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Year in Review ... Film: Serious Films Raise Political and Social Issues

Violence, Revenge, and Corruption Dominant Themes in 2005

By Kevin Der
CONTRIBUTING EDITOR

The mood in film this past year was pessimistic. In particular, films gravitated toward highly charged political and social themes, and I’ll group them in this manner simply to suggest the common ground among them. Whether a slightly satiric look at global arms trafficking and the countries that condone it (“Lord of War”), a portrayal of victorious, corrupt corporations and destructive government officials (“The Constant Gardener,” “Syriana,” “Good Night and Good Luck”), or the humanization of the Israel-Palestine conflict (“Munich,” “Paradise Now,” even “Kingdom of Heaven” to a degree), the movie-goer can’t help but wonder: what has the world gotten itself into?

Even more intimate stories, through examining race relations and personal adversity (“Crash”) or a tormented being destroyed by societal ignorance (“King Kong,” “Brokeback Mountain”), don’t display much hope. Others were honest and up-front character studies, but with a somber and slightly sinister feel (“Capote,” “The Squid and the Whale”). Almost all these films, however, don’t conclude with a definite resolution; rather, they end with the curtain still up, asking questions rather than answering them.

Though awards season is in full swing and Oscar nominations have been announced, I’ll engage in that discussion in a few weeks’ time. For now, here are the ten best films of the year — almost all extremely serious, highly relevant pictures.

10. Paradise Now

Two best friends in Palestine are recruited to carry out a suicide bombing mission. The film’s greatest strength is the way it conveys the humanity of the men, examining their moral struggles and the evolution of their motivations. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the straightforward, matter-of-fact portrayal of a dangerous, but very human, place — the casual, instinctive way townspeople duck upon hearing an explosion; a woman approaching a border guard to cross through to another town; a family eating together. It shows us living, peaceful people, up until the moment the peace is shattered.

9. Syriana

Stephen Gaghan, writer of “Traffic,” weaves a terribly pessimistic tapestry of oil companies and governments taking an active role to further chaos in the Middle East for financial and political gain. Gaghan portrays this climate by including as many viewpoints as possible, from corporate heads to CIA agents to oil workers. He seems to conclude that not only is this chaos everybody’s problem, but that everyone contributes to it and nothing can be done to solve it. In an age when oil interests drive political and military decisions, this film can provide a little bit of understanding and awareness of an important issue.

8. Crash

This film is the first feature from Paul Haggis, screenwriter of “Million Dollar Baby.” It brings together characters from different social and racial backgrounds who find that their lives are implicitly linked simply through their coexistence. Suspenseful, gripping, and intentionally unpredictable, “Crash” portrays the humanity underneath the many layers of stereotypes and misunderstanding that cause tension, cruelty, and violence. It’s ironic that this film examines and attempts to dispel stereotypes through the same medium that normally instills them.

7. Capote

Philip Seymour Hoffman completely embodies the quirky mannerisms of real-life writer Truman Capote, who wrote about the 1959 murders of a Kansas family in his novel, “In Cold Blood.” Through his research for the book, Capote befriends and develops an obsession with Perry Smith, one of the killers on death row. The disturbing element is that while Smith views his relationship with Capote as a chance to gain public support and stay his forthcoming execution, Capote in turn uses Smith to construct a more tantalizing, shocking novel through first-hand accounts of the murders. In a kind of passive sadism, Capote seems to believe he’s doing all he can to help Smith, but ultimately it’s clear that he’s driven entirely by self-interest.

6. The Constant Gardener

Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz excel in this drama and thriller about drug companies exploiting the rampant AIDS epidemic in African countries. Weisz plays Tessa Quayle, an activist who’s murdered early on in the film. Fiennes, as her husband, discovers that Tessa was killed because she discovered the truth about deficient, untested drugs used to treat AIDS patients. Though the film disgusts with its portrayal of corrupt, wealthy businessmen who casually exploit the Third World, it also provides a delicate photograph of life. There is both pessimism and optimism in the view that great sacrifice is required to effect any change on corruption.

5. Match Point

“The man who said, ‘I’d rather be lucky than good’ saw deeply into life,” says Woody Allen in his spot-on opening of this film. Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is a lucky man when he marries into a wealthy British family and reaps the career benefits that come along with it. He gives up being a good man, however, when he begins an affair with his brother-in-law’s fianc Nola (Scarlet Johansson). Allen is at his best when he simply lets his characters sit around talking, as his dialogue is like a microscope for their minds. For Wilton, the growing tension between himself, his wife, and Nola becomes unbearable, and seems only resolvable in a manner la Dostoevsky. It’s never clear to the audience, though, whether Wilton’s luck will hold.

4. March of the Penguins

“March” is probably not the first inspiring nature documentary, but it is one of the first with enough star power (Morgan Freeman’s narration) to propel it into mainstream popularity. In a year filled with depression and pessimism, this glimpse into the cycle of the Emperor penguin is a reminder that life, at its most fundamental level, can survive seemingly overwhelming trials. These penguins travel for months and line up patiently to enter the breeding grounds, and they huddle together, lattice-like, for protection against raging winds; yet they are not the model of a perfect civilization, as mothers try to steal eggs from others. Continuation of the species is their single goal, and as Mr. Hammond from “Jurassic Park” might say, life finds a way.

3. Memoirs of a Geisha

One of many films adapted from novels this year, “Geisha” creates a beautiful, seductive world of a sacred part of Japanese culture, in which geishas are trained at a young age to entertain men with their skills and beauty. The price they pay is the unwritten law is that they cannot pursue love for themselves. Ziyi Zhang portrays the young geisha Sayuri remarkably well as she desperately yearns for romance with the Chairman (Ken Watanabe). Rob Marshall offers stunningly beautiful imagery of flower gardens, kimonos, and dances that hide the inner torment Sayuri undergoes. “Geisha” is the classic tale of a forbidden love facing barriers from both the characters and society.

2. King Kong

Following “Lord of the Rings,” Peter Jackson again demonstrates his expertise in rousing action and intelligent use of visual effects, but the true gem here is the sensual (albeit platonic) relationship between Kong and Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), whom Kong initially takes hostage on the fabled Skull Island. It’s Ann’s beauty (and affinity for dance and juggling) that attracts Kong, and eventually leads him to fall in love with her. As her faithful companion, he selflessly defends her against all dangers, and even when captured by profit-seeking industrialists, his heart still beats for her in a very human way though his beastial side emerges when he’s separated from her. Jackson captures this intimacy with beautiful shots of Ann sitting in Kong’s palm as they overlook an ocean sunset, or when they dance together on ice in Central Park.

1. Munich

Spielberg’s mastery of cinema comes through in this film about the 1972 Munich Olympics, during which eleven Israeli athletes were killed by Palestinian terrorists. He focuses on the hit squad of Israeli intelligence agents who retaliated by killing Palestinians supposedly responsible for planning Munich. Spielberg conveys two ideas the film — he humanizes the Israeli agents as well as their victims, and he shows how each assignment further strips away that humanity. He also advocates peace by showing that violence is only destructive, as each killing by the agents results in additional bloodshed. As Dr. King once said, “He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.”