The usual blather to the effect that MOVIES ARE WORSE THAN EVER remains nonsense. There were enough laudable movies, this year, that films 11-20 in my ranking were all hard as hell to remove from the top ten. As always, it's not the best of the best that's getting worse, from year to year, but the vast majority of films that occupy the undifferentiated middle, all of which seem pitched to an audience without patience for character, ambiguity, or point. Films that are business deals instead of labors of love. (It's worth noting, again, that the ridiculous national obsession with what films ruled the box office over the weekend, has fostered an environment where the stupidest and lowest-common-denominator films "RULE" at the expense of movies that resonate past Monday morning.)
Part of the problem is that movies can be great for two completely divergent reasons. They can be great because they take us away from the everyday world, to soar on wings of frothy comedy, passionate romance or fantastic adventure; or they can be great because they shine an unforgiving light on the parts of the world we don't often see, to reveal that which went unseen before. This is the difference between rose-colored glasses and a proctoscope, and some films manage to encompass both.
So many films, nowadays, are intent on being nothing more than roller-coaster rides (often eschewing any pretense at storytelling content, to the point of shortchanging us on the characters), that it's hard not to harbor bias in favor of films that take risks, that address the world, that are about something. Such films are always a relief, especially in the brain-dead expanse of summer, and tend to rise higher in my personal estimation. But this doesn't stop three martial-arts films from barely missing my top ten, and an animated adventure from joining my top five.
Unlike critics obliged to see everything, I don't deliberately see movies I expect to suck unless I'm being paid. I was paid to see FABLED: a pointless horror film about an angry nebbish played by the aptly-named Desmond Askew, which had no entertainment value whatsoever. I was also paid to see RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE. I called it a zombie film in the sense that the movie itself was undeed: shambling, brainless, and cannibalistic toward the better films that came before it. I would call the latter the worst film of the two, but there were even worse...
I.E. One I actually hoped to be good. SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW represented th essence of special effects triumphing over story, character, logic, or point. M. Night Shyamalan's THE VILLAGE was a major disappointment by a filmmaker whose previous works I admire, which featured somnolent acting and stilted dialogue in the service of a "surprise" ending obvious from within the first frame. However, the very worst film of the year, by far, awful to the point of physical pain, was easily VAN HELSING. You could mix emulsion in a blender and make a more coherent movie.
I, Robot. With special thanks to Ike.
Named annually for the performer who shows the most virtuoso range. Jude Law, who appeared in seven films, seems to have been the most prolific. Jim Carrey, who underacted in ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and overacted -- by design -- in A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS, may have been the most versatile. Christian Bale, who dropped one-third of his body weight to star as the emaciated central figure of THE MACHINIST, prior to bulking up for next year's BATMAN BEGINS, may have been the most astonishingly dedicated. But the breakout performer of the year was Jamie Foxx, previously hard to take seriously, this year the central figure of the powerful thriller COLLATERAL and the spookily reincarnated Ray Charles of RAY.
With the usual blather to the effect that I didn't see everything -- that, indeed, I missed more than I managed to catch; see previous essays to go through THAT rigamarole all over again -- here are the
18) KILL BILL VOL. 2.
Junk of the very highest calibre, channeling grindhouse chopsocky and spaghetti westerns to deepen and broaden the appeal of the story's first half.
17) ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND.
Charlie Kaufman's marvelous fantasia on memory and love, with wonderful lead performances by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet.
16) A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT
A woman searches for her lost love in the aftermath of World War I; he's listed as dead, she thinks he's alive. Schmaltz, but powerful schmaltz.
Liam Neeson in a warts-and-all biography of the obsessed sex researcher. Laura Linney, as his long-suffering wife, deserves special mention.
Jamie Foxx delivers one of the best performances of the year, re-creating Ray Charles on screen. The movie gets a relatively low ranking because of some schematic storytelling, but the music and the lead performance bring it near the top ten.
13 and 12) HERO and HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS.
Pure hokum in both cases, with the political message behind HERO downright suspect, but in neither case does it truly matter. Both advance the case, prominent in recent years, that martial arts films can be dizzyingly kinetic and still emerge as deeply emotional pieces of work.
11) SHREK 2.
You can't hate the green guy.
10) MILLION DOLLAR BABY
Yes, you can fault its inaccurate view of boxing, and question some of the characterization, and have strong issues with the drama of its last half hour, but it does have its own narrative force, don't it.
9) SUPER SIZE ME.
Morgan Spurlock eats McDonald's for a month and makes us all regret our last Happy Meal. Two more documentaries on this top ten.
8) TOUCHING THE VOID.
A mountaineering expedition gone nightmarishly wrong in this frankly unbelievable tale of survival at all costs. Extensive re-enactments push the boundaries of what is acceptable in a documentary, but I don't care. It's an astounding story.
7) FAHRENHEIT 911.
Quibble if you must about its accuracy. I want it here because I know that listing it will likely get me hate mail from the side that likes to claim it's been demonized.
6) MARIA FULL OF GRACE.
A beautiful young drug mule in Colombia swallows packets of cocaine to smuggle to America. Harrowing, a dark study of the way some people actually live on this planet, with the heroine eventually finding the grace of the title in a most unexpected way.
A stylistically audacious, epic drama filmed in a warehouse, with a town represented by a set of blueprints and a plot that turns a fugitive woman (Nicole Kidman), seeking refuge in a depression-era town, from welcome guest to despised and abused slave. But, oh, how that worm turns!
4) THE AVIATOR.
Martin Scorcese's biopic of Howard Hughes owes more to the Hollywood style of the 1930s than it does to the work that made the once-great director's reputation, but it's a visually sumptious and wittily told tale.
You know what you call a wine connosieur after he's had a bit too much? A drunk. A comedy of middle-aged manners, with a grumpy Paul Giamatti and a stunning Virginia Madsen.
2) THE INCREDIBLES.
Don't get me monologuing. One of the best superhero films of all time.
1) HOTEL RWANDA.
Life as the world goes insane all around you, anchored by the best performance of Don Cheadle's career.
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