January 20, 2006
Best and Worst Films, and DVDs for 2005
The ongoing whine from Hollywood in 2005 was that the box-office numbers were down slightly from last year. So, instead of making a boatload of money, the studios merely made a butt-load instead.
It was the year of the final Star Wars flick, another Harry Potter opus and Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong. (The budgets of those three films alone were more than that of many countries.)
Locally, we saw some exciting new venues enter the Kansas City market. The Majestic at Zona Rosa raised the bar for pure luxury and comfort, featuring an upscale snack bar menu and buttons that allow patrons to order these treats without getting out of their overstuffed seats. The Legends Theatre near the Kansas Speedway boasts the Midwest’s largest movie screen and its VIP area offers a full array of adult beverages.
The IMAX screen at the Kansas City Zoo closed for good after struggling for years to find an audience. Luckily, AMC opened a new IMAX screen at its Olathe theatre. For movie fans, it was a wash.
In spite of the reported woes at the ticket booth, the fare from Hollywood and independent filmmakers was better than one might think. So, here are our picks for the best of the cinematic lot as well as the film flotsam and jetsam.
Poorly marketed and oddly released in the midst of the summer blockbuster schedule, Ron Howard’s fine, old-fashioned sports biopic never quite captured the audience it deserved. While it surely owes a lot to earlier boxing films like Champion and Body and Soul, Howard’s Depression-era epic incorporates some sophisticated contemporary cinematic techniques into the nostalgic mix.
Russell Crowe gives a strong performance as Jim J. Braddock, an everyman who beat all of the odds to become the world heavyweight champ and an inspiration to everyone struggling to overcome the nation’s economic implosion. Paul Giamatti (Sideways) is equally good as his careworn manager, Joe Gould.
Howard manages to pull off the same feat that he so impressively achieved with Apollo 13. In spite of the fact that audiences probably know the story’s outcome, the movie still manages to build palpable tension and suspense. Plus, the movie creates a strong sense of time and place that makes a potent social commentary as well.
Director Peter Jackson and his crack New Zealand production crew utilize the latest in movie magic to remake one of Hollywood’s greatest action flicks. While it may not be better than the 1933 original, it is surely just as good.
The seamless special effects that recreate old New York are just as impressive as the epic creature battles that take place on Skull Island, and the fine cast brings additional authenticity to this wildly entertaining opus.
Writer-director Paul Haggis, who scored last year with his screenplay for Million Dollar Baby, examines racism in contemporary Los Angeles with this beautifully rendered ensemble piece.
Kansas City’s own Don Cheadle leads a terrific cast in an insightful and thought-provoking film that takes a page out of the Robert Altman film structure handbook. Sandra Bullock and Terrance Howard give award-worthy performances.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
This stunning documentary artfully clarifies the details of the infamous corporate scandal, but does so in an even-handed and highly entertaining way. Alex Gibney’s film is based upon the exhaustive research done by Fortune magazine reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind and showed how greed, manipulation, negligence and unbridled arrogance brought about the collapse of one of America’s largest companies.
A charming, family friendly and inspired entry from England, Millions tells the tale of two brothers who discover a load of stolen cash that sets them on an intriguing moral adventure.
Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) and a cast of fine young actors bring a lot of authenticity to this fantasy that includes the appearance of a number of saints to help the lads make the right decisions.
Brothers, Good Night, and Good Luck, Layer
The Devil’s Rejects
When a horror film director has no talent, no ability to create tension and suspense with cinematic tools, there is only one thing that he can do to touch the audience. He resorts to bludgeoning viewers with gore.
And so it is with rocker-turned-filmmaker Rob Zombie’s abysmal The Devil’s Rejects, a sequel to his equally repugnant House of a Thousand Corpses. This flick details the further adventures of the twisted Firefly clan, a group of redneck killers who rape, torture there is clearly intent to pander to a base instinct for bloodlust. The movie doesn’t exist to scare us. It exists to titillate us. It’s as if he has created a fictional snuff film
From an ethical standpoint, that should probably be enough to dissuade most people from seeing The Devil’s Rejects. But Zombie’s ham-fisted direction is another reason to skip it. He just doesn’t know when to quit...but viewers should.
Martin Lawrence mails in his performance as a former NCAA basketball coach who loses his job and tries to make a comeback. Trouble is, the only team willing to give the petulant coach a chance is a junior high team. The screenplay should have been bounced.
Rebound is the bland byproduct of a system run by cynics. It contains no offensive material…unless you find banality offensive.
Son of Mask
The long-delayed sequel to the Jim Carrey hit, Son of the Mask stars Jamie Kennedy (Malibu’s Most Wanted) as Tim Avery, a wannabe cartoonist whose dog stumbles upon the magic mask left over from the initial film. It’s perfect if you want to take the family to a kiddie version of The Twilight Zone and follow it with a discussion of the birds and the bees.
Barry Watson (TV’s 7th Heaven) stars in this cheesy horror film about an evil specter living in a bedroom closet.
Director Stephen T. Kay (Get Carter) tried to overcome a bad script by trumping substance with style. His whiplash camera movements and screeching soundtrack “boos” are quite effective…up to a point. Once we’re accustomed to this barrage, however, the effect becomes utterly numbing.
Whatever happened to director John Singleton (Boys in the Hood)? His latest opus is a phony crime drama about foster brothers who reunite to seek revenge after their mother is murdered.
Mark Walberg, Andre Benjamin and a good cast are saddled with ridiculous dialogue and seem lost in this tedious and unbelievable action flick. It’s almost bad enough to be unintentionally funny.
The Honeymooners, The Pacifier, Stealth, Undiscovered, The Cave.
Russ Simmons can be contacted at email@example.com.
With Munich, Director Steven Spielberg has created a work of both global and local significance. The movie focuses on a team of Israeli agents charged with assassinating the people responsible for the murders of 11 Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany.
The beauty of Munich is that it puts a personal spin on what could have been blandly political. It captures the emotional torment of a team of amiable men whose emotional lives disintegrate as they carry out a vendetta for their country. Eric Bana gives a touching and layered performance as Avner, the team’s leader.
As usual, Spielberg uses details (sometimes bloody, horrible visuals) to create an ambiance and to ultimately create empathy for the plight of his characters. The film’s strength is that it accurately captures the fragility of human beings and the duality of human nature (sometimes devilishly brutal, at other times, angelically kind).
AMC Theatres offered a money-back guarantee on this film to get bodies into the seats. That’s one sure sign of the film’s high quality.
Cinderella Man tells the win-lose-win story of James J. Braddock, an American boxer of the early 20th Century. Russell Crowe (as Braddock) and Paul Giamatti (as Joe Gould) make a great team as the popular boxer and his audacious manager. This uplifting film will likely become a favorite for both boxing fans and non-fans.
Director Werner Herzog’s documentary creates more questions than answers, which adds to its appeal. Grizzly Man captures bits and pieces of the life of Timothy Treadwell, an environmental activist that spent 12 summers living with grizzly bears in Alaska. A bear finally killed Treadwell and his girlfriend, but not before Treadwell had shot hours of videotape capturing his life with the bears.
Herzog’s questioning and analytical voiceovers combine with Treadwell’s footage to create a compelling puzzle and a respectful portrayal of a strange, passionate man.
The art of acting is in not acting; the art is in becoming the character. Phillip Seymour Hoffman appears to have become Truman Capote, the famous author of the 1965 non-fiction novel In Cold Blood.
Hoffman’s portrayal has a complexity that makes it difficult to pigeonhole the character. This is a slow film that focuses on character rather than action, but when Hoffman is on the screen it’s difficult to take your eyes off him.
Walk the Line
The brilliance of this film lies in Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal of June Carter. The film captures the romance between Johnny Cash and Carter. There was lots of hype about the actors learning to sing and play instruments for the film, but the real story is Witherspoon, who brought to life a morally conflicted woman who fell in love with married man.
Walk the Line will likely garner much-deserved attention for Witherspoon.
A quiet film about suicide bombers seems to present an immediate paradox. However, this film works well precisely because it’s a quiet character study of two men friends that have been recruited as suicide bombers.
Paradise Now has a definite political viewpoint about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it also illuminates a world of which many Americans may not be aware.
Bigotry is hard to portray without some hyperbole and clichés. Crash contains both hyperbole and clichés, but it also has an excellent ensemble cast, which includes Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Terrence Howard and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges.
The script is smart (and at times shocking enough to be funny). Writer/director Paul Haggis doesn’t shy away from the ugly comments and situations that pepper typical American discourse about race.
Director Danny Boyle’s film about two young brothers who find a bag full of money is a definite charmer (and almost the polar opposite of his black comedy Shallow Grave).
Unlike his big brother, young Damien (Alexander Nathan Etel) wants to use the money to help people. Young Etel easily steals the show as a boy who is both innocent and wise. And the boys wind up in situations that audiences will likely find quite amusing.
The screen adaptation of Steve Martin’s novella Shopgirl provides a poignant and at times quirky dramatization of a May-December romance. However, Shopgirl turns out to be much more.
The movie presents a moving examination of human desire and acknowledges the emptiness that people sometimes discover after getting what they thought they wanted. In a sea of shallow romantic comedies, Shopgirl is a pearl.
Hustle & Flow
Hustle & Flow casts a light on the world of a struggling middle-class pimp who aspires to be a rapper. This film gained quite a bit of critical attention this year, primarily because of the extraordinary performance of Terrence Howard (as the pimp, Djay).
However, the Anthony Anderson (as producer, Key) and Taryn Manning (as one of Djay’s prostitutes, Nola) also turned in superb supporting performances.
Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo
The word tasteless best describes this sequel about an inept “man-whore.” Almost every group of people on the planet would have legitimate cause to be offended by this film. That includes people with physical disabilities, people with mental illnesses, African-Americans, gay men and probably even male prostitutes. It’s time for whoever green-lighted this franchise to just say no to dreck.
Are We There Yet?
My advice to Ice Cube: Get back to scowling at and tangling with adults. Leave the kiddies alone, especially those who are dangerously out of control, kids who commandeer SUVs and hop freight trains. They physically injured your character in the film, and the presence of such little ones in your future films will surely hurt you at the box office.
Anthony Anderson seriously redeemed himself in Hustle & Flow, but in this lowbrow comedy, he engaged in the kind of humor that black activists have been complaining about for years.
On one hand he portrays a successful black entrepreneur; but on the other, it’s clear that this entrepreneur’s lack of judgment would make him unable to hold a job at the golden arches. Don’t even get me started on this film’s insulting portrayals of women (it’s enough to say that the main characters secretary, Peaches, gives him pedicures).
What would happen if a federal agent became the primary caregiver of children and adolescents while on assignment to protect them? Well, let’s see. The baby could throw up on him. The older kids could defy him and trick him into wading through a sewer. Oh yeah, and eventually the kids could fall in love with him.
None of these ideas are refreshing or surprising. All of them, however, are used in The Pacifier, which like Are We There Yet?, wrongly pairs an action hero with misbehaving youngsters.
Hide & Seek
Despite two fine stars (Dakota Fanning and Robert De Niro), this film fell flat. The reason for the failure: the script, which delivered few real scary moments. The camera shots and eerie music repeatedly hinted that something tragic was coming, but the payoffs were few. Adding insult to injury, cute little Dakota Fanning was given black hair and made to look like one of the undead.
Alone in the Dark, The Cave, XXX: State of the Union, Dark Water, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Deborah Young can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE BEST DVDS
Raging Bull (Special Edition)
The best film of the 1980s is the best DVD of 2005. Director Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece, the brutal, black-and-white portrait of tormented boxer Jake La Motta, still stands as one of the most emotionally raw and unadulterated biopics ever made.
When the film was first released in 1980, Robert De Niro’s unforgettable performance as the controversial middleweight boxing champ won the actor great acclaim, a place in movie lore (after he gained 60 pounds for the film’s finale) and an Oscar win for best actor.
This Two-Disc Collector’s Set truly does justice to a movie that even after 25 years has lost not one iota of its intensity and power. There’s an all-new, four-part Behind the Scenes documentary that features interviews with all the major players, as well as a feature that compares archival footage of Lamotta in the ring to the film’s meticulous fight recreations. There are also four separate commentary tracks, featuring Scorcese, his long time editor Thelma Schoonmaker (ridiculously the only Oscar winner, other than De Niro, that Raging Bull produced), screenwriter Paul Schrader and even La Motta himself. This is a DVD essential, pure and simple.
The Wizard of Oz (Three-Disc Collector’s Edition)
Last year saw two all-time movie classics make their DVD debuts in grand style. Both The Wizard of Oz and King Kong are now available in extravagant Collector’s Editions sure to please fans of either film.
In addition to deleted scenes, six new documentaries, newsreels and scholarly commentary, the Three-Disc Wizard of Oz set include five different Oz-inspired short films, dating from 1910-1933. The Two-Disc King Kong Special Edition boasts over three hours of behind-the-scenes documentaries, but most interesting is the re-created footage of the legendary lost sequence, “The Spider Pit,” put together by Peter Jackson, director of the King Kong version now in theaters.
The Collector’s Editions of both films also include facsimile movie programs, post cards and such not available in the standard editions. And of course, each film has been painstakingly restored to its original, spectacular glory.
Frank Miller’s Sin City (Recut, Extended, Unrated)
As a film, Sin City obviously doesn’t belong in the same class as Raging Bull or The Wizard of Oz. Not that this darkly cartoonish noir was bad, with its cast of deranged killers, crooked cops, tough as nails brawlers, strippers in distress and prostitutes armed to the teeth, among other lovable lowlifes. It’s simply nowhere near a classic. As a DVD however…
Sin City (Recut, Extended, Unrated) may very well be worthy of such lofty praise. On this two-disc set, you get the Recut and Extended version of the film as well as the original theatrical release, plus commentary tracks featuring director Robert Rodriquez, co-director Frank Miller (writer/artist of the Sin City comics) and “Special Guest Director” Quentin Tarantino. There’s even an “audience reaction” track recorded at the film’s Austin premiere; a DVD first as far as I know.
Also interesting is the “green screen” version of the film, a high-speed glimpse of how it looked on the set, shooting a movie where all the color would later be wiped out and the backgrounds digitally animated. Ultimately, this DVD set’s coolest feature may be the full-length, 200-page graphic novel packaged inside, reprinting the very first Sin City story.
Lost: The Complete First Season
It’s maybe the biggest TV phenomenon since The X-Files or Twin Peaks, but if you’re like me, you missed the boat when the first season of Lost was airing. With this 7-disc DVD set in hand however, you won’t have to wait on the edge of your seat for agonizing weeks at a time between episodes. Instead, once you’re hooked (and you most likely will be), then you can burn through the episodes one after another.
This story of 47 strangers, whose plane crashed on a mysterious island, is so laced with inventiveness, suspense and well-written characters that it’s easily one of the most exciting TV series in recent memory.
Though it may have already taken a bit of a downturn with its second season (we know you want the show to run until kingdom come, ABC, but the second season is a little soon to be padding episodes, don’t you think?) that doesn’t distract from the thoroughly enjoyable ride that was season one.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
Filmed on the cheap in Mexico after maverick director Sam Peckinpah’s uncompromising style and excessive drinking had already run him afoul of several major studio execs, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a demented masterpiece.
This is the story of a shady expatriate American piano player who takes the job of tracking down Alfredo Garcia, a ladies man who has invoked the wrath of a powerful and merciless landowner. When the American, played to the hilt by Warren Oates, learns that Garcia has been killed in a car accident, he figures it’ll be not trouble to dig up the body, cut off the head and bring it in for a load of cash. Unfortunately, holding on to the head proves far more difficult than he ever imagined.
Oates (who also appeared in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch) gives a bravura performance as the slimy expat who loses far more than he ever thought possible, thanks to the rotting, filthy head of Mr. Garcia. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is pure Peckinpah: dark, bitter, merciless, violent and gorgeous in it ugliness. It’s also one of the most underrated films of the last 30 years.
A Face In The Crowd
In his first acting role, Andy Griffith plays a simple-minded Arkansas jailbird, who when propelled to overnight TV stardom, quickly becomes drunk with power. His raw performance, like the film itself, is unforgettable. A remarkably prescient drama about the foreboding power of television, A Face in the Crowd seems just as fresh today as it did in 1957.
The Incredibles (Two-Disc Collector's Edition)
Oscar-winning superhero adventure story is the most action-packed and visually enthralling from Pixar’s long line of modern classics. As usual, this Pixar DVD release offers tons of features worthy of being dubbed “special,” including an all-new animated short-film, The Jack-Jack Attack, a goofy retro cartoon, top secret files on all the “supers,” bloopers, documentaries and more.
Not since the golden age of Walt Disney in the ‘30s and ‘40s has an animation studio generated such a string of hits as the computer animation wunderkinds at Pixar.
It’s a beautiful thing, this marriage between quirky writer/director Wes Anderson and the serious-minded Criterion Collection, that “continuing series of important classic and contemporary films” that all serious DVD collectors know and love. The weirder Anderson’s films get, the cooler the DVDs. This one, #300 in the Criterion series, features ten complete video performances of David Bowie songs in Portuguese, among other oddball treats.
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart - Indecision 2004
The funniest show on television. The 2004 presidential election. ‘Nuff said.
One of the most unbelievable performances of the last several years went mostly unnoticed. In The Machinist, Christian Bale looks more like a concentration camp survivor than the superhero Batman he would later play — Bale lost a staggering (and record-setting for an actor) 63 pounds for his role as an insomniac with a dark secret.
This terrifically creepy film, however, also deserves to be known for more than just a bit of weight-loss trivia.
THE WORST DVDS
Boasting four different covers, this pathetic, bare-bones edition hit shelves just a few months before the vastly superior Recut, Extended, Unrated edition. Talk about milking every last bit of funds from your fans.
The Deer Hunter (Legacy Series Edition)
Despite this new Legacy Series Edition, The Deer Hunter’s only real legacy is as one of the worst films to ever win the Best Picture Oscar, and one of the most hateful and dishonest portrayals of the Vietnam War.
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
If you buy this DVD, you’re only helping George Lucas convince himself that his second trilogy of Star Wars films weren’t nearly as bad as everyone said they were. While in fact, they were worse.
The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan
“You don't want to miss this fascinating attempt to shed light on the unseen events and influences that have helped shape the spellbinding films of a masterful artist!”
Not sure what film that product description is supposed to refer to, since this Sci-Fi channel mockumentary, purported to tell the real life secrets of The Sixth Sense director Shyamalan, is a hokey and ridiculous waste of time.
Billy Jack (35th Anniversary Ultimate Collection)
Back in the ‘70s, these cheaply made, poorly acted, judo-chopping feel-good flicks managed to capture some sort of popular zeitgeist. Thirty-five years later however, the nostalgia has worn off.
Jason Aaron can be contacted at email@example.com.
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