The big story in movies last year was plunging attendance: down 6.2 percent from 2005. Everyone had a theory about why, and among the proposed culprits were DVDs, crying children, on-screen advertisements, and patrons yakking on cell phones. My own guess was that people had wised up to all the slick advertising and puffy reviews, had grown tired of organizing their evenings around a two-hour block of corporatized cheese. But according to an online study cited last month in the New York Times, the real reason is more prosaic: ticket prices have risen about 5 percent since 2003, and people think they're too expensive. It's a sign of the times--moviegoing, a middle-class entertainment for more than a century, is becoming too expensive for the middle class.
My own experience is warped by the fact that I watch so many movies for free, but I too spent less at theaters in 2005. I have a DVD player and a big TV tube with a stereo speaker on either side, the best approximation of screen projection I've ever had in my home, and a Netflix subscription provides cheap access to just about anything issued domestically on DVD. But I've resolved to spend more time and money this year at my favorite theaters--the Music Box, LaSalle Bank Cinema, Gene Siskel Film Center, Landmark's Century Centre--because without them I wouldn't know about most of the movies below.
Last year's drop in attendance is particularly dispiriting because so many good movies came and went without finding an audience, from big-studio rollouts like Cinderella Man to art-house secrets like Lila Says. I had even more trouble than usual whittling my year-end list down to ten movies, as evidenced by my weaselly genre categories at the end. In the 50s, when the nation's theater owners were first feeling the competition of television, they came up with the advertising slogan "Movies are better than ever." I wouldn't go that far, but in 2005 movies were better than usual. Here are the best:
1. Junebug. A hilarious and moving snapshot of the red state-blue state divide, Phil Morrison's funky comedy follows a cosmopolitan art dealer (Embeth Davidtz) to North Carolina, where she meets her new husband's seriously dysfunctional family and tries to land a fractious outsider artist for her Chicago gallery. Amy Adams gives an Oscar-caliber performance as the adoring sister-in-law, and screenwriter Angus MacLachlan deftly shifts our sympathies between the two.
2. Gunner Palace. Michael Tucker arrived in Baghdad as an embedded reporter in September 2003; his documentary about an artillery division stationed in the bombed-out Al Azimiyah palace not only exposes problems that make the war unwinnable (soldiers' ignorance of the culture, ineffective training of Iraqi civil defense forces, abuse of the civilian population) but allows the young grunts to comment on their experience through rap and music.
3. Lila Says. Hands down the sexiest movie I saw this year, this French feature by Ziad Doueiri (West Beirut) is set in a dilapidated Paris suburb, where a quiet, gifted Moroccan teenager (Mohammed Khouas) is drawn into a secret romance with a white neighbor (Vahina Giocante). Her exquisite beauty and sexual boldness make her a walking powder keg in the poor, largely Arab community, and a conflict involving the hero's leering buddies leads both lovers to the brink of tragedy--and to genuine love.
4. Grizzly Man. German master Werner Herzog finds a uniquely American focus for his career-long fascination with man and nature: Timothy Treadwell, a self-invented grizzly-bear expert who became a media personality before a grizzly devoured him in Alaska in 2003. Working with more than 100 hours of video footage Treadwell left behind, Herzog fashions an unnerving portrait of a troubled man whose congress with the grizzlies was both religion and death wish.
5. Me and You and Everyone We Know. Miranda July made an auspicious feature debut with this canny combination of reassuring formula and startling subject matter. The main story is a sweet screwball romance between a lonely performance artist (July) and a hapless shoe salesman (John Hawkes), but woven into this conventional fare are subplots that boldly explore the narrowing sexual divide between children and adults. July handles this taboo material with a disarming frankness and simplicity, absorbing it into her main concern--the joy of discovery, be it sexual, romantic, or creative.
6. Palindromes. Todd Solondz dives headfirst into the abortion controversy with this heartbreaking moral comedy about a young girl who is forced to have an abortion, runs away from home, and falls in with a born-again family of deformed children. Dividing the main character among eight actors, each chosen for her innocence, was commercial suicide, but it was also typical of a filmmaker who acts more from pure feeling than common sense.
7. My Summer of Love. A homely orphan in rural West Yorkshire (Nathalie Press) is drawn into a steamy affair with a posh bird visiting from the city (Emily Blunt), much to the displeasure of the country girl's older brother (Paddy Considine), who's returned from prison a sanctimonious evangelical Christian. This small-scale British drama by Pawel Pawlikowski was promoted for its lesbian romance, but despite all the idyllic afternoons on rolling hills, it's a story of brutality and betrayal.
8. A History of Violence. In David Cronenberg's harrowing crime drama, some people are born to kill, others are born to be killed, and at the end a small-town family gathers at the dinner table, united and stained by this awful knowledge. This was adapted from a hard-boiled graphic novel, and Cronenberg, despite his own history of Grand Guignol, honors the form with a remarkably spare narrative.
9. The Best of Youth. This six-hour family saga by Marco Tullio Giordana traces a middle-class Italian clan from 1966 through the end of the century, as two brothers are united by their affection for a mentally ill young woman and then divided by politics. The film is well-paced and has an impressive historical sweep, though Giordana generates that broad perspective through intimate observation of the many characters' everyday lives. The film was produced as a TV miniseries but rejected by the Italian state network and ultimately released in theaters, where it screened in two three-hour segments; a DVD release is scheduled for February 7.
10. The Devil's Rejects. Who'd have thought that Rob Zombie, the freaky-looking dude who once fronted the metal band White Zombie, would conjure up the most frightening movie since The Blair Witch Project? Moving like a bat out of hell, this tale of a murderous family on the run from a vengeful sheriff taps into the same fear of backwoods crazies that's powered the genre since Two Thousand Maniacs! and the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Best noirs: The Ice Harvest, A Tout de Suite.
Best comedies: Wedding Crashers, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic.
Best animated: Howl's Moving Castle, Corpse Bride, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.
Best general-interest docs: March of the Penguins, Murderball, Tell Them Who You Are, Up for Grabs.
Best music docs: Fallen Angel: Gram Parsons, Moog, The Nomi Song, Rock School, We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen.
Best political docs: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, The Future of Food, The Protocols of Zion, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.
Best movies I couldn't jam into any of the above categories: The Ballad of Jack and Rose, The Beautiful Country, Breakfast on Pluto, Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Crash, The Constant Gardener, Good Night, and Good Luck, Kontroll, Layer Cake, Millions, Munich, Nine Lives, Purple Butterfly, Separate Lies, The Squid and the Whale, Thumbsucker, Tony Takitani, Walk the Line, Yes.