2005, the Year of Nuance
Because nothing exists without a context (outside the White House), I think it's important to mention 2004, the worst year in movies in the 30+ I've been watching them. Generally I consider four or five movies for the coveted "Grand Jeffy"--last year, only one movie was good enough to even be considered (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). So it was with great trepidation that I stuck my toe into the waters of 2005.
Fairly early into the movie year (which of course starts after the Oscars), I wondered if things may have been changing. It was during a scene from Crash. Two young black men are walking down a street in LA ranting about how much it sucks to see white yuppies cringe when they passed by. The dialogue was crisp enough to make these observations fresh, but what was really striking was what happened next: they walked up to an SUV and carjacked it. Crash is a movie about racism and culture, and it revels in the subtle ways racism is expressed--and even more surprisingly, transcended.
The trend continued. One of the best movies of the year (and the best documentary I've ever seen) is Murderball, a film no one saw about quadraplegics who play a kind of wheelchair rugby. No one saw it because they thought it would be cloying or condescending or in some way inauthentic. Or maybe just because it seemed too hard. But in the hands of directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, it became a transcendent film of humanity. No one was spared from honesty, including a very unlikeable quadraplegic who was abusive to his son and unhealthily hyper-competitive.
Clooney managed a two-fer with Good Night and Good Luck, telling the story of Murrow and McCarthy straight, but commenting brilliantly on the current administration. The year's most famous movie, Brokeback Mountain, isn't actually, as it's famously billed, a gay cowboy movie. It's a film about isolation and loneliness, and the fact that the characters are gay is as minor a point as the location of the film. Partisans who politicize it have to do so extra-textually; Ang Lee gives them nothing to hang their hats on in the film, which assiduously avoids politics.
Syriana, Munich (which I didn't see), Junebug, Hustle and Flow, Capote--most of the year's best movies accomplished something absent in Hollywood's current fetish for risk reduction. They managed to tell rich, complex stories without forcing a conclusion on the audience, often opening up a discussion rather than going for a artistically polemic point.
I don't want to assert that this represents a trend, but there is something hopeful in all of this. The movies that I mentioned were all non-Hollywood films. The big studios were busy turning out the worst crap, comparable to last year. So while the year may have been an anomoly, it may also be a hopeful sign that a counterculture in serious filmmaking is returning--perhaps akin to the 70s, when independent vision sprang out of the vapidity of the studios. We can hope. In any case, it was a great year in film.