More and more, I notice myself in the middle of a movie, or in the first ten minutes of a movie, putting the experience to the fundamental test. Am I content to be watching this movie or would I rather be watching some other movie? A further refinement of the question: some specific other movie or just any other movie? With the new King Kong, for instance, it's simple and natural to hanker after the old King Kong. With The Family Stone or Cheaper by the Dozen 2, the field is so wide. I Remember Mama might hit the spot, but just as well might I Wake Up Screaming. Needless to say, the question does not often come up when I am content. In view of how often it came up, however, in the year gone by -- and no, I did not keep count -- the positive spin to be put on it is the inference that either way I'd still like to be watching a movie. The question has not yet been displaced in my mind by a declarative bumper sticker that says, I'd rather be golfing. Or fishing. Or decomposing.
This, though, is the time of year for remembering when that question was farthest from my mind. When I was most content.
The best piece of filmmaking I saw in 2005 was quite literally a piece of a film, more exactly a third of a film, the episode entitled "The Hand" in the three-part anthology film, Eros. Wong Kar-wai's superbly sustained bout of amorous longing, right around forty minutes in duration, seems especially rare and precious at the end of a Christmas season in which the average movie, if you added and divided, probably ran two hours and twenty-two minutes. Perfection need not fit into a predetermined mold. (The other two thirds of Eros, by Steven Soderbergh and Michelangelo Antonioni, were only good for filling out a marketable package.) Wong's own feature-length film from the past year, 2046, provides another point of comparison and contrast. While it had beautiful stretches of filmmaking in it, beautiful shots, beautiful scenes, beautiful pieces, the multiple plotlines added up to a dissatisfying hodgepodge.
My next selection in order of preference looks like something of a setback, setting us back, that is, to the year 2004 and reminding us of San Diego's provincialism in relation to the media meccas. But there it is. Face it. Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby did not reach our sleepy little burg until mid-January, and it remains the year's most poised, graceful, mellifluous piece of filmmaking on a standard scale. I didn't think it was as great -- yes, great -- as his Mystic River from the year previous, but I still marvel at the unhappiness of the story -- no happier than Mystic, though softer and sweeter -- and marvel, too, that it could have walked off with the Best Picture Oscar. And then I think of his also Oscar-winning Unforgiven, his A Perfect World, his The Bridges of Madison County. Dirty Harry had a lot to learn about courage.
Bennett Miller's Capote, next in line, did not greatly impress me as filmmaking, but it had a fascinating subject -- the laborious and painful birth of Truman Capote's soi-disant nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood -- and a fine script by Dan Futterman, and a tour-de-force performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman. (Not even I am perverse enough to award the top acting laurels to Kurt Russell for Dreamer, although honestly the latter is in a style I prefer.) The second time I saw the film I decided that it was maybe more openly judgmental toward Capote than I had at first imagined, or wanted to imagine, yet not so openly as to require the services of a libel lawyer.
Walter Salles's Dark Water seems to be my dark horse this year. Without any doubt it was not helped when, on the eve of its release, a dispute between the director and the front office spilled out into the press. That sort of thing tends to save critics the trouble of using their own eyes. To mine, the film looked to be a first-class ghost story, impeccably worked out in terms of theme, setting, and character, and impeccably played by Jennifer Connelly and supporters, John C. Reilly, Pete Postlethwaite, Tim Roth, Camryn Manheim, little Ariel Gade. And speaking of disputes between directors and front offices....
If I were trying to stretch the list to the traditional ten, I would add Major Dundee by reason of its dozen new minutes of (partially) restored footage. But inasmuch as my list has petered out at three and a third, I see no point in straining further. Sam Peckinpah's Civil War-period cavalry-and- Indians epic does not belong to the past year but to forty years earlier. Even in its truncated (or if you must, butchered) form, it is as good an example as any of the kind of movie I so often wish I were watching instead of whatever movie I'm currently obliged to be watching.
On a lower echelon we have the honorable mentions, the close-but-no-cigars: Nick Park's and Steve Box's Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, a happy return of the claymation man and dog, as lengthy as their three previous adventures put together and no less speedy, and yet, a bit compromised for the marketplace, not really as good as any one of them (see the lesson of "The Hand" above); Katsuhiro Otomo's Steamboy, a largely hand-drawn hommage to Jules Verne, lighter and livelier than the higher-praised anime, Howl's Moving Castle, by Hayao Miyazaki; Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale, sloppily made though sharply observed, with an unforgettable Jesse Eisenberg as stand-in for the autobiographical filmmaker; Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, slightly commercialized, stubbornly deadpan; Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know, quirky yet lifelike; Nora Ephron's underrated Bewitched, imaginatively liberated from its TV-transplant obligations; François Ozon's falling-out-of-love story, in reverse chronology, 5x2, with the extraordinary Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi; Agnès Jaoui's coolly, cruelly humorous Look at Me, letting her constant collaborator Jean-Pierre Bacri cultivate his dyspepsia; Andés Wood's Machuca and Marcelo Piñeyro's Kamchatka, a penetrating pair of child's-eye views of political upheaval, Chilean and Argentinian respectively, which premiered in last Spring's San Diego Latino Film Festival; Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, a compelling assemblage of found footage and ancillary interviews to piece together a crackpot who lived and violently died among Alaskan bears; Steven Spielberg's Munich, the director's overlong but nevertheless most gripping film in thirty years, namely since Jaws. And, to wrap up this group where the upper group began, Fruit Chan's "Dumplings" episode in the anthology, Three Extremes. A feature-length version of this episode apparently exists, but I can't vouch for it, nor see the need for it.
On the next echelon down, I am sure I found plenty of contentment, though I can't swear my mind didn't roam: to 1940's Pride and Prejudice during 2005's Pride and Prejudice, to American Dream during North Country, to The Bad Sleep Well during The Constant Gardener, to The Entity during The Exorcism of Emily Rose, to The Tall Target during Red Eye, to The Sons of Katie Elder during Four Brothers, to Dawn of the Dead during Land of the Dead, to Judex during Batman Begins, to Céline and Julie Go Boating during Melinda and Melinda, to North by Northwest during The Interpreter, to 1953's War of the Worlds during 2005's War of the Worlds. And on and on. It is one thing to be merely reminded of another film. It is another thing to be stolen away from the film in front of you. A more and more common thing.