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Issue Date:  January 6, 2006

Cunneen's 10 best of 2005

Foreign films dominate this year's list


My list of the best films of 2005 makes no claims of infallibility. I haven’t seen all the candidates for that honor; the studios’ regular practice of releasing -- if only for brief runs -- a number of films at the end of the year that they wish to place in the Oscar nomination race means that it’s almost impossible to see them all, especially with the New York transit strike. Besides, my prejudice against super-expensive, ballyhooed films makes me skip productions that are wildly popular on release. Readers may enjoy “King Kong,” for example, unassisted. Here are my choices, in the order in which I saw them:

1) Turtles Can Fly, by the Kurdish-Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi, takes place in a Kurdish area of Iraq on the eve of the U.S. invasion. Its close observation of children provides both humor and profound pathos. Satellite, its 13-year-old hero, has a dish that lets him know when the Americans will come. His attempt to comfort a young girl who has been raped and wants to abandon her baby leaves him unable to celebrate the arrival of the GIs.

2) In Intimate Stories, Argentine director Carlos Sorin strings together amusing incidents along the road from village to town. An old man pursues his dog that has run away while a traveling salesman tries to deliver an elaborate cake to a young woman he hopes to marry. Unpretentious and deeply human, the picture conveys a quality of life that is wise and generous.

3) In Look at Me, French director Agnès Jaoui shows wit and psychological insight in exposing male intellectual pretentiousness in contemporary Parisian social circles. A successful writer/publisher father ignores his plump, loving teenage daughter. An aspiring singer, the girl will finally be appreciated by others after a concert in an old local church, one of the many settings that make this movie sparkle.

4) Volker Schlöndorff’s The Ninth Day tells the gripping story of a priest from Luxembourg released from a gulag in World War II-era Germany for a brief furlough in which the Nazis hope to turn him into a collaborator. The scenes between Abbé Henri Kremer and the sophisticated SS officer Gebhardt are masterful. The film manages to suggest religious depth without becoming pietistic.

5) Cinderella Man tells the sports hero story of down-and-out 1930s boxer Jimmy Braddock with such verve and humor that we accept its upbeat message. If the championship bout is brutal, Russell Crowe shows the fighter to be a dedicated husband and father, and director Ron Howard catches telling images of the Depression.

6) Howl’s Moving Castle is a further example of the masterful animation of Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki. A witch turns an 18-year-old hat maker into a wrinkled 90-year-old, who promptly becomes a positive image of acceptance and woman-power. The castle is a memorably fantastic image, and Mr. Miyazaki makes his tale a fanciful but powerful argument for peace.

7) The documentary March of the Penguins tells the stirring story, reenacted annually in the Antarctic, of emperor penguins that must swim and trek hundreds of miles to bear and then feed their offspring. The females’ transfer of the new lives they are carrying to their mates, before going on to seek fresh sources of nourishment for themselves, is unforgettable. Both the scenery and the live action of the heroic penguins are breathtaking.

8) Good Night and Good Luck is the exciting docudrama about Edward R. Murrow’s 1954 clash with demagogue Joe McCarthy. By focusing on the central conflict within the confines of studio politics, George Clooney shows the high drama of live TV while allowing the audience to make its own connections with contemporary issues. The vulnerability of the media to the pressures of finance and political power make this the year’s best film civics lesson.

9) Ushpizin follows a childless Hasidic couple during the Sukkoth festival in Jerusalem today. Too poor to celebrate properly, they pray for a miracle. In response, they get two jail-breakers as holy day guests. The couple’s piety is admirable, credible and comic, their affectionate bickering enhanced by the fact that they are husband and wife in real life. The husband, Shuli Rand, even wrote the screenplay.

10) Michael Haneke, an Austrian who makes movies in French, has a reputation for pessimism. Perhaps part of the reason Hidden won the Ecumenical Jury award at Cannes this year (and the Best Director prize) is that he “wanted to make a film on guilt, specifically about an adult who has to confront something he did as a child.” Since it’s just opening, I’m reviewing the film here.

“Hidden” opens with a shot of a quiet Paris street. Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife, Anne (Juliette Binoche), who live in one of the houses we see, are in fact watching the scene on their television. Someone has made a video with a hidden camera and sent it to them. During the rest of the movie we are never sure whether we are seeing live action or a tape.

The Laurents receive more tapes, as well as some scary drawings, with no indication of their source. Husband and wife are upset, and relations are strained between them and their young teenage son. Georges begins to suspect something but refuses to confide in his wife. He goes to see his aging mother and talks to her of the Algerian servants who once worked for the family but were killed in a police massacre in 1961. The Laurents had considered adopting their son Majid, but Georges, still a child, had maneuvered against it.

A feeling of imminent disaster keeps growing as Georges, guessing Majid (Maurice Bénichou) may be carrying out revenge, manages to locate his apartment. There is a devastating further shock, followed by an enigmatic final shot of Georges’ son’s school as the students emerge after class. Viewers will disagree as to what clues this ending offers, but the film is a powerful reminder of France’s recent explosion of immigrant rage. And more profoundly than the question of who sent the tapes, “Hidden” asks us to examine our conscience.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail is

National Catholic Reporter, January 6, 2006

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