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The Year In Film: 2004

Like much of the country, moviegoers in 2004 were divided into red states and blue states, with some lining up for Fahrenheit 9/11 while others bowed to Mel Gibson's The Passion Of The Christ. This dispiriting trend briefly threatened to turn film culture into political or religious ritual, aesthetics be damned. But while a polarized nation gave movies a charge, the four lists below repeatedly reference three titles that seem defiant in their romantic optimism, especially in the current climate: Before Sunset, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, and Sideways each concern couples who are bruised by past love, but have come out wiser for the experience. Their willingness to soldier on and pursue treacherous routes to happiness made for some of the year's most inspired filmmaking.

Noel Murray

1. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind
Come for the Charlie Kaufman script, another one of his postmodern exercises wherein a handful of neurotic blanks grapple with narrative shackles they forged themselves. Stay for Michel Gondry's visual pyrotechnics, which express a fascination with moments that repeat until they're either perfected, or they recede, uncatchable.
2. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou
Wes Anderson's third straight film about theatrical artifice and the instability of being a children's-book character in an unforgivably humdrum adult-literature world, The Life Aquatic isn't as funny and poignant as Rushmore or as kaleidoscopic and poignant as The Royal Tenenbaums, but virtually every scene bears re-watching for the diorama-like detail and dryly humorous line readings.
3. I Heart Huckabees
David O. Russell's post-grad-friendly comedy divided otherwise right-thinking people, probably because the wrong mood, the wrong audience, or even the wrong temperature in the theater can easily break the film's weird spell. The Preston Sturges-like circular nonsense dialogue provides cues that indicate Russell's soft philosophizing isn't meant to be taken at face value, since I Heart Huckabees is essentially about people looking for quick fixes in Zen koans, Christianity, conspicuous consumption, and celebrity worship. The movie's not quite a satire–it's just a slight exaggeration of how we live now, partitioned by pet causes.
4. Kill Bill: Volume 2
5. The Incredibles
6. Red Lights
7. Crimson Gold
Of all the brilliantly observed setpieces in this episodic tale of an Iranian pizza deliveryman, the two most memorable are a trip to a jewelry store where the hero (Hossain Emadeddin) can't quite pull off pretending to be rich, and a visit to an opulent apartment where he shares pizza and sympathy with a lonely playboy. But Crimson Gold's key scene takes place at a party where the authorities arrest anyone coming or going, causing Emadeddin to grumble that he's taking the punishment without getting any of the action. By the end of Crimson Gold, all Emadeddin wants is to pass through a door and take an unhurried look around–a privilege that director Jafar Panahi provides the audience throughout.
8. Slasher
In his documentary debut, Hollywood veteran John Landis eschews staid indie-doc style in favor of old-school razzmatazz, following a swaggering, gravel-voiced car-lot pitchman through a do-or-die sales weekend on a sleepy Memphis auto lot. This rousing slice of life doesn't pretend to be an exhaustive report on cars, salesmen, the current economy, or even its subject's life. Instead, Landis deals in specifics about the nature of liars and the embarrassment of fiscal irresponsibility.
9. Sideways
10. Vera Drake

Grizzled documentarian Ross McElwee showed brash Michael Moore clones how to insert themselves gracefully into their work with Bright Leaves, a moving, knowing film about Southern legacies, and how people take from the past what makes them feel better about the future. Korean bad boy Kim Ki-Duk left behind visceral shocks for the plain Buddhist lessons of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... And Spring, dealing with what can't be shed in this life in spite of our best attempts to purify. And a trio of genre pictures showed how pulps can tell the truth about everyday anxieties, from the chore-list determinism of Spider-Man 2 to the despairing community-building of Dawn Of The Dead and the deceptive naturalism of Los Angeles streets in Collateral.

The real wonder of David Carradine's melodically growly performance as the intended titular victim of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Volume 2 is that Tarantino was able to sit on it for so long. Only a shadowy presence in the first film, Carradine steps into the light in the second, carrying conflicted feelings about his would-be assassin that culminate in a nearly 20-minute speech about the tension between needing to do a dirty job and wanting to ditch that job to go hang out with friends.

Steven Spielberg's eccentric, overplotted comedy The Terminal is in some ways a wasted opportunity, but it's also unusual and kind of magical, with a single set and simple motivations that make it unlike any other recent Hollywood movie. Spielberg plays with the multiple frames allowed by split-levels, storefronts, and security monitors, and subtly plays out a lot of his pet themes: the desire to peek behind curtains, the importance of individual dignity, and the way humans create social systems that bind us more than we intend.

Tsai Ming-Liang has put his long, static takes to good use before, most recently in the masterful What Time Is It There?, where the deliberate rhythms and rhyming compositions achieved real profundity. Goodbye, Dragon Inn impressed a lot of people as a similarly sweet meditation on moviegoing, but the moments of wit and reverie come only after extended, dreary stretches of self-indulgent stillness. Honestly, what does a three-minute shot of an empty theater say that a 30-second shot doesn't?

Godsend is yet another damn "creepy kid who sees visions" movie, though this one also exploits the human cloning debate for the sake of cheap shocks, and features a bruise-blue color scheme, plus Robert De Niro mumbling his way through the role of an icy mad scientist. Viewers will be digging this out of the ashes decades from now to figure out when De Niro The Distinguished Actor got replaced by his own clone, De Niro The Sellout.

The sensibility of A Love Song For Bobby Long in a nutshell: Colorfully eccentric (i.e. "good") Southern folk wear thrift-store clothes and pass around a bottle and a guitar while sitting outside on lawn chairs and quoting poetry; white-trash (i.e. "bad") Southern folk sit inside their trailers in T-shirts, watching TV and eating junk food. You say tomato...


Keith Phipps

1. Before Sunset
2. Million Dollar Baby
A noir-drenched boxing tale with no real bad guy apart from life itself, Clint Eastwood's elegant melodrama takes what could have been a slight story about a crusty trainer (Eastwood), a washed-up fighter (Morgan Freeman), and a plucky female boxer (magnificently played by Hilary Swank) and makes it into a deeply felt examination of friendship, faith, family, and the whims of fate. Eastwood has seldom been better either in front of or behind the camera. (Or behind the keyboard, for that matter: He also penned the lovely score.)
3. The Incredibles
Consider the layers: With his first film for Pixar, Simpsons and Iron Giant vet Brad Bird offers both a sly send-up of comic bookdom's obsession with old-fashioned heroism, and a stirring reaffirmation of the same values. It balanced this with moving looks at teen angst, classroom boredom, the dull pain of mid-life crises, and how families adapt and change with time. And oh yeah, it's also just about the most stunning piece of computer animation to date, a stirring action film, and funny, too.
4. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind
5. Sideways
6. Dogville
7. The Aviator
Why does The Aviator, a Martin Scorsese film about a germ-phobic, L.A.-based billionaire feel more personal than last year's Gangs Of New York, a tale of scrappy immigrants' kids growing up in the streets of old New York? It may be that no one understands obsession quite like Scorsese, whose retelling of Howard Hughes' prime years locks into the mind of the overreaching American dreamer (as played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who again reestablishes his skills as a great actor, which his years as a teen pinup had begun to obscure).
8. Goodbye, Dragon Inn
Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang lets his twin interests in cinephilia and urban alienation dovetail in this elegy for a crumbling movie palace. On its last night, the theater unfurls a classic kung-fu film as hustlers, no-goodniks, and would-be lovers slowly move through its final hours, unceremoniously saying farewell to a whole way of watching movies together in the dark, as rain beats down from above.
9. Kill Bill: Volume 2
10. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... And Spring
As simple as its title, Kim Ki-Duk's compact, emotionally powerful Buddhist parable lets the seasons change and the years pass as an old teacher watches his student (played as an adult by Kim himself) struggle, fail, and struggle some more in his attempts to understand the necessity of surrendering desire, and the profound consequences that come to those who persist in their attachment to worldly things. It's as gripping in its own way as Kim's 2000 thriller The Isle, and no one even puts a fishhook where it doesn't belong.

A dead-on send-up of zombie movies, and a more accurate satire of the go-nowhere twentysomething lifestyle than a dozen independent comedies, Shaun Of The Dead found laughs both in flesh-eating and in awkward romantic relationships. Spider-Man 2 worked riffs on adventure and romance to equally thrilling effect, improving on the original and serving as a model of thoughtful blockbuster entertainment. A family tragedy told in hushed tones, Mike Leigh's abortion drama Vera Drake made the personal political. Jafar Panahi's Crimson Gold, on the other hand, turned a loud personal breakdown into an illustration of the politics of rage. Michael Mann's masterful L.A. sonata Collateral made a different use of violence, zeroing in on the reluctant partnership between a timid taxi driver (Jamie Foxx) and the frosty hit man (Tom Cruise) who becomes his unlikely guru.

As the title character of Vera Drake, Imelda Staunton wears a face of cheery anonymity that masks a commitment to a forbidden principle. Living in a '50s London still recovering from the war, she helps support her family by working as a housekeeper, but picks up a pittance performing abortions on the side, an illegal practice at the time (though it remained a quasi-legal option for the moneyed classes, as a subplot makes clear.) Director Mike Leigh spends the first half of his film establishing the details of Staunton's heartwrenchingly functional domestic life, and the second half yanking it away. But it's Staunton who conveys the full scope of the loss, letting a happy glow fade with the realization that someone can wreck her life simply by doing what she thinks is right.

Sure, the plot's perfunctory and the performances are shallow, but even though the pleasures of Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow don't run much deeper than its revolutionary virtual-reality look and a deep appreciation of World War II-era science fiction and pulp paperbacks, it's not like those pleasures are easy to dismiss. Also, it's got giant robots. Since when did a movie need more than that?

For its first few minutes, Jean-Luc Godard's latest, Notre Musique, plays like (yet another) comeback, a harrowing, rapid-fire history of warfare assembled from newsreels and old movie footage. It also has an intriguing ending, set in some conception of heaven overseen by American military personnel. But then there's the middle, a meandering string of aphorisms and questionable film-theory tidbits interrupted by the occasional chiding appearance of scowling Native Americans and the snoring of the moviegoer in the next seat over.

For one moment, the stars aligned to team Original King Of Comedy Cedric The Entertainer, disgraced Miss America/Top 40 chanteuse/Radio Shack spokes-actor Vanessa Williams, Beyoncé's sister Solange Knowles, Bow Wow, fading American Pie sexpot Shannon Elizabeth, special guest star Steve Harvey, and a gila monster for Johnson Family Vacation, a really terrible National Lampoon's Vacation rip-off that climaxes in a talent-show performance of Coolio's "Fantastic Voyage."

Okay, "worst" might be too strong a word to throw around lightly in a year that produced White Chicks, but was there a more frustrating way to spend 100 minutes and $10 than watching barely mobile computer-animated versions of Tom Hanks and a bunch of zombie-like children make their way, ever so slowly, toward the North Pole and a strangely unpleasant Santa Claus? The Polar Express features Steven Tyler as a rockin' elf, plus an awful musical number about hot chocolate, but the worst moments–and there are many–come when director Robert Zemeckis slows the action down, inviting audiences to wonder at the new Christmas classic he only thinks he's created.


Nathan Rabin

1. Sideways
Writer-director Alexander Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor specialize in chronicling ordinary people at their low ebb, whether they're reduced to recovering a wallet from an obese pair of lovers or pouring a wine spittoon over themselves in an act of ritual self-negation. Following closely in the spirit of Election and About Schmidt, Sideways is another funny/sad look at men in a state of profound existential crisis; it features Paul Giamatti's second career-defining performance in as many years.
2. Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster
Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's transcendent rockumentary indelibly captures Metallica at a personal and professional crossroads, when it's become the world's most popular metal band, but its members have lost their bassist and their love of playing together. Entering the fray: a high-priced "performance coach" who helps the group get in touch with its feelings. What follows is funny, sometimes even intentionally so, but it's also a surprisingly touching meditation on fame, money, collaboration, and the way a shared history can divide as much as it unites.
3. Before Sunset
4. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind
5. The Aviator
6. Mean Creek
Few films capture the heightened emotions and Darwinian cruelty of adolescence with the sensitivity and grace of Mean Creek, the stunning debut of writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes. Masterfully juggling audience sympathies, the film documents the harrowing consequences of a prank gone horribly wrong. Rory Culkin heads up a uniformly brilliant cast, while Sharon Meir's vivid, evocative cinematography favorably recalls Tim Orr's work with David Gordon Green.
7. Dogville
The most incendiary cinematic haymaker hitting American theaters in 2004 wasn't Fahrenheit 9/11 or The Passion Of The Christ–it was thrown in from overseas by perpetually provocative writer-director Lars von Trier, in the form of Dogville, a lacerating social allegory about a desperate woman on the lam (Nicole Kidman) and the small town that takes her in. In many ways, the film, with its audacious, uncompromising fusion of theater and cinema, plays like the flip-side to The Terminal, offering a take on the American immigrant experience that's as brutally dystopian as Steven Spielberg's is sunny.
8. The Incredibles
9. Control Room
One of the documentary world's greatest gifts is its skill at engendering empathy, its remarkable ability to find connections where others might see only divisions. This is especially true of Control Room, an affectionate but clear-eyed portrait of the chain-smoking, coffee-chugging, thoroughly modern news hounds of Al-Jazeera, the Middle East-based news organization best known for heading up the current administration's media shit list. George W. Bush and company may view the controversial news outlet as a mere mouthpiece for the enemy, but in the film, it comes off more like an alternate-universe version of NPR or PBS, albeit with considerably more sympathy toward suicide bombers and Death-To-America extremists.
10. Million Dollar Baby

In 2004, no two films provided more sheer pleasure than Shaun Of The Dead and Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy. The former grounds its kinetic blend of horror and comedy in the soul-sapping realities of working-class life, giving it a refreshing undercurrent of social commentary; the latter is less a satire of sexism and childishness than an oblivious celebration of both. Meanwhile, ideas provide the fuel that powers I Heart Huckabees, David O. Russell's deliciously mad "existential comedy" about detectives, the meaning of life, environmentalism, and the interconnectivity of the universe. Satisfyingly wrapping up Quentin Tarantino's epic revenge saga, Kill Bill: Volume 2 provided all the deep characterization and bravura dialogue its predecessor lacked, and kicked in some thrilling action sequences as a bonus. Though it's Wes Anderson's least immediately satisfying film to date, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou offers all of the filmmaker's trademark virtues: a delicate, bittersweet tone, a an expertly cast ensemble, and meticulous framing and compositions. But the film's most winning aspect may be Henry Selick's lovely, whimsical animation, which gives the aquatic world a shimmering, surreal quality.

Anybody can make a vain, ridiculous character seem foolish, but it takes a crazed comic genius to make a vain, ridiculous character as lovable as Will Ferrell's protagonist in Anchorman. Ferrell, who co-wrote the film with director Adam McKay, throws himself wholeheartedly into the film's inspired silliness, carrying a vehicle as perfect for him as School Of Rock was for Jack Black.

It's hard to mount a vigorous, high-minded defense of The Girl Next Door, a critically derided teen sex comedy that aspires to be nothing more than a slick, funny knockoff of Risky Business. Nevertheless, the film succeeds smashingly in achieving its modest ambitions, thanks to a clever script, sharp direction, and a great cast headlined by the enormously winning Emile Hirsch, as well as Timothy Olyphant, who radiates unpredictable, live-wire energy as a frightening, funny low-rent hustler.

Finding Neverland is the definition of middlebrow claptrap: This painfully earnest account of J.M. Barrie's experiences around the time he wrote Peter Pan accomplishes the formidable feat of making even the usually magnetic Johnny Depp seem boring, a feat even Secret Window couldn't accomplish.

It's hard to say which is more embarrassing: that Academy Award-winning master actor Jon Voight agreed to play a timeless baby-hating East German madman in Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2, or that he throws himself into the role with such unabashed abandon. Voight's gonzo performance alone is enough to tilt the film into Films That Time Forgot Land. The fact that the film itself suggests a zero-budget kiddie matinee from the '70s–complete with what appear to be homemade costumes and sets that look incapable of withstanding a strong wind–is just icing on the cake.

The tawdry, sensationalist ethos of reality TV keeps trying to worm its way onto the big screen, first with The Real Cancun, and then this year with Games People Play, a grotesque exercise in voyeurism in which losers humiliate themselves for money. Like most reality-TV shows, Games People Play boasts a twist ending that will shock and surprise only people who'd never in a million years imagine that sleazy filmmakers and desperate actors would play fast and loose with the truth and/or audience expectations.


Scott Tobias

1. Before Sunset
When Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy parted on uncertain terms at a Vienna train station at the end of 1995's Before Sunrise, the question of whether they would ever meet again was left to debate by romantics and skeptics. On paper, the idea of answering such an open question seems misconceived, but with their swooning sequel Before Sunset, Hawke, Delpy, and director Richard Linklater return to an invigorating dialogue that was cut short nine years earlier. As it turns out, Hawke and Delpy's vivid memories of their magical night in Vienna have stayed with them, and their feelings for each other haven't dissipated in the interim.
2. Dogville
3. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind
4. Kill Bill: Volume 2
The decision to release Quentin Tarantino's sprawling grindhouse epic in two parts always seemed more motivated by marketing than aesthetics, but the wait for the emotional component absent from Kill Bill: Volume 1 was well worth it. As with the first half, the individual episodes in Volume 2 are still stylistic and kinetic marvels, particularly Uma Thurman's schooling under a sadistic Chinese master and her savage duel with Daryl Hannah in close quarters. But the real payoff–and the roots of Thurman's righteous quest for revenge–rests in her complicated relationship with the titular Bill, who's played with disquieting calm by the iconic David Carradine.
5. Sideways
6. Million Dollar Baby
7. Distant
Perhaps more than any other movie in 2004, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Distant needs to be seen in a theater: Remove the exquisitely subtle impact of its photography and soundtrack, and it would seem like nothing more than an especially skilled odd-couple comedy. Unfortunately, the film's perfunctory theatrical release denied that experience to just about everyone. In telling the story of a middle-class Istanbul photographer who grudgingly welcomes his slovenly cousin in his apartment, Ceylan favors camera and sound effects over dialogue and action to suggest their mutual feelings of loneliness and remove.
8. Los Angeles Plays Itself
The year's best piece of film criticism, Thom Andersen's dazzling cinema-essay on Los Angeles looks at his native city's history as a backdrop for the movies, and how it jibes–or, more often, doesn't–with reality. Andersen is a professor at Cal Arts, and he delivers what could be called a lecture in light, using a battery of film clips to back up some original and provocative insights, such as his backhanded praise of Dragnet for its dead-on depiction of how ordinary citizens are condescended to by the LAPD elite. Andersen accomplishes something rare: After seeing this documentary, it's hard to look at movies the same way again.
9. Primer
Shot on 16mm for $7,000, a feat that puts the digital revolutionaries to shame, Shane Carruth's chilling debut feature temporarily rescues science fiction from big-budget spectacle and returns the genre to its long tradition of idea-driven speculation. Without dumbing down the language and implications, Carruth starts with the concept of a homemade gizmo that can disrupt the space-time continuum, then slowly reveals its potentially apocalyptic ramifications. The more cryptic the film gets, the more frightening it becomes.
10. Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster

A bad marriage manifests as something truly dangerous in Cédric Kahn's white-knuckle thriller Red Lights, which is so tightly wound that a sequence of phone calls becomes the stuff of high suspense. Cued to Imelda Staunton's quietly heartbreaking turn as an abortionist, Mike Leigh's Vera Drake removes a divisive issue from mere polemic through its precise evocation of post-war, working-class British life. Martin Scorsese's The Aviator honors Howard Hughes' legacy with a big, unwieldy Spruce Goose of a movie held aloft by a budget-busting vision that a perfectionist like Hughes would have appreciated. Made on iMovie for $200 and change, Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation converts his troubled family history into a powerful, life-saving work of art. Family issues were also at the center of Pixar's The Incredibles, another computer-generated feature that deals with characters who have trouble squeezing into society's costumes.

Traipsing around half-shaven in a loose-fitting smock, usually with midday drink in hand, Jeff Bridges' character in The Door In The Floor seems like Long Island's answer to "The Dude" in The Big Lebowski: One goes for squash, the other bowling. But beneath his shambling exterior, Bridges reveals a soul that's been deeply eroded by family tragedy. When Bridges' finally gets around to talking about the accident that took his two sons, his devastating monologue is the film's emotional lynchpin.

While the Twilight Zone gimmickry and overweening hubris of director M. Night Shyamalan (Signs, The Sixth Sense) was probably ripe for a backlash, The Village was so badly received that its considerable virtues were tossed out with the bathwater. Shyamalan's old-fashioned, suggestive horror style finds an ideal partner in photographer Roger Deakins, who converts a fearful, isolated community into a nightmare of shadows and fog. And in the current political climate, the film's premise of leaders who stoke fears of evil beyond limited borders carries undeniable resonance.

The words "Oscar hopeful" should never precede any honest biopic about famed Indiana University sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, but Bill Condon's Kinsey was tasteful enough to get the prognosticators buzzing. Though superficially entertaining, the film suffers the usual biopic problems due to attempting to stuff a complicated life into a two-hour frame, so it winds up soft-pedaling Kinsey's sexual experimentation and the dangerous extremes of his rationality. It's Kinsey as viewed by a hopeless prude.

Torque's underground world of custom-tooled motorbikes promised an even faster and furiouser adrenaline fix than The Fast And The Furious, but Torque director Joseph Kahn, best known for his Britney Spears videos, has cut together a spastic movie only hummingbirds could understand. Any attempt to impart nouveau cool on nitro injectors and leather pants are undone by would-be badass hero Martin Henderson, a prissy metrosexual who coughs out lines like "I live my life a quarter-mile at a time" and wears a racing jacket that reads "Carpe Diem" in big letters.

After cravenly backing out of distributing Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, Disney tried to appease its nervous shareholders with America's Heart & Soul, a slick American Dream commercial that found no buyers. The cinematic equivalent of a Chicken Soup For The Soul book or a Successories poster, Louis Schwartzberg's docu-something-or-other dishes out five-minute quirky and inspirational segments, which travel from sea to shining sea without skimping on helicopter shots of purple mountains' majesty. It's a movie made for people who still believe America is the greatest country in the world, but need some reassurance, preferably from John Cougar Mellencamp.