Best Films of 2005

Of the ten best new films I saw this year, eight were festival screenings, and, of those, only two (Cache and Tristram Shandy) have a reasonable chance of making it to a theater here in Knoxville. I mention that in passing as a reminder of how these year-end best lists are shaped by distribution and by the brand of popular American film criticism that still ghettoizes the vast majority of world cinema into a single, convenient category, “Foreign Language Film.” Like last year, I’ve again ignored distribution dates and chosen, instead, to simply pick my favorite “new” films from the list of those I saw between January 1 and today.

For me, the two highlights of the otherwise lackluster San Francisco International Film Festival were Ana Poliak’s Pin Boy and the one-night-only screening of Frank Borzage’s Street Angel, which was accompanied by a live performance from American Music Club of their newly commissioned score. That Pin Boy hasn’t fared particularly well on the festival circuit or received wider critical attention is a complete mystery to me. I picked up a ticket after reading David Walsh’s review, and other than the write-up by Doug Cummings (who was sitting with me in SF), Walsh’s remains one of the few English language reviews. It’s really a brilliant piece of naturalistic filmmaking.

The two films on my list that played here in East Tennessee are Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know and Bergman’s Saraband. If forced to single out my favorite film of 2005, I would probably choose Saraband, which is as good as any of Bergman’s many films — and better than most. My high opinion of it, I’ll admit, was likely influenced by the specter of the event itself: I never imagined I’d have an opportunity to see “the new Bergman” down at the local multiplex. For one afternoon, I felt just a bit like Pauline Kael or Stanley Kauffmann or, hell, like Alvy Singer.

The other seven films on my list were all screened in Toronto. The only surprise in that fact is that none of those films are The Sun or L’Enfant. (They would likely come in at #12 and #13, respectively, with Bohdan Slama’s Something Like Happiness taking the eleven slot.) In deciding which films make the cut, I often find myself asking, “Which of these would I be most excited to rewatch right now?” And by that standard, Carlos Reygadas’s Battle in Heaven, Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy, and Nobuhiro Suwa’s Un Couple parfait all stand out. Winterbottom and co. deserve special mention for making a film that is so smart and so ridiculously funny. I was beginning to worry that Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant were the last men left who could pull that off.

Cache has become the odds-on choice these days for most of those “Best Foreign Language Film” votes. If such a category must exist, then Cache is a fine choice. What most haunts me about the film is the precision of Haneke’s direction. Nothing else I saw this year was so surely controlled. How else to explain why, three months later, I’m still troubled by the image of a man lying down to take a nap? The only other piece of direction that can compare is Cristi Puiu’s work in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, which I’m tempted to call the “most important” film of the year, though I’m not sure exactly why. Not surprisingly, my top ten is rounded out by Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang, two filmmakers whom I admire and adore to the point that I can no longer consider myself an objective critic of their work.

Also deserving of special mention are: the films of Claire Denis, which have become an almost unhealthy obsession for me this year; Michael Apted’s Seven Up series, which Joanna and I watched night after night in August; the eighty-seven, always brilliant episodes of The West Wing that kept me entertained on the treadmill; and Peter Tscherkassky’s Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine, which is an aerobic workout of a completely different kind.

The Ten Best New Films I Saw in 2005 (by title)

Battle in Heaven (Carlos Reygadas, 2005)
Cache (Michael Haneke, 2005)
Un Couple parfait (Nobuhiro Suwa, 2005)
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005)
Me and You and Everyone We Know (Miranda July, 2005)
Pin Boy (Ana Poliak, 2004)
Saraband (Ingmar Bergman, 2003)
Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2005)
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (Michael Winterbottom, 2005)
The Wayward Cloud(Tsai Ming-liang, 2005)

The Ten Best Older Films I Saw for the First Time in 2005 (by title)

Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1965)
The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946)
Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1995)
I Can’t Sleep (Claire Denis, 1994)
It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (Richard Linklater, 1988)
A Moment of Innocence (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1996)
Opening Night (John Cassavetes, 1977)
Seven Up Series (Michael Apted, 1964- )
Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950)
Wavelength(Michael Snow, 1967)

Some Honorable Mentions

Short: Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (Peter Tscherkassky, 2005)
Live Music: Street Angel (Frank Borzage, 1928) with a new score by American Music Club
TV/DVD: The West Wing Seasons 1-4 (Aaron Sorkin, 1999-2003)