Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Best Films of 2004

At first blush, it seemed the past calendar year hadn’t offered much in the way of quality cinema, what with the overabundance of crappy “blockbusters” and the lack of anything new from Middle-earth.
But as I began to seriously compile my “Best Films of 2004,” I realized something: I was wrong. Granted, I didn’t see every movie released in 2004, but I certainly went to enough to compile a competent list. I’m not going to say what follows are the absolute best, in that order, because who can say which of two or three great films is really better than another? How are you supposed to pick between the best comic-book adaptation ever put to film, arguably the best animated movie ever, and without question the most controversial Bible-based epic of all time? But, as they appealed to me (and me alone, forget what the “experts” say), here are my favorite films of 2004:

1. “The Passion of the Christ” — It’s hard for me to look at this film objectively, I admit, because it deals with subject matter absolutely essential to my existence. That said, I have never been more emotionally moved while sitting in a movie theater. I’m not likely to watch “The Passion” many times in my life, because I wouldn’t want to become desensitized to the brutality—and beauty—it depicts. But this is a film that will stay with me, I believe, for the rest of my life, certainly longer than any of the other films on this list—or any other, for that matter.
2. “Spider-Man 2” — After watching this incredible movie five times now, I have finally decided it is without a doubt the best comic book adaptation ever, besting the first two Superman installments, the second X-Men film, and Tim Burton’s original “Batman.” Writer/director/fanboy Sam Raimi made a movie about Peter Parker, not Spider-Man, with all of the former’s struggles, doubts, fears, and joys, giving this sequel a heart that even surpasses its style. Combine that with great performances from Tobey Maguire and Alfred Molina in the lead roles, as well as one of the best closing shots I’ve ever seen—comic book movie or no—and “Spider-Man 2” sets the bar so high, I can’t believe even Raimi himself can surpass it.
3. “The Incredibles” — Pixar has become maybe the only sure thing in all of Hollywood, and the animation studio certainly didn’t disappoint with this latest—and best—installment in a catalog that already includes several classics. Maybe I liked this one best because it was more an adult’s movie with some kiddie jokes rather than the other way around (Pixar’s M.O.), but it doesn’t really matter—the results speak for themselves. This tale of a super family trying to fit in hits on every level, so absorbing you forget you’re watching a cartoon. Director/writer Brad Bird has given us a masterpiece.
4. “Kill Bill Vol. 2” — What’s left to be said about Quentin Tarantino that hasn’t been said already? Nothing, probably, but I think his bloody duology was overlooked, especially by ol’ Oscar (as were all of the movies to this point on this list). In “Vol. 2,” the writer/director tones down the violence but amps up the character development for possibly the best results in his career. Uma Thurman is brilliant as the gritty, vengeful Bride, matched step-for-step by a wonderfully insidious David Carridine as Bill (his best role in, well, ever), setting the pace for an off-kilter tour-de-force only Tarantino can provide.
5. “Hotel Rwanda” — I am honestly shocked this gripping film was not even nominated for a best picture Oscar, since it is better than all five that made the cut. Don Cheadle gives the performance of a lifetime in the true story of a mild-mannered hotel manager forced to make tough decisions in a life-and-death situation. In a year when the entire world seemed to question America’s decision to free an oppressed people, “Hotel Rwanda” serves as an eye-opening reminder of how the world failed literally a million people just 10 years earlier.
6. “Finding Neverland” — Speaking of the best picture category, this nominee has no shot at taking home the gold this year, but it is my favorite of the bunch. This quiet film will break your heart without breaking a sweat, based on tremendous outings from Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet (more on her later), and newcomer XXXXX as the young boy on whom author J.M. Barrie based his classic “Peter Pan.” I am certainly no prude (see entry No. 4), but it’s refreshing to watch a movie that grabs you from word one without resorting to sex, violence, or general human degradation (if you want that sort of thing, go see any of “Neverland’s” best picture competitors). Only the hopelessly cynical will remain unfazed by this wonderful film.
7. “Hero” — Visually stunning with a story to match, this tale of a warrior willing to sacrifice his life to save his Chinese homeland will wow you. The cinematography is simply amazing, as director Yimou Zhang (whose latest, “House of Flying Daggers,” slipped through my fingers but is on the must-see-DVD list) weaves color, motion and martial arts together into one unforgettable tapestry of action and artistry. I can’t believe it took two years to get this movie to the States.
8. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” — What’s this? A movie that deals with the realities of love, not just kissy-face happy endings? And from Charlie Kaufmann (“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation”) of all people! But “Eternal Sunshine” takes off where most Hollywood romantic comedies leave off, as Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet struggle to deal with their relationship once the puppy love wears off and they see each other’s real selves. Some may be turned off the hyper reality characteristic of a Kaufman script, but stick with it—this one’s a keeper worthy of multiple viewings.
9. “The Bourne Supremacy” — While not as good as 2002’s original, this adaptation of author Robert Ludlum’s best-known series still delivered the goods. Matt Damon is almost mute as the former CIA black-ops amnesiac Jason Bourne, but that only complements the urgency provided by director Paul Greengrass’ shaky-cam style, culminating in what is certainly one of the greatest car chases ever filmed.

The Best of the Rest
Yes, the above list has only nine movies instead of the obligatory 10, but I limited myself to those films which really struck me. The remainder, in no particular order, is films I like and respect for their quality, but they didn’t quite hit that extra level.

• “13 Going on 30” — Who knew butt-kicking robobabe Jennifer Garner, star of the oh-so-great TV spy show “Alias,” could pull off a romantic comedy with seemingly no effort? But she is magnetic here, making you forget you saw essentially this same movie two decades ago with Tom Hanks in the lead (male) role.
• “The Aviator” — Martin Scorsese’s latest try at an Academy Award is an excellent exercise in filmmaking, but lacks substance. You essentially drop right into the middle of media/airline mogul Howard Hughes’ life, with only a couple of scenes giving any hints into why this Depression-era megastar was driven to near insanity and back again. Great performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett, as well as Scorsese’s magic touch, lift this movie out of mediocrity, but I was hoping for more than just style.
• “Collateral” — Nobody does taut, urban action like director Michael Mann (“Heat”), but even he stretches his already loose limits of believability in this one-night stand starring Tom Cruise as a mercenary who hijacks a cabbie (Jamie Foxx) to get him to all of his L.A. hits on time. The two male leads are absolutely phenomenal, but plot holes and a cliché mano y mano conclusion made this thriller a little disappointing.
• “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” — I can’t believe I just typed that title, considering how much I hated the first two installments in this series, adapted from author J.K. Rowling’s unbelievably popular set of books. But there is a completely different feel to this one, thanks in large part to dark subject matter (young wizard Harry is stalked by the man he believes killed his parents). All of the performers are 100 percent better this time around, and this is the first Potter movie to feel like an actual film, as opposed to merely a vapid, slavish translation of the text.
• “Million Dollar Baby” — Let the critics try and explain this movie’s ending away all they want, but it didn’t sit well with me—and not simply from some moral standpoint. I simply don’t agree with the argument that Hillary Swank’s tough-as-nails 34-year-old boxer would make the decision she makes at the end of this movie. That said, the performances from Swank, Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman are all Oscar-worthy, and the film is absolutely engrossing. However, much like “Mystic River,” I think this film will ultimately be seen as over-hyped and over-praised after this initial flush wears off.
• “Sideways” — This is a well-crafted drama disguised as a buddy-movie/romantic comedy, but it doesn’t have nearly as much to say as “Eternal Sunshine.” Much like “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Aviator,” “Sideways” is a mediocre story propped up by fantastic actors. Paul Giamatti had the misfortune of finding the role of his career in the same year several other men found similar gold, which left him without an Oscar nod. And while there are several laugh-out-loud scenes and a relatively uplifting conclusion, I feel like I’ve seen this movie many times before: Neurotic loser goes through a life-altering experience and tries to make some changes in his life. I’ll see your “Sideways” and raise you a “Graduate,” “American Beauty” and “Lost in Translation.” Been there, done that, seen the movie.