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.