'Munich' | NBR; 'Geisha' Gala

Spielberg's 'Munich' Is Best Movie of 2005

I don't know which is more amazing: that Steven Spielberg managed to make the best movie of the year in just four months, or that it's his second huge film of 2005.

Either way, "Munich" is a poignant political masterpiece that will no doubt be very controversial.

It's the best movie of 2005, coming in at the last minute to best other terrific entries, including "Walk the Line," "Match Point," "Capote," "Mrs. Henderson Presents," "Good Night, and Good Luck," "A History of Violence" and even "Memoirs of a Geisha."

"Munich" is "inspired by real events," those being the 1972 murders of the Israeli wrestling team in Munich during the Olympics and the fallout that followed.

The filmmaker says "inspired by" and I will take him at his word. There is not going to be an anti-"Munich" campaign in which factual details are matched up to the movie's sequences. This is not "A Beautiful Massacre."

It's certainly mind-blowing, in many ways, that Spielberg made this movie at all.

He released his popcorn movie of the year, "War of the Worlds," in June. He didn't start work on "Munich" until July 15.

The final scene was shot, I believe, around Sept. 22 in New York, with Geoffrey Rush and Eric Bana. That's not much turnaround time.

And yet, as far as I can tell, there are no huge mistakes in "Munich." Even the music is from 1972 — Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" and Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" are from that year. The movie's look, from the sets, props, costumes and hairstyles to Janusz Kaminski's tinted cinematography, is also vintage.

Spielberg, in fact, seems like he's taken a page out of Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney's playbook. He's outdone "Traffic" and "Syriana" at the same time.

If it weren't based on a historic tragedy, you would say that "Munich" was a better version of the "Mission: Impossible" movies. It's hard to put the facts aside, but if you do, "Munich" is very good entertainment.

Bana — who certainly should be nominated for Best Actor — is the convincing and heroic lead. He plays Avner, a Mossad officer chosen by Israeli intelligence to lead an elite squad of agents whose mission is to kill the Palestinian terrorists who murdered the Olympic team.

Bana is enlisted by Geoffrey Rush, and then picks a team played by Daniel Craig (the new James Bond, in a surprisingly small role), Ciarah Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz and Hanns Zischler.

They are all very good, especially Hinds, but there are two standout performances by Mathieu Amalric and Michael Lonsdale as a French son and father at the center of international intrigue. I don't know if either of them are on screen enough, but they might each qualify for supporting-actor nods.

Bana, whose credits include the praised "Chopper" and the reviled "Troy," not to mention a stint as Ang Lee's "Hulk," vaults to stardom in "Munich," whether he likes it or not.

In a complicated movie full of disarming violence and philosophical questions about retribution, Bana's Avner is a guiding light. He is Spielberg's most clearly drawn adult male hero since Indiana Jones — and that includes "E.T."'s Elliott, Oskar Schindler and Bruce, the shark from "Jaws."

In many ways, I felt like Spielberg had been working his way up to Avner in his last few central characters: Tom Hanks in "The Terminal," Leonardo DiCaprio in "Catch Me If You Can" and Tom Cruise in "War of the Worlds."

There will be plenty of debate over whether Spielberg favored the Israelis or demonized the Palestinians in this movie. But the terrific screenplay by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth goes a long way to solve these problems.

The Israelis are shown as conflicted by their task; the Palestinians are made multi-dimensional through their own explanation of what went on. Spielberg doesn't attempt to address the entire Middle East conflict, just to deal with this moment in 1972.

And there are the trademark Spielbergian touches, too: Avner often stares longingly into a kitchen store window, where all the appliances are pristine and life is perfect. It's where he meets Louis (Amalric) to get information, but you know the whole time he's thinking of his beautiful wife and newborn baby.

The 1972 kitchens — avocado-colored dishwashers, etc — make the perfect antidote to the bloody killing going on all around him.

"Munich" is for real. It joins "Schindler's List," "Saving Private Ryan," "Amistad" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" on Spielberg's "serious" film list.

The 2005 Oscars are all his for the taking.

National Board Postpones; Geisha's Gala

Good news: The crazy ol' National Board of Review did not vote last night for its annual award winners.

Eileen Newman, the group's new staff president, says that because of this column's revelations in the last couple of days that names had been omitted from the eligibility ballot, the voting has been postponed until tonight.

A new ballot has gone out with all the names, Newman told me at the New Line Cinema holiday party last night. The announcement of the winners will be on Monday, right on time to cause havoc for the Golden Globes.

Meanwhile, the NBR has chosen Jane Fonda and Oscar-winning composer Howard Shore for its annual lifetime achievement awards.

Newman, by the way, swears she's going to clean up the NBR and make it respectable. Her first job: Get rid of the dilettantes. ...

Rob Marshall's fine "Memoirs of a Geisha" premiered last night, and Sony Pictures pulled out all the stops. It turned the Central Park Boathouse into a beautifully drawn Japanese palace.

After Monday's "King Kong" party featuring different themed areas reflecting old New York (Club El Morocco with a band, burlesque and magic acts; Chinese, Italian and working-class cuisine), we're having quite an end to the fall movie season.

I was happy to see my mentor and old friend, the wonderful Liz Smith, looking lovely and accompanied by "Chicago" producer Marty Richards and their pal Anne Slater.

I'm told that in the battle of geishas vs. gay cowboys, the former won handily last night, with most A-listers and industry types opting to skip the strange Western's premiere at a downtown Chelsea nightclub. ...

Last: Thanks for the mention by David Carr in the New York Times' new Red Carpet blog section. It's in their Movies link, online only.

It's ironic because this very reporter was the first to use the name "Red Carpet" for an Oscar magazine published by AMI three years ago. I'm glad to see it's been put to good use in a new life. ...