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Thursday, Dec. 29, 2005


Strange days

This was a strange year, one that seemed almost entirely shaped by the successes (excesses?) of the past few years. "Lord of the Rings" may have come and gone, but the "swords and sieges" genre continues unabated: "Kingdom of Heaven" and "Alexander" kept things rolling, barely, while "The Chronicles of Narnia" (which opens here in March) looks to pick up the slack.

Comic books also remained huge, though "Fantastic Four" was perhaps the last gasp of superhero flicks as we know them. "Sin City," with its wondrous digitally generated sets, proves that a movie can, in fact, have the stylized look of a comic book. Now if someone would only pick up on the fact that they can also have the thematic depth of a novel then we'd be golden. (David Cronenberg's "A History of Violence," based on a graphic novel, is good in that regard, but visually straight.)

While most weren't at the multiplexes, documentaries were booming in 2005, the year's most welcome development. From music ("No Direction Home," "Motown," "Moog," "Some Kind of Monster") and politics ("The Corporation," "Life & Debt") to kids ("Spellbound"), alcoholic writers ("Born Into This") and dysfunctional childhood diaries ("Tarnation"), documentary filmmakers consistently proved that they could tell more engrossing stories than Hollywood's risk-averse screenwriters. Just take a look at recent "serious" bio-pics "Ray" and "Walk The Line" -- these could almost be the same movie, give or take a few "poignant" flashbacks.

1) "Sideways": Alexander Payne's Napa Valley road movie would be the year's funniest film if it weren't also so merciless in its depiction of men behaving badly. Some female viewers have been indignant that the womanizing character Jack goes unpunished at film's end, to which I would say: look and learn.

2) "Purple Butterfly": Chinese director Lou Ye's mesmerizing tale of love and betrayal in Japanese-occupied Shanghai in the 1930s was this year's art-house film par excellence. Moody, noirish ambience, a fractured story line and perfectly constructed shots require -- but reward -- close viewing. Forget "Sayuri" -- this was Zhang Ziyi's triumph in 2005.

3) "I Heart Huckabees": Neurotic bleeding heart vs. arrogant corporate sleaze in this one-of-a-kind existential comedy by David O. Russell. Japanese audiences shrugged this one off, but anyone with firsthand knowledge of the whole American fascination with pop-psychology/visualization/therapies-du-jour will find this hilarious.

4) "Before Sunset": Richard Linklater's follow-up to his 1995 film "Before Sunrise" re-unites Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in the same roles, and gives their romance one more chance. A good thing, too, because your 30s are so different than your 20s. Linklater paints a quick portrait of trying to once again surrender to idyllic dreams of love long since tempered by bitter experience.

5) "War of the Worlds" (released in Japan as "Uchu Senso"): Unfortunate ending aside, for the most part this one scared the crap out of me. And while he's a man of many talents, I would argue that Steven Spielberg is at his best -- "Jaws," "Saving Private Ryan" -- when he wants to scare the crap out of us. And almost scarier than the alien death-ray machines were the panicked mobs of humans enveloping Tom Cruise's car. It was all too imaginable.

6) "Corpse Bride": Walt Disney meets Edgar Allen Poe in this truly bizarre meltdown of cutesy cartoon tropes with ghastly Gothic imagery. It could have used some better jokes, but the animation and set design, the feeling of actually being in a fully imagined world, was second to none. Well, "The Nightmare Before Christmas," maybe.

7) "Exils" (released in Japan as "Ai Yori Tsuyoi Tabi"): Tony Gatlif's road movie of two lovers on their way to Algiers is as staccato and fiery as its flamenco and techno soundtrack. This has got the impressionistic, episodic vibe of a real stint on the road, and the on-screen cool of leads Romain Duris and Lubna Azabal is irresistible.

8) "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind": Only Charlie Kaufman could pen a script that's basically a chase movie inside a guy's head, as Jim Carrey seeks to erase all memories of Kate Winslet then tries to bail out halfway through the process. Some have called this the best Philip K. Dick movie yet, despite the fact PKD didn't pen it. I would agree.

9) "Spellbound" (released in Japan as "Challenge Kids")/"Inside Deep Throat": There were too many good documentaries to choose from, but these two both made fascinating features out of unlikely subjects: spelling bees and skin flicks. "Spellbound" reflected the reality-TV tendency toward real-time suspense -- with a far more thoughtful touch -- and "Inside Deep Throat" marks the agitprop high point of the past few years of porno chic.

10). "Non ti muovere" (released in Japan as "Akai Amore"): A curious, oh-so-Italian film about a doctor who finds himself embroiled in a dangerously passionate and ultimately mystical affair. Features a low-rent, tarty Penelope Cruz in a totally committed performance.

* * *

And the rest . . .

Best film to not be released in theaters: "Napoleon Dynamite"

Best soundtrack: "Mysterious Skin," Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd.

Worst performance: Hayden Christensen, "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith."

Most bizarre casting: Eight different actors playing the lead role in "Palindromes."

Best remake: "King Kong"/"War of the Worlds"

Most unnecessary remake: "The Bad News Bears"

Most disappointing: "Brothers Grimm"

Most unlikable characters: "Closer," all of 'em . . .

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