Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Soldiers Speak. Will President Bush Listen?

February 28, 2006
Op-Ed Columnist
New York Times

When President Bush held a public meeting with troops by satellite last fall, they were miraculously upbeat. And all along, unrepentant hawks (most of whom have never been to Iraq) have insisted that journalists are misreporting Iraq and that most soldiers are gung-ho about their mission.

Hogwash! A new poll to be released today shows that U.S. soldiers overwhelmingly want out of Iraq — and soon.

The poll is the first of U.S. troops currently serving in Iraq, according to John Zogby, the pollster. Conducted by Zogby International and LeMoyne College, it asked 944 service members, "How long should U.S. troops stayin Iraq?"

Only 23 percent backed Mr. Bush's position that they should stay as long as necessary. In contrast, 72 percent said that U.S. troops should be pulled out within one year. Of those, 29 percent said they should withdraw "immediately."

That's one more bit of evidence that our grim stay-the-course policy in Iraq has failed. Even the American troops on the ground don't buy into it — and having administration officials pontificate from the safety of Washington about the need for ordinary soldiers to stay the course further erodes military morale.

While the White House emphasizes the threat from non-Iraqi terrorists, only 26 percent of the U.S. troops say that the insurgency would end if those foreign fighters could be kept out. A plurality believes that the insurgency is made up overwhelmingly of discontented Iraqi Sunnis.

So what would it take to win in Iraq? Maybe that was the single most depressing finding in this poll.

By a two-to-one ratio, the troops said that "to control the insurgency we need to double the level of ground troops and bombing missions." And since there is zero chance of that happening, a majority of troops seemed to be saying that they believe this war to be unwinnable.

This first systematic look at the views of the U.S. troops on the ground suggests that our present strategy in Iraq is failing badly. The troops overwhelmingly don't want to "stay the course," and they don't seem to think the American strategy can succeed.

It's tempting, but not very helpful, to repeat that the fatal mistake was invading Iraq three years ago and leave it at that. That's easy for a columnist to say; the harder thing for a policy maker is to figure out what we do next, now that we're already there.

I still believe that while the war was a dreadful mistake, an immediate pullout would also be a misstep: anyone who says that Iraq can't get worse hasn't seen a country totally torn apart by chaos and civil war. Mr. Bush is right about the consequences of an immediate pullout — to Iraq, and also to American influence around the world.

But while we shouldn't rush for the exits immediately, we should lay out a timetable for withdrawal that would remove all troops by the end of next year. And we should state clearly that we will not keep any military bases in Iraq — that's a no-brainer, for it costs us nothing, but our hedging on bases antagonizes Iraqi nationalists and results in more dead Americans.

Such a timetable would force Iraqis to prepare — politically andmilitarily — to run their own country. The year or two of transition would galvanize Iraqi Shiites to find a modus vivendi with Sunnis while undermining the insurgents' arguments that they are nationalists protecting the motherland from Yankee crusaders.

True, a timetable is arbitrary and risky, for it could just encourage insurgents to hang tight for another couple of years. But we're being killed — literally — because of nationalist suspicions among Iraqis that we're just after their oil and bases and that we're going to stay forever. It's crucial that we defuse that nationalist rage.

For now, we've become the piñata of Iraqi politics, something for Iraqi demagogues to bash to boost their own legitimacy. Moktada al-Sadr, one of the scariest Iraqi leaders, has very shrewdly used his denunciations of the U.S. to boost his own political following and influence across Iraq; that's our gift to him, a consequence of our myopia. And many ordinary Iraqis are buying into this scapegoating of the U.S. Edward Wong, one of my intrepid Times colleagues in Baghdad, quoted a clothing merchant named Abdul-Qader Ali as saying: "I can tell you the main reason behind all our woes — it is America. Everything that is going on between Sunnis and Shiites, the troublemaker in the middle is America."

Will a timetable work? I don't know, but it's a better bet than our present policy of whistling in the dark. And it's what the troops favor — and they're the ones who have Iraq combat experience. It's time our commander in chief stopped stage-managing his troops and listened to them.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Annual Academy Award Predictions

Author’s Note (posted Oscar morning): You may note a few changes. Momentum for a few of the categories has shifted in the past two weeks since I originally posted and I have made a few revisions. Additionally, I was able to take in some more of the lesser nominated films as well as see all of the nominated shorts (live action, documentary and animated) which has influenced some of my original choices. We’ll know more in just a few hours…

I find there are some years in which I am generally satisfied with the nominations made by the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences. Other years, I think the Academy voters must be composed of a gaggle of lemurs. Then, there are those oh-so-odd years in which the nominations come out and I find myself in nearly utter and complete agreement--from the largest to the smallest category.

This is such a year.

Truthfully, I can't remember a year in which the Academy's nominations were so perfectly tailored to my choices and desires. If I could craft my own perfect nominee list, this just might be it.

And when you throw in
The Daily Show's Jon Stewart as the host, you might as well just give me the statuette for Best Satisfied Fan.

Traditionally, the Academy Awards have struck a successful, if uneasy balance between the big-budget extravaganza it does (or used to do) so well and the smaller, quirkier, riskier works that get made with the money the blockbusters bring in.

But not this year.

This year, small is big. Independent labels and films soundly trumped the big Hollywood behemoths and represent a further example of the Hollywood dream machine's growing irrelevance and a sign of things to come as independent, finely crafted, low-budget, guerrilla filmmaking takes over.

As is my yearly tradition, I try to guess which nominee will walk home with the Oscar this Sunday night. Am I dead on or dead wrong? Let me know.

Best Motion Picture of the Year:
Brokeback Mountain
Good Night, and Good Luck

Brokeback Mountain won the Golden Globe and the Producer's Guild award. This should be a great indicator of its chances, but in all honesty, it didn't help The Aviator last year. While Brokeback fatigue is always a factor, Crash alone seems to have the chops to stops this juggernaut's momentum. People are passionate about Crash, while the majority of people I've spoken to merely respect Brokeback. Crash is the "little movie that could" pull an upset—and it just may. It's happened before. Remember a little film called Shakespeare in Love that beat shoe-in Saving Private Ryan?! If Brokeback does lose, it will be one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history...and one of the most deserved.

Will Win: Brokeback Mountain
Should Win: Crash

Best Achievement in Directing:
George Clooney for Good Night, and Good Luck
Paul Haggis for Crash
Ang Lee for Brokeback Mountain
Bennett Miller for Capote
Steven Spielberg for Munich

Who will win for Best Director? Look no further than the Director's Guild of America Award. The director who wins it almost always goes on to win the Oscar. This year it was Ang Lee. Even if Crash wins Best Picture, the venerable Lee, upon whom voters have wanted to bestow an Oscar for years, will still take home the statuette. Spielberg already has several and Crash's Haggis and Capote's Miller are simply too new and otherwise, untested. Clooney is an even bigger long-shot, even though Good Night, and Good Luck has won genuine admiration for its muscular, incisive message and its distinctive black-and-white style.

Will Win: Ang Lee
Should Win: Ang Lee

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role:
Philip Seymour Hoffman for Capote
Terrence Howard for Hustle and Flow
Heath Ledger for Brokeback Mountain
Joaquin Phoenix for Walk the Line
David Strathairn for Good Night, and Good Luck

Forget the fact that Philip Seymour Hoffman won a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild award for his role in Capote. If you want to know why he's going to win an Oscar, just watch the movie. You can't take your eyes off him. Or your ears. No one will be able to touch him on Oscar night—not Heath Ledger and the Brokeback tidal wave, nor David Strathairn and his legitimately brilliant roll in Good Night, and Good Luck, nor Terrence Howard in his extraordinary role as a pimp turned rap star in Hussle and Flow. Hoffman has never won, despite being well-liked and highly admired among his peers. That all changes Sunday night. My only question--where is the perpetually underrated Jeff Daniels for his lacerating performance in The Squid and the Whale?

Will Win: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Should Win: Philip Seymour Hoffman

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role:
Judi Dench for Mrs. Henderson Presents
Felicity Huffman for Transamerica
Keira Knightley for Pride & Prejudice
Charlize Theron for North Country
Reese Witherspoon for Walk the Line

This category is the closest of them all and perhaps the toughest to call. The only two who have any chance of winning are Huffman and Witherspoon, but it's honestly a huge toss up between them. Both won their respective best actress Golden Globes. Though I wouldn't completely rule out Felicity Huffman, I think Reese Witherspoon's touching, funny and convincing portrayal of June Carter Cash will pull it off for Walk the Line's only win of the night.

Will Win: Reese Witherspoon
Should Win: Reese Witherspoon

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role:
George Clooney for Syriana
Matt Dillion for Crash
Paul Giamatti for Cinderella Man
Jake Gyllenhaal for Brokeback Mountain
William Hurt for A History of Violence

Originally I thought that Paul Giamatti would finally win for his role in Cinderella Man. Not because that particular performance was phenomenal, but because the superb and oft-spurned Giamatti was going to be rewarded for his thus-far ignored work. However, now I think that the role in Cinderella Man will fall prey to the same fate as his other nominations. Hollywood golden boy and Cary Grant-mantle-wearing George Clooney will take home that honor, a reward not only for his excellent role in Syriana but a nod for his direction of Good Night, and Good Luck.

Will Win: Paul Giamatti
Should Win: Matt Dillon

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role:
Amy Adams for Junebug
Catherine Keener for Capote
Frances McDormand for North Country
Rachel Weisz for The Constant Gardener
Michelle Williams for Brokeback Mountain

Traditionally, the supporting actress category is a wild-card, dark-horse category, which might be just perfect for Amy Adams who was nothing short of wondrous in Junebug. However, have enough voters seen it? Some say Rachel Weisz is a shoe-in and her work was indeed superb. So was Michelle Williams for that matter. While I still hope that Adams will take it in the end because her vibrancy, comic timing, and authenticity will stand out in voters' minds, I sense a slide in Weisz’ only slightly less deserving direction.

Will Win: Rachel Weisz
Should Win: Amy Adams

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen:
Good Night, and Good Luck
Match Point
The Squid and the Whale

Stephen Gaghan's Syriana tells a story of nausiating (if intentionally muddled) complexity; Woody Allen's words in Match Point is a ruthless skeleton of language; Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale has a heartfelt yet sooty insight; and George Clooney and Grant Heslov's Good Night, and Good Luck resonates with fire--but I doubt any of them have a chance. Take 20 lead characters, mix them together in a seemingly unrelated series of complex and affecting events, and juggle them all with a deft intelligence and you have Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco's screenplay for Crash. It will win.

Will Win: Crash
Should Win: Crash

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published:
Brokeback Mountain
The Constant Gardener
A History of Violence

For taking Annie Proulx's sparse short story and giving it flesh, muscle, blood and the heart that pumps it--the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain will win.

Will Win: Brokeback Mountain
Should Win: Brokeback Mountain

Best Achievement in Cinematography:
Batman Begins
Brokeback Mountain
Good Night, and Good Luck
Memoirs of a Geisha
The New World

This was a superb year for cinematography. While Batman’s surprise nomination is negated by its gloomy tones and Geisha for its over-the-top esthetics, the remaining three are all incredibly worthy. Good Night, and Good Luck, with its sumptuous black and white shot through a cancerous cloud of cigarette smoke is pristine, elegant, luxurious. The New World dwells on nature like a lover consuming his beloved with his eyes. And Brokeback Mountain sweeps over vaulted vistas like God’s own creative hand. I wish I could say that The New World or Good Night would take it, but I have a feeling this one will go to Brokeback. Still, that is hardly reason to complain.

Will Win: Brokeback Mountain
Should Win: The New World or Good Night, and Good Luck

Best Achievement in Editing:
Cinderella Man
The Constant Gardener
Walk the Line

All five nominees are intensely deserving. Cinderella Man cuts some of the best fight scenes since Raging Bull. Munich takes a stomach-turning page from Hitchcock’s knife. Walk the Line is deliberate and lyrical. The Constant Gardener moves like a wild zephyr. But Crash, jugging multiple storylines and interweaving them into a shattering tapestry should take the statuette.

Will Win: Crash
Should Win: Crash

Best Achievement in Art Direction:
Good Night, and Good Luck
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
King Kong
Memoirs of a Geisha
Pride & Prejudice

Oddly enough, the very thing that will win this category for Memoirs of a Geisha is the very reason it was not a better film (nor an Oscar contender for Best Picture for that matter). Geisha’s art direction has all the subtlety of the Las Vegas strip instead of the intimacy that the book demands. It makes for a lesser film but a delicious plate of eye candy.

Will Win: Memoirs of a Geisha
Should Win: Memoirs of a Geisha

Best Achievement in Costume Design:
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Memoirs of a Geisha
Mrs. Henderson Presents
Pride & Prejudice
Walk the Line

All of the nominees are strong—some understated like Walk the Line and Pride & Prejudice while others are exuberant like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Mrs. Henderson Presents. But Memoirs of a Geisha should walk away with this one, easily. The overwhelming ornate richness of the film’s kimono-clad cast will be too much for any other film to beat.

Will Win: Memoirs of a Geisha
Should Win: Memoirs of a Geisha

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score:
Brokeback Mountain - Gustavo Santaolalla
The Constant Gardener - Alberto Iglesias
Memoirs of a Geisha - John Williams
Munich - John Williams
Pride & Prejudice - Dario Marianelli

This is easily one of my favorite categories to which my collection of hundreds of film scores attest. There are some beautiful scores this year, though, for me, only one stands out above all the rest. And it won’t win. Pride and Prejudice is a luminescent score, more at home in the classical recital hall than in a modern movie. Yet, for all its beauty, it will not be able to stand up to Brokeback Mountain (a lush and intoxicating theme, but not overall score) or the double-tap of John Williams, here with his 44th and 45th nominations!--Munich is powerful in the same haunting way that Schindler’s List was, but Memoirs of a Geisha is the score to beat. The Constant Gardener is too ethno-centric to seriously compete.

Will Win: Memoirs of a Geisha
Should Win: Pride & Prejudice

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song:
Hustle & Flow for "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp"
Crash for "In the Deep"
Transamerica for "Travelin' Thru"

I'm not even going to predict this one. It's a silly category. This isn't Broadway, or, like it or not, the musical-rich Hollywood of 60 years ago. Why don't they remove this category and add something relevant like Best Stunts? Ok, ok, I’ll say Transamerica's "Travelin Thru" if you put a gun to my head. That said, I dare you to see Hustle and Flow and not get “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp” stuck in your head for days!

Best Achievement in Makeup:
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Cinderella Man
Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith

The fact that George Lucas concluded his sextology (that’s the numeric-designation, not a porno rip off of the sci-fi series) and only gets nominated for Best Makeup says something, I think, about the quality of his most recent films. And he won’t even get this one. Narnia, with its cornucopia of mythical beasts will steal this right out from under Sith’s feet. Russel Crowe with blood pouring out of his nose is KO’ed from the first round.

Will Win: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Should Win: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Behold, the most confounding categories at the Academy Awards! What is the difference between sound achievement and sound editing? Sound achievement is the recording and use of specific diagetic sounds within a film while sound editing is how all those individual sounds are merged into a single, unified soundtrack. Understand now? Yeah, I’m not sure if I do either.

Best Achievement in Sound:
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
King Kong
Memoirs of a Geisha
War of the Worlds
Walk the Line

This is a tough one. On the one hand, I’m tempted to say Walk the Line because of its brilliant interpretation of Jonny Cash’s music. Ray, a similarly musically-driven film won in this category last year. But this year, the man in black is up against some stiff competition including an ape that smashes his way through New York City, a world of magical creatures and an attack on earth by fearsome aliens. I’m leaning with War of the Worlds. I may not have liked the movie, but it had one hell of a good sound palate. The fog horn-like roar the tri-pods let loose right before they attacked is still enough to stop me in my tracks.

Will Win: War of the Worlds
Should Win:
War of the Worlds

Best Achievement in Sound Editing:
King Kong
Memoirs of a Geisha
War of the Worlds

This one comes down to the ape vs. the aliens. And for overall aural cohesion I think Kong takes it.

Will Win: King Kong
Should Win: King Kong

Best Achievement in Visual Effects:
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
King Kong
War of the Worlds

The effects certainly aren’t perfect. And boy do they get carried away to the point of agonizing distraction. But when King Kong works they are both magical and invisible. Thanks to WETA and Gollum alum, Andy Serkis, audiences are immersed in pure, dazzling cinemagic. While Narnia makes a good run with impressive, if sporadically decent effects, and War of the Worlds with frightening, if intermittent effects, no one is going to spank this monkey. The question many may be asking, however, is, where’s Star Wars? Good question.

Will Win: King Kong
Should Win: King Kong

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year:
Corpse Bride
Howl's Moving Castle
Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Hayao Miyazaki is perhaps the most respected living animator, but Howl’s Moving Castle isn’t even as good as his magical 2001 release, Spirited Away. While Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride managed to find comedy and compassion in even the most morose of subjects, Wallace & Gromit: the Curse of the Were-Rabbit, a whimsical and eccentric story made with century old technology is sure to win. After the creative team’s consistent victories in the past animated shorts category, it'd be hard to imagine them losing their first time up for a feature.

Will Win: Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
Should Win:
Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year:
Bestia nel cuore, La (Italy)
Joyeux Noël (France)
Paradise Now (Palestine)
Sophie Scholl - Die letzten Tage (Germany)
Tsotsi (South Africa)

I haven’t seen enough of these films to choose my favorite (many are still pending for general release), though I cannot imagine there being a better one than Paradise Now. The film about Palestinian bombers is controversial and eye-opening, the perfect foil for Spielberg’s Munich. The only other film in this category to get anywhere near as much buzz is South Africa’s Tsotsi, a film about the reforming power of love on the criminal heart. It will come down between these two and Tsotsi just might be palatable enough to squeamish voters to win.

Will Win: Tsotsi
Should Win: Paradise Now

Best Documentary, Features:
Darwin's Nightmare
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
March oof the Peguines
Street Fight

Of all the nominees, March of the Penguins is the presumed winner, not only because of its record-breaking box office performance (it made more money than all of the five Best Picture nominees combined!) but because people flocked (pun intended) to see it. Just ten years ago, no one in the general public was able to take in films in this category. Now, documentaries constitute big bucks and big business. This influx may explain why far-and-away favorite, Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, a confounding portrait of a man who was devoured by that which he loved most, was not even included. That or the documentary committee is asleep at the wheel. As far as the nominees go, don't rule out Murderball, the story of full-contact quadriplegic wheelchair rugby players. If enough voters have seen it, Murderball has a good chance.

Will Win: March of the Penguins
Should Win: Haven't seen enough of the nominees to make a decision

Best Documentary, Short Subjects:
God Sleeps in Rwanda
A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin
The Death of Kevin Carter
The Mushroom Club

Of all the short categories, this was the most difficult to judge. The Death of Kevin Carter, the story of a photojournalist so haunted by the world he has seen through the lens of his camera that he commits suicide is powerful and just may take it. God Sleeps in Rwanda is its stiffest competition, the story of the aftermath of that county’s genocide and the resulting 70-30% split between women and men. The Mushroom Club, about modern Hiroshima and those whose lives were forever changed by the bomb, is a dark horse. Here, the slickest produced documentary about the life of early radio personality Norman Corwin, may be “too good” to win.

Will Win: The Death of Kevin Carter
Should Win: The Death of Kevin Carter

Best Short Film, Animated:
The Moon and the Son
The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello
One Man Band

I had the chance to check out 9 at the Telluride Film Festival. It's a story that takes place in a nightmarish landscape, where a hunted figure confronts an insect-like creature that is stealing the souls of its brethren. Very creative and evocative. My favorite was The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello, the story of an airship navigator, a plague which is ravishing his world and its cure found in the most unlikely and deadly of sources, is breathtaking and wonderfully creative. The Moon and the Son is nowhere near as nicely animated, though its sentimental and gut-wrenchingly serious storyline may give it an edge. The competition is so good that Pixar’s entry, One Man Band, usually the hands-down favorite, will lose this year.

Will Win: 9
Should Win: The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello

Best Short Film, Live Action:
The Runaway
The Last Farm
Our Time Is Up
Six Shooter

Our Time is Up, starring the ever-wonderful Kevin Pollak as a dying shrink who finally gets to tell his patients everything he’s always wanted to say, is very funny. Six Shooter with the prolific Brendan Gleeson as a man having one hell of a bad day is the sort of unapologetic black comedy Quentin Tarantino would make if he were Irish. The Runaway is both sweet and creepy in a Sixth Sense sort of way. Cashback is about the absurd, juvenile and erotic ways in which late-night British supermarket clerks pass the time. But my favorite was the Scandinavian, Bergmanesque story of an elderly man’s final days, The Last Farm. Only one other question--where, oh where, is Rain is Falling?

Will Win: Our Time is Up
Should Win: The Last Farm

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

My Most Anticipated Films of 2006

After posting my annual Best Films of the Year list for 2005, I received several e-mails and calls asking what films I'm excited about on the 2006 horizon. Here are a few upcoming films that have caught my eye, though, having not seen any of them yet, don't hold me to their quality! This list is not in any sort of order of interest other than the first dozen or so, nor is it by any means exhaustive, especially when you consider that most of the indie films I love get little to no pre-release buzz. Even so, there are some more mainstream films on the way that I'm really excited about (gasp!). There are a lot here so you may want to break it into a couple sessions! Heck, you might just want to print it out and consult it from time to time. Enjoy.

V For Vendetta (trailer)
The Wachowski bros (The Matrix Trilogy) are back, producing this Orwellian film based on a graphic novel series from the 80s created in response to the conservative slide in Thatcher's England. Funny then how it looks so laser accurate and prescient to my feelings toward America, circa 2006. In a totalitarian world ruled by fear and deceit, one man dares to fight back. How audiences will respond to a character who is also a terrorist remains to be seen. Expect this Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving flick to generate a lot of controversy and discussion. This just may be the most subversive studio film to come out post-9/11. Mar. 17

Marie Antoinette (trailer)
Sofia Coppola follows up her intoxicating Lost In Translation with a film that is anything but an indie. This lavish costume drama examines the life of the 18th century French teen ruler played by Kirsten Dunst, and her husband, Louis XVI, played by Jason Schwartzman. After Lost in Translation, I'd go see anything to which Coppola puts her lens. Oct. 13

Lady In The Water (trailer)
I was one of the few people who thought M. Night Shyamalan's last thriller, The Village was not only his best film, but the year's best. His latest contribution is based on a bedtime story he made up for his kids. Being that it comes from him, it probably gave them and will give us nightmares for weeks. The brilliant and woefully underrated Paul Giamatti stars as an apartment complex maintenance man who discovers a mythical creature, Bryce Dallas Howard, in the complex swimming pool. July 21

The Da Vinci Code (trailer)
What do you get when you take the biggest book of the decade, add an A-list director in Ron Howard and throw in super-star Tom Hanks as the lead--possibly the year's monster hit, that's what. This story of religious intrigue and the clash of truth and cover-up crackled in written form. If Howard can translate that to film, The Da Vinci Code will be a phenomenally exciting (not to mention, controversial) couple of hours. May 19

Thank You for Smoking (trailer)
Oh satire, wonderful satire. One of the first things you learn in film studies classes is that you can get away with more and make a deeper impact with humor than with hard-hitting drama. You never see the subversive commentary until you're laughing and then it's already too late. Witness this gem that takes on big tobacco. Mar. 17

Superman Returns (trailer)
Brilliant homage or slavish remake? We won't know till we see it, but Bryan Singer's latest foray into the comic-book realm certainly looks slick and promising. The trailer alone can give you tingles (we miss you, Marlon). And hey, look at it this way--at least this one doesn't have Nicholas Cage anywhere near it. June 30

Miami Vice (trailer)
Who better to adapt the iconic 1980s television series than the man who created it in the first place, Michael Mann. Mann's body of work, especially in the arena of epic crime dramas (Heat, Collateral) is some of the very best out there. Doubtless, this film will only enhance it. Look for Colin Farrell as Sonny Crockett, the role once inhabited by Don Johnson and Jamie Foxx as Ricardo Tubbs. July 28

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (trailer)
As a rule, I try to avoid Jerry Bruckheimer movies like the avian flu. But even I have to admit that the first Pirates left a whopping smile on my face. With director Gore Verbinski back at the helm and all of the stellar cast returning, this latest chapter should prove to be no less enjoyable. July 7

Casino Royale
I can't say I was excited to see Pierce Brosnan so callously ejected from the franchise, nor the addition of Daniel Craig as the newest martini-drinking super-spy. But even I am going to rush out to see this movie. What can I say? Every boy--young or old--wants to be James Bond. This installment is said to be darker, gritter, more true to Ian Fleming's source material. Having read everything Fleming wrote, this excites me. But the last time they tried to do something like this with Timothy Dalton, the films bombed (though I have to admit, I loved them). Nov. 17

Flags Of Our Fathers
When Clint Eastwood began this ambitious WWII drama recreating the battle of Iwo Jima and the fates of the six American flag-raisers immortalized in the famous 1945 photograph, he had no idea that he would find the Japanese story every bit as compelling and engrossing. Eventually he would end up carving two films out of the project in order to show both sides. This is the first one.

Brick (trailer)
A classic noir thriller wrapped in an adolescent skin. In Brick, a teenage loner finds himself in the grimy netherworld of a high school crime ring as he tries to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his ex-girlfriend.

Joyeux Noel (trailer)
One of my favorite stories from high school history class comes to life in this film about soldiers on both sides of the WWI trenches who cease hostilities for a night to celebrate Christmas together. Nominated for a 2005 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Mar. 3

The White Countess (trailer)
Technically, this is a 2005 release, but that was more for the Academy voters than for you and I. James Ivory and the late Ishmael Merchant's final film together is a lush and gorgeous story (do those two make any other kind?) set in 1930's Shanghai, just before the Japanese invasion, where a blind American diplomat, played by Ralph Fiennes, develops a curious relationship with a Russian refugee who will do whatever it takes to support her family.

Tristram Shanty: A Cock and Bull Story (trailer)
The novel is Laurence Sterne's "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman." It's a huge, lumbering, aimless yet witty piece of 18th century literature generally regarded as utterly unfilmable. But, shhhh, we won't tell these guys that. In the vein of mockumentaries, this one looks delightful.

Tsotsi (trailer)
Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film (2005), Tsotsi is the story of a gang leader in South Africa who unexpectedly finds his life and lifestyle changed when he must care for a tiny infant. Feb. 24

A Scanner Darkly (trailer)
Director Richard Linklater's at it again! Using the same sort of rotoscoping animation he first showcased in Waking Life, Linklater adapts sci-fi master, Philip K. Dick's story about a bleak future world. Too bad Dick won't be able to see it. The author, who died decades ago, never got to see some of this best works transferred to the screen (Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report). Mar. 31 or July 28

David Fincher followed up his earth-shattering Fight Club with the mediocre thriller, The Panic Room. Now he plumbs the material from his earlier films, most notably Se7en, for a story about the infamous "Zodiac Killer" who is alleged to have murdered dozens of people in the Bay Area during the 1970s.

All The King's Men
Sean Penn, Jude Law and Kate Winslet star in Steven Zaillian's adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's novel about corruption in Southern politics.

The Good German
Steven Soderbergh's been a busy guy lately. With best-bud George Clooney in the lead, Soderbergh weaves a tale of mystery and murder in post-WWII Berlin. Also starring Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire.

American Dreamz (trailer)
What's weirder than a movie about an American Idol-esque TV show? How 'bout throwing in a singing Islamic suicide bomber and a dim-witted U.S. President from Texas. Yep, this one's sure to be both funny and piss people off. From the quirky and admittedly witty mind of Paul Weitz (About a Boy, In Good Company). With each successive movie, it's getting harder and harder to imagine that Weitz first directed American Pie. Starring Hugh Grant, Dennis Quaid and Mandy Moore. Apr. 21

X-Men: The Last Stand (trailer)
The first one sucked rocks. The second one was one of the best super-hero movies ever made. Now comes the third and supposedly final installment in the successful X-Men franchise. With Bryan Singer off directing Superman Returns, Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, Red Dragon) has taken over directorial duties. However the entire cast, including Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman and mutant newcomer Kelsey Grammer are all suiting back up. May 26

Mission: Impossible III (trailer)
Ten years ago M:I-1 debuted, a muddled and clumsy film. Six years after that, John Woo tried to make the sequel into a Matrix clone and succeeded only in making the worst movie of the year. Now, Paramount hopes that the third time is a charm. They just might be right. J.J. Abrams makes his feature-film directorial debut, hoping to bring with him the same sort of intrigue and mystery he's infused into his television creations, "Alias" and "Lost." With Philip Seymour Hoffman as this installment's baddie, how can you go wrong?! May 5

The Good Shephard
The history and evolution of the CIA are seen through the eyes of one of its founding officers played by Matt Damon, and the toll his spy games took on his home life. Directed by Robert De Niro! Dec. 22

Running with Scissors (trailer)
A true story in the same way that James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces" is an authentic memoir, Running with Scissors tells the story of a young man, his bi-polar mother and the loony psychiatrist who adopts him. From the creator of TV's "Nip/Tuck." Sept. 22

Why We Fight (trailer)
A timely documentary, Why We Fight examines the economic, political and ideological forces that feed American militarism.

The Fountain (trailer)
It's been five years since Daren Aronofsky's made a film. Those who loved his wildly creative and skewed Pi and Requiem for a Dream finally have something to look forward to. Spanning over a thousand years and three parallel stories, The Fountain is a story of love, death, spirituality, and the fragility of existence.

The Painted Veil
After discovering that his wife is having an affair, a doctor, played by Edward Norton, moves his family to a remote village in 1920's China to fight an outbreak of cholera where, amid the suffering, their own healing can begin. Nov. 17

Water (trailer)
When her husband dies, an 8-year-old Indian girl (yes, you read that right) is sent to a temple for widows. However, her behavior sends ripples throughout the community, most notably affecting a woman who longs for a different life and has fallen for a follower of Mahatma Ghandi. Apr. 28

Untitled Sunshine Project
Danny Boyle makes great and varied films from the grimy Trainspotting to the frightening 28 Days Later to the heartwarming Millions. Now he heads into outer space with a mission to jump start a dying sun. I know, it sounds stupid, but let's trust him on this one, shall we? Oct. 13

Children of Men
The year is 2027 and humankind can no longer procreate. But when Jullian Moore miraculously becomes pregnant, Clive Owen agrees to help transport her to a sanctuary at sea where her child's birth may help scientists save the future. Mexican Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mama Tambien and the delicious Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) directs. Sept. 29

The Visiting
I sense a sci-fi theme coming on... German director Oliver Hirschbiegel made one of the best foreign language films of the year, Downfall, about the collapse of the Third Reich. Now he turns his attention to a big budget sci-fi reimagining of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers with Nicole Kidman and 007's Daniel Craig. Aug. 11

Apocalypto (trailer)
Love him or hate him, Mel Gibson is back with his first film since The Passion of The Christ. Set 600 years ago, prior to the 16th-century Spanish conquest of Mexico and Central America, a Mayan man must go on a perilous journey to save his idyllic world.

Night Watch (trailer)
I don't usually go in for horror, but this Russian sci-fi/horror/thriller hybrid that pits the forces of night against those of the day, looks too intriguing to pass up. Feb. 17

The Notorious Bettie Page (trailer)
Bettie Page, played by Gretchen Mol, becomes the world's sexiest pin-up girl in the 1950s. But her status as a sex icon also makes her the target of a Senate investigation. Apr. 14

Friends with Money (trailer)
After she quits her lucrative job, a suddenly-poor Jennifer Aniston finds herself unsure about her future relationships with her successful and wealthy friends. Apr. 7

Winter Passing (trailer)
Playwright Adam Rapp makes his feature film debut with a story about a woman who reunites with her estranged author father and his new oddball family. Zooey Deschanel, Ed Harris, and Will Ferrell star. Feb. 17

Stranger than Fiction
IRS auditor Will Ferrell suddenly finds his every thought and action narrated by a voice inside his head, telling him that events have been set in motion which will result in his imminent death. While director Marc Forster's Stay bombed, Finding Neverland was a dream. Come on back Marc. Nov. 10

For Your Consideration
Christopher Guest and company do what they do best--the mockumentary. This time they take aim at themselves, lampooning the Hollywood awards season. Sept. 22

World Trade Center
I include this one because it intrigues me, though I am still not sure what to think of it. Is the country ready for a 9/11 movie? Oliver Stone think so. Focusing his drama on the rescue of two police officers trapped in the rubble of one of the collapsed towers, Stone looks to save his reputation from the abominable Alexander with something no less divisive. Aug. 11

Flight 93 (trailer)
Stone isn't the only one hoping that 9/11 films can be cathartic. Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy), presents a real time account of the events on United Flight 93, when passengers foiled the terrorist plot and forced the jetliner into the ground near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Apr. 28

Find Me Guilty (trailer)
Sidney Lumet's film is based on the longest Mafia trial in U.S. history. Mobster Jack DiNorscio decides to stand trial instead of ratting out his family and associates. He also opts to defend himself. Vin Diesel stars as DiNorscio in a role that hopefully reminds us and him that there is a talented actor there beneath all of the stool-sampling of films in his library. Mar. 17

Inside Man (trailer)
This is a Spike Lee joint!? Sure enough. Clive Owen is a bank robber playing a game of cat-and-mouse with Densel Washington and Jodie Foster. Mar. 24

Lonesome Jim (trailer)
Unable to make it on his own, twenty-something Casey Affleck decides to move back home to Indiana. Slowly, begrudgingly, he finds ways to connect with his family and, ultimately, himself. Directed by everybody's favorite NYC firefighter turned creepy actor, Steve Buscemi. Mar. 24

Lucky Number Slevin
A case of mistaken identity lands Josh Hartnett in the middle of a murder being plotted by one of New York City's biggest crime bosses, Ben Kingsley. Bruce Willis, Lucy Liu, and Stanley Tucci also star. Mar. 31

Art School Confidential
When an untalented art school student is accused of murder, he discovers that the crime might actually bring him the fame he desires. Apr. 28

Nacho Libre (trailer)
In order to save an orphanage from closure, a priest, Jack Black (!) dons a mask and tights and moonlights as a wrestler! Finally Black is back where he belongs instead of playing around with big monkeys. This one's from the director of the hilarious Napoleon Dynamite. June 2

Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny
Anyone who knows me knows that comedy is not really my thing. But that Jack Black, he I find very funny. And to finally see our favorite cult rock band hit the big screen should be good clean, er, fun. Nov. 17

The Second Chance (trailer)
Two pastors from vastly different backgrounds must find a way to work together in this indie Christian drama that has a good message. But does it have good production values? Starring Michael W. Smith. Feb. 17

Cars (trailer)
Has Pixar made a bad movie yet? With a list of luminescent films to their credit including Toy Story, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, Cars is the story of Lightning McQueen, a hot-shot stock-car voiced by Owen Wilson. According to Disney, "en route to a big race, the cocky McQueen gets waylaid in Radiator Springs, where he finds the true meaning of friendship and family." Paul Newman, Cheech Marin, John Ratzenberger and Larry the Cable Guy also add their voice talents. June 9

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Um, This is Awkward...

Oh jeez, I hope this isn't me! Sometimes I wonder. You'd all tell me if it was, right? Riiiiiight...? On second thought, don't answer that.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Have you met "How I Met Your Mother"?

I only met this show half way through this, its first season. Well, that's not exactly true. I saw all the pre-season buzz and thought it looked terrific but never made the time to give it a chance—until recently.

When I did, I was hooked.

How I Met Your Mother is a comedy about a twenty-something tribe of friends that finds its bonds tested when Marshall, a law-school student, decides to propose to his long-time girlfriend, kindergarten teacher, Lily. This throws Ted for a loop and he begins to imagine that time is stalking him and that he better find "The One" soon or else he will die a bachelor. This love crusade doesn't sit well with Barney, Ted's other best friend, (Neil Patrick Harris who obliterates all remnants of his Doogie Howser persona as a delightful scoundrel and perpetually-suited womanizer he describes as part David Spade, part David Letterman and part Regis Philbin) who would like nothing better than to die a bachelor. When Ted meets Robin, he begins to imagine that she just might be his one true love and the mother of the children an older, narrator Ted carries on conversations with in each episode. Is she? You don't think the show would give that away in the first season, do you?

How I Met Your Mother is romantic and charming, blessed with a large heart and a heaping dose of sincerity. It's also ridiculously funny. I seem to giggle uncontrollably when watching it.

Try it out. CBS tonight (Monday), 8:30pm ET/PT, though you will, of course, have to tape it as it conflicts with the Olympics which I know you are watching religiously!

Monday, February 06, 2006

Let the Games Begin!

Tomorrow night, in Turin, Italy, a flame will roar to life within the Olympic cauldron and for the next few weeks, the world's greatest athletes will enter the most unparalleled competitive maelstrom of which human beings have ever conceived.

I adore the Olympics. Always have. Especially the winter games. In my house the TV doesn't turn off while they're on. Normally, I am only nominally interested in sport, but with the Olympics, I am something else entirely. I am rabid.

I love the music, the pageantry, the rivalry, the sweat, the blood, the tears. They are a sort of liturgy of sport. These games are sacred events, a religious experience set in a cathedral of nature.

There's just something about them. Something magical. Something transcendent. They make me proud to be an American, yes, but more so, proud to be a member of the human race. For these few weeks we set aside our differences and gather to share in the world's glory first, our nation's glory second.

The Olympics are all that is good and honorable and best about our world. We come together in competition, but paradoxically, also in unity. We come together for a greater goal than ourselves. We unite for team. We unite for country. We unite for the world. And for the briefest of seconds on this, our eternal stage, we show what we are capable of. Peace. Unity. Camaraderie. Brotherhood.

In sport, others push us to excel and here, athletes are pushed further and longer than at any other time in their lives. Here, they must last that much longer, press that much harder, hold that much further.

I love watching as men and women test their endurance and the very limits of their bodies and their dreams. I love the spectacle that is competition as sinew and muscle buckle under the pressure, and desire and will strain against defeat and hopelessness. I love witnessing the passion that courses through their veins as victory comes into sight. I love watching bodies sculpted as if from marble, move and dance to a grace and elegance than can only be described as perfection.

We will fall in love with some, cry with others, catch our hearts in our throats with many, always remember a select few. As the human spirit spills onto the snowy slopes of the Italian alps, so will all the human drama, the unfettered optimism and pent-up ambition of so many. They come from all points of the globe. They bring with them a thousand different stories of what it took to get them here. Some will radiate the thrill of victory. Others will swallow the agony of defeat. Some arrive all but clutching a medal. For others, to compete is their crown. And we will cheer them on. All of them.

At the end, there can be only a few who take home the gold. We stand on the podium beside them, convinced that our voices raised in solidarity with their efforts gave them that extra something that allowed them to win. It is foolish, of course. Yet when they drape themselves in that flag, we that feel the warmth. When their medals are placed around their necks, ours feel the weight. For the briefest of moments we too are champions, vicariously basking in the sort of accomplishments than bring honor and glory and pride to us all.

And when the snow dissolves and the ice melts and the stadiums clear, perhaps we can hold onto a fleck of their dreams, achievements and examples and look for some way to become stainless champions in whatever crucible we find ourselves.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Annual "Best Films of the Year" 2005

In a few moments, my favorite films of 2005... But first, I feel the need for a snobby rant. Read on, or skip to the good stuff a few paragraphs below.

I confess, I often despair over the films John Q. Public chooses to praise.

Sure, film by its very nature is escapist entertainment, but why must it be only that? Why can't it be charged with something richer, deeper, more truthful? Why can't film speak to the human condition or the state of the world as does literature, painting, or a fine piece of music?

Film is the most powerful medium for communication in our world today. It is our culture’s most accessible means of proclaiming our corporate likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, dreams and nightmares. However, film is more than a way to propagate information or blindly entertain the masses — it is also an art form, capturing the human experience in a way no other art form can. Crafted well, its capability to teach us about ourselves and the world in which we live is unrivaled. Film has the power to move us in ways we cannot even comprehend. It is the communal consensus of what it means to be human. Cinema is the new form of global literacy, and those who are fluent in this language are empowered to communicate with the world. It has the ability to transcend our experiences and understanding, and teach us lessons that fly below the radar of our emotional resistance to lodge squarely in the one place that affects us most--our heart.

So, when will people decide that Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo isn't worth their time and money and opt instead for the enlightenment that comes from seeing Junebug? Jump online and peruse a host of blogs about people's favorite films and you'll find a shocking lack of sophistication. Even voters at Internet Movie Database list Harry Potter and Serenity as two of the year's seminal works. Rotten Tomatoes fares little better.

Perhaps the worst offender of all is the recent People's Choice Awards. Why? Because, I am sorry to say it, the people are stupid. Don't believe me? Here were the nominees for Best Film of the Year: Star Wars, Batman Begins and Hitch. Excuse me, but who in their right mind thinks that any of those (I thought Batman was riveting and Hitch quite funny) are the finest, most well-crafted, most lasting and noteworthy films of the year?! The people, that's who. Us. You and I. (Kind of puts a new twist on the whole mob mentality argument. Add that dismal point to the idea of participation in a constitutional democracy and you have...well, you have a whole other blog!) I don't care if the vast majority of people say one thing. As one of my favorite shows, Battlestar Galactica, said recently, "That doesn't make them right. It just makes a whole lot of people wrong."

Movie makers may claim that public accolades are their most coveted prize but I don't buy it for a moment. Sure, public support lines a filmmaker's pockets, but when George Lucus accepts an award for Star Wars at the PCA and tells the audience, "You are the most important people for any filmmaker. The reason I make films is for you. The audience rules!" I think he is either lying or a lunatic. Or both.

The problem seems to be, people don't want to have to think when they watch films. They want to be able to disengage their brains and release themselves to a sort of mass corporate brainwashing. They think they are entertained but they are merely distracted. There is a vast difference.

Why settle for trash when you can have transformation?

Not everyone seems to be fooled, however. Hollywood was beleaguered in 2005 by dismal returns and tepid attendance. It was, in short, one of the worst fiscal years in remembrance. Could it be because some of the people have woken up and begun questioning the nutritional quality of what is being fed them?

That said, I do find it odd that in such a flaccid year for Hollywood, 2005 was a great year for movies and produced some of the best films I have seen in a very long time. For the most part, this was not a year in which bright, happy, sunshiny films took the pedestal. It was a year of dark, often dismal, daring, prophetic and politically-charged films. The best films of 2005 sought more to educate than entertain, comment on our world than on simple diversion. And while the numbers may have slid (because the average movie-goer is still more interested in seeing The Fantastic Four or The Island than in The Constant Gardener) our lives are the richer for these films.

I'm often asked how I chose my list. True, what is a "best" list if not a "favorite" list? For my money, I know a film is good if it refuses to let me go; if it haunts me; if it sinks its talons into me and I find myself dwelling on it far more than is natural. Munich did that. So did Match Point. The nights I saw them, I hardly slept a minute.

The following list is hardly comprehensive. Unless you are a professional critic there is really no way to see every critically acclaimed film that comes out in a year. Still, what follows is the best of what I saw in 2005.

I'd be curious about your favorite additions. But if you thought Mr. and Mrs. Smith was this year's Citizen Kane, be ready for a fight!

And now, finally...


(click on any of the film titles for the trailers)


Crash was the first true cinematic masterpiece of the year. It is a film that speaks with a staggering prophetic voice. It is a film of devastating lyricism and haunting power. It is a film of hushed impact and explosive subtlety. It is a film of breathtaking intelligence--hyper-articulate and throbbing with sumptuous compassion. It is, easily, one of the strongest American films in years. When it was over, I sat in my chair, shell-shocked in stunned silence, trying to sort out my tangled emotions. Written and directed by Paul Haggis, the Academy-Award winning screenwriter of last year's Best Picture winner, Million Dollar Baby, Crash is a story of lives running parallel, losing control, colliding, and careening away from one another again. The film is an intimate tapestry of interweaving lives defined, one way or another, by racism and by our common humanity.

Good Night and Good Luck

There are certain pieces of art that transcend the medium on which they were created to take their place in the diminutive pantheon of ethical signposts, those creative signals that point humankind in the way it should, or should not, go. I did not think America would produce a more timely and necessary film this year than the phenomenally crucial, Crash. But it has. George Clooney’s sophomore film, Good Night, and Good Luck is a brilliant tour de force, both of filmmaking and philosophy. It is a daring and to some, a dangerous film. It is a snapshot of a previous era’s fight for America’s soul writ large on the canvas of contemporary necessity. We are guests as immortal newscaster Edward R. Morrow galvanizes a nation against the tyrannical excesses of government under the leadership of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and know that, while the film works brilliantly as a historical account, it also resonates as an unblinking cautionary tale to the unbridled governmental excesses of contemporary America.

The New World

Terrance Malick is a director on the endangered species list. His celluloid visions—long, introspective, deliberate, visually indulgent—are rarely seen anymore (least of all from him—The New World is only his 4th film in 32 years!). Their scarcity only makes them that much more precious. The New World is a masterpiece. It tells the familiar story of Pocahontas (played by 14-year-old newcomer Q'orianka Kilcher) and her people’s first encounters with the Europeans who will colonize America. It imagines their first meetings and how strange they must have seemed to each other. As the great ships sail upriver, American history sails with them. This is Pocahontas’ story, though we are also allowed inside the heads of the two men who love her—one as an idea and the other as a person. There are two new worlds in this film—the one the English discover and the one Pocahontas discovers as she is grafted into English society and travels to London. Much is gained in the exchange. Much, much more is lost.

The New World is a thing of wild beauty, untamed and feral yet luxurious, sumptuous and lavish all at the same time. As with all Malick films, nature is the lead actor and the one most lovingly and longingly shot. It is the most artfully sculpted film in American cinema this year. It is an elemental tone poem composed not of words but light, wind, water, sound and fire. Malick creates a vast sensory universe so dreamily paced there's always time to breathe, react and admire. You will leave the theater enraged that the idyllic stillness must be broken by the sounds of car engines, cell phones, and radios; such is the film’s all encompassing gravity. This is not a historical reproduction—we, like the characters, are seeing and living history for the first time. And it is mesmerizing.


In 1994, Steven Speilberg came out with two of the biggest movies of the year--one fun and forgettable and the other, devastating and eternal. I am, of course, talking about Jurassic Park and Shindler's List. In 2005, he did the same thing, giving the world the abominable and silly War of the Worlds (more on that below) and later, the powerful and monumental Munich. Much has been made of Munich's authenticity. Irrelevant. Whether or not the film is entirely true may never be disclosed so long as its events are shrouded in so many secrets. As the credits begin to roll, it doesn't matter anyway. This expertly crafted, Hitchcockian-paced drama about a super-secret Israeli commando team hunting down those Palestinians behind the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre is a cautionary tale all the same. Where is the line between justice and vengeance? Upon how many hands can the blood of innocents rest? When does one cease being a man and become a monster? How are we so different from one another when our grief, our passions and our brutality are so very alike?

Match Point

It's Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment"—without the punishment. Or, if you're Woody Allen, you suggest that a guilty conscience is a far harsher sentence than bars and razor wire could ever be. This brilliant and compelling film about lust, love and greed examines life teetering on a knife's edge. On one side is goodness and the other side is luck. If you're a rotten, sycophantic social climber in modern day London, you'll want to fall on the side of luck. You'll need all of it you can get. And while it just may save your life, your soul is another story. Revisiting some of the themes from his stellar Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen carves out a wicked, unpredictable, engrossing, deftly-acted, sexy, revolting film. This taut tour de force is easily the best thing he's done in decades.

Paradise Now

Could a more important, relevant and complimentary film to Munich have come out in 2005? This Palestinian film follows two best friends who are recruited to become suicide bombers. You see their uncertainty. You see their doubt. You see their conviction. You see their reasons. The juxtaposition between the urban wasteland in which they live and the decadence on the Israeli side is staggering to behold. Don't get the filmmakers wrong--this film does not suggest that violence is the answer. Far from it. But it certainly--and justifiably--shows that the Palestinians have just cause for their anger. This is a film that haunts with the queasy power of nightmares.

Pride and Prejudice

I have to admit, I wanted nothing to do with this movie. In my opinion, the BBC/A&E production with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle was so inspired that another remake bordered on sacrilege. I was wrong. It's not better, just different. This film is luxurious! Sublimely directed and shot, Pride and Prejudice captures all of the magic, feistiness, fun and conundrums of the beloved Austin text in a way that is abridged of content but not spirit. A joy to watch from beginning to end.

A History of Violence

David Cronenburg's examination of the secrets we hide to protect ourselves and those we love is a tightly wound masterpiece of storytelling. Mistaken identity and submerged truth vie for dominance in this story of hyper-violence wrought on idyllic small town America. A History of Violence is an unblinking look at our favorite national pornography—gawking excitedly at carnage. But be careful what you look at--you may not like what you see.


One of the best films I saw at the Telluride Film Festival. Capote is a rich and lush examination of a man so desperate for applause and adulation that he would tease and manipulate others the way naughty children delight in pulling the legs off Daddy Long Leg spiders. This is a fascinating film and one of the best directed of the year. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is nothing short of brilliant as Truman Copote.

Brokeback Mountain

The other best film at Telluride. Brokeback Mountain is a lot of things. Some of it good and some of it bad. But at the end of the film, this is a story of two people (not simply men) who genuinely cherished each other and the derailed lives they left behind them in the reckless pursuit of that love. You may call their love sin, but you cannot call it false. Ang Lee has directed one the most visually sumptuous film to play on movie screens in years.

The Constant Gardener

Selflessness and greed become entangled in this conspiracy thriller about a diplomat's wife who is murdered because she uncovers the truth about a drug conglomerate's nefarious practices in the African hindland. Politically as well as emotionally charged, The Constant Gardener is a mesmerizing walk through beauty, grief, despair and hope from Fernando Meirelles, the director of the shocking City of God.

Walk the Line

This year's “inspiring-and-overcoming-the-odds-to-make-it-big” musical is, in fact, light years better than last year's addition to this category, Ray. While Jamie Foxx alone was luminescent in his role as Ray Charles, Walk the Line shimmers on every level. Skillfully directed, genuinely moving, and impeccably acted (and sung) by its leads, Joaquin Phoenix and Reece Witherspoon, Walk the Line is easily one of the best of its kind.


You didn't understand all of it? It went by too fast to take it all in? There was too much information to mentally digest? Yeah, well, that was kind of the point. Life's a lot like that too. This unabashedly critical look at America's gluttony for mid-east oil and the lengths we will go to take and keep it was spellbinding if not always comprehensible. George Clooney strikes again in a daring and searing film that insists this country has far more blood on its hands then the news shows each night. Brilliant.


Oh, what a joy of a movie! Truthful yet subtle, realistic without being heavy-handed, Junebug, the story of a southern man bringing his New England bride back home to meet the family is, by turns, delightful, quirky, frustrating, painful, and authentic all rolled into one. But above all else, this movie is a bombshell because it fully introduced the world to the gushing radiance that is Amy Adams. Bravo.

Kingdom of Heaven

Yes, Kingdom of Heaven shows the brutal clashing of great armies. Yes, bloodied blades hack mercilessly at any limbs within their arc, showering the screen with crimson. Yes, massive fireballs rain down on besieged cities. And yes, the desert undulates with men and horses like a colony of ravenous ants across a leaf blade. And yet, there is so much more to it. That the film has monolithic battles, larger-than-life characters, and breathtaking special effects is hardly the point. Kingdom of Heaven pulses with a greater message. It is concerned less with action and more with human motivations. It is more interested in honor, justice, and personal righteousness, especially in the face of overwhelming odds. Kingdom of Heaven is profoundly relevant for our troubled times. In this era of intense religious and political fervor, Director Ridley Scott aims to understand both the Christian and the Muslim side of history and show that co-existence is possible if the voices championing jingoism, intolerance, xenophobia and religious war rhetoric are ignored.

Everything is Illuminated

Yet another favorite from the Telluride Film Festival in which tragedy and farce mingle to tell a story of remarkable beauty and hope. Based on Jonathan Foer's novel, Everything is Illuminated marks the directorial debut of actor Liev Schreiber and what a touching, bittersweet entry it is. What appears to be a story of a young man returning to his Ukrainian roots to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazi death machine turns out to be ruse, hiding a larger and much closer story of sacrifice, guilt and the ultimate closure.


What an act of bravery it was to make Downfall. Had this film been produced within the Hollywood juggernaut, that sentiment would be moot. Ambitious, but hardly brave. That Downfall was made by Germans makes it brave. Downfall dwells on the final days of the Third Reich, a time of utter hopelessness supercharged with mad desperation and fantastical optimism. The Russians have swallowed Berlin and now march their way to the city’s center where Adolf Hitler and his generals cower in an underground bunker. As Berlin disintegrates around him, Hitler presides over obsolete maps, rearranging imaginary armies in a delusional belief that victory can yet be snatched from the jaws of defeat. Ultimately, even he will realize the futility of his situation and splatter his brains across the wall of his personal study.

Though Downfall received lavish critical praise, many have blasted it for humanizing Hitler. By making him just a man, they say, you lessen his unimaginable crimes. By showing Eva Braun and her unshakable love for history’s greatest tyrant, you validate the idea that he had aspects that were, in fact, lovable. However, while humanizing the architect of Nazi Germany’s gore-soaked grab for world domination was indeed the aim of the film, excusing his culpability was not. If Hitler is denied a common humanity, he becomes something other, something alien. If he remains in the realm of the monstrous, we cannot truly identify with him, we cannot realize that we too are capable of such evils, that the evils he fueled could happen again. He is even more of a monster precisely because he is human.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

C.S. Lewis' timeless allegorical adventure follows the exploits of the four siblings who leave their WWII-era English countryside home for the world of Narnia after entering a magical wardrobe. Once a charming, peaceful land inhabited by all sorts of magical beasts, Narnia is now a world under icy siege by the White Witch. Uniting with the noble and mystical lion Aslan, the children discover that it is their destiny to destroy the White Witch and return Narnia to its idyllic self. Delightfully entertaining and wondrously substantive, this is the sort of film that elevates children's entertainment from banality to greatness.

Broken Flowers

Yet another introspective, introverted performance by the new master of subtle comic nuance, Bill Murray. In Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, Murray plays a bored and depressed millionaire with little to live for until he learns he may have fathered a child twenty years earlier. The resulting road trip to visit all the possible mothers is both hilarious and tragic and while Murray will discover much about himself, the film ultimately ends in delicious ambiguity.

Cinderella Man

This country sure does love its boxing movies. You rarely meet someone who watches the real thing, but turn it into a movie and it's halfway to an Oscar. Sure, Cinderella Man is a bit formulaic. What sports movies aren't, these days, with the exception of last year's phenomenal Million Dollar Baby (see what I mean about Oscar loving boxing!)? But this one's based on a true story, and like the inspiring Rudy, is ultimately more about an underdog with heart than a prince with skill. Russell Crowe gives a strong performance as a loving husband, father and comeback boxer who inspires Depression-Era America by fighting through poverty and injury to win the heavyweight boxing championship.


Batman Begins, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Me and You and Everyone We Know, March of the Penguins, Sin City, and the "unknown film" because, let's face it, there are a slew I've yet to see...

2005 DUDS:

By duds I don't mean those films that intentionally aim for the lowest common denominator and hit the bullseye every time, but those films that tried so hard to become something they simply did not have the stamina or metal to become.

I love science fiction, but this was a terrible year for it. In fact, my least favorite films of the year were all huge Sci Fi epics that, in my mind, played dismally.

King Kong

Twice as long as it needs to be, hedonistically animated and decadently self-indulgent, King Kong is beastly to be sure, but there is little beauty here. The impulse to create magic and wonder for its own sake is a perfectly viable and I would argue, necessary element of cinemagic. However, when special effects are presented narcissistically as they are here, when they serve no other purpose than to showcase the bravado of the artist, when they exist solely so that someone can thump their chest as the great ape, and cry, “Look what I can do” they cease being magic and become the very worst kind of cheap parlor tricks. This is Jackson at his most self-gratifying. And he simply doesn’t know when to stop.

War of the Worlds

I miss Steven Spielberg. I’m not saying a director is not allowed to change, or mature, or grow more cynical with age. But what I am saying is that I miss the youthful vibrancy, childlike zeal, and optimistic idealism that not only defined all of his early films, but several decades of entertainment as well. I miss the Spielberg before he thought he was Stanley Kubrick. I miss the Spielberg that rejoiced in the unknown and took great pleasure in the world’s many mysteries. War of the Worlds lacks the zest and joyous energy we expect from a Steven Spielberg picture. It lacks idealistic integrity. And it lacks courage. What happened to the sense of wonder celebrated in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? What happened to the imagination of E.T.? War of the Worlds just may represent the bleakest view of humanity that has ever come out in one of Spielberg's films--much more so than in Munich. He has traded wonder for terror, awe for gore, innocence for cynicism, optimism for fatalism, day-dreams for nightmares, Peter Pan for the Brothers Grimm. The cinema is poorer for it. And so are you and I.

Star Wars: Episode III

Thank God it's over. I'm sure we'll be arguing about whether or not George Lucas should have made these prequels for as long as the vastly superior originals are discussed. But, in my mind these lackluster, bereft of magic, un-muscular, pedantic, over-the-top, childish and just plain silly films are finally where they deserve to be—forgotten.

Ut In Omnibus Glorificetur Deus