Tuesday, January 03, 2006

More Faves of 2005...

Hey, it's been a lively day here, with a heady online class day (the UVM online class I'm co-teaching with filmmaker Walter Ungerer), lots of class prep for my upcoming Center for Cartoon Studies class and this Friday's lecture on behalf of the CCS at nearby Mount Anthony's High School in Bennington, VT, and more.

I've also been following the breaking news about lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleading guilty (sidestepping a trial and potential thirty-year sentence in exchange for ten years and going State's Witness); coming on the heels of Enron's former Chief Accountant doing the same a couple weeks ago, this promises a real shitstorm in 2006 for the likes of Tom DeLay, Ralph Reed, the Christian Right, many Republicans and Democrats (but primarily Republicans, as Abramoff was deeply involved in multiple fund-raising and election-financing schemes that boosted the present regime), and who-knows-who-else. We've also had further revelations about the President's covert wiretapping activities, none of which looks good for either us or Bush and his cronies. Sigh.

President Bush's handling of the wire-tap controversy is only getting worse -- he's his own worst enemy right now, and the more he betrays his testiness, impatience, and bullying nature, the more transparent his true nature becomes.

Amazing, amazing times -- what a year this is gonna be!

Well, anyhoot, instead of all that, I'll divert attention to yet another "Faves of 2005" litany. Enjoy -- sorry the writing is so scant today, but it's a busy day, and busier ahead.

Fave Movies of 2005: Theatrical Part One (in no particular order, though this entry & next entry are alphabetized per installment:)

* ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM: In a year of exceptional documentaries, this one sticks to the memory like no other. A galvanizing, hypnotic cartography of economic horrors that are almost unimaginably audacious, outrageous, and far-reaching in their reach and impact. The sequence in which we hear excerpts from the phone calls from snickering Enron employees calling for the California blackouts being rolled out, and see the consequences in familiar imagery suddenly rendered cataclysmic in urgency and effect is indelible and among the most chilling sequence in recent memory. Required viewing, period, especially given the trials to come -- this touches all our lives in the US.

* GOJIRA: Seeing the original Japanese version of Inoshiro Honda's 1954 classic -- known here all my life only via its cut-revised-dubbed Godzilla, King of the Monsters incarnation, save for home-video dubs of the original version -- was a highlight of the year. Seeing this on the big screen (at Dartmouth College) was a revelation and something I never dreamed possible in this lifetime. This is a great, grand film of tremendous gravity and impact, however dated Eiji Tsuburaya's atmospheric man-in-suit and miniature effects seem to contemporary audiences.

* HIGH TENSION: Even slightly trimmed, this was the best of the theatrical horrors of the year, courtesy of Lion's Gate (the only studio consciously forging a 21st Century genre output) and the fresh French Wave of genre and borderline-genre fare, the most inventive and disturbing since Fat Girl and Irreversible, though a bit less gut-wrenching than either of those. There's still life in the tried-and-true slasher opus yet, when it's as insidiously imagined and maliciously orchestrated as this agonizing roller-coaster ride. I was groggy in the ropes by the end, and the sting-in-the-tail twist wasn't a cheat, once you replay the film in your head blow-by-blow -- or brave a second viewing (if Rob Zombie could muster & mesh half of this kind of reptilian intensity and cold-blooded ingenuity, he'd be living up to his promise and better utilizing the resources at his disposal).

* HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE: A fresh Hayao Miyazaki masterwork, the first adapted from another source, though it's easy to see why Miyazaki embraced the novel: its heroine perfectly embodies the female archetypes all Miyazaki's prior works embraced and explored -- the innocent child daring to find her way in the world, the elder woman who acts as mentor -- ingeniously combined in its age-shifting protagonist. Her mercurial nature, mystically changing from youth to old age (sometimes in mid-sentence), is beautifully realized, visually and via its vocal performances -- including, for a change, its English-dubbed version. Dazzling, engaging, moving, and a wellspring of pleasurable images, concepts, and wonders. No, it's not Miyazaki's greatest work, but lesser Miyazaki is still magnificent, eye/mind/heart-opening, and light years beyond what passes for fantasy in American films.

* JARHEAD: Did any critic writing about this film see the same movie I did? A gripping, timely testimonial to the utter inconsequence of the individual 'grunt' in the contemporary military reality, and the indifference of command to that reality. The deceptively loose narrative brilliantly culminates in the anticipated mobilization of our hero(Jake Gyllenhall)'s refined sharp-shooter skills -- only to be usurped by eleventh-hour "superior firepower" in an emblematic flaunting of the new style of warfare initiated by the Gulf War. The waste & sorrow is palpable; the consequences for those who survive such monumental mismanagement and waste strongly communicated and felt. The primary fictional narrative American war film in this period of national transition, and an ideal companion to documentaries GUNNER PALACE (which I saw on DVD, not in the theater, hence it not being on this list) and Jay Craven's excellent AFTER THE FOG, which almost made this list.

* LAND OF THE DEAD: For my money, George Romero's latest was the most completely satisfying feat of genre storytelling of the year -- tightly scripted and executed, succinct in content/intent/effect, deft, barbed, sharp, attuned (with startlingly prescient imagery, tapping Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls while anticipating the grim realities of Hurricane Katrina), and worthy of all-that-came-before. Walking the studio tightrope (higher-profile cast than any prior Romero 'dead' entry, but working to an 'R' rating and under tight budget and scheduling constraints) and adhering to the aesthetic of similarly unpretentious fringe-studio filmmaking traditions (think Don Siegel, Phil Karlson, Sam Fuller, et al), Romero delivered the goods on all levels (also, this was the second-best father-son outing of the year, too, as far as movies go; Godzilla: Final War was more fun, but couldn't hold a candle, as a movie, to Romero's glorious accomplishment).

* MYSTERIOUS SKIN: Gregg Araki's masterpiece, by far his best film and among the best of the year. Tracing the intertwined lives of two small-town teen kids -- one a confused but earnest lad convinced he was abducted by aliens as a child, the other a callous embittered gay hustler cynical about all relationships & seemingly intent on selling his body at greater endangerment as if that will lead to something of consequence -- Araki forges a brave, disturbing, introspective, moving and ultimately transcendent film. Third from the Sun's pre-teen star Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers a devastating performance, proving his role in the lesser (but nonetheless compelling) film Manic (2001) was no fluke.

* WALLACE & GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT: What can I say that hasn't been said? Funny, inventive, brilliantly conceived and executed, perfectly timed, utterly delightful. God bless Nick Parks and all his collaborative partners; Aardman and Pixar are making not only some of the best animated films of our lifetime, but some of the best films ever, period. Grand & giddy fun, stem to stern.

* THE WILD BLUE YONDER: A stunning feat of directorial conceit and slight-of-hand from Werner Herzog, his latest bizarre fusion of documentary found-footage (fusing NASA archival footage of a Space Shuttle flight with under-the-Arctic-ice exploratory footage) and science-fiction (articulated by Brad Dourif as a visiting alien, ranting at the audience from a remote, desolate abandoned Californian location littered with crumbling buildings and junked technology). It adds up to a strangely mesmerizing, intoxicating voyage to an imaginary world, and somehow it works, despite the blatant absurdity of Herzog's concept; bravo! That Marge and I saw this with Herzog in person, introducing and then grilling the audience for input, during a special impromptu showing only sweetened the experience beyond words.

[Continued tomorrow or the day after -- ]