By JAY BOBBIN
Yes, it's that time again ... time for the ritual of choosing the top and the bottom of the movie crop of the past 12 months.
Hollywood's problems in attracting bigger audiences became a major show-business story of 2005, but that also made it fairly easy to come up with the following lists. So much of the fare was simply mediocre, the better movies stood out clearly. For that matter, so did the worst ones, which also had to go some distance to “distinguish” themselves.
That said, away we go ...
*** JAY'S BEST OF 2005 ***
“BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN”: The day before the year ended, this fine drama of two cowboys with an exceptionally close relationship made its way to the area to crack the top-10 list just in time. Superbly nuanced performances by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal (with excellent support from Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams), and sensitive direction by Ang Lee, make this a justifiably strong contender for the upcoming awards season.
“CINDERELLA MAN”: Although it was hampered at the box office by an amazingly unwise summer-release strategy, director Ron Howard's drama about Depression-era boxer James Braddock (an excellent Russell Crowe) should assume its rightful place among the best sports movies yet made.
“CRASH”: The way behind-the-scenes Hollywood works, you're either a TV talent or a movie talent, and rarely do the twain meet. Paul Haggis has burst through that, first with his superb screenplay for “Million Dollar Baby,” and then as the writer-director of this complex patchwork of various characters ultimately drawn together by common tragedy. The too-often-underrated Matt Dillon is a standout in the impressive ensemble cast.
“GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK”: I confess I'm a sap for well-made movies about media history, so I was a prime target for director and co-star George Clooney's excellent drama about the 1950s battle between newsman Edward R. Murrow (a pitch-perfect performance by David Straithairn) and Sen. Joseph McCarthy (an equally perfect performance by ... well, McCarthy, courtesy of vintage clips).
“THE INTERPRETER”: Maybe it has to do with my extreme fondness for his 30-years-earlier “Three Days of the Condor,” but director Sydney Pollack and big-scale thrillers are an irresistible combination for me, and he scored again by filming inside the actual United Nations building for this tense tale of the title interpreter (Nicole Kidman) and the Secret Service man (Sean Penn) who wants to know what she knows about a potential assassination.
“KING KONG”: Never mind whether this surpasses the 1933 original. Let's just say the state-of-the-art remake stands on its own as a cinematic triumph, with director Peter Jackson using every trick in the book -- and inventing some new ones as well -- to revitalize the hugely familiar story of the beauty (in this case, Naomi Watts) and the beast. Thanks to dinosaurs, giant insects and the like, parents will have to remain vigilant for the rest of time about letting nightmare-prone children anywhere near this. Heck, I'm STILL having nightmares from it.
“RED EYE”: Think a powerful melodrama can't be done in less than 90 minutes? “Scream” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” mentor Wes Craven did it by directing the supremely intense saga of a woman (Rachel McAdams) taken captive aboard an airliner by a supposedly charming seatmate (Cillian Murphy). Craven took only as much time as he needed to let the story play out, and in an era of overblown running times, that is really something to be admired. And, hopefully, emulated.
“SIN CITY”: With a largely monochrome look entirely its own, co-directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller's live-action version of Miller's graphic novels was not just the most visually striking movie of the year, it just might hold that title for the rest of the decade ... and beyond. Really smart casting helped the overall effect, from Bruce Willis and Jessica Alba, to Mickey Rourke and what must have been three tons of makeup caked onto him.
“WALK THE LINE”: Expect to hear the names Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon a LOT as acting honors for 2005 are handed out. For this biography of country-music icons Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash to succeed, the performers had to be completely, unflinchingly on their game. And they were, right down to singing the couple's legendary tunes themselves.
“WAR OF THE WORLDS”: It wasn't just the local connection -- ask any resident of Athens, N.Y., about it -- that made Steven Spielberg's update of the ever-frightening H.G. Wells tale so memorable. The father-daughter tie between the Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning characters brought home the emotional aspect of being under alien attack that much more powerfully. Top that with Spielberg's mastery at instilling dread, and this easily rivaled “King Kong” as the year's top scare show.
*** JAY'S WORST OF 2005 ***
“ALONE IN THE DARK”: Tara Reid as a bespectacled expert on ancient cultures. RI-I-I-I-I-IGHT.
“BEWITCHED”: Or, how to turn a harmless TV sitcom into a movie way more complicated that it ever needed to be. (The charm of Nicole Kidman notwithstanding.)
“DEUCE BIGALOW: EUROPEAN GIGOLO”: As if having him on domestic turf wasn't crass enough.
“GUESS WHO”: Guess what? This race reversal on the classic “Guess Who's Coming to Dinner” never should have been attempted.
“THE ISLAND”: Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, cloning and lots of pyrotechnics. Mix and shake well. And keep shaking until something actually comes of it.
“THE LEGEND OF ZORRO”: Ever think Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones could succeed at slapstick? Don't worry. They can't. (And, worse still, after their really good first “Zorro” teaming.)
“THE MAN”: Samuel L. Jackson, Eugene Levy and a virtual cargo of below-the-belt jokes. Ha. Ha.
“MAN OF THE HOUSE”: Had you dreamed of Tommy Lee Jones amid a gaggle of cheerleaders? Hey, whaddya know? Me, neither.
“STEALTH”: Talk about a movie that required no actors ... just a fighter plane with a mind of its own, and lots of targets. The result? A movie without a soul.
“XXX: STATE OF THE UNION”: Ice Cube is no Vin Diesel ... which might be something to be thankful for under most circumstances, but here, he also managed to kill a franchise.
And there you have 'em. Undoubtedly, we'll get more “bad” among the “good” in 2006 ... but as always, here's hoping the good has a lot more weight.