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Chris Dashiell
Chris Knipp
Don Larsson
Shari L. Rosenblum
Howard Schumann
Mark Sells

 

10 of the Better
A Few of the Worse
by Don Larsson

As always, I know that there are some good 2005 films that haven't come to Flyover Country just yet, and even more that never navigated to our particular corner of Flyover Country. The upside is that it's hard to come up with 10 "worse." So, here with that standard disclaimer, here are my 10-not "best"-but "better" films of the year, plus some additions.

If there's a common element here at all, it's that most of the films on the list below managed to surprise me, exceeding what expectations I might have had by (mostly) fulfilling what they seemed to promise.

The 40 Year Old Virgin (Judd Apatow). Maybe it's a trend that was kicked off last year by Sideways, but several films about men behaving immaturely surprised me by moving beyond frat-boy humor into painful areas of real adulthood while actually remaining very funny (including some frat-boy humor). Wedding Crashers and even Just Friends both fit in this group, but The 40-Year-Old Virgin stands somewhat above the pack. More than any of the others, it's a film for those to whom the Sexual Revolution was more like rumors of a palace coup in some remote province. The real surprise in the film is Catherine Keener, who seems to have been everywhere last year (see below), and who has made a career out of playing annoying women. Here, though, she takes her character beyond that annoying first impression to create someone with a range of life and experience.

Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee). A breakthrough film that transcends any glib attempts to categorize it as the "gay cowboy movie." It's about love in the prolonged absence of the loved one and the effects that can have. It's also about the limitations that time and place, but above all money, can place on any human desires.

Capote (Bennett Miller). Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn't just inhabit Truman Capote, he resurrects him. Not an easy task when the person he's playing was several feet shorter. Self-regard, manipulation, and talent all mingle to convince one not only that Hoffman is Capote but that someone like that writer who was so at odds with the culture he was investigating for In Cold Blood could understand and even be accepted there. Catherine Keener (see above) is a plus as Capote's childhood friend, Harper Lee.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Andrew Adamson). Another surprise: a film that seemed to come out of nowhere and aim straight for a calculated demographic located somewhere between The Lord of the Rings and The Passion of the Christ but that handled its special effects with moderation and its messages with understatement and produced an adaptation that knew just what to cut and what to embellish.

A History of Violence (David Cronenberg). If I had to pick a single best film of the year, I think it would be this one. Strangely enough for a Cronenberg film, it succeeds through its restraint and a screenplay that has skillfully reworked the graphic novel on which it was based. The original took an intriguing premise and nearly did it in with unbelievable family dynamics and an ending that was pure exploitation. The film gives us a living family (more than one, in fact) and a well-crafted and subtle probing of how violence affects relationships. Ed Harris and William Hurt give fine support along the way.

Hostel (Eli Roth). Speaking of exploitation, I didn't really expect a horror/slasher film to wind up on my year-end list. Horror, blood and gore are all there for those who wanted them, but the thrills (or nausea) come only after they've been earned by respecting the audience's intelligence. The story takes its leisurely time to develop character, build suspense and lead to the horrific payoff, and despite enough onscreen mayhem to justify the wait, it's tempered by camera setups (and a long sequence with no visuals at all!) that require our imaginations to do the work that lazier filmmakers are all too eager to do themselves.

Howl's Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki). Oh, heck. It's Miyazaki ! He has a reserved parking place on these lists each year.

Lord of War (Andrew Nicoll). The theme for 2005 was the socially-conscious message film, with strong ambitions and fairly strong results for The Constant Gardener, Crash, Good Night and Good Luck, Munich, Syriana, and even, in its way, Brokeback Mountain. Something about Lord of War, however, gives it an edge for me. Maybe the fact that it's less ambitious than The Constant Gardener or Syriana makes it all the more effective. Maybe it's the cumulative effect of African guilt-tripping after last year's Hotel Rwanda. Or maybe that it's one of Nicholas Cage's better outings in recent years. If nothing else, it's worth it for the bullet's-eye view extended opening.

Red Eye (Wes Craven). The winner of this year's Simple Competence award. It aims to be a thriller. It thrills. A lot of the credit goes to Cillian Murphy, who made one breakthrough already this year as Batman Begins' Scarecrow, and Rachel McAdams, who proved that she could move beyond romance and comedy. Like Cronenberg, Wes Craven succeeds largely through restraint.

Saraband (Ingmar Bergman). Bergman's chamber piece to the symphony of Fanny and Alexander, his last "last" film. The stock company (Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson) is back, along with the settings--a summer cabin where wild strawberries grow and interiors hint of the soul's red color; the music--Bach this time; and the themes--love and bitterness so intertwined that they can only be ripped apart, the will to power in families, youth's erotic and creative vitality; and a church with no visible God. All of this is managed in a series of duets that play like variations on a theme. The Old Man is reminding us that he's still there and that what he worries about is still important.

Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (Tim Burton & Mike Johnson). Standing above his digital rivals and slightly edging out Wallace & Gromit, Burton gives us a lively musical about the fear of death and the dead. Any film whose major supporting characters include a maggot living in an eye socket has to be given credit for having (if you'll pardon the term) guts.

Honorable Mention:

Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan)
Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch)
The Constant Gardener (Fernando Meirelles)
Cinderella Man (Ron Howard)
Just Friends (Roger Kumble)
March of the Penguins (Luc Jacquet)
Serenity (Joss Whedon)
Sky High (Mike Mitchell)
Wedding Crashers (David Dobkin)
Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
(Nick Park & Steve Box)

Let Us Now Praise Overpraised Films

These are on a lot of 10 Best lists this year, and all have their merits but fell a little bit short for me. Still, there's something good to be said for each.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Are Burton and Depp too weird for Roald Dahl, or is it the other way around?

Crash. A bit too much on-message and a bit too tightly plotted, but a better attempt to say something about race in contemporary American than others have managed for a while. It's good to see Homicide's Melissa Leo hitting the big screen now.

Good Night, and Good Luck. Too much a docudrama and not enough actual drama, but the period recreation and Straithairn's Murrow stand out.

King Kong. Yeah, you're too big, too loud, and too full of yourself, but I love ya, ya big ape!

Match Point. The second act sags into Back Street familiarity and others have covered the same territory better in recent years, but Woody Allen's latest foray into drama proves both that he still has a way with actors and that he could still pick up some pointers from Old Man Bergman.

Munich. Is it a thriller or a message film? Is about necessity or conscience? Does it give the facts, and if so whose? At any rate, it's reason to think and talk.

Walk the Line. Standard bio-pic territory, redeemed to a large extent by its two leads and their singing.

And Some of the Worse
(with thanks to The Balcony, Rottentomatoes.com, and my wallet for the brevity of this list!)

Fantastic Four. Way too much exposition for a single film, and cheesy effects on a screen as cluttered as the screenplay.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. A huge disappointment. Too much exposition (again) and weak leads in the main roles. Rent the BBC series instead.

Skeleton Key. I'm tempted to say that Ray Nagin and Pat Robertson are wrong--Hurricane Katrina was not God's wrath at New Orleans, it was allowing this film to be shot in Louisiana (but it would be wrong to say that!). Let's just say that a perfectly good premise for a half-hour episode of The Twilight Zone does not make a good movie.

Just Like Heaven. What's more annoying here: the waste of Mark Ruffalo and Reese Witherspoon? John Heder doing Napoleon Dynamite with a new haircut? The cynical play on the Terri Schiavo travesty? Or the simple fact that scene after scene was edited by a monkey at a Movieola? Winner of this year's Pebble and the Penguin Award for Worst Film of the Year.

Kingdom of Heaven. A movie about The Crusades in this day and age has to be pretty intelligent. This one isn't.

The Producers. Folks unfamiliar with the original may get a kick out of it, but it's the Least Necessary Adaptation/Remake of the Year. None of the songs rises above the original "Springtime for Hitler" (and "Make It Gay" is more audience-bashing than gay-bashing). Nathan Lane does a sort of passable imitation of Zero Mostel. Matthew Broderick does a crappy imitation of Gene Wilder. Too long, too loud, too full of itself--this is the King Kong Musical of the year and there's not even an ape to fall in love with.

©2006 Don Larsson
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