The Bestest 2004
Now that my life requires a babysitter to escape to that dream world that is the movies, I must choose more wisely than ever. Without a trip to Sundance this year to front-load this list, I was left literally to read between the lines and choose theater excursions very carefully. In retrospect this was not a bad year to have been a bit out of touch. It is always easy to find 10 or so really good films a year, but this year there were only a couple that were truly and memorable and important.
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – Dir. Michel Gondry (Kate Winslet, Jim Carey)
Some films are too smart, too cool, and too extraordinary for average moviegoers to enjoy after a hard week, when really all they want is pure unadulterated entertainment. “Eternal Sunshine” is precisely that film. It is a love story that uses technology as a metaphor to deconstruct the meaning of love and the complexities of relationships. Directed by Michel Gondry with the most unique visual flair in many years and written by the always-brilliant Charlie Kaufman, this film defies description at the most basic level so I will avoid doing it a disservice. What can be said is that Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet each put forth the performances of their already robust careers – creating characters more genuinely in love with each than one can ordinarily believe. “Eternal Sunshine” is in a league of its own this year – the most imaginative visual feast in many years.
2. House Of Flying Daggers – Dir. Zhang Yimou (Ziyi Zhang, Takeshi Kanshiro)
I tend to prefer films that are rather simply made, relying primarily on dialogue and acting rather than cinematography and special effects. For me “The House of Flying Daggers” is that rare exception – a movie that fuses both a wonderful story with a truly breathtaking and artistic usage of visual effects. Both a genuinely believable love story and a swashbuckling martial arts extravaganza, the film is really more like a living painting, than merely moving pictures. The colors and choreography seem lifted from some imagined fairly tale, but they also seem somehow grounded in a sort of idealistic reality. For whatever reason, “Crouching Tiger” managed to break through to a mass audience, but the real tragedy is that it didn’t touch more of the rest of the world.
3. Garden State – Dir. Zach Braff (Natalie Portman, Zach Braff, Peter Scarsgaad)
Only a few times a year are we lucky enough to stumble upon a nearly perfect movie. In Zach Braff’s tastefully sentimental “Garden State” we are treated to one of year’s quietest gems. At times the story feels like a chapter from a yet unpublished Nick Hornby novel. In it a young man, coming to terms with his family and future, returns home from California to his hometown for the funeral of his mother. Under a dreary New Jersey sky he is faced with the heavy air that hangs between him and his father, and the anesthetizing numbness of too many years on antidepressants. The central character is a struggling actor named Andrew Largeman, played with a gloomy but restrained precision by Braff, who meets a similarly pained soul played by Natalie Portman. Slowly, but with a kind of acceptable inevitability, the two help to pull each other from their own personal abyss. In the end life is about the little steps that we take and the care with which we take to make them. This is a movie about just that, and for that I couldn’t be more thankful.
4. Sideways – Dir. Alexander Payne (Paul Giamatti, Thomas Hayden Church)
Much (maybe too much) has already been said about “Sideways.” Some critics seem to resent the raves the film has received, as if some beautiful little secret has been stolen and exploited to the masses – but isn’t this a good thing? Basically a buddy movie about old friends who have grown apart but are given the chance to reconnect, “Sideways” views life through the metaphor of wine. Where this idea could have fallen easily victim to painful cliché, “Sideways” risks it all on extracting four largely impeccable performances that provide a window into the human soul. In life there will always be pain, moments of joy, and the reality of being trapped in an under-whelming existence. But “Sideways” succeeds in reminding us that occasionally we are offered the chance to start again, and when this happens, you ought open your throat and drink it in.
5. Baadasssss! – Dir. Mario Van Peebles (Mario Van Peebles, Khleo Thomas)
Like so many of the best films of the year, no one really saw this one despite it being the coolest most – well – badass of the year. “This is a film about the making of a film,” we learn at the beginning of Mario Van Peebles autobiographical account of the making of ‘’Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassssss Song’’ the first real African-American indie film. This one was shot with the same anxious, chaotic, almost desperate energy that no doubt existed while the director’s father scraped together every penny he could, risking bankruptcy and his own personal health, to make his own. “Baadasssss!” feels as gritty and real as almost any movie this year, but that’s why it just kind of sticks with you, making itself the underdog tugging at your heartstrings without an ounce of sentimentality, just a raw dose of fist pumping fuel.
6. Maria Full of Grace – Dir. Josh Marsden (Sarah Bolger, Samatha Morton)
In the ever-expanding genre of “drug” movies it is rare that you get to meet or see characters other than the dealers or the downward-spiraling users. In the powerful “Maria Full of Grace,” you are confronted with three people who become involved in the drug trade as survival mechanism rather than out of habit or the search for power or riches. Maria, a poor Columbian girl, stuck in a dead end job in a flower factory, agrees to become a human mule swallowing 62 balloons of heroin that she will deliver for a few thousand dollars to New York. As perilous as this seems, the incredible thing about this film is that the real story becomes about so much more. Filled with more than a few perfect performances and some unexpected plot twists, this film is a real treasure that never finds a need to preach, but merely allows the story to speak affectingly for itself.
7. Million Dollar Baby – Dir. Clint Eastwood (Hilary Swank, Eastwood, Morgan Freeman)
Although maybe not the instantly “classic” movie some people have dubbed it, “Million Dollar Baby” is damn good. Clint is obviously an old master: a patient storyteller, who always plays it straight, with no funky special effects or flashy cinematography. The story focuses on an ambitious girl with the odd dream of becoming a boxing champion long past the age where it should be possible. Hilary Swank proves the first time was not a fluke, creating a character as genuine and determined as almost any female character this year. Supported with a kind of quiet brilliance by Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood, the story soars to “Rocky-like” heights before throwing a devastating twist into an otherwise predictable plot. This is a film that will force an entire spectrum of emotions and one that will leave a lasting imprint.
8. Finding Neverland – Dir. (Kate Winslet, Johnny Depp)
Johnny Depp is as versatile an actor as any in Hollywood. He is a big budget star who rarely makes mistakes in choosing his movies, and, if he does, almost single handedly manages to make something interesting of it (e.g. “Pirates of the Caribbean”). With “Finding Neverland,” a small gem of film, he plays Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie during the period he spent with the family who became the inspiration for his story. Although at times things feel bit soft around the edges, the real story was bit like a fairy tale. Kate Winslet delivers her second incredible performance of the year, this time playing the widowed, dying mother of three wonderful boys who really do need something to believe in.
9. The Woodsman – Dir. Nicole Kassell (Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick)
“The Woodsman” will no doubt be too heavy for most entertainment seeking moviegoers, but this usually the sign of something truly special. In many ways this might be the most skilled and controlled role of Kevin Bacon’s career. Playing a forty-something, recently paroled child molester launched back into the world, he returns to his old job working in a lumberyard in an anonymous urban area. He wanders through his life stricken by both a devastating sense of guilt and shame, unable to free himself from his seemingly unconquerable affliction and affection for young girls. Bacon’s struggle and emotional decimation moves the film swiftly down the path that will lead him either to salvation or destruction. Since this is an indie film more seeking acclaim than audience, you’ll have to see it for yourself. You’ll be glad you did.
10. A Very Long Engagement – Dir. (Audrey Tatou, Gaspard Ulliel)
The films by director Jean-Pierre Jeunet set a pretty high bar for their successors. From the delicious “Delicatessen” to the surreal “The City of Lost Children” to the light-hearted “Amelie,” each film is something new and beautiful to watch. The same can be said of his latest masterpiece, the epic-feeling romantic voyage of a young couple, separated by World War I, at the onset of their young love. Part fairy-tale, part war movie, the film unfolds like a curious canvas where everything seems both real and imagined. If a films could be judged by beauty alone, this one would win Miss Universe.
11. Ray – Dir. Taylor Hackford (Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington)
You need to think of DeNiro as Jake LaMotta, Ben Kingsley as Gandhi, or Orson Welles as William Randolf Hearst when you evaluate Jamie Foxx’s transformation into Ray Charles. More than just make-up and mannerisms, Foxx inhabits his character almost as if he had been studying his entire life for the chance to let him out. But “Ray” is also a story that seems almost too improbable to believe: a poor blind man from the still racist South boards a bus with only a few dollars and proceeds to reinvent American music. This is a story mostly about possibility, about making dreams real in a world that gives nothing away for free.
12. Kill Bill 2 – Dir. Quentin Tarrantino (Uma Thurman, Keith Carradine)
For the record I was not a huge fan of Kill Bill 1. Sure the outlandish fights scenes were kind of fun to watch, and the trademark Tarrantino pop-culture universe was very much alive and well, but the film lacked any kind of real depth. But with Kill Bill 2, a real masterpiece is allowed to flourish. If the first film was the surface, the second is infinite underside, the place where everything begins and ends. More an exercise in the sculpting of strong and memorable characters, the film meanders through Tarrantino territory where all the hard exteriors give way to complicated characters who have stories, motives and experiences that are truly a pleasure to watch come to life. This is another feather an already near perfect cap.
13. Closer – Dir. Mike Nichols (Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Clive Owen, Julia Roberts)
Like so many of Nichols’ previous character studies (“Carnal Knowledge,” “The Graduate,” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”), “Closer” is a brutal portraiture of the nature of the human beast. Although the film feels much like the play it was adapted from, it delves deeply into the largely rotten souls of its four subjects, exposing them for flawed people they really are. Ultimately this is a film to savor and loath, but more than anything this is film about performances that you either believe or you don’t. I did.
14. Open Water – Dir. Chris Kentis (Daniel Travis, Blanchard Ryan)
Anyone who didn’t live a cave or forgo all popular media this year probably knows enough about this movie to skip in it and still get the picture. Call it the water-oriented companion piece to “The Blair Witch Project,” this film packs a similar kind of nail-biting, nervous energy, low-budget punch. Taking the simple, based-on-a-true-story tale of a vacationing couple left behind in the shark-infested Caribbean during a diving excursion, the husband wife filmmaking team was able to keep their version suspensefully engaging for 90 minutes. This film once again proves that creative ideas and smart filmmaking are very often more effective than expensive over-produced star-studded empty bottles.
15. Bad Education – Dir. Pedro Almadovar (Gael Garcia-Bernal, Fele Martinez)
I have never failed to be immediately smitten by glorious, colorful worlds that Almadovar seems to effortlessly churn out every few years. But with “Bad Education” it took a little longer. Mostly a story about telling stories, featuring a noir-ish plotline, and handful of sexually fuzzy characters, “Bad Education” is a confusing, ambiguous curiosity. Although not the standard masterpiece we have become accustomed to from the Spanish master, this is a complicated multi-layered exploration of how reality and truth often become odd distortions of ideas and dreams that floated out of reach.
And I would likely have been included had I found the time to see them: 1) Vera Drake 2) The Corporation 3) The Motorcycle Diaries 4) Kinsey 5) The Assassination of Richard Nixon 6) Hotel Rwanda 7) The Living Sea
1. Supersize Me – Dir. Morgan Spurlock
Much will be said about this film for years to come. Sure it turned out to be a great low-budget lottery ticket, but more than that what it really makes clear is that with the right idea – one permitting low production costs and a distinct beginning, middle and end, over a short period of time, you can earn the right to make another film. It is easy to poke holes in the excess and inevitability that Morgan Spurlock embraces in this film, but there are enough interesting characters to meet along the way (his indulgent vegan chef girlfriend, the guy who eats at least one Big Mac a day and has a cholesterol number of 160) to make the movie worth seeing. Ultimately “Supersize Me” was the right film, at the right time with just the right amount of hype to make the country take notice. I did.
2. Riding Giants – Dir. Stacy Peralta
With “Riding Giants” the follow up to the brilliant “Dog Town and Z-Boys,” Director Peralta explores the origins and evolution of big wave riding from Hawaii to California. Although the film feels more like Warren Miller than Errol Morris, the subjects of this film – largely dim if not crazy thrill seekers, seem more like adolescents who refuse to grow up than the more business oriented skateboarders in “Dogtown.” Surfing 60-foot waves, often in treacherous conditions, is a sight to see and enjoy, the dangerous next chapter of “The Endless Summer.” In the end the footage culled from over 40 years of archival footage provides an entertaining history of a sport that few people ever get to see.
3. Dig! – Dir. Ondi Timoner (Courtney Taylor, Anton Newcombe )
Even if you haven’t heard of The Brian Jonestown Massacre or The Dandy Warhols, this gritty, soap-operatic documentary about the friendship and fates of both of these bands is a genuinely compelling piece of modern pop history. The film picks up in 1996 with the two bands on the verge of what appears to be inevitable rock stardom. Both bands feature charismatic, egomaniacal lead singers who craft psychedelic rock songs from a pastiche of old and new. But shortly after “Dig!” begins to explore this early competitive creativity, it becomes clear that what we will watch is the rise of a competent musician and capable businessman (The Dandy’s Taylor), and the fall of an incredibly gifted but troubled musical genius (BJM Newcombe). Not surprisingly the anticipated overnight ascent to stardom is not as easy as it appears. For The Brian Jonestown Massacre their failure to fulfill their promise seems intentionally booby-trapped, while The Dandy Warhols merely needed time for their talent to catch up to their ambition and the luck to make it happen. The best documentaries don’t always know where they are going to end up when they begin. In the case of Dig!, this uncertainty has helped create a minor masterpiece!
4. Tom Dowd and The Language of Music – Dir. Mark Moormann
Rock documentaries, especially those about bands I am already a fan of, allow me to simultaneously feed two rather excessive habits at the same time: music and movies. Tom Dowd, the Atlantic Records house engineer, and the magic fingers behind singers like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, the Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, has lived one of those lives that seems as fulfilling as that elusive dream we all chase. His life was so closely and genuinely tied to his passion for music that merely watching his immense contributions to the changing landscape is as inspiring as almost any fiction film released in many years. Dowd is depicted as a humble man, not even remotely distracted by money or fame. This allows the film to serve as a testament to the potential of people if they really live in the moment, never looking back or second-guessing the joy that work can bring.
5. Gigantic (A Take of Two Johns) – Dir. AJ Schnack
Although technically released a few years back “Gigantic,” a documentary about the legendary pop band They Might Be Giants (TMBG) and the two Johns who make up the band (Linnell and Flansburgh), is a wonderful journey into the childhood friendship that has enabled the band to thrive against the odds, making kooky pop music, for over twenty-years. In most respects this band shouldn’t have been successful commercially in any time or place. The singers aren’t conventionally cool or good-looking, the songs never deal with topics things like sex or drugs, and under no circumstances could the band ever fill an arena or auditorium. That said, what they have is a real knack for tapping into that increasingly nostalgic period of innocence and simplicity that we all go through before the world becomes complicated. More than almost any band, they make music meant to make you smile and laugh and remember that life can always be fun.