Note: This entry is breaking with the standard month gap so that I can have it out before the 2006 entry, which will be VERY different in format.
2004 was a year that started strong and ended, if not weakly, then not as strong as it was. Rather inevitably, 2005 followed the exact opposite pattern. It began rough but blossomed into a stellar year for films. Like any year, it had its highs and its lows. It was a bustling time as usual for me, only a half step off on the frequency of viewings. So rest assured I have a multitude of thoughts to come!
The Year in Review
As always, January marks a rather abysmal start to the year. Horror films with casts far too good for them like White Noise, the last widely released Michael Keaton starrer until Birdman, and Hide and Seek with Robert De Niro. Families had the not for me but actually well liked Are We There Yet and Racing Stripes. For me but skipped was Elektra, which basically proves that yes there are CBMs I avoid.
Will Smith owned February with the blander than margarine Hitch, which more than doubled the gross of the next highest grossing film that month. Said film was the awesome as hell but blindingly unfaithful Constantine. Remove these two and it’s an amazingly forgettable month with films like The Wedding Date, Because of Winn-Dixie, and Boogeyman. Wes Craven’s all too well named Cursed landed this month. One very notable film at month’s end: Diary of a Mad Black Woman which introduced cinema to Tyler Perry as Madea.
This really was not a good season. I stress this. The month’s highest grossing film was the now completely forgotten Robots with almost equally forgotten The Pacifier close behind. The unneeded Miss Congeniality 2 and the needed but not liked The Ring Two killed those two franchises though Ring actually did solidly. Be Cool came and managed to not only drag Get Shorty down with it but also Pulp Fiction due to stunt casting. Ashton Kutcher’s first vehicle of the year, Guess Who, landed. One bright spot: Oldboy hit America at month’s end.
I’ve noted this before: Box office rarely reflects cultural impact. The Interpreter grossed 2 million less than Sin City but the latter is remembered while the former is forgotten. Kung Fu Hustle was outgrossed by Ashton Kutcher’s A Lot Like Love, but I forgot that even existed. In fact forgettable continues to be the buzzword. Movies like The Amityville Horror and Sahara existed but they’ve left no trace. I do hate that this is true of the lovely and underseen Fever Pitch. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is remembered both by opponents and fans who seem to be in equal number.
The blockbusters finally came in earnest. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, the year’s biggest grosser, came and closed out the prequels. Madagascar and The Longest Yard both put up massive numbers in their own right. Crash debuted to solid numbers in advance of its Oscar win. On the other hand you had the bomb of Kingdom of Heaven which was salvaged on video. The extremely forgettable Kicking and Screaming opened as did House of Wax which managed to lose money despite being a horror film.
The two biggest movies of this month were War of the Worlds and Batman Begins, which actually sounds right. There was also the hugely successful fluff of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which was aided by immeasurable tabloid coverage. There were still bombs. Bewitched and The Honeymooners pretty much killed the classic sitcoms as movies trend. The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl confirmed it was over for Robert Rodriguez in family films. George A. Romero failed to reach the same success of other modern zombie films with his own Land of the Dead.
Wedding Crashers owned the month of July with unexpectedly massive grosses, confirming the power of the “frat pack.” It was joined by the megahit Charlie and the Chocolate Factory which confirmed the box office power of Johnny Depp, though it was instantly polarizing. Fantastic Four was a sizable hit though it was only moderately liked even at the time. Bombs landed hard with Stealth and The Island both losing over $80 million a piece. Dark Water represented the nadir of the Japanese Horror remake trend. The indie scene provided a welcome contrast with the adorable March of the Penguins waddling across America and Hustle and Flow delivering strong if unexciting numbers. Sky High hit at month’s end and honestly I just don’t like it like you all do.
This was another very forgettable month. I had trouble remembering releases like The Skeleton Key, Supercross, and Valiant. The Dukes of Hazzard I remember all too well. Red Eye was a solid small thriller which helped redeem Wes Craven for the year. Deuce Bigalow : European Gigolo arrived to nobody’s satisfaction. The Brothers Grimm was finally released and lost half its budget as did the much cheaper The Cave. The one major bright spot: The 40-Year-Old Virgin. The month also had a rare great film in the last week of August with The Constant Gardener.
Labor Day weekend brought the abysmal Transporter 2 and the epic flop A Sound of Thunder. This bad weekend seemed to exorcise the month though as the rest of the month was unexpectedly strong. Excellent films such as Green Street Hooligans, Lord of War, and Thumbsucker provided unexpectedly strong blasts of originality. A History of Violence and Capote kicked the Oscar season into high gear. The Corpse Bride and The Exorcism of Emily Rose were both unexpectedly engaging riffs on the horror genre. Even the fluff was a bit better with films like Serenity and Just Like Heaven popping up. It wasn’t all good, such as the huge hit but bland Flightplan, but it was a better month than usual.
Unfortunately, October failed to continue the upward swing. While there were legitimately great films such as Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Good Night and Good Luck, there were a lot of forgettable outings too. The Fog, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, and Stay failed to draw in horror crowds or satisfy those that showed up. The heavily hyped Doom and The Legend of Zorro both came far too late for their initial fanbases. Even the “serious” films fizzled with the irritating The Weather Man. Oh and there was a Saw movie, the second one.
Sadly the narrative isn’t changing here. In fact it got worse. With the exception of the solid Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, this was a dire November without even the comfort of the arthouse. Rent joined the roster of films that missed their moment in the culture. There were forgettable family films like Yours, Mine, and Ours and Chicken Little as well as the decent Zathura. 50 Cent tried to make his own 8 Mile with the ill received Get Rich or Die Tryin’. Ryan Reynolds made an early bomb with Just Friends. Does anybody even know what Derailed is? There was the decently received Syriana and Jarhead has fans, but far too little to save the month.
The year ended a bit mixed. Brokeback Mountain debuted in limited release on its way to box office gold in January. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and King Kong were both epic hits. Munich marked a high water mark for quality this year. Terrence Malick’s The New World was widely hailed by critics though as usual audiences avoided it. The Family Stone has its fans. Then again, you also had such misfires as the well intentioned but offensive Memoirs of a Geisha and Transamerica. Cheaper by the Dozen 2 and Fun With Dick and Jane both provided thought free laughter. Then there’s The Producers. I have more to say below.
The Big Themes of the Year
Name brands mattered. This was a year dominated by very safe, familiar choices. Star Wars, the most reliable brand on Earth, actually made 90 million more than the #2 film, The Chronicles of Narnia, which was in a dead heat with Harry Potter. Familiar stories like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, King Kong, and Batman’s origin also popped up in the top 10.
The star system was in full force. There’s really no other way to explain many of the big hits of this year. Wedding Crashers benefited greatly from the rise of the Frat Pack. War of the Worlds relied heavily on the idea of Tom Cruise vs aliens. Mr. and Mrs. Smith used its much buzzed stars to get over a rather generic storyline. Hitch only became a hit due to Will Smith.
The star system still had weaknesses. Not every major name film found viewers. Will Ferrell struck out with Bewitched, Kicking and Screaming, and a supporting role in The Producers. Despite hype, tabloid staples Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton both appeared in duds. Jennifer Aniston made several films this year and I didn’t even mention a few of them. Also Hollywood really wanted us to love Ashton Kutcher. We didn’t.
Timeliness mattered. A number of the bombs of the year were films that had no business being made in 2005. Doom not only came long after the game’s heat but had nothing to do with the source aside from one scene. The Legend of Zorro and Miss Congeniality 2 were both obvious sequel options that were running out. Rent really felt out of place, especially with a cast a decade too old for their roles.
Did the Oscars get it right? :death stare: No, no they did not. Aside from well deserved wins for Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Rachel Weisz, albeit in a case of rather farcical category fraud for her, this wasn’t a great year. Brokeback Mountain scored in screenplay and director but was shut out of best picture and really both should’ve been Spielberg’s for Munich. We can debate if Reese Witherspoon and George Clooney deserved their wins but really all the acting awards aside from Hoffman were arguable cases of category fraud. Then there was Crash. Jumping ahead…
A few brief awards.
While I’m still doing a top 7 worst/top 10 best, there were a number of films that deserve attention that don’t fit either list.
Movie I wish I liked more: Sky High. I know so many people who really love this one. It’s obviously charming to someone. The thing is, it’s not to me. It’s almost agonizingly annoying. It’s too loud. The acting is rather weak aside from a wonderfully over the top turn by Mary Elizabeth Winstead who thankfully would go on to more. I just can’t deal with how cloying this transparent Disney Channel pilot I paid to see was.
Best Bad Movie: Bewitched. This movie is such a debacle on a script level. I mean, there is a full sequence that could be deleted! The movie also overcomplicates the easiest, safest story on Earth. Why this needed to be meta baffles me. Nicole Kidman is a good decade too old for this role. But Nora Ephron was such a gifted comedic director that it works anyway. Her timing is great. She cast it well. There’s good lines. This is a weird misfire but I kinda like it.
Movie that deserved better: Land of the Dead. It’s a damn shame George A. Romero returning to zombies wasn’t seen as the event it was. Romero was still on his game with a funny, bracing thriller that showed what satirical horror was supposed to look like. He even repays Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg back for Shaun of the Dead with a quick cameo of the two as zombies. This was I think maybe a bit oversold on its ties to past films. It stood alone fine for me. It still deserves better.
Best comic book movie that’s wildly untrue to its source: Constantine. OK, I created this category to find an excuse to discuss this film. But it deserves it! Despite changing as much as it could about its hero, Constantine was an awesome, creepy horror film with great actors tearing into pulpy material. Francis Lawrence made an electric debut that landed him I Am Legend. This movie is pure atmosphere. Love it.
The worst movies of the year
7. Hitch. Putting a film like Hitch in this slot feels unfair. It’s so harmless. But that’s really my issue with it. This movie felt as manufactured as possible to not offend or annoy me and frankly I had no business watching it for that reason. This was a sitcom on the big screen. I mourn the death of the romcom but movies like this make it hard to care.
6. The Dukes of Hazzard. Honestly this is really likely worse than some of the films ahead but it’s the same deal. This movie, which was actually based on a sitcom, didn’t give me any reason to care. It was as prepackaged as they came with names, regardless of if they belonged in front of a camera. It’s filled with obvious jokes designed to look edgy but aren’t. It’s a thing.
5. The Weather Man. I might be unfair putting this on a worst of list but movies like this need to be called out. This is a movie that has nothing going for it except a void of perspective. It’s so very white and so very whiny. I didn’t care about the problems of a rich, entitled asshole. It wasn’t even well made with oppressive ugliness throughout. Movies like this give adult films a bad name.
4. Dark Water. What was with great middle aged actresses and “respectable” horror in this era? Besides this and the previous year’s The Forgotten, there was The Exorcism of Emily Rose which isn’t making this list by virtue of being quite good. Anyway this was a horrible movie. Jennifer Connelly is wasted while John C. Reilly and Tm Roth both provide ridiculously unneeded red herrings. It’s just bland. It’s not scary at all. Compared to something like The Babadook, it’s just watered down.
3. The Producers. Rent isn’t making the list only due to the actors trying. But nobody was trying here. Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick actually seem annoyed at having to return to these roles. The script is breathtakingly lazy. But what really makes this awful is how little effort was given to make this a movie. It’s stagy as hell and it bored me. Not to mention how awful the music is.
2. Transporter 2. Next to the other films on the list, this is a flea. But it’s such a very bad flea. This had no business being in theaters. It’s a knockoff cheapie sequel except with the original star. Jason Statham is actually a tremendous talent but he’s wasted in roles like these. It’s at times laughably made. The action is terrible. The film contemplates making the character gay but that’s sadly just subtext.
1. Crash. This has nothing to do with its ludicrous Oscar win. I genuinely hate this movie that much. This is a movie with one of the worst scripts ever to escape development. Every line of it is on the nose. The plot is absolutely farcical. It’s blindingly sexist. Oh and of course it’s really quite racist. If this was a satire of Magnolia, I’d buy it. This is a Seltzerberg look at ensemble movies.
The 10 best movies of the year.
10. The Constant Gardener. This one makes the list pretty much entirely on the basis of its acting. It’s well shot and solidly written but really this is about the acting. And what acting! Rachel Weisz delivers the best female performance of the year as a woman whose crusade leads to a tragic end. She’s matched by Ralph Fiennes in an all too rare performance as a truly good man broken by his experience. Bill Nighy adds a nice shot of cold.
9. Kung Fu Hustle. This is why putting this list together years out is a good idea. This didn’t make my immediate list in 2006, but it makes it in 2016. There’s no depth to to this movie at all. Instead it’s a sheer exercise in genre. And what an exercise! It’s hysterically funny at the same time it’s wall to wall grand fight scenes. This is one that deserves to endure.
8. Lord of War. I feel like Nicolas Cage gets written off after 2002’s Adaptation. In truth he’s made great movies even if nobody saw them. Similarly, Andrew Niccol gets treated as though it all ended with 1998’s The Truman Show. In truth, both brought their A-game to this fantastic look at the arms trade. The movie lacks any easy answers but instead challenges the viewer to decide themselves. Everything about it hums.
7. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I would argue this is the least successful film on the list. It’s not very well structured and rather aimless. Douglas Adams’ classic book may have been unadaptable. But you know what? This is still an awesome film. It’s giddily ambitious. It’s superbly acted. The effects are top notch. It may be a collection of events but what entertaining events! It doesn’t fully work but I’d argue it couldn’t work more.
6. The 40-Year-Old Virgin. The year’s funniest film. But that’s not why it’s on this list. This is a movie with a lot to say about male sexuality that we don’t usually hear about in mass media. The film actually stops to examine the pressure men are under and the perversity of media fixation on sex. The film even provides balance with an unusually nuanced teenage girl supporting character played by Kat Dennings. It’s a sweet film with a lot on its mind. And it’s hysterical.
5. Good Night, and Good Luck. Biopics are a dime a dozen. Making them actual movies rather than wikipedia entries on film is almost impossible. So credit to director George Clooney for making a real, living film about Edward R. Murrow’s battle with Joseph McCarthy. This is a powerhouse of a portrait of this moment filled with great actors doing great work. The black and white cinematography makes the viewer wake up. It’s a small film but that’s fitting. It gets in, tells a story, and gets out.
4. Brokeback Mountain. The film that should’ve established the mainstream was ready for a gay love story. Honestly I’m not sure why this didn’t. It’s a film that’s held up supremely well over the last decade and will continue to do so. Everything about Ang Lee’s relentlessly spare direction works. The performances hold back on the melodrama. The script simply adapts its source material beat for beat. A truly classically made film.
3. Batman Begins. Christopher Nolan’s grand synthesis of Frank Miller and Loeb/Sale couldn’t possibly work better. It’s unashamedly a pulpy comic book movie yet at the same time it aims to be a serious look at the mythos. It’s a perfectly struck balance executed by a team in complete control of their craft. This was the harbinger for greater things to come.
2. War of the Worlds. It aggravates me how much this film is overshadowed by the (wildly clipped out of context) Oprah appearance and the last shot which is an epic cheat. Because literally everything else about this film is first rate. The film captures the pain of being a refugee in one’s own homeland, something that would be all too real for Louisianans two months after its release. This isn’t a story of heroism but of the raw battle to stay alive. Steven Spielberg operates at the peak of his game with his standard collaborators. For any other director, this would be their best film this decade. It wasn’t even Spielberg’s best film this year.
1. Munich. As agonizing a film as it gets. This is a bleak, shattering look at the hollowness of revenge. There’s no catharsis to be found in this film. But it’s a vital film for this reason. It’s a painful journey that matters. Tony Kushner delivers a film script on par with his devastating stage work. It’s well acted across the board. But the grand triumph of the film belongs to Spielberg, who strips away every trope associated with his art. This is in no way a “Spielberg” film aside from being executed to perfection. In a year of forgettable movies, this one mattered.