Michael Sragow's Favorite Films

Our Critics' Top 10 Movies Of 2005

December 30, 2005

1. The Sea Inside. This movie brings us outside and inside ourselves, and takes us to brave new aesthetic depths. Thanks to director Alejandro Amenabar and his star, Javier Bardem, the fact-based story of Ramon Sampedro, a quadriplegic who fought for the right to die, illuminates our experience of life at all levels: physical, emotional, intellectual and imaginative.

2. House of Flying Daggers. In Zhang Yimou's intoxicating piece of action poetry, Ziyi Zhang plays Mei, an A.D. 859 showgirl who is also the sightless daughter of a dead revolutionary. Before long, Mei and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a police officer disguised as a bandit, flee soldiers who seem to embody their personal demons. Politics melt away as the couple journeys toward romance and revelation. They face release without limits, sorrow without end. They enter the realm of the senses and send audiences all the way to ecstasy.

3. Hotel Rwanda. In Terry George's enraging and enthralling movie about the Rwandan genocide of 1994, Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), who manages a four-star Kigali hotel, understands everything about his country except its capacity for evil. When he can't escape that evil he combats it with rationality. The New Yorker's Philip Gourevitch once wrote Paul thought of himself "as an ordinary person who did nothing extraordinary in refusing to cave in to the insanity that swirled about him." It's an elegant statement of moral character. So is Cheadle's remarkable performance.

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4. March of the Penguins. The appeal of this gorgeous, compelling documentary about the emperor penguins' annual mating trek on the glacial ice of the Antarctic goes deeper than the lure of avian romance in exotic climes. Most human family comedies or dramas have become jaded, cynical and formulaic. March of the Penguins offers a world filled with authentic urges, not hidden agendas, and the heroism of sacrifice, not conquest. Forget the conservative attempt to co-opt this movie. Its real theme is, "It takes a rookery to raise a child."

5. Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Peter Sallis, the voice of amateur inventor Wallace, once told Nick Park, the guiding genius of the Wallace and Gromit series, that its appeal was hard to pin down because "you can't write charm." Park has proved repeatedly that you can animate it, with puppets. This time, the doughy, provincial Wallace and his wily, agile dog, Gromit, ply a happy trade: a humane pest control service called Anti-Pesto. But Wallace's belief that he can change the character of rabbits results in the emergence of a hulking Were-Rabbit. The movie superbly combines peerless riffs on British domesticity with outlandish parodies of The Wolf Man, Jaws and King Kong.

6. Capote. Along with its other virtues, it boasts the uncanny Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, who starts out as a seductive truth-teller, then loses his wit and his cool, and by the end represents the horror of empathy divorced from conscience.

7. The Constant Gardener. A thriller from the inside out, a romance from the outside in. A gentle British diplomat, Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), and his fierce activist wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), come to disaster - and to a rare unity - when he's posted to Kenya. The movie begins with her murder. Rumors spread that she was having an affair with an African doctor. Justin's quest to finish Tessa's crusade against Big Pharma becomes his final act of love for her and his ultimate way of knowing her. Fiennes is at his heartbreaking best, and Weisz delivers a bit of acting genius as Tessa.

8. Howl's Moving Castle. The sublime Japanese writer-director, Hayao Miyazaki, in his latest animated masterpiece, plunges into life during wartime. He puts everything at play - all three dimensions, the elements, geography, history and time - but especially the human heart. Howl is a disreputable, rebellious young wizard who steals women's hearts because he has none of his own. Miyazaki knows what poet William Blake did, what Howl only gradually comes to learn: Exuberance is beauty and vice versa.

9. Walk the Line. Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny Cash as a man who squeezes all the conflicted feelings out of his gut and into his songs until he winds up crushed and empty, desperate for renewal. Reese Witherspoon plays June Carter Cash as a woman who creates a sassy and inventive front, and then reaches far behind it to express a fusion of spirit and carnality. When Phoenix drops into the resonant register we associate with Cash's prime years, he gives us an extraordinary expression of late-blooming manhood. When Witherspoon as Carter lets her hair down and her voice shout out, she becomes an indelible musical portrait of a woman's instinctual awakening. This movie is to performers' bios what Capote is to writers': a new benchmark.

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