RICK KISONAK: George W. Bush really did turn out to be The Decider this year, at least in the realm of movies. Two trends stood out, and he set both in motion. First, his misguided meddling in the Middle East inspired a torrent of films. There were documentaries by the dozen — Operation Homecoming, Muse of Fire, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, The Triangle of Death, No End in Sight and Iraq: The Death of Reason, to name a few of the finest. And there were dramas such as Rendition, In the Valley of Elah, A Mighty Heart and Lions for Lambs.
Trend number two? The public stayed away in droves. The thinking in Hollywood circles is that most viewers are currently too bummed out by world events to spend precious time in the Cineplex watching movies about them. That’s regrettable, if it’s true, because some of these pictures were extraordinary. Fortunately, they’ll be waiting on DVD when the national mood improves.
MARGOT HARRISON: Though “ripped from the headlines” movies did tank this year, Pan’s Labyrinth and The Lives of Others — both 2006 releases — sold lots of tickets in art houses last winter. Both are period pieces with subtitles, and both grapple with “current” issues of war, surveillance and torture far more compellingly than those self-important topical dramas such as Rendition and Lions for Lambs. Maybe we need some perspective before we can turn historical horrors into art.
In other news, the “torture porn” trend in horror films may be on its way out — witness the burying of the grisly flick Captivity. If only we could say the same for real-life torture.
RK: Isn’t it comforting to know, though, that even in the darkest hour, you can always count on Eddie Murphy to turn up under tons of latex?
Most Stellar Performance
RK: Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men. As a Texas border-town sheriff bewildered by modern man’s capacity for evil, the actor gives the most gut-wrenching performance of his career. It’s a minimalist masterpiece.
MH: Very possibly Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood. Since that hasn’t hit theaters yet, I want to recognize two underdog actors who’ve been in a ton of dreck but shone this year: Owen Wilson in The Darjeeling Limited and Keri Russell in Waitress. Both turn in subtle, oddly witty performances as deeply sad people.
Most Annoying Performance
RK: It’s a tie: Jessica Alba in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Jessica Alba in Awake. In 20th Century Fox’s comic-book adaptation of Fantastic Four, Alba plays the Invisible Woman; her acting talent is just as difficult to detect. Against all odds, she followed that up with a performance in Awake that is every bit as vapid, ditsy and cloying.
MH: Evan Rachel Wood in Across the Universe and King of California. This young actress, who seemed so promising a few years ago, has developed a glazed expression that’s like a black hole at the center of a movie.
RK: Knocked Up. Without so much as a solitary cliché or cornball moment, writer-director Judd Apatow’s film manages to succeed as both a raunchfest and a celebration of adult responsibility. Seth Rogen establishes himself as the best thing to happen to comedy since Will Ferrell discovered tighty whities.
MH: Superbad. This year, some Internet wags have accused Judd Apatow of paying film critics for their praise of everything he directs or produces. Thing is, the guy is insightful and funny. If you’ve seen Knocked Up, you know his wife and kids are funny. Hell, his dog is probably funny.
RK: Lucky You. Curtis Hanson must have lost a bet. How else to explain why the guy who gave us L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys went anywhere near this appallingly insipid saga of love and Texas Hold ’Em? A career low for Eric Bana, Drew Barrymore and Robert Duvall (under the most regrettable toupee in movie history), this thing isn’t just bad. It was Gigli bad.
MH: Mr. Brooks. Dane Cook is even less amusing here than in Good Luck Chuck. What, you say it isn’t supposed to be a comedy? Someone should have told Demi Moore that. And the scriptwriter.
RK: Youth Without Youth. I love Francis Ford Coppola. You love Francis Ford Coppola. Nobody wants to say a discouraging word about the man behind some of modern cinema’s most enduring works. Yet here’s the sad truth: The first film in a decade from the 68-year-old director is an all-but-unwatchable exercise in navel contemplation — the sort of artsy, self-indulgent gibberish you might expect from a film student. And a not terribly promising one at that. An offering you can and should refuse.
MH: Sunshine. Danny Boyle’s sci-fi movie starts out so cool. Then it degenerates into a rehash of that “X-Files” episode where some crazy guy lives in a volcano.
Least Necessary Remake
RK: The Invasion. In the fourth screen version of the Body Snatchers story, Nicole Kidman spends 90 minutes desperately struggling to stay awake. Pretty much like the audience.
MH: Halloween. He’s Michael Myers. He’s unkillable. Now we know he had a bad childhood. Any questions?
Steepest Career Nosedive
RK: Jim Carrey in The Number 23. You know comic actors. They’re always trying to prove they can handle other kinds of material — dramatic, romantic or, in this case, irredeemably moronic.
MH: Heather Matarazzo, a.k.a. Dawn Wiener in Welcome to the Dollhouse, dangling from the ceiling like a sacrificial goat in Hostel: Part II. Sure, her whole career has been about humiliation, but this is a low point.
RK: Ben Affleck, director, Gone Baby Gone. The new millennium hasn’t been kind to Affleck: Reindeer Games, Daredevil, Gigli, Jersey Girl, Surviving Christmas and, of course, that whole Bennifer business. That’s changed. Nothing says you’re no longer a punchline quite like dusting yourself off and directing one of the best movies of the year.
MH: Julie Delpy, with the acid-tongued relationship movie 2 Days in Paris. The French actress did the blonde B-movie starlet thing back in the mid-’90s. Now she shows us she can act, write, direct and sing.
Most Inexplicable Hit
RK: 300. I weep for the future of the form if it lies in over-the-top, adolescent bombast like this. It may be the way to make a buck in today’s market, but that doesn’t mean it’s any way to make a movie.
MH: Wild Hogs. This flabby road movie struck the fancy of baby boomers, but it’s hard to say why. Musty gay jokes? William H. Macy repeatedly running his Hog into things?
Most Inexplicable Flop
RK: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. A haunting, masterfully told story. Magnificent cinematography. Unusually fine dialogue. A battalion of memorable characters brought brilliantly to life. A hypnotic score by Nick Cave. Brad Pitt’s best performance to date. The only thing missing? An audience.
MH: Zodiac. Sure, it’s long and slow, with meticulous attention to detail and very little pay-off — just like a real murder case. But it has a genuine creepiness that gets under your skin.
Best Omen of the Impending Downfall of Western Civilization
RK: In contrast to The Assassination above, the $140 million domestic gross of Rush Hour 3.
MH: The more-realistic-than-ever-before performance-capture animation used in Beowulf. The technology is fascinating in itself, but 20 years from now, will actors have been replaced by the digital equivalent of poreless puppets?
RK: No End in Sight. Charles Ferguson’s first film is also the year’s most important. Featuring interviews with Washington insiders from the Pentagon, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Intelligence Council, the Army and the Marines, as well as former high-ranking Bush officials, it offers the most comprehensive, clear-eyed and irrefutable account we have of the Iraq debacle and the arrogance behind it.
MH: I second Rick’s pick of No End in Sight. A movie full of talking heads, but what they say matters. If you haven’t been reading The New Yorker’s devastating war coverage since 2003, this is the perfect crib sheet.
Best Movie for Adults to See With Kids
RK: Ratatouille. Brad Bird’s comedy about a culinarily gifted rodent secretly cooking up masterpieces in a Parisian eatery is a feast for the eyes and the animation triumph of the year.
MH: Bridge to Terabithia, despite the tears. Robert Patrick plays a genuinely good, but not sugarcoated, dad — a rarity in movies.
Best Comic Book or Video Game Adaptation
RK: 300. This was an easy choice, since it’s based on a graphic novel and looks like something that belongs on a PlayStation, not a movie screen.
MH: 30 Days of Night. You can’t really go wrong with the graphic novel’s “vampires in the Arctic winter” premise. The less said about Transformers, the better.
Worst Use of a Fat Suit
RK: John Travolta in Hairspray. The film is high-energy fun, but the actor’s marble-mouthed performance is strangely out of step. In earlier versions, Divine and Harvey Fierstein both bring a flamboyantly off-center verve to the role of Edna Turnblad. Here, Travolta seems curiously restrained, almost disoriented, as though he’s wandered off the set of a Big Momma’s House sequel.
MH: Sleuth. Making Jude Law fat, even briefly, is wrong.
RK: Because I Said So. The squandering of Diane Keaton’s screen legacy is without parallel in the annals of cinema. Has another performer trashed a great career as cavalierly, as deliberately, as unnecessarily? By far the most appallingly cretinous picture in which the actress has yet appeared, this is every dumb romantic comedy rolled into one.
MH: I Know Who Killed Me. Lindsay Lohan has prosthetic limbs, and she’s stripping. There’s torture porn, teen angst and postmodern game playing. The script sounds like it was written by a hormonal 14-year-old, and the director never met an “arty” lens filter he didn’t like. Actually, maybe in some bizarro way this absurdity is the best movie of the year. But seriously . . .
RK: No Country for Old Men. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a great story, but No Country for Old Men is a great movie, the finest Joel and Ethan Coen have ever made. The filmmakers transform Cormac McCarthy’s source material into a kind of harrowing, world-weary cowboy poetry.
MH: Into the Wild. Sean Penn’s drama based on Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction account of a rich kid who shunned civilization isn’t perfect. But it’s perhaps the most heartfelt, uncompromising American movie of the year, and one that poses resonant questions about nature love and the romance of the self-sufficient life.