Holiday Feast

Our critics chew on the film trends of '05

They're tough little buggers. We begin in the garden, then leave on a quest, descend into darkness, suffer through immense hardship, lose companions to death, and emerge into the spring, with kids. This is The Odyssey with beaks.

You can't do this at home. It's not easy to get to Antarctica, or to stay there, and director Luc Jacquet did both, passing day and night with the penguins for nearly a year. His footage is immensely moving, as when an inexperienced father drops his egg or a mother loses her newborn to the cold. It's also breathtaking, featuring grand vistas of sea, ice and sky.

In the end, March of the Penguins is almost more of a drama than a documentary, and a dark one at that. (The U.S. marketing strategy made the film out to be a love story — a disingenuous move.) After nearly a year with these brave and hilarious creatures, we've been through something as harrowing as it is absurd, and we have forged a bond. The film doesn't merely surpass most nature documentaries; it surpasses most movies of any genre. (Melissa Levine)

Enough Already: When Good Actors Make Bad Movies

When Cedric the Entertainer makes a lousy movie, he's delivering no less than we expect of him. But how long must we keep praising promising actors who consistently run on autopilot in mediocre crap, though we've seen that they're capable of much more? Following are the top three sandbaggers of 2005:

Dakota Fanning: She wowed the world by holding the screen opposite a showboating Sean Penn in I Am Sam and showed natural intelligence opposite Denzel Washington in Man on Fire. Now producers seem to consider her for every little-girl role that comes along, and critics have been effusive in their praise. But then there's The Cat in the Hat, and this year, the Robert De Niro stinker Hide and Seek and the godawful Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story. (She was fine in War of the Worlds, a film that required her merely to scream and cry.) Let's assume since she's only eleven, someone else is choosing her scripts.

Jamie Bell: The endearing star of Billy Elliot made interesting choices this year, but they were mostly interestingly bad. Exactly what the hell was he doing as a would-be nineteenth-century dandy with a gun fetish in Dear Wendy? And what exactly was the point of The Chumscrubber, in which he plays a disaffected teen in a suburbia wracked by pill-popping? Both films were made by foreign directors who seem not to understand America at all. Maybe Bell doesn't either, but he was on the right track with last year's Undertow, and he needs to get back on it.

Peter Sarsgaard: The intensely focused eyes that look like they might cry any second. The mildly effeminate, laid-back delivery with which he utters each line. It was all quite novel for a while. But something has gone way wrong in Sarsgaard's turn toward hammy villain roles in The Skeleton Key and Flightplan; when he tries to play over-the-top, he just seems dead inside. (Ditto the troubled marine he portrayed in Jarhead.) Playing gay wasn't a bad idea; unfortunately, the project he chose to do that in was The Dying Gaul, a misguided play-turned-movie that tried to get viewers excited with tense scenes of...people typing on computers. (Luke Y. Thompson)

Art Imitates Strife: The Year in Documentaries

What a difference a year makes. In 2004, Michael Moore's Bush-bashing Fahrenheit 9/11 was not only the most-watched and most-debated doc in release, but also among the highest-grossing movies of the year. This year's most-watched and highest-grossing documentary was, of course, March of the Penguins, which was about as contentious as a cotton ball; your kids are probably watching the DVD at this very moment, for the thirteenth time. And the best-reviewed doc was Murderball, about quadriplegic rugby players asserting their right to do anything able-bodied folks can do, including give or take a punch and throw down in the bedroom with their very hot girlfriends. Was it inspirational? Absolutely, and without a tinge of mawkishness; oh, how you come to love these tough dudes in their Mad Max wheelchairs.

Murderball was funny too, but not as laugh-out-loud, vomit-in-your-mouth hysterical as The Aristocrats, in which almost 100 comics told the same infamous dirty joke almost 100 different ways. Best of all was Sarah Silverman's first-person telling of the show-biz fable, which concluded with her appearing to realize for the first time she was raped by talk-show legend Joe Franklin, who didn't get the joke and threatened to sue. Silverman also had her own in-concert film, Jesus Is Magic, in which she said things out loud most people wouldn't dare think to themselves — as in, "Everyone knows the best time to get pregnant is when you're a black teenager" and her assertion that "it was the blacks" who killed Christ.

There were, of course, more serious-minded, topical docs too: Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland spent countless hours with soldiers stationed in Iraq, where they fought off boredom and anger as often as the so-called enemy. But the most profound and provocative doc that played on U.S. screens — albeit barely — will go unnoticed. Titled The Power of Nightmares, it originally aired in October 2004 on the BBC in three parts, but collectively it's a three-hour punch in the gut. Writer-director-narrator Adam Curtis, a well-respected documentarian in England, provides a sobering narrative that essentially says not only that there is no Al Qaeda (it's a name created by the U.S. government and adopted by Osama bin Laden after September 11, 2001, claim several of the doc's talking heads), but that the same men responsible for selling us the war in Iraq based on shaky evidence also sold us the Cold War in the 1970s using similarly fabricated information intent on scaring the populace into obedience.

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