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What’s better, Munich or The 40 Year-Old Virgin? You may as well ask if this tennis player is better than that accountant. You can’t really compare two well-made yet very different movies.
But I’ll try. Welcome to Bayflicks’ Top Ten Films of 2005.
Before I begin, I’d like to give special awards to three movies that weren’t in Bay Area theaters long enough to be reasonably called 2005 releases. Indeed, one was originally released here in 1925.
Best Movie You Probably Didn’t See: Go for Zucker!
The Jewish Film Festival‘s opening-night picture didn’t get a regular release, but it deserves one. The title character in this German comedy is a secular Jew and pool hall hustler whose life is falling apart. His wife is leaving him, his grown kids won’t talk to him, and his business is on the skids. Then his mother dies, and he must host his hated, orthodox relatives for a week or lose his inheritance. This is a tale of forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation that still manages to be cynical, and funny. I hope that some day you’ll be able to see it.
Best Renter at Your Local Video Store: The Edukators
Another German film that didn’t get the showings it deserved. Hans Weingartner’s little comedy/drama about radical youth and ex-radical middle-age played for only one week in Bay Area theaters. But unlike Go For Zucker, it’s available on DVD. The young protagonists have a novel form of civil protest: They break into expensive homes and rearrange the furniture. But when circumstances force them to kidnap a wealthy home-owner, they come face to face with the middle-aged conservatism that might be in their future.
Best Restoration and Presentation of a Classic: The Big Parade
The American cinema’s first great war epic (and first great anti-war epic) looks better than ever in the new restoration by George Eastman House. The black and white image is crystal clear, and the colors, originally tints and stencils, are gloriously recreated. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival did right by it in July, bringing Chris Elliott in to accompany this 1925 silent on the Castro’s Wurlitzer pipe organ.
And now, finally, Bayflick’s Top Ten Films of 2005:
10: Ushpizin: This sweet and religious fable from Israel just barely edges out Millions and A History of Violence to be my tenth favorite film of the year. Writer and star Shuli Rand is ultra-orthodox, and in his world view, good luck is a gift from God, misfortune a test, and everything will work out if you pray hard enough and treat other people with sufficient patience and generosity. Maybe it’s just another culture’s version of Frank Capra optimism, but what’s wrong with a little optimism now and then?
9: King Kong: Can you fairly judge a remake of a beloved classic? Peter Jackson’s version isn’t as good as the original, but not as good as a masterpiece still leaves plenty of room for excellence. Jackson didn’t just improve the special effects; he rethought all of the main characters (human and simian), finding new themes in the old story. Nevertheless, cutting it by half an hour would have improved it immensely.
8: Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit: Can a film make the year’s Top Ten solely on the basis of laughs? Yes, if it never lets you stop laughing. An eccentric inventor, his long-suffering dog, snooty aristocrats, cute bunnies, clever site gags, and whole lot of clay make Wallace & Gromit the funniest movie of the year.
7: March of the Penguins: The best children’s film of the year, the second-best documentary, and the “But that doesn’t fit our demographics” hit of the summer.
6: Good Night and Good Luck: I’m not saying that George Clooney is cuter than a flock of penguins, but he turned the battle between legendary television journalist Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy into a first-rate drama and an entertaining history lesson.
5: Munich: If your view of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict can be summed up with “Our side is virtuous; it’s all their fault,” you’re going to hate Steven Spielberg’s new thriller. Easily his best work since Schindler’s List, and his most daring yet.
4: The 40 Year-Old Virgin: Can a sex comedy really be better then Munich? It’s a tough call, but I’d have to say yes. This raunchy movie has a sweetness and a feel for how men relate to each other that takes it beyond simple laughs, and yet it’s almost as funny as Wallace and Gromit. This is a perfect date movie–provided the relationship has progressed past initial awkwardness.
3: The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear: The best documentary of the year explores the parallel rise of militant Islamism and American neo-conservatism in a way that’s fascinating, entertaining, and surprising. And important. Michael Moore can only dream of making something this good. This three-part BBC production played for several weeks last year at the Roxie, but received no theatrical, television, or home video distribution in this country. It’s available as a very large (but free) download at http://www.archive.org/details/ThePowerOfNightmares.
2: Brokeback Mountain: Ang Lee’s sweeping romantic tragedy is the best American film of the year. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal are brilliant as two cowboys who fall in love in the 1960s, and continue to see each other as they marry women, raise families, and try, unsuccessfully, to lead normal lives.
1: The Best of Youth: No competition here; The Best of Youth is easily the best new movie of 2005. Yes, six hours is a long time to spend in a movie theater, but in those six hours you’ll make new friends, fall in and out of love, learn a lot of recent Italian history, and marvel at just how wonderful a story-telling medium motion pictures can be. The Best of Youth is currently playing for another week at the Balboa, and will soon screen twice at the Pacific Film Archive. The DVD comes out next month.
So much for the best of the year. Now here’s the best of the week:
Noteworthy: Good Old Naughty Days, Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. Silent but sexy? I haven’t seen this collection of 12 hardcore shorts from the early 1900’s, but the idea of early, silent pornography sounds, well, innocent and fun.
Recommended: Waging a Living, Opera Plaza and Act 1 & 2, week-long run starts Friday. This is one hell of a sobering and depressing documentary (gee, I bet that line won’t appear in the ads). The filmmakers follow four low-wage workers over a three-year period, recording their struggles to get by on salaries that hardly cover the rent. They work hard to improve their situations, going to school and getting better jobs, but the game is fixed by the winners. If you’ve read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed (and you should), you’ll have some idea what to expect. But unlike Ehrenreich, these folks don’t have a secret life as a successful journalist; they’re stuck where they are.
Recommended: Munich, Presidio, open-ended engagement starts Friday. See above.
Recommended: The General (1926), Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Buster Keaton pushed film comedy like no one else when he made this one. He meticulously recreated the Civil War setting. He mixed slapstick comedy with battlefield death. He hired thousands of extras and filmed what may be the single most expensive shot of the silent era (then used it as the setup for a punch line told in a simple close-up). The result was a critical and commercial flop in 1926, but today it’s rightly considered one of the greatest comedies ever made. Frederick Hodges will accompany this silent film on the piano.
Recommended, with Reservations: Corpse Bride, Red Vic, Tuesday and Wednesday. At a time when Hollywood considers traditional cell animation dead and CGI king, who could have expected two stop-motion animated features to come out almost simultaneously? This tale of a nice young man who accidentally marries a lovely but rotting member of the living dead lacks Wallace & Gromit’s non-stop wit, but it’s still funny. It also manages to be pleasantly macabre without becoming too scary for children.
Recommended, with Reservations: 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Parkway, Thursday, 9:15. The first and best of Ray Harryhausen’s three Sinbad movies. In fact, of all his movies, only Jason and the Argonauts is better. The stop-motion animation is splendid, and the story, while trivial, is fun. Not a must-see like Jason, but still an entertaining escape into a fantasy past. The “No one under 21 admitted” Parkway will present this children’s film as part of a “Sexy Sword ‘n’ Sorcery Show” that also includes the belly-dancing troupe Clandestine.