Histories of Violence

The Year of Atrocities

It was Willa Cather who wrote, "There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before," and her words seem especially prescient when looking back on the year's movie offerings. Though David Cronenberg first claimed the title A History of Violence, his Midwestern reverie about a mild-mannered diner owner who may have once been a feared Philadelphia gangster, it could have been applied just as easily to Michael Haneke's Cache or Steven Spielberg's Munich. Collectively, those films comprise as scintillating a trio as one could hope to find about how the atrocities of the past inevitably cycle back to the present, how a nation's sins press heavy on the hearts and minds of men, and how the emotional and moral weight of taking another human life has scarcely lessened since Cain delivered that fatal blow to Abel. Not too far afield was George Romero's Land of the Dead, in which the avenging zombie hordes stood in for society's homeless, oppressed minorities and, well, just about anyone who opposes the reigning administration. And those who think Brokeback Mountain and King Kong were the year's only portraits of a love that dare not speak its name—homosexuality and bestiality, respectively—clearly missed Tropical Malady (and who's to blame them—it only lasted a week in local theaters), in which a man falls in love with a shape-shifting tiger. If movies like these be the music of life—and it is the humble opinion of this critic that they are—play on!

1.Cache.Michael Haneke's thriller about an upscale Parisian couple terrorized by an anonymous videographer has been much praised (and deservedly so) for its canny use of genre elements to explore the lingering impact of the Algerian War on the French psyche. But like all of Haneke's best films, Cache was an equally brilliant critique of a culture desensitized to violence and saturated in images, where we are forever watching or being watched and ever less certain of what we are actually looking at. Hence it's no surprise that many viewers remain oblivious to an important plot point discreetly revealed in the film's final shot—a moment, like the repressed childhood memory that hangs over the rest of the film, perhaps destined to remain hidden.

2.A History of Violence.Was it a straightforward vigilante movie? A comic-lyric deconstruction of our romance with guns and gunslinging heroes? One more Cronenbergian examination of the hidden self? No other film in 2005 shifted tones so unexpectedly, subverted our expectations so regularly, or had as much to say about the bedrock of national identity in "the home of the brave."

Mortensen shows some Violence
Mortensen shows some Violence

3.Kings and Queen.A typically messy and euphoric collision of parents and children, myth and reality, courtesy of director Arnaud Desplechin (My Sex Life, La Sentinelle). As a weary patriarch rallies against the onset of death, a young man searches for a father, a widow searches for a husband, and a man called IsmaŽl (the inspired Mathieu Amalric), who just happens to be residing in a mental hospital, somehow becomes the glue that binds them all together. When the film opened in May, I wrote, "If there's a more humane, joyous, tragic, life-affirming movie to be found at the moment, I'm not aware of it." More than half a year later, I'm still not.

4.Good Night, and Good Luck.After Peter Watkins' La Commune (which would top this list had it managed to secure more than a one-time-only local screening), the year's most relevant accounting of mass-media ethics was writer-director-actor George Clooney's jazzy-cool docudrama about the efforts of journalist Edward R. Murrow to expose the Red-baiting tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy. No matter that the events it depicted took place 50 years ago, Good Night, and Good Luck was unmistakably a movie of the moment—a moment at which "democratically" elected officials continue to act despotically, civil liberties erode like so much seawall and, despite 500 channels to choose from, the invention known as television looks ever more like Murrow's prophecized box of wire and lights.

5.Land of the Dead.The line separating the living from the undead wasn't nearly as distinct as the one dividing society's haves from its have-nots in George Romero's sardonic, gleefully gory fourth installment of zombie mayhem. In one of the year's most indelible movie moments, zombie prisoners are turned into Abu Ghraib–style sideshow attractions by their human captors, but as Romero himself told me at the time: "I'm not sure if you showed this movie at the White House that anybody would get it, except when the money burns at the end." As a side note, I'd be remiss not to mention director Joe Dante and writer Sam Hamm's equally pleasurable Showtime movie, Homecoming, which tips its hat to Romero even as it takes his premise one step further—this time, the dead return not to eat, but to vote.

6.The World.Jia Zhangke's monumentally beautiful fourth feature film was his first to be approved by the Chinese government, even though it was also his bleakest status report yet from the front lines of mainland Chinese society. Set among the elaborate simulacra of an Epcot Center–like theme park where you can "see the world without ever leaving Beijing," The World finds the provincial youths who populated Jia's earlier films transplanted to the big city, desperate to spread their wings, yet almost Beckettian in their inertia. Ultimately, it is Jia himself who, without ever leaving Beijing, shows us an entire universe of human joy, frailty and sorrow.

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