Our favorites of 2004
Ashley, Mark Ashley,
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
2004 was an oddball year for cineastes. The "perfect" movies were all a tad small and the "big" movies a bit flawed, but there were still many good theatrical experiences to be had and here are my favorites:
|1. The Incredibles
Genre-bursting, copiously entertaining, playing off all our pop culture superhero lore but vastly exceeding pastiche with its relevant and emotional family plot, and taking the capacity of 3D animation to deliver human performance into the stratosphere. Holly Hunter is the standout as the superhero mom trying to hold the family together, checking her thighs in the mirror on the way to busting up the bad guys, and somehow the movie enhances the details of her work. A high-water mark for both Brad Bird and Pixar. As fantastic -- incredible -- as this movie plays visually, there's something real going on underneath.
2. Primer (Shane Carruth).
The most promising writer/director/actor debut of the year. With $7,000 and several years of autodidactic preparation, engineer turned auteur Shane Carruth turned in the most intriguing and original science fiction puzzle film in years, a Kubrick-style modern noir vision. Overly intricate, perhaps, but redeemed by the devilishly authentic techie atmosphere and show-stopping twist. It's not hard to imagine this will be a DVD hit, building from fringe cult status to a spot beside Memento and The Usual Suspects on home entertainment shelves.
3. End of the Century
(Michael Gramaglia & Jim Fields).
The essential document. Twenty-five years ahead of their time, the Ramones do more than hold up musically, more popular than ever. This ridiculously entertaining recapitulation of their endless struggles is just like a Ramones show: jaw-dropping, hilarious, kick-ass. And just like a Ramones show, their story has to be seen to be believed.
4. The Aviator (Martin Scorsese).
Don't be fooled by the tinsel -- Scorsese never makes easy films, and this one works more than it doesn't, taking us to literal heights and flipping the coin to show us the dark neurotic secrets that ultimately reflect our own. The terrific 1930's Hollywood club scenes, with wired swing bands, seem a payoff for the director's work on New York, New York. The ending, maybe the best of the year, foreshadows the man Howard Hughes will ultimately become with brutal economy.
5. Million Dollar Baby
The best classical storytelling of the year, a heart-warming turned heart-rending chamber piece with deep emotional reverberations. Something very special, and who'd have thought. Cleaner (but smaller) than last year's Mystic River, another late-career triumph for Clint Eastwood nonetheless, who has somehow matured into our contemporary John Ford. Good luck on the next one, Clint. Please keep the streak going until they put you in the ground.
| 6. Sideways
The other great chamber piece of the year, built on flawless characterizations, remarkable for the choice of cast and their superb comic delivery. Cleverly constructing its resonance through different permutations of the wine metaphor, and rewarding all of us long-standing Paul Giamatti fans (yes, going back to Pig Vomit).
7. Maria Full of Grace
An effective social-issue film with a very pure, very real, very fresh centerpiece suspense sequence that carries the inevitability of a Wages of Fear. Newcomer Catalina Sandino Moreno is riveting in the lead role, some sort of hybrid Audrey Hepburn elegance and Sophia Loren earthiness.
8. Baadasssss! (Mario Van Peebles).
As a dad, I'm a sucker for father/son collaborations, and this one takes the cake. Mario Van Peebles plays his father, Melvin Van Peebles, as he recreates the making of Melvin's 1971 landmark blaxsploitation flick, Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song. Lovingly written and directed, with wildly funny moments, and a big cheer for the old man's accomplishment at the end.
9. The Motorcycle Diaries
A highly engaging trip through South America in all kinds of weather and fortune, and an authentic movie star turn for Gael García Bernal. More successful at capturing the joy of youthful travel than delineating the germ of Che Guevara the revolutionary, but with a heart in the right place and a dollop of courage.
10. Fahrenheit 9/11
The movie I'd most like to forget, considering how the political year turned out, but an authentic theatrical event, generating lots of discussion and controversy like some films used to do when Johnson and Nixon were President. And if you've grown furious following the Administration's lies for the past four years, it's just plain convenient to have so many of them in one place.
Peter Sarsgaard in Kinsey and Garden State. Quickly emerging as the go-to guy for supporting players who steal the scene, Sarsgaard always has understated parts and turns them into standouts. In both films, he flirts just on the edge of being slimy, playing the enabler and id for the repressed main characters of each film. But who really cares about "main characters" when the too-knowing smartass grin and exactly-like-Malkovich voice are onscreen?
Natalie Portman in Garden State and Closer. Genuine thanks to these two flicks for reminding us all that Natalie Portman can act. Her engaging epileptic pathological liar Sam and her skewering, wounded and manipulative Alice proved to be a one-two punch impressive enough to nearly obliterate the horrors of the two Star Wars prequels. Portman embraces both parts with enthusiasm and vigor, providing the volatile and cruel Closer with the only thing resembling a moral core, and is the sunshine and optimism of Garden State.
Cate Blanchett in The Aviator. The movie is bloated and uneven, with flashes of brilliance and lulls of truly epic proportions; history is condensed, glossed over, changed; and Leonardo DiCaprio, an unquestionably strong actor, still sounds like a petulant 'tween. But whenever Cate Blanchett is onscreen, it all falls away. She breathes mesmerizing life into Katherine Hepburn, mimicking her vivacity and humor and portraying a legend like it was the role she was born for.
The Incredibles (Brad Bird).
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry).
In Good Company's everyday life. Not the best movie of the year, or the most complex, but it makes up in heart and everyday comedy what it might lack in flashy glitz. Topher Grace and Dennis Quaid are each charming and compelling in their own right, and their surrogate father/son relationship is awkward, confusing, and really lovely. Scarlett Johansson is underserved and wasted, and it is a small movie that offers little more than harmless entertainment, but it does so effortlessly and flawlessly that it is a breath of fresh air. Paul Weitz directed.
Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuarón), and the fine aging of kiddie films. I admit, Harry Potter might be horribly flawed, but it is also marvelously dark and somber in a way too few movies aimed at tykes dare to be. And it's gorgeous, and heavy, and rescued by Gary Oldman in every one of his scenes. It might be the smartest thing this franchise ever did, enlisting the very adult Cuarón to helm this one. As for Spider-Man, Sam Raimi had already proven himself an adept helmer of the comic book flick, but in its second installment, Spidey gets serious. He begins to face the very real consequences of his life, and of not leading it. It is at once allegorical and entertaining, silly and existential, and easily the best summer blockbuster popcorn movie in recent memory.
|Shaun of the
Dead (Edgar Wright).
Excellent film that, the more often you watch it, the more you see. Even better on DVD with a phenomenal number of extra features - I especially like the "funk you!" version of one the scenes showing how they changed some of the language for cable TV.
Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore).
A very powerful film, provoking a range of emotions.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry).
Nice thought-provoking romance film.
|Sky Captain and
the World of Tomorrow
I like this mainly for it's look (let's face it, the story's not fantastic). It has a good feel for the old Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon serials.
Harry Potter and the
Prisoner of Azkaban
Grittier than the previous films, much better look and feel. Like the books, the films seem to be becoming less juvenile as they progress.
Girl With a Pearl Earring (Peter Webber).
Great film, wonderful look, good performances. Every frame is a masterpiece.
Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
(Rawson Marshall Thurber).
Nice comedy -- like Shaun of the Dead, the background detail can be funnier than the main action.
As usual, there are too many possibilities and too many apples, oranges, walnuts, and lemon-meringue pies to make a complete list or even just rankings among the lucky ones, so here are 11 of the better films I've seen this year, in alphabetical order:
The Aviator (Martin Scorsese).
In the Year of the Biopic, this was one of only two good ones. Not as pure a piece of cinema as Raging Bull, it is still a loving tribute to the movies, to characters who rise and fall and rise again, and to obsession in an almost Platonic purity. Leonardo DiCaprio continues to evolve into an actor who can talk and not just perform. For pure scope, this is the film of the year.
Before Sunset (Richard Linklater).
In a year of pretty good sequels, this is the only one to make the top of the list. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are a bit older, not much wiser, almost as naïve in some ways, and just as engaging. Before Sunrise was a film about walking and talking and falling in love with people, with Vienna, with youth. Before Sunset is a film about walking and talking and beginning to know people, Paris, and what it is to grow older. The last line is the best one of the year.
Closer (Mike Nichols).
One of the few films that actually seemed to be made by, for, and about grownups (even though they act in abominably childish ways). Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts and Clive Owen perform a complex and elegant but brutal dance throughout the film, and Nichols keeps the screen balanced and filled with nuanced touches. This is his best work since Carnal Knowledge, maybe even Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, two other films involving an intimate quartet of foul-mouthed characters.
Collateral (Michael Mann).
The best genre film of the year, a thriller that delivers what it promises with intelligence. Tom Cruise does very nicely as a villain, and Jamie Foxx begins his breakthrough year. Aside from Million Dollar Baby, this may be the best-photographed movie of the year, and there's a heartbreaking scene in a jazz club that is etched into my mind.
The End of a Mystery (Miguel Hermoso).
I may be one of only a couple of hundred people in North America to have seen this Spanish film (featured at the Chicago Latino Film Festival last spring), but I had to put it on the list. It is easily the best of the dozen or so films I've seen at the festival over the years, but it also simply stands well on its own. A young shepherd during the Spanish Civil War sees a man shot in the head by fascists. Miraculously, the boy keeps the man alive and delivers him to the safety of a convent. Decades later, the shepherd, now a retired middle-class man, returns to search for the man he saved. He finds him still alive but with no memory and not too many communication skills. Slowly, however, he begins to believe that the man he saved just might have been one of the war's most famous victims. It's funny, warm and endearing, with great performances by Alfredo Landa as the old shepherd and Nino Manfredi as the man he saved.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry).
The interest in films that bend time and memory seems to be peaking after Memento and its ilk, but this film continues the genre with wit and grace. Jim Carrey fills the semi-serious role with much less angst than he did in The Truman Show or too many other films. Kate Winslet continues to prove that she is one of the best actresses around. And you have to give an extra point or two to any film that uses a quotation from Alexander Pope for its title!
Finding Neverland (Marc Forster).
The year's other good biopic. Johnny Depp brings complexity to his portrayal of Peter Pan's creator, James Barrie, as a deeply isolated man (so isolated that he drives his wife away) in a very public profession, an adult aching for contact who creates a Neverland of his own that is a refuge from time's ticking clock. It helps to read or see the play before seeing this movie. Pan resonates throughout.
Hero (Zhang Yimou).
This is officially a 2002 film, but it got general release just this year. It invites comparison to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Zhag's other movie this year, House of Flying Daggers, but it rises above both of these films with its symbolism and historical resonance--it is as much a film about modern China as the ancient past, and raises issues that seem to have even more relevance in the United States today. A friend who knows Chinese culture was talking to a friend from China, who said, "Anyone who has lived in China during the last century cannot see this film without weeping."
The Saddest Music in the World (Guy Maddin).
Certainly the quirkiest film of the year, of an order that makes Wes Anderson and The Life Aquatic look like a Stanley Kramer social drama. What can you say about a blue-tinted film set in Winnipeg in the depths of the Depression that features a beer baroness with glass legs, a Canadian father and two sons (one American and one Serbian--don't ask!) vying to win a contest, and the baroness, a submarine, and bagpipers, guitarists, aborigine didjiree players and a score of others all playing "The Song Is You"? But for all the apparent silliness, there are important themes of love, guilt and the sad history of the Western World in the last century.
Sideways (Alexander Payne).
The Buddy Road Film is not dead. Two friends--one a carefree lout about to get married, the other an unhappy middle school English teacher and would-be novelist (played by Paul Giamatti) who happens to be a very good wine connoisseur--tour California's wine country before the marriage. Wine and lust flow in almost equal abundance while the Giamatti character struggles with his real desires, his need for security, and his mixture of affection and disgust for his friend the gadabout groom. Another film about childish behavior that is meant for grownups, but a lot funnier than Closer.
The Woodsman (Nicole Kassell).
Maybe it's the subject matter that's kept this one off the Oscar list, but this is a daring film that deals with a serious topic and gives it more respect than much more highly-touted films, including Kinsey. Kevin Bacon, as a convicted child molester trying to start a new life, gives his best performance in years, and the film--while settling on an ending that is sure to displease some--does not hesitate to ask hard questions about a person who in most regards is not a bad man, but in this one could be a monster. The script builds layers of nuance, enhanced by camerawork and setting that give the film additional texture. A remarkable debut for the director, Kassell.
The Bourne Supremacy
A thriller-sequel that works, maybe better than the first.
Good Bye, Lenin!
Funny and touching about historical change, about parents and children, and about the need to hang on (but not for whom you might think).
What can I say? It actually gave me the creeps--in a good way!--several times.
(Joel & Ethan Coen).
Not on everyone's list, I'm sure, but I enjoyed the pure silliness and Tom Hanks' performance.
Another sequel, better than the original because it's trying for a bit more than Rat Pack repetition.
(Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury & Conrad Vernon).
Perhaps above criticism? I laughed.
Most Underrated Films:
1. Sideways (Alexander Payne).
Another fantastic effort by Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor. Paul Giamatti is one of the best American actors that nobody really knows. The "drinking and dialing" scene is a tour de force. There are a handful of classic scenes like that. Perhaps Payne's best film yet.
2. The Fog of War (Errol Morris).
Morris's subjects are usually marginal figures or topics that become decidedly more interesting because of his cinematic style. The Fog Of War is another example of the latter.
3. In this World (Michael Winterbottom).
Winterbottom is one of the most interesting filmmakers working today -- he changes gears on each film. In This World is certainly topical and relevant, but it's also very moving.
4. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry).
Didn't think Jim Carrey had it in him -- the Charlie Kaufmann's script helps. This film is more emotional than Adaptation or Being John Malkovich, and Carrey pulls it off.
5. The Incredibles (Brad Bird).
Amazing. Pixar has really figured it out. Compare the look of this film to Toy Story and you can see how far they've come in 10 years.
6. My Architect (Nathaniel Kahn).
Nicely rendered film about identity. Simple and elegant.
7. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Kim Bartley & Donnacha O'Briain).
Another example of how the power of money and the media can control ideas. Frightening to know this goes on everyday, and not just in Venezuela.
8. Red Lights (Cédric Kahn).
Reminded me of Deliverance and Straw Dogs -- disturbing and mean-spirited, but purposefully so, and well done. So there, and it's French.
9. I Heart Huckabees (David O. Russell)
I laughed a lot during this film. It's like a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Ingmar Bergman--and it works.
10. I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (Mike Hodges).
A methodical noir picture that works because its tone and atmosphere trump its plot, allowing you to focus on what it's about rather than what happens.
11. Spartan (David Mamet).
Best Mamet film since his first (House Of Games).
12. Touching The Void (Kevin Macdonald).
There's something about mountain climbing that gets to me. Reminiscent of Kracauer's novel Into Thin Air, this film is a harrowing story of survival, and the director does a nice job of communicating it.
|Robert S. Jersak|
|1. The Corporation
(Mark Achbar & Jennifer Abbott).
It’s too long, it’s a bit sterile, and its antagonist is waaay over the top. Yet, despite the documentary’s few shortcomings, Canadian filmmakers Abbott and Achbar deliver a provoking “people’s history” of the corporation -- an institution whose power has superseded the church, the government and even the home. The film, however, keeps equal doses of reality and hope available, using vivid sequences of clash and conference to remind us that power belongs to those who work together, corporate lobbyists and community activists alike.
(B.Z. Goldberg, Carlos Bolado &
Think peace is impossible between Israel and Palestine? Bolado, Goldberg and Shapiro don’t. This trio of documentary filmmakers used the power of video to bring the children of this inherited war together, revealing hard wounds and awakening dormant hopes in the process. Technically, this film received limited U.S. release in 2001, but, technically, it didn’t include the 2004 follow-up -- in which we see that, as the children have grown into young adults, the call to arms has become incredibly strong, but the memories of a fleeting friendship are stronger still.
3. Control Room (Jehane Noujaim).
Control Room is a clear admonishment of U.S. unfair and unbalanced journalism, for sure, but it’s also a fascinating study of the workings of the media within the war machine itself. Two memorable characters emerge: Samir Khader, Al-Jazeera Senior Producer, who both abhors the U.S.-led occupation and deeply admires American values, and Lt. Josh Rushing, Central Command Press Officer, who sincerely struggles to balance the goals of the military operation with the concerns of the Arab populace. At the end, one wonders where this war will leave these men, both geographically ... and ideologically.
Size Me (Morgan Spurlock).
I recently re-screened Spurlock’s greasy little opus, and I still feel the same way as I did in my full review: junk stunt, but a well-balanced argument.
5. House of Flying Daggers
What can I say? Zhang has always had me at “Ni hao.” Just as with Hero, his first attempt at a martial-arts epic, I found House of Flying Daggers to be colorful, brisk and elegantly mythic. While I concede that this film is a slipper-step backward in terms of story and performance, it still manages to excite the senses in ways that CG-stuffed A-list blockbusters never will.
6. Surplus: Terrorized into Being Consumers
(Erik Gandini and Johan Söderberg).
What? You mean shopping won’t save us? More of a performance piece/political mix album than a documentary, Sweden’s Surplus spins together clips of Fidel Castro, George W. Bush, philosopher John Zerzan, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, along with locations of Indian scrap yards and American sex doll warehouses, among others, to create a wild techno-pop collage of global commerce gone amuck. Catch it at a local festival, if you can.
7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
A challenge to director Gondry: put Jim “Ace Ventura” Carrey and Kate “Titanic” Winslet together and make them a believable couple, or even a couple that seems to somehow exist in the same film. Heck, throw in Frodo Baggins for a love triangle. I would have thought Eternal Sunshine to be the quintessential recipe for disaster, but that’s why I’m sitting in Minnesota reviewing films and not in Hollywood making them. This is a beautiful and romantic film, a reminder that with a good script, a good effort and a sprinkle of that something extra from all involved, actors are born anew and the trip to the multiplex is still a joy.
|8. Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi).
Hey, it’s hard for a film snob to put a non-Godfather sequel on a top-ten list, but fair’s fair. Director Sam Raimi’s second spidery romp through the rooftops of New York keeps its heart while striving to be even more fun than the first, with better visuals, better tension and a more menacing villain. Raimi must have “spidey senses” of his own, managing to keep hard-core comics fans, popcorn guzzlers, cult-film junkies (always good to see Bruce Campbell) and critics all happy with the same film. A little corny, sure, but so is your grandpa -- and you don’t hold it against him, do ya?
9. Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed (Shola Lynch).
Before there was Carol Mosley-Braun, there was Shirley Chisholm. In 1972, Chisholm joined the race for the presidency as the first African-American woman candidate. And what a woman she was, ignoring neither her race nor her gender in her quest to both be accepted and to spark great change. Lynch’s film tells the full tale of the presidential run, allowing many of the key participants of the campaign, including the candidate herself, to tell it in their own words. A beautiful tribute to a political pioneer, who has just recently passed on. Look for the film on PBS’s POV this fall.
10. Independent computer animation.
We’re entering a new age, in which film requires no actual film, distribution means a $2.00 media mail stamp, and a studio is as small as a basement. Several animators unleashed remarkable works of art this year, and not one of them had to submit their film to a ratings board or a test audience. Timothy Albee redefined the concept of anthropomorphic animals with incredible renderings for his Asian-inspired martial arts drama, Kaze: Ghost Warrior. Bit by bit, Andy Murdock completes work on serial installments of Lots of Robots, in which an awkward child awakes in a world of machines. Tom Neeley and Greg Saunders took a shot at the culture of upper-class tax cuts in their Flash retro-toon, Brother, Can You Spare a Job. A gentle giant searches for a better world amidst the rubble in Moon Seun’s rhapsodic short, Henry’s Garden. Aristomenis Tsirbas named his award-winning film after the main character -- a new anti-hero for our Orwellian world: The Freak. There are certainly others to mention, but little time. If you love animation, or even if you just love the notion of an artistic revolution in film, check out the work of these innovative directors. As they stretch out into this new freedom, the boundaries of traditional animation stretch with them.
It's time for those lists - top 10, bottom 10, middle 10. And is it just me or was this really a weak year at the movies?? Anyway, here are my tops, in alphabetical order. If your favorite is missing -- it's probably because I haven't seen it yet. I still have a couple months until Oscar.
of the Century
(Michael Gramaglia &
The story of The Ramones. For an hour or two, I was 21 again and ready to take on the world.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry).
Kaufman continues to make me think outside of the realm of normal and makes it all very plausible.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuarón).
The best of the HP movies so far.
Hero (Zhang Yimou).
Jet Li. Maggie Cheung. Tony Leung. What more could you ask for??
The Incredibles (Brad Bird).
Loved it. Worth every penny and then some.
Love Me If You Dare (Yann Samuell).
The very best movies I saw this year were both 50 years old. I have to
wonder if any of the above will still be drawing an audience in 50 years.
1-3. Three films from last year deliver a fresh take on the idea of love and each does so beneath the surface of its story. They all begin with a break-up of some sort and then proceed backwards, downwards or forwards in the desperate lives of their characters.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry) tangles through the mind as only screenwriter Charlie Kaufman knows how. When all was over on screen, I began to reevaluate all past relationships and acknowledge the strangers I once thought of as lovers.
Birth takes a step further into cynicism with a bleak disregard for love, deriding its influence and exposing its fallacy. Misfortunately overlooked as pretentious melodrama, this sophomore masterpiece, from director Jonathan Glazer and Luis Buñuel’s former co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière, begs for another opportunity for audiences to discover its dry, comedic brilliance.
Shaun of the Dead is much more hopeful. The most hilarious British import since the Monty Python films, Edgar Wright’s debut doesn’t so much parody zombie films as utilize the genre’s formula to satirize the obstacles necessarily overcome on the way towards commitment.
4-5. The Incredibles and Dogville could not be more disparate, and yet both attracted me with a uniquely constructed universe. Brad Bird’s animated fantasy is flawless in its imagination, allowing for insuperable accessibility, enjoyment and appreciation. Lars Von Trier contrarily detaches and distances his audience with his misunderstood experiment in artificiality. Even those who deny its excellence need to acknowledge the filmmaker’s daring recalcitrance.
6-7. Documentaries have been achieving peak recognition lately and the past year’s lack of quality fiction films allowed for greater appreciation for cinematic essays that educate as much as entertain. The Corporation (Mark Achbar & Jennifer Abbott) and Super Size Me (Morgan Spurlock) are assertive arguments against our otherwise overlooked evils. The former treats capitalism with casual disdain as it subjects the common corporation to a psychological evaluation; the latter showcases a playful study of common noxiousness resulting in a successful assault against the fast food industry.
8-9. I cannot help but celebrate the melancholic stories where the protagonist is his own antagonist. I enjoy feeling sorry for, laughing at, relating to, distancing myself from, fearing, cursing and loving the hopeless characters in The Assassination of Richard Nixon (Niels Mueller) and The Woodsman (Nicole Kassell). Both are propelled by performances so naturally powerful that they become acceptably ignorable, past deserving of superficial accolades and awards.
10. Dig! (Ondi Timoner) doesn’t need to be an eminent achievement in rockumentary for me to love it. Featuring one of my favorite bands would have gotten me into the theater alone. The fact that it perfectly demonstrates the music business through the eyes of two bands on separate sides of success makes for magnified approval. The film is rich with all the characters that make for terrific storytelling and many of them are at one time or another the hero, the villain, the jester and the damsel in distress. And yet here the story is true. Also noteworthy is another doc entitled Tom Dowd & the Language of Music (Mark Moormann). While Dig! takes place outside the industry with dedication to the touring part of music, Tom Dowd examines the inside, detailing the aspects of recording and production. Both films are essential viewing for anyone wanting to start a band or nostalgic about having been in one.
|Around the World in 80 Days
A film I genuinely enjoyed, like an old Saturday matinee adventure film. Just fun. Hellboy (Guillermo del Toro).
My favorite film of the year, frequently watched and certainly on my list of all time favorites.
Graveyard Alive: A Zombie Nurse in Love (Elza Kephart).
One of the best films I've ever seen. Filmed in spectacular black and white -- it's not only a loving hommage to B horror, but a new take on the zombie mythos as well as a film with genuine substance examining our obsession with appearance and issues of jealousy.
Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder).
A surprisingly good re-imaging of the original that doesn't disappoint fans of George Romero's trilogy.
A great film, though it would have been nice if they'd shown more complete performances.
Ginger Snaps: Unleashed
The rare sequel that's as good as the original and adds to the story. Plus, I'm a huge fan of Emily Perkins.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
I'm an unabashed Harry Potter fan, and Hermoine is getting to me
Ju-on (Takashi Shimizu).
Another masterpiece from the Japanese horror industry, that seems to be leading the world in genuinely creepy and original horror these days.
Zen Noir (Marc Rosenbush).
May be the best movie of the year that no one saw. A genuine masterpiece
No particular order, with a following list of various comments, opinions, some connected, some not.
The Aviator (Martin Scorsese).
Superb recreation of old Hollywood. Cate’s Kate was wonderful. Leo got me over the Titanic hangover and made me a believer again, like I was after Gilbert Grape.
Collateral (Michael Mann).
Mann’s the man. Not since Raymond Chandler has an artist captured Los Angeles so well. And I don’t get the Academy: Jaime Foxx was the lead actor in this film, not supporting.
The Fog of War (Errol Morris).
This was left over from last year, but it floored me on DVD. This is a documentary, Michael.
The Incredibles (Brad Bird).
From the mind of Brad Bird, the creator of the last great traditionally animated feature (The Iron Giant), all I can say is gosh…wow.
Infernal Affairs (Andrew Lau and Alan Mak).
There’s a reason Martin Scorsese is remaking this picture.
In Good Company (Paul Weitz).
Probably my favorite picture of the year. It captures the ruthless sharks of corporate America, and the powerful shark-wannabes who are struggling to go with or against their own inherent decency. I loved this movie.
Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright).
Just plain brilliant.
Touching the Void (Kevin Macdonald).
I can’t believe this actually happened. But it did. A daring move to recreate the experiences of an ill-fated mountain climbing expedition that didn’t feel staged. You forget who is narrating the film. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry).
Maria Full of Grace (Joshua Marston)
A gritty little film that doesn’t flinch from the ugliness of the drug running culture, but also doesn’t refuse to offer some kind of hope. And in a recent issue of EW, Catalina Sandino Moreno said, “Someone asked me what I thought of Brad and Jennifer’s breakup. How would I know how they’re doing? I don’t even know them.” That, dear readers, is the smartest thing said in Hollywood all year. Can’t wait to see more of her.
|Others seen and heard in '04:
The Bourne Supremacy (Paul Greengrass).
A rare action film that doesn’t bother to insert a romance while keeping the hero’s ruthless nastiness intact. Are you paying attention, Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson?
Finding Neverland (Marc Forster)
Johnny Depp is the best. He could’ve gone way too syrupy, but didn’t.
Hellboy (Guillermo del Toro).
Surprisingly fine action sci-fi, made memorable by Ron Perlman’s difficult performance under pounds of make-up.
Miracle (Gavin O'Connor).
Kurt Russell is one of the three most underrated actors working in Hollywood, the others being Jeff Bridges and Dennis Quaid.
Saved! (Brian Dannelly).
Hit the right satirical notes that Mean Girls missed. Patrick Fugit impressed me again, after his performance in Almost Famous.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Kerry Conran).
Gee-whiz, I really liked this movie.
You see Paul, if you give a layered comic performance that doesn’t rely on fart jokes and pratfalls and one that speaks to adults on a mature level, don’t expect the Academy to notice. Unless you’re directed by Woody Allen. And you’re a woman. Named Dianne. Or Diane.
The best movie star actor working today: Denzel Washington. He is a study in using the gait of your walk, the timbre of your voice, and the intensity of the eyes to make a part believable, even though you’re a star with baggage. Denzel is the kind of actor Tom Cruise wishes he could be. Look at the way he slouches and keeps himself physically closed up in The Manchurian Candidate to convey his character’s tenuous grasp on reality. Then compare his slick, nasty, and predatory vigilante in Man on Fire, and he’s like two different actors. This seems like an obvious point, but there are few movie actors that can do this.
(Films listed in ascending order)
|15. Napoleon Dynamite
When this came out, you couldn’t get through a review without reading accusations lobbed at Hess of ripping off Wes Anderson. Then everyone saw The Life Aquatic and shut up.
14. Ocean’s Twelve (Steven Soderbergh).
"Better than the first one" doesn't even begin to do this justice. Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven was a more or less by-the-numbers heist movie livened up by some nice stylistic flourishes; better than the classic-by-default original without hardly trying but not even in the same universe as, say, Kubrick's The Killing. Ocean's Twelve is not only a sequel that's vastly, almost incomparably superior to its predecessor, but something even rarer than that: an event movie that actually feels like an event! The heist(s) here are strictly MacGuffin material; Ocean's Twelve is ultimately about nothing so much as itself--and it's terrific! Here is a movie loaded with A-list celebrities that simultaneously playfully satirizes and shamelessly revels in the very idea of a bunch of movie stars (to borrow a line from Eddie Izzard, who turns in a great cameo) just hanging out and being groovy in gorgeous, endlessly photogenic European cities. This is E!: The Movie, but made by a filmmaker good enough (when he feels like it) to out-Tarkovsky Tarkovsky.
|13. I Heart Huckabees
(David O. Russell).
Before now I wasn't entirely sold on the reputation of David O. Russell, but this ontological farce, featuring some of the most deliriously surreal slapstick sequences ever put to celluloid, is genius funny. It plays like Preston Sturges meets Charlie Kaufman with a considerable dose of Eastern philosophy added to the mix and a Shania Twain cameo thrown in for good measure. Color me sold.
12. Sex Is Comedy (Catherine Breillat).
Sex Is Comedy is a dramatized, more-or-less reenactment of the filming of Breillat’s hugely controversial Fat Girl, somewhat in the spirit of films like Truffaut’s Day for Night and Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees.
Specifically, it's a revealing look at the singular dynamic established between a director and her actors, an ambiguously dichotomous relationship, at once both trusting and manipulative. Breillat’s broader analysis, however, is--as with pretty much all of her work--of the endlessly complex nature of male-female interaction. While battle-of-the-sexes scenarios are, at this late point, among the most potentially tired and trite in film, there’s still no subject more inexhaustible when serious questions are being asked, and no one right now is probing deeper than Breillat. No pun intended.
|11. Collateral (Michael Mann).
It's not the best movie I've seen this year, but it's almost certainly the best-looking. Mann and Dion Beebe's spatially expressive employment of high-def DV captures night-time L.A. with a visual poetry pretty much unparalleled in contemporary Hollywood movies.
10-9. Control Room (Jehane Noujaim).
Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore).
Two compelling looks at media--and its manipulation--on opposite sides of our constantly shrinking world. The former follows employees of the notorious Arabic news channel, Al-Jazeera, as the United States wages its pre-emptive strike on Iraq. It's full of poignant, telling moments, such as when a U.S. military officer becomes visibly upset with himself when it dawns on him that he's less disgusted by footage of dead Iraqis than by footage of dead Americans. The slightly-more-prominent latter is, I’m pretty sure, the only film to win both the Palm d’Or and the People's Choice Award. ‘Nuff said, I think.
8. Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (Quentin Tarantino).
I find the Kill Bill installments more interesting as two separate films instead of as the epic masterpiece the Tarantino fanboys are clamoring for and that Tarantino himself had originally intended. Vol. 1 plays like Operation Iraqi Freedom, the optimistic version--the swiftly-executed coup pimped by Bush, Rumsfeld, & Co.; Vol. 2 represents the much messier reality of what we've since seen play out in Iraq. Even outside this hallucinated political context, Vol. 2 is, surprisingly, one of the most poignant and heartfelt films I've seen about what it means to grow up and, more specifically, to become a parent. The film’s final shot, of The Bride and her daughter’s faces framed together, smiling for the camera, is something decidedly more beautiful than I’d have ever thought possible by the guy who made Reservoir Dogs.
7. Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood).
With Mystic River and now this, Eastwood delivers his strongest one-two punch since Unforgiven and A Perfect World. While Million Dollar Baby is no less grim and possibly even more devastating an experience than Mystic River, it’s ultimately hopeful about the possibility of two lonely souls finding something of what they’ve lost in each others’ company, where the earlier film felt entirely pessimistic about human nature.
6. Crimson Gold (Jafar Panahi)
It’s almost too obvious to declare Panahi “the next Kiarostami,” but after The Circle and this (based on a Kiarostami “script”), masterpieces both, he’s unmistakably the rightful heir to Iranian cinema’s throne.
5-4. Blissfully Yours (Apichatpong Weerasethakul).
Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-liang).
Two great examples of atmospheric minimalism--one set (mostly) in a Thai forest, the other in an old Taipei movie house. The former radiates erotic possibility, with nature as not so much a convenient backdrop but as, somehow, an active participant in all that spooning and swimming. The latter is not merely another eloquent elegy for the death of cinema, but the most prescient ghost story of the young millennium.
3. 2046 (Wong Kar-wai)
This has been an uncommonly good year for that most dubious of filmic endeavors: the sequel. Even Hollywood's inevitable offerings mostly didn't suck: Spider-Man 2, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Ocean's Twelve, and Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (not technically a sequel, I realize, but still) are all superior to their predecessors. The year's finest sequels- Richard Linklater's Before Sunset and Wong Kar-wai's 2046--accomplished the near-impossible: they completely revitalized the idea of the sequel. Whether or not they're better than the originals is entirely beside the point because they so perfectly compliment, and complete, the earlier films they're following. 2046 is Wong's hyper-romantic aesthetic heightened to its breathless fever pitch. It's all tragic longing, misplaced affections, buried secrets, and broken hearts, a Proustian reverie for lost time. Tony Leung reprises the role of Mr. Chow, here the most ostensibly self-reflexive presence in Wong's filmography, observing over the soundtrack that he “made it as bizarre and erotic as possible”-- a boast that sounds straight from the master's mouth. Zhang Ziyi is devastating in what is hands-down the supporting performance of the year, and with a veritable who's-who of Asian cinema (Faye Wong, Gong Li, Carina Lau, and, very briefly, Maggie Cheung) turning up in bit parts, the film plays like the Hong Kong Ocean's Twelve.
2. Dogville (Lars von Trier).
What Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Passion of the Christ were for the left-right culture pundits, Dogville was for film critics. Maybe that’s because its politics are more incisive and galvanizing (and, of course, polarizing) than the former and it’s a more provocative religious parable than the latter. Or maybe it’s just because nobody else bothered to see it.
1. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater).
I love this film almost irrationally. I've watched it well over a dozen times since it hit DVD. Often since, I'll rent something I've been meaning to see, but then I'll opt to watch Before Sunset again instead. There are just so many perfectly wonderful moments: when Jesse first spots Celine out of the corner of his eye while speaking at Shakespeare & Co; when Celine realizes--right in the middle of demanding to know why Jesse didn't show up in Vienna--that he was indeed there; the expression on Jesse's face when he says, "See?," after it dawns on him that it may well have been Celine that he saw in New York on the way to his wedding; Celine and Jesse, by turns, finally spilling their guts about the painful disappointments of their adult lives while driving to Celine's apartment; and, of course, that entire final scene in Celine's apartment, including what has to be the most sublimely romantic movie moment since the kiss that stopped traffic in Sunrise (Murnau, not Linklater). To hell with objective analysis. When it comes to Before Sunset, far and away my favorite movie of the year and an instant all-time fave, all I can do is gush. And swoon.