Wednesday, December 28, 2005

YEAR IN REVIEW: The Top 10 Movies of 2005
(and three that sucked hard)

Let's get back to recapping the year that nearly was, with a look at some of the movie goodness of 2005 from the 50 or so movies I've seen this year (and yes, I have no life).

As always, a caveat — out here in the hinterlands, I haven’t had a chance to see some of the year’s most acclaimed movies yet, so no “Brokeback Mountain,” “Munich” or “Capote” on my list. Here’s my top 10 of what came through our town this year, presented in alphabetical order:

Image hosted by‘Batman Begins’
Lean, mean and serious as the night itself, this latest revival of the “Batman” franchise was a rare gem in a summer of overblown corn. Kudos to director Chris Nolan for focusing on making us see why a man would dress up as a giant bat and fight crime. In the process, he made Bruce Wayne a believable figure of a boy touched by tragedy who grows up into a man with a whopping case of rage and vengeance. With great work by Christian Bale as a hard-as-nails Batman, and superb supporting turns by a cast of all-stars including Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. Smart superheroics never seemed so good. (Here's my original post on the movie.)

Image hosted by‘Crash’
This movie will make you angry. Writer/director Paul Haggis’ sprawling, melodramatic epic follows the lives of a racial panorama of several different people in Los Angeles over 36 hours. It weaves together many story threads, including a racist white cop, an affluent black TV producer, a frustrated Arab store owner and more. We see them at their worst and sometimes, at their best. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and America’s ongoing racial divisions, it’s a true movie for our times. Featuring the best performances I’ve ever seen from some of its cast, especially Matt Dillion and Sandra Bullock. It’s a love-it or hate-it movie, intended to fire you up, and it’s unforgettable. (Here's my original post on the movie.)

Image hosted by‘Elizabethtown’
Flawed and messy and yet sincere as all get-out, “Elizabethtown” was a fairly big critical and commercial flop for director Cameron Crowe. Yet ignore the haters – I think it’s a sweet, heartfelt tale about a young man (Orlando Bloom) battered by failure and death who discovers new life thanks to a quirky, irrepressible girl (Kirsten Dunst). It's Crowe, so it boasts a great pop soundtrack, and isn't afraid to wear its emotions on its sleeve. Not up there with Crowe’s best like “Almost Famous” or “Jerry Maguire,” but if you’re willing to be idealistic, a bit sentimental and ramble along with it, “Elizabethtown” is worth visiting. (Here's my original post on the movie.)

Image hosted by‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin’
Raunchy sex comedy meets old-fashioned romance, and it’s a match made in heaven. “The Office” star Steve Carell shows strong acting chops as Andy, a socially withdrawn fellow approaching middle age who also turns out to be a virgin. His co-workers make it their mission in life to change that status. Writer/director Judd Apatow walks the line between silly and smart in a rare sex comedy that doesn’t treat its characters with contempt. It's gross, profane and over the top, but it's also a pretty touching romance at the same time. A future classic of its kind.

Image hosted by‘A History of Violence’
David Cronenberg likes to make viewers uncomfortable. Strange, then, that this one from the director of “The Fly” and “Dead Ringers” might be his most accessible, yet it’s just as unsettling as his other movies. Viggo Mortensen gives an astounding performance as a genial family man and diner owner in small-town Indiana. Tom’s quiet life changes forever when two crazed gunmen stumble into his world, forcing him to make a fateful choice. While on the surface it’s a pulpy, satisfying yarn, Cronenberg also genuinely disturbs you by making you realize that we never truly know what’s inside anybody else’s heart in this life.

Image hosted by‘King Kong’
Yeah, yeah, it’s three hours long. But don’t let that stop you. Peter Jackson follows up his “Lord of the Rings” triumph with a fanboy’s ode to the 1933 monster movie classic. Few remakes are truly essential, but this one is a loving tribute that combines pulse-pounding action with some truly heartfelt moments. The initial 45 minutes may be slow, but once the movie hits Skull Island, it rockets into overdrive and never lets up. Kong is an astounding creation, as realistic as a 25-foot ape can be, right down to the hairs in his eyelashes. The oddball love between Kong and a radiant Naomi Watts might just be the year’s best love story.

Image hosted by‘Murderball’
The best documentary of the year. Ever heard of “wheelchair rugby”? It’s a serious sport, played by paraplegic athletes in serious, hardcore competition with souped-up wheelchairs that look like “Mad Max” tanks. This amazing film follows several competitors of the sport as they battle their way to Paralympics gold, and it takes us inside their lives. I’ve never seen a movie more genuine or empathetic toward the handicapped, yet one that treats them with humor and respect. Heartbreaking and intense, it’s the year’s most inspirational movie.

Image hosted by‘Serenity’
Sure, “Star Wars: Episode III” was pretty good, but for the year’s most thrilling science-fiction adventure, take a gander at this future cult classic by “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” creator Joss Whedon. Based on his short-lived 2002 TV series “Firefly,” it’s a sprawling saga about a crew of space mercenaries that become embroiled in a galactic conspiracy. Filled with action, imagination, grit and wit, “Serenity” soars above the mossy clichés that dominate science fiction, and it’s the best of its kind since the first “Matrix.” For fans of the TV series, “Serenity” was nirvana, but Whedon also makes it all fully accessible to newcomers. Whedon never forgets what George Lucas did with his “Star Wars” prequels — it’s the characters, not the flashy effects, that make a sci-fi epic truly great.

Image hosted by‘Sin City’
Stylish, shocking and utterly immoral, “Sin City” is a triumph of sheer filmmaking power, and also one of the most intense movies of the year. Based on the dark, brutal comic books by Frank Miller, it's the most spot-on comics adaptation ever. Co-directed by Miller with Robert Rodriguez, it’s a movie that looks like no other – in knife-sharp black and white, with splashes of vivid color, and mean, cruel characters in a world where every man’s a crook and every woman a whore. It’s bleak and incredibly nasty, true, but it’s got raw power and a unique vision behind it.

Image hosted by‘Walk the Line’
A love story, a rousing musical and an icon’s journey, “Walk The Line” gets at the heart of the late Johnny Cash and his wife June Carter Cash. Joaquin Phoenix evokes cash without just impersonating him, and Reese Witherspoon has the role of her career as the spunky, sturdy June Carter. The basic structure here comes perilously close to biographical cliché — rags to riches to rags to riches again — but Phoenix and Witherspoon’s powerhouse acting sells it. It’s a worthy tribute to the Man in Black. (Here's my original post on the movie.)

Honorable mentions: "Cinderella Man," "Kung Fu Hustle," "Good Night, And Good Luck," "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith," "Oldboy"

And three of the worst:
‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’
There were worse movies this year, but few as disappointing. A pale, limp attempt to capture the wit and snark of Douglas Adams’ sci-fi parody novels. It starts out OK but gradually gets worse and worse, descending into a parade of computer-generated effects and turning into an inane chase movie. It has the moldy feel of a failed “Saturday Night Live” parody from 1987. (Here's my original post on the movie.)

‘Dukes of Hazzard’
Lord, I tried. But I couldn’t even watch the entire movie of this misbegotten TV remake, starring Johnny Knoxville and Seann William Scott, and a bizarrely miscast Burt Reynolds as Boss Hogg. Also featuring Jessica Simpson, who looks nice but is upstaged in acting skills even by the General Lee automobile. The original TV show was trash, too, but in a corny, amiable way. This one piles on the vulgarities and is like watching a truck full of rednecks crash into a manure pile — an ugly, smelly sight.

You may notice a theme here. I’m not filled with hope for the “CHiPS” remake heading to the big screen. This one had the talent — gorgeous Nicole Kidman, funnyman Will Ferrell — but was saddled with a ridiculously self-referential, strained plot. See, it’s a movie about the remake of the TV series “Bewitched,” starring a real witch who doesn’t want to be a witch anymore but she ends up playing a fake witch for “Betwitched.” Get it? Don’t bother.

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