Five years allows films to mature like fine wine or be forgotten like a tasty Happy Meal. We learned this lesson last year with our Best of 2004 feature. When coming up with this feature, the question the Spectrum Culture staff pondered was this: “How well do these films play NOW!” Not five years ago, but how have they aged in our memories or after repeated viewings. While some acclaimed films of ’04 remain strong on our list, some critically-lauded ones didn’t have the staying power. Crash? Bye. Junebug? Sorry. This list is designed to give new perspective on things five years old. Thank you so much for reading!
10. Syriana (dir: Stephen Gaghan)
Set against the backdrop of various locations around the United States and the Middle East, Syriana, written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, unfolds like a real-time, back room political documentary. The situations, conflicts and interactions feel foreign and complicated, but they are seeped in everyday, 24-hour news driven familiarity that still rings very true today. On the surface, Syriana is a film about the political and moral corruption of oil trading and how the line between the two can be so easily blurred. Gaghan constantly cuts scenes of Middle East power politics and religious fanaticism with scenes of Senators and Congressmen discussing trade embargos, questioning the motivations and morality of both American independence and their increasingly large role in foreign democracy.
A stellar cast, propelled by one of George Clooney’s finest performances, and the use of DV filming techniques creates a Gonzo-type atmosphere that allows for both emotional connection to the less than likable characters and a scathing review of their political and familial practices. There are no Democrats or Republicans here, only profit-minded sheiks, attorneys and government officials. It is this bi-partisan look at oil trading that makes Gaghan’s film so timeless and not just another liberal look at greedy, Red state foreign investors. His subjects are all people caught up in a game bigger than them. From Matt Damon’s family oriented Bryan Woodman, to Clooney’s blindly loyal Bob Barnes, each character is carved with depth and care as neither a “bad” or “good” guy. In politics, whether it be in 2005 or 1985, there is no such thing as a black and white issue and in 2011, as the problems of international trade and foreign investment that Syriana skillfully probes are as relevant as ever, the gray area continues to grow. Five years and one big oil company fuck-up later, Syriana remains a powerful and poignant political thriller that will continue to ring true for as long as wars over natural resources and interest in foreign democracy (or the suppression of it) exists. – Kyle Fowle
– Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (dir: Shane Black)
In 2005, Robert Downey Jr. was still a bit of a punchline. There were fond memories of the time when he was a gifted actor instead of a walking anti-drug ad, but it was safe to say that most regarded Downey as a huge disappointment. His attempted comeback two years prior, The Singing Detective had been a huge flop and Downey was more than a decade removed from his Oscar nominated role as the titular Chaplin.
So call it inspired casting or just faith, but Shane Black was onto something when he put Downey in the role of eternal fuck-up Harry Lockhart for his directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Indeed, a large part of the appeal of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang continues to be the way it turns Hollywood tropes and trivia into something on the level of Chandler dialogue and the placement of Hollywood wash-ups like Downey and Val Kilmer in key parts adds to the charm.
But there’s more to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang than slacker charisma and stylish pop analysis. Like its thematic sibling Brick, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is very much a film in love with film. With a title taken from a Pauline Kael book (which itself was taken from an Italian James Bond poster), Kiss Kiss is the type of story only movies can tell, following Downey’s Lockhart around the peripheries of Hollywood and his own inspired casting in the film within the film. Downey may have found himself back on the A-List without Kiss Kiss but it’s hard to think of a better starting point for the actor’s new-found relevance. – Nick Hanover
9. The 40-Year Old Virgin (dir: Judd Apatow)
The early to mid ’00s signaled the rise of the Bromance thanks to films like Old School and Wedding Crashers, even though movies about guys hanging out are hardly anything new — just go back and watch Ghostbusters or any of those Bing Crosby/Bob Hope road movies — but The 40-Year-Old Virgin was something special compared to its millennial predecessors. Wedding Crashers was about sleazy douchebags, but with Virgin writer/director Judd Apatow — back then “just” the guy who produced canceled TV shows like “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared” — brought his outsider-centric sensibilities to the realm of mainstream comedy to make a movie about the kinds of people who watch comedies. I’d never want to be in any room with Vince Vaughn in it that didn’t also have Purell, but I know people who are like Seth Rogen and would much rather hang out with them.
The 40-Year-Old-Virgin is ostensibly about Steve Carrell’s inability to successfully get laid despite his friends’ efforts, but it’s also a sweet comedy about unconventional people. Carrell’s character likes his lifestyle of toys and video games and only finds a suitable mate in a single mother who “has a kid who has a kid,” effectively making her a single grandmother. Moreover, it’s Catherine Keener, who is not the first person you think of when you’re casting the female lead of a mainstream sex comedy. The film’s influence is undeniable, not only in ongoing “How I know you’re gay” jokes exchanged between fratboys, but also its essential contribution to making Carrell a star and setting up Rogen and even Jonah Hill to eventually follow; that had even raunchy slacker comedy godfather Kevin Smith attempting to jump on the bandwagon. The 40-Year-Old Virgin was the one that let the floodgates open. – Danny Djeljosevic
8. Sin City (dir: Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller)
Based on Frank Miller’s acclaimed neo-noir comic book series of the same title, Sin City was a sudden splash of cartoon grimness in 2005. An ensemble film culled from three separate storylines of the long running series (“The Hard Goodbye,”
“The Big Fat Kill” and “That Yellow Bastard,” if you’re counting), the movie’s extraordinary recreation of Miller’s trademark visual exaggerations is nothing short of incredible. From the shocking vividness of a young prostitute’s eyes against quick lines of white rain and the decaying streets of Basin City to the moody narrations that follow each protagonist, Sin City is one of the rarest of film achievements, the transformation of an utterly unique experience into a new medium.
But none of this would be important if it weren’t for the finely tuned performances of (among many others) Bruce Willis in a variation of his archetypal, weary supercop, Benicio del Toro as a corrupt detective, Elijah Wood as the creepiest person to ever wear Charlie Brown stripes and most of all, an unrecognizable Mickey Rourke as the legendarily tough bruise Marv. Prior to his resurgence with The Wrestler and Iron Man 2, Rourke seemed one of Hollywood’s lost souls, a fine actor who brutalized his body and career almost beyond belief; Sin City is a film fine enough to utilize that without ever seeming like it’s exploitative.
And why is Sin City still important, you ask? Aside from helping to flood in the renewed success of comic-book adaptations in the latter half of the decade, it helped to usher forth a grimmer, darker set of films like The Dark Knight in 2008, which itself received eight Academy Award nominations and is one of the highest grossing films of all time. In addition, it augured further visually spectacular films like Zack Snyder’s 300 (also from Miller’s work), films that ignored the constraints of realism (or basic physics) in exchange for tone and mood. With an upcoming sequel in the works, Sin City seems as relevant as it did five years ago. – Nathan Kamal
7. Grizzly Man (dir: Werner Herzog)
I’ve already forgotten Bad Lieutenant, and Rescue Dawn is fading, but Herzog’s recent “nature documentaries,” Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World, have both had remarkable legs in the highly competitive “taking up space in my mental real estate” race. I think that has a lot to do with his ability to take big things like The Natural World and Madness and highlight their mysteriousness where other filmmakers are maybe more interested in concretizing them.
It’s impossible to put this film’s titular grizzly man into a box as a crazy person, because to claim a full understanding of the sort of insanity on display in this film would ring of bullshit. It’s beyond insanity, his conviction is too great. Not surprisingly, Herzog doesn’t do this, despite the fact that he explicitly states that Timothy Treadwell’s claimed communion with bears is, point blank, nuts. “And what haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell, this bear was a friend, a savior.”
Herzog’s openness and genuine curiosity with people, his desire to see where they’re coming from even when he can’t identify with their perspective, basically guarantees that his films will not conclusively prescribe a form of truth to their audiences even as he reaches absolute conclusions of his own. To think someone is crazy, but to be haunted by their conviction, is one of the most genuine expressions of empathy that I can think of. Grizzly Man, like much of Herzog’s best work, enriches the human experience through its refusal to look away or dismiss. – Andrei Alupului
6. The New World (dir: Terrence Malick)
With the soaring, transcendent swell of Wagner’s “Prelude to Das Rheingold” echoing over a series of stunningly framed shots of natural splendor, we know from the start we have entered into the capable hands of director Terrence Malick. Coming seven years after his previous The Thin Red Line, Malick’s fourth feature in 30 years would at first blush seem to be offering nothing more than a simple retread of many of the artist’s previous themes and preoccupations. There is the requisite fall from a state of grace, represented both by the sundering of Pocahontas and John Smith’s love and by the despoilment of this virgin land by Christopher Plummer’s bumbling British colonials. There is the same awestruck examination of landscape and fauna and the familiar enigmatic, poetic narration. The gorgeous, seemingly off-the-cuff, light-drenched shots, captured this time by master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, favorably recall his second feature, Days of Heaven. But whereas that film and Malick’s debut, Badlands, featured simple, elemental storylines, The New World would seem to have taken that minimalistic tendency to the point of parody. In the schema of this film, the Indian “Naturals” are equated with the good while the Colonials are wholeheartedly portrayed as venal and corrupt. And yet as is the case with much of Terrence Malick’s work, not all is as it seems.
In The New World (and especially in its final, extended cut), Malick is offering to his audience a fable built from the stuff of history. With meticulous attention to detailed fact (including by far the most realistically portrayed Native Americans ever put on film), Malick, along with his talented cast (luminous newcomer Q’orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas, Colin Farrell’s soulful Capt. Smith, and a late appearance by Christian Bale) enact for the camera’s eye nothing less than Malick’s version of the Book of Genesis, all the way from creation to expulsion. As in all myth and fable, simplicity and a childlike directness of address is a virtue. Inside the myth of The New World, between the lines of Malick’s fable, lie an infinite array of love and light. – Shannon Gramas
5. Brokeback Mountain (dir: Ang Lee)
The sweeping Wyoming mountains of 1963 are a stunning backdrop for a Western film, providing an unexpected twist to Ang Lee’s heartbreaking same-sex romance. Brokeback Mountain is a story of the forbidden passion two young men share while working as ranch hands on a mountainside one summer, an experience that leaves a lingering, haunting impression throughout their lives. Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Heath Ledger) grapple with their feelings for each other, and how society dictates how they should behave. They should get married. They should have children. They should deny their love for each other and lead unfulfilled lives, eventually resulting in Ennis’ divorce and Jack’s mysterious, somewhat ambiguous death.
Lee’s beautifully shot, brilliantly acted film shows the quiet struggle of two men grappling with their sexuality in a day and age where they can’t love each other without living in fear. In an early childhood memory, Ennis recalls seeing two older men beaten to death for being gay. “This thing gets hold of us at the wrong time and the wrong place and we’re dead,” he warns. He curses Jack for touching his soul and making him feel things he can’t have the freedom or the courage to pursue.
At the core of the film is the message that you can’t help whom you fall in love with, and this sentiment rings truer than ever today. Gay rights drew extensive national media attention with gay marriage at the forefront of state politics, numerous gay teens bullied to the point of suicide and the recent repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” allowing gays to serve openly in the military. Lee’s film is a triumph for those struggling to find peace with their true identity, and will continue to be for years to come. – Amanda Jones
4. Good Night and Good Luck (dir: George Clooney)
Good Night, and Good Luck begins and ends with Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) addressing the assembled, tuxedo-clad crowd at a 1958 tribute dinner in his honor. He disregards the celebratory nature of the occasion to delivering a blistering condemnation of broadcast news at that point in time, effectively accusing his peers in the room of abandoning the noble pursuit of illuminating information, the very sort of crusading journalism that earned the news media the moniker the Fourth Estate. It then backtracks to a few years earlier as Murrow and his cohorts at the CBS news program See It Now live up to the highest aspirations of the profession, relentlessly exposing the hypocrisy and hated of Joseph McCarthy, the junior senator from Wisconsin, as he hunts down Communists within the government and armed services, smearing anyone who dared to question his methods. Director George Clooney, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Grant Heslov, presents the film with an unhurried confidence that reflects a belief that strongly held opinions intelligently argued can carry a narrative, even if the action gets no more kinetic than characters leaning forward in their chairs as they press an issue.
At the time of its release, Clooney’s film was clearly taking aim at the contemporary news media and their complacency and compliance as the Bush administration dragged the country into war on flimsy and false pretexts while stripping away civil liberties in the name of preserving freedom. Five years later, there’s simply more cause for consternation as the misleading rhetoric of political leaders goes unchallenged, real issues are ignored in favor of debates over which party won the day and valuable programming time is turned over to a sitcom lightweight turned loony proselytizer to speculate on whether or not a rash of dead wildlife signifies the Rapture is just around the bend. There’s not a newsroom in America that couldn’t benefit from a fresh listen to Murrow’s 1958 speech. Watching Clooney’s movie again wouldn’t hurt either. – Dan Seeger
3. Cache (dir: Michael Haneke)
Many of Michael Haneke’s films explore the relationship between polite society and the cruel world it desperately tries to shut out, from the marauding teenagers of Funny Games to the marginalized immigrants of Code Unknown. But none display this dynamic with such concentrated, finely wrought tension as Caché, which focuses the director’s concerns into a single, puzzling plotline. Five years after its release, the film still feels like a singular mediation on the thriller genre, an otherwise normal structure with half of its shape removed. There are protagonists: a middle-class French family, who begin receiving ominous surveillance tapes of their home, followed by threatening crayon drawings. The source of these threats, however, is never completely revealed, pointing only to a creepily unseen menace lying immersed in shadows.
The clues that the audience is given, pointing to some childhood wickedness, buried trauma and a legacy of guilt, potentially lead nowhere, but allow the film opportunity to accomplish what the best thrillers always have, exploiting the consequences of fear as a segue to deeper examination. Just as Hitchcock’s movies plumbed terror and dread as exercises in psychoanalysis, Haneke examines the family’s reaction to their situation as a proxy for upper-crust Europe’s queasy relationship with its poorer neighbors, whose underprivileged populaces serve as de facto threats to a people guilty about their current prosperity and imperialist past. This is all packed into a film that never feels as forcefully pedantic as most of the director’s work, sublimating its lofty intentions into tense foreplay rather than ploddingly obvious lessons. – Jesse Cataldo
2. A History of Violence (dir: David Cronenberg)
David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence was tthe best film of 2005, about a man who leads a dual life- a man with a penchant for violence that he has to rein in to protect his sanity and his life. While Batman Begins attempted a real-world value but failed, Violence’s original source material by John Wagner and Vince Locke features some unbelievable bullshit, including a tortured body kept alive for decades. Cronenberg separates the chaff from the wheat by focusing on the characters, while the original book falls lifeless because of its lack of exploration.
Restaurant owner Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) foils a hold-up in his small Indiana town and becomes a local hero. The attention at first is a boon, until Carl Fogarty (a menacing Ed Harris) recognizes him as Joey Cusack, a Philadelphia gangster in hiding. Tom denies this vehemently, and his idyllic life seems to support his claim, but as Fogarty makes his presence known, Tom’s mask starts to slip. Cronenberg and screenwriter Josh Olson forgo the comic’s forced violent altercations and awkward flashbacks and focus more on Tom’s internal workings. Mortensen’s portrays Tom as a man unraveling- cinematographer Peter Suschitzky focuses heavily on faces during dialogue scenes, allowing reactions to linger.
A film called A History of Violence thankfully does not that disappoint in that department- Cronenberg’s love and mastery of gore makes the action sequences appall. The violence is jolting, terrifying and visceral. The blood doesn’t flow or fly in cool patterns- it splatters, it clots, it cakes the counter of Tom’s restaurant. Cronenberg has created a film that explores the mentality of a violent man, and the nature of violence in itself. It leaves you cold, like a shock of blood across the face. – Rafael Gaitan
1. Munich (dir: Steven Spielberg)
Munich, as deft a cinematic capture of the ethics of terror and response as can be found, is what David Fincher’s 2010 entry, The Social Network, is to today’s business and youth culture. That is, the succinct summation of an era or an idea as embodied by the story of mere individuals: a palace contained in a single word. Munich is moody, murky, and at times hellish; but the times it signifies, equally so.
Munich’s quintessence displays the truth of Emerson’s thought, “There is properly no history, only biography.” In it, we watch a Mossad assassin (Eric Bana) and his team as these angels of vengeance enact the Israeli government’s secret response to the inhumane slaughter of eleven Israeli athletes in Munich, Germany during the 1972 Olympics by members of the Palestinian secular terrorist group Black September. Like the terrorists themselves, the agents deployed to bring retribution are, beneath their mission objectives, real, fallible people moved by forces larger than themselves, a sense nimbly delivered by Spielberg’s direction and his exceptional commitment to chronicling the true lives of these ordinary people as they pass into the sphere of history.
The milieu is familiar to anyone living post-9/11: paranoia, cyclical violence, retribution and compromise, wraith-like enemies, questionable friends and the moral high ground that evaporates as soon as one inquires, “What law protects people like these?” and answers with a silent “none,” as Lynn Cohen does in a weighty though brief turn as then-Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. While Spielberg asks us to consider such heady notions, we are treated to a whirlwind of standout performances and delicately sublime camerawork.
In Munich we are offered a look into a world so like our own (because it is our own) that you can almost see the ghosts of today’s headlines lurking in it: rendition, preemption, extra-legal predator strikes, abstruse terror finance channels and bungled Mossad operations. If we can’t shake this idea that justice is vengeance, Spielberg seems to say, justice may consume us all in the end–a notion for all times, but ours especially. – Joe Clinkenbeard