Films Are a Force of Nature

Our loving critics ponder the tender cinema of 2005

At the end of every year, film critics, music critics and those guys who write reviews of prostitutes on sleazy Web sites come out with their Top 10 lists.

Why? It's so they can point out how much more important their opinion is than yours. So, if you need help deciding whether to get the regular DVD of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants or the enhanced, director's cut (he discusses the pants!!!), you might want to see what actual, working film critics had to say about 2005, one of the best years in American filmmaking in recent memory.

Since this is the Tucson Weekly and not some crap paper like The New York Times or Pravda, we include the opinions of two critics. But then, this was a year of twos in the movies: There were two movies about middle-aged virgins (The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Downfall) two movies where someone gets eaten by a bear (Grizzly Man and Brokeback Mountain) and two movies about giant apes (Miss Congeniality 2 and Pooh's Heffalump Movie).

It was also a bad year for big-budget movies. Overall domestic box office was down 6 percent, and six of the 13 movies that cost more than $100 million failed to make their money back in U.S. release (King Kong, Constantine, Fun With Dick and Jane, Stealth, The Island and Sahara were the offenders, with Sahara, Stealth and The Island coming off as unmitigated financial disasters). But it was a great year for smaller, independent films, of which there were at least a dozen that were well worth seeing.

So check out our picks; there may be a few good movies you missed during the year, and if there's any value to a Top 10 list, it's in encouraging people to seek out these overlooked gems.

James says:

First, the worst: This is hardly a definitive list of the worst films of the year, as there are a lot of films I just don't bother watching, but I'm almost sure I saw the worst film of the year, since it was one of the worst films I'd seen since someone got the idea of creating the illusion of movement by rapidly projecting a series of still images ...

1. Elizabethtown

Just as action films took the action sequences from suspense movies, and then expanded them into feature-length, plotless explosion-fests, Elizabethtown takes the emotional epiphany scene from the melodrama and repeats it ceaselessly throughout its punishing two-hour runtime to create a new and terrifying genre: eXtReMe MelOdrAMa! I wish I was making that up, but there is no scene where music doesn't swell, Orlando Bloom doesn't look in the air, and some ridiculous maxim isn't spouted in wisdom-tone voiceover. Plus, every line of dialogue sounds like a tag line for the film adaptation of Chicken Soup for the Soul. Essentially, Elizabethtown is a two-hour trailer for a film, each moment carefully selected for its powerful emotional intensity. It's roughly the cinematic equivalent of being hugged to death by Oprah. As an added bonus, the film also features Kirsten Dunst, who I'm pretty sure learned acting from old Cocoa Puffs commercials.

2. Emmanuel's Gift

Speaking of being hugged to death by Oprah ... Winfrey narrates this painfully earnest story of a handicapped man who runs around and inspires people to, I don't know, have special-feeling experiences about handicapped people. Apparently, the filmmakers believed that any story about the disabled is Powerful and Poignant, or at least cannot be criticized without making the critic seem like a heartless churl. But I'm happy to be the heartless churl if you substitute manipulative music and manipulative narration for actual drama or skill in filmmaking. In the future, when guitar-mass Christians and New Age crystal-humpers rule the world, this film will be forcibly shown to anyone who commits the crimes of sarcasm or eye-rolling.

3. Bewitched

You know, this remakes thing is not going away. There's nothing we can do about it, either. The studios don't even seem to care that films like this don't make any money. They just keep making more. I mean, ferchrissakes, it was just announced that Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are going to star in a remake of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Why? Why? Bewitched (the movie!) has a special place in remake hell because of the reimagining of Samantha--who was one of the rare smart female characters in 1960s television--into a bubble-headed ditz. That's Jeannie, you morons! It didn't help that overrated airhead Nicole Kidman had the part and played it like a parody of Mr. Rogers with nipple erections. But then, with writing and directing by the dreaded Nora Ephron, I guess we're just lucky that Darrin didn't get mail while meeting Harry in Seattle.

4. King Kong

This was an excellent 45-minute movie squeezed into three hours. Clearly, someone has to take Peter Jackson aside and say "no" to him.

5. Fantastic 4

You know what's a good idea in a movie? A plot. And, like, don't just turn on the plot in the last 30 minutes and expect me to care ... spread it out along the whole film. It really helps to keep things interesting.

6. The Wedding Date

A movie starring Debra Messing! Man, she is an electrifying screen presence! Who's Debra Messing you ask? She plays that skeletal stereotype on Will and Grace. No, not the one who plays Jack ... oh, never mind.

7. Elektra

An animatronic robot of Jennifer Garner starred in this film, but someone forgot to turn on its facial-expressions switch, so it's just a rapidly moving body with an inanimate mannequin head. In combination with a lack of context or motivation and some really dull cinematography, this makes Elektra almost an experiment in loud, violent boredom.

8. White Noise

This film answers the question, "What has Michael Keaton been doing?" The answer: sucking!

9. Hide and Seek

This is one of those suspense films where you can't guess the ending, because the ending makes no sense and has no connection to the rest of the film. Kind of like if at the end of Psycho, it turned out that Norman Bates was a sled named "Rosebud."

10. Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous

I think the title says it all.

Now, with a sigh of relief, the best films from what turned out to be the best year in film since 1999:

1. Downfall

Just as Elizabethtown was one of the worst films in years, Downfall was one of the best. Telling the story of the last days of Hitler without resorting to comic-book stereotypes is no easy task, but director Oliver Hirschbiegel manages it without minimizing Hitler's evil or his humanity. Plus, there's a scene where little children run up to Eva Braun shouting, "We want to see Uncle Hitler! We want to see Uncle Hitler!" Because kids loved Hitler. Chilling!

While Downfall is the clear No. 1, the numbering for the rest of the Top 10 list is somewhat arbitrary. In fact, I could probably have swapped out some of the Top 10 for some of the "honorable mentions." It was just a really good year in filmmaking.

2. A History of Violence

A History of Violence does something that very few films do: It manages to be both fun to watch and intellectually rigorous. Essentially, it's an entertaining action film that's also a film about what's wrong with entertaining action films. Director David Cronenberg produces a chilling commentary on the way the simple resort to violence in our mass media-influenced culture. The film's self-consciousness not only doesn't interfere with the story; it enhances it by increasing the intensity. A number of people have told me they thought that A History of Violence offered violence as a solution, but I really think they weren't paying attention. I thought the end of the film was tragic and tense; they thought everything had returned to normal. But then I'm pretty sure that's why the movie cuts to black so abruptly in the middle of the last scene: so that the viewers are forced to decide for themselves what the final outcome will be.

3. Grizzly Man

Grizzly Man was oddly similar to History of Violence in that both films asked a lot of the audience, presented conflicting points of view and did not offer a single, simple solution. Filmmaker Werner Herzog found a perfect documentary subject in Timothy Treadwell, a semi-delusional man who thought he was the guardian of Alaska's brown bears. Living in the woods with his animal friends, Treadwell expounds a romantic view of nature. Then he gets eaten by a bear. In presenting the footage, Herzog uses voiceover to present his own view of nature: that it's a horrid place where bears will eat you. And yet, Herzog doesn't overvalue his own opinion and presents documentary evidence to support Treadwell's contrary view. Not only is this courageous and unusual; it's also great filmmaking.

4. Last Days and

8. Jarhead

Last Days and Jarhead both had an extreme quiet to them, or at least Jarhead had it up to a point. Again, these are films that present problems, not answers. Last Days was one of the most beautifully shot films I've ever seen, and it's not the kind of shallow photographic beauty you see in Merchant/Ivory films. Instead, each slow, rich shot is integral to the story. In fact, the shot usually is the story, as Last Days isn't about plot, but about the texture of an experience. With this film, Gus Van Zant has made three tremendous works of art in a row.

Jarhead isn't really in Last Days' league, but again, some incredibly captivating cinematography serves to present a mood in the place of a story. The acting in Jarhead is also top-notch, and the script is artificial in the best possible way.

These films feature the two best cinematographers currently working in American film: Harris Savides on Last Days and Roger Deakins on Jarhead. I'd watch any film either of those guys shot, even if it was directed by Nora Ephron and starred Ben Affleck.

5. Murderball

This is a textbook case of how to make a documentary. Rule No. 1: Find a story! You can't just throw a bunch of footage on screen in any old order! It's amazing how many documentaries fail to organize their material into a narrative. Murderball finds a series of great tales in the stories of the quadriplegic men who play brutal games of rugby in their Mad Max-style wheelchairs. And, in sharp contradistinction to Emmanuel's Gift, this film presents its disabled stars as complex people who are just as likely to be horrid assholes as inspiring role models. Yeah, it's not quite as simple and condescending, but it makes for better cinema.

6. The Squid and the Whale and 7. Me and You and Everyone We Know

The Squid and the Whale and Me and You and Everyone We Know are both about human emotions and troubled romantic relationships, and both manage to cover these well-covered themes in ways that are novel and genuine. I really liked the way everyone in Squid and Whale was deeply flawed, and the dialogue in that film is some of the best I've ever heard. Me and You does something very rare: It manages to be both an experimental art film (not an art-house "genre" art film, but rather a film that seeks out new ways of expression and representation) and a touching, even somewhat corny, romance. Plus, it's tremendously entertaining, which is something that a number of big-budget films aimed solely at entertainment failed at this year. (I'm looking at you, King Kong!)

9. Mysterious Skin

That someone could make a movie about child molestation without resorting to simple finger-wagging, while still conveying the horror and moral weight of the situation, is pretty surprising, especially in modern America. Not only did writer/director Gregg Araki do it, but he also made it look amazing. The performances in this film were some of the best of the year, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michelle Trachtenberg showing a depth that their junk-TV roots never revealed. Cinematographer Steve Gainer's style can best be described as "rich." The colors are super-saturated; the skin tones are deep, and the information content in any given shot is perfectly balanced. I really want to see more work by him, especially if he's collaborating on something as challenging as Mysterious Skin.

10. Capote

Finally, there's Capote, which I'm including at No. 10 only because the acting was overwhelmingly amazing. I think the directing was a little weak. A lot of people focused on Philip Seymour Hoffman's immersive turn as Capote, or the scene-stealing work of Clifton Collins Jr. as convicted murderer Perry Smith, but for me, it was the quiet performances of Catherine Keener and especially Bruce Greenwood that made this movie. Both of them epitomize the idea of "supporting actor" by pushing the focus onto Hoffman. Their performances are extremely subtle and nuanced, but never showy. It's fine for Hoffman to hog the spotlight in this picture, because he's playing a spotlight-hog, but for Greenwood to pull off his role as Capote's overshadowed lover Jack Dunphy, he has to allow himself to be overshadowed, and yet to evince the sense that he is both uncomfortable with and accepting of that. Definitely one of the best performances of the year.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Syriana
  • Match Point
  • Brokeback Mountain
  • Palindromes
  • Good Night, and Good Luck
  • My Summer of Love
  • The 40-Year-Old Virgin
  • Kings and Queen
  • Pretty Persuasion

Bob Says:

Man, that James is one dark bastard. The happiest film in his Top 10 is The Squid and the Whale, and that's not the most comforting movie in the world. Granted, my Top 10 includes a film where a decent percentage of the world's population is annihilated by aliens. That was still a party compared to what went down in Grizzly Man. Dude got eaten by bears.

James didn't like King Kong, my No. 1 film for 2005, so I guess that qualifies as our most significant difference of opinion. Trust me on this one: It's the most entertaining film of the year. We pretty much agree on A History of Violence and Capote, although I didn't think Bennett Miller's Capote direction was "weak." I doubt any film with weak direction would ever make it into my Top 10.

While I appreciated Gus Van Sant's Last Days, his thinly veiled look at Kurt Cobain's suicide didn't finish anywhere near the top for me. I concur that it's a great-looking movie, and Michael Pitt's solo music number is a wonderful thing.

As for the Match Point honorable mention, I sincerely feel critics are overreacting to the fact that Woody Allen has actually made a film that doesn't suck ass. It's been quite some time since the man produced anything remotely entertaining. He actually released one of the year's worst films (Melinda and Melinda) in addition to his mildly entertaining feature, which borrows plenty from his own Crimes and Misdemeanors. So, OK, I acknowledge that the movie isn't bad, and is actually pretty good, but it is not the masterpiece some are calling it. People get shot up in it, so that's probably why James is a fan.

If you scan all the way down his "honorable mentions," you'll see that James gave props to The 40-Year-Old Virgin, so there's proof he's not a total curmudgeon. (Nobody gets eaten by bears in that one!) Just when I was starting to have some faith in him, he gives thanks for Pretty Persuasion, one of the lamest movies of the year, a sloppy film that wasted the talents of Evan Rachel Wood.

After seeing it on James' list, I took the time to watch Mysterious Skin. It's a fine film, but I say it again: James, you are one dark bastard, and that's coming from a guy named Grimm!

Here's my Top 10, which I feel is just a little more balanced and less frightening.

1. King Kong

With The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and now this, there's just no suspense in these year-end wrap-ups anymore. Peter Jackson is making the best movies out there, and his retelling of the Kong story is majestic moviemaking. The original is still the best, but Jackson has done it much justice. James, you're being a real stick in the mud.

2. Brokeback Mountain

The best love story in many years. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal break hearts as two 1963 cowboys who get a little lonely while watching a herd of sheep. They discover major feelings for each other, and their forbidden relationship carries on through the years. It shines with honest, beautiful direction by Ang Lee, one of the year's best soundtracks and incredible work from the two leading men. When this movie was over, I was devastated. Considering how sad this movie is, it's a wonder it didn't place higher for DiGiovanna.

3. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

The most underrated, underappreciated film of the year. Robert Downey Jr. is a whirlwind as a small-time crook turned actor who winds up in a detective caper while making a movie. Val Kilmer gets the Comeback of the Year award as a private investigator hired to show Downey's actor the ropes. Michelle Monaghan is the Breakthrough Performer of the Year as "The Love Interest," and director Shane Black managed to make the year's funniest movie with his debut. That's a lot of year's bests for one movie. Watch for this on DVD and don't waste any time. It's a winner.

4. Batman Begins

When Joel Schumacher's Batman and Robin was released in 1997, Satan drank a beer and scratched his balls, purring with content that the seeds of the Apocalypse had been properly planted. Luckily, some executives at Warner Bros. smelled burning bacon (Satan's balls smell something like burning bacon), knew the devil was in their midst and brought the Batman franchise to a halt. Director Christopher Nolan (Memento) rebooted the whole damn thing, delivered the year's best action picture and kept Satan at bay. The best Batman film yet, featuring the best Batman (Christian Bale), the best Alfred (Michael Caine) and the best Gary Oldman (Gary Oldman).

5. A History of Violence

On both of our lists. David Cronenberg's best since Dead Ringers. Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall, a diner owner who goes all Bruce Lee on some invading thugs and becomes a small-town hero. When a guy with a creepy face (Ed Harris) shows up claiming Tom is somebody else, the diner owner has some 'splaining to do. Mortensen has never been this good, and Maria Bello is revelatory as the wife who may've married a complete stranger. I concur with James on this one.

6. Capote

Hey, two in a row on both lists. Those who read and loved In Cold Blood will revel in this, basically a behind-the-scenes look at the writing of Truman Capote's legendary nonfiction novel, with Philip Seymour Hoffman amazing as the author. Capote destroyed himself during and after the writing of In Cold Blood, and this film does a great job of hypothesizing why. By the way, I disagree with James on the "weak direction" of the film. I think Bennett Miller did a fine job.

7. Munich

Some critics are getting all huffy about Spielberg allegedly portraying terrorists as sympathetic characters in this one. The film didn't affect me that way at all. Spielberg doesn't shy away from depicting possible reasons why Black September (the terrorist organization that killed Jewish athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics) did the horrible things they did. I don't know how depicting their motivation for lunacy is getting confused with showing sympathy. The depiction of Mossad agents carrying out a mission to assassinate all those associated with the Munich killings is suitably ugly, because killing is ugly. It's a haunting movie that ponders the moral dilemmas of killing for a cause. An honest film on that subject is bound to be complicated in nature, and this one is.

8. The New World

You will hear some moan that this is long and boring. For those who allow themselves to bathe in the visual and aural wonders of Terrence Malick's film, it will come off as one of the year's more unique movies. In this intriguing take on the legend of Pocahontas and Captain Smith, 15-year-old Q'Orianka Kilcher is wonderful as the Native American woman who saved a bunch of European asses with some corn.

9. War of the Worlds

Spielberg gets all nasty with this masterful re-telling of the H.G. Wells classic, where aliens come from wherever to mulch our bodies and use us as fertilizer. It's one of the meanest alien invasion films ever made, and proof that Spielberg isn't only a master of the sci-fi genre, but the horror genre as well. Tom Cruise may have lost his mind from time to time this year, but his performance as a deadbeat dad who must man up is one of his best.

10. Junebug

In the end-of-the-year shuffle, it appears that critics and awards groups are forgetting Sundance fave Amy Adams as a hopelessly optimistic pregnant woman with a moron husband. A highly competent ensemble cast made this one of the best family dramas of the year.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Walk the Line
  • Star Wars: Episode III--The Revenge of the Sith
  • Oldboy
  • Syriana
  • Sin City
  • Good Night, and Good Luck
  • Downfall
  • Cinderella Man
  • Jarhead
  • Hustle and Flow

While I'm at it, I'll throw my Top 10 worst at you. I've included a couple of "cluster-bads" in order to fit a few more films in, thus allowing me more opportunities to spit venom.

1. Elizabethtown

I liked Vanilla Sky, but the rest of the world didn't, so this marks the second big dud from Cameron Crowe. Orlando Bloom replaced Ashton Kutcher in this morose dramedy-type thing. Kutcher was kicked off the project because he allegedly couldn't act. Let me tell you something ... Ashton Kutcher kicks Orlando Bloom's ass as an actor! Hell, Rob Schneider would've done a better job than Bloom.

2. Aeon Flux

Give a girl an Oscar, and she thinks it's all cool to get her own action-heroine franchise. Halle Berry did it last year with Catwoman, and now it's Charlize Theron's turn. Theron pulled a Clooney and also screwed up her neck while making the movie. While Clooney gave his pain for something worthy, Syriana, Theron put herself through agony for diseased rat spittle.

3. Terrible Sequels: Son of the Mask, Be Cool and The Ring Two

These three sequels to great films are so bad that the memories of their predecessors have been tainted. Jamie Kennedy needs to go away forever after what he did in Mask, while Naomi Watts needs to come stay at my house for the squalor that was Ring Two (no real reason ... I just want Naomi Watts in my house). As for Travolta, his Chili Palmer reprise was so phoned in, you could hear the dial tone.

4. Horrible Horror: Cursed, Boogeyman and especially Alone in the Dark

Fellas like Rob Zombie (The Devil's Rejects) and George Romero (Land of the Dead) served up some respectable horror films, but they had few contemporaries in the field of fright. Boogeyman and Cursed were incoherent messes, part of the PG-13 horror film trend. Alone in the Dark was rated R, but is easily one of the worst movies ever conceived. Did you know that Tara Reid was once in a Coen Brothers movie? Christian Slater did Heathers! Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

5. A Sound of Thunder

The "I Can't Believe It Didn't Go Straight to DVD" award goes to this flounder dung that screws up a perfectly good Ray Bradbury story. Even the incredibly charismatic master thespian Edward Burns couldn't save this one (Sarcasm Meter: 8.75 out of 10).

6. The Dukes of Hazzard

Johnny Knoxville better watch out. If he keeps making bad movies, he's going to require a return to getting his ass kicked and humiliated in public for a living. It will be sledgehammers to the groin for Johnny if the movies continue to suck. Come to think of it, this weak-assed TV adaptation was a sledgehammer to the collective groin of America. It would've been better if it was just 90 minutes of Jessica Simpson in Daisy Dukes pouring beers.

7. Stealth

A computerized fighter jet goes all screwy and starts taking out targets without permission. Yes, many people die, but the plane's worst offense is downloading shit music like Gavin Rossdale and blasting it while flying around.

8. Melinda and Melinda

Will Ferrell defects to Woody Allen Land, where comedy has become a misbegotten thing, and adopted daughters live in peril. Ferrell goes the Kenneth Branagh and Jason Biggs route by actually impersonating Woody for his characterization. Allen also made Match Point in 2005, probably his best movie since Deconstructing Harry, but it still wasn't all that great.

9. Derailed

Jennifer Aniston is a bad girl, and she wants you to know it. Forget all that Friends crap. She's capable of being a femme fatale, doing nasty things to you in bed involving naughty lubricants while plotting your demise. Err ... wait a minute. No, she's not.

10. Fantastic 4

Why can't they make a good movie out of this comic book? It's a great premise, and yet two attempts at a movie for the Fantastic 4 have failed miserably. There's going to be a sequel to this, with the same director and writer. Somebody out there doesn't like you.

In conclusion, I would like to report something of major importance: This marks the first time I was able to spell Gyllenhaal without looking it up. I did my actor-spell-check thing, and there it was, clear as day, with the right amount of L's and A's. A great divide has been conquered, and we can proceed into the New Year knowing that at least one man has gained consummate wisdom.

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