“Have you seen Brokeback Mountain?” That’s the question I hear most as 2005 rockets toward its finale, and my answer’s at the ready. Yes, I’ve seen Ang Lee’s gay-cowboy love story (which opens in the Triangle in January). And I liked it enough to include it among the honorable mentions you’ll see below, but not enough for my 10-best list. That response surprises some of my friends in North Carolina, and I know why.

When I saw Brokeback at a pre-release press screening a few weeks ago, it was merely a movie. Since then it has become something that every maker and marketer of movies craves: a phenomenon. A must-see juggernaut that opens to around-the-block lines thanks to pandemic word-of-mouth buzz that’s blanketed the nation like a sudden snowstorm.

Why all the fuss? Naturally, a certain amount of prurient curiosity can’t be discounted; ever since Thomas Edison marketed “The Rice-Irwin Kiss” way back in 1896, it’s been an industry truism that sex sells. But a greater reason for this movie’s bounteous box-office, it seems to me, is that it’s what pundits call “zeitgeisty.” In spades.

That is, although it never mentions the issue directly, Lee’s big-sky romance can be read as a forthright advertisement for gay marriage. And in that, of course, it could hardly be more timely. The day I write this, pop star Elton John is beaming from the world’s front pages for having tied the knot with his longtime boyfriend in England, where gay unions have just become legal.

Such hot-button topicality and the enthusiasm Brokeback has generated leads some people to assume that a critic’s reaction must inevitably be of the loved-it or hated-it variety. My own positive-but-qualified response isn’t hard to explain, though. It reflects not only certain reservations about the film’s script (which I hope to discuss in an upcoming review), but also the long-held belief that while art is what endures, movies tied so closely to ephemeral issues tend to have short shelf lives.

In other words, my money’s on the likelihood that 20 years or so hence–long after gay marriage is legal everywhere, I would hope–people will be a bit baffled that Lee’s film won Best Picture in virtually every available 2005 venue, including critics’ forums.

Yet that’s not to suggest that cinema’s highest artistic achievements are airily removed from the flux and controversy of contemporary life. On the contrary, the films that impressed me most this year were, in one way or another, plugged directly into the zeitgeist. Yet unlike Brokeback, a classic love story that invites a simple response (love it or hate it), these films all valued complexity, even at the risk of discomfiting some viewers.

Munich, the film that heads my list, exemplifies this willingness to challenge. Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner’s plunge into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is easily one of the most daring (and brilliantly crafted) political films ever to issue from Hollywood. It is not a movie that offers easy solutions or hews to a popular party line, however, which is why it will elicit more denunciations than bouquets.

Complexity of various sorts–emotional, cultural, intellectual, political–likewise marks the terrain surveyed by other films on my list: the wilds of Alaska in Grizzly Man, the Palestinian territories in Paradise Now, the highlands of Iraqi Kurdistan in Turtles Can Fly, Muslim-inhabited Germany and Europeanized Turkey in Head-On and Hong Kong, both actual and imaginary, in 2046 and Kung Fu Hustle.

Coincidentally or not, the three American independent titles on my list–Junebug, Palindromes and Loggerheads–offered imaginary bridges between red-state and blue-state America, and critics noted that all three contained sympathetic portrayals of heartland Christians, the sort of folks too often disdained or caricatured by indie directors. That kind of complexity was a thus a sure bet to challenge the customary mindset of art-house audiences.

Two of the films just noted, Phil Morrison’s Junebug and Tim Kirkman’s Loggerheads, were first fictional features by young North Carolina-born directors, a fact much noted at January’s Sundance Film Festival, where both debuted. Seeing these movies’ rich, subtle, and, yes, complex views of North Carolina reach the nation’s and the world’s screens was for me one of the great pleasures of the past year, and it leaves me hoping that the films of 2006 will have some of the vitality and intelligence of these low-budget Tar Heel productions.

The list
(Steven Spielberg, U.S.A.)
Following a team of Israeli assassins hunting down Palestinian militants in retaliation for the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Spielberg’s collaboration with playwright Tony Kushner yields a riveting thriller that also warns of the cost of tit-for-tat vengeance. In looking for commonalities instead of pushing a partisan agenda, this daringly unorthodox take on a bitter political struggle is a rarity in Hollywood history: a film of genuine moral courage.

(Phil Morrison, U.S.A.)
The year’s top American indie film also happened to be a landmark North Carolina art film. Scripted by Winston-Salem playwright Angus MacLachlan, Phil Morrison’s impressive debut, the wryly comic tale of two cosmopolitan newlyweds visiting his family down in sleepy Pfafftown, N.C., has it all: hymns, church suppers plus real insight, an astonishing lack of condescension and a brilliant ensemble. Actress Amy Adams is the cast’s prize-winning stand-out.

Grizzly Man
(Werner Herzog, U.S.A.)
In a year that saw him release two other notable documentaries (The White Diamond and Wheel of Time), the brilliant Herzog claimed the nonfiction prize with this brooding assemblage of footage left behind by Timothy Treadwell, a wacky Californian who spent years filming grizzly bears till one finally ate him. What may sound like a postmodern stunt is actually a moving, endlessly fascinating, profoundly Herzogian meditation on the perennial face-off of man and nature.

Paradise Now
(Hany Abu-Assad, France, Germany, Netherlands, Israel)
Two young Palestinian suicide bombers shave their beards, dress up like Israeli wedding guests and head off on their deadly mission. Who would guess that such a tricky, loaded subject could be best handled by a shrewd application of entertainment smarts, yet in adopting a razor-sharp Hitchcockian approach, Palestinian director Abu-Assad manages to rivet viewers while underscoring the human realities behind the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. A breakthrough.

(Todd Solondz, U.S.A.)
In what’s best described as a fairytale for brainy adults, the nervy Solondz follows Aviva, a New Jersey Jewish girl whose liberal parents force an abortion on her, as she ventures into the American heartland and the bosom of a Christian family whose genuine sweetness and light barely conceal a deadly dark side. Though it spares few targets, this masterful satire challenges the pat assumptions of art-house viewers by proving disarmingly sympathetic to the Christian right.

(Fatih Akin, Germany-Turkey)
An dissolute aging punk rocker and a girl prone to suicide attempts, both of Turkish descent, meet in a German mental hospital and begin a love affair that’s at first a deliberate farce and then something far more volatile and revealing. Contemplating the lives of immigrants torn between a Muslim past and a European present, debuting director Akin creates an extraordinarily timely and vivid drama with a ferocity that evokes artists like R.W. Fassbinder and Charles Bukowski.

Kung Fu Hustle
(Stephen Chow, China)
Hong Kong cinema, which is known in the West mainly through studied imitations like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, finally got a real U.S. display via this riotous kung fu comedy, which, besides a full complement of wonderful cartoonish mayhem, had a budget large enough to accommodate a blazing F/X extravaganza. The year’s most visually inventive and purely delightful film, it confirmed writer-director-performer Chow as a world-class moviemaking talent.

Turtles Can Fly
(Bahman Ghobadi, Iran-Iraq)
Venturing deep into northern Iraq for his third feature, Iranian Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi gives a mesmerizing peek into a war-torn culture with this inventive account of several youngsters (many maimed or crippled) torn between despair and hope after the dissolution of Saddam Hussein’s regime. While grittily realistic, it’s also the most subtly poetic of Ghobadi’s films, casting a spell that lasts long after its evocation of current news reports fades.

(Tim Kirkman, U.S.A.)
Exploring the invisible bonds that connect a birth mother, an adoptive mother and the child they share, writer-director Kirkman finds a compelling geographic correlative in North Carolina’s division into coast, piedmont and mountains. Shot in all three regions, this confident, engrossing, classically poised drama features a range of topnotch performances from a cast that includes Kip Pardue, Bonnie Hunt, Tess Harper and Chris Sarandon. A sharp look at un-clichéd Tar Heels.

(Wong Kar Wai, China)
This sequel/companion piece to In the Mood for Love, the director’s 2000 masterpiece, furthers Wong’s reputation as an idiosyncratically brilliant (if often erratic) innovator, Hong Kong’s pre-eminent art film auteur. Suffused with romantic melancholy, the dreamy melodrama evokes Chinese political realities by time-shifting between a chaotic past and an ominous future, and features terrific work by actors Tony Leung, Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi. A haunting reverie of Asia’s uncertainty.

a short list of honorable mentions

Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow , Woody Allen’s Match Point, Wes Craven’s Red Eye, Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen, Ira Sachs’ Forty Shades of Blue, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Café Lumiere, Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s Gunner Palace, Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha, Iain Softley’s The Skeleton Key, Adam Curtis’ The Century of the Self, Prachya Pinkaew’s Ong-Bak>I, Claire Denis’ The Intruder, Michael Haneke’s Hidden, Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin, Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, Sidney Pollack’s The Interpreter, Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers.