The 2005 Mainstream Movie Awards

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Hollywood’s picks for the Oscars this year demonstrate the industry’s utter disdain for the viewing public. Of the twelve films nominated in the top categories (Best Picture, Director, and Actor) nine opened only to limited release (fewer than 500 screens nationwide), five opened only in New York and Los Angeles, and three have earned less than $2 million at the box office; they are available only on DVD.

I love independent films, but I hate the art houses where they are often shown, with their broken seats and small screens, and the level floors that make it difficult to see if the theater is full. Moreover, most of the Oscar contenders are released in December and stay around for only a week or two. The average American is not going to tune into the Oscar show this year, when it is about films they haven’t seen.

So here are my favorite mainstream films of 2005. All of them received wide release (over 2,000 screens) and all of them earned over $100 million. Perhaps you saw them too.

“Cinderella Man,” directed ‘by Ron Howard. Universal Studios, 144 minutes.

Many people boycotted this film after Russell Crowe’s petulant treatment of a New York hotel clerk when his phone call wouldn’t go through. It’s a shame, because it’s one of Ron Howard’s best. James Braddock (Crowe), driven from a successful boxing career by injury, then into poverty by the stock market crash, goes back into the ring to face heavyweight champion Max Baer, risking injury and even death to keep his family together. Baer is a high-living lady’s man fighting for a title, but Braddock is a simple dockman, fighting for his family. The result is a gripping film, full of brutal punches, unrelenting poverty, and tender emotion.

Critics say that the best direction does not draw attention to itself, but I have to give Ron Howard credit for actors who are emotional but not maudlin, lighting that creates atmosphere without being gimmicky, and powerfully effective editing techniques. Crowe delivers a knockout performance, with fine performances as well by Paul Giamatti (“‘Sideways”) as Braddock’s coach Joe Gould, who practically fights along with him in the ring;’ Craig’ Bierko, who plays Baer; and Paddy Considine (“‘In America”) as Braddock’s friend and fellow dock worker. Even Renee Zellweger is tolerable as Braddock’s wife. Wynn Thomas, the production designer, also deserves praise for his recreation of 1930s New York.

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” directed by Tim Burton. Warner Bros., 115 minutes.

Ultimately, this is a standard morality tale in which the nice guy wins and the bad guys get punished. The story starts with a contest in which five golden tickets have been packaged inside chocolate bars produced in Willy Wonka’s candy factory. The finders of the golden tickets are’invited to tour Wonka’s factory, where Wonka’s contempt for the mostly obnoxious children and’ their parents leads to hilariously dark consequences for all but the last boy standing. The theme is the only thing standard about this’ film. Burton infuses it with bizarre humor and’ a whimsical set that gives new meaning to the phrase “‘eye candy.”

The key to the film’s success is Johnny Depp, the most versatile film actor since Dustin Hoffman, and Freddie Highmore as Charlie, who performed with Depp in last year’s stunning “Finding Neverland.” Depp gives pathos to the quirky owner of the town’s candy factory; we realize he is not merely egocentric but also agoraphobic, and while this takes the edge off his menacing treatment of the children, it also reminds us that he is just one step away from the mental asylum. As with Turkish delight in Narnia, we know we should get out, but we just can’t resist the staying for more.

“Walk the Line,” directed by James Mangold. 20th Century Fox, 136 minutes.

This is one film the Academy got right, nominating both leads. Joaquin Phoenix reveals the inner torment of Johnny Cash, and Reese Witherspoon seems born to play the witty, home-spun June Carter. In fact, the film is as much about Carter as it is .about Cash. Phoenix manages Cash’s deep bass vibrato with aching emotion, and Witherspoon’s southern accent is delightful without being corny.

The theme of redemption is subtle, but it rings true. Framed as a flashback during the concert Cash recorded at Folsom Prison, the film is about breaking free from one’s own captivity and finding redemption in a partnership with the person one loves. It works for me.

“King Kong,” directed by Peter Jackson. Universal Studios, 187 minutes.

Like all heroic tragedy, this film contains a fatal flaw: it’s too long. But it’s terrific nonetheless, with its classy, intellectual screenplay, its thrilling action scenes, and its romantic story between Beauty and the Beast, played luminescently by Naomi Watts and Andy Serkis, who brings life to the computerized Kong.

“Crash,” directed by Paul Haggis. Lions Gate Films, 100 minutes.

A powerful film about isolation in crowds and interconnectedness despite indifference, “Crash” slams into you, midway through, with the unexpectedness of a rear-end collision. Just when you think you’ve had enough of this “why can’t we all just get along” public-service announcement, it turns into something completely different and intensely compelling. Suddenly, you’re hooked.

The film is rough, particularly the language, and while the concept of examining stereotypes is interesting, I was turned off by the preachiness of the dialogue in the first half-hour. Then, midway, when the multiple stories begin to crash into each other, the film developed a breathtaking intensity. First-time director Haggis knows how to use a camera as well as how to tell a story, and this movie is best when he lets the story do the teaching. If the Academy offered a “Best Ensemble” Oscar (and it should) this film would win it.

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