Tops and bottoms

Another year, another couple hundred movies. Overall, it wasn’t a bumper crop – but as Spencer Tracy said of the fact that there wasn’t much meat on Katharine Hepburn in Pat and Mike, what there was was “cherce.”

It helped that the studios – at least Sony Classics, Focus and the Weinsteins – were generous in getting end-of-the-year limited releases to town for press screenings. As a result, you’ll find three movies on my best list that have yet to open here.

Bear in mind, the worthy films don’t stop at the top 10. Other 2005 releases worth considering are: Broken Flowers, The Constant Gardener, Crash, Everything is Illuminated, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, The Jacket, King Kong, Kung Fu Hustle, Ladies in Lavender, Layer Cake, The Libertine, Loggerheads, The Matador, Melinda and Melinda, Me and You and Everyone We Know, The Merchant of Venice, Millions, Mrs. Henderson Presents, The Producers, Separate Lies, Shopgirl, Thumbsucker, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride and The Weatherman.

Similarly, there were more than 10 “unworthy” movies. What about The Cave, Cry Wolf, Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, Elektra, The Fog, Hostage, House of Wax, The Island, The Man, Lords of Dogtown, Rent, The Ring 2 and Supercross? I wouldn’t want these titles to feel left out.

The best

1. Breakfast on Pluto. Neil Jordan’s latest marks his second film to be based on a Patrick McCabe novel (the first was The Butcher Boy) and it gets my vote as the best – and certainly the most exuberantly creative – film of the year. There’s a daring performance at its center by Cillian Murphy as cross-dressing Patrick “Kitten” Braden, a terrific early ‘70s pop soundtrack, and more heart than a dozen ordinary pictures. Watch for it to hit town.

2. Brokeback Mountain. Everything you’ve heard about Ang Lee’s “gay cowboy” movie is true (unless it came from Michael Medved) – or at least close enough as to make no difference. At bottom, it’s less about gay or straight – though make no mistake, it requires the gay aspect to work – than it’s a story about loss. The emotional honesty of the film is its key, and the fact that it didn’t make my number-one slot has more to do with personal taste on a filmmaking level than the quality of Lee’s film.

3. Bee Season. Dismissed in some quarters as pretentious – and I won’t deny that there’s a level on which that’s true – this film from Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End) is one of the year’s most daring and probing works. The very fact that it’s not afraid to tackle big questions about religious belief systems – their power, their truth and their inherent dangers – makes it noteworthy. That it ultimately finds value in any system only as it relates to human interaction makes it more so.

4. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Is it a step back from the maturity Tim Burton evidenced with Big Fish? The case could be made, yes, but who says all art has to be serious? And anyway, aspects of this wildly inventive film have their serious side. Regardless, it’s a rich, quirky, unique film with terrific performances from Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore and David Kelly – along with glorious production design and four great Danny Elfman songs.

5. Transamerica. Duncan Tucker’s debut feature film – the story of a preoperative transsexual (Felicity Huffman) whose psychiatrist won’t sign the final papers for the operation until the issue of an illegitimate son from a youthful tryst is dealt with – is not flawless. Sometimes it’s too broad. At one point, it threatens to become a knockoff of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. But enough of it works to overcome any obstacles – thanks in no small part to Huffman’s performance, which ought to earn her the Oscar that will probably go to Reese Witherspoon for her safe impression of June Carter in the safely ordinary Walk the Line.

6. Good Night, and Good Luck. George Clooney’s second directorial effort lacks some of the creative punch of his first (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), and it incorporates a clunky device (cutaways to a blues singer) that really doesn’t work. But it’s a strong work about an important topic that is in our best interest not to forget, or, worse, allow to be rewritten by revisionist “historians.” Of the many films about the McCarthy era witch-hunts, this one ranks up there with Chaplin’s A King in New York and Martin Ritt’s The Front – and in many ways outdoes them by making the story relevant to today.

7. Syriana. A young friend of mine saw this the other day and commented, “Basically it’s saying we’re all pretty well screwed.” That’s a pretty on-target assessment of Stephen Gaghan’s complex and bleak look at the world of oil, governmental corruption, personal corruption and Middle Eastern politics. It offers no solutions and no comfort, but it’s undeniably powerful and brilliantly done. Try to catch it while it’s still in theaters – it will suffer on video.

8. Stay. Largely dismissed and a box-office fiasco of note, I’m still of the opinion that Stay is a far better film than Marc Forster’s more acclaimed works, Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland. It’s also one of the most fascinatingly made films of recent years. A compelling and extremely unsettling film that appears to be about a psychiatrist (Ewan McGregor) trying to keep a young man (Ryan Gosling) from committing suicide, but is it? When everything has a symbolic weight, and time and place have no solidity, it’s hard to say for sure. Deep or merely messing with your mind? You decide.

9. Sin City. This wasn’t on my list a few days ago, but watching this collaborative effort by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller (adapted from Miller’s comic books) again, it knocked off the admirable Merchant of Venice by sheer force of its stylistic creativity and gleefully sick humor. Yeah, it’s a nasty bit of goods, but it’s also an amazing achievement – just not one for the squeamish or easily offended.

10. A History of Violence. Far from the best film David Cronenberg has made, A History of Violence is perhaps his leanest and meanest, and in some ways his most accessible. The title indicates not only the main character’s personal history, but our own collective history of violence and how we respond to it. Disturbing in ways most films never even consider.

The worst

1. Stealth. It wasn’t easy choosing the absolute worst of 2005, but this appalling, jingoistic and morally loathsome actioner starring Josh Lucas, the poor man’s Matthew McConaughey, finally climbed to the top of the slag heap. It actually redefines the term “lowest common denominator.” In fact, it couldn’t find an audience with sufficiently low expectations and died a quick death at the box office.

2. Wolf Creek. Highly touted as “something new” in horror, this stinker is just more of the same – only from Australia. Three unlikable characters go to the outback and are tortured by a lackluster psycho. Even the kangaroos looked bored.

3. The Chronicles of Narnia. I know I’m in the minority here, but this indigestible religious allegory/children’s fantasy offered just about the most tedious two hours I spent in a theater this year. Takes forever to get going and then is often cheap and cheesy looking, with its big battle finale taking place at what looks like a Renaissance Fair. And Santa Claus giving children weapons for Christmas? Why, in a world with a lion named Aslan as its savior, are they celebrating Christmas anyway? Do those taking it as a serious work on Christianity not notice that it’s really about four kids who come out of a closet?

4. Kingdom of Heaven. Ridley Scott’s big budget, spectacular, dishonest snoozefest poses the question: Can Orlando Bloom carry a movie? He can’t.

5. The Dukes of Hazzard. I believe that the very fact that there’s nostalgia for the TV show The Dukes of Hazzard is the fifth, if not the sixth, of the seven signs of the apocalypse. But even the TV version was better than this obnoxious celebration of stupidity.

6. Alone in the Dark. Uwe “Tax Write-off” Boll does the unthinkable and makes something even worse than his first video game-to-film atrocity, House of the Dead. Noisy and incoherent in the unique Boll manner. The question now is whether he can top himself with the upcoming BloodRayne.

7. Into the Blue. When “Shut up, you coke whore!” is the best line in a movie, you’re in trouble. This isn’t a movie really. It’s an excuse for an underwater camera to glide between Jessica Alba’s legs every few minutes with all the leering imbecility of a high school kid with a mirror tied to his shoe.

8. The Perfect Man. A vile and sometimes downright creepy “family” comedy with Hilary Duff (always a sign of quality) as a matchmaking teen trying to hook Mom (Heather Locklear) up with a man so they’ll stop moving every time Mom gets dumped. A larger collection of self-centered and reprehensible characters cannot be imagined.

9. Aeon Flux. A trendy cartoon comes to the big screen 10 years or so too late in this stock sci-fi look at a dystopian (is there any other kind?) future society. Supposedly a work about female empowerment, it’s mostly an excuse to dress Charlize Theron in kinky leather and other skimpy outfits for a teenage boy fanbase – makes Logan’s Run look sincere and sophisticated. It’s also boring. I saw it with a sci-fi fan who kept falling asleep.

10. High Tension. A glossy horror flick from la belle France where they say Haute Tension. They also say merde in France. A standard slasher flick – with extra sadism and a heavy dose of homophobia – that’s been tarted up with a bid-for-art gimmick ending that makes no sense.

Pootie Tang Award: With flicks like The Dukes of Hazzard and Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo out there, it wasn’t easy coming up with the most distinguished awful comedy of 2005 – but Rob McKittrick’s painfully bad Waiting finally took the honors. Plumbing the depths of frat-boy humor at its most virulent, it’s the sort of thing that could give tastelessness a bad name.

Most Embarrassing Review in Hindsight: Giving three stars to War of the Worlds – a movie that turned the end of the world into a Spielbergified domestic drama about Tom Cruise and his annoying children coming to terms with each other. What was I thinking?

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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