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The Year in Film – 2004

2004’s best films? Yeah, there were a few. Ignore the sequels and the remakes and the vanity productions, and there were a few movies that we might tolerate watching again. Here are the ones we thought were the very best. Here’s hoping for a great 2005!

— Christopher Null, Editor-in-Chief

Christopher Null

1. The Incredibles – I’m not the kind of guy that puts kiddie pictures in his top ten list every year. In 23 years, the only other time I had an animated film in the list at all was Toy Story in 1995, and I’ve certainly never given one my number one spot. Well, this year that changes, and I’m the guy that puts the Pixar movie at number one on the list. Well, sue me. The Incredibles is worthy of so many superlatives I don’t know where to start. It’s the best animated film ever made, it’s the best super-hero movie ever, it’s the funniest movie this year, and it’s clearly the best film of 2004. My only regret is that my two-year-old daughter isn’t old enough to see it yet. It’s a film I look forward to sharing with her for years down the road. When’s the sequel?

2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

3. Napoleon Dynamite – Buried under the Fox, Paramount, and — gulp — MTV labels, you might not believe that Napoleon Dynamite is actually a Mormon film, hence all the ‘Gosh!,’ though it never mentions the church once. And what a film it is. Whether you grew up in Salt Lake City or an L.A. barrio, Napoleon speaks to the Gen-Xer who grew up a healthy obsession with ninjas and nunchucks, with an uncanny ability to make us laugh. Would that all Mo-movies would dump the whole preaching plotline and start making movies about earnest losers who don’t curse.

4. The Manchurian Candidate

5. Garden State

6. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow – Savagely underrated, I thought Sky Captain could have been the next Indiana Jones. Oh well, its box office disaster doesn’t stop this clever blend of adventure, intrigue, and romance — and need I mention the dazzling technical achievement of having no sets at all — from being one of 2004’s standout pictures.

7. Sideways – Living in San Francisco, I visit the wine country six times a year, keep a small wine cellar, and write about wine whenever anyone will pay me to do so. As such, I’m not sure if Sideways is celebrating people like me or making fun of them. No matter, it’s still the sleeper hit of the year and destined for Oscar greatness. All hail Virginia Madsen!

8. The Aviator – It’s fine by me for Leonardo DiCaprio to keep making one movie every other year as long as the performances are as earnest and layered as this one. Scorsese’s done better work, but this is still an impressive effort.

9. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring – Everything you know about Buddhist monks is wrong. This Korean epic — with an admittedly awful title — comes off as a more impressive, more meaningful, and lushly gorgeous version of The Karate Kid. Living in a hut down by the river never looked so good.

10. Love Me If You Dare – Tragically underseen, leave it to the French to show us how to reinvent the romantic comedy. It’s on DVD now: Trust me, it’s a winner.

Honorable mention: Before Sunset, Spartan, The Dreamers, Shaun of the Dead

Worst of the year: Twisted (edging out Garfield: The Movie)

Biggest disappointments: The Terminal, Spider-Man 2, Ocean’s Twelve, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Saw, Closer

Underrated: The Village, Wicker Park

Movies that made me physically ill (I mean that in a good way): Super Size Me, Maria Full of Grace

Best cameo: Neil Patrick Harris, Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle

Best observations: ‘It says ‘balls’ on your face.’ (Garden State); ‘That don’t sound so good, Bill Murray!’ (Coffee and Cigarettes)

Worst opening credits: Wimbledon

Missed: Finding Neverland

Jeremiah Kipp

1. Crimson Gold – Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi explores the chasm between upper and lower class, and the daily humiliations in-between. His way of tackling such a disconcertingly broad topic is to open with an unsettling robbery gone wrong, where a disgruntled pizza deliveryman (and war veteran) botches everything and winds up killing the proprietor, then himself. Flashing back to several weeks earlier, we discover the slow progression of events that built towards this fatal moment. A series of episodes follow, many involving him delivering pizzas in Tehran’s war torn streets and into the palatial surroundings of the wealthy. But the film does not mock the rich, and many scenes stand out in their moral ambiguity. Our hero is blocked from delivering to a young person’s party, where the police are arresting the bourgeois for public displays of affection and drunken folly. The denouement of this scene is deeply poignant, when our hero hands out pizzas to the cops. But discomfort increases as the film draws on, and hopefully parallels to films like Taxi Driver will get audiences to seek out this disturbing social satire.

2. Twentynine Palms – French director Bruno Dumont sets this uncompromising horror film in the sun-baked deserts of California, as two squabbling lovers (an American photographer and his Russian girlfriend) search through the desert for images. But mostly what they do is screw each other and fight, and as the tensi
on mounts between them the spectator gets the terrible feeling that something awful is out there in the desert waiting to completely annihilate them… if they don’t kill each other first. Few horror films of recent years tap into such a terrifying existential crisis: the terror of existing in this world, and trying to deal with another person whom you both love, hate, fear, and cannot live without.

3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – When dejected ex-boyfriend Jim Carrey attempts to erase his memories of wild child Kate Winslet by way of a clinic that specializes in memory wipes, Eternal Sunshine taps into something profound: that our memories, both good and bad, comprise who we are today. To strip them away is to destroy our life’s meaning. Dizzying and surrealistic, Carrey’s memories and his fantasies start to merge, creating some of the most colorful and provocative fantasy sequences of recent years. Music video director Michel Gondry leaps to the top of the list of ‘Breakout Directors of 2004’, and Carrey’s straight laced performance reminds us that there’s a terrific actor underneath the comic buffoon.

4. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou – More like a Victorian novel than a movie, Wes Anderson follows up The Royal Tenenbaums with another tale of epic scope with a dozen major characters. But basically this one is about an irresponsible father (the great Bill Murray) who never connected with his long-lost son (Owen Wilson) because he was always running around making oceanographic documentaries with his zany team of compatriots (a who’s who of great character actors including Willem Dafoe as his control freak assistant Klaus and Bud Cort as ‘the bond company stooge’). This colorful adventure-comedy follows Murray’s Steve Zissou tracking the fish that killed his best friend, and though it features hilarious digressions along the way involving pirates, drunken fights over a beautiful journalist (Cate Blanchett), kidnappings and daring escapes, and a poignant death scene, at heart The Life Aquatic is a melancholy look at a middle aged man wondering if his life’s work meant anything at all. To his credit, Anderson admires Steve Zissou for all his foibles. After all, like Anderson, he’s obsessed with his craft, and the emotions he attaches to it.

5. The Brown Bunny – Don’t go in thinking that actor-writer-director-editor-cinematographer-composer Vincent Gallo’s vanity project was 80 minutes of boring travel footage documenting his drive across America (through a bug specked windshield) leading up to the narcissist getting a blow job by Chloe Sevigny. All right, that’s exactly what the movie is. But it’s got the vibe of a rainy afternoon when you’re listening to your favorite records all day long, and is a tone poem about a lonely lost soul whose self-love ultimately doesn’t make his life any better. A vanity piece perhaps, but an undeniably affecting and unflinching portrait of machismo covering up frailty.

6. The Woodsman – This quiet, subtle portrait of a child sex offender just released from prison is told with admirable intelligence and restraint. Kevin Bacon doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of this monster, but his steady and dimensional performance also treats him as a human being. He’s given excellent support by Kyra Sedgwick as his strong-willed girlfriend and Mos Def as an eerily contemplative detective waiting for him to fail. The cinematic style is 1970s grainy naturalism, which gives this lived-in drama a feeling of immediacy. First time director Nicole Kassell sometimes falls into broad allegory, but she also understands how stillness can be cinematic; and she’s simply brilliant at working with actors.

7. Family Portraits: A Trilogy of America – The suburban family doesn’t always know how to communicate, or so says independent filmmaker Douglas Buck. This triptych starts out with Cutting Moments, about a family crisis that ends in mortifying gore movie bloodshed. It is followed by Home, where a deeply Christian dad finds his family in revolt and uses strong measures to solve the problem. These deadly and visceral sections are followed, ironically, by Prologue, where the survivor of a sex attack confronts her assailant and they both learn the possibility, and the haunting nature, of forgiveness. Douglas Buck is still mostly known among the underground film community, but that may change next year when he remakes Brian De Palma’s Sisters. Keep an eye out.

8. The Manson Family – This sleazy collage of fake documentary footage looks like it was dug out of some drive-in’s archives. Jim Van Bebber’s unrelenting, violent, and psychedelic trip into the Manson cult of celebrity is far more in your face about our taste for glib violence than anything in Oliver Stone’s comparatively naïve Natural Born Killers. Like Douglas Buck, Van Bebber is a staple of the underground community, and though The Manson Family is unlikely to garner him any mainstream acceptance it’s also single-minded in its apocalyptic vision…and much more frightening than this year’s popular remake of Dawn of the Dead.

9. The Manchurian Candidate

10. Baadasssss! Was Melvin Van Peebles trying to change history? ‘No, I was trying to get the man’s foot out of my ass!’ His son, Mario Van Peebles, directs and stars in this dramatic recreation of the filming of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song, resulting in a cathartic family portrait (Mario was in his dad’s film) and a self-mythologizing story of a filmmaker’s struggle to retain his vision and ultimately persevere.

Honorable mention: The Dreamers, Hero, The Aviator, The House of Flying Daggers, The Chronicles of Riddick, Zatoichi: The Blind Assassin, Sideways

Worst of the year: Kevin Spacey’s Beyond the Sea

Badasses of the year: Mario Van Peebles in Baadasssss! and Takeshi Kitano in Zatoichi: The Blind Assassin

Overrated: Vera Drake, Kinsey, Collateral, Fahrenheit 9/11, Kill Bill: Vol. 2, Code 46, Dogville, The Passion of the Christ

Missed: The Incredibles, Son Frere, Bad Education, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, Million Dollar Baby

Sean O’Connell

1. Garden State The year’s most welcome surprise springs from a first-time filmmaker best known for his contributions to a criminally ignored sitcom. Scrubs standout Zach Braff manages a trifecta – writing, directing, and starring in a heartfelt, hilarious, and truthful gem that molds a lasting impression of the listless Generation X. Braff’s confidence guides every scene, and his script crackles with thoughtful social observations and clever pop culture toss-offs. As an actor, he allows his sharp comedic timing to slowly emerge from underneath his character’s medicated haze. Did I mention Braff received a Grammy nomination for his film’s moody, gorgeous soundtrack of memorable pop tunes? State lingered with me longer than any film this year. I’m dying to see what Braff does next.

2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

3. Finding Neverland Kate Winslet is touching as the widowed mother of four rambunctious boys who inspire playwright J.M. Barrie (a fantastic Johnny Depp) to pen Peter Pan. Director Marc Forster, following up the vicious Monster’s Ball, taps directly into Barrie’s endless pools of imagination to produce a whimsical glance into an artist’s creative process.

4. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban How ironic that a story dealing with an escaped prisoner actually manages to set the Potter franchise free. The young cast rises up to meet the mature material, the effects enhance the story (not overwhelm it), and the series finally feels fully grown, thanks in large part to the injection of fresh juices provided by filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron.

5. Million Dollar Baby Clint Eastwood rebounds from the overly melodramatic Mystic River to tell the tragic tale of a stubborn boxing trainer and the protégé (Hillary Swank) he takes under his wing. Initially a by-the-bootstraps account of a determined dreamer beating her way to the top, Baby eventually swings for deeper territories and connects with the impact of a Mike Tyson uppercut.

6/7. Super Size Me / Metallica: Some Kind of Monster Two documentaries about excess, both overflowing with humorous insight into the human condition. Morgan Spurlock feasts on McDonald’s for one month, and turns his probing cameras on a growing nation of fast food fanatics. Meanwhile, Metallica captures the monsters of metal during a time of crisis, and conveys how difficult it can be for close-knit individuals to coexist.

8. The Passion of the Christ Controversy aside, Mel Gibson’s labor remains an astonishingly focused undertaking from a devoted filmmaker passionate (no pun intended) about his material. Detractors protesting the violence overlook Gibson’s dedication to Christ’s final journey, brutal as it may be. In telling that story, Gibson produces an exquisite spiritual masterpiece, an uncompromising statement of religious conviction that’s unflinching in its hardened approach yet never untrue to its faith.

9. The Assassination of Richard Nixon – Sean Penn received his first Oscar for Mystic River, but earns the trophy in Nixon. Penn disappears into Samuel Bicke, a beleaguered salesman seeking to improve his admittedly poor lot in life who grows increasingly disgusted with the corruption levels stifling the American government circa 1974. Niels Mueller’s debut fashions legitimate modern history into a haunting portrait of a loner at the end of his rope.

10. Before Sunset

Honorable mention: 13 Going on 30, Coffee and Cigarettes, Closer, Dogville, The Five Obstructions, Hero, Hotel Rwanda, Intermission, Ladder 49, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Manchurian Candidate, The Motorcycle Diaries, Ocean’s 12, The Sea Inside, Shrek 2, Sideways, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, The Terminal, Touching the Void, Vera Drake, The Village, The Yes Men

Worst of the year: Raise Your Voice

Welcome back! Where’ve you been? Virginia Madsen, Sideways

Underappreciated: The Terminal, The Village, Catwoman (which was hilarious!)

Overappreciated: The Bourne Supremacy, Open Water, Spider-Man 2

Worst ‘sequel’: Kill Bill: Vol. 2

Outstanding in tiny doses: Dustin Hoffman, Finding Neverland and Alec Baldwin, The Aviator

Best half-a-movie: First half, Collateral

Norm Schrager

1. Sideways – Anyone describing Sideways with phrases like ‘romantic comedy’ and ‘beautiful wine country’ is full of crap. The beauty of this twisted tale is that Alexander Payne’s filmmaking style is both familiar and enormously indefinable. Sideways looks like a buddy movie. A road picture. A light travelogue. It is all of these, and none of these, with an unforgiving script that hints at genres and then swiftly breaks mold without parody or mimicry. Sideways is a skewed look at lost hearts, lost opportunities, and two men of questionable character. There’s always more than meets the eye or, should I say, the palate.

2. The Manchurian Candidate – Jonathan Demme makes you forget every average remake with this ranting explosion of corruption and relentless American paranoia. Denzel Washington is a study in fear and Meryl Streep embodies chilled obsession in this futuristic, bulls-eye update. Most vital in this visual masterpiece is the idea that, yes, a major world power will shamefully ignore its own military heroes as ne

3. Good Bye, Lenin! – German filmmaker Wolfgang Becker weaves this mischievous tale about the love of both mother and motherland as a young man goes to outrageous lengths to convince his socialist mom — fresh from a coma — that her beloved East Germany is still intact in 1990. An exciting, authentic sense of revolution is palpable throughout.

4. Bad Education – Pedro Almodóvar secures his place as this era’s cinematic genius with this overstuffed, sharply acted masterwork about story, fantasy and memory. A case of sexual abuse in the church lives in a story within a screenplay within a noirish plot… the result is wonderfully dizzying and nearly uplifting. Gael García Bernal, in multiple roles (kind of), elevates himself to the highest echelon of today’s young actors.

5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

6. Dawn of the Dead – As the undead skulk through mediocre ultra-moody films, this redux, lock-and-load zombie epic simply kicks ass. With an indie-vet cast and a perfect flurry of suspense and humor, director Zach Snyder hits the mark, right from the opening credits.

7. The Incredibles

8. Maria Full of Grace – How can a film with such grave subject matter — Colombian women smuggling drugs via their digestive tracts — wash so gently over an audience? First-time feature filmmaker Joshua Marston uses a somber, matter-of-fact style that feels thoroughly human, never forced or exploitive.

9. Spanglish You know those ‘feel good’ films, where a plucky low-income dreamer gets a shot at success after winning over a stuffy upper-class somebody? This movie ain’t one of ’em. Thank God and thank James L. Brooks.

10. The Story of the Weeping Camel – If movies can transport an audience, then this is the best trip of the year. Fact meets fiction (or does it?) during one camel herding season in the Gobi Desert. Inviting and completely lacking artifice.

Honorable mention: I’m Not Scared, Miracle, Coffee and Cigarettes, Kill Bill: Vol. 2, Before Sunset

Let’s see more of you: Julie Delpy, Paul Giamatti

Let’s see less of you: Ben Stiller (Along Came Polly, Starsky & Hutch, Envy, Dodgeball, Meet the Fockers)

Best ending: Open Water, I’m Not Scared

What the hell am I doing here!?: Robert De Niro in Godsend

Most wasted cast: The United States of Leland

Most wasted cast: Coffee and Cigarettes

Pete Croatto

1. Before Sunset Many of 2004’s acclaimed releases came packaged in heady concepts (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), drenched in irony (Napoleon Dynamite), or look-at-me directorial prowess (Garden State, Closer). Richard Linklater’s follow-up to his terrific 1995 drama, has reunited lovers Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke walking and talking. It’s a stirring reminder that great characters and great words make movie magic, and that time and mistakes can’t destroy what true love builds.

2. Dawn of the Dead

3. Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! – Laugh at me, I don’t care. Good romantic comedies are hard to find. Seeking great romantic comedies with laughs, charm, and fully realized characters written or directed by someone not named Richard Curtis is a fool’s errand. It even survived Sean Hayes and Nathan Lane. I still can’t believe this movie flopped.

4. Control Room Yes, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 got a lot of attention, and rightly so. It spurred public debate in an election year, but Jehane Noujaim’s revealing documentary of the Al-Jazeera Arab news network showed how the United States really fought the war in Iraq — with a combination of might and PR savvy.

5. Sideways

6. Red Lights – A middle-aged Parisian couple’s drive to pick up their kids from camp quickly turns into a domestic nightmare. Director Cédric Kahn masterfully turns a parable on manhood into a twisty, intelligent and wholly satisfying psychological thriller. It’s like American Beauty played out on a long car trip.

7. Super Size Me

8. Finding Neverland

9. Kinsey Anchored by a slew of good performances (Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, John Lithgow), Bill Condon’s profile of the sex expert shows the man’s massive contributions to the country’s social landscape, while showing how sex can liberate and condemn.

10. Shrek 2 – With the hubbub surrounding The Incredibles, a lot of people have forgotten about America’s favorite ogre. The animation, story, and voice work were improvements over the 2000 original, which was first-rate. I’d rank it higher, but songs by Ricky Martin and Counting Crows were prominently involved.

Honorable mention: Maria Full of Grace, The Motorcycle Diaries, Teacher’s Pet, Wilbur, Anchorman

Worst of the year: My Baby’s Daddy (edging out Never Die Alone)

Overrated: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Mean Girls, Garden State, The Incredibles, We Don’t Live Here Anymore, Collateral, Spider-Man 2, The Dreamers, The Mother, Napoleon Dynamite, Bon Voyage, Rosenstrasse

Good performances in bad movies: Will Patton in The Punisher; Clive Owen in Closer; Jeremy Northam in Bobby Jones, Stroke of Genius

Best use of talent: Lynn Redgrave and William Sadler are onscreen for about three minutes total in Kinsey and they’re both memorable.

R.I.P.: Kevin Smith, independent film maverick

Missed: Spartan, Friday Night Lights, Team America: World Police, Dogville, In Good Company, The Aviator
BONUS: 15 Top Tens — “clip ‘n’ save”

Christopher Null
1. The Incredibles
2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
3. Napoleon Dynamite
4. The Manchurian Candidate
5. Garden State
6. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
7. Sideways
8. The Aviator
9. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring
10. Love Me If You Dare
Jeremiah Kipp
1. Crimson Gold
2. Twentynine Palms
3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
4. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
5. The Brown Bunny
6. The Woodsman
7. Family Portraits: A Trilogy of America
8. The Manson Family
9. The Manchurian Candidate
10. Baadasssss!
Sean O’Connell
1. Garden State
2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
3. Finding Neverland
4. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
5. Million Dollar Baby
6. Super Size Me
7. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
8. The Passion of the Christ
9. The Assassination of Richard Nixon
10. Before Sunset
Norm Schrager
1. Sideways
2. The Manchurian Candidate
3. Good Bye, Lenin!
4. Bad Education
5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
6. Dawn of the Dead
7. The Incredibles
8. Maria Full of Grace
9. Spanglish
10. The Story of the Weeping Camel
Pete Croatto
1. Before Sunset
2. Dawn of the Dead
3. Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!
4. Control Room
5. Sideways
6. Red Lights
7. Super Size Me
8. Finding Neverland
9. Kinsey
10. Shrek 2
Chris Barsanti
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2. The Aviator
3. Million Dollar Baby
4. Before Sunset
5. Kinsey
6. Collateral
7. Touching the Void
8. Garden State
9. The House of Flying Daggers
10. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Nicholas Schager
1. The House of Flying Daggers
2. Bad Education
3. The Big Red One: The Reconstruction
4. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead
5. Million Dollar Baby
6. Crimson Gold
7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
8. Sideways
9. Zatoichi
10. Team America: World Police
Eric Meyerson
1. The Incredibles
2. Sideways
3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
4. I Heart Huckabees
5. Kill Bill: Vol. 2
6. Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman
7. Shaun of the Dead
8. Shaolin Soccer
9. The Bourne Supremacy
10. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
David Levine
1. Maria Full of Grace
2. Touching the Void
3. Finding Neverland
4. Sideways
5. Garden State
6. Closer
7. Super Size Me
8. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
9. I’m Not Scared
10. The Incredibles
Blake French
1. Imaginary Heroes
2. The Passion of the Christ
3. The Door in the Floor
4. Collateral
5. Kill Bill: Vol. 2
6. Shaun of the Dead
7. Shrek 2
8. Sideways
9. The Girl Next Door
10. Team America: World Police
Jesse Hassenger
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2. Kill Bill: Vol. 2
3. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
4. The Incredibles
5. Spider-Man 2
6. Napoleon Dynamite
7. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
8. Garden State
9. Undertow
10. Million Dollar Baby
Jules Brenner
1. The Incredibles
2. Collateral
3. Maria Full of Grace
4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
5. The Aviator
6. Finding Neverland
7. Kill Bill: Vol. 2
8. Fahrenheit 9/11
9. Million Dollar Baby
10. The Bourne Supremacy
Jay Antani
1. The Aviator
2. Before Sunset
3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
4. The Return
5. DiG!
6. Bukowski: Born Into This
7. Fahrenheit 9/11
8. Father and Son
9. Vera Drake
10. Collateral
David Thomas
1. Before Sunset
2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
3. Hero
4. The Incredibles
5. The Passion of the Christ
6. The Five Obstructions
7. A Very Long Engagement
8. Friday Night Lights
9. Garden State
10. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle
Rachel Gordon
1. Bad Education
2. Hero
3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
4. The Saddest Music in the World
5. The Brown Bunny
6. Moolade
7. The Incredibles
8. Mettalica: Some Kind of Monster
9. The Five Obstructions
10. The Motorcycle Diaries
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