February 23, 2006
The Anti-Oscars: The Best Films of 2005 That AMPAS Didn't See

Underneath the histrionics of the Hollywood mainstream, 2005 was a year that saw an incredible amount of innovation within the realms of independent and foreign cinema. Here are just a few of the films that — despite flying largely under the radar — were excellent contributions to the craft.

Sud Pralad
(Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul — Thailand)

The two-part structure of Tropical Malady isn’t really two parts, at all. Formally polar opposite, the two sections comprise one narrative: the first part is a literal manifestation of the metaphors used within the transcendent second half. Combining neorealism with mysticism, Apichatpong “just call me Joe” Weerasethakul explores the complexities of love in 2005’s most interesting gay romance. Exploring the seemingly sporadic and tentative relationship between a soldier Keng and a farm worker Tong, Weerasethakul captures the beauties of summer love by photographing the silent and unexciting. In the most sensual scene in some time, Tong licks Keng’s urine-stained hands in the last scene before the former disappears into darkness.

The thirty-second window of empty celluloid at the center of the picture serves as a mirror between Tropical Malady’s two worlds: it both inverts the themes and reexamines them from a new angle. One thing is certain, one cannot exist without the other; our perception of love and its consequences is contingent upon both mundane encounters and vibrant imagination. The second half can easily be described as an allegory or dream, but its sublimity ultimately lies in its mystery. The spontaneous fissure at the film’s core opens a new door in understanding the intricacies of human emotion — too darkly interwoven to be merely observed. -Jacob Gross

De battre mon cœur s'est arrêté
(Directed by Jacques Audiard — France)

The film's title is spoken by the deceased mother of Thomas, captured on tape during a piano lesson in his childhood and rediscovered by the grown man as he attempts to embrace the virtue of youth through a reconnect with his musical past. The Beat that My Heart Skipped alludes not only to the process Thomas undertakes in an attempt to capture musical ability and life, but also to the violence and soullessness that accompanies his present responsibilities. He is a thuggish enforcer employed by his landlord father, and the moral release Thomas finds at the piano collides with the heartlessness found in his job. His loyalty to his father interferes with his drive for artistic proficiency. Struggle both inward and outward, of the moral against the immoral, artistry toward business, and light against dark are thematic movements in Jacques Audiard's update of James Toback's 1978 film, Fingers.

As Thomas, Romain Duris exudes a disgust with his situation and a hate that is both undeniably sexual and frightening. Even as his character grasps his desire to remove himself from the life of a lightweight thug, Duris never betrays the underlying hum of Thomas' discontent. The beauty of his rebirth in music is there and palpable, but Duris understands the discord. Audiard plays upon harmony as well, antagonistically wrapping scenes of brutality in vibrant music with a syncopation not found in the purer moments of Thomas at the piano. Noir elements are evident and articulate the moral dichotomy of the main character. The composition of scenes and the manner in which Duris is photographed — often shot from one side or obscured, half in shadows — seethe with anxiety, a visual bitonality. The Beat that My Heart Skipped plays upon audience expectations in its closing bars. What is right and wrong, what is achieved and what is lost, becomes muddled into a coda that does not betray the ambiguities that persuade Thomas' decisions. -D.A. Johns

(Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda — Japan)

If Mother, as played by Japanese pop singer You, manages to instill in her children anything positive at all, it is the virtue of a playful imagination, an ability to turn all of life's limitations into a fun little game to play or a silly conversation. She copes with the fact that the family has to sneak into a too-small apartment by having the youngest children play a game to see how long they can hide in suitcases before someone can detect them. To save money on food costs, Mother devises a hand game to decide which family member has to go without dinner. (Mother takes that loss.) It's this upbringing that encourages a positive, carefree point-of-view for the children, an ability to see beauty everywhere, even in times of distress or tragedy. Mother of course goes on to take this perspective way too far, not allowing her children to go to school and then eventually abandoning the responsibility of parenting altogether, but the children at least seem on the outset moral, free-spirited and notably happy people because of their relationship with their mother.

The central idea I'm describing bears an awful lot in common with a much more culturally revered monster, a movie that hits the viewer over the head with the theme of a parent instilling a perspective of beauty in times of tragedy. Of course I'm talking about Life Is Beautiful, and I for one am perplexed as to why Nobody Knows is considered an obvious-all-along AMPAS wash-out while Benigni's picture became the most embraced foreign film in the history of the Oscars. You certainly can't blame the reviews, judging by the near-30 point grade difference between the two on Metacritic's scale falling onto Nobody's favor. Had Nobody Knows been given a full-fledged release and then failed, you could potentially blame it on a lack of public interest in the material, but that it fell into the hands of a studio that could only make a handful of prints and shuffle them around with the bare minimum of advertising expenses, it doesn't seem like the public was given a fair shot to find it. In any case, Nobody Knows is the single film I saw from 2005 that deserved at least a passing glance in nearly every eligible category, from the uniformly excellent cast centering on the epic performance of Yûya Yagira, to the flawlessly natural direction and writing of Hirokazu Kore-eda, to the first class technical accomplishments of the cinematography, editing, sound and art direction. Yet nobody in the academy likely saw Nobody Knows. Their loss.

Rois et Reine
(Directed by Arnaud Desplechin — France)

Kings and Queen is an experience in opposition to itself. It’s a tragedy and a comedy; a love story with more venom than most revenge tales; an epic film acute to the emotional demands of its countless players; a progressive narrative cut and spliced with meticulous disorder and an auteur piece from a barely known filmmaker.

The surest sign that Kings and Queen (Rois et Reine to use its transliterated French title) is among those rarest of films is that few words seem to capture the atmosphere it radiates with. Any mention of one aspect of the film, if only a few sentences long, seems to undermine the many plotlines and scenes that contribute to make that one little jigsaw piece work so well. Desplechin’s sleight of hand and reserved discretion elevates the film far above the sum of its parts. In its various undress, Kings and Queen functions as both a physical comedy and a family drama. As its rightful self, it reveals a world of personalities trapped in a hopeless wannabe existential cycle: Characters painfully aware of the virtuous course of action and doing their very best to ethically subvert it.

In the most focused movements the film centres on Emmanuelle Devos’ Nora and her “kings”: ex-husband Ismaël (Mathieu Amalric), son Elias (Valentin Lelong) and terminally ill father Louis (Maurice Garrel). From these often tender — occasionally terse — moments the scope expands to include half a dozen names with intersecting preoccupations. Many are funny, some are angry, but none are reduced to the clichéd moments that peripheral characters so often indulge. All are resigned to sadness.

Desplechin's complex map knowingly shuns exposition and playfully withholds information until it best serves his ambition. Only after watching Ismaël’s spiral into passionate mental detachment for an hour, does the audience come to know his precise relation to the Queen’s story. In an even braver set piece, Nora’s imagination is visited by the lifelike fantasy of her former husband, only for his death to be reenacted in embarrassing detail a little later and leave the audience reevaluating what they have taken for granted. An inattentive mind is the cure for this utterly compelling film. And if Kings and Queen took everyone who wasn’t a French cinephile by surprise, one of the few certain conclusions it produces is that the next Arnaud Desplechin film will not be anything less than highly anticipated. -Simon Wood

Mysterious Skin
(Directed by Gregg Araki — USA)

After a career of off-the-wall films ranging from esoteric to barbaric, Gregg Araki comes into his own with his most mature work to date in Mysterious Skin. Probably due in part to this also being the first film not based on an original screenplay of his own (from Scott Heim’s novel, adapted by Araki) that reined in a certain amount of the quirks he’s used to. Yet the film is certainly a strange tale itself and Araki a perfect match for it.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet play two boys who deal with previous sexual abuse at the hands of their Little League coach in vastly different ways. Gordon-Levitt’s Neil becomes a jaded (if not totally bitter) hustler who hangs around playgrounds waiting for neighborhood men to pick him up. At one point he mentions he’s done them all except one, and once he does it’s an affirming conquest. Corbet’s Brian chooses to block out the memory completely, instead replacing it with the memory of an alien abduction.

What’s remarkable about this film is the delicacy, that it understands the vulnerability of children and how issues of sexuality are so complex and difficult to process. The material never becomes lewd or voyeuristic and the performances are pitch-perfect. Neil’s detachment from the abuse allows him a very free sexuality as a teenager, recognizing himself as gay and that his hustling, while an effect of the abuse, is clearly also his decision. Brian’s detachment is more extreme in that he doesn’t even acknowledge the event happened and therefore has a more complicated arc to traverse by the film’s end. -Erik Anderson

(Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien — Japan)

Café Lumière — Or: The Unbearable Lightness of Being Hou Hsiao-hsien. Xgau said of My Favorite Rock & Roll Band, circa All Hands on the Bad One: “they could no more make a bad album than the Rolling Stones in 1967.” Well, Hou, in the Oughts, it seems, can no more make a less-than-stellar movie than Godard in ’66 (or, better yet, Ozu in ’53). If heaven is a place where nothing ever happens, Café Lumière is cine-nirvana — or at least Lost in Translation without the ScarJo panty shot and cheap Jap jabs. Sofia Coppola best take real good notes. Sublimity doesn’t come easy, even if Hou makes it look that way. -Josh Timmermann

Grizzly Man
(Directed by Werner Herzog — USA)

Werner Herzog's love and profound respect for nature — in all of its dread — is apparent in his often wild yet intimate and lyrical portrayal of characters. The prime example can be found in his masterpiece, Aguirre Wrath of God, in which the wilderness of the New World serves as a mirror of the wilderness in Aguirre's heart and soul — or vice versa.

It is only natural that a director like him should be fascinated by such a character as Timothy Treadwell. In the hands of the German director, the story of this Grizzly Man becomes one of the most intrusive and complex looks at humanity that cinema offered in the last years.

Through the most significant moments of Treadwell's footage, Herzog creates a subtly creepy but ultimately intimate study of one man's exploration of an ancient balance. The great struggle of Man versus Nature, of civilized life versus the human condition's most basic tendencies, and the allure of the animal world's simplicity become this carefully executed documentary's themes. In the creation of his own personal myth, Timothy Treadwell challenged the world, challenged the world as we know it now, with all its longing for progress and the progressive annihilation of any bond that still connects humanity with its roots. Herzog's look at Treadwell's life isn't judgemental, but one of a filmmaker profoundly intrigued and at the same time disturbed by the testament of a visibly unstable man who willingly filmed his insanity and left it to the world to look upon. And as the world looks into Treadwell's footage, the impression he left on film that will last forever, we discover more than an overly enthusiastic, child-like mad egocentrist who wanted to protect bears. We discover the insecurities of the Modern Man, the fears and hopes, delusions and dreams, of an alienated soul who had nothing to do with the rest of humanity and who is, in a way, a mirror of Western Culture as a whole, in its perpetual self-destruction. In his crazy monologues, we discover the devastating smallness of Man in the Universe, and the knowledge of such smallness. It's a reflection of our most hidden nightmares, and we're dared to face them without the protective screen of fiction that movies often offer us. Grizzly Man didn't even make it to the Documentary short-list of the Academy. But with its allegory of the ageless struggle of humans trying to survive everything that's around us, and its central character so deeply bound to all our modern frustrations, we can safely assume that it will be remembered for a long time, and regarded much more highly than all of this year's non-fiction nominees. -Ciro Di Lella

La Meglio Gioventù
(Directed by Marco Tullio Giordana — Italy)

Marco Tullio Giordana's The Best of Youth is a generous film. It feels less like a film and more like a novel or a particularly well-done season of a television series. It sprawls all over, taking its time in telling its multi-generational story, wrapping us up in the warm blanket of family and taking us through tumultuous decades of Italian history. And it's six hours long.

Lest all of that sound too intimidating, fear not. This is that rare film about something completely foreign to most American audiences that will nonetheless remain completely explicable. The film rises above politics to embrace its characters on an emotional and psychological level. Yes, one of these characters is a leftist bomber, but the film is careful not to judge. It allows her her own peculiar journey. But then, this film is so generous that all of the characters are given room to breathe. A younger sister who seems sort of unimportant in the first hour-and-a-half soon becomes a beating heart for the film. And so on. Giordana is in love with close-ups, the contours of the human face. But he's also in love with showing us the tenuous ties of family, the things that bind us together with their simultaneous strengths and weaknesses. Is the film overlong? Probably. Does it have its weaknesses? To be sure. But it's rare to get a film that offers this much and asks us to give back just as much. The Best of Youth is never going to be a huge crossover success, but those who love it will find it and wrap it around themselves on rainy days, shelter from the storm. -Todd VanDerWerff

(Directed by Wong Kar-Wai — Hong Kong)

Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai is a filmmaker that rarely fails to distinguish himself from his peers. His stories are completely his own, and his aesthetic is undeniable. And whether his product is widely lauded — or even basically understood, he is an auteur whose vision rarely lags and whose films rarely result in anything short of unconcerned brilliance. 2046, a loose sequel to 2000’s In the Mood for Love, is an inebriating master class in melancholia. Tony Leung, who returns as Chow Mo-wan, is no longer the profound idealist that we left whispering in holes at the end of Mood, but a swaggering womanizer and a con artist. Haunted by the refusal of his unrequited lover Su Li-zhen, Mr. Chow's story weaves in and out of a world of fiction and half-hearted romance. His pulp sci-fi novel (for which the film is named) tells the story of a train that fluxes between reality and memory, and — thanks to the dexterous hand of Wong — tonally explores the film’s themes of loss and regret. A string of Chow’s new romantic encounters drive the narrative, and a brilliant ensemble of actresses including Ziyi Zhang, Faye Wong, Gong Li, and Carina Lau infuse the film with cerebral eroticism. Maggie Cheung even returns in an astonishing cameo. The performances here and by Leung easily rival those of any actor that AMPAS chose to honor this year, and in the opinion of this humble movie-goer trounce the ensemble work of the ragtag team who took home a SAG award in 2005. The film’s stunning cinematography is done by Wong’s favorite cameraman Christopher Doyle, Kwan Pun-leung, and Lai Yiu-fai, and its production design overseen by veteran art director Alfred Yau. 2046’s effectiveness comes from a team working in perfect, brilliant unity — and from its director's casual intensity. Some may remain skeptical of what all the film’s intimation adds up to, but what is so exciting about the work of a director whose work is characterized by narrative abandon and aesthetic drive is the devastating, and inadvertent effect its visual beauty and thematic density can have on a viewer. The film does not rely on the devices that cheapen Hollywood, but on the investment of a viewer and on the quality of its visual text. -Keaton Riley Kail