The year 2004 was an outstanding one for movies. There were 16 films to which I awarded four stars – a record for me. I know a few critics who feel that if you give four stars to more than five or six movies in any given year, you are too soft. I don’t agree with that. A great film is a great film. If I get more than usual in a 12-month period, it only means that I’m a very lucky moviegoer. In 2004 I was very lucky indeed.
The problem with having so many to choose from is that they cannot all fit. Trying to narrow this list down to just ten has literally been painful. I have gone over the titles again and again in my mind. I have shuffled their positions back and forth, trying to make sure I don’t leave any out, and each time realizing that such a thing is unavoidable. A colleague suggested that I have films "tie" for certain positions, i.e. have all the documentaries tie for 8th place, the animated movies tie for fifth, etc. That didn't seem honest, plus I'm not big on the idea of ties. The list had to be ten films only.
The other major issue is that 2004 did not have one single, solitary film that stood head and shoulders above all the rest. There was no Schindler’s List, no Do the Right Thing, no film that outshone everything in its path. Instead, there were about seven movies to which, at one time or another, I seriously considered giving Best Film status. I made good, solid arguments for all of them.
But once again, how to choose? My answer was simple: passion. I narrowed my list down by listening to my heart. All the films under consideration have many positive qualities that earn them rights to be on this list. However, I noticed that some of them had a little something extra – specifically, an emotional quality that made me feel very passionately. For instance, Kinsey is an excellent film – smart, exquisitely made, entertaining – but I didn’t necessarily have any emotional connection to it the way I did to, say, my number nine film (also a biopic). Similarly, I had oodles of respect for the glory that is The Aviator but, for all its filmmaking brilliance, it didn’t touch my soul the way my number six film did.
This is how the list was composed, and it’s also how my number one movie was picked. My choice for the best film of 2004 had, above all else, the biggest emotional impact on me. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I hope that as you read the list, my individual passion for all the films on the list will become clear. I hope you will understand why I have selected them.
Before we (finally) get to the top ten, I’d like to take a moment to honor the ones that just missed out. Any discussion of the best films of 2004 would be incomplete without mentioning the following:
Great films all. If you haven’t seen them, I recommend them most highly. And now, here are my picks for the Ten Best Films of 2004.
10. The Passion of the Christ - I’m actually kind of surprised that this is on my list because I never even figured out how many stars to give it. On one hand, I thought that director Mel Gibson slightly overdid the violence, to the point where it occasionally pulled me out of the story. On the other hand, the film did an unforgettable job of depicting Christ’s crucifixion and its significance to his followers then and now. I am therefore awarding it a kind of “wild card” status on this list. Faith and spirituality are such personal things that it’s hard to quantify them in words. After seeing The Passion, I wondered if its impact was so great simply because of my own Christianity; in other words, I wondered if it was just creating a knee-jerk reaction. So I saw it again three days later and realized that (a little excess violence aside) this is a beautiful, inspiring, faith-affirming movie.
9. Ray - I first discovered Ray Charles as an adolescent, when I saw him singing “Shake Your Tailfeather” with Jake and Elwood Blues in the classic comedy The Blues Brothers. There was no denying that the man was totally cool. I rediscovered Charles when he sang “The Good Life” over the opening credits of the otherwise forgotten Chevy Chase picture Nothing But Trouble. Since that time, I’ve been a major fan. Jamie Foxx gave the year’s absolute best performance playing Ray Charles in this epic biopic. Foxx is really the key to the film’s greatness. Without his riveting, spot-on channeling of Charles, the film might seem conventional. Foxx elevates it into another stratosphere. By the end, we fully understand why Ray Charles was a musical groundbreaker whose influence will continue to be felt for generations to come. And, of course, no other 2004 film had a better soundtrack, right?
8. Fahrenheit 9/11 - Michael Moore did himself a big disservice when he said he made this film to get Bush out of office. The fact that Bush won the election has only caused pundits to claim that Moore’s credibility is dead. That’s too bad because, political affiliations aside, I think Fahrenheit 9/11 is a landmark motion picture. Yes, Moore stretched some facts to fit his agenda. No, it’s not a straight-up documentary. (I’d call it a celluloid op-ed piece.) What it is, is a movie that asks important questions and demands answers. In a day and age when so many films are afraid to really be about anything, here’s one that boldly takes a stand. Michael Moore is certainly angry about how the Bush administration has handled things post-9/11. His anger gave voice to those in the audience who also had uncomfortable feelings about how and why America went to war with Iraq. Moore may not have all the answers, but isn’t it great that he stood up and asked all the right questions?
7. Spider-Man 2 - I’m a fan of comic books, a fan of superheroes, and a fan of Spider-Man. That said, there had never been a comic book movie that also worked as art before now. It would have been enough for Sam Raimi’s sequel to have more action, better special effects, and an awesome new villain; the fact that it also has tons of character development makes it the best superhero movie ever made. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) goes through a crisis of conscience in the story. Does he meet his responsibility to the public by fighting crime, even if it means making great personal sacrifices? Or does he ditch it all to be with Mary Jane, live a normal life, and make himself happy? That kind of spiritual dilemma is something you’d never expect to see in a superhero picture. Spider-Man 2 is proof that a big, expensive, massively-hyped summer movie can be done with intelligence and class.
6. Hotel Rwanda - In this incredible true story, Don Cheadle plays Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who helped save the lives of 1,200 refugees by hiding them inside his place of employment during a 1994 Rwandan civil war. Director Terry George has given the movie a documentary-like feel, which creates a sense of urgency that is almost gut-wrenching. Amazingly, the rest of the world basically ignored the Rwandan situation despite the fact that there was a genocide going on. Watching Hotel Rwanda makes you realize how much we take for granted living in the United States. It also makes you more determined to open your eyes as to what’s going on in other parts of the world. This is a devastatingly powerful – and ultimately uplifting – motion picture.
5. Shrek 2 - With The Polar Express, The Incredibles and The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, this was an awesome year for animated movies. My favorite, though, is this sequel to 2001’s blockbuster about an ogre and his true love. Antonio Banderas stole the show with his hilarious portrayal of feline assassin Puss in Boots. No other film in 2004 made me laugh so hard so consistently. Consider the following: Puss in Boots coughing up a hairball or making goo-goo kitty eyes at his enemies; Pinocchio revealing that he wears a pink thong; the parody of “Cops” in which ground pepper is used in place of pepper spray; Donkey’s transition into a “sexy” white stallion. Shrek 2 is nothing less than a modern classic.
4. Kill Bill Vol. II - Quentin Tarantino, in case you didn’t know, is The Man. Is there a more breathtakingly original filmmaker in the world today? QT takes a bunch of weird influences – kung fu movies, old TV shows, comic books – and melds them together into a unique concoction. Whereas Vol. I was all action, Vol. II gives us the backstory of the Bride (Uma Thurman), who must perform the central action in order to retrieve and care for the young daughter she didn’t know was still alive. David Carradine plays Bill, in a wonderful performance of silent menace. Kill Bill Vol. II shows us a deeper, more emotional side of Tarantino, who is typically associated with on-screen violence (although there’s plenty of that, too). The underrated Jackie Brown showed that QT had soul; this one shows that he has heart.
3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - Every once in a while, a picture comes along that is so unrelentingly unique that it nearly makes your head spin. Such was the case with this Charlie Kaufman-scripted comedy about a man (Jim Carrey) who undergoes a procedure to have his ex-girlfriend (Kate Winslet) literally erased from his memory. Funny thing is, that’s not even the weird part. Halfway though the procedure, Carrey decides he wants to call it off. Since his body is unconscious, that means he has to find a remaining memory of Winslet and hide her somewhere in his psyche, even as outside technicians are wiping it all clean. With its trippy storyline and mind-bending visuals, I thought Eternal Sunshine was going to be an amazing stunt – a piece of bravura filmmaking technique and little more. Imagine my surprise when I actually got choked up at the end! For all its atmospheric brilliance, the movie never loses its emotional center. At the end, Carrey realizes that we need our memories – good and bad – because they provide the compass for the rest of our lives. What an amazing message for a film to deliver.
2. Sideways - An almost perfect movie. Paul Giamatti plays a wine connoisseur still reeling from a divorce two years ago. His life spins off track until he and his soon-to-be-married buddy (Thomas Haden Church) take a bachelor party/road trip through California wine country. There, Giamatti meets Virginia Madsen, who would seem to be perfect for him. The question is, can he let go of his self-pity and allow himself to be happy? Director Alexander Payne also made Election and About Schmidt; he has mastered the art of finding comedy in very simple human moments. Sideways is beautifully acted, with a screenplay that has actual wisdom about the way people behave. It’s the kind of movie I could watch over and over again, without ever losing any of the joy that came with seeing it for the first time.
And my choice for the Best Film of 2004 is:
Braff plays Andrew “Large” Largeman, a struggling actor returning to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. His psychiatrist father (Ian Holm) has kept the depressed Large in a medication-induced fog for years. For the week he’s back home though, Large decides to skip his pills. The result is that he feels alive for the first time. Natalie Portman plays Sam, whose keep-on-livin’ attitude Large admires and comes to adopt. Garden State shares some thematic similarities to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; both are about the need to take the bad with the good in life. Large eventually comes to realize that it’s better to feel something in life than to feel nothing. His ability to experience real emotion for the first time is freeing; he knows that dealing even with the unpleasant feelings will help him grow in ways that hiding from them would never allow. One of my favorite scenes of the year is the one in which Large confronts his father, laying claim to his right to live life on his own terms. Garden State is funny and original, with a real maturity to its ideas. That is why I have selected it as the year’s best film.
What a list! 2004 was one of those years that make me realize why I love going to the movies. The best films (such as the ones mentioned above) pull you in, hold you, and never let you go. Even after you’ve left the theater, they’re still playing in your mind and in your heart. Here’s hoping that 2005 is just as magical.
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