Best of 2005

2005 FILMS

By David Ferguson

fergusontx@gmail.com

Greetings again from the darkness.  Much of the talk surrounding this year’s movie world has been the supposed collapse in film quality.  Shouts of “There’s nothing worth seeing” abound from the media in an attempt to explain the box office decline.  Even I bought into the talk for awhile.  Admittedly, my movie going was down slightly from last year’s (103 viewed in 2004, 92 in 2005), but my theory is, this is more a factor of my time, not film quality.  Upon review of 2005, my ratings had not a single film at a 10, but had 24 films at an 8 or 9.  I find it ridiculous to consider the quality of film poor when there are (on average) two movies per month that I consider very good or excellent.  So my advice is to ignore the media and enjoy the movies!  Here is a recap (in order) of my favorites from 2005:

1. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

 Definitely not a film for everyone, but I laughed outloud more during this movie than I have in years. There are numerous labels one could bestow on KKBB: murder mystery, comedy, drama, thriller, action and more. One could say it is a spoof of, or tribute to, film noir and Raymond Chandler pulp detective novels or even a buddy flick. The point is, it doesn’t matter what label one bestows, because it is just plain entertaining.

First time director Shane Black explodes back on the screen after his self-imposed asylum. Black built his career as a screenwriter for films such as the Lethal Weapon series, The Last Boy Scout and the underrated The Long Kiss Goodbye. Then he walked away. He resurrects his career with this amazingly creative “little” film. His trademark snappy, overlapping dialog is better than ever and there are plenty of “cool or stylish” moments and a wonderful little murder mystery wrapped around a kinda-sorta love story.

 The casting of Val Kilmer initially seemed like an odd decision, but the talented bad boy is a hoot as an openly gay private detective who is hired to teach an actor how to play a PI. The accidental actor/petty thief is played brilliantly by Robert Downey, Jr. What a shame that Downey has not been able to stay clean in real life because he is truly a unique talent, pure magic on screen. The third and every bit as impressive lead actor is Michelle Monaghan (North Country, Boston Public). MM has wonderful screen presence and is poised for stardom. Such energy! Expect to see her a great deal over the next few years (that’s a good thing!).

Did I mention multiple corpses, a severed finger, a hungry dog, a body (or two) in the trunk, really mean bad guys, false trails, etc etc? This one has it all … even Elvis, Honest Abe Lincoln and hilarious narration by Downey. Also, young Harry is played by Downey’s real life son and Downey himself sings the song playing over the closing credits.

 You should watch this one with an open mind and LISTEN.  The dialog will keep you involved and laughing … at least if your sense of humor is as twisted as mine.

2. Crash

 Within the first 5 minutes, I caught myself shifting in my seat.  Normally this would mean I am bored with the film.  This was different.  I realized the dialog and situations were making me extremely uncomfortable. My first reaction was that writer/director Paul Haggis (writer of Million Dollar Baby) was using simple shock value to manipulate the audience on the topic of racism. The words and scenarios were almost cartoonish. As the movie went on, I realized this was very much an expose on the stereotypes and paranoia we all carry. Bigotry and intolerance and fear are widespread. Of course, very few of us wear it on our sleeves or are as indignant about it as most of the characters in the film, but Haggis is right in that this is not a subtle topic.  Bust it open and examine it and MAYBE something good will happen.

 The cast is huge and talented. Sandra Bullock, shaking off her Miss Congeniality persona, does great work in her limited screen time as the eternally angry princess who has refused to reflect. Don Cheadle turns in another of his sterling roles as the moralistic protector of all things good, only this time he has some demons of his own. Matt Dillon, in his first good performance since Drugstore Cowboy, is terrific and steals most every scene. His character is the most complex, hated, misunderstood tough guy you have seen in awhile. The rest of the cast is filled out wonderfully by Jennifer Esposito, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Howard, Larenz Tate, Tony Danza, Keith David, Ryan Phillipe and Thandie Newton. Ludicrous deserves special mention for stepping up and playing the absolute most extreme racist (with a touch of humor) since Peter Boyle in Monster’s Ball.

 There will be many comparisons to PT Anderson’s great film Magnolia due to the overlapping story lines and criss-crossing of characters, and I feel the spiritualism of the film can also be related to Kasdan’s Grand Canyon, only much edgier.

 3. A History of Violence

 Director David Cronenberg has long been the master of creepy films. You already know this if you are familiar with: Spider, the 1996 Crash, Dead Ringers, and The Fly. Cronenberg always puts the viewer in a position that challenges our comfort zone, forces us to experience the uncomfortable situations that his characters experience. I for one, love this! A History of Violence may be his most commercially accessible film, but trust me when I tell you, it is not for everyone. More than a couple walked out of the theater.  Maybe it was the realism of the violence (this is no cartoon), maybe it was the sexuality, or maybe it was that uneasy feeling of seeing a story that is a bit outside the Hollywood box. All of these elements work together to form a film that forced me to climb onboard and look around.

 Viggo Mortensen (“LOTR“, Hidalgo, G.I. Jane) is remarkable as Tom Stall, a seemingly mild-mannered husband, father, small town café owner who with one reactionary moment, turns into a real life hero. The following publicity creates a situation where Tom’s entire world is challenged. Is he a former mobster who has run away to a new life? Ed Harris is flat out scary as the rival mobster who the “old Tom, AKA Joey” maimed in a violent moment years ago. Harris is absolutely certain, but Viggo and his lovely wife, Maria Bello, vehemently deny the allegations. Bello seems to have mastered the real life woman who has just a touch of sleaze to her (see The Cooler and Coyote Ugly). She is a remarkable actress with a smile that illuminates the screen. You want to believe everything she says. Watching her as a cheerleader, on the stairs with Tom/Joey and being interviewed by the sheriff will make anyone appreciate what a talent she is.

The film really takes off when Viggo visits his mobster brother William Hurt. This is Hurt’s best work since Body Heat. I almost believe he must truly be off-center to create this character. How marvelous to watch his few scenes with Viggo.

Although the story is multi-faceted and the acting is superb, the real star is Cronenberg’s touch. We find ourselves laughing at moments that we normally would turn in disgust. These are real people in a small town. This is masterful film-making. The only minor weakness I spotted was Viggo’s son played by miscast Ashton Holmes. Overall, the film succeeds in making us question the role violence plays in all of our lives and personalities.  How would you change if put in this situation? I bet it will make you uncomfortable!!!

4. Match Point

 Despite his lack of box office pop, Woody Allen has always been a terrific writer of relationship chaos. He also has recorded his love of New York City on film for the past 30 years. In what is his best work since Crimes and Misdemeanors, and worthy of the same high class as Manhattan and Annie Hall, Match Point has Mr. Allen exploring these same relationship topics within his newly discovered Britain setting.

With the recurring theme of luck (the word is used at least 11 times in the script), the film takes Chris, a former Irish tennis pro (Bend it Like Beckham coach Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) and tosses him into the upper crust of the British elite. Surprisingly enough, he fits right in. Not so surprisingly, he falls in love with wealth and its privileges. An Allen staple, the twists and turns of relationships and family life develop into quite a mess for our tennis boy. Married to, and adored by, rich girl Chloe (played exceedingly well by Emily Mortimer), Chris also falls hard under the spell of sultry, struggling American actress and seductress Nola, slightly overplayed by the gorgeous Scarlett Johansson. Some of the best scenes are the ones exhibiting the entire family, including Chris’ in-laws played by Brian Cox (who is the new Gene Hackman – seemingly in half the movies released) and Penelope Wilton (Pride and Prejudice, Calendar Girls) and a self-indulgent Matthew Goode (the chasing agent in Chasing Liberty). Quite often these scenes occur right before and right after a passionate (way beyond the norm for Allen) tryst between Chris and Nola, creating quite the tension for the viewer.

 The canvas of London is surprisingly similar to Manhattan as seen through the eye of Allen and this is quite a compliment. Another Allen trademark is his use of music, and opera is the call here. The blending of opera both visually and through the soundtrack provides the tempo and feel that Allen wants us to experience. An interesting side note is that Chris’ driver is played by John Fortune, a British TV star.

 For those of us who love multi-layered stories and watching people attempt to dig themselves out of their own mess, Match Point is a gem. For those looking for even a hint of any old fashioned Woody humor, head to the video store. This is a grown-up story with twists and turns and is very dark in nature, and I consider myself “lucky” to have seen it.

5. In Her Shoes

 Although a “chick flick” alert is in order, this is a rare case of that alert not ruining a movie for guys. This is an excellent film, period.  Director Curtis Hanson, who helmed one of my all-time favs L.A. Confidential, brings a reality to the film that prevents it from ever sinking into Beaches muck. The three lead actors are all outstanding.  Cameron Diaz flashes some real ability as party girl turned soul-searcher. Shirley MacLaine is terrific as the long-lost grandmother who has wised up and is thrilled to be re-discovered. The always great Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense mom) is the heart of the film, despite her character’s initial lack of confidence.  Weak women characters usually shift me into an instant coma; however, this overused female trait is handled quite differently by writer and director and actor, thereby creating a great deal of interest for the viewer.

The dialogue is real, the characters are real and the settings are real. These are people and families and relationships that we can all relate to. The script proves that most family dysfunction is the result of poor communication, not bad people. Regrets can eat away and become part of the fabric of a family. Once they are hit head-on, there is much to gain by all involved.

Two supporting cast members really stand out. Francine Beers as Mrs. Lefkowitz, a retirement community neighbor of Ms. MacLaine’s character shows wisdom and color beyond her (many) years. Should-be Hollywood legend Norman Lloyd has a warm and heartfelt role as a hospital patient who still has much to offer. Mr. Lloyd has quietly put together an incredible career as Actor, Director and Producer and should receive more recognition for his accomplishments. My personal favorite was his role as the head of TV’s underrated St. Elsewhere from the 1980’s.

A must see for mothers and daughters and sisters.  And for all you tough guys, just tell yourself you are seeing the latest film from the director of L.A. Confidential, forget about the whole chick flick thing, and enjoy the story (and Cameron Diaz in a bikini). 

6. Thumbsucker

 Very few things provide me the thrill of watching a movie with a great story, interesting characters, wonderful acting and professional direction.  This is the case even when I realize that of all the people I know, 97 out of 100 will not see the film.  Such is Thumbsucker.

Director and co-writer Mike Mills presents the film version of Walter Kirn’s novel and nails the issues we all face with relationships and life.  So many teen angst movies provide us one dimensional adults, and often one dimensional teens.  This film shows the struggles we all face at every age and every stage in life.  Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen was a powerful movie focusing on girls.  Thumbsucker is every bit as powerful, if not a bit softer in its approach.

 Relative newcomer Lou Taylor Pucci is stunning and brilliant as Justin, the seventeen year old thumbsucker who, along with 98% of others his age, just can’t seem to figure out what it’s all about.  His character turns out to be one of the lucky ones who finally determine that no one really gets it.  That includes his friends, parents, teachers, orthodontist and celebrities.

The supporting actors are stellar and very well cast.  Justin’s parents are played well by the great Tilda Swinton (slightly underused here) and Vincent D’Onofrio.  His hypnotist would-be guru orthodontist is hilariously played by Keanu Reeves and Benjamin Bratt is the TV celeb whom Justin’s mom seemingly carries a torch for.  Vince Vaughn flashes some real acting chops as Justin’s Debate Team sponsor.  This is not the typical punchline Vince that we have come to expect.  A real standout is Kelli Garner as Rebecca, Justin’s first crush.  This role was originally going to Scarlett Johansson which would have been a mistake.  Garner is very believable as the would-be world saver if she could just understand why everyone acts the way they do.  Definitely looking forward to more of her work.

For a movie that tackles such tough subject matter, it does an amazing job of keeping the viewer from becoming depressed.  There is actually hope in the message.  The soundtrack was a bit of a distraction at times, but not enough to ruin any particular scene.  Also, there is a story line about Ritalin and ADHD that would require a thesis to describe my disgust.  This is a film that deserves a much bigger audience than it will reach. 

7. Cinderella Man

 We all know Ron Howard is a master of melodrama and sometimes lays it on bit heavy. While Cinderella Man is no exception, the sappy moments are few and are fully offset by the beauty and grace and power of the movie. This is expert film-making.

While Howard does a tremendous job of capturing the depression era and the hardships that so many families faced, what may be most impressive are the captivating performances he obtains from the stellar cast.  Russell Crowe is pure gold as folk hero and boxing champ James J. Braddock. Crowe commands the screen and his quiet strength makes him perfect for this good man and heroic figure. This is the first film since Jerry Maguire that I have not found Renee Zellweger to be over the top and annoying. A tip of the cap to Howard for inducing a more subdued performance from her.

Great to see Paddy Considine (so wonderful as Johnny in In America) in a meaningful role as Braddock’s buddy. Howard also works in his dad, Rance (as ring announcer) and brother Clint (as referee) in what has become a family tradition. The casting of Craig Bierko as Max Baer was brilliant as he is frightening as the hard-hitting (and future father of Jethro Bodine!) heavyweight fighter. Not sure exactly what to say about Paul Giamatti. He wreaks acting greatness as Braddock’s longtime loyal manager. Giamatti will no doubt garner much discussion for a Best Supporting nomination for the Oscars. This role is well-written and multi-faceted and Giamatti brings a wonderful spirit to the film.

We already know how the real life story ends, but as with Howard’s Apollo 13, that in no way distracts from the power of the story or the film. Ron Howard has two upcoming high-profile projects: The DaVinci Code and a remake of East of Eden. He could easily secure his place in Hollywood history if he delivers on those films in the same manner he delivers here.  What a shame that this film did not have the box office draw it deserved.  Many were apparently turned off by the realistic, depression-era look of the film.  Ironically, this is part of the film’s greatness.

8. The Squid and the Whale

 Writer/Director (and Wes Anderson collaborator) Noah Baumbach presents a semi-autobiographical therapy session where he unleashes the anguish and turmoil that has carried over from his childhood. The result is an amazing insight into what many people go through in a desperate attempt to make their family life work.

The casting of Jeff Daniels forces us to view him as the grown up Flap from Terms of Endearment. He has become a bitter, unfocused, pompous ass of a person, father, husband and professor. The inability to recapture the magic of his early writing success has caused him to look down on all other writers … whether they be Fitzgerald or his own wife. This is Daniels’ best work ever on screen and is at once, painful and a joy to behold.

Laura Linney plays his wife as a woman who loves her kids unequivocally and has a zest for life that her downbeat husband no longer shares. Her new found success as a writer sets her off on a trail of confidence and joy, all the while understanding that her family still needs her very much.

The kids really take the film to the next level. Jessie Eisenberg (brilliant in Roger Dodger) and Owen Kline (son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates) are both scene stealers as they struggle in their own distinct ways with their separated parents and their continuance through adolescence. Watching Eisenberg worship his dad and subsequently realize the truth is just amazing stuff. Kline’s outbursts on the tennis court and at the ping pong table are nothing compared to his discovery of alcohol and self-pleasure. The angst and pain these two experience is felt by millions of kids in divorce situations.

Other outstanding performances include William Baldwin (the one from Backdraft), Holly Feifer (as Eisenberg’s first girlfriend) and Anna Paquin (underused, but still very effective). Baldwin provides some comic relief with his incessant “my brother” narrative and Feifer is extraordinary in capturing teen adoration as she lusts after Eisenberg. Thanks to her distinct similarity in looks to Linney, I laughed outloud when Daniels tells Eisenberg “she’s not my type”.

Listening to Daniels try to manipulate everyone he communicates with causes immense dislike among viewers, but we can’t help but feel some empathy for him as he seems to believe he is doing all he can do put his family back together. His fatherly advice is not to be missed (or followed!). Watching him look for the perfect parking place is really his search for his place in a world that has deserted him.

Baumbach has created a terrific film and probably exorcised some personal demons along the way. Definitely not a film for the whole family, but it offers much insight and many messages. Also the use of the soundtrack is downright brilliant including key music from Pink Floyd and Loudon Wainright.

9. Brokeback Mountain 

 One of the most anticipated films of the year, Brokeback Mountain is a beautiful trip down a painful road. Based on the short story of Annie Proulx, the great Larry McMurtry has provided a screenplay that is both effective and affecting. Director Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) does the rest.

The two lead characters played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger are very solid – Ledger is even exceptional in parts with his marble-mouth manner of speech. However, the two things that take this film to greatness are the painful story and the stunning photography. Although postcards play a role in the story, numerous shots in the film are as beautiful as any postcard or painting ever seen. Lee proves again that his eye for nature is without equal.

If one can view this as a forsaken love story rather than a gay cowboy movie, the impact proves much greater – even powerful. While Gylenhaal’s Jack “f’n” Twist finds an easy way to cope, Ledger’s Ennis continues his lifelong struggle with merely existing. His attempts at relationships are always missing something and we have no problem believing this is due to his very rough childhood. His marriage to Michelle Williams (Ledger’s real life squeeze) is torturous to watch and she is marvelous in her discovering the truth about her husband. Randy Quaid has a nice turn as the boss who first hires Gylenhaal and Ledger, and Anne Hathaway is fine as Mrs. Twist.

The real credit for this masterpiece goes to Lee, McMurtry and Proulx.  A haunting guitar theme compliments a monumental piece of film story telling that covers two decades of forbidden and stolen love. Not always easy to watch, but definitely worth it.

10. Millions

 What a rare gem! It’s a feel-good movie for all ages that packs a wallop with its message. A wildly imaginative 7 year old is nearly crushed as a bag filled with money falls on his makeshift playhouse. Being an expert on Saints – to the point of visualizing, conversing with, and quoting their lifespan – young Damian (played by the amazing newcomer Alexander Etel) immediately begins to grapple with how best to give the money away to those in need. His more capitalistic and pragmatic 9 year old brother Anthony (very well played by Lewis Owen McGibbon) instead dreams of investments, property and power over his peers. The brothers, who recently lost their mom, constantly battle over how to hide and use the new found riches.

Creative Director Danny Doyle (28 Days Later, Trainspotting) has delivered a sweet masterpiece with a message on morality and opportunity. Watching Damian plead “It’s Not Right” is almost frighteningly painful as he so desperately wants to do the right thing.  His innocence is overwhelming to the audience. The combination of humor, drama and message make for a delightful movie experience that I hope many will seize.

11. King Kong

 After months of previews and days of repeated Letterman jokes, director Peter Jackson’s (LOTR fame) amazing project explodes onto the big screen!  The anticipation of where Jackson’s imagination and talented technical crew would take this epic story was almost unbearable for us film freaks.  Alas, triumph, not disappointment, is the final verdict.

This is the third major release of the fabled story from adventurer/film producer Merian C. Cooper.  Mr. Cooper’s real life dream and subsequent morning notes were the basis of the Kong story.  The 1933 version starred Fay Wray, who was just terrific as the “Beauty” who is gifted to the great ape.  In 1976, Jessica Lange was the weak link in an otherwise solid, but unspectacular attempt to update the story.  Now, 72 years after the first one, Jackson takes us on a ride not to be missed.  Naomi Watts brings talent and depth to a role she evidently bought into heart and soul.  Her scenes with Kong are jaw-dropping and emotional.

The story of Kong is a love story, but of course, what sets it apart (other than the whole giant ape in love with a beautiful woman thing) is the action and the chase.  This is where Jackson really kicks the film into a gear never before seen.  The jungle action had me tensed up and squirming.  I was exhausted!  Not to give anything away, but you will see creatures that you never imagined and can only hope to never see again!

The strength of the film is in the jungle scenes, but the boat trip on the Venture is exceptional as well.  The captain, played by East German Thomas Kretxchman (who will be appearing in The Celestine Prophecy) has a real presence; Kyle Chandler is very Clark Gable-ish as the leading man; Colin Hanks (yes, Tom’s kid) is effective; Jack Black has just the perfect blend of mischievous con man and big time dreamer; and as stated Naomi Watts is spectacular as Ann Darrow.  In addition, the final gunner plane scenes around the Empire State building will leave you in awe.  If you suffer from vertigo or have any queasiness with heights, this part of the film will leave you nauseous as Jackson does an amazing job of capturing the height of the battle.

Sadly, Jackson’s plan to have Fay Wray utter the famous line “It was Beauty that killed the Beast” never happened due to Ms. Wray’s passing. The only weakness of the film comes from Adrian Brody who seems to think acting is messing up your hair and blinking your big eyes.  Also the dinosaur chase scenes are the only time that the CG get in the way.  In keeping with tradition, Jackson is listed as a gunner.  In the original, Merian C. Cooper jumped in a plane and was the one to finally take Kong down.  What a thrilling, frenetic pace combined with a story that goes much deeper than one would presume.  Definitely not for the youngsters, but those looking for action and adventure will be thrilled

12. Downfall

 Any filmmaker takes a risk putting the image of Adolf Hitler on screen. Many argue that providing any type of human image for this monster is too good for him. On the other hand, many believe there is much to learn from this tragic, horrific era. Downfall is based on two separate books by Joachim Fest and Traudl Junge. The movie begins and ends with portions of Frau Junge’s final interview. It is painful to watch her in her 80’s still struggling with choices made in her 20’s … her conscience still eating away as she asks the question of herself, “Could I have known?”

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel has crafted a docu-drama that leaves us feeling as if we are in the bunker during those final 12 days. The emotions of all involved are gut-wrenching. It is stunning to witness Hitler’s balancing act of continuing his pursuit of world dominance in front of his officers, while carefully orchestrating his own demise behind closed doors.

While most of the acting is top notch, there are 4 performances that truly stand out. Alexandria Maria Lara as Traudl Junge was a joy to watch as she dutifully and loyally carries out her job tasks, while maintaining an immense respect and admiration for her boss. Juliane Kohler as Eva Braun literally brightens the screen and bunker every time she appears. Apparently comfortable with her place in history – beside her man in a hopeless situation, her smile never leaves as she exudes confidence for those closest to Hitler. Corinna Hartouch as Magda Goebbels ALMOST had me believing that lovingly poisoning one’s kids could be forgivable when losing a way of life that has been absorbed into their soul.

Of course, what really makes this film work is the chillingly masterful performance of Bruno Ganz. It is as if we are watching home movies from the bunker. His power while strategizing with the officers and charm when dealing with kids and women are frightening. The most amazing times, however, come during his moments of soul-searching as he realizes the dream is lost.

Accept this as an insight into history and not an attempt to humanize the monster. There are no signs that the filmmaker has attempted to excuse any of the decisions made by the regime. This is strictly a historical perspective on the confusion and paranoia brought on when power thirsty types lose their way. Amazing to watch, it is like eavesdropping on history.

13. Capote

 This is a powerful, mesmerizing, disquieting film. It is the fascinating story of a fascinating story. For those of us old enough to remember Truman Capote, it is chilling to see his reincarnation through Phillip Seymour Hoffman. For those of us who have read Capote’s book In Cold Blood, it is gut-wrenching to witness some of what brought the book to life. For lovers of film, this one is a must see.

Hoffman has spent years building an impressive resume in Hollywood, ranging from exceptional support work (Scent of a Woman, Twister) to underrated indie leads (Owning Mahoney, Love Liza). He is a craftsman and artist, an actor’s actor. His turn as Capote transcends anything he has ever done. This is no impersonation. While watching the movie, we forget he is an actor. He is Capote as we become lost in the story.

The essence of the film is Capote’s bizarre attraction to one of the two men accused of the brutal slaying of a rural Kansas family. Much speculation has occurred over Capote’s relationship with Perry Smith, but make no mistake, it led to his most important work and probably his lost soul.  We believe Capote when he says this is the book he was “always meant to write”.

Director Bennett Miller does a nice job of letting the character and story speak. No fancy camera stuff. Capote poses and alternates between the torn character visiting Smith in prison and the master celebrity holding court with the “in” New York crowd.

Catherine Keener turns in some fine support work as Nelle Harper Lee, Capote’s childhood friend and the writer of To Kill a Mockingbird. Ms. Lee’s story could make a fine film as her life as a recluse rivals that of J.D. Salinger. We are left to ponder on the extent of the collaborative efforts of Lee and Capote.

 Not a film for everyone, but it is definitely for those who enjoy the highest quality acting within a remarkable story line.

 14. Where the Truth Lies

 Always interesting and creative, writer/director Atom Egoyan (Felicia’s Journey, The Sweet Hereafter) delivers another mind bender that is a cinematic joy. Egoyan’s screenplay benefits from three terrific lead performances by Kevin Bacon, Colin Firth and Alison Lohman (so very good in White Oleander,  Matchstick Men).

Bacon and Firth play the fictional team of Lanny Morris and Vince Collins, who are national sensations thanks to their mob-run nightclub and telethon act. Think Martin and Lewis knee-slapping live comedy. Of course, with their fame comes drugs, sex (lots of it) and the always present dark emotional problems. At their peak, their world is rocked when a dead girl is found in their hotel room. Years later, Lohman’s character enters as a journalist out to write a story on the truth behind the comedy team and especially that night in the hotel. What she finds out about the performers and herself is the juicy fun part of the movie.

The best way I can think of to describe the film is that it has the feel of the great 40’s noir, only it is updated and in color with a heart-pounding score. Remarkably, the murder mystery is almost reduced to an afterthought.

15. Good Night and Good Luck

 What a thrill it must be for George Clooney to see his pet project come to life in such a meaningful and impressive manner. Many have seen the interview where Clooney beams when re-telling the story of his dad’s review of the film, “You got it right”.

 The film opens with an Edward Murrow speech given the week before I was born. His words are just as powerful now as they were then. TV can, and does, manipulate the viewer. Of all the changes of the past 40 years, few mention the dramatic changes in TV news. Today’s broadcasts are dominated by two things: the impressive looking anchor who reads the teleprompter and the investigative reporter who tries to blow the lid off some new scandal. As Murrow says, “dialog on the issues is key”. Sadly, this is a lost art.

 From that opening speech, David Strathairn becomes Edward Murrow. He fully captures the drive, integrity and quest for truth. As terrific as Strathairn’s performance is, I would not label this as a bio film. It is much more an expose on a period of our history that was downright frightening and shows how lucky we are that someone was courageous enough to stand up and point out the injustice of the accusations from Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his committee. How amazing that this was only 50 years ago.

 Writer/Director/Actor Clooney assembled a very strong supporting cast including Robert Downey, jr., Patricia Clarkson, Ray Wise, Jeff Daniels, Frank Langella as William Paley, and Grant Heslov as Don Hewitt (future backbone of “60 Minutes”). Clooney made two decisions that really add to the authenticity of the film. First, he filmed in Black and White. Second, he used actual clips of McCarthy. Nothing is scarier than reality.

This film would make for great classroom discussion in High School civics or government classes and could be a great tool for future and current journalists.

16. Batman Begins

 Fans of the Dark Knight (like me) have been waiting anxiously for this project. Anticipation built when Christopher Nolan (Memento) was named director and suspense grew as many young bucks pursued the lead. “American Psycho” created many cries of “WHO?”, but those in the know were pleased and the anticipation grew. Slowly the supporting cast was put in place: Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Tom Wilkinson, Ken Watanabe, the great Rutger Hauer and even Michael Caine! Then began the year long wait.

Although the final product disappoints on some fronts: Katie Holmes is bloody AWFUL, there is never a good clear shot of the batsuit and Bruce Wayne lacks the elegance that we would expect, even hardcore fans are satisfied. The biggest thing this one lacks is the colorful villain that the Batman comics were known for. Cillian Murphy is bone-chilliing as The Scarecrow, but we know immediately he is not THE bad guy. Christian Bale is a terrific Batman (even though he never gets Bruce quite right), the fight scenes are above average, the Gotham City set is truly impressive, seeing the progression from child to young adult is interesting, the film’s sound is top notch and the multitude of film locations is spectacular.

Many will complain that the film is too dark – both visually and emotionally. Visually speaking, this is Gotham at its absolute low point. Emotionally … hey, at least it’s not Batman and Robin.

17. Junebug

 Director Phil Morrison and Writer Angus MacLachlan collaborated on Tater Tomater, which was featured at 1990’s Sundance Festival. Together again, they have created a nice home-spun tapestry of family relationships. Despite its seemingly bizarre group of characters, we find ourselves easily relating to the difficulties in understanding and communicating with those in our family – those who, theoretically, should be most like us.

The filmmakers have assembled a cast of mostly veteran actors, but no Hollywood “stars”. The most recognizable is Benjamin McKenzie (“The O.C.”) who plays the simmering quiet little brother whose wife, played brilliantly by Amy Adams, is with child. Others include Embeth Davidtz as the wife of prodigal son George (Alessandro Nivola, who played Pollux Troy in the underrated Face/Off); an electric Frank Hoyt Taylor as the off-center civil war artist David Wark; and veterans Celia Weston and Scott Wilson as the parents of the quietly feuding boys.

Although the film’s heart and soul is the theme of family and the stress it creates, while somehow producing the draw that cannot be ignored, it also does a really wonderful job of capturing the spirit of southern small time living. At the center of all of this is Amy Adams, who literally steals the film as the eternally optimistic and determined “firecracker” Ashley. Her performance is outstanding, multi-layered, thought-provoking and genuine.  Ms. Adams will be a star.

This is a necessarily slow-moving film that can be uncomfortable to watch, while at the same time causing you to smile, laugh and even tear up a bit.

18. The Chronicles of Narnia

 How wonderful to see a family action/adventure that makes sense to those of us who have not contributed to J.K. Rowling’s enormous fortune. Director Andrew Adamson (of Shrek fame) brings to life the enormously popular stories of C.S. Lewis. “Narnia” is a thrilling ride with a story, a message and some amazing characters and action.

From a technical standpoint the battle scene challenges most anything accomplished in the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter movies. The effects make me believe this is what legendary effects specialist Ray Harryhausen envisioned as he worked his magic in the “Sinbad” movies and later in Clash of the Titans.

Lewis did little to hide the biblical allegory, going as far as calling the 4 children of the prophecy the children of Adam. Good versus evil, sacrifice for the good of others and the confused doubter all play a part in the story. It is, however, initially a bit off-setting to experience talking beavers and wolves and a sly, deceitful fox. The impact is that we care very much for the characters and their desire and reluctance to do the right (and courageous) things.

The four children are all pretty much unknown to American audiences and newcomer Georgie Henley is marvelous as bright-eyed Lucy Pevensie. Tilda Swinton is perfect as the White Witch. She is a real life Cruella Deville on steroids. She has the icy stare and cut features that Adamson’s first choice Michelle Pfeiffer lacks. We really dislike her … and that’s a good thing!!  Parents be warned that the battle scene is very intense and some of the visuals will frighten the youngest viewers. On the bright side, most adults will enjoy the film every bit as much as the kids in the audience. Now will someone please figure out a way to make C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters into a film?

19. Walk the Line

 Although I am not sure Johnny Cash gets due credit for his impact on the music world, supposedly Cash and his wife, the talented June Carter, hand picked Joaquin Phoenix and Reece Witherspoon to star. Whether true or a bit of legend, the two leads are nothing short of fantastic. Phoenix reminds of Gary Busey’s turn as Buddy Holly more than 25 years ago and Witherspoon is even better.

Writer/Director James Mangold (Identity, Girl Interrupted) does a really nice job balancing the personal and musical development of Cash the man, with a love story for the ages between John and June. Many films struggle to have one decent story line and this one manages to do justice to two. The film does show warts and all.  Phoenix and Witherspoon do all their own singing and both are outstanding performances and a joy to behold. The scenes of the infamous Folsom Prison concert are raw and heartfelt.

The amazingly talented T Bone Burnett handles the music in the film and does a nice job with the selections as well as the pace. The film probably will appeal to those over 40, but younger viewers could gather a better understanding of the roots of country, folk and rock music. At the same time, they will be treated to a very real and touching love story.

 20. Off the Map

 Wonderfully written by Joan Ackermann and beautifully directed by Campbell Scott (son of George C. Scott and better known as an actor in Roger Dodger and Dying Young), this film has a very earthy, spiritual quality that is rarely captured in cinema. Just outstanding acting from veterans Sam Elliott, Joan Allen and J.K. Simmons. Elliott, who is well known for his strong screen presence and booming baritone voice, goes totally against type as the confused, weepy, unbearably quiet, depressed father, friend, and husband. Joan Allen also steps out a bit as the earthy, part-Hopi Indian mother who is at peace with nature. J.K. Simmons (seen recently in HBO’s “OZ”) may be the most centered person in the film as the enormously quiet friend of the family who is searching for nothing, yet finds even greater happiness.

As terrific as these veterans are, the movie really belongs to little known Jim True-Frost and startling newcomer Valentina deAngelis as Bo. True-Frost as drop-out IRS agent / now artist William Gibbs is a pleasure to watch as he experiences life for the first time and just literally melts into the New Mexico landscape. Bo is an amazing character who is often wise beyond her years as she scams big companies for freebies. Bo loves her Mom and never loses hope for her dad.  The camera just adores young deAngelis.

Campbell Scott paints a gorgeous picture of life with New Mexico and simplicity as a backdrop. My favorite scene is when Bo is secretly watching the newly arrived William watch Arlene standing nude in the garden while watching a beautiful coyote. Everyone is watching, yet none see the others. Good stuff. 

21. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

 With Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish, the underrated Beetlejuice and the underviewed Frankenweenie) at the helm, there was little doubt that this version would follow the novel much closer than the original kiddie film with Gene Wilder and the torturous Sammy Davis, Jr song.

What was not anticipated was the eeriness Johnny Depp would bring to his portrayal of Wily Wonka. He is downright freaky and creepy!! It is amazing and captivating to watch Burton and Depp craft the story of the isolated man-child and his disgust with all things impure. Depp’s performance drives the film to depths it would have otherwise not reached.

The sets are amazing, although the CGI are mediocre at best. The great Danny Elfman produced another terrific score and also recaptured his Oingo Boingo days by writing and performing the Loompa numbers.  Overall, this is not an actor’s film. However, in addition to Depp, young Freddie Highmore (captivating as Peter in Finding Neverland) delivers a nice, hug-able performance as Charlie. The casting of the “other” kids and their parents was the biggest disappointment.  Surprised Burton couldn’t do better.

This film is funny, touching and often surreal. As with the novel, it carries a message and is not meant for young children. Some of the dialog is difficult to hear (especially the songs) but there are plenty of laughs and WOW’s!!

22. Munich 

 We never really know which Steven Spielberg is going to show up. Will it be the incredible storyteller of Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan? Or will it be the fun loving, mushy, sometimes too-cute-for-his-own-good director off AI and Catch Me if You Can? No question, the famed storyteller and master technician brought his A game for Munich.

We get the sickening aftermath of the tragic story involving the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. SS crafts a dramatic reenactment amidst the the real-life newsreels featuring sportscasters Jim McKay and Howard Cosell thrust into unfamiliar territory. For those of us old enough to remember, this became a moment like Kennedy’s assassination and the walk on the moon … we recall where we were when McKay informs “They’re all gone”.

Strangely, the story of the original terrorists is almost secondary. Watching actress Lynn Cohen reincarnate Prime Minister Golda Meir is very creepy. She really captures the spirit and power of the woman as the Israeli government organizes an assassination team to take care of the terrorists involved.  Spielberg allows the viewer to discover, with the leader of the team (Eric Bana), the goal of revenge is pretty hopeless and that bloodshed could go on forever with these tactics.

Is there any hope that these two lands can reconcile and live peaceably? Spielberg does not really answer. The real sadness is that this clash of ethnic, cultural and religious differences offers no real hope for change in the present or future. This is stunning visual storytelling and remarkable film-making that will touch you and frustrate you.

23. Sin City 

 This is a very loyal adaptation of the graphic novels (not comic books!!) of Frank Miller.  The driving force behind the movie is the always fascinating Robert Rodriguez (Once Upon a Time In Mexico).  Legend has it that the opening scene with Josh Hartnett and Marley Shelton was filmed by Rodriguez and delivered as a gift to Miller in an effort to gain the writer’s approval to make this film. What we see here is the total Rodriguez vision.

Rodriguez uses color sparingly to prevent the ad nauseum viewing of blood and to capitalize on the always night, usually rainy scenes. The splashes of color are very dramatic and are usually red (blood, sheets, cars) with a few exceptions, such as the crystal blue eyes of Alexis Bledel (Tuck Everlasting, Gilmore Girls).

 A few of the many characters really stand out. Mickey Rourke, Benecio del Toro and Brittany Murphy all nail their characters and it is always a pleasure to watch Michael Madsen pull off another twisted character. The weaker links are Jessica Alba (yeah, I know, who cares if she can’t act) and Rosario Dawson. Bruce Willis and Powers Boothe are fine in their roles, but the most delightful character is Miho played by stoic Chanel model Devon Aoki (daughter of Benihana founder Rocky Aoki). Not sure how much Elijah Wood got paid, but it had to be the easiest money he ever made. My biggest complaint with the film is the miscasting of Clive Owen as Dwight.

Overall, Rodriguez delivers another signature, unique film with great characters, music and cars. Doesn’t hurt to have his best bud, QT, listed a guest director. 

24. Corpse Bride

 Tim Burton reminds me of the “Seinfeld” episode when Kramer tells Jerry he is going to a fantasy camp and Jerry says “Kramer’s whole life is a fantasy camp“. Burton has earned his place in Hollywood and is now in a position to create what he wants, when he wants it. Best known for his films such as Batman, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish and this year’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Burton never fails to deliver a creative piece of film-making that brings something new to the screen.

Corpse Bride is no exception with its stunning artistry and animation accompanied by a solid story line, terrific music and star power voice acting from the likes of Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, Albert Finney, Jane Horracks and the legendary Christopher Lee. Check out some of the details of the animation – wood rot on the Bride’s casket and intricacy in the costumes. The great Danny Elfman shines once again with amazing music and work as Bonejangles. The entire saloon musical fantasy is unlike anything ever seen on film.

Probably not for very small kids, but otherwise most kids, teens and adults should enjoy and appreciate this excellent, though short film. One cool bit of nostalgia is that the brand of piano in the mansion is Harryhausen, a Burton tip of the cap to the original master of stop action special effects seen in the old dinosaur and Sinbad movies.

 GUILTY PLEASURESRed Eye (only the scenes on the plane), Sin City, Where the Truth Lies, Chronicles of Narnia, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

MOST OVERRATED: March of the Penguins, Rent

MOST DISAPPOINTING: Ice Harvest, Elizabethtown, Proof, Broken Flowers

SLEEPERS: Thumbsucker; Junebug; Everything is Illuminated; The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio; My Date With Drew; Goodbye Lenin

 

 

 

** All film pictures obtained from www.imdb.com

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