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December 28, 2005-January 3, 2006

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Grizzly Man

Grimace and Bear It: Werner Herzog's uncuddly bears from 'Grizzly Man' expressed the rejectionist creed for the year just ending.

Grizzly Year

A rejectionist critic rewrites the history of cinema in 2005

By Richard von Busack

AS IS customary at this time of year, I present my list of the Top 10 movies of the year, in no special order. To qualify, the films had to play in their first run in Northern California during 2005.

TOP 10
My Summer of Love/Mysterious Skin
Nobody Knows
The Squid and the Whale
Notre Musique
The Constant Gardener
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
Me and You and Everyone We Know
Kung Fu Hustle
Grizzly Man

The Merchant of Venice
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill
Good Night, and Good Luck
Broken Flowers
Brokeback Mountain
King Kong
Forty Shades of Blue
The Joy of Life

TOP 10 IF IT HAD PLAYED BY DEC. 31: The New World


THE WORST: Elizabethtown

AND THEN, A MILE FARTHER DOWN THE ROAD: House of D; Hoodwinked; Happy Endings; Racing Stripes; Elektra

The Constant Gardener

Intercontinental Intrigue: 'The Constant Gardener,' with Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, redefined the political thriller in 2005, making 'Syriana' look merely like a good try.

Reject Button

"They challenge everything, including me. Goes with the territory. If I show weakness ... if I retreat, I may be hurt, I may be killed. I must hold my own. For once there is weakness, they will exploit it, they will take me out. They will decapitate me. They will chop me into bits and pieces. I'm dead. So far I persevere. Persevere."

These sentences could have been an interior monologue by any member of the Bush administration during 2005. And the ordinary paranoid streak, as normal in politicians as it is in showmen, was worsened by a year's worth of reversals of fortunes. There were hurricanes. There was scandal. And there was the opposition of international "rejectionists"—a word coined in Bush's can-do document "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq."

Likely the new word "rejectionist" owes its birth to the currency of the word "unacceptable."

"This is unacceptable," said the baby at his dish of pabulum. "I don't accept your figures," said the vice president to the reporter, when the reporter came up with a number of prisoners killed under torture. "Unacceptable" doesn't mean "I'll tell you what I might accept." It means "It is your task to find that right breakfast cereal, that proper number of dead tortured prisoners."

Still, "rejectionist" is an even slicker word. It implies that there is nothing at all that a rejectionist will accept. He is not just a "reject," a loser. No, he has embraced rejection in all things.

Even a nihilist must accept something. But a rejectionist must be a figure as absurd as Groucho Marx's Professor Quincy Wagstaff, singing, "Whatever it is, I'm against it." No matter what we offer, these rejectionists refuse it. It's not us, it's them.

One movie truly summed up 2005's political panic—how it turned all opponents of the president into rejectionists, simply by the flick of a neologism. And that movie is Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man.

The quote I put up above is the bear-mauled Timothy Treadwell's first statement to the camera. The rejectionist grizzlies devoured him, despite the love and friendship he offered: "I would die for you!"

Treadwell is fascinating in himself, as a man whose misplaced bravery is fatal. And he had the best intentions and genuine artistry as a nature photographer. But he misread the country, with fatal results. Grizzly Man is fascinating in itself, but it also perhaps offers some parallels in our current troubles.

Beginning a rejectionist Top 10, we reject the terminally cute March of the Penguins and put Herzog's thoughtful, tragic and sympathetic nature documentary in its place.

Here's another communiqué, this time not from Alaska but from the Midwest:

    Letter to the Editor:
    Whatever happened to common sense? I have a dog named Buffy and she is a girl dog. She goes out and she finds a boy dog and they fall in love and she has puppies. She knows she is a girl dog and he knows he is a boy dog. All anyone has to do is look down their pants to find out what God made them to be. If they can't figure that out, they have less sense than my dog Buffy! Is Homosexuality natural? Is it normal? Then it must be unnatural and abnormal. ... It is a mental choice that can be reversed so as to return to the normal and natural human being that God created them to be in the first place.
    Signed [name deleted]

Enlightened emails such as these explain why Brokeback Mountain was heralded as the film of the year. Viewers are afraid to confront the film's failings, because voicing them makes them feel they are giving comfort to the likes of Sen. Santorum. (That solon, who likened homosexuality to bestiality, might have planted the brilliantly reasoned dog metaphor in our correspondent's mind. The idea of dogs in heat falling in love is certainly something the emailer picked up at the movies.)

Brokeback Mountain, ultimately a three-star film, is supposedly a subject so hot-button that the Bible Belt can barely stand it. Or stand it without the tranquilizer of all that scenery, all that added running time, all the subplotting that insists a gay father can be a good father.

To a rejectionist, regionalism counts. We have a healthy audience for gay cinema in Northern California. My Summer of Love, about a disillusioning crush between two female teenagers, shows a more plausible way that the summer on Brokeback Mountain might have ended. Mysterious Skin begins where Brokeback Mountain ends. Moreover, it lets a gay man of the prairie sleep around without getting lynched (it happens).

Brokeback Mountain is a beautiful film, with Heath Ledger starring as one compelling Western hero. But the rejectionist remembers a line of dialogue from Craig Lucas' The Dying Gaul. That line that insists that Philadelphia wasn't a film about gay people—it was a film about people who hated them. Thus it was popular because it addressed popular discomfort. (If those gay cowboys don't suffer, what's the use of them?)

A film that transcends hatred and appeals to the part of an audience that could look at unknown territory without fear—now we're describing Me and You and Everyone We Know, Miranda July's compassionate—and happily pervy—independent film. If Good Night, and Good Luck's big line is "The fear is right here in this room," July's clear-eyed fearlessness deserves celebration.

Over Syriana, rejectionists choose Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room as a more coherent account of how a ring of energy industry rip-off artists works. Downfall—a viscerally exciting session with the Hitler gang—shows how power politics functions in haywire times. The Constant Gardener was the most impressive take on how to make a political thriller, an adventure that spins from continent to continent, and encompasses both Nigerian slums and London cathedrals.

Notre Musique was created by honorary Rejectionist Front member J.-L. Godard. Godard's contemplation of the ruins of Sarajevo and the lure of terrorism makes Tony Kushner's well-intentioned work in Munich seem all the more like a term paper.

Even the morality of turning death into spectacle is questioned by Godard: "The world is now split in two, between those who live on to voice their misery, and those for whom the public display provides a daily dose of moral comfort to their dominion."

Walk the Line? A lovely musical. If Reese Witherspoon and Amy Adams of Junebug win Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Oscars, it's time to change the award to Most Cute. The Squid and the Whale was more crafty and comic about power struggles in families. While Robert Patrick's Ray Cash was a fierce father, Jeff Daniels's old monster of a writer was more fearsome for being the more unprincipled. Nobody Knows was maybe the tenderest film of 2005. It deserves honor for its exquisite kid-wrangling, and for that acute sensitivity to seasons and landscapes unique to Japanese cinema, a sense honored, hopelessly, by the fake cherry blossoms in Memoirs of a Geisha. In mind of that sensitivity, where would a rejectionist place a film that was exactly its opposite, Kung Fu Hustle? File it under sacred cinema. The culture got a little God-drunk this year, what with Bee Season, Emily Rose and Aslan the Lion. Even a rejectionist must applaud the most impressive religious symbolism of the year: Stephen Chow's demonstration of the Buddha's Palm technique. Beats the Palme d'Or any day.

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