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.

7.Munich.The attacks of September 11, 2001, seem to have reinvigorated the artistry of Steven Spielberg in a way nobody could have imagined. First came The Terminal, a fanciful and heartfelt slapstick paean to a time when airports were still pleasant places to visit. Then there was this summer's War of the Worlds, in which our 21st-century fears of invasion became an ingenious springboard to an entire chronology of 20th-century genocides and other atrocities. And now there is Munich, a masterpiece both as breathless espionage thriller and deep moral inquiry—at least up to that grotesque moment in the third act when Spielberg intercuts his restaging of the titular massacre with an entirely unnecessary slow-mo sex scene between Eric Bana's vengeance-minded Mossad agent and his long-absent wife. The movie needn't strain for such an operatic climax, because it's already so unshakably powerful. Detractors have accused Spielberg of equating Palestinian terrorists with Israeli "counter-terrorists," but what he really does, in his most emotionally mature film to date, is refuse to condone, condemn or make even remotely heroic the actions of two peoples hellbent on mutual extinction.

8.Tropical Malady."When I gave you my Clash tape, I forgot to give you my heart," says city-boy soldier (and possible panthera) Keng to country-boy farmer Tong, before adding, "You can have it today." And so begins this beguiling, rapturous fairy tale from Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul in which a forbidden passion signals a retreat into a serenely primal realm where the separations between genders and species fall away like water cascading off a leaf.

9.Duma.Another tale of animal love—albeit of a more platonic variety—was Carroll Ballard's sweeping, African-set adventure story about a young boy and his cheetah traversing treacherous deserts and contending with duplicitous fellow travelers en route to some place called home. In their ecstatic landscapes and deep respect for the natural world, Ballard's films create the same sort of ethereal effect Terrence Malick strives to achieve in his work. But unlike The New World, Dumaalso tells a richly compelling story that engages the intelligence and imagination of the young and the merely young at heart.

10.The Squid and the Whale.Not another tale of animal love, title notwithstanding, but rather a portrait of a family whose myriad dysfunctions nearly make Kings and Queenseem a study in well-adjustment. Writer-director Noah Baumbach's wry and beautifully observed account of two brothers coming of age as their parents' marriage crumbles around them possessed the deftest tonal shifts of any movie this side of A History of Violence. Uproarious one moment, bitterly cruel the next, The Squid and the Whale is fundamentally compassionate in a way that makes us care profoundly about characters we should have no business liking.

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