Best of 2005: Richard Corliss' Top Films of the Year

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Director Werner Herzog in The White Diamond

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The White Diamond

A charismatic man is seized by some magnificent idea or ideal, and his pursuit often drives himself toward madness and those around him near despair. That is the grand theme that Herzog has examined, and embodied, for more than three decades, in fiction films like Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, and in such documentaries as My Best Fiend (about his frequent leading man Klaus Kinski) and La Soufriére (about his own journey toward an active Guadaloupe volcano from which all others were fleeing). Recently he found two other suitable subjects, made two extraordinary films. One is Timothy Treadwell, the very engaging, and borderline bonkers, "star" of Grizzly Man, who lived among kodiak bears each fall in southern Alaska. The other is Graham Dorrington, a London University aeronautical engineer, who wants to build and fly a hot air balloon — not a behemoth like the Hindenburg, but a small airship called The White Diamond. "We can realize our dreams!" says this excitable scientist, who often seems near laughter or tears. "Let's go fly!" Now he has come to the wilds of Guyana in hopes of launching his dream.

Darkly handsome, like the hero of a Brontë novel, Dorrington is also as haunted as Heathcliff or Mr. Rochester. As a 14-year-old experimenting with explosives, he had lost parts of two fingers; later, in Sumatra, a colleague died in an airship crash for which the aeronaut still feels guilt. Occasionally oppressed by his melodramatic mien, Herzog turns to Dorrington's Guyanese assistant, the gentle, mystical Mark Anthony Yhap. But the attempts to get the White Diamond up are at the heart of the film. And when, accompanied by beautiful choral music, the airship finally rises to soar over the forests and villages, or is viewed as a reflection in the river water (where it looks like a giant white blowfish), the movie attains an astonishing spiritual buoyancy. "I'm high!" Dorrington exclaims. "High on helium!" So was I: high on this documentary's magical realism.

The White Diamond had very limited theatrical release (which is why I've discussed it at this length) but is now available on DVD from Wellspring. And in case you're wondering, Richard Schickel and I don't consult each other in compiling our Ten Best lists. That we both chose Herzog documentaries were not conspiracy but coincidence — and, I think, a fitting tribute to a filmmaker of the purest craft, and of his acute understanding that the most thrilling adventures are those that illuminate man's quest both to tame nature and become one with it.

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Once the brand name of serious cinema, later ignored, left for dead, Bergman roared back at age 85 with his first film made for theatrical release in 20 years. A sequel of sorts to his Scenes from a Marriage in 1972, Saraband reunites the main couple, Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullmann), for an icy tri-generational trauma that involves Johan's widowed son Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt) and Henrik's teenage daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius). The movie asks: How dependent is Henrik on the daughter he loves, perhaps to excess? How dependent is Johan on the son he hates? And how dependent are all of them on their memory of the beloved woman who was Henrik's wife? Always forcing himself to peel emotions down to the skin, and beneath them, Bergman has created a naked emotional biography. He has said Saraband is his last film — a final primal scream — and we should be grateful for it, since his art and craft are undiminished. Here is no octogenarian afterthought to a distinguished career. This is a testament of love and anguish from the man who used to be called the greatest living filmmaker. Well, dammit, he was. And, as Saraband proves, he still is.

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Apparently the great directors don't care to abandon their favorite themes and stories. Like Herzog, Wong keeps making the same movie; his subject is love, how it hurts, and how beautiful a sight that pain can be. Like Bergman, he has made a sequel to a favorite earlier film. In the 2000 romance In the Mood for Love, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai circled each other in slo-mo for an hour and a half, and their almost-touching sparked more erotic heat than a dozen Jenna Jameson epics. In the new film Leung plays a harsher version of the same character, as he languishes in room 2046 of a Hong Kong hotel and half-heartedly courts a quartet of fabulous dames: a prostitute (Zhang Ziyi), a vamp (Carina Lau), a gambler (Gong Li) and the elfin girl of his dreams (Faye Wong). That gives the director four times as many chances to let furtive glances and plaintive words collide—which they do, to subtly spectacular effect. It's a story of love and loss, beautifully designed (by William Chang) and shot (mainly by Christopher Doyle) in the smoky, smoldering Wong Kar-wai style. 2046 is the kind of picture an intelligent viewer can approach and ask, "Got a light?"

Trivia note: The directors of my top three films all have selections on the all-TIME 100 Movies. And stay tuned for a fourth.

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The Squid and the Whale

What a foursome the Berkmans are — on the tennis court, where mom, dad and the two boys play as fiercely as if this were a grudge match at the U.S. Open, or in their disintegrating home, where each pursues self-destruction with an anchorite's intensity. Bernard (Jeff Daniels) is a college professor and one-time promising novelist who is stewing in the rancor of midlife mediocrity. His wife Joan (Laura Linney) has emerged from his shadow to land a novel with a prestigious publisher, and is celebrating by having an affair with the family's tennis pro. Elder son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) is burrowing into his teenage misery like a creature out of Dostoyefsky — or, perhaps, one of his father's novels. As for 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline), puberty has landed on him like a house after a tornado, and he's obsessed with spilling his seed in all the wrong places. This catalog of deceits and embarrassments may not sound particularly hilarious, but, trust me, it is. Baumbach's sympathy for the all-too-human spectacle of lust pratfalling over itself makes the film as funny as it is painful. The only appropriate response to this lacerating brood — whose troubles make the Saraband family, by comparison, seem like the Andersons from Father Knows Best — is the laughter of shock and compassion.

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Hidden (Cache)

A surveillance videotape of a Paris home slipped through the front-door mail slot... an ominous phone call... a scrawled drawing of a bloody figure... The evidence seems disconcertingly simple. Someone is threatening Georges (the excellent Daniel Auteuil) and his nice family. To which Haneke says, Look closer. The Austrian director, now working in France, ranks as Europe's most provocative film prankster. And his new work, which swept the European Film Awards (Best Picture, Actor, Director and Editing) this month, is both an exercise in motal suspense and an essay on the complicity between those who create disturbing images (moviemakers) and those who take pleasure from looking at them (us). Georges is not as blameless as he seems; his long-suppressed memories of an incident from his youth lead him into a labyrinth of personal and political guilt, and a confrontation startling in its violence. Till the very end of the film, the very last shot, you may ask, Yes, but whodunit? Who was the anonymous terrorizer? And as the closing credits appear over that final shot, I say that you can find an answer... if you look closer.

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The New World

He has directed four films in 32 years: Badlands in 1973, Days of Heaven in 1978, The Thin Red Line in 1998 and now this retelling of the romance of John Smith and Pocahontas — the crosscultural Adam and Eve, or Romeo and Juliet, of colonial Virginia. Like his superb earlier films, this one has a poetic, faux-naive narration and little dialogue to lead viewers through a story of small people in a gorgeous landscape. On landing in America, Capt. Smith (Colin Farrell) is intoxicated, beatified, by the new land's abundance. "Here the blessings of the earth are bestowed upon all," he declares. "None need grow poor." Greed will be made obsolete amid such natural wealth. He is also stunned by the beauty of the Indian princess (Q'orianka Kilcher), whom he sees as a new and improved species of human. She and her people, he thinks, will "create a fresh example for humanity." As you know from history, the Europeans were not immune from greed when they landed on this continent; and Smith's aboriginal love story was to have a third character, the tobacco planter John Rolfe (Christian Bale). Malick doesn't tell this poignant tale so much as he shows it. And what a show! Managing to make an epic film on an indie budget ($35 million), shooting in natural light — and, praise be, on the original Virginia terrain, not in Romania or New Zealand — Malick dramatizes the cultural collision with images of rapturous beauty. It may take a fresh set of eyes to discover this nearly abstract vision. But you'll revel in the film if, like Capt. Smith, you surrender to the surroundings and... look closer.

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The Constant Gardener

Here's another collision of cultures: chaotic modern Africa and the Europeans who once raped the continent and now, with toxic tests administered by a large pharmaceutical company, don't seem to mind killing it off. A British diplomat (super-pensive Ralph Fiennes) learns that his crusading bride (Rachel Weisz) has been killed on a trip into the bush, and goes searching for keys to her murder. Meirelles expands the scope of the John Le Carré source novel out of the European compound and into Kenyan villages and plains. This Brazilian director, who also found a place on the all-TIME 100 movies (City of God), likes to probe and prod a subject from a dozen oblique angles. The result is a First World story seen through the acute eyes of a Third World auteur — a film of nuance and power, flawlessly acted and an adventure to watch, with the aftertaste of a placebo laced with cyanide.

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Ku Fu Hustle

For years, Stephen Chow was famous across Asia as the bad boy of Hong Kong comedy, and a bugger star, year by year,, than even Jackie Chan. Who knew that Chow was also a wildly gifted director, until this Buster Keatonesque martial arts comedy? In 1940s Shanghai, the Axe Gang, a vicious triad with a weakness for some West Side Story choreography, has scared everyone off the streets—everyone except the harder-than-jade residents of Pig Sty Alley, who help turn a mobster wannabe (Chow) into a Bruce Lee gotta-be. Chow wanted to explore and update the antique styles of kung fu, so he cast veterans of 70s Hong Kong action pics, among them Yuen Qiu (who's a hoot as the Alley's bullying landlady), Chan's boyhood schoolmate Yuen Wah (as the henpecked landlord) and Bruce Leung (as the mild-mannered ultimate warrior, the Beast). But though Chow the actor doesn't take center stage until the second hour, Chow the auteur is fully in change. Behind the movie's frantic fun is a directorial eye so acute it makes most Hollywood directors seem myopic.

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Memoirs of a Geisha

This adaptation of Arthur Golden's best-seller baby-stepped onscreen with high hopes and big hype (including a cover story I wrote for TIME Asia). On opening day, the smarter critics slapped Geisha out of its reverie, and no one knows if the Motion Picture Academy members, for whom it was made, will ignore the reviews and give it lots of Oscar nominations. But as one of the movie's admirers, I'm sticking to my story: that this far-East fairy tale, about the geisha Cinderella (Zhang Ziyi), her wicked stepsister (Gong Li), her fairy godmother (Michelle Yeoh) and the faraway prince (Ken Watanabe) she dreams of, is a delicate, robust and emotionally satisfying throwback to the sweeping romances Hollywood once specialized in and now mostly ignores. Its visual splendor never obscures the furtive, assertive heart beating under the kimono. I loved seeing most of my favorite Chinese actresses in one movie (even if they were turning Japanese), and watching Gong Li stride away with her first big English-language picture. As the vindictive Hatsumomo, the Gongster flashes a stiletto stare that can burn in passion or turn on a rival with Freon fury. Those are pleasures enough for this unapologetic reviewer.

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Chicken Little; Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit; and Millions

End with three terrific movies the kids can see without irreparable social damage and their keepers should enjoy. Chicken Little is a genuine Disney cartoon, with a storytelling sense and graphic precision worthy of the old animation masters. The title character (voiced by Zach Braff) has huge glasses, a studious mien, not the best posture. And, oh, is this chick adorable, whether trying to win a chaotic baseball game or shaking a tail feather in his patented chicken dance. At a pace as sprightly and assured as the great old Warner Bros. cartoons, the movie flirts with alien abductions, crop circles, Streisand jokes and familial reconciliation. The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, which extends Park's Oscar-winning stop-motion short films to feature length, is about a creature that terrorizes townsfolk by eating their prize vegetables. With their usual precision and fey wit, Park and his Aardman colleagues have created a horror-romance that owes as much to Jane Austen's social comedies as to the Hammer monster movies of yore. In Millions, a sack of stolen money falls on 7-year-old Damian (adorable Alex Etel), and he thinks it's a gift from heaven. Magical realism comes to the English Midlands, where saints speak to little boys and dead mums offer tips on hair conditioners. Individually, these are films to give meaning and fun to an ailing child's rainy afternoons. Together, they could brighten Christmas, Hanukkah and the new year too. Happy merry, everyone!.