The critics speak

Jan 4, 2006 at 12:00 am

Michael Hastings

Most creative use of a straight razor — and worst ending: High Tension
Some virtues of this French horror import: an ass-kicking heroine reminiscent of Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, implements of torture sharp enough to cut diamonds and the most copious bloodletting since the Italian gore classics of the ’70s. Alas, the filmmakers had to blow their wad on a twist ending so ridiculously offensive, it’s a wonder lesbian groups didn’t protest en masse.

Best movie to see with a rowdy audience — and best death: Paris Hilton, House of Wax
Of the countless horror remakes this year, the price of admission was worth it to see said “actress” evoking screams of “Now that’s hot!” from moviegoers after a steel rod penetrates her empty skull. If only it were real.

God-awful, wretched movies that made a lot of money anyway: Monster-in-Law, The Longest Yard, Fantastic Four, The Dukes of Hazzard
You paid for it: Jennifer Lopez acting like a homicidal Doris Day; Adam Sandler and his homophobe buddies making dick jokes for two hours; the Fantastic Four being so lame and ineffectual, it’s hard to remember what the hell they did; Johnny Knoxville looking bored, old and uncool. These are the kinds of movies that make critics even more whiny and insufferable than we already are. Only you can stop the madness.

Surprisingly OK movies: Guess Who, Sky High, The Honeymooners, The Legend of Zorro
At first glance, this is a pretty dorky list of Hollywood product, but each one admirably delivered the goods in their respective genres: Family comedy, preteen superhero fantasy, sitcom remake and big-budget adventure. None of them made all that much money; the last two were bona fide flops. But think of them as shoulda-been hits. Each one is a sound antidote to any of the “god-awful” movies listed above.

Most exhilarating movie about suicidal depressive cokeheads — and best movie of the year: Head-On
It sounds unbearable: A German movie about two Turks who find themselves in a mental institution after they both tried to commit suicide. But don’t let the grim subject matter keep you from watching this funny, heartbreaking, propulsive, vital piece of punk filmmaking, directed by the still-young Fatih Akin. Most movies in 2005 hedged their bets on muted, tasteful emotionalism. Head-On went for the jugular, and ended up being one of the only transporting experiences to be had at the movies all year. By the time the film’s over, you can’t believe you’re watching the same characters you were introduced to at the beginning. Akin wears his influences on his sleeve — Martin Scorsese, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, John Cassavetes — but Head-On also feels like the films of Lars von Trier (Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves) ... if von Trier were less miserable and actually believed in his characters.

Dullest movie about junkies, transvestites and gay sex: Rent
Chris Columbus’ adaptation of this enormously successful rock opera is just what you’d expect from the man who directed Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire: a bloodless, sexless bohemian fantasyland, where even the horror of AIDS in the late-’80s doesn’t feel real. Say what you will about the play, but if it had landed in the hands of a director who possessed the tiniest bit of creative inspiration — or even a pulse — maybe we wouldn’t have wound up with this laughable Bon Jovi video of a musical. The characters may sing about making art, getting high and butt-fucking, but with Columbus behind the wheel, it’s hard to picture any of these chumps indulging in anything stronger than a big glass of 2 percent milk.

Gayer than Brokeback Mountain award: Transporter 2
The first Transporter had its share of homoerotic moments — as evidenced in the scene where a shirtless Jason Statham oil-wrestles dozens of bad guys — but this sequel found our hero-of-few-words resisting the advances of near-naked hot chicks, playing nanny to a neglected child and, yes, losing his shirt at the slightest provocation. Add to that some ridiculous, gravity-defying stunts, and you have one of the guiltiest pleasures of the year. Here’s hoping there’s a commitment ceremony in Transporter 3.

Most overrated: Crash
Paul Haggis may have won an Oscar for his Million Dollar Baby screenplay, but this over-inflated, super-coincidental tale of racist angst in Los Angeles was about as plausible as one of his older creations, the TV series Walker, Texas Ranger. Crash is the kind of movie that ultraprivileged white people make when they’re feeling really guilty about buying that second Hummer. Watch for the moment when Sandra Bullock’s racist bitch of a character slips and falls down the stairs, causing her to finally appreciate her put-upon Mexican maid. Then rewind it and watch it again. Hours of laughs.

Weirdest hybrid of Waiting to Exhale, Big Momma’s House and Misery: Diary of a Mad Black Woman
Exactly what the hell is going on in this movie? At first Diary seems like one of those cheesy wronged-woman soap operas on Lifetime or BET. Then, the film’s writer — the immensely successful playwright Tyler Perry — shows up in grandma drag, smoking pot and shooting off firearms. Then, Grandma shows our heroine the power of revenge, and girlfriend decides to pull a Kathy Bates on her sadistic ex-husband. Oh yeah — who could forget the Fabio-esque romantic hero who swoops in to save the day? Maybe John Waters could make a riotous, irreverent comedy out of all these wildly conflicting elements, but Perry sure as hell can’t.

Worst use of Toronto as Detroit: Assault on Precinct 13, Four Brothers
You’d think 8 Mile proved that only the real thing will do when you’re telling Motor City stories, but oh, no. Behold the lush pine forest that apparently resides near the Renaissance Center (Assault), or the Highland Park liquor stores with French signs plastered on the windows (Four Brothers). Both of these “urban” thrillers looked suspiciously gritless and suburban — no wonder, considering that both of them were primarily shot on the cheap in Canada.

Jeff Meyers

Best performance by a porn star in a straight film: Sibel Kekilli
With its suicidal protagonists and gritty, wrenching emotionalism, German import Head-On confronted the terrible and chaotic power of love, and ranks as one of the best films of the year. Both leads give remarkable performances, but former porn star Sibel Kekilli truly astounds in her mainstream debut as a young Turkish woman desperate to escape her repressed Muslim family and enjoy the life of a modern girl.

After winning the Golden Bear for Best Actress at the 2004 Berlin International Film Festival, the German tabloids exposed Kekilli’s X-rated past and the press went crazy. Her unknowing parents read about her early film exploits, publicly disowned her and then, like a scene in the film, burned all her family photographs.

Compare and contrast: March of the Penguins vs. Grizzly Man
The American release of Luc Jacquet’s luminous documentary on the magnificent emperor penguins was a vast improvement over the original release. In the French version, actors provided voice-overs to deliver the comical inner thoughts of these amazingly awkward creatures. Supposedly it was a laugh riot. Then again, France loves Jerry Lewis.

Recruiting Morgan Freeman (whose voice is as close to God’s as one can imagine) as the film’s English-language narrator was genius. Describing the penguins’ incredible tale of survival as a love story was both anthropomorphic and a little melodramatic, but also conveyed nature’s infinite capacity for triumph and inspiration.

In sharp contrast, director Werner Herzog sees nature as filled with “chaos, hostility and murder.” Grizzly Man, his devastating documentary about the fearlessness, folly and tragic fate of amateur grizzly bear expert Timothy Treadwell, is a potent contrast to Penguins’ touchy-feely view of the wild.

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith vs. Serenity
Remember when Star Wars was fun to watch, not just an obligation? Remember reveling in the adventures of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker — characters you actually liked — as they tossed off corny one-liners while blasting away at bad guys? George Lucas certainly doesn’t. But Joss Whedon does.

Yes, Sith had eye-popping effects and the dramatic sweep of a Shakespearean tragedy. It also had insipid dialogue, unlikable characters and a plotline that was complicated without being intelligent. Where was the love for the fans, the anything-goes exuberance of the first two films?

It was in Serenity, a movie too few of you bothered to check out this fall. Expanded from Whedon’s similarly overlooked TV series, Firefly, this swaggering sci-fi adventure was filled with all the things Lucas omitted in his bloated self-important space opera: witty dialogue, engaging characters and an intelligent storyline

Does this mean if John Kerry got elected we’d be up to our eyeballs in romantic comedies?

In the years that followed the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hollywood churned out an endless succession of radioactive monster movies, films like Them and Beginning of the End reflected the damaged psyche of Americans frightened by the implications of a nuclear world.

So what influence have the policies of George W. Bush had on the current state of cinema? Judging by the incredible number of horrors and thrillers in theaters, Americans are scared shitless. Of the top 150 films released in 2005, nearly 20 percent were dedicated to scaring the bejesus out of you. Among them: Dark Water, Boogeyman, Skeleton Key, The Ring Two, Hide and Seek, Red Eye, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Saw II, War of the Worlds, The Devil’s Rejects, Land of the Dead, Cry Wolf, The Jacket, The Amityville Horror, Alone In The Dark and the list goes on.

Next year’s dedication to fright films is off to a healthy start, judging by early releases including Hostel, BloodRayne, Final Destination 3 and The Hills Have Eyes. At this rate, we may not get a reprieve until the next election (and hopefully that won’t be yet another real-life horror).

Films you should have seen
A History of Violence: David Cronenberg’s near-perfect meditation on the killer inside all of us.

The Constant Gardener: The perfect date movie — part political thriller, part heartbreaking romance.

Hustle and Flow: Take Get Rich or Die Tryin’ and add an intelligent script, engaging performances, competent direction and 10 times the integrity

Crash: The film that proves Sandra Bullock can actually act. Thrilling, poignant, thought-provoking and exceptionally well acted.

Tony Takatani and Oldboy: Two imports that represent extreme ends of the Asian film spectrum. The first is a hypnotically beautiful movie taken from the lyrical fiction of Haruki Marukami. The latter is Korean bad boy Chan-wook Park’s violent and convoluted revenge fantasy that leaves you (and the protagonist) speechless.

Raging Bullshit: The end of a career
Whatever respect we had for Robert De Niro started to wane after Analyze This. But with 2004’s Godsend and this year’s equally craptacular Hide and Seek, the Oscar-winning actor has all but torched his credibility. We can almost forgive Dakota Fanning for appearing in this cinematic abomination (she’s only 11, after all), but there’s simply no excuse for the guy who once played Jake La Motta, Travis Bickle and Vito Corleone in a single decade.

Runner up: It looked like Michael Keaton put the final nail in the coffin of his career by starring as a snowman dad in the idiotic Jack Frost. This year he staged his big comeback in the equally idiotic supernatural thriller, White Noise. Luckily, it was the easiest paycheck he ever collected, requiring him to spend half the film staring blankly at a snowy TV screen. Unfortunately, it pretty much sent him back to the leading man scrap heap

Other actors who’ve thrown their reputation in the dumper this year: Charlize Theron for Aeon Flux, Nicole Kidman for Bewitched, Will Ferrell for Bewitched and Kicking & Screaming, Ewan McGregor for The Island and Stay, Jamie Foxx for Stealth, and everyone associated with Are We There Yet? (say it ain’t so, Cube!) and The Dukes of Hazzard..

Proof that the Jewish Illuminati are waging a “War on Christmas”
Given the onslaught of politically charged and Jewish-centric films released over the holiday season, Bill O’Reilly and the rest of the wingnut community must be suffering vein-popping aneurysms

From the Satanism of Harry Potter to potty-mouthed Sarah Silverman’s misleadingly titled Jesus Is Magic to the release of the Weinstein Company’s gruesome serial killer flick, Wolf Creek (on the birthday of our Lord and savior, no less), it must be pretty clear to the redder-than-red states that Steven Spielberg and his Hebraic Hollywood cabal intend to flush their yuletide spirit down the cinematic crapper

The lefty political screeds of Munich and Syriana have replaced 2004’s family-friendly holiday puff like Christmas with the Kranks and Surviving Christmas. It’s enough to send a diehard Dittohead on a shooting spree

And don’t think Sean Hannity hasn’t noticed all the pro-Zionist films released during this holiest of seasons. Protocols of Zion, Ushpizin and The Producers quietly slipped into theaters while The Chronicles of Narnia was blasted by legions of secular humanists. Nathan Lane alone presented a triple whammy of anti-Christian sentiment — he’s a New Yorker, Jewish and gay! From the Fox News crowds’ perspective, the only thing that could be worse is a homoerotic assault on that most sacred of American film genres — the Cowboy Western.

Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey

Best performance by a woodland creature
Timothy Treadwell, the late documentarian and subject of Grizzly Man, lived among Alaskan grizzly bears in the wild, giving them cute little pet names and filming their every move. The knowledge that one of his beloved beasts eventually killed him makes watching this collection of Treadwell’s footage far grimmer and freakier than anything you’d see on Crocodile Hunter. But Treadwell’s manic highs and lows, and his passion and unbridled energy are intoxicating. Whether he was a genius or nut job is up for debate, but this movie is certainly captivating.

Coolest kids on film
Sure the Harry Potter clan continues to break the box office, but the most impressive youngsters of the year are the real-life public school students from New York City who samba and tango their hearts out in Mad Hot Ballroom. This documentary about school dance competitions for underprivileged kids in the Big Apple shows a side of inner-city youngsters we rarely see — they’re funny, sweet and oh-so determined to have all the right moves. Great stuff.

Best antidote to big-budget holiday blockbusters
If Narnia and King Kong overloaded your senses with their assault of big effects, the cure is the slow, simple and subtle Junebug (now out on DVD). This quiet, low-budget indie flick is a character study of a favorite son’s first trip in years back to his small Southern hometown. Sadly, the Golden Globes snubbed it, yet Junebug has some of the best performances of the year. The finest comes from Amy Adams as Ashley, the ditsy, pregnant chatterbox who serves as the glue in this shaky family. Someone give that girl a statue.

Best chick lit turned chick flick
In Her Shoes, based on the Jennifer Weiner book, follows the emotional story of two sisters (Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette) who shared a rocky childhood and a shoe fetish. It’s touching without being overly sappy.

Runner up: Here’s to the perfect pair of jeans! Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, based on Ann Brashares’ novel, is warm, funny and emotionally charged. The young stars are perfect too, especially Amber Tamblyn at her moodiest, and America Ferrara at her most spirited

Best use of modern L.A. noir
Rising from the cesspool of action comedy swill is Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Smarter than your average buddy movie, this caper puts Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. on the dark and dirty streets of Los Angeles, and has some gut-splitting moments. Kilmer simply must do more comedy.

Best movie to quote ad nauseam with your buddies
Waiting... is lewd and entirely immature, and the kind of movie that irks critics like an old-school pre-Punch-Drunk Love Adam Sandler flick. But it’s funny, dude! The movie picks up precisely where Office Space left off in its mockery of big-chain “family” restaurants. The depiction of those who bravely serve up blossoming fried onion balls is spot on

Best Bob Saget moment
Who knew the guy who played the father of TV’s squeaky-clean Full House was actually such a filthy beast? To hear dorky Bob Saget tell the world’s filthiest joke in The Aristocrats is shocking — not just for how downright raunchy he is, but also for showing us that at least one cast member from Full House still has a soul. To think that someone let that dirty old man near two of our national treasures, Mary-Kate and Ashley Oslen — the horror!

Worst Michael Jackson moment
Why, oh why, did Johnny Depp decide to channel the King of Pop in this year’s overblown Willy Wonka remake, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Seriously, it was just creepy.

Worst appearance by a Simpson sister
On one hand, Jessica’s ass should have gotten top billing over the singer herself (after all, it did show far more range and depth of character) in The Dukes of Hazzard, undoubtedly one of the year’s worst remakes. But then there’s Ashlee’s role as a hopeful young singer in the excruciating and overly earnest teen-fest, Undiscovered. It was impressive and commendable that the sisters chose to stretch so far as actresses — Jess as a ditz and Ash as a wannabe — by portraying characters so far removed from their work on MTV reality shows. It’s a tough call, but Ashlee takes the prize for the worst Simpson performance of 2005.

Worst use of gratuitous sex scenes
After 71 minutes of wagging penises, drug binges and grainy shots of poorly recorded concert scenes with some of the world’s coolest bands, 9 Songs is nothing but a miserable ode to the noble pursuit of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Director Michael Winterbottom has his actors boldly explore every orifice; yet with all that full-on nudity, there’s not a truly sensual moment.

Worst waste of eye candy
The makers of Into the Blue should be arrested; it’s a crime to take one of Hollywood’s most beautiful women, Jessica Alba, and hunky up-and-comer Paul Walker, lube them up with cocoa butter, dress them in skimpy swimsuits and still manage to bore the pants off the audience with the dullest high-seas adventure ever.

Runners up: Cameron Crowe and Ridley Scott waste two perfectly good Orlando Bloom opportunities with Elizabethtown and Kingdom of Heaven, which should have been called Snoresville and Boredom from Hell.

Movies that made you wish you were getting Punk’d:
After watching dreck like A Lot Like Love and the painfully unfunny The Ringer, you have to wonder if guys like Ashton Kutcher and Johnny Knoxville aren’t better off pretending to arrest celebrities and dumping the contents of portable toilets on their heads. There’s a place for actors like these, a place where they’ll be adored and appreciated for their vast talent — it’s called MTV. The Simpson sisters could also qualify for this category.

Michael Hastings, Jeff Meyers and Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey write about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]