Beyond the Multiplex: The best of 2005

It was the year of the penguin and the gay cowboy -- but don't forget the Chinese theme park and Syrian bride. Here are 10 brilliant but forgotten films you won't want to miss.

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published December 30, 2005 9:00PM (EST)

"Years ago, films were judged primarily on their artistic merits," says Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures, whose releases include the hit documentary "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" (and also theatrical flops like Rodrigo Garcia's "Nine Lives"). But in an overcrowded movie marketplace obsessed with business deals and insider details, he says, that has decisively changed.

"Films might be judged on their artistic merits the day they come out," he goes on, "but by Monday morning, they're being judged by what they did at the box office. Who knew what Fellini and Truffaut were earning at the box office? Nobody knew, and nobody cared." Bowles adds that he thinks there's no "cultural imperative" to experience "defining aesthetic films" right now, in the way an earlier generation ate up the cinematic experiments of the '60s and '70s art-house gods -- or, more recently, paradigm-shifting flicks like "Blue Velvet" or "Pulp Fiction" or "Being John Malkovich."

That may seem counterintuitive at this moment, given the impressive audiences turning out across the country for that movie about two cowboys in love (technically an independent production). But six years after the supposed indie revolution of 1999, the independent film universe is an amorphous realm where the water is deep and the rocks are jagged. It's internally divided between documentaries and dramatic features, between mini-major studios that produce safe, "Hollywood-lite" product and adventurous distributors who work out of P.O. boxes and can barely scrape up the funds for a newspaper ad. Some people I spoke to in the independent-film world were big fans and supporters of "Brokeback Mountain" -- the film that seems destined to define 2005 -- but even most of those saw its breakout success as more like a sociocultural happening or a news event than an aesthetic experience. As one cynical observer remarked, "Brokeback" takes an utterly familiar narrative (a story of doomed romance), puts it in a familiar setting (the cowboy West) and adds a button-pushing twist (oh my God, they're dudes!).

Fortuitous formula blend or not, no one could have promised in advance that Ang Lee's film would make a nickel at the box office. Movies don't come with guarantees, and as screenwriter William Goldman once observed about his business, nobody knows anything. But one thing the film's producers felt sure of was that "Brokeback Mountain" couldn't be ignored. As many people remarked to me, that gave it a marketplace advantage over most other movies that you can't buy at any price.

"I'm a passionate moviegoer," says Sasha Berman, a Los Angeles film publicist who works with a variety of independent distributors. "I'm in the business, so I see a lot of foreign films, a lot of independent films. But I also miss so many things these days, because they come and go so quickly. Movies show up and play for a week and get pushed out by something else. It's overwhelming. I think it's incredibly difficult for the consumer to figure out what to see right now, unless it's something that they already know about: It's the penguin movie, it's the gay-cowboy movie."

There you are, people. That's the year in independent film at a glance: It's the penguin movie. It's the gay-cowboy movie. Everything else pretty much went in the tank.

OK, I exaggerate, but not by much. Ryan Werner, the vice president for marketing at IFC Films, put it this way: "It was a very tough year, even though there were a lot of success stories." The success stories were largely unpredictable, and so were the failures. Who'd have guessed that a no-budget documentary about a mangy parrot flock in San Francisco, and the aging hippie who watched over them, would more than double the box-office return of "Thumbsucker," an indie drama loaded with stars and enthusiastically backed by a big studio? (Old showbiz maxim: Never share the stage with children or animals.)

With the cost of film production continuing to drop and new small-scale distributors entering the market, there seemed to be more independent and foreign films in 2005 than ever before. In some weeks, New York and Los Angeles saw 12 to 15 films opening on Friday, leading to what Berman calls a "lose-lose proposition" and Bowles calls "the tower of Babel." Interesting, risky, worthwhile movies from all over the world were fighting each other tooth and nail for reviews, advertising space and a tiny piece of filmgoer consciousness.

In most cases, these little movies hit a handful of theaters for a couple of weeks and then vanish entirely. A few venture away from the big coastal cities into "secondary markets," and a tiny handful become modest hits, à la "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" or "The Squid and the Whale" or "Junebug" or "Grizzly Man." ("March of the Penguins" belongs to another category entirely, that of the indie film turned fluke monster hit, in the vein of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" or "Bend It Like Beckham.")

"There are very few opportunities for an independent film to sit in a theater for a while until it builds an audience," says Nancy Gerstman, co-president of Zeitgeist Films, which currently has the documentaries "Ballets Russes" and "Zizek!" in theaters. And the days when distributors could get a broad "semi-theatrical" release by sending films to university film societies across the country, she says, "now seem like ancient history."

While some distributors, including Zeitgeist (says Gerstman), remain committed to theatrical release as the core of their business, and the moviegoing experience isn't going to disappear this year or next, the way movies get delivered to eyeballs is clearly changing, and changing fast. "There's no distribution company in the business that's making money off theatrical release," says IFC's Werner. "It's all publicity for the DVD."

Sasha Berman echoes him, saying, "You use theatrical release as a platform, and just write it off as marketing dollars for the DVD release. You need those [review] quotes and some word of mouth, some awareness of the title." Releasing a movie straight to DVD, without the review quotes or the New York/L.A. word of mouth, she adds, is "throwing your money away." But over the long haul (possibly as long as seven to 10 years), the DVD release gives independent distributors a fighting chance to turn a hit into a cult phenomenon, and a flop into a break-even proposition.

For the last year or so, people at all levels of the film business have been buzzing over a heretical new idea: Does it really make sense to release movies in a few big-city theaters, laboriously milk them across the country, and then spit them out on DVD months later, after whatever hype they've generated has long ago died down? Why shouldn't a retiree in Fargo, N.D., who wants to see Iranian art films or raunchy gay comedies be able to see them at the same time as a sideburned hipster in downtown Manhattan?

So 2006 will witness the birth of what's called "day-and-date" releasing, in which selected indie-type films will simultaneously appear in art-house theaters, become available on pay-per-view television, and (in some cases) be released on DVD. Magnolia, Bowles' company, will release Steven Soderbergh's "Bubble" on all three platforms on Jan. 27, and the entire industry is watching eagerly.

"That's really going to be an interesting experiment," says Bowles. In theory, he explains, you get the best of both worlds. The idea is that theatrical release "will still pique people's interest and generate good reviews" -- but then anyone, anywhere in the country, can see the film right away without leaving home.

As Werner of IFC adds, "Sixty percent of the New York Times' readership lives outside New York City. Why should they have to wait four months after they read a review to see that film?" Personally, I'm not convinced that "Bubble," a grim little working-class drama that makes Lars von Trier's films seem hilarious, is the best test case for this experiment. But whether that movie clicks or not, day-and-date release seems pretty much inevitable, at least for films at a certain modest market niche; most distributors I talked to have something similar either planned or on the drawing board.

Where does all this fascinating business news leave the art form of cinema, if that hasn't become an embarrassing expression? I have no idea. Can some new distribution model, where you can watch Tarantino's next film at home with a group of friends over gnarly rounds of bong hits, restore the lost sense of "cultural imperative," the aura of aesthetic and cultural definition that independent movies once possessed?

I don't think so, and it's probably not even the right question. New movies, even when they're as good as the 10 or 20 I'm about to list for you, have to compete not only with each other but with a vastly expanded entertainment universe. Are you really going to haul your ass off the couch and go pay 10 bucks to see an uncategorizable French film by an unknown director (like Arnaud Desplechin's "Kings and Queen") when you could stay home and watch anything and everything by Scorsese or Tarkovsky or Hitchcock or Dario Argento? How does one choose between Pirjo Honkasalo's demanding documentary about the Chechen war, "3 Rooms of Melancholia," and the fifth uproarious night in a row of viewing "Bubba Ho-Tep"?

There are no good answers to these questions. Nobody knows anything. What I do know is that this 10-best list self-consciously grades on a curve, and I'm not embarrassed about that. My first, second and third criteria were that I loved the film and thought I saw something significant in it. But after that I considered the cruel vicissitudes of fate and rooted for the underdog. I haven't spent much time summarizing these movies (that's what links are for, people!), but I've tried to shed a little light on what happened to them and why.

If the glass is half-empty, it's also half-full. Eamonn Bowles may sound like a skeptic about adventurous independent cinema, but he really isn't. "Look, everyone's bemoaning the fact that these films don't do well theatrically," he says. "But people can see almost anything they want to see, and that wasn't true 10 or 15 years ago. They just have vastly more choices, and that's not a bad thing."

In the fullness of time, in other words, really good movies like these will find the audience intended for them by the movie gods, even if they can't quite create a cultural moment, or define a collective aesthetic experience, the way "La Dolce Vita" or "Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" or "Stranger Than Paradise" once did. I believe that, I think. Or anyway, it's what I tell myself.

1. "Kings and Queen"
A gripping melodrama of love and madness and murder and family turmoil, the most beautiful actress in France (Emmanuelle Devos), and a passionate filmmaking style redolent of both Ingmar Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock. You couldn't have gotten better reviews if you'd bribed every critic in America with a bottomless table of hors d'oeuvres. So what went wrong?

According to Ryan Werner, who helped acquire "Kings and Queen" when he worked at Wellspring, nothing did. "When we bought the movie, we projected that it would make about $350,000 [in the U.S.], and it pretty much hit that," he says. Of course that's what Hollywood movies spend on decaf lattes and wig glue, but "Kings and Queen" is two and a half hours long, has an unknown director (Desplechin) and an unknown star, and a significant number of art-house proprietors saw it as a money-loser.

So "Kings and Queen" never played on more than nine screens at the same time, where even a modest indie success might hit 40 to 60. The New York Times review -- still the single most important indicator, by far, for indie film -- was positive but not a rave. Given all that, $350,000 starts to sound OK. Except that this was one of the best movies of the entire decade so far, dammit! "I have realistic expectations," says Werner. "But it's very depressing."

2. "Innocence"
No mystery here: Lucile Hadzihalilovic's debut feature creeped people out. A brooding allegory about a group of young girls being "educated" for unknown purposes in a Gothic, park-like compound, it's a memorable accomplishment that -- to my taste, anyway -- never crossed the line into prurience or manipulation. Does it challenge viewers, force them to acknowledge their own dark fantasies and confront their ambivalence about questions of girlhood, puberty and adolescent sexuality? You bet your ass. But I found it a haunting, effective and highly cathartic experience. As for the film's commercial prospects, well, they weren't many to begin with. Then Manohla Dargis of the New York Times wrote a mixed-to-negative review, suggesting that raincoat-clad men might draw the wrong sorts of gratification from "Innocence," and that was that. One weekend at the Cinema Village in New York followed, but whatever insulting sum of money resulted has not even been reported on IMDB. "When films fail in the marketplace these days, they fail abjectly," says Eamonn Bowles. "They don't make any money at all." Despite glowing European reviews, that's what happened here.

3. "My Summer of Love"
In a vain effort to convince you I'm not an unbearable snob, here's a movie in English. With this strange exploration of the glowing Yorkshire landscape, and the intense and unlikely bond that blossoms there between two bored teenage girls, Pawel Pawlikowski leaps to the front of the class of British filmmakers. And, hey, this one was a hit! At least in relative terms. "My Summer of Love" got great reviews and played for several months, garnering around $1.3 million in U.S. box office. Mel Gibson probably coughs that much money into his morning Kleenex, but together with its British and European releases and what should be decent DVD sales, this one will surely end up in the black.

4. "The Power of Nightmares"
This isn't really a theatrical film, or was never intended as one (although it's played as such in New York and a few other places). What it is, though, is a BBC television miniseries that essentially serves as the most provocative and visually memorable political documentary of the post-9/11 era. Director Adam Curtis (who also made "The Century of the Self") essentially argues that the whole "war on terror" is a game of smoke and mirrors, perpetrated by a neocon elite in pursuit of its largely imaginary nemesis, the many-tentacled terrorist network called al-Qaida. (The word, Curtis says, was never used by Osama bin Laden until after the FBI stuck it on him.) Whether you buy Curtis' total package or not, this is a devastating critique of contemporary political reality and a feat of cinematic derring-do. It has no distributor and will probably never appear on U.S. television or be released here on DVD, but I've been told that Curtis is making no effort to discourage gray-market downloaders. So, wink-wink, nudge-nudge, you know what to do.

5. "Saraband"
In what is presumably his last film, 87-year-old Ingmar Bergman shows the rest of the movie world how it's done. A lovely, gripping and compact family drama -- actually, a sequel of sorts to "Scenes From a Marriage" -- that wastes no time, crackles with distinctly ungeriatric vigor and refers discreetly to many of the master's themes. Of course the cast, which includes Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson as a divorced couple still hopelessly entangled in each others' consciousnesses, is magnificent. Of course there are moments of ravishing beauty. It's also a masterpiece of concision and precision, and one of the most magnificent films yet made on digital video. None of that should be surprising, really. Nor was it surprising that Sony Classics didn't quite know what to do with "Saraband" and pretty much dumped it in midsummer. I mean, hey, this dude is really old! Given that, I think returns of almost $650,000, from a maximum of 27 screens, is highly respectable. And it'll keep making them money on DVD long after Bergman is making movies for God (and the rest of us, if there is indeed a heaven, are watching them).

6. "The World"
This was supposed to be the breakthrough work from Jia Zhangke, the 35-year-old Chinese director lauded at film festivals around the world for his tales of provincial anomie. And hey, it was! A large-scale ensemble drama set in the surreal confines of the World theme park outside Beijing -- where the characters drift from the Eiffel Tower to the Leaning Tower of Pisa to the Pyramids of Giza in an afternoon -- this was one of the most satisfying and multileveled flicks of the year. But as is par for the course with East Asian art film (i.e., lacking in kung fu, ghosts or monsters), it was beloved by critics and totally ignored by audiences. And I do mean totally. It played a handful of big cities -- never on more than three screens at a time -- and grossed a grand total of $63,662. Nancy Gerstman, who acquired it for Zeitgeist, remains unbowed. She fell in love with "The World" at the New York Film Festival, she says, but saw problems: "It was too long, it had several story lines going on at once, the filmmaker was a critics' favorite but his other films had not done well in the U.S. Our mandate was to put it out there and give it a profile, but not to expect much box office. I think the limited number of people who did go and see 'The World' fell in love with it as we did. We expect it to do very decently on DVD." That means you, people.

7. "Forty Shades of Blue"
OK, this one just bums me out. The American indie film of the year, as far as I could tell. This wrenching family drama of unexpected love blooming in unhelpful circumstances, set against the Memphis R&B music industry, would and should have been a smash art-house hit -- if this was, say, 1975. You know, there was nothing so bad about "Junebug" or "The Squid and the Whale" or whatever, and I pretty much liked "Thumbsucker." But Ira Sachs' "Forty Shades of Blue" has an emotional maturity, an artistic commitment and an almost symphonic scope, that those other flicks can only guess at. Rip Torn is brilliant as the aging music industry tyrant, but Dina Korzun gives the performance of the year as his Russian trophy fiancée, who falls hard and awkwardly for his son. But we're talking no name actors under 40 (or even 50) and a story about grown-ups set in an unhip social milieu. What does that mean? Well, on the one hand, this movie won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and got rave reviews from the New York Times and Newsweek (and, um, from Salon). That's great, right? Apparently not. It also cost about $1.5 million to make, and beyond a short run at New York's Film Forum, it's earned, hmm, let's see -- nothing. Zero. Nada. Bupkis. And that's for a better Robert Altman film than any actual Robert Altman film of the last 25 years.

8. "2046"
Wong Kar-wai's irrepressibly stylish follow-up to "In the Mood for Love" summarizes all that's amazing, and all that's maddening, about Wong as a filmmaker. This doesn't so much have a plot as a mood of persistent romantic melancholy, a prodigious sense of itself as an aesthetic creation, and a deliberate desire to overwhelm us with the visual splendor of its women in glamorous '60s clothes (most notably Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li and a brief appearance by Maggie Cheung) and Tony Leung's decadent post-Bogart suavity. I'm not so sure all this languorous indulgence is healthy -- or that this movie is likely to be a good influence on aspiring young filmmakers -- but in this case, hell, who really cares? More than $1.4 million in U.S. box office, which is really extraordinary for an arty Chinese-language costume drama with no action scenes.

9. "The Syrian Bride"
Eran Riklis' tale of a wedding that goes awry along the disputed border between Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights starts out as a typical village comedy and winds up as the gem amid this year's bumper crop of Israeli films. As the bride's indomitable sister stuck in a bad marriage, the proud and beautiful Hiam Abbass sails through "The Syrian Bride" like a ship breasting rough waters. While Riklis hits many of the expected comic beats, the cast is terrific and the film will keep on surprising you -- with its even-handed ridicule of all sides, among other things -- until it finally reveals itself as part feminist drama, part existential absurdism. This is a crowd-pleaser and button-pusher waiting to happen, and if, as Nancy Gerstman and Sasha Berman both told me, it's still possible to build an indie hit with grass-roots marketing campaigns, "The Syrian Bride" is a perfect candidate. It's fared well in New York, and if Koch Lorber Films can successfully promote it to both Jewish and Arab-American audiences around the country (along with gay audiences, those are among the most loyal of niche audiences), this one could be playing deep into 2006.

10. "Land of Plenty"
When I reviewed Wim Wenders' micro-budget post-9/11 drama a few weeks ago, I bitched out IFC for apparently screening it in New York and then abandoning it. Critics are told never to apologize, but this time I was just wrong. Apparently the wheels were moving behind the scenes, and Ryan Werner now says this will be rolled out to other markets in '06, prior to the DVD release. It's easily Wenders' best film since "Wings of Desire," with all the hopefulness and mysticism of his most potent work. I suspect that's because it was made fast and cheap, by someone who knows and loves America but is not American, and so it captured something essential about our national hangover in the wake of 2001. John Diehl plays a deranged right-wing vet roaming the streets of L.A., pursued by his lefty Christian niece (Michelle Williams). But no, it's not anti-American or even judgmental, or even, in the last analysis, very interested in politics. Is this a quick, messy, uneven movie? Yep, but it's got a dirty magic undreamed of in mainstream cinema.

Honorable mention: "3 Rooms of Melancholia," "A History of Violence," "Grizzly Man," "Downfall," "Mail Order Wife" (with a best supporting actor nomination to Jose Canseco), "Paradise Now," "She's One of Us," "Turtles Can Fly," "Wall," "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill."

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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