I've seen a lot of sublimely satisfying documentaries this year, but none with the scope and passion of Murderball. Like last year's brilliant Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, the film's title and ostensible subject matter - quadriplegic rugby - are probably enough to frighten off the audiences who would love it the most, which I pray won't happen; Murderball, currently playing at the Brew & View Rocket, is, thus far, the most invigorating, fascinating, surprising, and deeply human movie of 2005.
We get to enjoy Murderball as a thrillingly good sports flick, with the rivalry between the U.S. and Canadian teams palpable, and the outcome of every match determined in the games' final seconds. We witness a series of ironies and surprises that have become all too rare in traditional narratives; when one of the film's figures suffers a heart attack, the moment hits you like a shock of cold water. The insights we glean are profoundly affecting. And throughout it all, the players' acceptance of their disabilities is revelatory for its lack of sentiment - "We're not going for a hug," one says, "we're going for a f---in' gold medal." The film is unflinchingly honest, even when sentimentality looms; a reunion between badass Mark Zupan and best friend Christopher Igoe, whose actions accidentally caused Zupan's quadriplegia, is shatteringly emotional without feeling the least bit saccharine.
Directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro have served their participants, and their hard-won dignity, extraordinarily well; Murderball is intensely moving not because of, but despite, being about quadriplegics. I'd continue, but that would leave me with nothing to write about when the film pops up in my eventual "best of 2005" article; if Murderball isn't the most exhilarating movie of the year, I'm dying to know what will be.
And seven others:
THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE
Generally, when filmmakers take their "religious" horror movies too seriously, they court embarrassment. (See - or don't - Stigmata, Lost Souls, End of Days, etc.) Thankfully, director Scott Derrickson treats the horror here with just enough gravity to give you the willies without making you chuckle, and he gets a lot of mileage out of silence and odd, creepy visuals; the low-rent effects work to the film's advantage. As a think piece - "Was poor Emily possessed or not?" - it's barely worth discussing, yet it's a good horror movie and an even better courtroom drama, with a slew of marvelous actors: Tom Wilkinson, Campbell Scott, Mary Beth Hurt, Henry Czerny, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Kenneth Welsh. As our heroic lawyer, Laura Linney is great fun, but you wish she had better dialogue; I don't recall her character's name, but if she were listed in the credits as Exposition Bear, I wouldn't be surprised.
JANE GOODALL'S WILD CHIMPANZEES
IMAX goes ape. Goodall is a delightful, witty tour guide, the chimps are spectacularly enjoyable camera subjects, and some of the movie has a ravishing beauty, like an honest-to-God, live-action Lion King. (It's a fantastic movie for kids.) As an examination of nature, the movie is inspired, though you wish the filmmakers had spent as much time with Goodall herself; you wind up having more questions about her at the finale than you had before you saw the movie. It inspires you to want to seek out more biographical material on Jane Goodall pronto, which, come to think of it, is probably the film's intention. Mission well accomplished.
LORD OF WAR
During the opening credits, the camera follows the first-person trajectory of a bullet, beginning with its inclusion in an arms package and following it through its final, accidental destination - into the head of a little boy. It's as astounding sequence - Fincher with a punchline - and you don't know how writer/director Andrew Niccol will top it. He doesn't. The movie follows arms dealer Nicolas Cage through a series of immoral sales and close calls, and it's too clever by half; Niccol keeps going for the ironic, dark-comic tone of David O. Russell's Three Kings and never quite gets there. By movie's end, you realize you've essentially been watching the same sequence repeatedly in a two-hour loop, which is reinforced by Cage and Jared Leto, playing his brother, not appearing to age a day over the course of the movie's 20 years. The audience, meanwhile, leaves the theatre feeling lots older.
AN UNFINISHED LIFE
Competently produced, but devoid of anything loose or spontaneous; the audience could deliver the dialogue - verbatim - about three beats before actors Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez, and Morgan Freeman do. Lasse Hallstrom's reconciliation drama on the range is designed so that it couldn't possibly offend anyone, except those of us craving something more than a pretty but pretty lifeless amalgam of Unforgiven, On Golden Pond, and Enough.
THE CONSTANT GARDENER
For someone who has always found the words "a thriller" and "by John le Carré" oxymoronic, this tale of a diplomat (Ralph Fiennes) investigating the murder of his wife (Rachel Weisz) - all the while dealing with the horrors of a plague-infested Africa - is passable enough. Fernando Meirelles' City of God follow-up is well-intentioned, gorgeously photographed, important, and sad. It's also dull as hell, with predictable character reversals, half-hearted bursts of "action" - the movie's big chase scene ends with a handshake! - and a series of decaying British character actors darting their eyes and sounding vaguely untrustworthy. After two-plus hours of "classy" direction and acting and subject matter, I wanted nothing more than to escape into a cheesy, piece-of-crap Hollywood horror flick.
Or maybe not. More teens in peril, as they try to determine which of their prep-school clique might be a serial killer. The movie isn't very thrilling - there are about a half-dozen of those "Just kidding!" scares that routinely piss off audiences - and it's almost unbelievably convoluted, yet director Jeff Wadlow comes through with enough visual cleverness to hold your interest. (A library sequence, with the fluorescent lights turning on and off as our leads - and the potential killer - pass, is a nice, original cat-and-mouse segment.) And leading actress Lindy Booth is a real find. Resembling Julianne Moore crossed with Judy Greer, Booth is both delicate and mysterious - the femme fatale as yearbook editor.
For those who love Waiting for Guffman nearly as much as I do - surely no one loves it more than I do - the first five minutes are promising, as Eugene Levy borrows the rhythms he employed as Guffman's dentist Dr. Allan Pearl to play ... a dental-supply rep. But in short order, the movie becomes Analyze This without the therapy. Or the supporting cast. Or the laughs. A good bit: Levy attempting to get grouchy (and coasting) cop Samuel L. Jackson to stop swearing by demonstrating how the F word can be easily morphed into "Fu ... cryin' out loud." Another good bit ... nope, that's the only one.