2004's Top Ten Films

2004 may have been a bad year if you were a staunch Democrat or an avid Yankee fan, but it was a terrific year if you were a film lover. Independent films such as Garden State and Napoleon Dynamite broke through the art-house circuit and played in multiplexes. One documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11 , broke the $100 million dollar barrier and another, Super Size Me , was also a financial success. Both captured America's attention. Even The Passion of the Christ, which was highly overrated, still achieved something positive. It's not so much that it made money, but that it attracted new audiences to the theater, demographics that normally stay away in droves.

You might be asking why, if I'm presenting 2004 in such a favorable light, did so many critics harangue the year. I'm not 100 percent sure, but I think it's because most critics need to see each and every film Hollywood produces. In any given year, the majority of mainstream movies will be subpar. Has always been that way and always will. So when looking back, many critics focus on the crap. But you and I don't have to see every film. We can select wisely if there's enough quality to choose from. In 2004 there was more than enough, much of it coming from independent distributors or the specialty divisions of major studios. Even much maligned Hollywood had some stellar films, primarily from master filmmakers such as Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, and the crew from Pixar. They prove that the money you spend, the visual effects you use, and your marketing budget are all less important than whether you simply know how to tell a good story.

With that, I first offer my “Honorable Mention” list (in alphabetical order):

  • Collateral
  • Beyond the Sea
  • Fahrenheit 9/11
  • Finding Neverland
  • In Good Company
  • P.S.
  • The Sea Inside
  • Shrek 2
  • Spider-Man 2
  • Super Size Me

And now, my picks for the best of the year:

10. Million Dollar Baby (dir. Clint Eastwood)
Much has been made, and rightly so, of Eastwood's lean and mean directing style (few takes, films done on time and under budget). To me it's very simple. He finds an interesting story, hires talented actors and let's them do their jobs. He focuses on these actors and the story without anything self-conscious that would distract you. Certainly this was all true with Million Dollar Baby . The plot would seem to be a cliche. Frankie Dunn, a has-been boxing trainer, reluctantly trains Maggie, who would seem to be the unlikeliest of contenders. But the story avoids the easy traps both by giving its characters more depth than you would expect and by taking a surprising turn two thirds of the way in. It's about the relationships as much as Maggie's rise to the top. Also, while Million Dollar Baby is not a “boxing film” per se, it respects the art and skill in the sport, instead of depicting it as two people just pounding away at each other. Eastwood, as Frankie, plays old and crusty as he does so well, but also gives Frankie vulnerability. Morgan Freeman slides effortlessly into the role of Eddie, Frankie's friend and confidant. He and Eastwood have a chemistry that can't be faked. Hilary Swank, as Maggie, shows that her Oscar winning performance in Boy's Don't Cry was no fluke. She is totally convincing, both in the ring and out. Many directors decline when they hit their seventies; Eastwood just seems to grow stronger.

9. Kinsey (dir. Bill Condon)
Kinsey is a balanced look at Alfred Kinsey, a pioneer of the modern understanding of sexuality. The film examines Kinsey's effect on America and his effect on those around him. Condon deftly illustrates how Kinsey's strengths as a researcher: curiosity, single-mindedness and unwavering determination, were also his weakness as a human being. He strove to understand human behavior through purely scientific means, and somehow could not understand that what he did hurt his family and friends. Condon ingeniously frames his film through having Kinsey answer one of his own surveys, so you get to know both the man and his methods. As Kinsey, Liam Neeson grabs your attention from moment one, and holds it through the rest of the film. He not only sports an American accent, but he has the perfect Midwestern twang. Kinsey features other terrific acting, from Peter Saarsgard, John Lithgow, and especially Laura Linney as Clara, Kinsey's exasperated but understanding wife. Linney conveys so much in limited screen time, especially in one scene where Clara finally breaks down and tells Kinsey how much he has hurt her. There are still many people today who have a problem with Kinsey's research and its impact, but that should not take away from this fine film.

8. Hotel Rwanda (dir. Terry George)
Hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina saved hundreds of lives during the Rwandan genocide. As such, some call him the “Rwandan Schindler.” As Spielberg did with Schindler's List , writer-director Terry George and star Don Cheadle show how Rusesabagina used his natural business skills to bargain and negotiate for human lives. But Hotel Rwanda has a much smaller scope than Schindler's List , which, in a way, made George and Cheadle's job tougher. While Spielberg depicted atrocities on screen, George relies mostly on news reports, and characters describing what they saw. He places you in Rusesabagina's vantage point, so you stay in the hotel with him during much of the conflict. Cheadle not only has to be convincing as Rusesabagina, but also as the vehicle through which you experience the horror of what is happening. And that's not just the killing, but the unwillingness of the United Nations and its members to help. Cheadle's everyman presence is perfect for Hotel Rwanda , because you instantly identify with him and are wiling to follow him on his harrowing journey. George asks the questions that need to be asked, such as why this happened and why it was allowed to happen. He does all of this in a subtle way and never tells you how to feel. His understated direction and Cheadle's remarkable performance make Hotel Rwanda that much more powerful a film.

7. Kill Bill: Volume 2 – (dir. Quentin Tarantino)
The first Kill Bill ,with it's long knife and sword fights, represented a departure for Quentin Tarantino. The second is a more vintage Tarantino effort, where what happens before the violence is much more intriguing than the violence itself. Like many great sequels, Kill Bill: Volume 2 expands the scope of the original, so it's not just a simple revenge story anymore. The film delves into the Bride (Uma Thurman) and Bill's (David Carradine) complex relationship before he had her wedding party massacred. Tarantino has fun going back-and-forth in time, not just with the Bride and Bill, but with the Bride's training under the harsh wise man Pai Mei. As he did with the first movie, Tarantino pays homage to martial arts films and spaghetti westerns, but through doing so ends up with a completely original work. Thurman gives an even more well-rounded performance than she did in the first while, while Carradine, another Tarantino reclamation project gives Bill just the right amount of mystery and malice. Tarantino's dialogue crackles throughout, making Kill Bill: Volume 2 a worthy addition to his filmography.

6. Mean Creek (dir. Jacob Aaron Estes)
Mean Creek begins with a simple plot – a group of teenagers plot to have some harmless payback against a school bully. Then, even before the plan inevitably goes awry, writer-director Estes makes the situation much more interesting. He explores the characters' different motivations for the revenge plan and their complex relationships with each other. Then there's the bully himself, who is neither the pure rotten apple nor the misunderstood misfit that he could have been. He's both and neither. Estes then skillfully lets these motivations and relationships play out as the journey unfolds and the plan disintegrates. He presents these characters with tough moral choices and, rather than give easy answers, makes the audience struggle with them as they try to figure things out for themselves. All of the leads do some terrific acting, especially Josh Peck as the bully. One of the marks of a great ensemble film is that you believe that a separate film could be made about each character. That's certainly true of Mean Creek , which, like last year's Thirteen , is one of the most intelligent and honest films about teenagers in recent years.

5. The Incredibles (dir. Brad Bird)
The Pixar team makes it look easy, with one critical and popular hit after another (the Toy Story films, Monsters Inc. , Finding Nemo ). The Incredibles is no exception. Once again the film's greatest strength is not the computer animation, impressive as that is, but the writing. Pixar takes fantasy elements and put it into normal life, or perhaps it's the other way around. Who can't understand a middle-age guy longing for his youthful glory days? It's just in this case his glory days were as a superhero. Who can't identify with a mom struggling to manage a family. But suppose they all had superpowers. Writer-director Bird gets laughs from the contrast and interplay between the comic book world and domestic struggles. Bird used to write for “The Simpsons,” so it's no surprise that The Incredibles abounds with spoofs of comic book and superhero staples. But fear not, there's plenty of action too. If there was ever a film that had something for everyone – adults, teenagers, and kids, it's The Incredibles .

4. Maria Full of Grace (dir. Joshua Marston)
Many films have explored the drug problem in different ways, but none have focused on drug mules – people who smuggle drugs in their bodies. Writer-director Marston enters this uncharted territory through Maria Full of Grace . He does this through the story of Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno), an unemployed pregnant Colombian woman who sees becoming a drug mules as the only way to earn desperately needed cash. Martson wisely takes his time taking us through every step of Maria's journey – her recruitment, her training, the flight to America, and the aftermath. The sobering realization for Maria, and for us, is that getting caught is not her biggest concern. If even one of the drug pellets she swallowed breaks, she will die quickly. Marston interviewed many drug mules before writing the script, and it shows. Not one moment of the film feels forced or inauthentic. The flight sequence in particular stands out – no music, no obvious cues. It's just small glances from four drug mules on a plane who each know what's at stake. Yet it's a scene more riveting and tense than you'll find in most thrillers. Marston also found the right partner by casting Moreno, a first-time actress. Her quiet, restrained portrayal of Maria is one of the finest debuts in years. Moreno makes Maria's grit and determination just as natural as her initial naivete. Here's hoping that we'll see much more from Marston and Moreno in the future.

3. The Aviator (dir. Martin Scorsese)
In Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver , Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) called Travis Bickle a “walking contradiction.” She could just as easily described Howard Hughes the same way. Here's a man who test flew experimental aircraft himself but was afraid to touch a doorknob. How fitting then that it should be Scorsese who brings Hughes's story to the screen. The Aviator is great fun as it delves into Hughes directing career, Hollywood's golden age, and Hughes pioneering work designing and building aircraft. But Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan also explore Hughes's personal travails, as what seems to be harmless quirks grows into a controlling obsessive-compulsive disorder. As he did with Bickle and Jake LaMotta (in Raging Bull ), Scorsese shows an affinity for men struggling with their internal demons. He has an eye for the small details, from having the first part of the film look like an old Technicolor movie, to showing so many intricacies of Hughes later compulsions. Cate Blanchett delivers a dead-on Katherine Hepburn portrayal and Alan Alda also shines as a devious Senator. In the title role, Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a compelling, well-rounded, and versatile performance. He is equally convincing in all facets of Hughes life, so that you can accept these disparate elements as all part of one very complicated human being. The film's nearly three-hour length should not frighten anyone. Scorsese keeps the film moving at a brisk pace. The Aviator is simply Scorsese's best work since GoodFellas .

2. Sideways (dir. Alexander Payne)
Sideways has been so critically praised that some people think it must be overrated. It's not. Payne finds humor, drama, sadness and hope in a tale of two very dissimilar fortysomething friends. Miles, an insecure, frustrated aspiring novelist, and Jack a womanizing, unemployed actor, head off for a hedonistic week before Jack's wedding. As Miles is a wine connoisseur, Payne shifts the setting from his usual Nebraska to California's Napa Valley. Many of the laughs come from the interplay between Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church as Miles and Jack. Giamatti is hilarious as he displays Miles's frustration with Jack, his failed marriage, his stalled writing career, and life in general. Yet he is a gifted enough actor, and Payne is a skillful enough writer, to make Miles a full-bodied character. Giamatti expresses more through his face than many other actors do with pages of dialogue. Church also excels, as does Virginia Madsen as Maya, Miles's potential love interest, who has had her own hardships in life. It's also worth noting that while Payne gently pokes fun at wine afficionados, he also respects their passion and appreciation. In fact, he makes this an important part of the story and a window into Miles and Maya. The film underscores a basic human truth – that when we decide to be so passionate about something it's for what that thing brings out in ourselves.

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (dir. Michel Gondry)
By now, after writing Being John Malkovich and Adaptation , Charlie Kaufman has become a sub-genre in and of himself. You know a film with his name on it will be innovative, unusual, and funny, generally with a twisting narrative and often playing on some aspect of the human mind. This all holds true for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind , but this film is also earnest, heartfelt, and touching. It asks a basic, but difficult question: If you could have a bad memory erased, would you? Joel (Jim Carrey) thinks so and asks to have his memories of his romance with Clementine (Kate Winslet) eliminated after learning that she had done the same with him. But midway through the procedure, as he realizes that his warm memories of Clementine will also be lost, Joel reconsiders. Gondry tells the story through many quick interconnecting scenes, most of which take place within Joel's mind. He deftly uses low-tech effects to move from one memory to the other as they are each erased. Credit Carrey for dropping his usual hijinks in giving his most internalized, vulnerable performance. He and Winslet have terrific chemistry, which makes their characters' relationship work. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind suggests that memories are of the heart, not just the brain. By doing so, the film engages both.

Adam Spector
January 25, 2005

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