2005 TOP TENS!

So, in some ways it was a year of quality filmmaking...but that doesn't mean it was a good movie year.  Somehow, for all the craftsmanship on display in 2005, there was a distinct lack of inspiration, personality and vision.  And for all the machine-tooled precision of Hollywood crowd pleasers like King Kong and the Important Subject Matter of indie fare like Crash, Syriana, The Constant Gardner, Good Night and Good Luck, etc., etc., etc., I didn't see ONE movie all year that I flat-out LOVED...

...but here, at least, are ten that I really liked:

Yes, it's too long and that weird orgasmo- terrorist flashback sequence at the end is an embarassing miscalculation, yet no other film of 2005 touches this one in terms of ambition and accomplishment.  Munich is everything Syriana wanted to be, only much, much better:  complicated without overcomplicating things, smart without making a big deal out of its own intelligence and serious without sacrificing humor and suspense, Steven Spielberg's meditation on the futility of vengeance is an important movie (that's right, I said it) about an important topic that doesn't feel like a dry, self-satisified position paper.  This speculative, true-ish secret history of Israeli assassins losing their way in the moral no-man's-land between duty and terrorism doesn't just preach to the choir like many recent "issue" films.  Instead, it forces us to reexamine our own prejudices and rationalizations by dramatizing the flawed humanity of characters from all sides of the Middle East quagmire, depicting violence as a kind of self-perpetuating virus irrespective of race, religion or nationality.


I've been a Noah Baumbach fan since Kicking and Screaming (the dry post-collegiate comedy, not the odious Will Ferrell vehicle), so I had high hopes going into The Squid & The Whale and wasn't disappointed.  This squirm-inducing black comedy about the dissolution of an overeducated New York family features an indelible, career-best performance from Jeff Daniels as an insufferable academic, along with sturdy characterizations by Laura Linney, Anna Paquin (and even Stephen Baldwin, of all people).  But it's the newcomers who really hold this true-life Tennenbaums together:  Owen Kline offers a shockingly mature performance as the family's moody youngest son, while his brother (Jesse Eisenberg as Baumbach's merciless rendition of his own teenage self) is refreshingly unsympathetic right until the very end, when disdain for the whole sorry clan suddenly gives way to heartbreak.

Goofy, formulaic and cheerfully high concept, Wedding Crashers nevertheless offered a welcome bright spot of smart, raucous humanity in a year of glum art-house intellectualism and dumbed-down multiplex fodder.  One of the few quality movies of 2005 I'd actually want to see again, this so-called romantic comedy is really a love letter to fun, friendship and the joys of kibbitzing as Owen Wilson and a totally money Vince Vaughn fight for their right to party, rewriting the rules of dreary adult life (and genre cliché) whenever they feel like it.

One of the crown jewels of this year's quality crop, Capote ranks fourth instead of first on my list if only because it's too perfect, with no rough edges of artistic eccentricity to match those of its protagonist.  But accusing director Bennett Miller of virtuoso filmmaking is hardly a knock, and Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance as legendary racounteur and pioneering nonfiction novelist Truman Capote more than justifies all the Oscar buzz.  (Equally buzzworthy is Clifton Collins Jr. as Capote's muse, convicted murderer Perry Smith, who gives brooding smolder as good as any actor this side of Joaquin Phoenix.)

With half the running time and a fraction of the budget, Kung Fu Hustle got my jaw dropping about as often as King Kong through sheer action bravado, spiked with a sense of humor straight out of Looney Tunes (and no pretentious discussions of Josef Conrad with Jimmy the cabin boy).  Hustle's tiny, nonsensical story involves a showdown between the ragtag (but lethal) residents of squalid Pig Sty Alley and the stylish Axe Gang.  Much chop sockey ensues, along with some of the most imaginative, ridiculous imagery of the year.

I can hear the passionate rebuttals even as I type this:  "Huh? Kong only ranks an honorable mention, but you pick Revenge of the freakin' Sith for your stupid Top Ten?  What are you, high?"  Allow me to explain:  Kong was a remake of a pretty simple story, and thus relatively easy to pull off (even the dumb 70s version had its moments).  But the bar was higher for Sith:  not only did Mr. Lucas have to nail the ending of his epochal, decades-in-the-making saga, but he also had to win me back after the godawful Binksian disgrace of Phantom Menace and the merely tepid Attack of the Clones...and in my humble opinion, he succeeded on both counts.  This was the first Star Wars movie since the original trilogy to really satisfy my inner 13-year-old, with a fast-moving story, plenty of wookies and a killer ending.  Even Hayden Christensen's whiny jerk performance as Vader finally made sense -- his transformation from spoiled brat to narrow-minded president (I mean Sith Lord) actually made the Force seem politically relevant (!) in the annus horribilis of 2005.  So there.

A politically relevant Star Wars film is strange, but a deeply touching Gilbert Gottfried monologue about incest and poop is downright bizarre.  Again, allow me to explain:  shortly after 9/11, Gottfried made a 9/11 joke at a Friar's Club roast (simply because he wanted to be remembered as the first major comedian to do so).  The Friars were suitably horrified, crying out that it was too soon to make fun of such a tragedy.  In response, Gottfried went even further over the top, launching into his version of The Aristocrats, a legendary dirty joke swapped like a secret handshake between generations of comedians as a reminder that laughter in the face of death is sometimes the best and only medicine for the horrors and absurdities of life -- a point reiterated in countless moving, disgusting and hilarious ways in Paul Provenza's eponymous documentary about the joke and the men, women and mimes who've performed it over the years, featuring a startlingly comprehensive who's who of the comedy world from Phyllis Diller and Tim Conway to Sarah Silverman, a surprisingly funny Whoopi Goldberg and the unsurprisingly vile Bob Saget.

And speaking of poop...well, okay, maybe that's not the greatest segue, but (as noted by another critic whose name and paper escape me now), this movie does feature one of the funniest and strangest poop jokes of all time.  But, more importantly, performance artist Miranda July's directorial debut reenergizes the "quirky ensemble indie" genre with this tart, unpredictable roundelay about a lonely performance artist, the lonely single dad she hopes to seduce, his lonely kids and all the lonely friends, neighbors, co-workers and strangers around them, all fumbling their way towards happiness (or at least some temporary relief from ennui).

More quirky lonely people...only this time the director is Steve Buscemi, the landscape is uglier and the tone is more deadpan cynical than bittersweet romantic.  In Lonesome Jim, Casey Affleck plays a disgruntled misanthrope returning to his small town home after big city failure has knocked him for a loop, and despite the A-list pedigree (including Liv Tyler as a drabbed-down ingenue), this micro-budget indie does a great job capturing the gallows humor and quiet desperation of fly-over lives usually ignored (or grossly distorted) by mainstream cinema.

You probably know Klaus Nomi (if you know him at all) as a freaky falsetto footnote from the New Wave 80s, those dying days of the American subculture when "alternative" was more "anything goes" than retro formula and a shy German opera diva could reinvent himself into a disco spaceman and score a gig on S.N.L. singing backup for David Bowie.  The power of The Nomi Song, then, is the way it traces not only the sad trajectory of its doomed hero, but also the rise and fall of the creative community that nourished him.

WILD CARDS (potentially worthy movies unseen by moi in 2005):
Brokeback Mountain, Match Point, Walk the Line, Grizzly Man

HONORABLE MENTION:  The 40-Year-Old Virgin, King Kong, Hustle & Flow, The Power of Fear, The Devil & Daniel Johnson, Batman Begins, Palindromes, The Interpreter, Lords of Dogtown, March of the Penguins, Corpse Bride, Wallace & Gromit:  The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Shopgirl, the latest Harry Potter movie and, of course, Jed Weintrob's The F-Word, disqualified from competition due to the Ol' Bait Shop's strict conflict of interest regulations.

NOTABLE MOMENTS/PERFORMANCES:  The final light saber duel on the lava planet in Revenge of the Sith, that dinosaur battle and all the New York special effects in King Kong, Ciarán Hinds and Geoffrey Rush in Munich, creepy Cillian Murphy in Batman Begins, those soothing scenes of long-haired skate rats rolling around empty swimming pools in Lords of Dogtown, Kim Gordon and the Yellow Pages guy in Last Days, Tilda Swinton putting some bad-ass Witch between The Lion and The Wardrobe, the excellent construction and execution of that bus sequence in The Interpreter, the aforementioned poop joke in Me and You and Everyone We Know, Mickey Rourke's bruiser in Sin City, The 40-Year-Old Virgin's "Age of Aquarius" curtain call and, of course, my own brilliant performance in The F-Word.


What works about Douglas Adams' signature creation (in book and radio form) is the deadpan humor of its characters in the face of their creator's brilliant explorations of life, the universe and everything.  What absolutely DIDN'T work in this movie was the childish, over-the-top slapstick and incoherent storytelling that reduced the relentlessly clever source material to a bad Quark rerun.  Only Bill Nighy's scenes as wistful planet designer Slartibartfast hinted at what a good version of this movie might have looked like.


It's not that I just outright hate Gus Van Sant's "slow" period.  I thought Gerry was a funny then terrifying desert variation of The Blair Witch Project and I "got" Elephant (even if I didn't particularly enjoy it), but really, Gus...how long do you honestly expect me to sit around watching a bad actor mumble and eat corn flakes?  And how long are critics going to keep falling for this crap?  If I trained my camera on an actor playing a dying man in a hospital bed and just watched him lying there and dying for 90 minutes in real time, it wouldn't be a gripping study of mortality or an indictment of the impersonal nature of hospital care or anything else.  It would just be lazy filmmaking masquerading as too-cool-for-school "art."  And you know what else?  It would be INCREDIBLY, INCREDIBLY BORING, just like this fiasco of utterly self-indulgent nonsense.  Time's up, Gus.  If you've got nothing left to say, step aside and let some new indie whiz kids use the camera.


Did I mention I didn't much care for this film?


I didn't much care for Bloodsucking Freaks or Faces of Death when I was a teenager, I'm not a big fan of Dubya's "Hey, we can torture people and kill civilians 'cuz we're the good guys" foreign policy and I'm not crazy about the current vogue of "can you top this" agony porn like Saw, Saw 2, Wolf Creek and Hostel.  And did we REALLY need all the screaming urchins of Yours, Mine & Ours and Cheaper By the Dozen 2?  There's screaming in malls, there's screaming in schools, there's screaming in New Orleans and France and Iran, there's screaming in the car bomb craters of Iraq.  Enough already with the screaming.  How about some entertainment?


I didn't really, truly, deeply love any of the movies I saw this year...but, man, do I love Deadwood.  If you've never seen the show or you've only heard about the relentless, operatic swearing in every episode, take my advice and rent the first season, then order HBO and catch up with the repeats of the second season before Season Three premieres in 2006.  You'll barely notice the cuss words once you get caught up in the pyrotechnic beauty of the rest of the language in David Milch's astonishing panorama of love, crime, politics and survival on the American frontier.  The performances are universally spectacular, but looming over all (figuratively and often literally) is Ian McShane's iconic portrayal of saloonmeister Al Swearengen, a snarling, deadly embodiment of the American dream who could eat Tony Soprano for lunch and still have room for Paulie Walnuts.

2.  LOST:  I started checking out this show now and again in the first season, then every other week, and now it's on my VERY short list of must-see t.v.  Succeeding where 24, The X-Files, Twin Peaks (and especially Carnivale) failed, this enigma within a riddle within a hatch in the ground keeps us interested in the unfolding of its secrets while making us care about almost every member of its large ensemble cast (and their own individual mysteries).

5.  SIX FEET UNDER:  This season featured one of the best final episodes ever for one of my all-time favorite shows.  Even when the characters were unlikable and the plots were at their sudsiest, I always enjoyed the lived-in performances, the crisp dialogue and the underlying themes of faith and seize-the-day humanity beneath the soap opera histrionics.

4 & 5.  SURVIVOR (PALAU & GUATEMALA):  Even the worst seasons of Survivor are addictive, and while these two editions were just average (neither great nor terrible), they each yielded memorable moments and characters (and the preview of "Exile Island" for the Panama season and Probst's recent contract renewal gives me hope that the show will keep me hooked for several more Top Ten lists to come).

6.  EVERYBODY HATES CHRIS:  One of the very few shows that could pull me away from Survivor, Chris Rock's charming sitcom about his teenage years in Bed-Stuy was funny and original enough to keep me flipping back and forth between NBC and the WB during the Guatemala season.  (Okay, so I only watched it because the wife and me had a viewing conflict on Thursday nights...but Survivor's done and I'm still watching, so that's something.  Now if I can just figure out how to multi-task with the TiVo before Survivor: Panama starts!)

7.  ENTOURAGE:  Adrian Grenier's fake movie star Vincent Chase and his posse of Hollywood wannabes just seemed like arrogant jerks last year, but their precarious position in the show biz food chain this season added vulnerability and dramatic heft to the group dynamics and kept me watching, laughing and thanking God I don't live in Los Angeles anymore.

8.  THE SOUP:  Clever, nasty pop culture evisceration for t.v. junkies like me, hosted by the endlessly charismatic Joel McHale.

9.  MY LIFE ON THE D-LIST:  The next best thing to an all-Kathy Griffin network.  While I reckon this show would be hard to defend to the non-Griffin fans amongst you, for me it was downright Kathylicious.

10.  MY NAME IS EARL:  Okay, to be honest, I only saw the first episode, but it made me laugh harder than just about any other sitcom I can think of.  I've heard mixed reports about whether it's maintained its quality over the course of the season, but for that first half hour, Earl rocked my world.

Honorable Mention:  The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, The Office, Show Dog Moms & Dads, Rome, The Comedians of Comedy and that freakin' hilarious Chronicles of Narnia rap video on Saturday Night Live.


Yeah, I get it.  I just don't think it's that funny -- or, at the very least, not funny enough to have t.v. critics in every form of media giving me hourly updates on how it's the greatest comedy program in the history of entertainment and MUST BE SAVED from all the Philistines who JUST DON'T GET IT.  (But who weeps for The Comeback?)


I'm still utterly baffled by the mindless feeding frenzy of praise and awards that were showered on this shrill, one-note character assassination of the great Peter Sellers.  Even if Sellers was indeed the most foul human being to ever walk the Earth (as the movie relentlessly beats into our skulls), why should I care?  How does this add up to a movie?  (And, I'm sorry, Geoffrey Rush imitating the other people in the movie and Sellers' own famous screen characters is bad Saturday Night Live, not great acting.)


I don't usually include a radio category, but Howard Stern's move to satellite was one of the big entertainment stories of 2005, so it seems like as good a time as any to praise the man.  For years, his show has carried me through countless hours of workouts, commutes and boring temp jobs.  David Letterman, Jon Stewart and The Onion get praised for their response to 9/11, but Howard Stern was actually broadcasting on the morning of the attacks, circling the wagons live on the air.  Yes, he's raunchy and sophomoric, but the show is more than that (not that there's anything wrong with raunchy, sophomoric humor:  just ask anyone from the Greeks and Lenny Bruce to Shakespeare and Sarah Silverman).  The thing about Stern that most people miss (especially those who don't actually listen to the show) is how smart he is about playing dumb.  Sure, he'll spend an hour on fart jokes (and the bimbo segments can get awfully tiresome), but he and his multifaceted crew (intellectual Robin, partyhound Artie, everyman Gary and libertarian Fred) spend an equal amount of time debating just about every single issue of the day, every day, in egalitarian terms the Democrats would be wise to embrace (but don't, to their and the nation's detriment).  And Stern's ongoing battles with self-serving politicians and self-appointed censors on the Right and Left is required listening for anyone who wants to know what's going down in the smoke and mirror trenches of the culture war.  But most importantly, Stern is often just flat-out funny...plus he'll answer your call and tell you where to buy a good mattress and maybe even get you free breast implants, and really, how many other entertainers do all that?


SPOOK:  SCIENCE TACKLES THE AFTERLIFE by Mary Roach:  A funny, thought-provoking examination of the frauds, debunkers, true believers and skeptics asking (and sometimes answering) the questions surrounding our imminent demise.

HARVARD RULES by Richard Bradley:  A fascinating book about the internal politics of the alma mater I love to hate.

THE LOVELY BONES by Alice Sebold:  One of those books everybody loved that I finally got around to reading this year.  And guess what?  I loved it, too.  A compelling page turner about death, grief, acceptance and Heaven.

SCTV BEHIND THE SCENES by Dave Thomas:  Again, not a 2005 release, but a great insider's look at the legendary comedy show.

TWO BOOKS I STARTED READING IN 2005 THAT SEEMED INTERESTING AT FIRST BUT NEVER SEEM TO END (EVEN THOUGH I'M STILL DETERMINED TO FINISH THEM):  The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova and Harbor by Lorraine Adams.  Vampires and terrorists!  Why can't I stop putting these books down?


Well, I finally saw Blue Man Group...does that count?

Anyway, I've already got tickets for Spamalot and Wicked's coming to Boston, so with luck I'm hoping to increase my theatergoing by at least 100% in 2006.


2005 theme song:  "This Year" by The Mountain Goats.  (Sample lyric:  "I am going to make it through this year if it kills me."  Come to think of it, this may be next year's theme song as well!)

(Double) Album of the Year:  Aerial, Kate Bush.

Honorable Mention:
The Sunset Tree, The Mountain Goats
Somebody's Miracle, Liz Phair
The Forgotten Arm, Aimee Mann
Giant on the Beach, The Grip Weeds
And all those mash-ups my new brother-in-law Jody hipped me to!

TH-TH-TH-THAT'S ALL FOLKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!