Register Tuesday | June 18 | 2019

The Best Movies of 1905

Putting the year’s “best of” lists in perspective

It's time again for what has become an annoying annual tradition among movie critics, the year-end roundup. The annual "best movies" list is one of those hollowed-out holiday rituals, expected to be both comprehensive and discriminating-although expected by whom remains uncertain-in which critical rigor is replaced by subjective ranking; the results of which are presumably fought over for a while before being forgotten. Generally speaking, year-end lists are either predictable and boring, or random and dumb.

So, what the hell-why not use this space to consider not only the films of 2005 but also, for context, those of a century earlier? In 1905, with the medium barely a decade old, movies had already begun tackling the themes that have sustained them ever since. The catalogue from that year contains some wonderful, telling titles, many of which declare perennial movie-plot mandates: to wit, The Two Imps, An Eccentric Burglary, Police Chasing Scorching Auto, and-a favorite-Airy Fairy Lillian Tries On Her New Corsets. Auspicious beginnings to be sure, and it is with that wacky, attentive verve that movies, over the past hundred years, have charted the course of civilization.

Knowing as much helps keep things in perspective. For instance, maybe you don't believe that Guess Who, an innocuous romantic comedy of race relations, registered strongly among this year's masterworks (it didn't)-but it does register rather strongly next to 1905's The Wooing and Wedding of a Coon, also a self-described comedy, and one that's just as insouciantly and sickeningly hateful as it sounds. Similarly, some enlightenment must be evinced by the progress that has carried us from The Servant Girl Problem to Memoirs of a Geisha, films with differences in perspective that should be clear from their titles alone. If you shudder to imagine the repression women endured in those early dark days, however, take heart from the courage displayed by The Lady Barber who paved the way toward a world that would one day be safe for Beauty Shop.

Actually, if the scripture of the cinema is to be believed, 1905 was a rough year for everybody. Who could feel safe, even in the theatre, with The Counterfeiters, The Abductors, The Moonshiners, The Gay Deceivers, The Raiders, The Fake Blind Man and The Kelptomaniac on the loose? Nowadays, by contrast, we should count our blessings-notwithstanding a few tawdry Aristocrats and vengeful Sith at large, harmless troublemakers like The Pacifier and The Constant Gardener seem entirely manageable. In home settings, things seem to have improved, as well. This year's The Thing About My Folks implies some temperance in matters of family dynamics, a deeper compassion than might be construed from, say, Everybody Works but Father-a title which, one must admit, carries a rather judgmental ring.

Matters of the heart were always of primary importance then, as they are today-but what we may have learned about these things from the movies is anyone's guess. Would you rather be A Jilted Suitoror The 40-Year-Old Virgin? Would you rather marry The Miller's Daughter or a Corpse Bride (or would it depend on the dowry?). In 1905's Through the Matrimonial Agency, a bureaucratic functionary mitigates mayhem on some sort of nuptial assembly line; in 2005's Hitch, an independent courtship consultant suffers from an ironic inadequacy to woo his own object of desire. Good Reason for a Divorce presents us with a housewife who, with help from a detective, discovers why her husband seems overeager to get to work; Mr. & Mrs. Smithoffers up a husband and wife who discover a mutual problem with their work/life balance-namely that they're both assassins. The lads in The Train Wreckers nearly thwart the romance between a railroad engineer and a switchman's daughter; while the lads in Wedding Crashers infuse modern matrimony with boyish mischief. A Sweet Kiss exhibits innocence and guileless affection; Kiss Kiss, Bang Bangexudes menace and blunt innuendo.

The films between then and now have tracked the uneasy relations not just between ourselves, but between human and animal. On the grandest scale, the archetypes remain: King Kong now, Beauty and the Beast then. Grizzly Man now, Hunting In Newfoundland then. Meanwhile, the lower planes of storytelling have shown significant development. Whereas Fun on the Farmis mere rural idealism, with frustrated human romance thrown in amongst some stolen chickens and truculent cows; Madagascar allows exotic, English-speaking animated animals out of the Central Park Zoo for an excursion into the wilds of Africa. And whatever domestic tensions may have been palpable in 1905's The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog, they have apparently been resolved by 2005's Must Love Dogs.

It goes without saying that not all is hunky-dory nowadays. Steven Spielberg's 2005 edition of War of the Worlds is all about otherworldly aggression-in comparison, Alf Collins' 1905 film The Alien Question seems outwardly diplomatic. Different sorts of aliens, sure, but what's congruent is the inherent allegory and the sense of threat. Indeed, it's been a traumatic century, but all told, have we not come through it pretty well? Have we not transcended A Ballroom Tragedy to finally arrive at Mad Hot Ballroom?

We can say one thing for sure: in this urgent, accelerated, image-conscious age, titular verbosity has at the very least given way to economy. 1905 was the year of Sins and Sorrows of a Great City; 2005 was the year of Sin City. You can see, of course, that the essential stuff remains. As someone once said in a movie, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Jonathan Kiefer is Maisonneuve's film flaneur. Read more columns by Jonathan Kiefer.