Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

National Poetry Month

Whan that April with his showres soote
The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veine in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flowr...
— The opening lines of The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
— The opening lines of “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot

Considering April is National Poetry Month and the month is nearly over, I’d be remiss if I didn’t post at least one poetry entry!

The blogroll to the left features several good poetry sites. Poetry Daily offers, shockingly, a new poem every day. Poetry 180 offers a poem a day for the typical high school year.

The Academy of American Poets spotlights a few poems and an essay on poetry every week. It also hosts a poetry database. The Library of Congress’ Poetry site is full of resources (Poetry 180 is actually a subset of it). Bartleby.com also features a wealth of great poems. The Dover Thrift series provides a cheap way to obtain some great poetry, although in that category it can’t compete with a good public library!

Former National Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky picks a poem per week for Slate. This year, one of his essays for National Poetry Month focuses on insult poetry. It’s a fun read. Pinsky also recently participated in a Washington Post chat online that you can read here.

Robert Pinsky and Maggie Dietz founded the wonderful Favorite Poem Project. Longtime viewers of The News Hour with Jim Lehrer will remember seeing some of the videos shot for the series (you can view them on their site). They’ve also published several excellent poetry anthologies (one, two and three). Each summer, Boston University, where Pinsky teaches, hosts a week-long program currently called The Poetry Institute (or Summer Poetry Institute) for educators. It also features readings by prominent poets that are open to the general public. This year’s application deadline is May 30th. The original plan was to start similar programs at major universities in other regions of the country, and I hope at some point that comes to pass.

Somehow, I was lucky enough to scam my way into the first annual Poetry Institute, and it remains one of the great, life-enriching experiences I’ve had. While we all have our favorite poems, and poems we may feel we know intimately, studying with Pinsky, several other prominent poets and a set of inspired fellow teachers gave me a new love for and insight into poetry.

There’s a saying that if you want to have a good conversation about education, ask someone about the best teacher he or she’s ever had. Anyone who thinks public education is dead should meet the teachers I had the privilege of working with that summer (almost all were on the high school, middle school or elementary school level). About a year after our session, Boston University hosted a reunion for us to compare notes and share new lesson plans. I went in thinking, “my class is pretty good,” but in the face of the amazing lesson plans I heard, I wound up thinking, my god, I have the most boring class ever! Honestly, it was a great feeling. The most dangerous pitfall of teaching is getting burnt out, and listening to an enthusiastic colleague or sitting in on a good class is inspiring. Hearing a good poem read by someone who really loves it does much the same thing.

Pinsky himself is of course incredibly bright and well-read, but is also a superb teacher with a great sense of humor. He puts a premium on choice for students when assembling a “favorite poem portfolio” or working on other poetry-related projects. He also stresses reading poetry aloud. (And any National Poet Laureate who’s appeared on The Simpsons and loves South Park can’t be all bad!)

I’ve become convinced that the Favorite Poem Project is one of those Unqualified Goods that is worthy of a life’s work. The Project can take many different forms in a school setting, but as a community event it typically takes a very simple and effective form. Everyone who wishes to brings in a favorite poem, something not written by him or herself. People read their poems aloud and explain why it means something to them. Formal analysis is discouraged; the emphasis is on the personal. Of course in a school setting students will discuss, at some point, meter, method, and the different sonnet forms, but these ground rules have proved to be the most successful for community events.

At the schools where I taught, everyone got to know students, teachers and parents ridiculously well, but nevertheless, there’s a special insight and intimacy one gains from hearing someone read their favorite poem and explain what it means to them. I know I barely scratched the surface of what can be done with the Favorite Poem Project, but a few memories stand out. For a family weekend the April after I had attended the Poetry Institute, I asked students and parents to bring in their favorite poems. Students split up and met with other students’ parents to read and discuss their poems in small groups. I’ll never forget listening in on the animated discussion of a baby boomer parent with a student who read a selection from “Howl.” Earlier that school year, after 9/11/01, I handed out a copy of William Ernest Henley’s poem ”Invictus.” Two students from New York City really took to it, and I’ll always remember one of them reading it in front of the school and how she spoke that line, “My head is bloody, but unbowed.”

Studying a fine poem with a good poet or great teacher makes one appreciate its art and craft all the more. Still, as Robin Williams’ character John Keating says in Dead Poets Society, the reason many a poem was written was to “woo women.” Studying the craft is essential, but as with most human endeavor, it’s often best to start with the love. Otherwise, it’s easy to veer into the territory described in Billy Collins’ brilliant ”Introduction to Poetry”:

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

The Favorite Poem Project anthologies linked above, culled from thousands of submissions, really are superb. But I’ll end with links to two of my favorites poems, T.S. Eliot’s well-known ”Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Pablo Neruda’s lesser known ”Ode to My Socks.” Oh hell, since I mentioned Neruda, despite the fact that like “Socks” it’s a translation, let me throw in a third, and end with Neruda’s poem “Your Laughter”:

Take bread away from me, if you wish,
take air away, but
do not take from me your laughter.

Do not take away the rose,
the lance flower that you pluck,
the water that suddenly
bursts forth in joy,
the sudden wave
of silver born in you.

My struggle is harsh and I come back
with eyes tired
at times from having seen
the unchanging earth,
but when your laughter enters
it rises to the sky seeking me
and it opens for me all
the doors of life.

My love, in the darkest
hour your laughter
opens, and if suddenly
you see my blood staining
the stones of the street,
laugh, because your laughter
will be for my hands
like a fresh sword.

Next to the sea in the autumn,
your laughter must raise
its foamy cascade,
and in the spring, love,
I want your laughter like
the flower I was waiting for,
the blue flower, the rose
of my echoing country.

Laugh at the night,
at the day, at the moon,
laugh at the twisted
streets of the island,
laugh at this clumsy
boy who loves you,
but when I open
my eyes and close them,
when my steps go,
when my steps return,
deny me bread, air,
light, spring,
but never your laughter
for I would die.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Holocaust Remembrance Day

This year, at least in the Unites States, April 25th is Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom Hashoah. The U.K. apparently observes it on January 27th every year, while in the U.S. the date shifts, based on the Jewish calendar.

So many works on the Holocaust exist, many of them powerful and challenging. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject. However, some subjects and issues just grab you. Perhaps because I was obsessed with philosophy and ethics in particular, when I was a teenager and later in college, I felt compelled to study the Holocaust and try to understand it in some small way.

I’d welcome other suggestions to add to the pieces I mention below.

For books, Elie Wiesel’s Night is a small, potent work. Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is half Auschwitz biography, half philosophy, and a book dear to my heart. Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved is an extraordinary piece about the fallibility of memory and the dangers of making excuses for evil men — but I would not recommend it to anyone who isn’t already familiar with the basic history. His Survival in Auschwitz is probably better for that. Eichmann in Jerusalem is one of the greatest non-fiction books I’ve ever read, penned by the scathing, unfailingly insightful Hannah Arendt. Arendt was initially much misunderstood, because she argued the morally complex notion that Eichmann’s trial was essentially just a show but that he also deserved to die. Eichmann as portrayed by Arendt is not so much a monster as he is a petty bureaucrat, a man utterly lacking in imagination, certainly morally. I’m sympathetic to Arendt for being misunderstood to a point, but when she casually tosses off one of the greatest observations of the 20th Century, about “the banality of evil,” she explains it so fleetingly (even in a later-added appendix!), I have to think, really, that’s the thesis of the book and it demands more discussion. Arendt in her appendices lists several major scholarly works for further study. (The documentary The Specialist: Portrait of a Modern Criminal uses video footage of the Eichmann trial; apparently, it was one of the first events to be so recorded!).

Charlotte Delbo’s Auschwitz and After combines autobiography with poetry. Hilda Schiff has compiled an entire anthology of Holocaust Poetry.

The “For Beginners” series is wildly uneven, and unfortunately The Jewish Holocaust for Beginners is shockingly bad. However, the British series “Introducing” (they came first and are labeled “For Beginners” in Britain) has a title called Introducing the Holocaust which does quite a good job for a basic overview. Hitler’s Willing Executioners has its proponents, and some useful anecdotes, but most academics I know view its scholarship as shoddy. If you are of the “intentionalist” versus the “functionalist” school regarding the Holocaust, you’ll likely find it much more persuasive.

One of the most effective Holocaust narratives remains Art Spiegelman’s unconventional, but moving comic book Maus. It works well as an introduction.

For children, there’s a good book called I Never Saw Another Butterfly. And, of course, there’s The Diary of Anne Frank. The fairly recent television movie Anne Frank: The Whole Story depicts the end of her life as well as the more familiar time she spent in hiding. The textbook Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior is well-regarded. I've met Judith Magyar Isaacson, who wrote Seed of Sarah. She's a remarkable woman, and her book works well for high school freshman and up.

The Discovery Channel has an astounding hour-long piece they sometimes show called Selling Murder: The Killing Films of the Third Reich. It chronicles the T-4 euthanasia programs and the Nazi propaganda efforts that predated “the Final Solution.” I’ve found it invaluable for understanding the German culture of the time. It may be hard to find, however. I did find one professor’s website that references it here. The film Judgment at Nuremberg, offers a glimpse at some similar issues. The most famous documentaries are, of course, the nine and a half hour Shoah and Alain Resnais' 32-minute Night and Fog . I still have not seen the Oscar-winning documentary The Last Days.

For narrative films, while Schindler’s List has its critics, I find it powerful and an unparalleled introduction to the Holocaust for younger viewers unfamiliar with the subject. I attended a film conference the year after it was released, and was grateful to hear some critics fall silent as a German scholar spoke about the impact Schindler’s List was having in Germany and how the youth there felt it was an very important film. Life is Beautiful is of course a fantasy, and I completely respect those that do not like it for that and other reasons, but I still find it both effective and moving, in an unusual way. The Pianist is of course a remarkable work. Europa, Europa deals with the Holocaust somewhat more peripherally, but is a great film. Triumph of the Spirit is an odd but good film starring Willem Dafoe as a concentration camp inmate whose attempt to survive depends on his skill in the camp’s boxing matches. Sophie’s Choice is a beautifully shot if uneven film. Nonetheless, I find women in particular tend to respond to it more than some of the other films I've mentioned. The central action — and such things did happen — is absolutely brutal.

HBO’s film Conspiracy, starring Kenneth Branagh (and Stanley Tucci as Eichmann) is a recreation of the infamous Wannsee Conference, where the “Final Solution” was discussed and implemented. The notes were supposed to be destroyed, but one set survived. The film’s only 96 minutes long, and mostly talk, but I find it utterly engrossing (I’ve watched it four times at least). I have yet to see the film of Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone, about the sonderkommando, but I have read the play. The play In Quest of Conscience is uneven but possesses powerful moments. It’s an adaptation of Gitta Sereny’s Into That Darkness, wherein she interviews the commandant of Treblinka, Franz Stangl. Sereny also penned a well-regarded biography of Albert Speer that I haven't read yet. Rutger Hauer made his mark with English-speaking audiences as Speer in the excellent television film Inside The Third Reich and was in another TV-made film about a escape from a concentration camp, Escape from Sobibor. The play Kindertransport focuses on the displaced children of the war; there are several non-fiction books about this program, as Jewish families shipped their children off to try and save them. Bertolt Brecht contributed Fear and Misery in the Third Reich, Round Heads and Pointed Heads and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, among many other plays. But as with Downfall, which I still need to see, the focus for Brecht is more Hitler and Nazism than the Holocaust specifically.

For music, the London label has a series of “Entartete Musik: Music Suppressed by the Third Reich.” In this series, I own Ullmann’s odd, atonal Der Kaiser von Atlantis, that Ullman wrote in a work camp before later being killed. There’s also a Holocaust Cantata of “Songs from the Camps” with a CD booklet of stories behind the songs. Still, the most astounding Holocaust-related music piece I know has to be Gorecki’s Third Symphony (the Polish Gorecki lives only a short way from Auschwitz; make sure to get this edition, with Upshaw).

Finally, visiting The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC may still be the single most comprehensive and educational experience available in the U.S. I'm overdue to visit the museum again. It's a fairly large facility, with a multimedia wing, resources for scholars, and an area for quiet reflection. Not surprisingly, their video materials draw from Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation. Two halls house temporary exhibits, although I think one of exhibits is always aimed at young visitors. When I was there, we were all given timed entrances passes for the permanent exhibit and a laminated card with a photo and bio of some person alive at the time of the Holocaust (in at least some cases, the media center had more information on them). For the permanent exhibit, an elevator takes you to the top floor of the building, and you gradually work your way down. Near the end, there are theaters and a glass-encased "room of voices," but prior to that, the path is pretty set. At one point you must pass through a German railcar, empty but nonetheless slightly spooky. As I recall, most visitors spend two to four hours there; I spent five to six (but I was reading almost everything and it was crowded due to the Jewish high holy days). While I was struck by many pieces in the exhibit, I found that rather than feeling some grand sudden shock, I felt a gradual weight growing on me as I progressed, and ultimately emerged very grateful for the experience. It's really quite extraordinary.

I’m reminded of one of my teachers in Moscow, who with his tales of Soviet Russia showed us that serving as a witness can be not only an act of courage but a moral imperative. Every Holocaust survivor I’ve ever heard, from the most bitter to the most serene, has conveyed this same lesson.

Again, I’d welcome other suggestions for good Holocaust materials. But for me, the most important thing is to take a moment to remember, or bear witness.

The 2006 Pulitzers

The Pulitzers were announced last week. While some in the blogosphere are upset about certain choices, I thought it was quite a good list, recognizing the most important work of the year, as the prizes should. You can see the complete list at the Pulitzer website (click on “What’s New” and then the 2006 list). The site also provides links to the winning coverage. The Washington Post, which lead all papers this year with four prizes, has a good write-up here, and a chat with some its winners here. As much as the “mainstream media” gets criticized — often deservedly so — newspapers continue to be the heart and soul of investigative journalism, and it’s too easy to forget how much superb, essential work gets done.

The prize for Public Service was particularly well-deserved, by The Sun Herald, Biloxi-Gulfport, Mississippi, and The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, Louisiana, for their exemplary Katrina coverage. The staff of The Times-Picayune also garnered a Pulitzer for “Breaking News Reporting.” While these awards may seem to be no-brainers, there had been scuttlebutt that The Times-Picayune might not be eligible because, in the wake of Katrina, it not could always produce a physical paper and existed primarily online. Kudos to the Pulitzer board for not staking out some silly “old media” stance and instead recognizing fine reporting.

At The Washington Post, Susan Schmidt, James V. Grimaldi and R. Jeffrey Smith won for their superb “Investigative Reporting” into Jack Abramoff, Tom Delay, the K Street Project, and an ever-expanding web of scandal. Some journalists now feel that when all’s revealed in the Abramoff affair, it may well be the biggest congressional scandal in American history. The details can easily become dizzying, and the articles defy casual reading, but The Post’s provided the most elucidating coverage I’ve yet found.

Long admired for her work, Dana Priest of The Post won the “Beat Reporting” prize for her work revealing CIA black ops prisons in foreign countries and the practice of “extraordinary rendition.” The legality, morality, and effectiveness of these facilities continue to be debated.

This week, the firing of CIA agent Mary McCarthy has brought up new issues. McCarthy claims that while she spoke with Priest, she did not leak any classified information. The CIA claims, or at least implies, she did. McCarthy, less than two weeks away from her official retirement, was undoubtedly fired to send a chilling message to any more potential whistleblowers in the CIA. But was the firing deserved? Is McCarthy the victim of a witch hunt? It seems someone must be lying, and at the very least there’s a great deal more to this story.

Still, while Katrina was undoubtedly the biggest story of the year, the biggest “scoop” of the year was the NSA warrantless wiretapping story, which justifiably won James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times a prize for “National Reporting.” Regardless of one’s feelings about the matter, the secret NSA program has triggered a Constitutional crisis, with the President unapologetically asserting virtually unlimited powers, unfettered by the laws of congress or the oversight of the judiciary.

The Toledo Blade was among the worthy nominees that did not win. Their work on “Coingate” has been important, as was their disturbing but crucial work exposing how the police covered up sexual molestation by Catholic priests going back to at least the 1950’s. Honored in the past, The Blade has earned a great deal of respect from their peers, and here’s hoping they continue to excel.

The Washington Post’s chat provided three interchanges I found especially interesting as to who tends to win and why:

Anonymous: How come whenever there is a disaster, the hometown paper wins a Pulitzer?

When the Hyatt catwalk collapsed in Kansas City, the KC Star won a Pulitzer.

After the Columbine massacre, both Denver papers won Pulitzers.

And now this year, in the aftermath of Katrina, the New Orleans and Biloxi papers won Pulitzers.

I'm sure there are other examples, as well. Why does this occur?

Susan Schmidt: It's when there is a disaster that a news organization really tests its mettle. Many times--as was the case this year in New Orleans and Biloxi--newspaper reporters and editors mount a superhuman effort because they know readers are really counting on them.

Anonymous: Who picks the Pulitzer Prizes?

It seems like every year the Washington Post and New York Times dominate the awards.

Is this because of these papers' excellent work or because the committee that picks the prizes is from the East Coast?

R. Jeffrey Smith: a very interesting question. while it's true that editors from big city newspapers frequently serve on the pulitzer board -- including, from time to time, those from the washington post and the new york times -- the process is actually fairly democratic. around 2000 entries are initially sifted and sorted by committees of prominent journalists from all over the country, and they recommend the finalists (usually three per category). then the board picks the winners. but the members must leave the room when the work of their own publications is being discussed. the real answer to your question, however, is that a relatively small number of newspapers support the kind of sustained investigative work that wins prizes -- including the Post and the Times. lots of other newspapers have also won, but these two papers often dominate simply because their editors are committed to dogged investigative work.

Alabama: Congratulations to both of you, and the following is by no means meant as a disparagement of your excellent work.

The Pulitzers have been criticized for playing favorites with large-circulation newspapers, and rewarding work that only large papers can afford to do. A paper with a big staff can afford to put two reporters on a year-long investigation. A small newspaper obviously doesn't have that luxury, and smaller newspapers often don't get consideration for Pulitzers until something like a disaster occurs in their hometown (as an earlier poster pointed out).

My question, then: Do you think the Pulitzers, like other journalism honors, should hand out awards based on circulation? For instance, one beat reporting award for a paper of 200,000 or more, one for 100,000 to 200,000, etc.?

Susan Schmidt: It's probably true that the big papers win more often, but they are the only ones that can foot the bill for some expensive enterprises, like foreign reporting. When there are big pressing national and international issues, the papers that cover those areas--by definition the bigger papers--are probably going to win many prizes. Still, even tiny papers can win, like the Point Reyes Light a number of years ago.

While all the winning stories deserve further discussion, for this entry I mainly wanted to salute some fine work. Bravo, and keep it coming.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Annual Oscars/Film-Round Up, 2005: Intro

Topical? We don't need no stinking topical!

Yes, yes, this is ridiculously late, as usual...!

While writing this up, a few things occurred to me. One is that trying to finish a blog entry of this size while directing a play into tech week is rather insane. The second is that damn, I see a lot of movies in the theaters. And the third is I’d sure love to have the time to edit my prose a bit more.

This is the first time I’ve blogged the annual list, but it’s one of the chief reasons I started this blog in the first place... and this time, there are, like, photos and hyperlinks and stuff. So, use this series of entries as a cautionary tale, or for amusement, or for rental suggestions, as is your wont.

2005 Films, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review

In 2005, many entertainment journalists wrote trend stories about the decline in box-office sales, and that’s valid. However, a related “trend” seemed to be that people did not flock to see the latest crappy blockbuster. In the vacuum created by a dearth of dominant blockbusters (either good or bad), many semi-indies and films from mini-majors stepped in to fill the gap. While there was no Lord of the Rings in 2005, many smaller films demonstrated thoughtful, moving and laudable work. Four of the five films nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars also qualified for the Independent Spirit Awards by having official budgets of under 20 million (Munich was the exception). Considering the average Hollywood film budget is in excess of 40 million, surely that’s some sort of small victory.

To the Oscars themselves: Jon Stewart performed well in what is admittedly not his ideal venue. He’s a wit with an outsider’s sensibility, and the audience by and large treated him as such. Lisa de Moraes of The Washington Post observed that had Billy Crystal, “one of them,” made Stewart’s crack about giving generously to the Academy because some actresses could barely afford to cover their breasts, the audience would have roared. Billy Crystal also has always been a cheeseball, and for all its occasional pretensions of Art, Hollywood remains sentimental and schmaltzy at its core. In that sense, Crystal (who in other contexts can be very annoying) was a great match, but by no means the only one. Steve Martin succeeded with a debonair class, and Whoopi Goldberg always seemed rather amused by the whole proceedings while embracing them.

Still, while Stewart was not a perfect fit, I liked his stint overall. His line about Dick Cheney shooting Bjork in her swan outfit got the most play, but his shout-out to Martin Scorsese about having no Oscars was gutsy, spot-on and funny. He was on target mocking the montages, most of all when after the “social progress” montage when he quipped, “and none of these were a problem ever again.” The fake campaign ads were funny, particularly the bits about Dame Judi Dench taking out a woman’s eye in a bar fight, and Reese Witherspoon’s all-American image. Meanwhile, the mere idea of a sound mixer taking out an attack ad, yet alone a geek-appeal one, was inspired.

Regarding the Oscar nominations, I was thrilled Amy Adams nabbed one, and dismayed that Grizzly Man was overlooked (although it got bounced before the final round). Other than those, I really would have been pleased with just about anyone winning. And while I was rooting for Amy Adams, the always captivating Rachel Weisz won for her most meaty role to date. Meanwhile, Hoffman received his just reward, and Ang Lee’s consistently subtle, inspired directing (The Hulk excepted) finally won prominent recognition.

Ben Stiller’s green screen suit bit was funny but went on a little too long; I felt the same about Tomlin and Streep’s act. Still, kudos for giving Altman, like Blake Edwards last year, a salute that honored his unique style. I tend to like montages of past films in the sense it’s fun to see if you can recognize them (Turner Classic Movies has a fantastic one recounting film through the decades that they often run to fill a time gap), but in an Oscar telecast they’re almost always filler and pointless. The film noir montage seemed to have no tie-in whatsoever, and Lauren Bacall was clearly experiencing difficulties. Poor Jake Gyllenhaal trotted out to salute big-screen films, and as many a wag has noted, the irony of this pitch is that you’re supposed to watch these big-screen clips on your tiny TV screen to thrill to the, uh, idea of seeing that clip on a big screen? Along with the intermittent calls to end movie piracy, the stench of desperation was thick: “come to the movies! We’re relevant, really we are! Don’t rent or buy or copy those DVDs we hock... help our box office!”

The quality of Oscar-nominated songs can range from the very good to the godawful. Overall, the caliber’s increased since the Titanic disaster of 1997, (when many worthy nominations in different categories were tragically sunk), with the best recent year being 2003, when both Annie Lennox and Alison Krauss performed. This year, all three songs were, uh, so-so. It wasn’t as much a battle of excellence as it was a battle of genres. “In the Deep” was okay, but below par for a KCRW entry. Dolly Parton showed she was a class act with a spirited, no-frills performance of her “Travelin’ Through,” and earned serious style points by enthusiastically cheering when the “Pimp” crew won. And while I prefer my hip-hop and rap without pimps, bitches and racial slurs, the “Pimp” crew was so excited, it’s hard out here not to cheer them at least a little.

While some people were upset by Crash winning, I was not, and it certainly does not rank as one of the great Oscar travesties, let alone a case of an obvious and appalling snub to some other staggeringly brilliant piece of work. Best Picture has gone to decent but unremarkable films such as Chicago, A Beautiful Mind, Gladiator, Driving Miss Daisy, as well as legendarily unworthy picks such as The Greatest Show on Earth. (Driving Miss Daisy, let’s remember, beat out 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July, Dead Poets Society, Field of Dreams and My Left Foot, while Do the Right Thing, Glory, and Henry V were not even nominated!) Let’s keep it all in perspective!

It was a banner year for several actors. The most obvious would be George Clooney, who wrote and directed Good Night, and Good Luck in addition to choosing a secondary role versus the lead in the film. His turn in Syriana, which nabbed him an Oscar, was one of his more weighty roles in recent years. At one point I thought Clooney was largely another pretty-boy actor, but while some people can’t stand his politics, I’ve been impressed by his range, thoughtfulness, and humility. Like many an actor who hit success late, he does not take it for granted. He also has a strong grounding in American film history of the 60s and 70s.

Catherine Keener turned in solid work in The Interpreter, Capote, and The 40-Year Old Virgin. I’ve always thought Keener was all right, but didn’t see what the fuss was over her in Being John Malkovich... I just didn’t buy her as the object of obsessive affection. This year, however, I was very impressed by her ability to ground a film with very natural performances. She comes off as a real person regardless of the character she plays. While this task may have been hardest for Virgin, in the other two films, acting opposite Penn and Hoffman, she effortlessly creates the sense these relationships go back years.

Ralph Fiennes remains a fantastic actor, but occasionally chooses subpar films. This year worked well for him, as he played a sensitive hero, a cartoon villain, and the embodiment of pure evil. (In addition to those three films, all reviewed below, he appeared in three films I didn’t see, The White Countess, The Chumscrubber, and Chromophobia.)

Meanwhile, Rachel McAdams earns the breakout award with her three films this year. Yes, she’s pretty in that Hollywood way and possesses a disarming smile, but she also manages to sneak some snark and wit into what could fairly cookie-cutter roles. Her turn in Red Eye shows she can carry a movie and handle “plucky heroine” as well as the requisite “pretty adjunct to leading man.” (It’s interesting she had films in 2005 with both Wilsons). Her decision not to appear nude on the cover of Vanity Fair turned out to be a shrewd PR move (who the hell is Tom Ford anyway? His mammoth ego does not match his claimed influence). Here’s hoping she gets some good roles in the future...

On other fronts, Natalie Portman and Jessica Alba battled for the title of Geekbait Queen. Normally, a single Star Wars film would easily trump Alba’s two comic book adaptations (plus Into the Blue), but stripper with a chest, er, heart of gold trumps pregnant young mother. Portman, however, has reclaimed the lead again this year with a shaky accent but strong performance in V for Vendetta (plus a funny turn on SNL).

And now, to the films. Warning: There are some spoilers, although as usual I try to avoid discussing the very end of a film except in general terms. Read or skip them as is your wont.

I’ve added links to a few articles. There’s also audio interviews and discussions on some of the films, mostly from NPR. You’ll need Windows Media Player for some and Real Player for others. The Treatment segments run about 26 minutes, but most others are under 10 minutes, unless otherwise noted. We’re high-tech this year, baby!

2005 Films, Part 2: The Top Five

Brokeback Mountain Beyond all the hype and jokes, Brokeback proves to be a very good film, elegiac and unsettling, quiet but moving. Like many of the best westerns, it uses the landscape itself as a character, and like many a successful film of forbidden love, it makes one care about its characters. The understated, Oscar-winning score by Gustavo Santaolalla hits the perfect note of passion under restraint, of suppressed desire and quiet yearning. The Hulk excepted, Ang Lee has long been one of his generation’s best, most nuanced directors, as can be seen in The Wedding Banquet, Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Heath Ledger has never necessarily been godawful, but it’s a testament to Lee’s consistent ability to coax out good performances that Ledger actually deserved his Oscar nomination as the strong-but-silent Ennis. I must be honest — I’d rather see a love scene with Maggie Gyllenhaal than Jake. But Brokeback’s great strength, that prevents it from being “issue cinema,” is that Lee always focuses on the specificity of his characters. As much as Ennis embodies the archetypical cowboy (albeit a gay one), ultimately, these are individuals, real people, not types. Care about the person and the “issue” becomes irrelevant. That said, at times Lee plays with iconography a little too much, as when he has his gay cowboy fight a crude man in defense of his woman’s honor. Lee makes a point of showing Ennis in a low wide shot, standing above his vanquished foe, with the fireworks exploding behind him, while his wife, who tradition dictates should be proud of him, cowers from him in fear (apparently something is awfully rotten, or queer, in the state of Wyoming.) While Michelle Williams has some nice moments, I found her performance overhyped, while Anne Hathaway delivered a very subtle, understated performance. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that our gay cowboys are surrounded with sexually forward women, whether that’s ultimately to their benefit or not (it certainly winds up being rough on the women in the end). Surely there’s some brutal tension there as both lonely men try to make their marriages and subsequent heterosexual relationships work, even while they have an irresistible but potentially life-threatening attraction to each other. A real tenderness creeps into Ennis’ relationship with his oldest daughter, too, despite the painfully taciturn nature of both.

The funniest objection I heard to Brokeback’s coverage was “they’re not gay cowboys! They’re gay shepherds!” If only all the criticism was as good-natured. I must confess I got sick of reading about people, mostly men, bragging about not going to the film, the most insufferable probably being professional crank and blowhard Mickey Kaus at Slate. I also found one conservative critic’s exhortations asinine, that the scene where Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) faces down his father-in-law L.D. Newsome (Graham Beckel) and makes him back down was gay liberal propaganda, that the scene was completely unrealistic but made to appease all the liberals that the big bad homophobe was defeated. That’s crap. I watched that scene very much engaged, wondering which way it would ultimately play out, because I’ve seen such family power struggles in real life and have heard many a story. I would have bought any of a number of outcomes. The biggest question for me was, would Lureen (Anne Hathaway) back up her husband, or side with her father? She chooses to remain quiet, her true feelings somewhat unclear, but by default siding with Jack and avoiding a direct confrontation with her father. Even though Jack loses his cool, he is clearly in the right, and defending his wife, L.D.’s daughter, and her authority as well as his own. A character like L.D. typically only respects strength, and Jack’s move would likely earn his grudging respect. I could also buy L.D. yelling or storming out, but especially because his daughter and wife do not back him up, and he is not on his own turf — and because I know of similar scenes in real life that have played out almost exactly this way — I bought it. A less believable scene for me is when Ennis threatens his ex-wife Alma (Michelle Williams), because nothing in her overdue voicing of suspicions that he’s gay is a threat; it’s about her own pain. Still, considering the stakes for Ennis, and the danger he’s under, I could excuse it.

There’s a common conservative assumption (read the National Review Online and elsewhere), seen with three of my top five, that Hollywood is some monolithic, uniform entity waging a coordinated cultural war against their otherwise unsullied, perfect way of life (“Won’t turn me gay, nossir!”). The truth is Hollywood has always cared about the color green the most, and it’s a bit of a coup anytime a good film makes it way through the system. No major studio was clamoring for Brokeback, Syriana, and Crash to be made, and the filmmakers faced some stiff resistance to their projects, due to subject matter, complexity, and perceived marketability. Brokeback is not flawless, and does drag at points. Still, forget the hype, forget the jokes, and see it because it’s first and last one of the best films of the year.

Syriana Writer-director Stephen Gaghan deliberately creates a mosaic of interweaving storylines that prove confusing and difficult to fully process at first glance, because his ultimate point is that no one can easily see all the connections, in this case when it comes to the international oil business. Syriana never falters because the individual scenes are so intriguing and we never doubt that Gaghan is ultimately leading us somewhere worthwhile. Gaghan reports that Syriana takes its name from a potential country to have been carved out in the Middle East by the British in the 20th Century. Since this is far from common knowledge, the title serves as an evocative cipher, but hints at the truth that the west has always taken a dominating interest in the Middle East. Perhaps my favorite scene involves Jeffrey Wright telling a client at a barbeque, “We need the appearance of propriety” — but only the appearance, because after that, it’s business as usual. Subsequent scenes involve shopping for, and bargaining for, a few fall guys (former CIA agent and source author Bob Baer claims that corruption in the oil business is unavoidable and the U.S. oil companies are actually less corrupt than their European counterparts). While Clooney really won his Oscar for his multiple hats this year, he's quite good in this film, particularly in his scene with the always solid Christopher Plummer. Matt Damon has a few flashy speeches, but his character is compelling, partially because his personal grief allows him to be far more candid than he ever would be otherwise. As his wife, Amanda Peet draws a convincing character in just a few strokes. The portrayal of two young suicide bombers is sensitive without condoning their activity. And finally, Alexander Siddig, in one of the film’s most affecting performances, plays a Middle Eastern prince who desperately wants to improve his country, but that may mean going against U.S. interests, leading to a series of crucial confrontations. While Syriana made me think more than it made me feel, it made me do both. It’s quite an ambitious film, but I would argue it fulfills its ambitions, and I find it’s stuck with me long after seeing it.

Confounding many a critic is that art can say more than one thing at once and to understand is not to excuse (see Munich, below, on this note). In “Hollywood’s Crude Clichés,” the occasionally-liberal columnist Richard Cohen objects to Syriana because he thinks its politics are simplistic and unrealistic and that it’s about the latest Iraq war. But of course, it’s not about the Iraq war, it’s about oil, and those are not quite the same thing. In his ludicrously-titled piece “Oscars for Osama,” conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer objects to Syriana because he thinks its politics are simplistic and unrealistic and it celebrates suicide bombers as “the moral high point of the movie.” Of course, Krauthammer’s misreading is even stupider than Cohen’s (Jim Emerson responds to Krauthammer here). For the most part, Syriana does not judge its characters, it merely presents them. As for its realism, I contend that the real schism is that the meticulously-researched Syriana refuses to conform to Cohen and Krauthammer’s worldviews, but that’s ultimately a condemnation of them. The Hill reports a former Director of the CIA feels it didn’t go far enough:

When Gaghan and Baer took questions after the screening, the most pointed came from “Jim,” who only some in the audience knew was former CIA Director Jim Woolsey.

Why didn’t the filmmakers depict just how severe the retribution was, Woolsey wanted to know, and just how far up the chain of command it originated? Was it because Middle America wouldn’t believe that the powers that be in Washington would have gone after a decorated operative like that?

Yes, replied the writers, that is exactly why.

I am not an expert on espionage in the Middle East, nor the oil business, but personally, I found nothing in Syriana so far-fetched or outrageous as to strain credulity. What’s its dread secret? That individuals, corporations, and countries act in their own self-interest? That powerful players don’t always care about morality or legality? (The horror! The horror!) See it, and judge it, for yourself.

(You can hear Bob Baer speak about Syriana here. You can hear Gaghan on Day to Day here. (You can hear Jeffrey Wright with Ed Gordon here.)

Capote Some critics have tried to peg Capote as primarily a showcase for Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning performance, but that overlooks the fact that it’s also an extraordinary debut feature from director Bennett Miller with a superb script from Dan Futterman (based on Gerard Clark’s book). The film’s understated approach is almost pitch-perfect, as we follow Truman Capote through a moral labyrinth of preening, connection, sympathy, and heartless manipulation. The supporting cast is strong, with Catherine Keener (Harper Lee), Clifton Collins Jr. (as killer Perry Smith) and Chris Cooper (Sheriff Dewey) particular standouts.

Of course, my praise for the other elements aside, Hoffman outdoes himself with an absolutely stunning, captivating performance. Despite the fact that he’s a hulking bear of a man playing a diminutive one who had a very distinctive, affected voice, Hoffman makes it work. He’s close enough to Capote to evoke him without trying outright mimicry. Above all, he captures his relentless egocentrism and mercurial nature. At first, when he and Harper Lee arrive in Kansas, Capote seems hopelessly out of place and it seems he’d be utterly helpless without Lee to shepherd him through the harsh world. But when Capote is allowed to work a crowd, or a person, you see his skill as a charmer. And his interactions with the killer Perry Smith, with whom he identifies, possess a fascinating progression (eerily, Collins looks similar to Robert Blake, who played Perry Smith in the great film In Cold Blood). While Capote is at first sympathetic to Perry, he increasingly becomes a vulture, and we get to see how great journalism and human compassion may ultimately be at odds.

The film features at least three brutal or revealing scenes. One is at a party celebrating the film premiere of To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s Harper Lee’s night, but Capote can only think of himself, outrageously so. It’s a measure of Lee’s maturity that she knows her friend so well as to not be upset; at most she’s slightly disappointed (throughout the film, it is she, and Sheriff Dewey, that serve as Capote’s conscience, not that he often follows their counsel). A second, disquieting scene shows Capote pushing Perry finally to tell him about the murder. For the first time, he gets insulting, working over Perry, suggesting that Perry’s only worth as a human being is to provide the story Capote wants. The third is more a sequence than a scene — as Capote must speak to Perry and his fellow killer Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood), and watch their deaths. While Capote has earlier earned the ire of the Sheriff for hiring an attorney to help the killers, he winds up dialing back significantly on his assistance — in large part because the best ending, or only ending for his book (often called a non-fiction novel) is their execution. Capote can only really consider this, or anything, in terms of how it affects himself. As these two killers finally, unavoidably are to executed, Capote cannot help but feel guilty, and with good cause.

Part of the genius of the film In Cold Blood is that one can utterly decry the horrendous murders but still feel some sympathy for the killers. The excerpts I’ve read of the book possess the same feel. Even if one feels they deserve to die, it seems just one more sad chapter to the whole dreadful affair. We can feel grateful for Capote’s celebrated book, and its splendid film adaptation, but after seeing Capote it’s hard not to wonder about the human cost of producing it. Capote proves itself a superb film because it creates the same feeling, the same interest and indictments. We want to hear Perry’s story, we want to see Capote succeed, but in the final sobering minutes of the film, it’s also hard not to share some of the haunted feeling so evident in Hoffman’s face as Capote.

(You can hear Phillip Seymour Hoffman on The Treatment here. Hoffman speaks about his Capote obsession on Day to Day here. Capote biographer Gerald Clarke says Hoffman's performance is "true to the man" on All Things Considered here. Finally, you can hear Dan Futterman (writer) and Bennett Miller (director ) on Weekend Edition here.)

Match Point Roger Ebert’s called it one of Woody Allen’s best five films ever, and I’m inclined to agree. Essentially, he takes one of his best films (and one of my all-time favorites), Crimes and Misdemeanors, strips away the comedy and makes it a straight drama-thriller. Crimes and Misdemeanors possesses a wit, thoughtfulness, and a thematic density that approaches King Lear and its ultimate source material, Crimes and Punishment. Yet Crimes and Misdemeanors also has a more cosmic, objective feel, while Match Point, for all the cerebral moments of some of its characters, is a much more subjective and passionate film. Match Point also answers one of my biggest questions from Crimes and Misdemeanors — if the central marriage was truly intimate, wouldn’t the wife suspect something when her husband cheated on her, or committed some dread act? Wouldn’t some shift be noticeable? Emily Mortimer delivers a superb performance as Chloe, the wife of Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). While she’s too trusting of Chris when he starts to stray, she’s also perceptive enough to sense something’s off and to ask the questions, even if she does not press for answers. Scarlett Johansson is certainly a convincing choice for the object of Chris’ lust, Nola, but while she’s a very promising young actress, she does feel a bit out of her depth here. Still, the key performance here is Meyers as Chris, and he’s fantastic, utterly convincing as a young, intense, very ambitious young man with serious control issues and a rapacious appetite. Judah (Martin Landau) in Crimes and Misdemeanors issues one of the all-time dazzling character lines, “God is a luxury I can’t afford,” and similarly, Chris pursues his own pleasures with little heed for the consequences, daring fate or society or those he supposedly loves to catch him and play his conscience. Woody Allen starts with an absolutely brilliant visual metaphor that he references later at a crucial point in the film — but it turns out we simply can’t predict which way things are going. (In a funny bit of casting, Allen’s Scotland Yard is staffed by actual Scots!) This is an exceptionally well made if unsettling film.

At this point, I’m going into major spoiler territory, so stop if you don’t want to know.

At least one person I know did not like the ending, and wanted Nola to defeat Chris, to his surprise. I have to disagree strenuously. My response, and my apologies for some repetition, was that:

Match Point is essentially Crimes and Misdemeanors, except as a drama-thriller, and more subjective and character-focused. And both are loosely inspired by Crime and Punishment, in which Raskolnikov gets away with a murder... only after he's cleared, he confesses and eventually earns redemption, primarily through the selfless love of Sophia. The main character in Match Point earns a different fate... so in one sense, he gets away with murder, but in another sense, he really doesn't. The ending has to be as it is. As with Crimes and Misdemeanors, that's really the whole point. "God is a luxury I can't afford," is the great line from that film, where Judah expresses arrogantly that morality essentially exists only to the extent that it is convenient. In King Lear, all of the evil folk are punished, but so are the good. In Les Miserables, some of the good earn their reward, but at least two of the villains escape. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, the good guy gets screwed, essentially, while the murderer gets away with it. Won't the main character in Match Point be tormented the rest of his days? Even without "earthly justice" in the conventional sense, will he truly get away with it? If he does, does it matter? As with King Lear, or the other works mentioned, Match Point challenges the idea that justice will be done, and that in the end, the good will prosper and the evil shall not. Because of that, it can leave some people feeling very unsatisfied. By the film's end, I feel uneasy, but that's the whole point... The Murderer gets away based on luck... although when the ring bounces, we think it's going to sink him.

Yes, it would be ironic for Nola to triumph, but that's a different movie. That's not this one. I think this one needs to be as it is. With the luck theme, the ending could play out differently. But that wouldn't quite feel right.

The film is focused on Chris, not Nola. The ironic-victim-triumphs-tale is Wait Until Dark, in a sense... but that's focused on the woman. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov is spotted by passersby, and actively pursued by a policeman, who knows he did it... but ultimately can't prove it.

And, considering the source material... Crimes and Misdemeanors and Crime and Punishment... the murders were an integral part of the story before Allen started, it's just not apparent at the start of the film.

If Chris doesn't get away with it, he never has his moments of conscience (or rather, denying it), nor does he get to face the prospect that he will indeed get away with it... what's interesting about him getting caught? Haven't we seen that on a thousand Law and Orders and other cop shows? Too simple for Dostoevsky or Woody Allen. Chris’ moment of collapse, crying after the first murder is one of the most riveting, disturbing moments in the entire film, and perhaps the most honest and unique aspect of the entire story, as the reality of his self-serving plot absolutely crushes all the rationalizations he has constructed to justify his horrible actions. And despite all that... he pushes on. By the film's end, I feel the most for Chris' wife and kid. But I think he will be forever haunted, or at the least, tainted.

Crash I was honestly surprised by all the backlash against Crash. Just as I’ve vowed to give it another look, I’d ask all its critics to do the same. When writer-director Paul Haggis accepted his Oscar, he quoted Bertolt Brecht about art not being a mirror, but a hammer. I was also reminded of what one of my directing teachers once said, that Eugene O’Neill as a playwright was “powerful, but artless.” Perhaps these fit Crash, but honestly, I felt for all its highlighted, “hyper-moments,” there was plenty of humor and many more levels to the film, if nothing else due to some fine performances. Crash to me was a small independent film, with a strong cast but shot for virtually no money and with little interest from the studios. I heard about it from strong word of mouth and went to see it a few weeks after it had opened, concerned that it wouldn’t last long. I was impressed that, even at a multiplex, the theater winded up being packed and everyone in the audience seemed to respond strongly and positively to the film. Perhaps seeing a film so strongly set in LA in LA helped. But after knowing more of the background of its making, I still can’t see it as anything but an underdog.

Most of the objections to Crash I’ve heard posit that its message is that “everyone’s a racist.” They felt preached to. I felt neither of these things with Crash. I don’t think it’s necessary to think “everyone’s a racist,” or to feel “white liberal guilt,” or to feel some backlash against the suggestion that one must feel a certain way. Personally, I absolutely hate, hate feeling manipulated by any filmmaker or condescended to in any forum, and if Crash made me feel that way, I’d condemn it in a heartbeat. While race is certainly a central issue to Crash, I feel (as does Don Cheadle) that it’s very much about power, and feeling helpless and disconnected. Aaron Sorkin remains the master of the displaced anger storyline, but Crash does pretty well, as almost every angry person lashes out at the wrong person or persons in their pain and rage. Racism, as an issue, is not depicted as the problem of just one race. Here’s what I really like: absolutely no one is let off the hook. Every single major character is confronted with at least one extremely difficult moral situation, where doing the right thing is not easy if it even exists. It’s also very hard to do an interweaving character story well, and I feel Crash did it very well. And, I really like some of the actors in the piece, most notably Don Cheadle and Thandie Newton (I hadn’t seen Terrence Howard before, but I found him very impressive).

A few comparisons are in order. Race is an issue that I feel is typically best handled by documentaries, because the Hollywood approach tends to be too, pun intended, black and white. I know at least one intelligent person who really liked A Time to Kill, but while I loved its superlative supporting cast, I found it very simplistic, with most of its characters victims, stock villains or disengaged heroes. I find Crash to be more insightful on race, or at least allows for a better discussion of it. In terms of manipulation, I adore the acting in Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier gets fantastic performances) but I find von Trier’s approach hopelessly manipulative and heavy-handed. He so desperately wants to ennoble his heroines through suffering he concocts highly-implausible plots to achieve this, and while some folks are drawn in by his pseudo-doc style, for me it constantly reminds me of the artifice of the entire venture (I find Dancer in the Dark his most effective film). As for interweaving storylines, many a film has tried this, but the most obvious comparison to Crash is Magnolia (one of my three favorite films of 1999). I view Magnolia as a lovely mess, a series of striking vignettes that nonetheless fail to build to a coherent whole, meandering, and with at least one completely extraneous storyline. That being said, there’s no doubt that Magnolia’s vignettes are more original, powerful, believable (well, other than the frogs) and effective (also, its KCRW soundtrack by Aimee Mann, led by the brilliant “Save Me” completely outclasses “In the Deep”). Still, Crash does weave its tales more coherently and tightly than Magnolia (or Short Cuts, or a number of other films), whether or not you think that’s a good thing, and whether or not you think it cheats to do so.

Crash does present a hyper-reality, and does create too many artificial parallels and coincidences, but I nonetheless found it a recognizable world. Its biggest coincidence is the scene where Matt Dillon must rescue Thandie Newton. At least one critic felt this scene was meant to excuse Dillon’s character of his faults, but I’d disagree. I was willing to excuse the coincidence and the melodrama because of where it allowed the characters to go. I really was not sure of the outcome. But the scene wasn’t about Thandie Newton for me, although as usual, she’s riveting. It was about Dillon. Suddenly, he’s confronted with his own racism, and forced for the first time really to see himself as others see him. There’s some shame there, the urge to protest, “no, really, I’m not like that.” While he acts heroically, I didn’t feel the incident let him off the hook – instead, it’s shook him to the core. Sartre would call his moment “a sudden realization of self,” forced by another’s gaze. Perhaps it will change him. Maybe not. Seeing his frustration dealing with his ailing father, I see the source of his anger, displaced into racism. I understand it but I do not condone it, nor do I feel Haggis is asking us to. I’m comfortable with that moral complexity.

Similarly, I wasn’t sure of the outcome for the infamous traffic stop, nor of Ryan Philippe interceding for Terrence Howard, nor the magic cape scene. I cared about the characters but didn’t know the outcome, and the outcome mattered to me, so I was very engaged (I did predict the secret of the magic cape miracle, but it got me for a few seconds). Perhaps I’ll feel differently when I see the film again and know the outcomes. Don Cheadle has observed that many people he’s met use the film to talk about some aspect of race or power. They can refer to “that scene in Crash” and thus discuss their feelings without, y’know, directly discussing their feelings about touchy issues. I never doubted that the traffic stop scene could actually happen, and that it was true to someone’s experience if not my own — but what I found affecting was the loss of power, the shame. Even in the most intimate, close relationships there can come an issue or event that becomes dangerously divisive. As they depict a married couple, Thandie Newton and Terrance Howard have the sort of raw conversation not everyone has about very touchy subjects that encroach on their very sense of identity. They must ask themselves not only how well they know each other, but whether they can even stay together. Similarly, I felt for Ryan Philippe doing something absolutely terrible and not being able to take it back, and Don Cheadle stuck in the impossible situation of being horribly misjudged by his own mother but constrained by honor and compassion not to correct her.

The other aspect I feel some people missed with Crash is much of it is intentionally funny. Critic David Edelstein (a link is below) decries the opening monologue by Don Cheadle about the urge to “crash into one another” just to feel something as amazingly hokey, completely ignoring that Haggis has Jennifer Esposito undercut the speech with exactly that sentiment moments later! It’s fine to say that the undercut doesn’t work or doesn’t excuse the speech, but to ignore the undercut is to misrepresent the film. Don Cheadle’s dismissive ignorance of his own girlfriend’s ancestry is both offensive and funny simultaneously. Brendan Fraser as a D.A. ranting about the difficulties of racial perceptions was outrageous but very funny (my thought was, surely if such conversations don’t take place, they do internally). Similarly, Ludacris and Larenz Tate form a sort of Greek chorus, by turns insightful, preposterous and funny. In one moment they decry racial stereotypes about being gangbangers and in the next, embody them by pulling guns! Crash kept me guessing, and constantly asked me to re-evaluate my view on any given character. My sympathy was initially with Sandra Bullock after her car-jacking, but after she goes onto a tirade, my feelings shifted to the innocent target of her ire, the locksmith played by Michael Peña.

I’ll be interested to see how I feel about Crash upon a second and third viewing. But as with Syriana and the other films in my top five, I found it both moved me and made me think. I’ll put up with some questionable choices for that anytime.

(You can hear Don Cheadle on The Treatment here; this is the one to hear if none other. Roger Ebert compares Crash’s multiple characters to Dickens’ work here. He speaks about some of the backlash against it here, noting its awards from the African-American Film Critics Association, which you can read here. You can hear Paul Haggis on The Treatment here. He discusses Million Dollar Baby on Fresh Air here. Elvis Mitchell (host of The Treatment) talks with NPR's Scott Simon on Weekend Edition about Crash and Hollywood's treatment of racial issues here. You can hear Bob Mondello discuss the film on All Things Considered here. Bob Mondello interviews Haagis and Brendan Fraser on Talk of the Nation here. There’s a good pro and con discussion about Crash on To the Point here, (7:50 into the show to about 42:00) . There’s a link to the LA Times article cited on To the Point on one activist’s website. You can hear a To the Point postmortem here. Linda Wertheimer and Joan Kaufman discuss Crash on Weekend Edition here. Ed Gordon on News & Notes interviews Larenz Tate and Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges here. David Edelstein’s review is here.)

Special Mention

Saraband (first screened on Swedish TV in 2003) Ingmar Bergman, turning 88 this year, has announced his retirement more times than Michael Jordan. While he continues to have his plays adapted and may even pen another screenplay or novel, Saraband is his final film directing. This is a shame, because there's simply no one else who delves into intimacy, yearning, and alienation with as unflinching a gaze as Bergman. In the Bedroom was a good film, but American Bergman-lite. Eric Rohmer, another great master, comes closest to Bergman in terms of capturing the complexities and subtleties of real life on film, but Rohmer is French and far happier than the brooding Bergman. Rohmer is the cinematic equivalent of Chekhov without the extreme tragedy, while Bergman is pure Dostoevsky.

In Saraband, Bergman uses two characters from one of his earlier, great films, Scenes from a Marriage, but it is not really a sequel – Bergman (like Rohmer) tends to use the same actors over and over again, so it's more an issue of economy. Bergman certainly knows something about marriage, especially those that fail – one biography lists five marriages for him and at least nine children. That's not to mention his other lovers, the most famous of whom stars in Saraband, the ever engrossing Liv Ullman, as Marianne. Saraband, taking its name from a type of dance, is a series of about 10 two-person scenes plus a prologue and epilogue with Ullman. In the first 6 segments, Bergman runs through every possible two-person combination of his 4-person cast, then moves on to re-examine some of these relationships and the fallout from earlier scenes.

It's a bit jarring and disappointing to see one of the great masters of the medium use high-end video versus film for his last venture; apparently Bergman wanted to be able to move faster on set and likely does not have the stamina of his youth. Saraband also features some odd and jarring video effects at a few points, most utilizing a photo of Bergman's much-beloved wife Ingrid (who died in 1995) standing for a character in the film whose death has thrown three of the characters' lives into disarray. Regardless, Saraband is well shot, and while it is not a masterpiece, it is a welcome, worthy addition to the Bergman canon.

The scenes shift from poignant to disturbing, but are always engaging, possessing the ring of truth. With each new scene, Bergman creates a minor Rashomon effect as we see directly a character we'd only heard about previously, and our feelings about each person gradually shift over time (predictably with Bergman, the women emerge more likable than the men). After seeing his present relationship with Marianne, at first we think Johan (Erland Josephson), the egocentric husband from Scenes from a Marriage, has softened considerably over time. Reflecting on his relationship with Marianne, he has a great line about the secret to a successful marriage being a close friendship and an unflagging eroticism; they still succeed at the former, but lost the latter. Yet later on, one of the most devastating scenes in the film plays out between Johan and his middle-aged son, Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt, the father from Fanny and Alexander). Henrik comes to beg a favor on behalf of his daughter, Johan's granddaughter Karin (young Julia Dufvenius, in an extraordinary performance that shows the torch has been happily passed). When Henrik was a sullen young man, Johan, never the candidate for father of the year, once actually reached out to him and was rebuffed. It seems Johan never forgave Henrik for this, and never tried again. You want to reach through the screen and shake Johan – "for god's sake man, he was a teenager! Of course he was moody and pushed you away!" but Johan's judgments are absolute. If nothing else, Saraband delves not only into the redemptive power of love, but also a poisonous, possessive brand of it that can be passed on from generation to generation. While at its most brutal, Saraband, like other Bergman films, deals with characters who feel that one they love has failed them somehow, in the end it becomes more a meditation on the unavoidable imperfections of close relationships. All four characters face this truth, even if some never fully reconcile themselves to it.

2005 Films, Part 3: Other Notables

Junebug Junebug is the best film of 2005 you probably didn’t see. This “small” film chronicles George (Alessandro Nivola) visiting his parents in his hometown because he and his new, very cosmopolitan wife Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) are in the area trying to secure a local painter’s cooperation for her gallery. While My Cousin Vinny works because it makes fun of everybody, both the small town Southerners and the city slickers, Junebug works because none of the characters is just a stereotype, and no easy answers are given. It’s a small coup that Ben McKenzie’s participation in the film as Johnny will draw in many an eager O.C. fan who will be dumbfounded both by the film and his loutish character, a young man who can only lash out at the world around him... although in one brilliant scene, writer Angus MacLachlan and director Phil Morrison change how we look at him. The heart and soul of this film, however, is the luminous, effervescent Amy Adams as a very pregnant, always optimistic chatterbox. While at first she comes off as a little annoying perhaps, she is so guileless, so sincere, and so upbeat she becomes captivating, and when she faces highs and some significant lows you will care for her deeply. Unless you know you hate this sort of small indie movie, check it out, because it really is a tiny gem.

A History of Violence Just as Clint Eastwood’s role in Mystic River gave that film’s exploration into the consequences of violence added weight, this foray into similar territory gains significance because veteran splatter-meister David Cronenberg is at the helm. At several points, he constructs a violent episode we will initially cheer, only to be disgusted a minute later by the result. The two sex scenes are both memorable, but the first one is playful while the second is disturbing. Viggo Mortensen, Mario Bello, and Ed Harris all deliver captivating performances in this straight-forward, fast-moving but never entirely predictable film. The ending provides a perfect cap for a film that constantly makes us wonder what’s going to happen next. (You can hear David Cronenberg on The Treatment here.)

The Constant Gardener Director Fernando Mereilles (City of God) proved an inspired choice to helm this John LeCarre adaptation. Featuring two of my favorite actors, Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, Gardener suffers from the fact that its dread political "secret" is all too easy to guess and sadly, all too easy to believe. Realizing this, Mereilles wisely shifts the focus from the "what" to the "how" and "who." The Brazilian Mereilles moves easily through the crowds of Africa and seems to take a special delight in following the politically active Tessa (Weisz) during her various interactions. The love-making scenes, too, have a playful, intimate feel to them, with Mereilles’ handheld, freeform style the perfect approach for the disarmingly natural performances of Fiennes and Weisz. Most of the film, however, centers on Justin (Fiennes) pursuing the truth about who killed his wife Tessa, why, and who she really was. Danny Huston's British accent is shaky, but perhaps it adds to his slimy manner (I had not realized that he was director John Huston's son). Bill Nighy, who can play amiable goofballs well, delivers a chilling portrait here of a high government official. As Justin rouses from his polite routines of gardening, moving deeper and deeper into the world of Tessa’s political activism, he discovers new aspects to the woman he loved, and himself. It’s the little disappointments, small surprises, and real poignancies of their relationship that give this film its ultimate grace and beauty. (You can hear Fernando Meirelles on The Treatment here.)

Grizzly Man Werner Herzog films always produces an interesting film, but at his best he's a wonder. Grizzly Man is one of his best documentaries in years, as he culls together footage shot by Timothy Treadwell, who lived among grizzly bears in Alaska every summer for about eight years until he and his girlfriend were attacked and devoured by one. Herzog is right to say that Treadwell sentimentalizes the bears and nature, but Treadwell is so passionate and dedicated, and so dirt poor, it's impossible not to admire him at least a little. Much of the nature footage itself is captivating, but Herzog also shows enormous restraint and respect towards the material. Rather than playing the audio of Treadwell and his girlfriend being killed (the camera was rolling but the lens cap was on), Herzog films himself listening to the tape with headphones on while Treadwell's friend/former girlfriend watches his reaction. He tells her to never listen to the tape, and to destroy it. While at the start of the film we may have had some interest in hearing it ourselves, by that point we realize Herzog's exactly right. Grizzly Man explores the boundaries between nature and humanity, and Treadwell's attempts to cross those boundaries do indeed help define what it means to be human. (Read a Washington Post article on Herzog and the film here.)

Batman Begins Superman was the first superhero film for adults, even if parts of it were interminable, and Superman 2 was fun. Both X-Men films were quite good, and the Spiderman series set a new, high standard for the genre. But Batman Begins ups the ante once again. Of all the would-be blockbusters of 2005, none came close to the marriage of character depth and adventure of Batman Begins. Director Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale laughed on Charlie Rose about what an astonishing coup it was that two relative unknowns were being given the keys to the kingdom, but as with Lord of the Rings and Spiderman, boy did it pay off. This engaging origin story draws from much of the best comic book work of Frank Miller and others, and it’s well envisioned for the screen, with many wry and funny touches added in (as when Wayne devises a novel means to evacuate a large party from his mansion). All the performances are good, but Bale’s performance as Bruce Wayne and Batman captures the intelligence, pain, and obsessive nature of the character splendidly. His relationships with Alfred (Michael Caine), Rachel (Katie Holmes) and Ducard (Liam Neeson) are also particularly strong. Despite their small screen time, Cillian Muphy and the astonishingly versatile Tom Wilkerson have vivid turns, and Gary Oldman gives such a subdued, subtle performance as honest cop Gordon he’s hard to recognize at first. This is how it’s supposed to be done, folks, and damn, is it fun to watch. The lesson to the studios is, yet again: hire a good fanboy director, set him or her up with a good writer and a good producer to rein in any excesses, and then leave them the hell alone. The result, as with Lord of the Rings and Spiderman, is very likely both a great film and a commercial success. (You can hear Christopher Nolan on The Treatment here.)

The New World Terrence Malick’s films are not for all tastes, as he tends to eschew a driving narrative in favor of a cinematic tone poem full of visual lyricism. It’s Art House Cinema with a capital “A,” but as with The Thin Red Line, I find myself all too willing to go along for the ride. Malick always has his excesses, and I would have preferred a closer eye towards the story, but he does what he does so very beautifully I find it hard to complain. The love story between John Smith and the unnamed Pocahontas (played guilelessly in a remarkable film debut by Q'Orianka Kilcher) is evocative, moving, and real. Malick uses Wagner’s music from Das Rheingold to powerful effect as the Europeans first discover the New World, and more than any filmmaker before, he gives us a glimpse at what the ”naturals” must think of these interlopers. We feel the newness of this new world from both perspectives, and Malick gives us a glimpse at what it may have been like, or at least makes us wonder. In the end, The New World owes more to Herzog’s Aguirre than any Hollywood period film; you will not find the action or more direct romance of Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans here. The natural world is as much a character in the film as any of the people. While Malick may be too easily distracted by the way the light plays upon a leaf in the woods as John Smith and Pocahontas feel each others’ faces and speak in overlapping voiceover whispers, that is surely part of the point. Avoid this film or seek it out according to your tastes.

Good Night, and Good Luck I’ve covered this film earlier here and here. This is a very good film, but it is not superb, even though it deals with issues very dear to my heart and is all too relevant. David Strathairn delivers a spot-on performance as Edward R. Murrow (like his fellow members from the John Sayles Players, Chris Cooper and Joe Morton, Strathairn is always superb). However, Murrow is also a cerebral, reserved hero, and nothing really is on the line for him. He lacks the fire and stakes that Jimmy Stewart has in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. While Murrow does deserve credit for taking on McCarthy, he was neither the first nor the last, and McCarthy’s real showdown and downfall came with the Army hearings (to my understanding), highlighted by the famous line, “Have you no decency?” Many critics have pointed out that the Robert Downey- Patricia Clarkson hidden marriage subplot is pretty extraneous — the message seems to be, one should have the courage to reveal one’s self. So — it’s a worthy and timely film, well worth seeing, but not an indisputable classic.

Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit How can you go wrong with Nick Park’s latest, especially when it involves Wallace, Gromit, and a Were-Rabbit? You can’t. Like Pixar, Nick Park seemingly can do no wrong, and manages to make films that are a constant delight by providing: characters with recognizable, endearing foibles, a clear if silly storyline, and much gentle whimsy swirling about some truly enchanting moments.