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Monica Bellucci

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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


[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.

Grimm Fandango.

Finally, the Labor Day nightcap was Terry Gilliam’s latest outing, The Brothers Grimm, which has been getting panned in the reviews. Well, it’s not as bad as it’s being made out to be, but I can’t say it’s very good either. Long-time Gilliam fans will probably get a kick out of seeing his eye applied to several classic fairy tales — I sure did. But ultimately the film is a mess, with subpar special effects and a terrible, terrible script that borders on the incoherent. In fact, I can’t figure out for the life of me how Ehren Krueger (and, while I’m hating, Akiva Goldsman) keep getting gigs…they’re out-and-out hacks, the Paul Anderson and Brett Ratner of screenwriting. Brothers Grim indeed.

So, what’s good? Well, as you might expect, the best parts of the film are the Gilliamesque visual flourishes. When the movie involves enchanted forests or sleeping beauties or malevolent mirrors or little red riding…capes, Gilliam is in his element, and his kid-in-a-candy-store enthusiasm is infectious. If you’re a aficionado of the guy, these moments almost make the film worthwhile on their own…almost. Art direction aside, however, the effects often have a real budget FX-house look to them. (Memo to the studios: CGI and werewolves don’t ever seem to mix — cf. this, Underworld, American Werewolf in Paris, etc.) If your tale involves a man-wolf of any kind whatsoever, use an old-school make-up guy like Rick Baker or Rob Bottin.)

And, the story…oof. For what it’s worth, Matt Damon (Will) and Heath Ledger (Jakob) both acquit themselves admirably as the brothers/ghostbusters, and Damon in particular has a gleam in his eye that suggests he’d make an even worse movie if it meant he could continue to hang around the Gilliamverse. But the Brothers Grimm are cursed with a grafted-on fraternal backstory — Will wants to protect Jakob, Jakob wants Will to believe in him — that feels artificial from the start and forces them to spit out increasingly unwieldy chunks of character development as the movie progresses.

Worse, scenes just happen one after another with no feeling of narrative development at all. The brothers are in a dungeon, no…the forest, no…the dungeon again, and so on. The brilliant Jonathan Pryce is wasted in a subplot involving a French general that never makes one iota of sense. (Mackenzie Crook, a.k.a. Gareth from The Office, is also wasted, in more ways than one.) And Pryce’s henchman, the usually amiable Peter Stormare, singlehandledly ruins every scene he’s in with a grotesquely hammy performance of Olympian proportions — seriously, he makes Anthony Hopkins in Bram Stoker’s Dracula seem like Ralph Fiennes in The Constant Gardener. Conversely, the film could have used a good deal more of Monica Bellucci’s evil queen (but, to be fair, most films, and most endeavors in life, could stand to use more Monica Bellucci…the world would be a happier place for it.)

Ultimately, the Brothers Grimm is less grim than it is sadly pedestrian, and it has to be counted as a occasionally diverting swing-and-a-miss for Gilliam. But, I’d say that’s more due to the weakness of the material here than it is Gilliam, who shows flashes of his usual mojo. As such, I still have high hopes for Tideland, which, thankfully, is right around the corner.

Mirror, Mirror, on the wall.

Worlds of wonder abound in the trailer bin today, including our first real look at Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm (looks a bit Munchausen-y…and I hope I can get used to Matt Damon’s accent) and this trippy voyage into Neil Gaiman’s Mirrormask. And, speaking of Gaiman, his and Robert Zemeckis’ forthcoming version of Beowulf has a cast: Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Brendan Gleeson, and Robin Wright Penn.

On War, Violence, and other Grimm Matters.

In this weekend’s movie bin, yet another new look at Stephen Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and a higher quality version of the trailer for David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence that premiered at Cannes last week. And, further into the future, the one-sheet for Terry Gilliam’s return, The Brothers Grimm, makes it online. Along with Heath Ledger, Matt Damon, and the lovely Monica Bellucci, Grimm also includes Peter Stormare and Jonathan Pryce. Seeing Sam Lowry back in the Gilliam-verse should be worth the price of admission by itself.

Grimm-Visaged War.

Argh. Terry’s Gilliam’s spate of studio trouble continues, with The Brothers Grimm getting pushed back a full year to November 2005. (Star Matt Damon suggests it may be due to FX.) It was already shaping up to be a particularly lousy fall film-wise, and this doesn’t help.

Witch On, Switch Off.

A slew of new 2004 film pics online, including Monica Bellucci in The Brothers Grimm (ok, but we’ve seen this before), Will Smith in I, Robot (uh oh…they turned it into an actioner), Samuel Jackson in Country of My Skull, and Robin Williams in The Final Cut.

Lady in Red.

Is it a Terry Gilliam movie or a Tarsem video? Coming Soon posts this colorful first look at Monica Bellucci in The Brothers Grimm.

Attack of the Clone.

UGH. Well, the keyboard just fell to the ground and I lost a really long Matrix: Revolutions review in one errant keystroke. As Neo might say, “Whoa.” So here we go again…Spoilers to follow throughout.

Like most of the fanboy world, I checked out Revolutions on Wednesday and, well, I guess Andrew O’Hehir of Salon might’ve said it best: It “isn’t a terrible movie, but it is a tremendous disappointment.” (Many people I’ve spoken to think that even this proclamation is being charitable.) As y’all may or may not remember, I actually liked The Matrix: Reloaded, and forgave it many of its considerable faults (the interminable first forty minutes in Zion, for example), because I assumed that much of the drier, talkier scenes were necessary for setting the stage for the final installment. And I thought that the Architect scene that closed Reloaded also opened many intriguing doors that promised future mind-bending plot twists in Revolutions.

But, sadly, Revolutions capitalizes on barely any of this promise. Instead the Wachowski, um, siblings give us a closing chapter that is almost breathtaking in its inanity. For one, much of the time spent in Reloaded making the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), Persephone (Monica Bellucci), and for that matter, the phase-shifting albino twins (“We are getting very aggravated”) decently compelling adversaries seems to have been completely wasted. None of Merv’s existential menace or Persephone’s prophetic allure comes to anything here — instead, they’re used as throwaway devices to set up an exchange in a goofy S&M joint which I suppose is meant to approximate Hell but comes off more like the Prague nightclub in Blade 2. As with the characters, so with the plot twists — Virtually every one of the intriguing questions dropped at the end of Reloaded (multiple Matrices, Neo’s real world powers) are either completely left by the wayside or just accepted by the story — Neo has powers in the Real World now because he does. Hmm, that’s not that interesting. It eventually seems that the only point of the film’s first half-hour (aside from the introduction of karmic programs, which I’ll get to later) is to rectify the Neo-in-a-coma cliffhanger of Reloaded, a cliffhanger that ends up having little or nothing to do with the trilogy’s main arc.

Speaking of the main arc, I’d think even the most rabid Matrix fanatics out there have to admit that almost all of the fanfic endings to Revolutions turned out to be more intriguing and well-thought-out than the real thing. Now I don’t have a problem with the peace treaty aspect of the conclusion – after watching the Animatrix prequels, that seemed almost inevitable. But, as J. Hoberman noted in a mixed-positive review, what we end up with here is one-part Christ allegory (perhaps Mel Gibson should’ve taken the role), one-part Return of the King, with Neo and Trinity rushing to Mordor before the White City falls. There are no interesting permutations to this formula along the way, no Matrix-like plot twist to take the film up a notch — instead Revolutions just grinds along inexorably to its rote conclusion. It would’ve been well nigh impossible for the Wachowskis to match the shock of Neo’s pod awakening in the first Matrix, but I think they could’ve approximated something along the lines of the Architect scene if they’d just tried a little harder.

Moreover, Revolutions as written fails to engage us in the characters we’ve been following along the way. One of the main three is reduced to little more than a Nien Nunb impression, while another dies (slowly) in what amounts basically to a Keymaker-like chauffeuring mission. Instead, we spend most of the movie watching the exploits of a Zion filled with uninvolving stock character tropes — the can-do kid, the grizzled sergeant, the take-no-guff officer, the scrappy girlfriend — take your pick. Frankly, the Wachowskis should be ashamed at the depths of cliche wallowed in here, in both the dialogue and the characters. Just grisly stuff.

So why, after all these issues, am I still giving Reloaded a 2-star (6/10) review? Well, for one, I guess I am a sucker for big sci-fi spectacle, and the Zion invasion sequence does undoubtedly make for some compelling eye candy. It’d have been nice if the machines had relied on a variety of military mechs rather than just the ubiquitous Squiddies, but they are kinda creepy, and I did like the moment when they pour out of the dock breach like the blooming of a poisonous rose. And then there’s Agent Smith, who as per usual steals scenes every time he opens his mouth — His scene with the Oracle may be the high point of the film. Hugo Weaving (and Ian Bliss’s wicked Weaving impression) deserve high marks for bringing the type of grade-b, meglomaniacal fun to the table that this ponderous film so often needs (More Joe Pantoliano would’ve benefited both sequels too, I should think.) Alas, the rain battle between Smith and Neo at the end of the film also feels like a bust. It’s never as engaging as their fracas at the end of the first Matrix, and it definitely could have benefited from more Superman stylings (punching through buildings, swinging streetlamps like baseball bats, etc.)

But I’m trying to accentuate the positive here. I did enjoy the Philosophy 102 lectures, even if they also seem inserted in as usual. To add to the existential and behaviorist disquisitions of Reloaded, we now have an emotive program discoursing on karma (also one of the better moments of the film) and Smith making a case for nihilism. You could read Neo’s final fate as representing the necessity of all philosophies to grapple with the inevitability of death, although it seems more pertinent to explain it as simple messiah martyrdom, given all the throwing around of words like “faith” and “belief” through the film. (The kid’s “I believe in Neo!”, for example…ugh.) Actually, trying to interpret the ending of the film brings me to my biggest problem with Revolutions: the movie turned out to be so pedestrian in its execution that it almost undercuts the intellectual legitimacy of the earlier films.

Put another way, while I think David Denby should be taken to task for the ridiculous snobbishness exposed in his Revolutions review (Denby writes that it is “far too late to bemoan the obvious truth that…college-educated gents, and millions of others like them, will spend many hours debating the apocalypse as revealed by the Brothers Wachowski but would die before reading a single story by Chekhov or Cheever dealing with the sensual and spiritual quandaries of ordinary people“), the film does suggest that much of the philosophical ruminations on the meaning of the Matrix trilogy may have been misplaced when the writer-directors are so glib and ham-handed as to finish it off with a mighty dollop of Christ-figure bathos, a sunset, and a little girl.

In sum, while the intriguing but flawed Reloaded suggested that the Wachowskis were going to swing for the fences in the final installment, ultimately it seemed that — action spectacle aside — they were content to settle for a bunt. Boo hiss.

Brothers and Arms.

Dark Horizons and Dreams (a quality Terry Gilliam fansite) gets the first look at The Brothers Grimm (a.k.a. Heath Ledger and Matt Damon.) I for one am looking forward to seeing the inimitable Jonathan Pryce and the incomparable Monica Bellucci. Also in cinema news, for those of you who shared my confusion over the weekend’s Arthur pics, Clive Owen discusses the film, and why he’s apparently running around in legionnaire’s garb.

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