpromising man. In its way it is a hymn to the courage and good values of working class America, and that may not have appealed to modern, fat-and-happy Americans, but, forget that-- Cinderella Man is a movie well worth taking to heart. (Review: A Man, A Punch, A Simpler Time)

- 10 -
Ballet Russes

It's a very convetional documentay—a lot of old dancers recollect their days as member of the Ballets Russe De Monte Carlo mainly during the interwar years. Their memories are interspersed with archival footage of many of their most stirring productions. Their life, mainly on arduous tours, was hard and financially hand-to-mouth. But no one's complaining. They brought dancing of a very high order to places that had never seen anyone in toe shoes and tutus before, they found camaraderie, fun and the ineffable satisfactions of artistic enterprise in their work. In short, they are a nest of gallant old birds and this movie, directed by David Geller and Dayna Goldfine, is inspiring in the best, unsentimental meaning of the term.