(1) I have not been a member of Canadian director David Cronenberg cult, but was very impressed by “A History of Violence” with Viggo Mortensen heading an ensemble cast that seemed to me all to perform compellingly (unlike the mixture of hit and miss performance-or characters-in “Crash”). There is hardly anything that is dispensable or false in the movie (one of the few of the best 2005 films that does not run on too long). (The violence is very graphic, not all the cartoonish kind of, say, John Woo.) (And Cronenberg’s regular cinematographer, Peter Suschitzky, does more fine work herein and in the following year’s “Eastern Promises” with another outstanding performance by Mortensen.)
(2) Not everyone appreciated Zhang Yimou’s “Shi mian mai fu” (The House of Flying Daggers, 2004) as much as I did. Too bad! I think that it is an astonishing piece of cinema and that the cinematography by is as gorgeous as it gets. Kaneshiro Takeshi can give Gael García-Bernal a run for my money as an international male heart-throb (costar Andy Lau used to be one) and Zhang Ziyi’s blind tavern-entertainer playing of “the echo game” in the Peony Pavilion is sublime. I love when the fleeing lovers are caged running through the forest (and having watched the end more than a dozen times, still have am not sure whether zero, one, or two of the leads is alive at the end, though my best guess is one). (I liked “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”  a lot, too, but Ang Lee has a movie on my list below [Brokeback Mountain]).
(3) “Cidade de Deus” (City of God, directed by Kátia Lund and Fernando Meirelles) is as violent as a John Woo movie, but with frighteningly young armed and dangerous gangsters in the title slum on a hill above Rio de Janeiro (the only way in which it is closer to heaven; Augustine’s civitas dei it decidedly is not!). Its narrator want to lose his virginity, but the poster/DVD box cover suggests that there is more romance than there in fact is. The violence is less operatic (grittier, more realistic) than in John Woo movies, and most of the characters are scary. They are doomed, but devoid of the courtliness and style of gangsters in many a Hong Kong and Hollywood movie. (Benny, played by Phelipe Haagensen with dyed hair seems a cool dude and is positively genial in contrast to his lifelong friend, the raving homicidal maniac Li’l Dice/Lil Zé (Douglas Silva then Leandro Firmino da Hora). What is stylish about the movie is the daringly digressive (serpentine?) narrative structure. Budding photographer Rocket (Luis Otávio then Alexandre Rodrigues) tells it, with frequent backtracking, but without losing the thread or confusing the viewer. César Charlone’s hand-held camera work was brilliantly edited by Daniel Rezende.
(4) Guillermo del Toro’s “El Laberinto del fauno” (Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006) has great visuals, great imagination, and great performances, particularly that of the luminous young bookworm Ofelia played by Ivana Baquero and the sadistic fascist captain who is Ofelia’s evil stepfather, played by Sergi Lopez. Del Toro surpassed his horror movie also set in Francoist Spain “The Devil’s Backbone” (2001).
(5) “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) directed by Ang Lee, based on the perfect short story by Annie Proulx, expanded by Diana Osanna and Larry McMurtry was so much better and more memorable than “Crash,” which received the best picture Oscar. Heath Ledger also should have won (and his posthumous supporting actor award gone to Philip Seymour Hoffman for “Dobut,” completing a switch. Not to forget the outstanding performances in “Brokeback” by Jake Gylenhall, Michelle Williams, and Anne Hathaway, or Rodrigo Prieto’s superb cinematography.
(6) I found the first 20 minutes of “Moulin Rouge” (directed by Baz Luhrman, 2001) almost unbearable and can well understand that the incessant cutting (and/or John Leguizamo’s Toulouse Lautreac) turned off some viewers, but I thought “Moulin Rouge” was intensely cinematic (in the Eisenstein tradition, not the Renoir one), technically brilliant, and surprisingly touching (especially in that this required Ewan MacGregor to play innocence). It also had the best song of the year (not only in being a rousing song but in being absolutely central to the movie), which, of course, was overlooked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (as was Luhrman) even for nominations. It is also an auspicious choice for a list of movies from a year in which so many of the films loved by some were loathed by others. There is not even a consensus on whether Nicole Kidman was inadequate or superb as Satine. (I lean to superb, which Jim Broadbent certainly was.)
(7) “The Pledge” (200)directed by Sean Penn from a novel by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, has a genuinely great performance from Jack Nicholson. He has played characters who disintegrate on screen before, but here collapses on the inside without mugging. He plays a police detective who promises parents of a young girl who was murdered that he will to catch the killer. He puts everything he cares about at risk to do so and loses his dubious gamble. Robin Penn Wright and the rest of the cast are superb, as is the photography in what one may hope will be the first of Sean Penn’s great films. (I won’t go into the irony of Sean Penn being nominated for an Oscar that a performance he directed should have received. Penn himself was superb as Harvey Milk (in “Milk”), and also directed the outstanding performance of his “Milk” costar, Emile Hirsch in the 2007 “Into the Wild.”)
(8) John Patrick Shanley’s 2008 screen adaptation of his mesmerizing play “Doubt” had three great female performances from Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, and Amy Adams plus one from Philip Seymour Hoffman. I thought Shanley opened up the drama of mistrust in a Catholic school very well and left audiences debating what Hoffman’s priest “really” did or didn’t do.
(9) Painter-turned-director Julian Schnabel imaginatively adapted a homoerotic literary classic, Reinaldo Arenas’s searing memoirBefore Night Falls. Although mostly desexualized (and there was a lot to de-!), the 2000 film is a remarkably successful representation of a writer who had to write and of the repression by the Castro regime. Arenas’s frustrations in a society where writers don’t matter (the USA) are not as visible. The film is visually and verbally rich and outstandingly acted. Schnabel’s earlier “Basquiat” (1996) with Jeffrey Wright in the title role was very interesting and Schnabel helmsed “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (2007) with an outstanding performance by Mathieu Amalric.
(10) Some would say that there was little except striking images in “Beau travail.” I’m not sure that familiarity with “Billy Budd” was more of a help than a hindrance to watching Claire Denis’s adaptation to French Foreign Legionnaires on the Gulf of Aden, but her film developed at least one character. Although Grégoire Colin is considerably more photogenic than Denis Levant, the image burned deepest into my brain is the bizarre last scene with the ex-sergeant boogying madly. More than a few viewers were perplexed, I know, but the visuals were stunning!
I don’t think that anything can be concluded about the state of cinema from my list. I think my picks are outstanding cinema, but not a basis for generalizations about movies. That my tastes tend to the melancholy, I already knew and I often find popular comedies unfunny, while finding mordant humor in non-comedies. There are definitely romances in the movies I chose, though death rather than love conquers all in them.