The Best Films of 2004 and The Year in Film

The Best Films of 2004 and The Year in Film (a slightly different version of this article appeared in The Star newspapers and www.reelmovicritic.com.)

2004 was an excellent year for film. This is the first time I’ve written that in my decade of doing year-end movie columns. There were too many exceptional films for one person to see and the vast majority were art films.

I had much more trouble than usual deciding which 10 films to put on my list. Most of my top 5 came out before the December rush, and the good stuff was a bit more spread out this year. I feel most critics are a bit too influenced by last minute hype, critics’ group votes, and unlike elephants, critics tend to have short memories.

My favorite films of the year tended to respect audiences’ intelligence, dash audience expectations, take stylistic risks, and explode or modernize traditional genres. "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" was one of the only films that tried to appeal both to the heart and mind equally, and some of its best scenes take place in a human mind. "Dogville" takes Lars Von Trier’s martyred woman theme and transposes it in a neo-noir drama/ parody context. Then when you think you have it figured out, it takes a 90-degree turn in the end.

It’s difficult to identify any dominant trends that make this year different than any other. But if I had to come up with a title for this year in film, it would be "Revenge of the Senior Citizens." Five of my top ten films were made by filmmakers over 50. Martin Scorsese, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Clint Eastwood delivered films that were livelier, fresher, and more relevant than their rookie peers.

The year’s real find was "Moolaade," made by the 81-year-old Senegalese filmmaker, Ousame Sembene. Sembene is an internationally known film master, and he has been working since the ‘60s, but this was the first of his films to receive wide distribution in the USA. This seems to me to be an aesthetic crime.

There were also some terrific films done by younger filmmakers. "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" was the year’s most original piece of film making and the feature film debut of Michel Gondry, and there were also some great films put out by David Gordon Green ("Undertow"), and "Sideways," which just missed my top 10.

In 2004, the documentary continued to make great inroads into the mainstream. Michael Moore’s "Fahrenheit 911" made unexpected high profits, and opened the door for a flood of documentaries. "Supersize Me" gleefully aped Moore’s editing style and humorous narration, but the best documentaries of the year moved to the beat of a different drummer. There were fine documentaries on a wide variety of subjects including media bias ("Control Room" and "Outfoxed"), right wing conspiracies and the military/industrial complex ("Hijacking Catastrophe" and "The Hunting of the President), Many took on left wing political issues, and were a healthy alternative to right wing fascist radio.

There were great music documentaries dealing with almost every conceivable genre including blues ("Lightning in a Bottle’), jazz (the Cecil Taylor film, "All the Notes"), progressive German rock ("Can-the documentary"), punk ("The Ramones-End of the Century"), and heavy metal ("Metallica: Some Kind of Monster’). "Touching the Void" was an intriguing tale of a mountain climber who gets stuck on a high peak. But only "The Corporation" proved a serious challenge to "Fahrenheit 911" for the best documentary mantle.

Martial arts films also had an unusually strong year. The Asian/blaxploitation influenced "Kill Bill Vol. 2" equaled the first one, and deepened the characters. Zhang Yimou had a great year. He released two superb back-to-back martial arts films, "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers." In addition, Takeshi Kitano’s "The Blind Swordsman: Zaitoichi" also had many great moments, and a terrific unexpected ending which included comic dancing.

Now, for the negative. It was also a year filled with bad remakes. Was it really necessary to do an inferior version of "Shall We Dance," that miscasts Richard Gere, when the original was already almost perfect? Why not just spend a little more effort in turning the original into a hit, instead of playing it at three theaters? "

The Grudge" was an unimpressive remake of an unimportant film, made to capitalize on newfound success of Asian horror flicks and the celebrity of Sarah Michelle Gellar. And the big budget remake of "Dawn of the Dead’ was an abomination. It took out the sly humor, dark comedy, and submerged social commentary that made the original successful. The recent "Shaun of the Dead" and Rusty Nails’s "Acne," and the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s music video for "Y Offender" were far more successful homages to George Romero. The only worthwhile remake I saw all year was "The Manchurian Candidate." It didn’t manage to match the original, but at least it successfully updated it, and gave it a new spin.

"The Passion of the Christ" kicked off a revival in religious theme films such as "The Gospel of John" and overstuffed historical biographical epics such as "Troy." But I for one was a bit perplexed by the enormous popularity of "The Passion." It reduces Jesus to the biggest victim of police brutality, and ignores his poetic words and teachings. It doesn’t even come close to matching some of the other versions of the Christ story. "Jesus of Nazareth," "The Gospel According to Matthew" and "Last Temptation of Christ" were infinitely more effective. The most entertaining film I saw on the screen all year was the Music Box theater revival of the 1963 classic, "Dr. Strangelove," and I had already seen the film at least five times. Great films tend to get greater with time. Well without further adieu, here are my favorite new films that were released in theaters this year.

1.) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind- Devilishly clever film about a shy man getting over a bad relationship, who goes to a doctor to get the painful memories artificially removed. Michel Gondry creates a whole imaginative world inside the character’s mind, and the film artfully delves into the themes of love and predestination. Kate Winslet has never been better as Carrey’s unstable but loveable ex. The film’s script is as inventive as his previous films, "Adaptation,’ and "Being John Malkovitch," but it has more heart.

2.) Dogville-Nicole Kidman is a mysterious woman on the run who settles in a small town that is less innocent than it seems. Lars Von Trier’s audacious minimalist neo noir has hardly any sets, and it brilliantly satirizes and deconstructs "Our Town" and other plays about small towns.

3.) Moolaade- A courageous woman clashes with her village elders when she tries to protect four girls from female circumcision in Senegal. The film also deals with the culture clash between new and traditional values, and it’s like the flip side of "Things Fall Apart." The 81-year-old Ousmana Sembene delivers a film far more fresh and relevant than most filmmakers half his age. This inspirational film is never heavy handed and has some unexpected comic moments.

4.) The Saddest Music in the World- A beer baroness/amputee, played by Isabelle Rossellini, holds a most unusual competition in Canada during the depression. Different musicians representing several countries compete against each other to see who can sing the saddest song. There is also a fascinating love triangle between a smooth talking Broadway producer, a nymphomaniac, and the producer’s amnesiac brother who doesn’t remember whether he was married to her. Guy Maddin’s gorgeous homage to German expressionism was shot on 8 millimeter in black and white, and it looks like a lost classic from 1931. It’s the year’s boldest, oddest and most successful stylistic experiment.

5.) Kill Bill Vol.2-Quentin Tarantino continues his visually dazzling saga of a woman who tries to achieve revenge against the savage assassins who killed her wedding party. Uma Thurman gives a sizzling performance as the Bride and she has great romantic tension with the Bill character. 6.) Million Dollar Baby-Director Clint Eastwood is a cynical trainer who reluctantly takes a young female boxer under his wing. She comes from a trailer trash background so she has nothing to lose, and the manager becomes a surrogate father. Eastwood and Swank have great chemistry, and this may be the most exciting and tragic sports film since "Raging Bull."

7.) Fahrenheit 9/11-Michael Moore’s hysterical left wing documentary takes aim at the Bush administration using hyperbole, ironic musical sequences and riveting interviews. This film deserved its critical acclaim and tremendous popularity and Moore is always more credible than his opponents.

8.) The Dreamers- Moving and erotic film about a young American who gets into a twisted relationship with a mad young woman and her eccentric brother. A young Bernardo Bertolucci’s refreshingly adult art film celebrates youth and recreates the film culture of 60s France. The film discussions were great, especially the Chaplin vs. Keaton debate. A movie made by a cinephile made for cinephiles.

9.) The Aviator-Martin Scorsese’s invigorating biopic of Howard Hughes is filled with winning performances and dazzling aerial sequences. It recreates the 1930s convincingly. It also bears some similarities to "Citizen Kane" because it depicts a great young man with great ambitions, talents, and flaws

10.) House of Flying Daggers-Zhang Yimou’s exhilarating comeback film has great martial arts sequences, riveting political/romantic intrigue, and some of the year’s most exquisite cinematography. In Mandarin with English sub-titles.

11.) Crimson Gold-Powerful film about a pizza deliveryman who violently acts out when he is confronted with class differences in modern day Iran. The film features compelling performances from non-professional actors, and Abbas Kiarostami’s razor sharp script draws blood. In Farsi with English Sub-titles

12.) Before Sunrise-Charming romantic film about a potential couple that re reunited by chance after a ten year separation. It was co-written by its talented two stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy, and Richard Linklater still writes some of the best dialog in the business.

13.) The Corporation-Biting critique on capitalism is more informative and intellectual than "Fahrenheit 9/11," but it is less entertaining

14.) Can-the Documentary-Unusual documentary about an avante-garde/progressive band from Germany contains great concert footage and bizarre interviews. It screened at the Gene Siskel Center.

15.) Napoleon Dynamite-Goofy film about a high school nerd and his dysfunctional family was year’s most amusing comedy. Most critics panned it, but no other recent film contains so many belly laugh inducing scenes.

16.) Intimate Strangers-Sandrine Bonnaire shines as a woman in a troubled marriage who mistakes an accountant for a marriage counselor. She starts seeing him regularly, and he begins to fall for her. In French with English sub-titles.

17.)Shaun of the Dead-Unusual British romantic comedy/zombie film benefits from the hilarious characterizations.

18.) Undertow-David Gordon Green’s powerful but uneven film about a boy trying to escape his maniacal uncle has some of the year’s finest cinematography. But it doesn't quite match "George Washington."

19.) Sideways-Highly entertaining but slightly overrated film about two very different friends who hits the road in search of women before one of them gets married. Paul Giametti and Thomas Hayden Church have great chemistry together. But Giamatti played a more memorable character in "American Splendor," and Alexander Payne worked with a better script in "Election."

20.) Elevator Movie-Fascinating minimalist film about a male virgin who gets stuck in an elevator with a former crack prostitute turned born again Christian, The directorial debut of Zeb Haradon played at the Chicago Underground Film Festival, and it has justifiably been compared to the works of David Lynch and David Cronenberg. The year’s most darkly perverse film is strongly recommended for people with strong stomachs.

25 Runner-ups/Honorable Mentions: Acne, Bad Education, Blind Shaft, The Blind Swordsman Zaitochi , Bon Voyage, (parts of) Coffee and Cigarettes, Finding Neverland, Hero, The Incredibles, The Life Aquatic, Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster, The Ramones: End of the Century, Ray, Secret Things, Shaun of the Dead, Silver City, Spiderman 2, Supersize Me, The Three Marias, The Terminal, Touching the Void, Untold Scandal, A Very Long Engagement, Wassup! East Africa, We Don’t Live Here Anymore.

Critically Acclaimed Films I Didn't See Yet-Garden State, Hotel Rwanda, Kinsey, Maria Full of Grace, Badasssss!, Collateral, The Motorcycle Diaries, The Sea Inside, Tarnation, Vera Drake

10 Worst Films of the Year: Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London, Alexander, Blade:Trinity, Cat Woman, Letter to True, The Manson Family, The Polar Express, Tamala 2010, White Chicks, Yuh Gi Oh

Individual Categories

Best Picture (English language)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Best Picture (Foreign language)

Moolaade

Best Documentary (English language)

Fahrenheit 9/11

Best Documentary (Foreign language)

Can-The Documentary

Best Documentary (short)

Wassup! East Africa

Best Director (English language)

Lars Von Trier

Best Director (Foreign Language)

Ousmane Sembene

Best Screenplay (English language)

Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind")

Best Screenplay (foreign language)

Abbas Kiarostami ("Crimson Gold")

Best Original Score

Pascal Esteve (Intimate Strangers)

Best Cinematography in an English Language Film

Tim Orr (Undertow)

Best Cinematography in a Foreign Language Film (tie)

Domique Gentil ("Moolaade") and Xiading Zhao ("House of Flying Daggers")

Best Actor (English Language)

Jamie Foxx ("Ray")

Best Actor (Foreign language film)

Hossain Emadeddin ("Crimson Gold")

Best Actress (English language) (tie)

Nicole Kidman ("Dogville") and Natalie Portman ("Closer")

Best Actress (Foreign language)

Sandrine Bonnaire ("Intimate Strangers")

Best Supporting Actor (see the interview)

David Carradine "(Kill Bill Vol. 2")

Best Supporting Actress

Laura Dern ("We Don't Live Here Anymore")

Most Promising Performer

Eva Green ("The Dreamers")

Most Promising Filmmaker

Zeb Harabon ("Elevator Movie")

Best Avant-Garde / Experimental Film

"The Saddest Music in the World"

Best Posthumous Performance

Laurence Olivier ("Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow")

Best Restored Art Film or Revival

Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb (played at the Music Box)

Best Restored Genre Film or Revival

Godzilla (director's cut)

Best Music Video

Y Offender (unedited version)-The Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Best Music/Film Collaboration

(tie) Harold Lloyd's "Safety Last" with Musical Accompaniment by Bakelite 78 at the Somnambulist Music Series at Casa Sandia, and a John Cage film screening accompanied by a live performance of his Two3 (sho and conch shells) by acclaimed Japanese sho player Tamami Tono and percussionist Glenn Freeman at the Chicago Cultural Center

Overlooked Gems

"Three Marias" at the Gene Siskel Center and "Elevator Movie" at the Chicago Underground Film Festival

Best Asian Action Film

House of Flying Daggers

Best Comic or Superhero Film

Spiderman 2

Best American Action Film

Kill Bill Vol. 2

Best Animated Film (full length)

The Incredibles

Best Animated Film (short)

The Passion of the Jew

Best Comedy

Napoleon Dynamite

Best Romantic Comedy

Before Sunset

Best Horror or Science Fiction Film Shaun of the Dead

Best Remake

The Manchurian Candidate

Most Unnecessary Remake

(tie) The Grudge and Dawn of the Dead

Most Disappointing Film/ Most Embarrassing Film by an Auteur

Jersey Girl (Kevin Smith)

Most Disappointing Animated Film

The Polar Express

Best Comeback by an Auteur

Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers and Hero)

Best Bad Film/Worst Good Film

The Brown Bunny

Vittorio Carli teaches film at Richard J. Daley College, literature at Moraine Valley Community College, and composition at Columbia College.

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