Documentary, drama and illusion Are part of year's big-screen magic

Our critics' top 10 movies of 2005


When the movie gods conspired with Edison and others to create the cinema, they gave us two great gifts:

Life recorded so keenly that common joys and tragedies - and uncommon ideas or emotions - became miraculously vivid and lasting.

Illusions conjured so divinely that they took audiences out of this world and into arenas of pure magic or wild conjecture.

For movies that opened in Baltimore this year, documentary-makers and fact-based filmmakers amazed us with a stream of nature sagas that were hair-raising (Grizzly Man) or transporting (The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, March of the Penguins, Deep Blue) and group portraits that were enraging (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) or inspiring (Murderball, Born Into Brothels). They delivered increasingly sophisticated biopics (Walk the Line, Capote) and straight biographies (No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, In the Realms of the Unreal), as well as jaw-dropping mixtures of biography and social protest (Hotel Rwanda, The Sea Inside).

But creators of fantasy also astounded us with thrilling or hilarious fables, whether in outright animation like Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Howl's Moving Castle or in

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cunning mixtures of media such as the experimental Mirrormask and the marvelously square The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Between reality and escapism, youthful talents everywhere showed a Renoir-like knack to echo life's unruliness, then shape it. That's what Noah Baumbach did in his excruciatingly excellent comic study of an intellectual family, The Squid and the Whale, and Phil Morrison in his funny-tasty slice of Southern life, Junebug, and Mike Binder in his uproarious marital-breakup comedy The Upside of Anger, with its scintillating performances from Joan Allen and Kevin Costner. Frenchman Jacques Audiard did it, too, in his brutally poignant film about classical music and real-estate shakedowns, The Beat That My Heart Skipped.

Some movie-lovers bemoaned the onslaught of computer-generated effects. Friends theorized that the overkill in Peter Jackson's King Kong resulted from his ransacking digital effects like a boy loose after-hours in a toy shop. But new technology made possible what's truly great in the film: the platonic love between that ultimate loner Kong, a 25-foot silverback gorilla, and the lissome, funny, achingly expressive Naomi Watts.

Others justly complained that political filmmakers like Stephen Gaghan in Syriana and Steven Spielberg in Munich subscribed to the dreariest (Gaghan) or mushiest (Spielberg) p.c. orthodoxies. Still, the same George Clooney who starred in and helped produce Syriana also directed, co-wrote, co-produced and acted in the sharp, tough-minded Good Night, and Good Luck - a testament to the values of fairness and freedom that should bring Right and Left together.

The best filmmakers of all kinds - like the best movie fans - unite in their adoration of original talent, wherever they find it.

One of my top movies of 2005 is Capote, a heart-stabbing, dizzying examination of the exploitation that occurs in friendships, work relations, and the bond between a journalist and his subject. It's quiet, austere and tremendously moving. Yet Capote director Bennett Miller's favorite film is Stanley Kubrick's deliberately alienating, DayGlo-colored dystopia, A Clockwork Orange. He's seen Kubrick's movie hundreds of times. Miller spins off from Truman Capote's "nonfiction novel" about the murder of a Kansas farm family, Kubrick from Anthony Burgess' futuristic novel about a young thug named Alex. But Miller's obsession with Alex cuts to the core of this humanistic director's preoccupation with, he says, "eccentrics and individuals of every walk of life. ... Alex is purely who he is, and represents the unconformed id that we're all carrying around. To me, A Clockwork Orange is about truth-telling."

To me, Miller loving A Clockwork Orange testifies to an artist's need to stay true to his ornery self and take his inspiration where it comes, whether from fact or fancy or both.

Each film on this list of the best that played in Baltimore from Jan. 1 to today (and on the companion list from fellow Sun critic Chris Kaltenbach) demonstrates the power of individual vision and its ability to absorb influences from every walk of art or way of life.

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