Friday, January 13, 2006

Fried Rice Favorites: 2005 Movies

I've been meaning to write more about movies for weeks now, as I've been trying to catch all the critical darlings and nominees before the award shows hit the air. But I've procrastinated a bit too long; the Golden Globe Awards are on Monday. So as I did last year, I'll try to cram in a last-minute Fried Rice Favorites list, just so I can say, "Oh yeah, I picked that movie, too."

Here are the Best Movies I Watched in 2005 (and very early 2006). Movies I wrote about previously are linked back to the original posts:

1. Capote: I actually enjoyed Walk the Line more, but Capote avoids the conventional "biopic" formula and none of its characters are one-dimensional. And I think it deserves tremendous credit for that.

2. Walk the Line: Am I making sense if I say this was my "favorite" movie of the year, but Capote was the best? I loved every scene in this film, though a couple - such as the one in which Johnny Cash auditions for Sun Records - truly stand out. Joaquin Phoenix was amazing, and I forgot how good an actress Reese Witherspoon can be. She might be the best part of the movie. Both of them are surprisingly good in the musical performances, too. And if they didn't get that right, you just don't have a movie here.

3. Brokeback Mountain: There are two moments at the end of this movie that might be among the most powerful I've ever seen. And not a word is spoken in either of them. This is such a heartbreaking story. It makes you appreciate what you have in this world. It shows us how terrible it is when you can't have something that many of us take for granted. And it reminds you what can be gained when you take a risk, despite what other people might think of you. I saw this weeks ago, and I still can't shake it. I'll be talking about it years from now.

4. Munich: This wasn't quite the movie I was expecting. I knew it wasn't going to be a straight re-telling of the 1972 Olympic hostage crisis in Munich. But I didn't realize how rich the story would be, either. It's about national pride, and the lengths to which some people will go to fight for it. It's about vengeance. But more than anything else, I think this is about what happens when seemingly normal people are asked to do something that normal people don't do. What kind of emotional and psychological toll does committing violence (and fearing retaliation) take on a person?

5. Good Night, and Good Luck: I'm still impressed by how much this story can be applied to our current culture. How much has changed? How much hasn't changed? Yet the message isn't given in heavy-handed fashion, which I appreciated.

6. A History of Violence: This could be an interesting double-feature with Munich. Both films try to make you think about violence. What does it really mean to see someone shot and killed? What effect does violence have on people's lives? Is it something that can be avoided or something we all have to confront at some point? What happens if we tap into that dark side of ourselves? And if someone acknowledges that side, and does terrible things to other people, should he or she ever deserve to forget that and try to find happiness?

7. The Squid and the Whale: I think the reason I liked this so much was that I hadn't seen anything else like it this year. Each of the characters is unlikable, but hilariously so. And the story is painful to watch, but you're rewarded with the humor found in those situations.

8. King Kong: I don't think Universal Pictures needs any more blurbs for TV and magazine ads, but if they do, here's one: You'll believe a computer-generated ape can make you cry. With Peter Jackson directing, you knew the special effects would be incredible. But Kong is so real as a character, not just because of his animated expressions, but because of the backstory he's given. The relationship he forms with Naomi Watts' character is surprisingly believable. My only (tiny) beef is that I wanted more stuff in New York and less on Skull Island.

9. Batman Begins: Until the fall, this was the only movie I really enjoyed this year. It's not just tights, capes, fancy cars, and cool gadgets. I loved how the story took Batman seriously, and really tried to explain what makes him tick. Give me a sequel - now!

10. The Constant Gardener: This might be higher on the list if it was fresher in my mind. I always thought Ralph Fiennes was kind of cold as an actor, but he showed a different side here. Maybe he wasn't acting; how difficult would it be to fall in love with Rachel Weisz? How intoxicating can it be to meet someone who passionately believes in something? But the story is about bigger things, too - primarily the lengths to which big corporations will go to generate maximum success and profit for their products, and how deeply those conspiracies can run.

From what I've heard and read, Me and You and Everyone We Know and/or Crash could join the list, but I haven't seen those films yet. (I know they're both on video now. Maybe I'll watch them both this weekend.) Up until the last couple of months, it seemed like this was a terrible year for movies. Now, a bunch of good ones are out, they're all coming out at the same time, and I'm trying to see them all.

Which 2005 films disappointed me?

I really wanted to like Syriana. This is a film that needed to be made, much like Traffic was. There's so much to learn here about the oil industry, and what kind of role it plays in our world. But this is just not a coherent movie. Maybe I could've followed it better on DVD, where I could rewind several times and absorb everything thrown at me. (I know I kept pressing an imaginary remote control while I was in the theater.) In a two-hour movie, it's too much and becomes a mess. This would've been an outstanding HBO mini-series, in which the many characters, plotlines, and conspiracies could be given the time they need to develop.

And Elizabethtown. Oh, Elizabethtown. How I wanted to love you, as I've loved Cameron Crowe's other films. I thought directing Vanilla Sky would prevent Crowe from making something like this. Taking a departure from his usual material might sharpen his skills and make his next film seem fresh. But this was so stale. The first 10-15 minutes of the movie is like a microwaved Jerry Maguire leftover. After that, it has no idea where it wants to go. There's a story somewhere in this movie, but I don't know what it is. Was this about picking yourself up from failure? Was it about a man trying to learn about his father after he was gone? Was it a love story? A good story can be about more than one thing. But it needs something to drive it, to bring it all into focus. And Crowe never seemed to find it.

You know what else has been disappointing? All of the year-end "Best Of" lists from movie critics. There seems to be too much agreement this year. Not everyone agrees on the best film, though the critical darling seems to be Brokeback Mountain. And nobody's arguing with that. No one's calling it overrated. No one's fighting for another movie. Unless I'm missing it. Maybe that's a good thing, but it makes for boring reading this time of year.