john cribbs

Best of the Year

1. Cache

Surfaces punctured, and ripped away.  Film as wallpaper, slowly peeled off.  I'm almost sick of saying it, but Michael Haneke is a brilliant filmmaker, and his latest intricately constructed piece of modern dread is a masterpiece.  In Cache, every scene brings you simultaneously closer and further away from the truth, what you think you know or understand abruptly changes. The film's architecture is tense and dangerous: the audience at my screening (and, I've been told, at other screenings) literally shrieked in unison at one unforgettable moment. In a year of overly political pictures, the subtly of accusation in this film - centered on French guilt over Algerian refugees - is edgily poignant.


2. Dear Wendy

There've been plenty of good films made about a boy and his gun, but Thomas Vinterberg's giddily scathing Dear Wendy takes the premise to a whole new level.  In the Dandies, the film's contradictorily-termed "pacifist gun-lover" protagonists, Vinterberg finds the perfect vessel for the theorem of inevitable small town violence as well as a hilarious send-up of phallic fetish he-men characters from slick, testosterone-fueled, Tarantinized American movies like Natural Born Killers and Fight Club. Unlike writer Lars van Trier's incoherent "American" movies, this one actually gets its idea across without pandering to its whimsies, and far exceeds its unjustly poor critical reception.


3. The Passenger (Restored)

I had little memory of my previous viewing of this film on video in high school (only enough to be influenced for my own 2005 script about a surreal identity theft). But watching the beautifully shot desert landscapes pass over the big screen, I observed a few things. It's an arty road flick like Wages of Fear, except more personal and - shockingly - more desperate.  It's Antonioni's last great film, and its re-release, as well as the excellent Criterion edition dvd of L'Eclisse, helps to wipe out the memory of his unwatchable segment in last year's Eros anthology film. Its sort-of famous seven minute shot at the end of the movie is harrowingly gorgeous, and permeating with dread.  It represents the end of what could be considered Nicholson's golden era - roughly 1972 to 1975 - in which his characters were tough (as in Chinatown, The Last Detail, and Cuckoo's Nest), but ultimately helpless against the harsh reality of the world; a world his later, cynical characters could defy only by surrendering to (in films like The Shining and The Border).  That transition is perfectly embodied by The Passenger - it's the missing link in his career, which explains Nicholson's decision to champion the movie's restoration, to the great fortune of the filmgoer.


4. Last Days

What I like to think of as a "fuck you" alternative to Walk the Line and other such square, feathery biopics of iconic musicians also happens to be a pretty impressive bit of deeply-felt filmmaking.  I don't know exactly what happened to Gus Van Sant between Finding Forrester and Elephant (my enthusiastic pick for #1 in 2003), but, speculatively, it may be that the tragic death of some of his young collaborators over the years - River Phoenix, Elliot Smith - accounts for the genuine sense of loss which supplies Last Days with its crushing weight.  Also dismissed by most critics, who were apparently expecting some sort of straightforward Kurt Cobain bio, this is the work of a man who wrenched his soul free of the Hollywood Whorehouse and reemerged, redeemed and rebuilt.


5. The New World

"There is only this - all else is unreal."  Terrence Malick can always be counted on every twenty years or so to deliver a true film experience, in which the sound of a character's fingers across the spine of a book or the image of a body of water's broken surface create an authentic texture that transcends the screen.  Apart from the usual poetic voice-over philosophy - which the viewer is free to take or leave - World features gorgeous camerawork, a rousing battle sequence, and a transfixing lead performance by Q'Orianka Kilcher, who conjures the quiet purity of Dorothy Gish.


6. Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit

To classify the long-awaited big screen debut of Nick Park's lovable duo as yet another triumph by Aardman Studios would be dismissive. Curse of the Were-Rabbit, besides being effortlessly charming, channels the spirit of classic entertainment cinema: the giddy excess of silent film chases, the suggestive scariness of Universal horror movies (as its silly subtitle indicates), and the witty slapstick of old romantic comedies.  The characters - like the English town they occupy - are timeless, and for once additions to an old formula (such as Helena Bodham Carter's Lady Tottington) enhance the material rather than spoil it.


7. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Shane Black is Hollywood's smartest smart-ass, and still by far the most entertaining.  While other filmmakers rely on cleverness when sending up a particular genre (feeling above the material), Black is so au fait with the structuralism of Hollywood buddy movies and cockamamie action thrillers that he immerses himself into them and finds his unique voice in the joy of rakishness - thereby deftly turning the form against itself (and in the process skewering the smugness of satirical movies as far back as Sunset Boulevard).  Kiss - with its high production values and surprisingly excellent performances - is so fun, kitschy, and aware of itself that it may be the most delightful crime film made for film-lovers since Godard's Breathless.


8. The White Diamond, Wheel of Time, Grizzly Man

For all the idiots who thought Herzog was occupying his sans-Kinski golden years sitting on his hands, it turns out he was spending the last two years in Guyana, India, Granz, and Alaska, adding three characteristically weird and insightful films to his catalog of "documentaries."  He still manages to find his own beautifully peculiar representations of the human struggle and obsession, whether it's the billowing waters of Kaieteur, pilgrims taking months to reach Bodh Gaya for the Kalachakra ceremony by stopping to lay penitently prone on their fronts every two steps or self-deluded yet strangely sympathetic Timothy Treadwell screaming at the rain to stop so his beloved grizzlies won't starve.  Being allowed to share Herzog's visions remains pure bliss.


9. Broken Flowers

It was wrong to discount Jim Jarmusch, and I'm glad that he's finally directed a film to make those of us who did ashamed. Broken Flowers is not a perfect movie: it takes a while to get going, several jokes fall flat, its endless driving sequences border on Brown Bunny-style bored-to-shitdom. but it's sort of beautiful because of its flaws.  The story of Bill Murray (temporarily returning to form after a string of boring performances in overrated movies) investigating the allegation of an anonymous former fling who may or may not have birthed him a son turns into a quiet exploration of how the past effects our present. Beautiful camerawork by Frederick Elmes doesn't hurt.


10. The 40 Year Old Virgin

Judd Apartow's first feature may be a beacon among the routine summer comedies, but more to the point it is a film that finds its humor in genuine character situations: the actors get laughs because they're endearing and we care what happens to them, not because we'd give anything to see Rob Schneider hit in the junk.  Steve Carrell deserves most of the credit, of course, but I feel like Catherine Keener has unfortunately been left in his shadow despite her notably enchanting performance.


Worth mentioning: Wassup Rockers

The funny thing about my enjoying this Larry Clark film is that it has all the same characteristics I don't enjoy in the rest of his films: an unattractive blending of documentary-style filming with hazardously over-the-top situations, a troop of self-aware non-actors, questionably explicit underage buggery. For some reason, it worked this time.  His initially-directionless-abruptly-pointed movie about a day and some change in the life of skater "Salvies" owes a lot to the natural frailty of his young cast, but even more to the uncanny way said frailty gets you rooting for them to escape uppity predators during their Warriors-esque flight from Beverly Hills in the flick's enjoyable second half.  There may be the occasional too- close up of an adolescent's single strand of belly button hair. but at least this time you care about the person attached to it.


Worst of the Year

1. Crash

In Paul Haggis' world of multi-characters "crashing" into each other, the typecast protagonists are given 36 hours to resolve their prejudiced propensities.  As a Canadian attempting to answer the Big Question of race relations in L.A. (the low-scale equivalent of Lars von Trier deconstructing America), Haggis manages to piece together only a broad melodrama too dense for basic cable, let alone the big screen.  Its solutions (Sandra Bullock loves her Hispanic maid!  Matt Dillon saving Thandie Newton makes up for his molesting her!) are only slightly more embarrassing than the film's earlier assemblage of smug pro- and anti- stereotyping (one lowly minority is a good father, one turns gun crazy, etc.) Crash makes excuses when it needs to and dodges them if it can, and the ultimate equation of its wayward ambition is one big, offensive mess.

2. Jarhead

I recently saw American Beauty listed in an Australian travel book as an essential film to see in understanding American culture.  This marks the zenith of something unfathomable to me: how the public can laud the anthropo-illogical work of Sam Mendes, a British theater director who somehow became an instant expert on American society, history and politics.  His three films - Beauty, Road to Perdition, and the guiltiest yet, Jarhead - are dirty films shot pretty, and seem to receive nearly undisputed praise based on this alone.  The filmmakers made a lot of noise about the movie being different from anti-war films like Full Metal Jacket, and it is: it's dull and voiceless.

3. The Island

Not that I was expecting anything special from Michael Bay, but the Bruckheimer protégé has in the past at least managed to put together functional action set pieces.  There are none to be found in (on?) The Island, a pitilessly dull attack on the senses featuring clones Ewan McGregor and Sco-Jo mainly marveling at bad special effects, their Logan's Run-inspired breakout a mere conveyor from one slow motion explosion to the next.  If these films exist solely to hand out paychecks to Steve Buscemi, Djimon Hounsou and Sean Bean, I guess there's no reason to fault them: until, of course, the producers blame the actors for the failure of their own brainless creation.


4. Romance and Cigarettes

Sometimes it's good to experiment, but in the case of John Turturro and his working man's Moulin Rouge, it's best to clear out the lab and hand the beaker to a less crazy person.  It's disheartening to see the realist auteur of Mac revert to musical numbers meant to alleviate the malaise of a modern American family.they only succeed in agitating the malaise of the film's audience.  Truly, few cinematic experiences as excruciating as watching James Gandolfini prance around the neighborhood crooning "Lonely is a Man Without Love" come to mind.

5. Flightplan

It takes the standard gimmicky plot of every soulless film marketed to the general public and, when it can't muster the competence to follow that plot through, abandons it and spirals into outright inanity. Jodie Foster is more obnoxious than anxious in trying to uncover the conspiracy that spirited away her child mid-transatlantic flight - you wish that she would disappear.  By the time the villains finally reveal themselves and their nonsensical plot, Flightplan has become an official, odious duping of its viewers.

6. Ballad of Jack and Rose

A movie that titles itself "Ballad of..." is already in trouble.  Add to that Rebecca Miller's torturously slow-paced filmmaking, the obvious and predictable direction of the script, and flaccid performances by normally exciting actors like Daniel "Fine, honey, I'll do your movie" Day-Lewis and Catherine Keener and the movie has almost put itself to sleep by the third reel.


7. Mr. and Mrs. Smith

It has all the usual problems of a studio movie: it's star-driven, formulaic, plastic and crafty and glib. but this actionized update of Mr. and Mrs. Smith's main problem is that it simply is no fun. Gossip columns aside, Brad Pitt and Anjelina Jolie are sterile in what could have been juicy comedic roles, tossing lame one-liners at each other like sticks of dung, lacking even a hint of chemistry.  And just in case it required an extra detriment, the movie also features an embarrassingly flailing attempt at comedy by a charmless Vince Vaughan, who gets my vote for actor I'd most like to see tarred and feather and kicked out of Hollywood on his fat ass.  The only movie I walked out of in 2005.

8. Walk the Line

A painful rehash of last year's atrocious Ray (it even includes "that scene" from all music bios where the future icon slowly. comes up with. the lyrics to a. song!  Hey, that sounds like it's destined for glory!), this is the perfect movie for people who want to believe that Johnny Cash was a sniveling cry-baby.  Joaquin Phoenix (a confessed non-fan of Cash's music) plays him more like Elvis, or Mumbly Joe, or Broody the Brooding Broodster, while Reese Witherspoon acts as if she's in a high school play.  The filmmakers obviously hold their subject in high regard, but there's no scene here, whether it's a public humiliation during a concert, or a rolling-around the hotel bedroom consumed-by-demons bit, or a "finally made it!" final number that fades to black with an epilogue text about what happened next, that feels fresh.  All warts music movies seem to be "in" (a quick aside on No Direction Home: if I have to hear about one more album / song / biography / documentary / poem / toilet seat that reveals "another side of Bob Dylan," I will go Mark David Chapman on the man's ass.I mean, what is he, a dodecahedron?) but unless they start being even slightly dissimilar to each other, they should be tuned out.

9. The Brothers Grimm

Terry Gilliam is no fan of subtly, so it makes sense that his first truly disappointing effort is an epic failure.  Aimless to the point of nausea, Grimm at first appeared to be some kind of Ghostbusters/Frighteners rip-off set in Fairyland, but turned out to be so directionless as to not even merit ill comparison to those films.  What is typically expected of Gilliam - a sense of original, twisted fantasy - is gone and the movie's attempts at wonder ("The trees are moving!"  "The witch has a different reflection in the mirror!") are dull and done.  One can't help but wish this one had suffered the same fate of his collapsed Don Quixote project, and with reviews for his upcoming Tideland being less-than-positive, it may be the beginning of the end.

10. Alexander (The Director's Cut)

Already having this movie as one of the top contenders for worst flick last year didn't discourage Oliver Stone from dropping his bid for a mention on this year's list.  And, for anyone who thought my inclusion of The New World in the top 10 should know that I credit none of that film's success to the lackluster Colin Farrell, who is just as lacking in luster at 167 minutes as he is at 175.


Didn't need to see it to know it sucked

1. Aeon Flux

Draining the mystery from the always interesting MTV show with an overly-complicated plot and replacing its hypnotic animation with cheap sets and art direction are two strikes against this movie's chances.  The last straw would be a spandex-clad Charlize Theron in thick eyeliner and black wig shooting off inane one-liners like she feels the need to compensate for Charlie's two missing Angels. Amateurs!

2. Bewitched, Kicking and Screaming, The Producers

2005 did to Will Ferrell what 2002 did to Eddie Murphy: one of the most original, funniest working comedians became a soulless product. Whether he was bringing nothing but jabbering buffoonery to already familiar characters (he'll continue next year as The Man in the Yellow Hat in a Curious George movie) or wading his way through already familiar material (like the standard Kicking and Screaming, in which Ferrell manages to get upstaged in the preview by Mike Ditka), his sputtering and desperate thrashing about left me praying for the subtly of Elf.  And as for The Producers - the only way I want Nathan Lane to imitate Zero Mostel's career would be for him to be blacklisted.

3. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

As Disney's cold corporate belly swells, so does its creative department render their title more artificial year after year. Having abandoned its hand-animation unit in favor of the more popular virtual format, the company's next play was to bank on the popularity of Lord of the Rings by visualizing the happenings behind C.S. Lewis' famed armoire.  For cred, they hired a producer who is a distant relative of Lewis' - last time the relation of a well-regarded fantasy writer adapted a famous work by said writer, we got Simon Wells' The Time Machine. Most of Eve's daughters and Adam's sons flocked to the movie, but having never read any of the books is a good enough excuse to keep myself far distanced.

4. The Family Stone

Is there no relief from the obligatory dysfunctional family Christmas comedy every holiday season?  This fish-out-of-water Xerox copy of movies like Meet the Parents can only end the way they all do, with the previously quarrelling characters coming together by laughing over their own hilariously contrived incompatibility.  Rachel McAdams - I want to like you, so take off the Dinosaur Jr. T shirt, you phony.  

Shame on you, Luke Wilson.


5. Hoodwinked, Chicken Little, Robots, Valiant

In a year of truly stupendous, non-CG animated fare like Wallace and Gromit and Howl's Moving Castle (non-CG for the most part anyway), a bunch of studios tried their hand at aping the ingredients of Pixar success with their own celebrity voice-studded computer kid flicks. What they all share is the condescending notion that a rapping wolf, a nerdy chicklet, funky robots, and plucky poultry are wryly deconstructive of the children's picture when they are in fact poor imitators of earlier characters we had reason to like.  If any of these copycats upstage the aforementioned, quality efforts in the Best Animated Feature category, my inner child will go on a shooting spree at the mall.

6. The Exorcism of Emily Rose

If there's one thing we need less than an Exorcist knock-off, it's a courtroom drama Exorcist knock-off.  Not to mention the silly-looking CG "scares" that litter the preview, which Emily Rose shares with this year's Amityville Horror remake, although this flick can't redeem itself with a shirtless Ryan Reynolds.  Was she possessed?  Was she crazy?  I'm talking of course about the idiot who gave this flagrant atrocity the green light.

7. Junebug, Thumbsucker, Me and You and Everyone We Know

I remember a time when small, eccentric, character-driven indie films were a fresh breath from the circus of mediocre sequels and remakes.  Now, they feel rote - same philosophical dandies offset by quirky characters, same wallowing "O.C." soundtrack of indie artists, same melodramatic, deviant sex-themed plot twists (shot in the dark: the Big Shock of at least one of these movies?  Incest!), same tired sameness - the curse of Igby Goes Down.  Dishonorable mentions: Happy Endings, Mysterious Skin, Transamerica.


8. Elizabethtown

Nobody had to work hard to convince me not to see Cameron Crowe's follow-up to the unwatchable Vanilla Sky, but the seemingly unanimous critical panning (coupled with Crowe's apologetic, pussy-boy reaction to its horrible early Toronto screening) did nothing to enhance the likelihood of my attendance at an Elizabethtown screening.  Crowe may have had the sense to fire Ashton Kutcher, but when are he and his cohorts going to realize that Orlando Bloom has the appeal of a tube of toothpaste? I'll also put out that no romantic comedy-slash-self discovery film set around a funeral to the sounds of soulful rock music has ever been good.

9. The Skeleton Key

Ehren Kruger is still the most overpaid hack working in Tinseltown, and if even Terry Gilliam can't craft a decent product from his shapeless scripts, what chance has (forgettable director of this film)?  It's no wonder audiences make successes of movies like Saw when their gritty music video approach to the horror film is at least a liberation from the empty slickness of movies like this and Dark Water (oh my god, that water was terrifying!)

10. Memoirs of a Geisha

The casting of Chinese and Malaysian actors in this Japanese epic is just another example of studio indifference. "Ah, what the fuck, they've got slanty eyes right?  Joe American won't know the damn difference."  Not that I mind seeing Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li, and Michelle Yeoh getting work. but do I really have to sit through some Oscar-whoring Oprah book adaptation to see them and Ken Watanabe? Thank god 2046 is out there so I don't have to.

(continues on next page with The Most Over-rated of 2005)

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