Top Ten 2004 Films
Submitted by lbangs on Sun, 04/18/2004 - 04:38
- 1) 2046 - Talented directors often plunge forward into unknown territory seeking a method for forging a new cinematic language, expressive and unique. About once a decade, one actually succeeds. Hal Hartley pulled off that rare feat in the nineties, and Wong Kar-Wai is our current success. When I was writing a novel years ago, I was often frustrated by people asking what the novel was about. My stock response evolved from, “About 350 pages,” to, “the small, silent moments.” I am either sensitive or delusional, but I have always felt that most of the major incidents in our lives fly by nearly unnoticed, that the seconds of the most inner significance are often barely visible from the outside. I suspect Wong Kar-Wai feels the same, as he takes a series of interlocking short stories and shoves scalpels into it, splitting and fragmenting narratives to open them up and expose the blood beneath the skin. Since the stories are already incredibly moving, mixing some of the best elements of Philip K. Dick with Raymond Carver and Christopher Isherwood, the vivisection releases visuals never before seen but immediately recognizable as some sort of schematic of the inner workings of the hearts and minds of the characters, especially Tony Leung Chiu-Wai’s enigmatic lead and Zhang Ziyi’s Oscar-deserving Bai Ling. One unmoved by the hypnotic narcotic neon visions and the slow motion shots lingering to catch every subtle dripping emotion will immediately cry, “Melodrama!” That is not necessarily a lie. Not seeing the genius of sponging such insightful heart-wringing, however, is worse than an lie in the way that blindness can be worse than an illusion. 2046 is an incredibly personal film that invites you to learn its erotic, longing lingo without spoonfeeding you food you can never digest pureed (and make no mistake, this film is not only beautiful and insightful, it is also the most erotic film of the last decade or so). It is also the best film this decade has yet produced, and I will not be surprised if I am still making the same proclamation as the 00s fade into the past. If at all possible, see it at the theater; these impossible dreamscapes were not intended for small screens.
- 2) Before Sunset - Before Sunrise is quite frankly one of the most romantic films ever lensed, THE vision of love for intelligent, cynical Generation X viewers, so the notion of continuing the story inspires dread on the same level as learning of a sequel to Casablanca. This, though, defies expectations to an incredible degree. Not only is it a better film than the original, it manages to charm, enchant, and delight like very few films ever can. The characters basically talk for eighty minutes inside the always-beautiful Paris, and while that sounds like a shaky premise, the movie actually seems to coast by in half that time. Revisiting old friends such as Ethan Hawke's Jesse and Julie Delpy's Celine is rarely as refreshing and, damn it, downright magical as it is here, and I'll just be wreckless and tell you right now - this film has one of the absolute best endings in the history of cinema. That's right. This is that good. In a summer glutted with the usual sequel crap, who expected this tiny Part II to be so incredible?
- 3) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - Well, I've been mulling several possible ways to review this film without giving too much of the fun away, and now, nearly a week later, I give. The Kaufman script has more heart than any of his works has ever have, the tricks are truly interesting rather than coming off as gimmicks, and the ending caps an interesting debate between the romantic and the realist. The cast is stellar - Jim Carrey may not get the Oscar he's been craving, but for the first time, he at least delivers a performance worthy of one - the direction is inventive yet doesn't distract from the film, and even one of my big crushes, the lovely Jane Adams, appears. A triumph for several talents I have nearly given up on, and one of the greatest films of the past five years.
- 4) Nobody Knows - Hirokazu Koreeda now officially strikes me as one of the best directors currently working. Yes, that is a foolhardy declaration, especially since I am basing it on two films, but between the wondrous After Life and this later masterpiece, I am not hedging any bets. Nobody Knows tells a grim, gritty story and dares not always to tell it in a similar fashion, instead occasionally opting for a peek through the young point of view of the children the story focuses on. Sure, this is type of film I adore and many despise; long shots fade to black and are replaced by more long shots, atmosphere is relied upon to carry much of the narrative, and the running time stretches past the two hour mark, but events do happen, characters do exist, and I was riveted throughout the entire film. If you are not touched by any of the abandoned children by the time the credits roll, you are made of denser material than I am. The director catches both poverty and adolescence with fine detail. It is an incredible film, and though I fear it will largely be ignored, it is as deserving of fame and attention as any movie this decade.
- 5) Vera Drake - Most American moviegoers have yet to embrace Mike Leigh, and I doubt they ever will. Mr. Leigh is not interested in giving that group anything it wants. His films are usually talky affairs lacking in gunpowder or the even higher explosive quality of star power. He usually does not spend an entire film focused on beautiful people; most of his casts look like people you see on the street. He treats the audience like adults, not as if they were adolescent boys. He expects you to sit down, shut up, and pay attentions without having to twirl bright baubles before your eyes. Have I mentioned I am a Leigh nut, or that he is probably one of the greatest true auteurs working in film today? Why? Here is your proof. Vera Drake is a long film featuring a slew of folks you have never heard of playing out a drama about an incredibly controversial subject that never once dips to political propaganda or characters spotting out position papers disguised as dialogue. In fact, it is shocking how little the film spends any time discussing the morality of abortion. A few people vent briefly over it, but by the end of the film, nobody has changed his or her mind about it. The lens will not let the character escape our view, and those characters are incredibly true to life. They, and not the subject matter, are the point here, and it is incredible how Leigh never forgets that. This is subtle yet strong stuff, which means it is exactly the style of creative soil in which this writer and director flourishes.
- 6) Closer - Bring a coat, cause this movie is cold. I suspect the frosty distance, symbolized by the constant reference to aquarium, coupled with the cynical, painful portrayal of human sexuality and unfaithfulness will send many viewers running to the door. For the ones with the stomach to stay, Mike Nichols’ careful visuals, Patrick Marber’s incredible screenplay (Best Adapted Screenplay, anyone?), and the good performances reward, if not with warm fuzzy feelings, then with chilly observations and excellent screencraft that elevate this nasty film as one of the best movies of the year. Just remember; you’ve been warned…
- 7) Finding Neverland - There is every chance that film critics have a shelf life, an expiry date, and if that is true, perhaps everybody on this site should simply start ignoring me now. I expected Finding Neverland to prove a clump of clotted cheese; instead, I discovered one of my favorite films of the year. The film and I could have lived without a few scenes, but I found this simple drama about the life of the man who wrote Peter Pan to be incredibly moving, touching stuff. The acting is naturally superb, but the directing is just as impressive. Marc Forster knows when to sell the material and when to sit back and let the drama sell itself. Luckily, the screenplay provides marvelous material, touching upon the emotional life of several characters without overplaying the subtexts or simplifying complicated situations. What can I say? Maybe I related all too much to the story, but I really, really loved this film. Stick a fork in me; no doubt, I’m done...
- 8) Tarnation - I should be up-front here. I tend to love the avant-garde. In Tarnation, Jonathan Caouette mixes home movies to tell the story of his life and his relationship with his troubled mother. Film speeds up, leaps from scene to scene, and combines in often confusing yet effective ways. It is probably the most experimental film I have seen on the big screen in Tulsa. Not that every trick works, but when the credits roll, you feel quite close to this family wounded by abuse and mental illness, and you cannot help admiring the bold attempt as well as relating to the very human characters behind the wild edits, and that makes Tarnation an impressive triumph.
- 9) Bad Education - Pedro goes late Hitchcock, while mixing in film noir and his own patented style of melodrama. The results are visually hypnotic, leaving the audience riveted to the bravura performances by the incredible cast (I said it years ago, and I repeat it now: Gael Garcia Bernal is destined to greatness). The style is not the only tribute to the suspense master, though, as the screenplay runs through twists and turns that Hitch would not only be proud of but might even envy. The time frame shifts, the characters shift, and the viewpoints shift. Good luck keeping your firm footing! As all the delights spin about and leave one dizzy, a certain uneasy emptiness settles in a bit. For a film that is adamant about emotional filmmaking (note that ending), an odd amount here seems a bit like sparkling cotton candy. In other words, this film that defends passionate filmmaking seems oddly lacking in passion. Still, there is plenty here to glue you to the screen, and Almodovar leaves little doubt that he is one of the more talented and surprising directors around.
- 10) Million Dollar Baby - The average quality of the screenplay simply sets the acting and directing shining by contrast. Eastwood not only works the lighting and framing of each shot with subtle yet undeniable skill, he also provides one of his finest performances ever as Frankie Dunn, a boxing trainer who is needled by Hilary Swank's Maggie Fitzgerald into taking on his first female fighter. As for Swank, heck, just go ahead and give her another Oscar; she earns it here, proving that she is one of the best actors working in Hollywood today. While that script is riddled with some clunky problems, Eastwood's sure hand and the cast's work do wonder to gloss over nearly every one of them, and the final film is more moving and involving than Paul Haggis' screenplay really has any right to be. A word to the wise: This is an Eastwood film, and anybody who has been following the man's work recently have probably already guessed that the advertising for this flick does not really represent the actual film. This is the man who directed Mystic River. Rocky this ain't.
- Films Intentionally Left Off This List
- Ray - In the opening hour of Ray, The Genius is young and in the studio recording some early sides. The producers are working for a break-through; they tell Ray that his music is terrific, but that it sounds too much like that of other artists. He needs to find his own voice. Movie, heal thyself! Despite the great music and fine performances, Ray never transcends the 'musical bio' template it is using. In fact, it seems much too sure of itself, as if the director realized the quality music and acting he was working with and decided they needed no help from the screenplay or the directing departments. The results are not tragic, but they are very disappointing. Foxx does well, though one wonders if his roots in lesser fare are leading critics to over-inflate the actual performance. The supporting cast is excellent, and the music serves as a terrific prop to the soggy story, but the directing is strictly pedestrian. While not a complete waste of money, Ray does not live up its inspiration.
- Honorable Mentions
- Nine Lives - Why is this film being tucked away quietly? Sure, Garcia is largely redoing his earlier Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her, but with this cache of actresses and this set of absorbing, moving short stories examining various women and their interlocking lives, who cares? New here is the technique of shooting each story in one long take, and each of the nine segments are terrifically filmed and achieve an intimacy rarely seen off of the stage. Where to begin singling out performances? Lisa Gay Hamilton (amazing), Holly Hunter (still one of my girlfriends), Robin Wright Penn, Amy Brenneman, Glenn Close, Dakota Fanning, Kathy Baker, and many more. They are all great, and I'm not even mentioning the great job by such male actors as Joe Mantegna and Jason Isaacs. Sure, this is a drama about women without a weepy melodrama or romantic comedy angle, and they don't tend to do well at the box office, but this is a wonderful film, and I don't want to hear critics complaining about the lack of worthy actress come Oscar time. They just need to remember this moving little movie.
- Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events - Here is the best Tim Burton film since Ed Wood, and Mr. Burton had not a thing to do with it. This is terrific stuff for warped kids of all ages; the visuals scream out fantastic Gorey phantasmal splendors while the story, though unfortunately episodic enough to reveal its multiple sources, twists around and delights enough to keep the audience enchanted until the ending. Well, until around twenty minutes before the ending, as the climax is oddly anticlimactic (though the final music and credits are utterly amazing, especially if you have surround sound), but the kids are fantastic and too cute to be believed, the acting is aces (yes, I even liked Jim Carrey here), the law that Timothy Spall must be in every family film is a fine one, and I have the horrible feeling that once again I will never be admitted into the critics’ guild. Ah, well. I’ll take this over any of the Harry Potter films any day. Best bit from the screenplay: "No, silly children, he was eaten alive by leaches. Come, I'll show you." Oh, and try to hide as you might, I see you, Jane Adams...
- Sideways - One always frets when entirely too much praise is lavished on a young director that has yet to deserve high accolades. Alexander Payne is a fine director, but he has not really produced work worthy of the high esteem in which many critics hold him. Sideways, however, is his finest film, and the laurel is looking a little more at home on his head. The screenplay is subtly sharp and insightful, piercing the tight surfaces of the characters and drawing real blood and humor from their cores. Forget about Jamie Foxx; Paul Giamatti gives a fantastic, Oscar-worthy performance as the sad sack central character, and Thomas Haden Church, all gusto, confidence, and stupidity, provides excellent Yang to Paul’s Yin. The direction provides lots of empty space for these actors to fill, and even the supporting casts give portrayals that live up to the director’s scheme. Miles Raymond is a fantastic creation, almost like a live version of the animated The Critic, and the laughs he and others provide are real, not to mention really funny. What do you know? Alexander Payne might just grow into his hype after all…
- Garden State - If Garden State starts off as a sort of The Graduate for the new century, I guess that makes Zach Braff Dustin Hoffman by way of Adam Sandler. That description reads pretty scary, but with a kooky visual sense and a script that veers closer to Harold and Maude towards the center act, it plays as a rather funny delight. Natalie Portman plays the life-affirming free spirit, a complete one-eighty from her role in the same year’s Closer; between those two films, my respect for Portman has skyrocketed. At times, especially towards the end, the screenplay shoulders up a little too closely to easy answers that border on cliché, but the film never plays as less than fascinating and touching. While Braff has proven himself as a fine comedic actor with the television show Scrubs, with Garden State, he has also shown the world that he is a filmmaking talent on the rise. Judged by any standard, this film is a complete success; as a debut, it is smoking.
- Spider-Man 2 - The first film captured all the flavor and excitement of a third-rate comic book. For this installment, Sam Raimi aims for the top tier, and to my disbelief, he largely scores. The drama that frankly redeemed the silly Spider-Man comic book is unleashed with a vengeance, with issues of personal desires fighting with responsibility ladled on with melodramatic abandon. Peter Parker emerges as a much more interesting character, and even Kirsten Dunst handles Mary Jane Watson much better than in the first installment. J.K. Simmons nails J. Jonah Jameson, and the entire cast must have had a good sit-down with the director to calibrate the feel of this film. The color palette is amazing, perfectly reproducing the hues one would expect from this comic book brought to life. Sure, the computer animation is still iffy, rendering a few climatic battle scene disappointing, but the crux of this film is in the drama, and a few bad scenes of a CGI web slinger cannot ruin the intensity of the truly pivotal scenes. In keeping with what seems to be a fixed rule of superhero films (see Superman 2, X2, etc.), Spider-Man 2 is a sequel that dwarves the original, and it offers oodles of delights in the process.
- Kinsey - Should we live in a world of poetry or power? Should we strive to wield science to scrap away the uncertainty of reality, or should we relish the majesty and mystery of a world cloaked in metaphor and religion? Are the two necessarily mutually incompatible? To what degree is the world what we take it for, and to what degree is reality what we make of it? For some reason, the topic of sex often drives these questions home with a force few subjects can mimic, and Kinsey dives into the heart of this debate with a frankness rarely seen in mainstream films. Luckily, it usually does not focus on this issue at the expense of its characters. Sure, there are a few scenes that fall flat (including one that unintentionally brought images of Schindler’s List to my mind), and the final scene between the main character and his father, while very well-acted, still fails to be dramatically convincing, but the total effect of the film is to drive home its central dilemma by wrapping it inside of a moving story populated by real characters. The cast does much of the heavy lifting here, but the director is also on top of matters. The screenplay has a tough task before it, and though it falters at a turn or two, it does finish the race with its head high. Kinsey might tilt the debate a bit too heavily towards one side of the issue to be a balanced look at the questions posed above, but it is a fair look, and one that should keep the questions floating about for quite some time. Goodness knows there will be no definite answers any time soon.
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - Harry gets a new director, Alfonso Cuaron, and as one might suspect, this finally works major mojo magic on the series. For the first time, the adventures of Mr. Potter and his friends find the proper balance of wonderment and wickedness, while Cuaron’s natural interest in adolescence fits the story like a form fitted T-shirt. The plot is a bit more on the ball this time as well, with a detour towards the end that deliciously wraps up the entire affair. Luckily, Cuaron is not a slave to the book the way Columbus was; this shorter, zippier film breaths life like a real movie should. It has blood, unlike the oddly waxen creations the former director carved from the novels. I am always thrilled when a big budget blockbuster actually delivers on the elements that made the template so successful in the first place. This installment of the Harry Potter series finally does just that; it wows us while remembering that the eyes grow bigger when the heart is still pumping.
- Hero - I know some people will be looking for this, since it hit America upside the head in 2004, but it is on my 2002 list...
- Howl’s Moving Castle - Miyazaki, unlike nearly any other contemporary director that comes into my puny mind, understands how to construct a wonderland for the young. His visuals manage to achieve true jaw-dropping spectacle without resorting to clichéd Hollywood explosions, and his stories tap into regions of endless childhood fascination. In fact, I have heard his films referred to as targeting young girls, but as a grown man, I have to reject that simplistic notion (I have to!). This latest offering does not quite achieve the nearly perfect bedazzlement of Spirited Away; the plot is a tad bit more shaky, and the magic does not quite straddle the worlds of reality and fantasy as well as that flat-out masterpiece. Still, the story keeps the eyes wide and the mind buzzing, and the animation proves that hand-drawn movies are not artistically bankrupt in this decade. Disney once more provides a much better dubbing job than most studios muster.
- The Incredibles