Michael Wilmington's Top 10 of 2005

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There's an old cliche of movie history that really fits this year's movies: The films of 2005 -- especially the best ones -- kept shifting between the two great movie extremes of realism and fantasy.

Sometimes, they plunged us into harsh truth, as with the McCarthy-Murrow drama "Good Night, and Good Luck" or the WWII Nazi history "Downfall." Sometimes, they beguiled us with fantasy, as in "King Kong" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." But, just as it's always been since the early movie days of the Lumiere Brothers' true-life vignettes and Georges Melies' fantasies, the movies kept doing two very different things well: showing the world as it is and envisioning the dreamier, more idealized place we'd like it to be.

All in all, 2005 seemed such a mediocre movie year for so long that when things finally turned around it felt a bit like a cloud finally lifting. Because the good films were always there. You just had to keep your eyes open for them.

1. "King Kong"-- The 1933 "King Kong," one of the movies' real pop classics, remade smashingly for our times by "Ring"-master Peter Jackson. He keeps intact most of the old Cooper-Schoedsack movie plot about an ape and a blond, but it's all been amplified, gloriously expanded, with a fine, offbeat cast (Naomi Watts, Jack Black and Adrien Brody). If that first "Kong" was made shockingly real by the moviemakers' innovative stop-motion animation, this one is made more thrilling by fantastic computer effects. It's a mass-audience triumph that may nudge "Titanic" for all-time box office honors, made with a passion and delight that pour out of every scene.

2. "Saraband"-- Ingmar Bergman's last film, or so he says. Made in 2003 when he was 85, it's the valedictory of one of the supreme film artists of the 20th Century: a writer-director of extraordinary gifts who, in films such as "Persona," changed the way cinema was made and perceived. A sequel to his towering 1973 masterpiece,"Scenes From a Marriage," "Saraband" reunites Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson as the loving, hating couple Marianne and Johan, now elderly witnesses to an even more excruciating breakup. Classical music (Bach) again provides exquisite counterpoint, and the human face remains Bergman's great subject. "Saraband" may not be on his highest level, but few films are. It's a moving farewell.

3. "The Best of Youth" -- This magnificent film follows two brothers -- Nicola, a left-wing psychiatrist (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Matteo, a hard-case cop (Alessio Boni) along with their family and friends, through four turbulent decades of Italian history (1965 to the present). Its greater-than-usual length -- two minutes shy of six hours -- lets Tullio Giordana and his writers explore the lives and subjects here in ways most movies can't, with novelistic depth and fullness, creating a masterpiece of both social realism and the family epic.

4. "A History of Violence" -- In David Cronenberg's hypnotic movie of the John Wagner-Vince Locke graphic novel, Viggo Mortensen plays a small-town cafe owner/family man with a past, wrestling murderously with an increasingly dangerous set of heavies (Stephen McHattie, Ed Harris and William Hurt). Few movie melodramas whip up as much stylish menace and stabbing violence -- or gather such a gallery of world-class, scary, scummy villains. Aclassy, dark, wickedly funny thriller; like all Cronenberg's best stuff, it's about evil or destruction emerging from within.

5. "Brokeback Mountain" -- Ang Lee's realistic western about two Texas-Wyoming cowboys and their lifelong homosexual affair -- with Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as the secret lovers -- takes the homoerotic undercurrents often hidden in the genre and pulls them to the surface. Adapted from an Annie Proulx story by master western literary realist Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, it's a melancholy tale that suggests love can destroy as well as heal. Lee, who's previously tackled both homosexuality ("The Wedding Banquet") and westerns ("Ride With the Devil"), is surprisingly successful with this mix: a tale of two men at home on the range but not always in their skins.

6. "Oliver Twist" -- Roman Polanski's dark adaptation of the perennially popular Dickens classic didn't win the public. A shame; this was a brilliant film on all levels, as good as the (once-reviled) classic 1948 David Lean version, with Alec Guinness. Perhaps this "Twist" -- with Ben Kingsley as a tormented Fagin and Barney Clark as an Oliver whose dangerous rambles through crime-ridden London evokes Polanski's own Holocaust-era Polish youth -- made Dickens' world too real.

7. "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" -- Roald Dahl's children's classic done right by Tim Burton. The tale is enjoyably creepy: Fey, softly menacing candymaker Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp) throws open his secretive sweets factory to a motley group of children, including impoverished chocolate-lover/hero Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore), with shocking results. This sweet/tart story is faithfully followed (unlike 1971's overrated Gene Wilder version), the characters delightfully enacted and Wonka's whole confectionery world so pleasurably brought to life that you may wonder if watching it will give you a sugar-rush.

8. "Howl's Moving Castle" -- The latest effort by whimsical master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki ("Spirited Away"): another of his delightful fairy tale epics, set in a counter-Harry Potter land of British wizards, witches and radiant countryside. The plot, from Diana Wynne Jones' book,embraces youth, age, airborne romance and adventure, realized with astonishing wit and imagination and an English-language voice cast, including Emily Mortimer, Jean Simmons and Billy Crystal.

9. "The New World" -- This odd, mesmerizing historical movie on the love affair of John Smith and Pocahontas, becomes another Terrence Malick triumph of aestheticism over convention. Set to the music of Wagner and Mozart, filled with the lyrical natural images for which the director of "Days of Heaven" is famous -- visions of primitive forest and fortress under cheerless skies -- the movie squeezes existential poetry from the culturally edgy romance of Smith (Colin Farrell) and his Native American love (Q'orianka Kilcher).

10. "Munich" -- Steven Spielberg's most adult film: a complex, politically aware look at the Middle East and the politics of assassination, based on George Jonas' book ("Vengeance") about an unofficial Jewish team that goes after the killers of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Like "Syriana" and "The Constant Gardener," this is a political thriller of almost icy sophistication and bruised idealism, and it's expertly done. The multitextured script was co-written by Tony Kushner; the brainy cast is headed by Eric Bana as the disillusioned hit team leader.

Runners-up:

"Downfall" (Dir: Oliver Hirschbiegel); "Match Point" (Woody Allen); "Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" (Nick Park, Steve Box); "Frank Miller's Sin City" (Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller); "Notre Musique" (Jean-Luc Godard); "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith" (George Lucas); "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" (Tommy Lee Jones); "Crash" (Paul Haggis); "Good Night, and Good Luck" (George Clooney); "Broken Flowers" (Jim Jarmusch).

Documentaries:

"Grizzly Man" (Werner Herzog); "Ballets Russes" (Dayna Goldfine, Dan Geller); "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" (Alex Gibney).

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mwilmington@tribune.com

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