CineScene's Top 10 Films of 2004
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
(Michel Gondry) 
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind crushed
the competition this year, appearing on 16 of our 24 contributors' top-10
lists, often ranked
Ashley, Michael Buck,
Christopher Campbell, Alex Ellermann, Anne Gilbert, Robert S. Jersak,
Haraldur Jóhannsson, Chris Knipp, Lisa Larkin, Don Larsson, Kevin Lee,
Ron Leming, Scott McGee, Mark Netter, Ed Owens, Shari L. Rosenblum, Howard Schumann, Mark Sells, James Snapko, Greg Sorenson,
Josh Timmermann, and kc watt
So many of the films most praised this year have struck me as ordinary -- overrated and unremarkable. Things we've seen over and over again, perhaps in fewer shadows or with less California wine. I opted instead for the films that have lingered -- stayed with me. I opted for films about spirit -- love, faith, fantasy, soul and the artistic process. It wasn't a year that blew me away, but it was a year that made me believe.
Sunset (Richard Linklater).
Linklater's sequel to 1995's Before Sunrise, a romantic interlude between a man and a woman at the cusp of adulthood, finds the same two people nine years later, at the brink of a second chance. Paced with real-world limitations and emotional urgencies, Before Sunset captures the space of years passed in the fleeting real-time span of its 80-minute run. From the awkward dance around regret to the slow jazz promise of possibility, Jesse and Celine reconnect with a natural narrative rhythm that recreates the essence of romance -- ineffable, but unmistakable.
2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry).
A cinematic tribute to the forget-me-not. Michel Gondry directs a most original investigation into the way lovers invade each other's consciousness and makes concrete images out of the mindgames we play when love proves itself imperfect. Subtler than its flash would suggest, it softly asserts a romantic tenacity: retracing steps, reliving moments, giving new light to faded reveries. The acting explodes with understatement. Charlie Kaufman's screenplay masters the ending with a resigned hopefulness, acknowledging the dominance of heart over head, and making of memory a tribute to the power of love.
Runner-up: Wong Kar-Wai's 1991 Days of Being Wild -- newly released in the U.S.; a wildly wistful contemplation of romance and nostalgia: the force of the minute remembered.
|3. Love Me If
You Dare (Yann Samuell).
A small film from France that envisions love as a child's game of challenge and commitment: more intense and less penetrable than a mere coming together of woman and man. Taking romantic rhetoric to its most twisted conclusions, it dares to celebrate the darkness of love's shared obsessions and leaves us with a compelling idea, or two, of what it means to love deeply unto death and beyond.
4. Closer (Mike Nichols).
More about relationships than love itself, appearances rather than depths, Closer focuses on beginnings and endings, the lies we tell at the first tingles of excitement and the truths we cannot avoid in the final crushing blows. It carves out destiny from the romantic myth, and shows us only the moments of choice: when we say yes or no, fight or give in, hold on or move on. And in the background you can half imagine a deep, sardonic, laugh.
Runner-up: We Don't Live Here Anymore
5. Finding Neverland (Marc Forster).
Johnny Depp's sweet but never saccharine J.M. Barrie catches the wonderment of children in the wonders of the imagination, and creates magic for child and adult alike, borrowing from the original lost boys for the dream of Peter Pan. Neverland is a stage set that can serve as promised haven, and realism is overpowered by the strength of faith in fairies. We do believe, we do believe, and we do clap our hands...tears welling in our eyes...
|6. Garden State (Zach Braff).
With emotional truths and organic humor, Braff's lyrical take on one man's coming of age frames self-discovery as a literal choice to emerge from the fog of youth -- to break with the guilt and the expectations life imposes -- and to acknowledge the abyss on the other side that keeps us all on the fine line. Clarity comes from taking stock, and the film, like its hero, finds its strength in love's quirky blush. Runner-up: Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (Lone Scherfig).
7. The Five Obstructions (Lars von Trier & Jørgen Leth).
Runners-up: Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky) and
This So-Called Disaster (Michael Almereyda).
Three films about artists and the artistic process: Some Kind of Monster shows the adult side of the metal musicians in their art, validating the music and the players in ways no concert footage could, while This So-Called Disaster steals a fascinating glimpse at a filmmaker, playwright and cast reverberating myths and masculinity through art, scripted and unscripted, but The Five Obstructions is perhaps the most interesting of the three because of its conceits: filmmaker against filmmaker, one pushing the envelope of the other's possibilities, and the other meeting the task. That the underlying film is The Perfect Human seems to perfectly frame the film's ambition.
8. The Incredibles (Brad Bird).
Stunning animation, intelligent writing, and an incisive worldview -- Brad Bird's genre-twist dystopia where superheroes turn outcast manages politicism without the self-congratulatory smirk. Its humor is light, but meaningful, its vision sophisticated, and the whole of it engaging for anyone of any age.
9. Osama (Siddiq Barmak).
A quiet film that follows a little girl who disguises herself as a boy under the watchful eye of the Taliban, Osama stands as a reminder to those who preach tolerance that there are some things that are never to be tolerated. It brings the sexual politics of fundamentalist Islam into devastating relief. Runners up: Vera Drake (Mike Leigh) and Maria Full of Grace (Joshua Marston).
10. The Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles).
Gael García Bernal's sweet-faced Che reveals nothing of the bloody revolutionary that history cannot deny -- but poetry and the political sensibility of idealistic youth raise Salles' hagiography from mere cleaned-up socialist tract to a reminder of what the world looks like when you still believe you might be able to fix it.
Honorable mentions: The Woodsman; Japanese Story; Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall . . . and Spring; Primer; I, Robot; Bad Education; Broken Wings; The Brown Bunny; How to Draw a Bunny; Crimson Gold; Dogville; Team America: World Police.
Wings (Nir Bergman).
Each member of the Ulman family suffers the trauma of having lost their father/husband to a senseless accident nine months ago. Conflicts and resentments arise, underscored by a quiet guilt that each one feels for the father's death. The film could be a metaphor for the condition Israel finds itself in since the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, but it is not a political film. It is told in the language of personal emotion, of the struggle of a family growing together through a mutually shared loss. In the honest way the characters interact to support each other, Broken Wings is a deeply moving and unforgettable experience.
2. Maria Full of Grace (Joshua Marston).
A headstrong Colombian girl of seventeen (Catalina Sandino Moreno) seizes an opportunity to earn $5000 by ingesting and transporting illegal drugs to New York, at considerable risk to herself and her unborn child. First-time director Marston has escaped the clichés of social realist films to offer a riveting human odyssey that transcends simplistic messages of good and evil. It is not only a hard-hitting jab at a global economic system that allows exploitation of the poor to satisfy the pleasure of the rich, but a richly nuanced coming-of-age story that delivers its hard-edged message with understanding and compassion.
3. Good Bye, Lenin! (Wolfgang Becker).
A stinging political satire that shows the impact on a close-knit East German family of the events that shook Germany to its foundations in 1989. The film strikes a light-hearted balance in its portrayal of East and West, showing both the freedom of the West along with its crass consumerism, and the social awareness of the East along with its rigid bureaucracy in which idealism is a dirty word. Interweaving comedy, political drama, and the story of a boy's love for his mother, the film won me over with its overriding sincerity and humanity.
|4. The Return (Andrei
Winner of the grand prize at the Venice Film Festival, The Return is a film of rare beauty and authenticity about the complex bonds between a father and his two sons and the need to discover one's self. First time director Zvyaginstev leaves much unexplained, and the film contains suggestions of Greek mythology, political allegory, and religious parable. Whatever the explanation, the film taps into the universal need to love and be cared for, and the hurt that results when the need to be sustained and protected is thwarted. Often painful to watch yet deeply moving, The Return is a haunting experience.
5. Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore).
A sprawling but focused documentary that makes its points effectively without being overbearing and is guaranteed to make you think. It is a powerful and moving cinematic experience that is also highly entertaining and filled with comic touches and genuine human emotions that may make you laugh one minute and cry the next. The film is a powerful reminder that fundamental change is needed to end the military mentality and corporate elitism that has dominated our government, a change that goes even beyond politics toward a reinvigoration of the human imagination and consciousness.
6. A Very Long Engagement
Mathilde (Audrey Tautou), a polio victim since childhood, maintains faith that she will one day be reunited with her fiancé Manech, a conscript in World War I, who is reported to be dead. Based on the 1991 novel by Sébastien Japrisot, the film is a dreamlike exploration of two sides of human nature: the darkness that leads to the horror of war and the lightness that embodies the power of love. Jeunet is a master of cinematic tricks, and there is plenty to keep us dazzled: flashbacks, fast edits, and colorful imagery, but the film is not about cinematic showmanship. It is about a relationship that is more than physical, one in which two people have the capacity to communicate with each other on a physical, mental, and spiritual level.
|7. Blind Shaft (Li Yang).
This suspenseful, savagely humorous first feature by Li Yang dramatizes conditions in China's mines, making a direct attack on China's headlong dash to capitalism, where greed seems more important than human life. Itinerant coalminers devise a scheme to extort money from corrupt mine owners by convincing a fellow worker to pose as their relative. When they kill him and fake an industrial accident, they collect the compensation owed to a relative from the willing owner, eager to prevent an investigation into his mine's deteriorating condition. Banned in China, Blind Shaft combines gritty realism with nerve-jangling tension and uncompromising social commentary.
8. Café Lumiére (Hou Hsiao-hsien).
Acutely observed and exquisitely realized, Hou's sixteenth film is a loving tribute to the great Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu on the centenary of his birth. The first film by Hou to be shot in a foreign location, it pays homage to Ozu by depicting themes repeated in many of his films: relationships between aging parents, the marriage plans of a grown child, the coming and going on trains, and the quiet contemplation of everyday life. Beautifully shot by Lee Ping-ping, the film allows us to view the world the characters inhabit, providing extraordinary details of Tokyo life.
9. Travellers and Magicians (Khyentse Norbu).
Travellers and Magicians spins two parallel stories that deliver one message -- happiness can be discovered simply by being in the present moment. In the first story, a young university graduate in Bhutan longs for a more exciting life in America but discovers the quiet places in his mind when he misses the bus to his first destination. The second tale is about a young student of magic who must confront passion and jealousy when he loses his way in a forest. Filled with gentle humor, gorgeous scenery and music, and astute observations of the foibles of human nature, the film has a natural beauty and charm.
10. Oldboy (Chan-wook Park).
Oldboy is a wildly exhilarating experience that has plenty of action, state of the art effects, dark humor, and an existential mystery that will linger in your mind long after the final credits have rolled. Based on a manga by Tsuchiya Garon, it is a complex film about love and the price we must pay to save it. Park does not stand in judgment of his characters but allows us to see them as flawed human beings looking to salvage what remains of their dignity. Oldboy is excessively violent at times, but it has humanity, and the characters' pitiful sadness reminds us of our own vulnerability.
(David Gordon Green).
two young brothers, Tim and Chris (Devon Allen and Jamie Bell), flee the violence of their rural home in Georgia. On the run, they undertake a nightmarish journey through forests and swamps, on freight cars and foot, spending time with people living on the margins. As their murderous uncle (Josh Lucas) closes in, the film becomes less about the chase and more about the characters and the relationship between the brothers. Undertow has aspects of a conventional thriller but it bears Green's unmistakable languid, dreamy style. Utilizing a haunting score by Philip Glass, the film gradually builds its low-key tension to a power that becomes riveting.
Not Scared (Gabriele Salvatores).
Set in southern Italy, I'm Not Scared is a coming-of-age story about a ten-year old boy's awakening of conscience. While Michele and his friends play in the vast golden wheat fields during summer, he discovers a small lad hidden in a cavernous hole near an abandoned farmhouse and acts with courage and compassion to "do the right thing". The film embodies an artistic sensibility that expressively captures the world of a child in its wonder, innocence, and beauty. I'm Not Scared has a strange otherworldly and mythical quality to it, like a cinematic dream, and the result is not vacuously uplifting but powerfully moving.
Others: Oasis, Machuca, Take Care of My Cat, Bus 174, Kitchen Stories, The Terminal, Vera Drake
Aviator (Martin Scorsese).
(Top 10 listed in ascending order)
2 (Sam Raimi).
One of the most essential, memorable superhero movies of all time. And it's due in large part to a story that never strays far from humanity. Here, supervillain Doctor Octopus is as sympathetic as Peter Parker is himself. And that effectively turns the situations and ensuing action sequences into a compelling, compassionate, and complex web of wondrous delight.
9. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuarón).
Much more mature and sophisticated, Azkaban is the finest film in the series. And it's also one of the finest films of the year. The reason? Direction - both from Cuarón, who experiments with delightful detail; and from author J.K. Rowling, who comes out on all four cylinders, with a remarkably wicked story of adolescence, vulnerability, and adventure.
8. Closer (Mike Nichols).
A cold, harsh look at relationships gone sour, from the chance encounters to the initial attractions and ultimately the bitter betrayals. This is a gripping, thought provoking piece, with four great performances by Jude Law, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, and Natalie Portman. Patrick Marber's dialogue is "the best" in class.
7. Ray (Taylor Hackford).
Incredibles (Brad Bird).
The most sophisticated animated motion picture ever made. It's great looking, has great characters, and great action and humor in between. Additionally, it has a story that deals with modern family issues and individuals you can relate to, despite the appearance of super powers. And most importantly, it's incredibly fun!
3. Finding Neverland (Marc Forster).
Adapted from the brilliant Allan Knee play, Neverland features another award-worthy performance from Johnny Depp. And it's as inspirational and magical as anything you will see. Additionally, it features yet another great supporting performance from Kate Winslet. Although more conventional than Eternal Sunshine, it is highly creative in the way it flirts between fiction and non-fiction. And in the end, you'll find it a tearful and joyous tribute to the man and the boy who refused to grow up.
2. Hotel Rwanda (Terry George).
The most powerful and significant picture of the year. And regretfully, few will bother to see it. Were it not for Jamie Foxx's role of a lifetime, Don Cheadle would sweep the best actor awards. Depicting the true-life story of Paul Rusesabagina, Cheadle is phenomenal in the leading role -- the epitomy of grace under horrific pressure. And with the support of outstanding newcomer, Sophie Okonedo, this film achieves a frightening realism unmatched by any other in 2004.
1. Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwod).
Not just the finest film of 2004. It's one of the finest character dramas ever made. And it has less to do with boxing than you might think. Depicting the relationship between three complex characters, the film deeply explores issues of family, friendship, and responsibility. It's Clint Eastwood's finest film, one that benefits from a remarkable adaptation from Paul Haggis, a careful use of light and shadow, and three out-of-this-world performances.
This was an excellent year overall. These are in alphabetical order: they're equal in my eyes within categories. There are other good ones I wish I'd seen or may not even know about.
Ten Best U.S.
Ten Best Foreign
Adieu (Arnaud des Pallières).
There were also many excellent documentaries, including: Born Into
Brothels (Zana Briski & Ross Kauffman), Bukowski:
Born Into This
(John Dullaghan), Control
Room (Jehane Noujaim), The Corporation (Mark Achbar
In a class apart are: Ripley's Game (Liliana Cavani) -- which absurdly went straight to DVD in the U.S., despite a brilliant, classic performance by John Malkovich; the rather sweet and thoroughly genuine succès de scandele, The Brown Bunny (Vincent Gallo), the campy, wonderful-to-talk-about The Butterfly Effect (Erice Bress & J. Mackye Gruber), in which Ashton Kutcher astonishes by almost acting in a serious role; and the splendid revival of a classic, The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1965).
Kill Bill Vol. 2 (Quentin Tarantino).
Stylish, inventive, & fun to watch. I enjoyed the heck out of this movie.
Miracle (Gavin O'Connor).
This movie invested me in a game played over 20 years ago. It’s formula, but it’s a winning formula.
Shrek 2 (Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury & Conrad Vernon).
I laughed all the way through this one.
Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi).
Not quite as much fun as the first, but a good time, nonetheless.
The Bourne Supremacy (Paul Greengrass).
Matt Damon has a winning franchise here. May it go on for a very long time.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuarón).
A-List Hollywood moviemaking at its finest. Visually appealing, with an engaging cast.
Laws of Attraction (Peter Howitt).
It’s nice to watch a movie about people with vocabularies for a change.
Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright).
Zombies. Cricket bats. I can’t believe no one thought of this before.
Troy (Wolfgang Petersen).
Eric Bana & Bratt Pitt were perfect casting choices. I had some problems with this picture, but I thought it did a fine job of bringing The Iliad to life.
Broken Lizard's Club Dread (Jay Chandrasekhar).
Hey, I like these guys.
In no certain order:
|Girl With a Pearl Earring
I watched it, enthralled and left the theater in a state of arousal. Wish I owned it.
Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright).
Hilarious. Just an all-around fun time at the movies. I own it already (extras are FAB-YOU-LAS).
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry).
I haven't seen a more beautiful love story in a long time. Own it.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuarón).
Genuinely good movie that stands far and above the first two in the series. If it keeps getting better like this, I can't wait for the next! Own it.
Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore).
I cried for half the movie, mainly because I'm so frustrated at the criminals that have taken over my country. I don't buy into all of Michael Moore's tricks but at least he's got the guts to put it out there. Don't own it, never want to see it again.
Spiderman 2 (Sam Raimi).
Looking forward to: Er, what's out there?
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
A welcome return of the Charlie Kaufman quirk, this time with added heart.
2. Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (Quentin Tarantino).
Not as wildly wry as its first half, but still loads of fun.
3. The Corporation (Mark Achbar & Jennifer Abbott).
In a year of documentaries decried for their single point of view, this one excels by smartly using members of the corporate community to bring the points home.
4. Control Room (Jehane Noujaim).
A fascinating, if understructured, view of how we look from Over There.
5. Kinsey (Bill Condon).
Liam Neeson's strong performance carries this B+ biopic, but any film that gets the sexual freedom haters brigade out in force to protest a film they haven't actually seen gets extra marks.
6. The Aviator (Martin Scorsese).
Fine performances, particularly from Leonardo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett, keep Scorsese's lengthy biopic intriguing from start to finish.
7. The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci).
Bertolucci's return absolutely takes you to Paris and to the state of mind of its three young theater-lusty subjects. See above comments, also, about protesting prudes.
8. Finding Neverland (Marc Forster).
Johnny Depp delivers another brilliant performance in a touchingly different Peter Pan story.
9. Hero (Zhang Yimou).
Why on earth did this take two years to get to the U.S.? This elegant and graceful film renders memories of Crouching Tiger moot.
10. Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore).
The strength of Bowling for Columbine was that it didn't quite hit you in the face the way you'd have expected. This one does, over and over again, and is thus weaker by comparison. Still, it was an ambitious attempt by one man to break through the pre-strung campaign media play. Props, Mike.
|A Tale of Two Sisters
I kept trying to tell people to see this during its brief run and they all responded by asking about The Grudge with Sarah Michelle Geller. I didn't see The Grudge with Sarah Michelle Geller. I didn't see The Grudge without Sarah Michelle Geller either [aka Ju-on] and the more time that goes by, the less interest I have in seeing either. But I really want to see A Tale of Two Sisters again. It is a horror movie but it is also a heartbreaking story about a family falling apart. Perhaps all the plot inversions will have little impact on a second viewing, but for now, it's in my top ten for 2004.
Josee, the Tiger and the Fish
This was the other nice discovery at the San Diego Asian Film Festival, a Japanese film about a disabled girl who accepts pity from no one. A college boy becomes intrigued by her, helps make her life a little easier and then falls in love. On paper, it sounds like the typical disease of the week story, but it really isn't.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
As fun as Charlie Kaufman's stories are, they all seem to exist in a world filled with artificial people. The characters in Eternal Sunshine felt real. Jim Carrey dials it down a notch and Kate Winslet is, as ever, terrific. I love the concept of memory erasure no matter how many times it's been done. (See the South Korean film Nabi for a different but similar take on the theme.)
|The Incredibles (Brad
The best James Bond movie since Diamonds Are Forever. Seriously. And also a nice story about a family pulling together when the chips are down. I can't wait to see what Pixar pulls out of their hat next -- after the contractually-obligated Cars, which looked terrible based on the teaser before The Incredibles.
Hero (Zhang Yimou).
A year and a half after the Oscar buzz had died, Miramax finally decided to release this film. It's a beautifully sho Rashomon-like tale of a repressive emperor and his would-be assassins.
Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself
A sweet slice-of-life movie about two brothers: one a responsible bookstore owner, the other the suicidal Wilbur. A desperate single mother comes into their lives and changes them both forever. Nice work by all the leads, including the little girl.
Zatôichi (Takeshi Kitano).
Blind swordsman, check. Cartoon gore, check. Clog dance number, check. What's not to like?
Hellboy (Guillermo del Toro).
There wasn't a lot of love for Hellboy, but I liked it. It did a very good job of capturing the essence of the comic book and it had a nice visual style.
A basically good-hearted satire of a Christian high school.
Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder).
A pleasant surprise, if you can call a flesh-eating zombie movie pleasant. A visceral little thriller that neither tries to slavishly imitate the original nor smugly ridicule it.
2. Kill Bill Vol. 2
3. Shaun of the Dead
4. Ray (Taylor Hackford).
5. Touching The Void
6. Monster (Patty Jenkins)
7. The Aviator
8. Kinsey (Bill Condon).
9. Fahrenheit 9/11
Being Julia (István Szabó).
10. Before Sunset
9. Dawn of the Dead
8. The Corporation
(Mark Achbar &
6. Saved! (Brian Dannelly).
5. Zatôichi (Takeshi Kitano).
4. House of Flying Daggers (Zhang Yimou).
3. Shaun of the Dead
2. The Incredibles
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind