How we hated them. So much that we can't stop talking about them. Certainly our second annual list of the most obnoxious experiences we had in 2005 watching ostensibly our favorite art form could come across as nothing more than a mean-spirited endeavor, but keep in mind that some of these titles seem to have slipped past the shit-o-meter and on to awards heaven or box office royalty with nary a detractor. Others are merely dead horses that deserve a few more beatings. Call it nasty, but look on the bright side: Maybe Todd Solondz will read this and be so deeply offended that he'll go out and make another movie about how the whole world just doesn't fucking understand him. Oh, what a dream to have such power over the true artists.
Imagine the ugliest kid in the world. Now imagine that kid standing in front of a camera, staring poker-faced into the lens, being pelted with feces by his director. The audience looks away from this nauseating spectacle, but not Todd Solondz. You see, unlike us, he loves the child--loves him so much that he'll keep staring at that ugly mug, so beautiful despite all the shit he's smeared on it. And the disgusted who avert their gaze? They're the misanthropes! This, in a nutshell, is Solondz's cinema: empty provocation pretending to be dialectical humanism. Fancying himself a moralist who provokes when he should be sympathetic, ironizes when he should be solemn, Solondz strips his characters of their dignity--and then declares our revulsion as evidence of bobo hypocrisy. In "Palindromes," Solondz takes a u-turn from the leavening auto-critique of "Storytelling" and winds up in the same cul-de-sac where "Happiness" festers. "Palindromes" purports to explore the binarism of human--and specifically American--culture. But there is only one way to see the world through Solondz's eyes: ugly. And there is only one way to respond to him: look away. -EV
Thanks to Oprah's alleged run-in with Parisian racism while shopping for the perfect Hermes handbag, the term "crash moment" has entered our vernacular...and woe to our culture. For all of "Crash"'s pompous supposition that it's single-handedly uncovering the epithet-hurling asshole inherent in us all, I can't think of a film I saw all year that seemed less recognizably human. Or more cynically overdetermined: Get any two characters in the same room and within 30 seconds they'll start firing racial expletives at each other--no distillation of human nature, "Crash" reduces people to the very types it seeks to condemn, dissolving them of any nuance, motivation, or emotion that sits outside of the film's agenda. Even if we're willing to cut its glibness some slack, are we really supposed to overlook the central, almost moment-to-moment idiocies of Paul Haggis's 24-hour romp through Bad Human Behavior? White Sandra Bullock's hilarious "Driving Miss Daisy"-cribbed "You're my best friend" epiphany with her Guatemalan housemaid; Black Don Cheadle's "I'm fuckin' a white woman!" rant to his mother on the phone; the head-slapper subplot in which the Persian storeowner goes to the Black repairman's house with a loaded gun because of a minor language misunderstanding. It's the Social Issue Drama version of the door-slamming sex farce, only gussied up in P.T. Anderson flourish--these "people" (also known in Haggisland as mouthpieces) don't crash into each other with the force of anything other than script contrivance. And explain to me what is really being communicated in the Matt Dillon-Thandie Newton thread: The racist, molesting cop who one day sticks his hand up your dress can the very next day pull you out of a burning car wreck. It's a fourth-grader's sense of irony that even Alanis Morrisette would see right through. -MK
And the D.W. Griffith award for racial intolerance goes to... "King Kong." The NAACP should be all over Peter Jackson's ass for this one. Under the guise of a straightforward escapist monster flick, Jackson comes up with the most racist 15 minutes of film in recent memory. Never mind the indifferently plotted opening stanza or the inexplicable spectacle of Kong gliding across a frozen Central Park pond and consider the following inexcusable scene: Naomi Watts, Jack Black, and crew alight on Kong's foreboding jungle island and are immediately terrorized by a hoard of subhuman natives. Not just primitive or unsophisticated, but Edward Said's worst orientalist fears: knuckle-dragging, bloodshot-eyed Neanderthals one evolutionary step backward from apes; jet-black-skinned necks adorned with bloody feathers and dangling skulls. Violence their only form of social congress, they bludgeon the crew with voodoo clubs, moving with the feral grace and savagery of jungle cats. And then the Orcs--for they are a wholesale aesthetic and behavioral appropriation from Jackson's own "Lord of the Rings" trilogy--offer up the white girl for sacrifice to appease the big monkey who menaces the island. Basically the Aryan nation's perfect nightmare. Bad: the sequence is played for straightforward terror without a mote of critical distance or evaluation. Worse: it's surrounded by cheap, faux-gravitas allusions to Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." The analogous scene in the original "Kong," a travesty of exoticized tribal dance and broken pidgin, is just as bad, but viewed with the anesthetizing distance of history, we can dismiss the 1933 version as a relic of outdated social mores. Living in the present, Jackson should know better. --JC
Though there is some disagreement among RS staffers as to the relative worth of Judd Apatow's "40 Year-Old Virgin," I think those of us in the know can safely agree that the summer's other smash R-rated sex comedy with a heart o' gold, "Wedding Crashers," is utterly worthless. I'd checked out almost completely by the time we reached the super-duper montage of its heroes' conquests--a boobs-and-bubbly jump-cut fest that could have probably convinced Sergei Eisenstein to hang up his splicer in shame. Luckily for me my mind was still somewhat conscious for the film's masterstroke: a real minstrel-show of a homosexual character (in the year we all went up to "Brokeback," no less) that would have been offensive 20 years ago. Wait a minute...cool dudes+lying to get laid+misogyny+gay-bashing+happy ending...it is like 1985 all over again. Look, we enjoy a good comedy as much as the next film journal, but in this case, the joke was definitely on the audience. -JR
The threat to international cinema and good taste known as Kim Ki-duk shit out a couple of new movies this past year, including this woeful steaming pile of Asian art-film cliches. Beginning as a playful, nearly wordless farce in which an utterly adorable young homeless dude breaks into various middle-class homes while they're away and mimics daily routine before leaving everything intact, "3-Iron" then segues into a reserved melodrama in which the boy saves a pretty, submissive young thing (all women in Kim's films are just that) from an abusive husband, and then lumbers toward a highly unconvincing third act of metaphysical nonsense in which he becomes some sort of...I don't know...spiritual entity or something who can disappear at will and be his new gal's invisible protector. Always audience-courting, pandering, and completely unedifying, "3-Iron" recycles Tsai Ming-liang, Antonioni, and Jerry Zucker's "Ghost" for no discernible reason; as with his trite Buddhist reverie "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring," it's hard to glean much at all from his succession of wannabe high-art images. Korean cinema has really blown up stateside in 2005, but with a Hong Sang-soo film yet to see the inside of a first-run U.S movie house, this renaissance simply feels like someone else's rancid leftovers. Flashy, flavor-of-the-month provocateurs like Kim Ki-duk and Park Chan-wook (whose philosophies both seem to be: when in doubt, mutilate something) play at film rather than truly engage with it. Their images have no heft outside of their immediate sensory attack. "3-Iron" is the dullest yet--it's a pantomime of cinema. -MK
"Walk the Line"
What's most annoying about James Mangold's snoozy awards-magnet "Walk the Line" is how it wastes the terrific performance at its center: At a certain point, Joaquin Phoenix ceases imitating Johnny Cash and becomes an actual character rather than an inventory of poses and mannerisms. The rest of the movie, though, is a waxworks: richly detailed, vaguely fake, and completely inert. "Walk the Line" never bothers to investigate what it was about Cash's stark, even abject output that struck a nerve - the deadening concert montages of adoring, jiggling groupies suggest nothing of the polarizing effect of his stardom (the girls scream at him like he's the lead singer of the One-ders). It all feels so perfunctory--the childhood trauma, the star-making moment in Sam Phillips's studio, the unsympathetic-bordering-on-hateful first wife. (The only zingy moment comes when the shadowy figure of Elvis Presley tempts Cash with some chili fries--talk about economy of character.) The fated-to-be-mated romance between Cash and Reese Witherspoon's amusingly dinky June Carter would have been far more compelling if something had been made of its alienating effect on Cash's wife and children (reduced to tertiary villain and half-pint afterthought status, respectively). "Walk the Line" never strays from the biopic path, and while the worst thing you can say about it is that it's boring, it should be said: It's really, really boring. -AN
"Rumor Has It . . ."
For defecating on the sanctified ground of "The Graduate" (which I hold particularly dear, it being the first film I watched in my first film class in high school), "Rumor Has It . . ." wins my vote for most revolting movie of 2005. Yeah, I should've known better, but when I initially heard the premise--a woman discovers her family may have been the basis for the seminal novel-turned-movie --I thought it had potential as a clever riff. Even I couldn't have guessed at the depths of prurience to which Rob Reiner's "romantic comedy" would so sincerely sink. Early on it becomes apparent that "Rumor" revives memories of the "The Graduate" as a mere excuse to set up a scenario wherein Kevin Costner (aka "Benjamin Braddock") gets to bang three generations of hot women, from Shirley MacLaine ("Mrs. Robinson") on down to granddaughter Jennifer Aniston. And that the latter's character moves so quickly from believing the man to be her father to jumping his bones, even as the story otherwise operates along typical "heartfelt" lines, makes this surpassingly cringe-inducing tripe in a league of sleazy badness all its own. -KM
"The Brothers Grimm"
There's nothing more enervating than having to endlessly defend one of your favorite auteurs to the skeptics. Years pass, their oeuvres expand, yet you remain loyal as detractors seem to multiply like wild jackrabbits. Even more devastating is when your beloved auteur finally makes that one inexcusable pile of crap that it would take pretzel logic to try and recoup, and all the naysayers are ready with their smug "I told you so's." ("The Terminal" comes to mind.) In 2005, Terry Gilliam finally showed me the chinks in his armor. Not having seen "Tideland" yet, I'll reserve judgment about just how far he could have fallen in the span of 12 months, but "The Brothers Grimm" was an uncharacteristically joyless, visually claustrophobic, narratively incoherent spazz-out. Everyone was pointing fingers last summer, but who is mostly to blame? Harvey Weinstein for his meddling, greasy, pudgy fingers in everyone's pies? How about "Reindeer Games" and "Scream 3"'s Ehren Kruger, whose witless script doomed this project from the get-go? What about the sleepwalking duo of Matt Damon and 2005's anointed conquering hero Heath Ledger, whose lack of chemistry drags every scene down into the mud piles scattered about every awful-looking set? Is it Gilliam himself for not being able to harness all this flotsam into a workable whole? In any case, this odd hodgepodge of "Jabberwocky," "The Frighteners," "Shrek," and Tim Burton's similarly unwatchable "Sleepy Hollow" comes across as a disingenuous knockoff from one of our most innovative filmmakers. -MK
"Me and You and Everyone We Know"
In director Miranda July's Christine Jesperson alter ego character in "Me and You and Everyone We Know," we met the year's most self-promoting, image-conscious performance. Like July, Jesperson creates precious po-mo performance art, and in "Me and You" performer and role share enough traits that it's impossible not to raise an eyebrow at the gaping difference: Jesperson's pixie-ish, socially awkward but supposedly adorable naif is a long way from July's art-world-savvy indie darling, whose work has been featured in that bastion of culture, the Whitney Biennial. Most disingenuously, July contrasts her character with a cold art-world-savvy curator who conspicuously lacks Jesperson's unpretentious childlike wonder and vulnerability. The cards are as stacked--and the portraits as caricatured--as in Reagan-era Woody Allen. Perhaps if "Me and You" were not such a risk-free, Sundance-approved venture, July's narcissistic casting choice wouldn't seem so egregious, but despite the film's vague positives I couldn't help but feel being sold a false, calculated coyness. -MJR
TONY SCOTT HATES YOU AND YOUR FAMILY
One might think that the brutally low box-office returns for "Domino" would be punishment enough for the eternally cursed hand at the helm. One would be mistaken. Scott the Younger has performed the neatly paradoxical trick of hewing so close to the mainstream that he's turned himself into a pariah figure; he gives the audience so very much of what he thinks it wants that they stay away in droves. Even more than that vile slab of cinematic carcass that was "Man on Fire," "Domino" represents the absolute null point of "style": the belief that the cutting edge is at its sharpest when everything (performances included) has been twisted, distorted, flared, and filtered into a jagged morass whose only consistency is its unrelieved ugliness. I can't recall a movie of more sheer sensory unpleasantness where the unpleasantness served less purpose. This is empty, ugly, bankrupt filmmaking - "but it's alive," whimpers Ebert. So is bacteria. -AT
It's really just another unremarkable, all-inclusive, America-is-a-benevolent-melting-pot indie jaunt and perhaps doesn't deserve to provoke much ire beyond a bored eye-roll, but the tedious "Transamerica"'s sizable success on the limited-release circuit is all the more disheartening in the face of the rollicking, lovely "Breakfast on Pluto"'s swift demise. Road movie picaresques following sexually unconventional protagonists on cross-country journeys to locate lost relatives and hopefully reconstruct some semblance of family, "Transamerica" and "Breakfast on Pluto" both traffic in refreshing gender politics, but what made "Pluto" so alienating (read: radical) to so many was that it eschewed "identity issues" so common to this growing subgenre--Cillian Murphy's cross-dressing, sex-change-daydreaming "Kitten" knows exactly who she is--nothing could be more determinate. "Transamerica" keeps low-register Felicity Huffman's prissy, off-putting Bree more "appropriately" tortured; it's the requisite search-for-self. Lacking in wit, charm, or any identifiable soul, Duncan Tucker's leaden Screenwriting 101 plot serves up all the flavorless side dishes from the Sundance cafeteria menu: the lovable, trick-turning junkie son Bree never knew she had, the wise Native American advice-giver, the climactic pit-stop with garish, middle-America relatives (played by Fionnula Flanagan and... Burt Young?). Add another to the list of unexceptional, crass pop-cultural objects that have helped the talented Huffman break through to the mainstream in 2005. Bravo mediocrity! --MK