Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Oscars? No, just the Demkos

My eyes usually glaze over when I read about whether it's been an up or down year for Hollywood.

Joe Kovac Jr. once did a story about a young man named Paul Cooper who proudly declared, "I'm going to a big birthday party, mine." Well, in honor of Paul, this is all about one person's moviegoing experience, mine. And I, Keith Demko, had a great time at the movies this year.

In that spirit, allow me to share my favorite (and least favorite) movies and performances of 2005.

Best picture

1. "A History of Violence" David Cronenberg took a graphic novel about one man's possibly shady past and turned it into a credible commentary on the destructive nature of violence in modern society. Remarkable and remarkably entertaining.

2. "The Squid and the Whale" One reviewer rather ridiculously called this a "great divorce movie," but it really is an intimate tale of one family's road to destruction that serves up enough humor and humanity along the way to make it an engaging ride.

3. "Pride and Prejudice" First-time director Joe Wright rightly kept things fast and funny in telling Jane Austen's best story, and found the perfect Elizabeth Bennet in Keira Knightley.

4. "The Constant Gardener" Fernando Meirelles followed up what was in my opinion 2002's best movie, "City of God," with this taut thriller that begins with a mysterious death and casts its net wide to tackle the shady practices of drug companies in Africa.

5. "King Kong" Easily the most flawed movie on this list. Too long? Maybe, but it was also the most fun I had at the movies this year. Can't wait to see what trick Peter Jackson will pull on us next.

Honorable mention

6. "Broken Flowers" I'm convinced that only a complete lack of any tidy resolution kept this Jim Jarmusch gem about a man who tries to track down a son he may have fathered in his colorful past from being a major hit.

7. "Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit" Nick Park kept the bawdy jokes just over the head of younguns and put in enough broad ones to keep the kids I saw this with in stitches.

8. "Murderball" "March of the Penguins" clobbered it at the box office, but this portrait of quadraplegic rugby players was easily the best documentary of 2005, albeit with possibly the worst title ever. Get it on DVD to see them take on the crew from "Jackass." Priceless.

9. "Walk the Line" Though it will inevitably be compared to 2004's "Ray," this made for a far superior biopic by wisely focusing on the love of Johnny & June rather than the Man in Black's whole life.

10. "Good Night, and Good Luck" I had a private screening of this one morning at the AmStar Cinemas, and it was a bit eerie. Like it was me and Joseph McCarthy in a room together. That said, it's great agenda filmmaking and a surprising directing accomplishment for George Clooney.

Worst picture

This comes with the caveat that, not being a paid film critic, I don't generally go see movies that I know in advance I'm going to hate. Though these are surely not the worst movies made in 2005, they are, in no particular order, the worst I saw.

1. "Elizabethtown"
2. "Syriana"
3. "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"
4. "The Ringer"
5. "Chicken Little"

Again, I didn't bother to see instant classics like "The Dukes of Hazzard" and "Doom," but these are five flicks that really grated my cheese last year.

Best actress

If I were an Oscar or Golden Globe voter, here's how I would rank the best performances by women in 2005, in descending order:

1. Keira Knightley Her Elizabeth Bennet in "Pride & Prejudice" goes from steely resolve to painful vulnerability with ease. A real accomplishment that gets my fictional Oscar vote.

2. Reese Witherspoon Granted, her appeal as June Carter Cash in "Walk the Line" hinges almost as much on her cuteness as her ability to act, but she makes every scene she's in better by sheer force of will. By the way, if you haven't seen her in Alexander Payne's "Election" with Matthew Broderick, stop reading now and go rent or Netflix it. You'll thank me when you stop laughing.

3. Maria Bello As her world crumbles around her in "A History of Violence," Bello brings us along through her personal hell with a harrowing performance.

4. Rachel Weisz Comic book geeks tell me she was great in "Constantine," and I'll just have to take their word for it. To me, she makes this list for her portrayal of the activist doctor whose life and death are the focus of "The Constant Gardener."

5. Laura Linney She's been my favorite actress since "You Can Count on Me," and delivered a solid performance as a philandering and failing wife in "The Squid and the Whale."

Best actor

Again in descending order ...

1. Terrence Howard It may be "hard out here for a pimp," but Howard makes it all look easy as the hustler at the center of "Hustle and Flow," which almost made my top 10 list.

2. Jeff Daniels I expect to hear his name on Oscar night as much in recognition of his career than of his performance in "The Squid and the Whale," where he piles on the clueless ego as Noah Baumbach's portrait of his father.

3. Bill Murray Granted, he flies through "Broken Flowers" with the same deadpan demeanor he delivered in "Rushmore" and "Lost in Translation," but it's a unique style that deserves recognition.

4. Cillian Murphy While I haven't seen Heath Ledger's gay cowboy in "Brokeback Mountain," I have seen Murphy's fun performance as a gay Irishman in Neil Jordan's "Breakfast on Pluto" and left the theater with a smile.

5. Joaquin Phoenix He broods with the best of them in "Walk the Line," and I'd expect to hear his name on Oscar night if Daniels loses out.

One final note: If you don't usually watch the Golden Globes, make an exception and tune in. It's usually a looser affair than the Oscars, facilitated and fueled by free-flowing alcohol, and makes for a fun night of viewing.

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