January 6, 2005
Top Movies of 2004
Another year, another struggle to compile this list out of a couple of exceptional movies and a lot of minor disappointments. In previous years I didn't quite hit the conventional list size of 10 (11 in 2003, 9 in 2002, 11 in 2001) but this year, I pulled out all the stops, decided not to include Hero (great visuals, but basically just one long fight scene,) and hit my mark.
Many of these movies I've watched very recently as part of a mind-melting 7 movies in the last 5 days. And that's not even counting an agonizing half-hour of Beyond the Sea, which I sat through while waiting for The Woodsman to start, and yes, it is definitely the worst movie ever made. You see how much I love you? OK, here we go.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
This list is not ranked overall, but this is clearly the best movie of the year. If this was a ranked list, this one would take up places one through five, at least. A bewildering and tender look at love, loss, and the way our minds often work against us in clinging to memories that make our present lives miserable. Maybe the best we can hope for is to fall for the same person over and over again, but this movie is so gorgeous it makes it all seem worth it. Every single actor in this movie is incredibly good. One of the better movies, period.
Kill Bill 2
Cutting Kill Bill into two parts was a bone-headed move, but Part 2 is what gives all the action and style of Part 1 more meaning and context. Extended flashbacks, radical shifts in mood, and a lot more death and destruction. Uma is unstoppably cool.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Maybe this movie could have been better, but Wes Anderson's flawed characters fumbling through life work for me every time. Angelica Huston's private bemusement and wry smile would be fantastic anywhere, but do especially well here. Bill Murray and Owen Wilson are, as Rungu notes, masters of the deadpan.
A lot of people came down hard on this movie because they thought it was too mean: a 90-minute cinematic ass-kicking of some poor dork. Napoleon doesn't have the greatest social skills, but I genuinely like him and his friends and family. This movie was more of an affectionate picture of some freaky Idaho kids, though maybe some viewers weren't comfortable with how much they could relate to them. High school sucked, yeah, but this movie is awesome.
I still haven't seen Before Sunrise, mostly because of a long-standing aversion to Ethan Hawke. Maybe it's because he got taken down a few pegs when Uma dumped him and he was frequently spotted skulking around NY alone, muttering, looking like shit, and drinking in bars by himself, but he's lost a lot of that spazzy floppy-haired dipshit quality that used to be so irritating. This movie is sad and beautiful, all about regret, the fatalistic unfairness of life, and the loss of youth and idealism, but somehow it ends up being hopeful too. It also reminds us of a crucial fact that the recent Guardian piece on New Year Resolutions also mentions: once you hit a certain age (30, but who's counting?) you won't meet many people that you like or can connect with anymore, so make the most of what you've already got. Possibly the perfect Linklater movie.
Million Dollar Baby
After that pile of crap Mystic River, I didn't have the highest hopes for the latest in Clint Eastwood histrionics, but luckily, this movie is spare, clean, and cut close to the bone. It's a totally formulaic movie about life, death, boxing, and how to train with a speed bag. But up until the maudlin last half-hour, it is one tight, perfect little movie. It also features some outstanding muscles on Hilary Swank. In one scene in The Aviator, someone asks Howard Hughes in reference to boob-fest The Outlaw, "Is it possible to make an entire movie about Jane Russell's tits?" "Sure," Howard replies. "Who doesn't like tits?" Million Dollar Baby is, when you get right down to it, a movie entirely about Hilary Swank's biceps. We have no problem with that.
I'm not the biggest fan of this new big expensive blockbuster phase that Martin Scorsese is in, or his insistence on placing Leonardo DiCaprio at the center of his movies, but I admire how much he's tried to do with this installation. The Aviator is a big sloppy mess of a movie, and in a lot of ways, it's pretty bad. It can be interesting when moviemakers make movies about other moviemakers, and this presentation of Howard Hughes as a stubborn, obsessive, deranged genius innovator is compelling, especially in the context of Scorsese's own career. Leonardo is especially competent in playing the self-indulgent, protracted breakdown (Basketball Diaries, The Beach) and he gives Howard Hughes the full-on, batshit crazy treatment. This part is campy and absurd. What's a lot better are the scenes between Hughes and Katharine Hepburn--two outsider weirdos who find each other in the Hollywood scene. Also great is the depiction of the dirty collision of politics and business, with Alan Alda turning the slime-o-meter all the way up as a Senator in Pan Am's pocket. I don't know how much the real Howard Hughes really stood up to corporations trying to make policy, but it makes for a great movie.
The gay film noir we've all been waiting for. Almodovar's movies aren't usually this labyrinthine and complex, but all the overlapping stories, multiple roles of both characters and actors, and changing relationships between truth and fiction make this the best movie he's made in a while. Also tons of boy-on-boy action.
Kevin Bacon as a child molester that you recognize as sick and troubled, but you still root for him to overcome his problems and find some happiness. Kyra Sedgwick is really good at playing tough as nails and sexy at the same time. If you have any doubt that Kevin Bacon is a great actor, this movie should take care of that.
Dawn of the Dead
We're so glad the zombie movie has made such a strong comeback, and I'm a big fan of the new innovation of the really fast zombie. This movie is scary, funny, and thrilling, and it knocked The Passion of the Christ out of the number one box office slot the week it came out. What's not to love?
A few movies not on this list: The Motorcycle Diaries, Hotel Rwanda, and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, which I haven't seen yet. Also Sideways, which I avoided. When A. O. Scott says Sideways is the most overrated movie of the year, I pay attention. Also the previously mentioned Hero, Primer, Collateral, and Vera Drake, which were all very good, but just didn't quite make it.
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