The Best and Worst Films of 2005

1. Crash proved to be a curiously polarizing film, not so much for the raw, incendiary themes it’s exploring but more for the way writer-director Paul Haggis (and co-writer Bobby Moresco) explores them. Some embrace the film’s complex look at racial tensions and stereotypes and the implication that there is the capacity in all of us for both cowardly prejudice and color-blind fairness given certain circumstances. Others, though, can get past neither the film’s structure that allows a handful of characters to repeatedly (and, yes, sometimes implausibly) cross paths nor a preachy tone that sometimes feels a bit medicinal. Those snobbish people really should get over themselves. Crash is more parable than documentary. Viewed with the right mindset, it’s a powerful experience, thanks mostly to storylines featuring LAPD cop Matt Dillon and Hollywood player Terrence Howard. A must-see.

2. Brokeback Mountain reminds us that it’s often the languid, lyrical films that stick with you, the ones that take their sweet time and find big drama and meaning in the smallest of moments. There’s real poetry at work here – big credit for that goes to Gustavo Santaolalla’s haunting (and justly Oscar-winning) score and the spare screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana - in this tragic story of two ranch hands harboring a secret love. It’s easy to politicize a film that deconstructs so heterosexual a symbol as the American Cowboy, but this is really no more than a variation on the familiar story of star-crossed lovers held apart by social convention. You may have heard that Heath Ledger is a revelation as the more tormented and repressed of the two cowboys, but attention must also be paid to the silent heartbreak conveyed by Michelle Williams as a wife whose marriage is a sham. By now, no one can say that Ang Lee isn’t one of our most versatile film directors (check out his credits if don’t believe it).

3. A History of Violence has its story roots in a graphic novel (adapted here by Josh Olson) and the pulpiness shows. It’s a lean, mean story about a small-town business owner and family man who may or may not have once been a ruthless mob enforcer. Is his past catching up to him? If so, how will he respond? It’s been said Canadian director David Cronenberg saw this film as an exploration of America’s unique obsession with violence, which makes sense given the way his movie gooses you to cheer when the bad guys get what they deserve while at the same time delivering the blood in such gruesome detail that you almost want to look away. The last half-hour is quite the bloodbath. That complexity – violence hurts, but it sure can be fun and sexy – lends unexpected depth and intelligence to what could have been another man-protects-his-family thriller.

4. The Constant Gardener may be gussied up with flashy non-linear editing, stylishly loose cinematography, and a poignant romance between bookish bureaucrat Ralph Fiennes and firebrand activist Rachel Weisz, but make no mistake: this is an old-fashioned spy thriller. And, in the able hands of director Fernando Meirelles, it’s a deliciously good one. In an exotic land of intrigue (here, it’s Africa), no one is who they seem, greed costs lives, a naïve hero learns the world is an uglier place than he ever imagined, and there is danger at every turn. Weisz (whose rather tart on-screen persona isn’t always easy to like) rightly won an Oscar because she’s the soul of the movie - it’s her character, and the love and respect so many of the other characters have for her, that drives the whole story.

5. Syriana weaves a complicated, layered tapestry of disparate subplots and agendas and locales and characters, all of which connect and impact one another in unexpected ways. Writer-director Stephen Gaghan wants nothing less than to offer a glimpse inside the murky political and business machinations at work in the Middle East. If it’s an undeniably ambitious film, it’s also one that never for a moment underestimates its audience. If anything, the film is perhaps too literate: much of the dialogue is hard to follow and it’s not always exactly clear what’s going on or who’s doing what to do. But when was the last time a Hollywood film’s main problem was that it was too smart? Rest assured, if you pay attention in Syriana you will the gist and feel smarter in the end for doing so. All this plus a riveting (and now Oscar-winning) performance by George Clooney who finally forgoes his glossy movie star image.

6. Walk the Line is a fairly straightforward story as its core: haunted and tortured artist is redeemed through the love of a good woman. What makes the film sparkle, obviously, are the details. The uniqueness of the backdrop certainly helps as the story explores some dark corners of the Southern-fried American country/rock music scene of the 1950s and 60s. (There’s a whole lot of singing going on here and without question, this movie will work best for fans of country music.) There’s also a lot to be said about the surprisingly assured direction of heretofore B-list director James Mangold. But it’s really the caliber of the acting that elevates a story that could just have easily been a Sunday night movie for Lifetime. We always knew Joaquin Phoenix could play brooding and misunderstood, but the steely resolve shown by Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash is a complete surprise.

7. The Interpreter works as a welcome throwback to the slickly-made, post-Watergate paranoid political thrillers of the 1970s, which should come as no surprise since director Sydney Pollack directed one of the best of that era: Three Days of the Condor. All the requisite elements are here: an assassination plot that must be thwarted, a mysterious witness who may or not be trustworthy, a grizzled cop stumbling onto a vast conspiracy, a ripped-from-the-headlines political backstory (here, the bloody civil wars in Africa) that gives the action a global scope and ups the stakes. Stars Nicole Kidman (the mysterious witness) and Sean Penn (the grizzled cop) are predictably good, but it’s Pollack - with writers Charles Randolph, Scott Frank, and Steven Zallian – who delivers the real goods, particularly in a sweaty sequence involving a possible terrorist bombing. Top-notch.

8. Constantine reminds us that as tired as some genres might seem, they can always be revived with a skillful execution. The demons-and-hellfire supernatural thriller in which a lone hero must combat the forces of Satan (or some Satan-like power) is a cinematic staple, particularly on the lower shelves of the video store. But director Francis Lawrence, working from a script by Kevin Brodbin and Frank Capello – based on a graphic novel Hellblazer – gives the clichéd premise renewed life. There’s a lot of the expected mumbo-jumbo about demons and angels walking amongst us and the delicate balance of power between God and Satan, but the film ultimately works, believe it or not, because of a solid performance by none other than Keanu Reeves as a sad-sack sinner trying to win a spot in heaven by battling demons. It’s his universal dilemma – how can I redeem myself? – that makes the film about far more than just cool special effects.

9. Munich stirred quite a bit of controversy in its depiction of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is far too volatile a problem to allow for a reasoned discussion by all parties. In exploring the fallout of the 1972 Olympic massacre (and subtly linking that conflict with today’s “War on Terror” thanks to a shot of a 1970s-era World Trade Center), director Steven Spielberg and writers Eric Roth and Tony Kushner have been accused of being either too sympathetic or not sympathetic enough depending on who’s doing the accusing. But it seems clear they’re less interested in taking sides than in exploring the ambiguity and slippery morals involved in eye-for-an-eye justice. How do you define justifiable murder? The film isn’t without its flaws, particularly a strange climax that intercuts a sex scene with the Munich massacre, but it remains a compelling – and probably necessary - look at the politics of revenge.

10. Hustle & Flow treads much of the same ground as the Eminem melodrama 8 Mile as it explores the hard-scrabble rise of a rap artist trying to break free from lower-class hopelessness. But there’s a much more palpable sense of desperation and urgency in this film. Things may have seemed dire for Eminem’s factory worker, but that’s nothing compared to the situation weary pimp D-Jay (a magnetic Terrance Howard) finds himself in as he starts to realize that unless he can turn things around, he’ll never be anything more than a back-alley pimp. Like Rocky Balboa, he just wants one shot at greatness. Extra credit to writer-director Craig Brewer for providing so infectiously compelling a look at the way D-Jay and his crew slowly create the rap anthem “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.”

11 (tie). The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Wedding Crashers both deserve praise – as well as admiration - for delivering high-octane laughs. When was the last time you watched a comedy that was truly, consistently funny? Most supposed comedies these days are too creaky (the endless variations on girl-meets-boy romantic comedies) or self-aware (the shameless mugging of Adam Sandler and his minions) to draw more than a smile or chuckle from audiences. But these two films benefited greatly from the perfect marriage of clever premise (a 40-year-old who never had sex, two horndogs troll wedding receptions for easy conquests) and charismatic talent (the awkwardness of Steve Carrell, the wise-ass charm of Vince Vaughn). Yes, both films suffer from needlessly long second acts, but it’s hard to complain when they mostly succeed where so many mostly fail.

Honorable mentions: Batman Begins; The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Cinderella Man; The Family Stone; Funny Ha Ha; Good Night, and Good Luck; Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; In Her Shoes; Jarhead; Mr. and Mrs. Smith; Red Eye; Serenity; Sin City; and Zathura.

The Dukes of Hazzard couldn’t have gone more wrong. How an amusingly corny (though beloved) 1970s TV show got transformed into so painfully unfunny a feature film is baffling. The problem seems to be that the filmmakers weren’t sure what approach to take with it. Do you update it and make it hip and mod like Charlie’s Angels or satirize cheesy 1970s anachronisms like The Brady Bunch? Neither, it turns out. Instead, just offer some lame jokes, a few car chases, and hope it all works out. But it doesn’t. Just about every decision is the wrong one. This includes giving Bo Duke a creepy romantic fixation on the General Lee, making Roscoe T. Coltrane and Boss Hogg figures of intelligent menace (instead of idiot comic foils as in the TV show), and casting dim-bulb Jessica Simpson as Daisy Duke. A disaster.

War of the Worlds may take the record for worst flame-out in movie history. The first hour of the film – depicting a devastating attack from alien tripods with creepy echoes of September 11 - is about as tense and engrossing a set-up as you’ll see as Tom Cruise and his kids go on a desperate run for survival. The problem, as you’ve probably heard, is an ending that fizzles when it should have sizzled. Yes, the reason for the aliens’ demise stays true to H.G. Wells’ original, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good or satisfying reason. And you can’t blame H.G. Wells for a incongruously happy ending in which characters who should have died in the alien attacks suddenly turn up happy and whole in a neighborhood strangely untouched by the carnage we’ve just watched for two hours.

Flightplan reminds us that even Jodie Foster is mortal. The two-time Oscar winner typically has an impeccable taste in projects. She’s so discerning that her very presence in a film usually means it’s better than average. Not so here. This film boasts a pretty cool set-up (when a woman’s daughter goes missing during a long plane flight, no one remembers her having a daughter) in search of a second act. Foster – under the ham-fisted direction of Robert Schwentke – goes into full-tilt panic mode right away and there she stays for the rest of the film. They don’t get much more annoying than this.

Guilty Pleasures: MTV

It’s fashionable for Generation Xers (weaned on Martha Quinn and reruns of “The Young Ones”) to complain about MTV these days and its reluctance to play music videos outside of a few snippets on TRL. Last the Cheese Fry checked, the M in their name still meant “music.” But the network now is more of a “lifestyle” channel that programs its schedule with an eye to exploiting the trendy, sex-obsessed, in-your-face sensibility of its target demographic.

Even so, if you choose wisely, MTV can still deliver the goods, even if it’s often a guilty pleasure that comes with a whole lot of Clearasil spots. The best of the bunch are these three:

1. Made. This show – a rather traditional one-hour documentary, though not something you’d ever confuse with “60 Minutes” – offers the kinder, gentler side of MTV, a channel that each year shamelessly broadcasts from the half-naked, drunken beaches of Spring Break. Each episode of “Made” follows one high schooler as he/she works to attain some dream or goal (which usually seems fairly arbitrary) with the help of a professional guide. See the school geek try to become a rocker, see the outcast try to join the basketball team, see the wallflower try to become a tough skateboarder. On its face of it the whole thing is rather silly, but these kids are far more real – full of doubt, worry, and a desperate need to fit in – than the plastic specimens you’ll see squealing on the Spring Break shows. Plus, the brutally clique-ish high school social scene on display in each episode in verite detail is sure to induce cringes in any viewer who managed to barely escape the 12th grade in one piece. It’s a John Hughes film come to life.

2. Next. The Dating Game for the ADD set. One contestant gets to meet five people to date (yes, there are same-sex episodes) and at any minute can say “Next!” to dump that person and meet the next one in the queue. When the contestant finally meets the date he/she likes, he gives them a chance to go on another date (without the camera crew) or take home one dollar for every minute they’ve been together. Whatever. The fun comes just from watching the cross-section calvacade of contestants and dates who come from all walks of life and all manners of style and dress, from surfer dudes to goth chicks, stripper chic to preppy nerd. Most of them are the kind of people you’d never in a million years want to date. Which is why it’s so much for see their egos deflated, either by being dismissed with a rude “Next” or by being the one cruelly saying “Next” for such shallow and pointless reasons. The flip side of this, of course, is that you end up rooting hard for the handful of genuinely decent-seeming people.

3. Real World/Road Rules Challenge: The Gauntlet 2. All the punctuation (and that cheeky “2”) in the wordy title can be intimidating, yes, but this is the guiltiest of MTV guilty pleasures, an ingenious and addictive cross-pollination between “Survivor”-style elimination challenges and bratty 20-something psychodrama of “The Real World.” By now MTV has cultivated a fairly extensive stable of reality TV stars thanks to so many years of “Real World” and “Road Rules” seasons and the network treats the cast members like its own personal company of actors, each with his or her own role to play – some are villains, some are heroes, some can be counted on, some are hopeless flakes. Because no one cuts tape together better than MTV’s editors, you can’t help but get sucked into the petty jealousies, beer-soaked bravado, and snarky to-the-camera testimonials. Watch it once if only for the extremely over-the-top opening credits packed full of an inordinate amount of sexy pouts and sullen glares that’s apparently intended to be taken completely seriously. We kid because we love.


Lost “Maternity Leave”

Cool: There was something a little odd to the Cheese Fry the way Ethan (in the flashback) gave Claire water from a canteen that she described as sour. It's too strange a detail to be meaningless. A clue, perhaps, to some other secret?

Cooler: Zeke, the ostensible leader of the Others, isn’t a ragged bearded island man at all. We see him here as a clean-cut professional. (Kate later finds a locker full of Other disguises straight from the costume department at ABC.)

Huh?: Last week Jack was in full sanctimonious mode and resisted the idea of keeping Henry hostage for torture. This week, however, he’s intent on preserving the secret. Which is it? And where, for that matter, did Sayid disappear to in this episode?

Best Line: “I just don’t know why you let the doctor call the shots.” – Henry Gale trying to get under John’s skin and – surprisingly – succeeding. It’s a little hard to believe John is this fragile and so easily manipulated, but I guess his resentment to Jack is becoming harder to conceal.

Rising: Claire, who’s fiercely determined to follow Rousseau into the jungle in an effort to learn what happened when Ethan kidnapped her. Who knew she had this kind of guts and gumption (or whatever they call guts and gumption in Australia)?

Falling: Sawyer, who rather easily agrees to let three women go into the jungle alone to try and find Ethan’s lair. He acts like they're just taking an afternoon, no-big-deal stroll to gather coconuts. Yeah, he's a jerk, but one would expect he'd insist on tagging along, if only to protect psuedo-girlfriend Kate.


"78th Annual Academy Awards"

A chronological stream-of-consciousness reaction courtesy The Cheese Fry:

* What starts as a funny bit with past hosts rejecting the call to host this year's awards (beginning with Billy Crystal and Chris Rock in the Brokeback pup tent) ends rather weakly with Jon Stewart in bed with George Clooney in some strained attempt at a topical gay joke. Maybe it looked good on paper.

* Is it me or is Jon Stewart having trouble with his monologue?

* Clooney wins for Best Supporting Actor, which was fairly predictable.

* What's with this new element of playing music under the winners' acceptance speeches? Presumably, it's to keep the pressure on to prevent any needlessly long speeches, but it gives the show one more level of melodramatic cheese. This isn't a Lifetime movie.

* The Tom Hanks getting-hit-over-the-head with a viola bit is kind of funny.

* It's Ben Stiller who gets the first genuine laughs of the night with his shameless delivery of the visual effects Oscar wearing an unflattering greenscreen body suit.

* The two winners of Wallace and Gromit put on their new Oscars bow ties that match their own. A cute touch, but it robs them of humility - they must have figured they had a good shot since they went to the trouble of making the bow ties. And who likes people who let you know that they knew they'd win, even if they knew they'd win?

* Naomi Watts, usually smoking hot, looks decidedly un-hot in an ugly dress whose color matches her skin tone.

* Dolly Parton works the room like it's the Ryman and has the Oscar crowd clapping their hands. Weird.

* A nice change to preview the Best Picture candidates by simply showing clips during show bumpers, rather than wasting time to bring out a presenter to read some pithy lines about How Important the nominated film is and then introduce the clip.

* Stewart's Scientology joke flops, reminding one how very seriously these people take all of this. Hollywood doesn't have a sense of humor about itself.

* Luke and Owen Wilson sure are charming, aren't they?

* Why can't the Academy find some way to let audiences see the live-action and animated nominated shorts? It's a crime that it's so impossible to find these films.

* Also a crime? The unending insistence on inserting cartoon characters into a live-action award show. The same people who won't laugh at a Scientology joke seem to think this kind of Saturday-morning cable-access nonsense is clever.

* Will Ferrell and Steve Carrel are pretty funny in their bad makeup.

* Another joke flops as Jon Stewart tries to riff on Russell Crowe's bad boy reputation.

* Consider Rachel McAdams another perennially smoking hot actress who somehow doesn't look good in her Oscar get up. What's going on?

* Only Morgan Freeman can get away with wearing a suit with no tie.

* Rachel Weisz wins Best Supporting Actress, which is what the pundits seemed to think would happen.

* Lauren Bacall fills in one of Oscars' most coveted slots: Aging Star Who Can't Read the Teleprompter.

* Jon Stewart finally delivers the goods with his Best Actress campaign ads: Keira Knightley for "Acting While Beautiful," Reese Witherspoon and "crazy letters that make no sense," and Judi Dench is no dame. Hilarious.

* Terrance Howard sure is charismatic and could become the Next Denzel. You read it here first.

* Strange that the March of the Penguins winners didn't say anything about how their film had to be rescued from oblivion by an American distribution executive who made the wise decision to stick on the Morgan Freeman narration, thus helping pave the way to box office gold and the Oscar. Hmmm.

* Jennifer Lopez. At what point is her 15 minutes of fame up, anyway? Enough is enough.

* Dolly Parton had the stage all to herself but for the Crash song we get interpretive dance and a burning car.

* What is the deal with these pointless montages? First the biopic retrospective, then the film noir retrospective, and now a rather random collection of clips about films with social impact. Hollywood is always annoyingly self-congratulatory, but this is ridiculous. And this clip package ends with a musical flourish that borders on parody.

* The Cheese Fry just doesn't get the appeal of the Ms. Salma Hayek.

* Gustavo Santaolalla justly wins for his memorable score to Brokeback Mountain, the only one that sounded unique and not just the same old bombastic orchestral score you've heard a million times. It's so memorable, in fact, that (right or wrong) it's become shorthand for homosexual subtext.

* Stewart scores with a joke about Itzak Perlman finger syncing his violin performance.

* Another montage, this one about epics. Stewart jokes that they're all out of clips now. Ouch.

* The Cheese Fry really doesn't get the appeal of the Ms. Jessica Alba no matter how skillfully the Hollywood PR machine tries to force us all to like her. The lights may be on, but no one's home.

* Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep deliver the goods with an amusing and, in a pre-canned evening of plastic phoniness, very natural introduction to Robert Altman by paying tribute to his customary technique of sloppy, improvised, overlapping dialogue.

* "It's Hard Out There for a Pimp" gets the Sonny and Cher Hour treatment with writhing dancers and flashing disco lights. Subtlety has never met Oscar.

* Oops: the camera shows briefly a couple of tuxedoed stagehands moving a "Pimp" streetlamp prop off the stage.

* The annual "In Memoriam" montage ends - as always - with the heavy hitters sure to pull the biggest applause: producer Ismail Merchant, then director Robert Wise, and in the anchorman spot Richard Pryor.

* Stewart lands another hit when he notes Scorsese's got no Oscars and "Pimp" group 3-6 Mafia has one.

* Philip Seymour Hoffman wins Best Actor for a film no one's seen.

* Reese Witherspoon wins for Best Actress and delivers a cutesy, Reese-like speech, including a misty-eyed bit about how June Carter liked to say "I'm just trying to matter."

* Adapted screenplay goes to Brokeback Mountain, original screenplay to Crash. Very predictable. A pox on the houses of Oscar, however, for cutting off Crash co-writer Bobby Moresco. The show's already running past three hours - what's it matter now? Here's an idea: cut those stupid damn montages.

* Stewart's best line, in reference to Brokeback co-writer Larry McMurty's choice of pants: "I didn't know we could wear jeans."

* And now come the esteemed Hollywood royalty: Tom Hanks delivers the Best Director award to Ang Lee, Jack Nicholson (note: aren't we all a little tired of his sunglasses gimmick by now?) delivers Best Picture to Crash.

* It's not an upset of Shakespeare in Love proportions perhaps, but Crash definitely was a come-from-behind winner to topple favorite Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture. Cynics would argue it was the flood of free Crash "For Your Consideration" award DVDs into the Hollywood community that provided the growing momentum these last few weeks. Maybe Stewart was onto something with his TV campaign ads - that could be the next step.

* Further bad karma is assured when the producers cut off Crash producer Cathy Schulman. You just proclaimed her the producer of the Best Picture of 2005 but now you have to end her speech to run another "Sons and Daughters" sitcom promo?

* Final running time: 3.5 hours.


The One with all the Episodes

Here's a pointlessly trivial listing of all of the episode titles from NBC's Friends. A nice way to reminisce about the pop culture phenom of the 1990s, including the evolving hairstyles of Rachel and Monica, the yo-yoing weight of Chandler, and the slowly dwindling likability of Ross.