Stuart Rachels


2005 Movie Round-Up





Top 10 Flicks of 2005 (in order)

In discussing these movies, I won't give away anything important.

1.  Munich


The best movie of the year. Don't be deterred by the hype. This is not a movie with a heavy-handed political message; this is a dramatic masterpiece. As with Schindler's List (1993), Steven Spielberg manages to assemble a cast of mostly lesser-known but first-rate actors. The subject is not the Munich hostage-taking, but the effort made afterwards by a squad of Isreali assassins, led by Eric Bana, to avenge those responsible in Europe.

Usually, I'm not impressed by the claim that deep truths can be learned through literature and film. (Why not just tell me what the truths are? Can shallow truths be learned through books and movies?) But I felt as though I learned something important from Munich. I won't say what.

2.  Good Night, and Good Luck.

Meet George Clooney: the hunk with depth. This is the story of Edward R. Murrow's courageous fight to discredit Senator Joseph McCarthy. ("Good night, and good luck" was the newsman's signature sign-off line--rather weak, really. Luck is needed most by the powerless.) This movie contains no surprises, but it is masterfully executed, and it wears well over time. I saw it twice and was surprised to enjoy the second viewing more. The film's use of black-and-white allows Clooney to intersperse real footage of McCarthy with David Strathairn and Robert Downey, Jr.   It works. The subtext is clear: what communists were to McCarthy, terrorists are to Bush. Somehow this is obvious without anachronisms, and without any mention of terror.

3.  Hustle and Flow


It's hard out there for a pimp.  This was a good movie all the way through. It's an enjoyable slice-of-life rather than a violent gritty inner-city saga. Terence Howard (nominated for Best Actor) plays an aspiring rap star in Memphis. The rapper Ludacris has a memorable role as a character named Skinny Black. Rap stars seem to be natural actors (Ice Cube, Mark Wahlberg, Tupak, Eminem, Ice-T, etc.).  Terence Howard's best song in the movie still rattles around in my head--I was glad to see it nominated for Original Song.

4.  The Squid and the Whale



This movie is about a dysfunctional family. The parents are played by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney; the kids are played by Anna Paquin and Jesse Eisenberg. Eisenberg, who reminds me of Michael Cera, would later star in Adventureland (2009), which I also recommend enthusiastically. The Squid and the Whale is reminiscent of Ordinary People (1980), though it mercifully contains more humor. Some people might find the subject-matter hard to enjoy, but I did not.

5.  Sin City


A dark, stylish adaptation of Frank Miller's violent comic-book stories.  The backgrounds are all computer-generated, and the movie's three plots feature Marv (Mickey Rourke), Dwight (Clive Owen), and Hartigan (Bruce Willis).  Marv is a hulking, good-hearted brute who wants to avenge the murder of his true love, Goldie.  Had the entire movie been about Marv, it would have been my favorite of the year. The other plot lines are okay.

6.  Brokeback Mountain



If you know this film only as "the gay cowboy movie," then it's better than you think.  It's really a character study of someone who is too repressed to understand himself. That topic lends itself better to novels than to film, and it is to Heath Ledger's credit that he communicates so much without words. I hadn't seen a protagonist so prone to silence since John Getz's character "Ray" in Blood Simple (1984). Not only Ledger but Jake Gyllenhaal and director Ang Lee can be proud of this one.

7.  Down in the Valley



Edward Norton stars in this slice-of-life drama about a teenager who falls for a man she meets at a gas station. I'll leave it at that.

8.  The Devil's Rejects


This is a sick, sick, twisted flick.  It makes Sin City look like fun family fare.  But if you liked Freeway (1996), and if you weren't too turned off by the Zed sequence in Pulp Fiction (1994), you might like it as much as I did.  It is Rob Zombie's continuation of the story of House of 1000 Corpses (2003), which people tell me was not good.  The Devil's Rejects is about some bad people having a big old time doing some very bad things in Texas.  Texas seems to be a particularly apt setting for a certain kind of stylized evil (as in Blood Simple and One False Move).  William Forsythe is especially good as Sheriff John Quincy Wydell.

9.  The Ice Harvest

This is my kind of movie: John Cusak is a mob lawyer, he's stolen some money, and bad things are looming. Billy Bob Thornton is good as always. For me the big surprise was Oliver Platt--has he always been so funny? It's nice to see a movie set in Wichita, since I can't remember ever seeing one set there. Hats off to Harold Ramis, who in the past has mostly directed comedies (Caddyshack, Vacation, Stuart Saves His Family, Analyze This, etc.).

10.  Match Point

I like Woody Allen's short stories, but I don't like his movies. They're pretentious, and they should be funnier. I do like some of them, but you can't say that Woody Allen is a great director just because he's made five good movies out of 45. Anyway, Match Point is my favorite of the bunch, despite Scarlett Johansson's typical performance. It's a clever, suspenseful crime story. If Woody Allen made fewer movies, there would probably be more Match Points among them.

Honorable Mentions:

Shopgirl (Steve Martin); A History of Violence (Viggo Mortensen); Cache (French), The Interpreter (Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman); Dark Water (Jennifer Connelly). I was glad to see William Hurt nominated for A History of Violence; Ed Harris might've gotten nominated for that too.

Here are my awards:

Best Actor:    Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote

I liked Seymour Hoffman in Boogie Nights and, especially, in The Talented Mr. Ripley. However, unlike many of my friends, I'm sick and tired of his sniveling-little-sex-pervert-loser-character (Magnolia, Happiness, etc.). Here he was perfect.

Seymour Hoffman had outstanding competition. Other fabulous performances: David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow (nominated for Best Actor); Mickey Rourke in Sin City; and Sean Penn in The Interpreter. Penn wins the prize for making a lot out of a little. All he does in that movie is stare at Nicole Kidman, trying to figure out whether she is lying. How can it be so enjoyable to watch someone stare at someone (who is fully clothed)? Perhaps this should replace the test of having actors read from the phone book.


Best Actress:   Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line

Joaquin Phoenix was great as Johnny Cash, but Reese Witherspoon stole the show as June Carter. The best actresses working today are Reese Witherspoon and Charlize Theron. Theron was very good in North Country (for which she also got nominated).


Best Supporting Actor:   Roger Bart, The Producers.

You've never heard of him, but he played Carmen Ghia, the common law assistant to Roger DeBris (played by Gary Beach). A small role, but somehow memorable. Geoffrey Rush was also great in Munich.

The Most Incomprehensible Movie of 2005:   Syriana

I think I would have liked it had I understood it.

The Best Movie About Hating Rich White Guys:   Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Jeffrey Skilling oozes deception.

This movie was nominated for Best Documentary. I enjoyed it, but it doesn't deserve an Oscar. Neither does Murderball, which was also pretty good. I fell asleep during The March of the Penguins. The footage in that movie was amazing but dull. Richard Roeper said that it should have been called The Standing of the Penguins.Thus, I hope that either Street Fight or Darwin's Nightmare wins Best Documentary, though I haven't seen either.

The Worst Array of Foreign Accents:   Last Holiday

(A Queen Latifah movie--why didn't I see you there?) Well, actually, this is a 2006 movie. But I'm not going to remember it next year, so I thought I'd mention it now.

The Worst 2005 Movie I Saw:   Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Cutesy, implausible, idiotic. I walked out.


It was not a particularly good movie year. But it was a great year for the academy. I can't ever remember being so pleased at the Oscar nominations (not to mention the host--Jon Stewart).



The Academy's Picks for Best Picture


Last year none of my favorites got nominated. This year three did: Munich, Brokeback Mountain, and Good Night, and Good Luck.


Capote


Great performances are not enough.  Although Philip Seymour Hoffman is my pick for Best Actor, and Catherine Keener was very appealing as Harper Lee, this movie was predictable and  didn't add up to much.  It's the story of Truman Capote doing the research for his mesmerizing book, In Cold Blood.  You get the feeling, watching the movie, that Capote's simmering love for Perry Smith is ultimately based on nothing but Perry's physical beauty. I don't deny the power of love based on lust, but it usually passes quickly.  In this case, we're led to believe that Perry's death ruined Capote forever.  Sad, yes.  Profound, no.

By the way, anyone who thinks that Philip Seymour Hoffman was overacting should see Truman Capote himself--for example, 
in Murder By Death (1976).  Hoffman's performance, if anything, was toned down to make Capote closer to palatable.  I'm sorry to say that the real Truman Capote was hideous to watch.

Crash

I hated it. Well, I enjoyed the first half, but the second half had me rolling my eyes, checking my watch, and trying to drink enough Diet Coke so I'd need to go to the bathroom.

This is one of those movies that "tries to tell it like it really is." But it's not really like that. In this movie, every character is a racist, all differences of opinion are handled by melodramatic shouting matches, and the plot is moved along by incredible coincidences. The result is a pretentious, in-your-face absurdity. I have the same opinion of Magnolia (1999), which so many people liked. Chasing Amy (1997) was a different kind of movie but had one of the same annoying features: people who supposedly care about each other are always yelling and then making dramatic exits after saying something scripted. Emotional manipulation is not good writing.


Brokeback Mountain


[Before I saw the movie--and thus before I put it on my favorites list--I wrote this:] I didn't see it.  I'm all for gay cowboy romance; I just don't like depressing love stories. Something tells me that there will be no happy ending for the love that dare not saddle up.