Sometimes a top ten list is a daunting task because there are too many good movies to include. This year, the problem was finding ten films that weren’t an embarrassment to recommend.
If 2004 had a theme, we could say it was the year of the political documentary. Most obvious was Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, which seemed to energize the right as much as it did the left. But even better than Fahrenheit were the more insightful, focused documentaries Control Room and The Corporation. And there were a handful of smaller films with a political message such as Going Upriver, WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception, and Bush’s Brain. It seems anyone with a video camera and a message can compete with the more standard Hollywood fare, at least in the art theaters.
Speaking of which, to see most of the films on our list this year, you’d have had to go to your local art house theater. I’d like to think that’s because of the mediocrity of studio movies and not the snobbishness of our staff. Is it just us, or was the Hollywood blockbuster particularly average this year?
In any case, we hope this list does more for you than just rehash the year in movies. Hopefully you’ll re-evaluate some films you didn’t appreciate the first time around. Maybe you’ll even learn about some good movies that you missed. We hope you are surprised with at least one film on this list, and we hope there’s at least one you haven’t seen yet.
Here they are:
10. Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring, Kim Ki-Duk
...because of the real-time storytelling and the sucessful reunion of two movie characters
...because of Jamie Foxx's other great performance of the year in a film with the power of Michael Mann and Tom Cruise
...because of all the political documentaries, this was the best and most honest
...because of all the political documentaries, this had the most important subject
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
...because of the fresh, original talent of writer Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry
The Girl with the Pearl Earring
...because it takes a fictional back story to a Dutch masterpiece and turns it into a cinematic work of art.
...because Pixar got Disney to release a movie that takes jabs at the modern parental establishment while providing nifty entertainment to young and old alike
...because it makes a re-timely case (CDC science falls prey to religious-political influence) for openness and honest inquiry about human sexuality
The Saddest Music in the World
...because of Guy Maddin's silent-era vision and his hilarious surrealism
...because of the wonderful, upside-down relationships
...because it took the time to develop its characters (a major departure from most blockbuster sequels) and served as a reminder to all that even super heroes have issues with the life balance equation
Super Size Me
...because Spurlock's stomach-turning one-man experiment showed in graphic detail how harmful the fast-food fix can be -- and revealed the reach of one person's voice (McDonald's has now phased out their Supersize drink and fry options)
Because it neatly and beautifully captures the human experience, from birth to death, from spring to autumn, and from joy to regret.
In Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring, the seasons stand in for the phases of a life. Knowing that, and knowing that the film is about a Buddhist monk, you can probably imagine what the film is like. But you still have to experience it firsthand to appreciate it. Each season offers its own vignettes, conflicts, and lessons. The overarching story is simply about one life.
As important as the cinematography is the inherent beauty of the valley and lake. Spring, Summer is a lush film and a rich visual experience. Soundtrack music plays occasionally, but it’s always welcome, never overbearing. It balances the long periods of silence as the few inhabitants of the houseboat meditate and communicate wordlessly.
Director Kim Ki-Duk plays the monk as an adult and is a wonderfully human actor. As a young man driven by hormones, he paddles donuts in the rowboat outside the house, spending his extra energy and showing off for a pretty girl. The performance is more obvious and less inspired when he returns in the autumn, but it still fits within the movie.
It’s hard to imagine anyone who would not appreciate this simple, beautiful, human, universal film.
9. Hero & House of Flying Daggers, Zhang Yimou
As of early June 2004, Hero is number 160 on the IMDB’s all-time highest-rated movies (Gone with the Wind is number 140). Like GWTW, Hero is a historical epic of love and war with spectacular color. Somehow, the movie exudes self-confidence, as though it were a foregone conclusion that Hero would be a great film.
The movie spends equal time in about six different timelines. There are flashbacks that reveal the past, and versions of the past, introducing a Rashomon-like sense of uncertainty. There are even mindscreen sequences and flashbacks within flashbacks. There is no confusion about which timeline is on-screen, because each gets its own color scheme. Director Zhang Yimou embraces color like no other director. Epic scope and gorgeous visuals combine with stirring emotion and great martial-arts entertainment to make a well-rounded movie.
House of Flying Daggers is the next film from director Zhang Yimou, the second released in the U.S. in 2004. The two make a great pair of movies. Both are martial-arts historical epics with outstanding senses of color. Both also have strong emotional components, ending with larger-than-life loves driving near-mythical endings. Zhang Ziyi, a slight woman of just 25 years, projects great power on-screen.
While mainstream audiences seem to think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the gold standard for big-budget wire-fu historical epics, I would rank both of Yimou’s martial arts movies above Crouching Tiger.
If you think you might wait for the DVD, don’t! As good as Hero looks on home video, it had noticeably less impact than it did in theaters, and I can only imagine House of Flying Daggers will be the same. See it in a theater on the biggest screen you can find.
Add House of Flying Daggers to my Rent List
Buy Hero now from Amazon.com
Buy House of Flying Daggers now from Amazon.com
8. Spartan, David Mamet
Because Mamet sets up an exciting situation, then lets you fend for yourself, rather than spoon-feeding you the plot.
Spartan is the first outstanding movie of 2004, although Spartan may disappoint the unprepared. It is an emotionally distant movie that aims to engage your brain, but not your heart. The entire plot is never spelled out for you, and the characters often behave coldly.
Mamet shows but doesn’t tell. None of the characters is an audience surrogate; nobody gets briefed on events, thus filling us in on the plot. The movie starts in media res, and even the sharpest audience won’t know what’s going on until several minutes into the film. People talk in code and in shorthand (this is the Secret Service after all), and until we are immersed in their world, we are a little lost. Mamet shows his characters going about their business, but they don’t stop to explain anything to us. It’s our job to keep up with them.
Spartan is a brilliantly structured movie that doesn’t get boring after the first 40 minutes, assuming you appreciate Mamet’s approach. If you’re looking for an easy bit of entertainment, try something else. Spartan demands you participate.
7. Tarnation, Jonathan Caouette
Jonathan Caouette has gotten good buzz for having made this Sundance favorite using old photos, film from various cameras, and answering machine tapes – and spending just $218 to edit his footage exclusively with iMovie. But the true magic of his autobiographical film Tarnation is in its intimate revelations of the sweetness amidst the damage of life, and in the filmmaker’s willingness to give himself fully to the monumental task of exploring his developing self and surroundings on film.
For Jonathan, his family is a source of pain and terror at the same time that it gives him an anchor, a home, love, and a place of silly joy. In the horrific narrative, Jonathan grew up in Texas with his mother, Renee LeBlanc. His father abused his mother and left them when Jonathan was young. Renee was diagnosed as schizophrenic when he was small, and she was raped in front of her young son. Jonathan spent years in foster homes where he was tied and beaten. But Jonathan seems to find refuge in front of his own camera.
Some say artists should strive to make the world better with their art, that artists owe it to people to give them something to help them up in their lives. In Tarnation, Jonathan Caouette edited his own life into a shape that affirms his love for his scratched and dented family, a gesture of hope and promise standing out from a bleak landscape. We owe Jonathan Caouette our gratitude for discovering how well, and how easily, film can capture the joyful glints of light on life’s surface as well as the terrors of the deep well of tragedy beneath.
6. Million Dollar Baby, Clint Eastwood
After last year’s Mystic River, Clint Eastwood is back on our top ten list. Eastwood and Morgan Freeman play gruff old trainers who own a dirty gym in California. A female boxer (Hillary Swank) shows up insisting on being trained by Eastwood, who has no interest in seeing another student get hurt by the sport.
Great cinematography shows the dirty silhouettes and shadows of their world. And Eastwood and Freeman make such a great pair of lifelong friends, they could make a movie of themselves sipping coffee for two hours and it would be entertaining.
Eastwood takes a long time to fully introduce all the characters, letting our first impressions be a little bit wrong. In the process, Eastwood shows how lazy we audiences have become watching mainstream movies that give us caricatures and archetypes that you really can peg in their first scene.
Million Dollar Baby is an unassuming film. It’s not glitzy or glamorous. It’s not an obviously great film. It’s just so solidly written, acted, photographed, and edited that it earns its spot on the list.
5. The Aviator, Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese’s biography on eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an all-around good movie. Biographies are often episodic, with too little time fleshing out individual scenes, and with too thin a thread connecting the scenes together. But The Aviator feels like a whole, complete movie, without oversimplifying Hughes’ life.
This sympathetic portrait includes all the crazy behavior one hears about in rumors. We see the obsessive-compulsive germ fear. We see him locking himself away in a room, never shaving, never trimming his nails, and saving jars of his urine. But the movie also portrays Hughes as a genuine innovator, a natural engineer with a solid grasp of aerodynamics. Most surprising and hardest to achieve, the filmmakers found a satisfying ending, a graceful exit for our visit with Hughes.
Watching the movie is great fun. The settings, costumes, and design are all outstanding. Los Angeles of the late 20s through early 50s all comes to life, not in black and white, but living color. The Aviator is a very good film, both in terms of craft and entertainment, and most moviegoers will be both entertained and impressed.
4. Ray, Taylor Hackford
The name Ray Charles instantly brings to mind classic songs like Hit the Road Jack and Georgia On My Mind and images of a man in sunglasses playing the piano, swaying back and forth while belting out songs with an unmistakable, forceful, impassioned voice.
Behind all that iconic imagery was a life full of torment and guilt. When Ray was only 5 years old, his younger brother, George, died. Within two years of George’s death, Ray would also go blind. But Ray’s mother was a strong willed woman who taught Ray to be independent and challenged him to never, ever let anybody write him off as a cripple.
The telling of those childhood- and character-defining events is both heartbreaking and inspirational. Without the power of sight, Ray cultivated an impeccable sense of sound and that finely tuned sense would go on to feed his musical diversity. He also had lady luck on his side; meeting up with a young Quincy Jones in Seattle would be one of many pivotal moments in Ray’s life.
While the pacing sags on occasion and there are moments when Foxx’s lip syncing is a wee bit off, there is so much to be admired in Ray that those faults are easily overlooked. It’s a remarkable piece of filmmaking when a movie captures the very soul of its inspiration. Ray accomplishes that feat as it exorcises Ray’s childhood demons, exposing the forces that drove Ray’s creativity, fueled by a heroin addiction and perpetual infidelity.
Foxx’s performance is a career-altering masterpiece. Early on in the film Foxx’s presence is lost and it is Ray Charles up there on the screen. Ray’s facial expressions, his attitude, his unruly gait and heroin-driven twitches are all there.
Ray tells the tale of a one-man musical and cultural revolution. His mix of gospel and soul music brought talk of fire and brimstone from the conservatives of the time, but it was Ray who would persevere, time and again.
3. Touching the Void, Kevin MacDonald
Because of the effective tension (unusual for a documentary with re-enactments) and the amazing true-life story.
Joe Simpson, Simon Yates, and Richard Hawking go on-camera to tell their story. They were traveling in Peru in 1985. Joe and Simon wanted to climb the West face of Siula Grande, which had never been climbed before. Because all three are interviewed, we know they all survived. If you don’t already know what an amazing ordeal they went through, you’re in for a nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat treat.
The interviews are warm and intimate, and the climbing footage is outstanding. The three climbers in my audience unanimously praised the movie for its authenticity. Some complaints about the movie are valid, but minor, and are overshadowed by the gripping, amazing story told so well.
2. Shaun of the Dead, Edgar Wright
Because within the multiple boundaries of a romantic zombie comedy, Shaun of the Dead is flawless.
As you can guess from the title, the film is a zombie movie that pays homage to George Romero’s wonderful “walking dead” trilogy. It opens in suburban London on Shaun (Simon Pegg) having a heart-to-heart with his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield). Their relationship is hanging by a thread. Simon has a day to prove her wrong, and he blows it. So instead, Shaun ends up getting drunk and commiserating with his roommate Ed (Nick Frost) at their favorite pub, oblivious to the blaring news reports and military vehicles and sirens streaming past outside.
One of the hallmarks of a good horror film — including Romero’s originals — is that it reveals humanity’s reaction to horror. Shaun of the Dead says that this generation can’t be bothered with current events; it also makes the point that many lower-paid workers are practically zombies anyway.
Eventually, Shaun and Ed realize they’re living in a zombie movie. Shaun calls to check on his mother and learns that his stepfather was bitten. Shaun formulates a plan: drive to his parents’ house, kill his stepfather (whom he never liked anyway), gather his mother, then get Liz and her roommates, and hide out at the pub. While it remains funny throughout, Shaun stays true to its dramatic and horror roots. Shaun of the Dead is not the funniest movie ever, nor is it the scariest. It may not appeal to everyone. But it is flawless.
1. The Return, Andrey Zvyagintsev
Because the dark fairy tale doesn’t compromise its perspective and doesn’t expose all its complexity after only one viewing.
Fables and fairy tales are often very dark and dreamlike. The universe runs on strange rules that are often capricious and dangerous. This perspective may be how the real world seems to a child, and it’s the way The Return looks to audiences. The protagonist is Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov), a petulant child of maybe 10 who is magnetically drawn to his older brother Andrei’s (Vladimir Garin) circle of friends. Standing in for capricious universal rules is father (Konstantin Lavronenko). Father had left them years ago, and he mysteriously returns one morning. Andrei (Garin) is happy father has returned, but Ivan can’t forgive the man who left, nor is he ready to give this stranger any respect.
The Return has a plot. It involves a fishing trip the three take together. But the plot is not what the movie is about, because it’s thin and seems to exist only for the interactions of the characters. Sometimes when a movie’s plot doesn’t seem to be what the film is “about” it pays to look at the emotions. Is the emotional arc of the story complete at the film’s end? In this case, the answer is also “no.” The emotional resolution wouldn’t come until some time after the movie ends. The best description of what the film is “about” comes from director Zvyagintsev himself, who says in the press notes that wants his film to be viewed mythologically.Luckily for him, the movie is good enough to survive his presumptuous statement. Like a dark fairy tale, The Return shows the universe of a child upset by the return of a capricious Zeusian authority figure who takes him on a long, strange trip.