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Picture show

It takes some searching, but Mark Palermo finds the good that won’t come out of the truly mediocre movie year.

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Every year, critics complain how it was a bad year for movies, and then I point out that that they’re paying attention to the wrong ones. This year is a different matter. Big movies came from directors like Roman Polanski, Tim Burton, Hayao Miyazaki, Terry Gilliam, Cameron Crowe, David Cronenberg, Jim Jarmusch, Richard Linklater, Deepak Mehta and George Romero, and the results weren’t always disappointing. It was a great year for good movies, and a dismal year for remarkable ones.

Some of the worst movies of the year are being regarded as the best. The emergence and embracement of fake-political films from Crash to Syriana to The Constant Gardener is the inevitable result of Michael Moore Syndrome—movies wearing subtext on their sleeves that garner support by people who hope they’ll convert lesser people to their beliefs. What happened to the idea of art helping you understand something about yourself?

1) Nobody Knows (Kore-eda Hirokazu)

Loosely based on a 1988 news story where four children were abandoned by their mother in a Tokyo apartment, no movie of 2005 hit me harder. Director Hirokazu presents his child actors with a naturalism worthy of Vittorio De Sica. Twelve-year-old Akira (Yuya Yagira) is forced into the adult responsibility his mother wasn’t ready for. In dealing with society’s most fragile members, humane nature emerges. It’s childhood experience given a sincere adult understanding. Nobody Knows makes an insane situation identifiable.

2) War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg)

The first of Spielberg’s 2005 films about terrorism (Munich hadn’t screened at press time) transforms the US into the Third World, following a family in an alien-wrought human extermination. Spiel-berg’s focus on the gaze—matching what the audience sees with characters’ sight lines—processes tragedy at a subjective, empathetic level. Misunderstood, War of the Worlds re-defines notions of what “popcorn movies” can entail.

3) Kung Fu Hustle (Stephen Chow)

Stephen Chow’s follow-up to Shaolin Soccer bursts with movement, life and, most crucially, soul. If Kung Fu Hustle is the closest the movies have seen to a live action cartoon, it has more real conviction than most films that flaunt their seriousness. The year’s zaniest action and funniest comic visuals complement poignant moments about the choice of good or evil. Chow has a magnetism worthy of the best silent comedy stars, and even more energy behind the lens. Breathtaking cinema.

4) 2046 (Wong Kar Wai)

Mr. Chow (Tony Leung), the lead of Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, engages old flames and prostitutes. But there’s always the one that got away who lingers. In the Mood for Love was about the prospect of a relationship; 2046 is about the fallout of one. Hope for the future is consumed with ghosts of the past—illustrated in the fascinating dual time and place meaning of the film’s title. What could have become misogynist portraits is a deeply felt gallery of female characters. With some of the richest screen compositions of 2005, this is formalist filmmaking of a very high order.

5) The White Diamond / Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog)

Herzog’s two documentaries stand highest in a year that’s brought such good ones as Murderball, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill and Gunner Palace. The White Diamond is about a British engineer and his plan to build a silent mini-zeppelin that will explore the uncharted treetops of the Amazon. In Grizzly Man, a surfer spends his last years making documentaries that show his communion with wild animals. Or perhaps he’s insane. The films provide no easy judgment, but are fascinating portraits of men living beyond boundaries. Can we live at peace with the natural world, or will it destroy us? Rather than bend information to prove a hypothesis, Herzog approaches the subject with genuine curiosity.

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