Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch revisits the best movies of 2005

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the Feb. 23, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)

The Academy Awards are coming up on Sunday, March 5. So it is time to choose the Best Movies of the Year for 2005.

1. My Number One choice for the year is Crash, writer/director Paul Haggis’ powerful vision of the frailty of human beings and their need for community. The ensemble acting, led by Matt Dillon as a racist policeman and Thandie Newton as the African-American woman he has sexually and psychologically abused, is as close to perfect as you can get. The Catholic themes of sin and redemption are woven into a plot that may be unrealistic but is filled with truth and hope. Crash is a film to see again and again.

2. The Ninth Day I saw only on DVD. But even on a small screen the challenging ethical dilemmas faced by imprisoned priest Father Henri Kremer (Ulrich Mattes) are monumental. Over 2,500 Catholic priests were imprisoned at the Dachau Concentration Camp during World War II. Over 1,000 priests died. Through the story of one of those many priests, The Ninth Day honors all of them. It is a story we Catholics should know and never forget.

3. The Office for Film and Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops rates Brokeback Mountain O – morally offensive. I have personally chosen not to review O-rated films in the Inland Register. When asked her opinion, the companion with whom I saw the film could only say the scenery was beautiful. But in terms of story, acting and emotional power, Brokeback Mountain is certainly one of the best films of the year. Ang Lee’s interpretation of Annie Proulx’s short story, the tale of two cowboys who fall in love almost by accident in 1960s Wyoming, is superbly and tragically portrayed.

4. Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, writer Dan Futterman, and director Bennett Miller all became friends in 1984 at a Saratoga Springs, N.Y., theater program. The three of them have made the movie Capote, which has the feel of a minor classic. Hoffman wonderfully plays Truman Capote during the five years he researched and wrote his legendary account of the violent death of a Kansan family – In Cold Blood. Capote is a biography filled with incisive acting and layered with tragedy.

5. In The Constant Gardener Ralph Finnes plays a midlevel English diplomat who falls in love with an activist wife (Rachel Weisz) and is assigned to Kenya. This is the setup for a complicated and rewarding thriller that focuses on the corruption of government and the pharmaceutical industry as they use the poor of Africa to test dangerous drugs. The change in Finnes as he portrays an unassuming administrator set on fire by the suspicious death of his wife is a joy to watch.

6. In a semi-autobiographical film The Squid and the Whale, director Noah Baumbach powerfully shows the damage that divorce can cause in two teenage boys. Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney play self-centered parents. Their two sons, wonderfully acted by Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline, feel confused and angry by their divided family life. The Squid and the Whale fills the screen with the sad and sometimes humorous consequences of divorce.

7. The Johnny Cash biography Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon as his second wife, June Carter, is fascinatingly presented by director/co-writer James Mangold. The amazing reality of the film is that both of the main stars spent six months learning how to sing. They make Cash and Carter dramatically come alive anew.

8. Woody Alien’s mystery-thriller Match Point is in the tradition of his great 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays the retired tennis pro who marries into high society and then begins an adulterous affair with the character played by the beautiful Scarlett Johansson. He is an ordinary guy who gets caught in situations of his own doing that lead to dramatic consequences. Yes, I do feel uncomfortable with the conclusion. But what a story of the mystery of luck!

9. A History of Violence is filled with some very violent scenes as it argues that under the externals of America, there is a dramatic force of horrendous violence. Viggo Mortensen plays the Norman Rockwell-style hero of small town Indiana who in a few brief seconds defends his cafe from the attack of brutal killers. From that point on the viewer is on a cinematic roller coaster.

10. In black-and-white, George Clooney gives us the turmoil of the Sen. Joseph McCarthy era in the mid-1950s in his biography of WSU graduate Edward R. Murrow, Good Night, and Good Luck. The focus is narrow: Murrow’s fairly late challenge to McCarthy on Murrow’s TV news program, See It Now. I would have liked a broader vision of that period, but this is a film that needs to be seen for its continued relevance for our time and the future. David Strathairn as Murrow is memorable.

Runners-up to the top ten include the following:

11. Frenchmen Luc Jacquet and Yves Darondeau bring back the animal documentary with March of the Penguins, their thoughtful story of the Emperor Penguins of Antartica. The narration by Morgan Freeman tells a story that is beautiful and poignant. You can’t help but wonder how these two Frenchman got such incredible footage of the extreme efforts that the penguins go through to continue the survival of their species.

12. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe tells the story in cinematic terms of the popular C.S. Lewis’ children’s book. It is refreshing always to have a well-acted tale with religious motifs. A wonderful film for families.

13. Mad Hot Ballroom is the low-budget ($500,000) documentary of fifth-grade kids preparing to compete in the annual New York public school ballroom dancing contest. What a life-giving story! Put this one on your DVD list to see.

14. One of my favorite small films of the year is Junebug. The performance by Amy Adams as a pregnant daughter-in-law of a Southern family is well deserving of her Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. But the scene of the older brother returning from Chicago to a very small Southern town with his new wife, where he is asked to sing a religious hymn at a church social, is unforgettable.

15. Twenty-year-old Keira Knightley gives a beautiful performance as the key character Elizabeth in an easy-to-follow adaptation of Jane Austen’s beloved novel Pride and Prejudice.

16. The surprising film for me this year was the si-fi Western Serenity. This is not the genre of film I would be drawn to. And yet Joss Whedon’s film, based on his TV series Firefly, was thoroughly entertaining as it broached a series of religious themes. Serenity is the perfect movie for older teens and parents to watch together.

All in all, when you set your favorites down on paper, 2005 was a very good year for films.

(Earlier in the year I said Broken Flowers was one of the best films of the year. Upon reflection I no longer think so.)

(Father Caswell is Ecumenical Relations Officer and archivist for the Diocese of Spokane.)

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