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The big screen: The best of 2005

by Steve Warren

Felicity Huffman is a best actress front runner as transsexual Bree in ‘Transamerica.’

Heath Ledger’s (top) main competition for best actor is Philip Seymour Hoffman (bottom) as the gay title character in ‘Capote.’
The end of 2005 brought two love stories that departed from the usual “boy meets girl” formula. There was no girl at all in the central romance of “Brokeback Mountain,” which the critics embraced. (It was named best picture of the year by critics’ groups in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston, with others likely to follow suit, and received seven Golden Globes nominations, more than any other film, with the Academy Awards likely to match that total). In the public favorite, “King Kong,” the “romance” centers around a girl and a 25-foot gorilla.

How Joe Sixpack will react to “Brokeback Mountain” when it goes into wide release — Focus Features is so far platforming it effectively — remains to be seen.

Twelve years ago “Philadelphia” raised the same questions as “Brokeback Mountain” regarding what the public is ready for. A movie about a gay man with AIDS seemed risky, but Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington added a certain degree of box office insurance. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal aren’t at the same level but they appeal to a younger, raised-on-MTV audience, many of whom don’t see being gay as a big deal. “Philadelphia” went on to gross over $77 million in the U.S. and win two Oscars of the five it was nominated for and two of three Golden Globes.

Any way you look at it, it’s going to be a queer awards season.

In addition to “Brokeback’s” chances in the picture, director, adapted screenplay, supporting actress, cinematography and original song categories, Heath Ledger’s main competition for best actor is Philip Seymour Hoffman as the gay title character in “Capote.” Dark horses in that category include Cillian Murphy’s cross-dressing hero in “Breakfast on Pluto” and Pierce Brosnan’s possible bisexual in “The Matador.” The best actress front-runner is Felicity Huffman as transsexual Bree in “Transamerica.” Quite possibly all these films could turn up in other categories as well.

“The Producers,” a long shot in several categories, is a buddy movie about two straight guys (one of them played by gay Nathan Lane) who love each other. Gary Beach and Roger Bart play very gay supporting characters.

Gay directors weighed in this year. Rob Marshall (“Chicago”) had “Memoirs of a Geisha,” a high-camp melodrama with Gong Li in an over-the-top performance that’s earned some Oscar buzz. Thomas Bezucha (“Big Eden”) made “The Family Stone,” which featured a sympathetic, interracial gay couple (Ty Giordano, Brian White) at the family gathering. Don Roos (“The Opposite of Sex”) mixed gay and straight characters and plots into “Happy Endings,” a good film that deserved a wider audience. The less said about Gus Van Sant’s “Last Days” the better.

While it was still common to get cheap laughs in comedies (“The Producers,” “Cheaper by the Dozen 2”) with scenes where straight men are found in what appear to be compromising positions, it was more common to find characters who happen to be gay or lesbian integrated into the fabric of the story (“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “The Upside of Anger”), just as we are in real life. Bisexuality was downplayed but not ignored in “Domino.”

In the queer film arena noble efforts from several filmmakers who may have a future made it beyond the festival circuit to some arthouses, but two comebacks were the big story. Nicole Conn (“Claire of the Moon”) turned from lesbian fiction to lesbian reality to film a crisis in her own family and made the year’s best documentary, “little man.” Gregg Araki (“The Living End”) grew up and, without abandoning his punk aesthetic, adapted someone else’s novel into a better film than any of his original scripts (and some of them were quite good), in “Mysterious Skin.”

Here’s my personal pick of the best of 2005, with “best” often meaning the films that moved me the most rather than the ones with the highest degree of technical excellence.

Top 10:
• “Crash” — Frightening and funny variations on a theme of racism in L.A. today, performed by a brilliant ensemble cast. If you think you’re not racist it may prove you wrong.

• “The Squid and the Whale” — Noah Baumbach’s tale of divorcing parents (Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney) and the impact on their sons is too detailed and deeply felt not to be autobiographical.

• “little man” — I wouldn’t cross the street to see a movie about a baby born 100 days prematurely, but Nicole Conn’s documentary about her son’s fight for life tore me up. Catch it on Showtime in April.

• “Good Night, and Good Luck” — Is it really about the McCarthy witch hunt of the early ’50s or the Patriot Act today? Nostalgia or activism, it’s good filmmaking.

• “Brokeback Mountain” — The year’s best romance happens to be between two cowboys. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, especially the way Ang Lee tells it.

• “Me and You and Everyone We Know” — Miranda July changed the way I look at performance artists with her genuine original about kids’ first thoughts of sex and adults’ search for love or whatever.

• “King Kong” — It’s too long in spots and the interspecies love story is overdone, but at its frequent best Peter Jackson’s remake is as good as a popcorn movie gets.

• “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” —Despite Johnny Depp’s scary resemblance to Michael Jackson, the Tim Burton version of “Willy Wonka” is a family classic for the ages.

• “Mysterious Skin” — “Mystic River” meets “Donnie Darko” and Gregg Araki matures with his adaptation of a novel about the long-term effects of molestation on two boys.

• “Lord of War” — Andrew Niccol’s jaundiced look at arms trafficking follows Ukranian immigrant Nicolas Cage for 20 darkly comic years. It disappeared from theaters so fast I thought I’d dreamed it, but catch it on video.

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