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Colin Hanks

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2005 in Film.

Happy New Year’s Eve to everyone..I’m celebrating in San Diego with old college friends and likely won’t update again until 2006. So, without further ado, here’s the 2005 movie round-up. Overall, it’s been a pretty solid year for cinema, and this is the first year in the past five where the #1 movie wasn’t immediately obvious to me. But, still, choices had to be made, and so…

Top 20 Films of 2005

[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004]

[Note: The #1 movie of 2005 changed in early 2006: See the Best of 2006 list for the update…]

1. Syriana: I know Stephen Gaghan’s grim meditation on the global reach and ruthlessness of the Oil Trade rubbed some people the wrong way, but I found it a gripping piece of 21st century muckraking, in the venerable tradition of Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair. True, Christopher Plummer was a mite too sinister, but otherwise Syriana offered some of the most intriguing character arcs of the year, from morose CIA Field Agent George Clooney’s ambivalent awakening to corporate lawyer Jeffrey Wright’s courtship with compromise. In a year of well-made political films, among them Good Night, and Good Luck, Munich, Lord of War, and The Constant Gardener, Syriana was the pick of the litter.

2. Layer Cake: If X3 turns into the fiasco the fanboy nation is expecting with Brett Ratner at the helm, this expertly-crafted crime noir by Matthew Vaughn will cut that much deeper. Layer Cake not only outdid Guy Ritchie’s brit-gangster oeuvre in wit and elegance and offered great supporting turns by Michael Gambon, Kenneth Cranham, and Colm Meaney, it proved that Daniel Craig had the requisite charisma for Bond and then some (and that Sienna Miller is no slouch in the charisma department either.)

3. Ballets Russes: Penguins and comedians, to the wings — The lively survivors of the Ballets Russes are now on center stage. Like the best in dance itself, this captivating, transporting documentary was at once of the moment and timeless.

4. Good Night, and Good Luck: Conversely, anchored by David Strathairn’s wry channeling of Edward R. Murrow, George Clooney’s second film (and second appearance on the 2005 list) couldn’t have been more timely. A historical film that in other hands might have come off as dry, preachy edutainment, Good Night, and Good Luck instead seemed as fresh and relevant as the evening news…well, that is, if the news still functioned properly.

5. Batman Begins: The Dark Knight has returned. Yes, the samurai-filled first act ran a bit long and the third-act train derailing needed more oomph. Still, WB and DC’s reboot of the latter’s second biggest franchise was the Caped Crusader movie we’ve all been waiting for. With help from an A-list supporting cast and a Gotham City thankfully devoid of Schumacherian statuary, Chris Nolan and Christian Bale brought both Batman and Bruce Wayne to life as never before, and a Killing Joke-ish Batman 2 is now on the top of my want-to-see list.

6. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: As I said in my original review, I initally thought Cuaron’s Azkhaban couldn’t be topped. But give Mike Newell credit: Harry’s foray into Voldemortish gloom and teenage angst was easily the most compelling Potter film so far. Extra points to Gryffindor for Brendan Gleeson’s more-than-slightly-bent Mad-Eye Moody, and to Slytherin for Ralph Fiennes’ serpentine cameo as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

7. King Kong: I had this film as high as #2 for awhile, and there are visual marvels therein that no other movie this year came close to offering, most notably Kong loose in Depression-Era New York City. But, there’s no way around it — even given all the B-movie thrills and great-ape-empathizing that PJ offers in the last 120 minutes, the first hour is close to terrible, which has to knock the gorilla down a few notches.

8. Capote: When it comes to amorality for artistry’s sake, Jack Black’s Carl Denham ain’t got nothing on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote. I think it’d be awhile before I want to watch this movie again, but, still, it was a dark, memorable trip into bleeding Kansas and the writerly id.

9. Sin City: One of the most faithful comic-to-film adaptations on celluloid also made for one of the more engaging and visually arresting cinematic trips this year. I don’t know if the look and feel of Sin City can sustain a bona fide franchise, but this first outing was a surprisingly worthwhile film experience (with particular kudos for Mickey Rourke’s Marv.)

10. Munich: I wrote about this one at length very recently, so I’ll defer to the original review.

11. Brokeback Mountain: A beautifully shot and beautifully told love story, although admittedly Ang Lee’s staid Brokeback at times feels like transparent Oscar bait.

12. Lord of War: Anchored by Nicholas Cage’s wry voiceover, Andrew Niccol’s sardonic expose of the arms trade was the funniest of this year’s global message films (That is, if you like ’em served up cold.)

13. The Squid and the Whale: Speaking of which, The Squid and the Whale made ugly, embittered divorce about as funny as ever it’s likely to get, thanks to Jeff Daniels’ turn as the pretentious, haunted Bernard Berkman.

14. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith: Thank the Force for small kindnesses: George Lucas put the Star Wars universe to bed with far and away his best outing of the prequels. The film flirts dangerously with the Dark Side, particularly in the “let’s take a meeting” second act, but for the most part Sith felt — finally — like a return to that galaxy long ago and far, far away.

15. A History of Violence: I think David Cronenberg’s most recent take on vigilantism and misplaced identity was slightly overrated by most critics — When you get down to it, the film was pretty straightforward in its doling out of violent fates to those who most deserved them. Still, solid performances and Cronenberg’s mordant humor still made for a far-better-than-average night at the movies.

16. Walk the Line: Despite the great performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line ultimately seemed too much of a by-the-numbers biopic to do the Man in Black full credit. But, definitely worth seeing.

17. In Good Company (2004): Paul Weitz’s sweet folktale of synergy, downsizing, and corporate obsolescence was too charitable and good-natured to think ill of any of its characters, and I usually prefer more mordant fare. Nevertheless, the intelligently-written IGC turned out to be a quality piece of breezy pop filmmaking.

18. The Constant Gardener: Another very good film that I still thought was slightly overrated by the critics, Fernando Meirelles’ sophomore outing skillfully masked its somewhat iffy script with lush cinematography and choice Soderberghian editing.

19. Primer (2004): A completely inscrutable sci-fi tone poem on the perils of time travel. Kevin and I saw it twice and still have very little clue as to what’s going most of the time — but I (we?) mean that in the best way possible.

20. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: The Chronic-what? Andrew Adamson’s retelling of C.S. Lewis’s most popular tome lagged in places, and the two older kids were outfitted with unwieldy character arcs that often stopped the film dead, but it still felt surprisingly faithful to the spirit of Narnia, Christianized lion and all.

Most Disappointing: The Fantastic Four, which I finally saw on the plane yesterday — One of Marvel’s A-List properties is given the straight-to-video treatment. From the Mr. Fantastic bathroom humor to the complete evisceration of Dr. Doom, this movie turned out just as uninspired and embarrassing as the trailers suggested. Runner-Up: The Brothers Grimm. Terry Gilliam’s long-awaited return wasn’t exactly a return-to-form. But, hey, at least he got a movie made, and Tideland is just around the corner.

Most Variable: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: I still haven’t figured out how I feel about this one. I liked it quite a bit upon first viewing, but it didn’t hold up at all the second time around. Still, the casting feels right, and I’d be up for The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, provided they turn up the Ford-and-Zaphod shenanigans and turn down the forced Arthur-and-Trillian romance.

Worth a Rental: Constantine, Aliens of the Deep, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Island, March of the Penguins, The Aristocrats,Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, Jarhead, Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic, The Ice Harvest, War of the Worlds

Ho-Hum: Inside Deep Throat, The Jacket, Million Dollar Baby (2004), The Ring 2, Kingdom of Heaven, Unleashed, Mr. & Mrs. Smith,
Aeon Flux

Best Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote; Eric Bana, Munich; Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain; David Straitharn, Good Night, and Good Luck
Best Actress: Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line; Naomi Watts, King Kong
Best Supporting Actor: Jeff Daniels, The Squid and the Whale; George Clooney, Syriana; Brendan Gleeson, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Best Supporting Actress: Maria Bello, A History of Violence; Tilda Swinton, The Chronicles of Narnia

Unseen: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Bee Season, Broken Flowers, Cache, Casanova, Cinderella Man, Crash, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Grizzly Man, Gunner Palace, Head On, Hustle & Flow, Junebug, Match Point, The New World, Nine Lives, Pride and Prejudice, Serenity (although I watched all of Firefly last week), Shopgirl, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Wedding Crashers

2006: Frankly, the line-up doesn’t look too exciting at the moment. Nevertheless, 2006 will bring A Scanner Darkly, Casino Royale, The Da Vinci Code, Flags of our Fathers, The Good German, The Inside Man, Marie Antoinette, M:I III, Pirates of the Caribbean 2, Snakes on a Plane (!!), Southland Tales, Superman Returns, Tristam Shandy, V for Vendetta, and X3.

Ape is Enough.

Big doings for a Monday morning: Through a fortuitous series of events and two hours of toe-freezing waiting outside, I just got back from a critic’s showing of Peter Jackson’s King Kong over at the Loews on 68th St. (As an aside, the screening was run terribly– From the color-coded seating to the random security lines, everything was organized just enough to unnecessarily complicate everything and to reward bad behavior.) But let’s get down to brass tacks here: How much for the ape? Well, in essence PJ’s King Kong is the Mother of All B-Films — the Skull Island action sequences are spectacular, Kong’s adventures in New York seem appropriately mythic, the special effects throughout (particularly the Great Ape himself) are mind-blowing…Without a doubt, Kong is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. That being said, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the film has some serious pacing problems, particularly in the first hour, and at times I thought it seemed almost too reverent of its source material. At the very least, Kong, while definitely a Wonder of the World and no mistake, could have benefited from some minor grooming.

Fortunately, many of the most glaring missteps in Kong occur relatively early on. The film begins very auspiciously with a choice montage of Depression-Era New York, during which we’re introduced to beautiful young vaudevillian Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) and, soon thereafter, director-on-the-make Carl Denham (Jack Black) and his long-suffering assistant (Colin Hanks). From here throughout, both Watts and Black are excellent — One would never think Watts was interacting with anything less than a grotesquely large primate in the scenes to come, and Black is surprisingly good and unobtrusive as Denham, even if there are a few too many shots of him…slowly…turning…to look at…something huge, amazing, and/or ghastly.

That being said, after the opening, the film slows to a crawl for a good 30-40 minutes, as Denham, Darrow, & co. wend their way to Skull Island about the S.S. Venture. Frankly, I was reminded a lot of the first hour of The Matrix Reloaded during this sequence — There’s nothing as flat-out embarrassing as the Bacardi Silver rave here, but there is a lot of hamfisted expository dialogue masking as character development. Particularly egregious in this regard is everything involving the ship’s First Mate (Evan Parke) and a young stowaway (Jamie Bell) he’s taken under his wing. Frankly, this whole subplot is a mistake — It’s laden with stilted groaners (the digression on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, for example) and comes off as cliche-ridden as the tough general and his fresh-faced recruit in that other Matrix film.

Fortunately, right around the time the Venture loses steam, the film starts picking some up. The run-in with the natives is rather creepy in PJ fashion, although, once again, it could use some tightening — We only need one slo-mo Bad Taste-ish zoom to a human skull and one frightening Zombified Skull Islander in the throes of an epileptic seizure…but PJ gives us four or five of each. Still, when Kong first rumbles out of the jungle to acquire his new sacrificial plaything, the film starts to gather the hurtling momentum that’ll characterize most of the rest of its run.

And, indeed, the rollicking next hour of the film is, for the most part, Jurassic Park on ‘roids. Throughout the Skull Island tour (which includes many death-defying stops and Shelob-esque reveals), Peter Jackson and the WETA gang really let their freak flag fly, and the fun here is infectious. This is a monster movie maven at the top of his game, and some of the sequences here — most notably Kong vs three T-Rexes — are jaw-droppingly (or jaw-rippingly, as the case may be) spectacular. I don’t want to give away some of the twists and turns in this middle chapter…but, if you’re not really enjoying the heck out of this hour of the film (even despite some of the less-plausible deux-ex-machinas involved), I’m not sure why you went to see Kong in the first place.

Of course, the story returns to New York in the final hour, when Denham brings his newly-acquired Eighth Wonder of the World to the Great White Way. (Look for the now somewhat-unfortunate cameo by Howard Shore, doing what he might well have done best…To be honest, the James Newton Howard score sounded mostly like incidental music. If there was a “Kong theme,” I didn’t catch it on first viewing.) And, at this point, the film forsakes the mayhem of its middle hour to bask in the Gothic-in-Gotham resonance of the Kong mythos. There are some really beautiful moments here in the final act, although I do have some quibbles: The timing of night and day makes very little sense, and streets seem to clear of fear-stricken bystanders at the most opportune times for Kong and his ladyfriend. (Then again, we are talking about a 25-foot ape here, so perhaps I should just shut up and suspend the disbelief.) Also, there’s a scene in Central Park here that I expect will divide audiences — particularly fanboy audiences — down the middle. I found it somewhat touching, but I also couldn’t help imagining Kong & Ann visiting Coney Island and/or partaking of a Gray’s Papaya while they’re at it. “Something tells me I’m into something good…”

And, then, of course, we end atop the Empire State. At this point, you’re either with the movie or you’re not, and I was definitely moved by Kong’s last act. That being said, I can also see the argument that some folks made of Return of the King being made here…the last few scenes are exquisite and heartfelt, but they’re also just ever-so-slightly redundant. You can forgive PJ being a trifle indulgent here, I think — this is the big payoff, not only the culmination of a three-hour viewing experience but the most memorable moment in his favorite movie of all time. That being said, I have to admit that at a certain point, as the biplanes went around for yet another pass and Kong looked increasingly miserable, that the horrible cynic in me noted this was somewhat akin to watching a remake of Citizen Kane with a fifteen-minute sled scene.

I was also somewhat reminded of Old Yeller in the closing moments, which — it must be said — speaks for how amazing PJ, WETA, and Andy Serkis’ King Kong turned out to be. In fact, this even far outshines their amazing work on Gollum — At no point did I find myself questioning the reality of this Kong, even in the midst of some severe Tyrannosaurus Rex bashing. The Dian Fossey gloss on the relationship between Darrow & Kong helped too — In perhaps the cleverest update of the old Kong, Darrow utilizes a very unique set of skills to bond with the Great Ape. And it’s those scenes — and their other quiet moments together — that are the most memorable aspects of this Kong, which is no small feat given the action flourishes of the second act.

In sum, King Kong is an amazing film, and easily one of the best movies of this year. But, to be fair, it’s also undeniably too indulgent at times, and I think it ultimately fails to achieve the transcendent heights of the Rings trilogy. (But I’ll freely admit to having more of an emotional investment in Tolkien than I do in the original Kong.) At the very least, it’s definitely worth seeing, not only as a world-class monster movie but also as a worthy retelling of one of the cinema’s greatest stories.

Eighth Wonder of the World.

The much-anticipated teaser for PJ’s King Kong is now online.

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