As with last year, I find myself making this list before seeing several candidates, such as The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. But I am only one man.
10. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Last year a cardinal rule of filmmaking was broken time and again: Sequels suck. Sam Raimi, Paul Greengrass, and Richard Linklater were among numerous directors to break that rule. This year a similar rule involving remakes was in effect. But Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, and, most notably, Tim Burton had other plans. From gorgeous art direction and production design to the creepily endearing performance of Johnny Depp, the film found a new way to say everything the original did so well. I’m sure we’ll go back to crappy remakes soon enough (Burton had his own with Planet of the Apes, and Last Holiday looks to reset the bar at “suck”), but this will stand out as at least one beautiful exception.
With roughly a third of the budget, Joss Whedon showed George Lucas how it was done. A good script doesn’t cost $115 million. Unfortunately, in this case, it also doesn’t make $380 million. But at least a few of us know who to keep our eye on.
8. Walk the Line
Outstanding performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon bring home this biopic. But it’s James Mangold’s underrated direction that helps move the story. Oh, and the music doesn’t exactly suck.
7. Brokeback Mountain
You can read my full review here, but to sum up: Great direction, beautiful performances, touching story, lush cinematography, and all that other stuff that will probably add up to several Oscars down the line.
Probably the most disturbing movie I’ve ever put on one of these lists, but the journey is worth the unsettling destination. Chan-wook Park’s direction is among the most audacious of the year. Full review here.
5. Good Night, and Good Luck
I was looking forward to George Clooney’s sophmore effort ever since I heard he reversed his decision to never direct again after Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which made my top ten of 2002. Not only does he not disappoint, he fails to repeat himself. This is a tonally different film with a fundamentally different aesthetic (and I don’t just mean the black and white). With Confessions, Clooney was showing off with different shooting styles and production design legerdemain (all of which served the story well, it should be noted). Here, the camera is the last thing you’ll notice. Clooney is almost Altman-esque with his desire to get the camera out of the way and just let the actors be. It doesn’t hurt that the story they tell is as riveting as it is relevant, though for my money its harshest indictment is of the media itself.
4. Sin City
And the black and white cavalcade continues, although here the purpose is not to put you back in time, but into another medium altogether. This is the most fully realized comic book film of all time. It uses the technology pioneered in Attack of the Clones and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow to truly create a living graphic novel. By taking not only the aesthetic, but also the themes and tone of Frank Milller’s classic (not to mention Frank himself, even though that co-director credit cost Rodriguez his DGA membership) and bringing them into the project, Rodriguez accomplishes more than just a technological novelty, he creates a powerfully-told story. And you can’t really complain about the cast.
3. The Constant Gardener
It’s rare that a film accomplishes so much on so many levels, but if anyone can do it, Fernando Meirelles can. There’s the romantic aspect, which is the tragic story of a man trying to discover whether or not his wife loved him while simultaneously trying to figure out who killed her and why. There’s the political aspect, whch acts as a violent older brother to The Girl in the Café, with a similar diplomat-has-a-mouthy-significant-other vibe. It’s the political thriller arm of DATA. And visually, it’s just as visceral and unforgiving as City of God, which put Meirelles’ on this list (albeit retroactively) a few years ago.
2. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
It’s one of the funniest films in the year of Wedding Crashers and The 40-Year-Old-Virgin. It’s one of the smartest films in the year of Syriana and Capote. It’s one of the most progressive films in the year of Brokeback Mountain and Transamerica. Bottom line, it’s a righteous skewering of one of my favorite genres, and it’s done well and with love. How could I not like it? Full review of the welcome return of Shane Black here.
I’ve already gone on at length about the controversy surrounding the film and my affinity for the questions it raises. I’ve also talked about my emotional response and the ways in which this is really Spielberg’s Godfather. So what’s left to say? That Spielberg finally remembered how to end a film for the first time since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, for one. And if this is what he can do in five months, maybe we should be working him harder.
Honorable mentions: Kung Fu Hustle, Mysterious Skin, Hustle and Flow, The Squid and the Whale, In Her Shoes.