If God truly is in the details, then He was working overtime during 2004 by helping the film community produce movie moments that mattered.
Thinking back over the past 12 months, it doesnt feel like it was an especially robust year for cinema. Yet when I start reflecting on particular titles, Im struck by the force of individual scenes and even individual seconds brief moments so potent, so perfect, that they suddenly force me to reevaluate the movie year as a whole.
The motion pictures that make up my Top 20 are packed with such instances. Sideways alone contains a whole crate of them, but I especially adore the scene in which wine lovers Paul Giamatti and Virginia Madsen connect during a quiet conversation followed by the sequence when Giamatti spits at his reflection in the mirror, God, youre such a fuckin loser. You make me so fuckin sick! after he balks at seizing that perfect moment with this perfect woman.
How many of us have similarly berated ourselves after a comparably crushing instant of self-defeat?
Million Dollar Baby also carries more than its share of magical moments, though I always tear up thinking about that moment when, realizing that she has far outgrown her worthless redneck family, Hilary Swanks scrappy fighter tells Clint Eastwoods time-ravaged trainer, I got nobody but you, Frankie, to which he responds with a faint, reassuring smile, Well, youve got me.
Those few seconds speak volumes in terms of where these characters have been, what sort of relationship has developed between them, and where theyre heading together.
Peter OTooles wonderful emoting during his tentside encounter with Brad Pitt in Troy reminds us that, as our classic actors continue to age and eventually pass away, all connections to the shimmering beauty of Old Hollywood will be lost forever except, of course, through the films themselves.
For pure comic timing, its hard to beat Natalie Portmans vigorous ear-tugging during an uproarious sequence in Garden State. And did any movie in 2004 end more perfectly than Before Sunset, which in just a few precious seconds made us fall in love all over again not only with the notion of love itself but also with the possibilities of cinema?
Out of the 160 movies I screened during 2004, here are my picks for the best and worst that the film industry had to offer. And with the possible exception of 1994 (Pulp Fiction versus Quiz Show), never have I experienced so much difficulty settling on the number one movie of the year, given that there were two equally worthy candidates.
But simply put, youre not going to go wrong with either one leading the pack.
The 10 Best of 2004
1. MILLION DOLLAR BABY
(Clint Eastwood, director).
Handicapped by a weak title and arriving on the scene with no fanfare, Million Dollar Baby is this winter seasons biggest underdog an apt position for a movie about a female boxer (Hilary Swank) whos given little chance of going the distance. Yet what director Clint Eastwood and writer Paul Haggis (adapting stories by F.X. Toole) have pulled off with this hoary outline is remarkable, neatly upending the expected cliches until whats left is a movie experience with transformative powers. The first half plays largely as expected (albeit with astute attention to characterization and dialogue), but the second part heads off in its own direction and never looks back. The result is a real stunner, an incisive drama marked by sterling turns from Swank, Morgan Freeman and, in the finest performance of his lengthy career, the grand master himself.
(Alexander Payne, director).
Adapting Rex Picketts novel, director-writer Alexander Payne and coscripter Jim Taylor introduce us to Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), two buddies who book passage to Californias Santa Ynez Valley to tour the local wineries. The movie nevertheless has all the trappings of the best road movies: individuals who hit the highway looking for adventure, only to invariably learn valuable life lessons about America, about its occupants and, most tellingly, about themselves.
3. GARDEN STATE
(Zach Braff, director).
Sitcom star Zach Braff used his minimal clout to secure financing for his first endeavor as a writer-director-star and then proceeded to knock one clear out of the park. Braff plays a struggling LA actor who returns to his New Jersey hometown for his mothers funeral; while there, he reconnects with old acquaintances and strikes up a romance with a vibrant life force (sensational Natalie Portman).
(Bill Condon, director).
The controversy surrounding Kinsey the man has now affected Kinsey the movie, but ignore the repressed naysayers. Bill Condon, whose incisive screenplay matches his precise direction, paints a vibrant, detailed portrait of a difficult man whose exhaustive research in the field of human sexuality sparked a cultural revolution even as he himself grappled with personal issues.
5. SUPER SIZE ME
(Morgan Spurlock, director).
Its a thriving time for documentaries (five made my Top 20), and the best of the year proved to be this irresistible piece in which filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, in an effort to gauge the dangers of fast food, decides to eat nothing but McDonalds for a whole month.
6. THE INCREDIBLES
(Brad Bird, director).
Pixars latest blockbuster about a superhero family borrows heavily from the Marvel Comics playbook its The Fantastic Four Meets The X-Men yet the derring-do is in the service of a pensive drama that subtly explores weighty issues.
7. ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND
(Michel Gondry, director).
Scripter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) had penned another mindbender of a movie, this one about a couple (Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet) who opt to have all traces of their relationship-gone-sour purged from their minds. Eternal Sunshine is ultimately an odd sort of love story, a melancholy rumination thats as much about the head as the heart.
(Wolfgang Petersen, director). The years most underrated film displeased critics who were looking for complete fidelity to Homers The Iliad. They should have focused on this pictures ability to emulate the classic screen spectacles by deftly mixing the epic (excellent battle scenes) with the intimate (finely etched portrayals.
9. THE AVIATOR
(Martin Scorsese, director).
Martin Scorsese the filmmaker finally meets Martin Scorsese the movie buff, and the result is this compelling drama that centers on an anecdote-rich period (late 1920s through late 1940s) in the life of billionaire industrialist Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio).
10. HOTEL RWANDA
(Terry George, director).
A humanist saga on the order of Schindlers List and The Killing Fields, this true-life tale finds Don Cheadle delivering a quietly powerful performance as Paul Rusesabagina, the Rwandan hotel manager who risked his own life to save over a thousand Tutsi civilians from being slaughtered by rampaging Hutu radicals during 1994s historic genocide.
The Next 10 (Honorable Mentions):
Vera Drake; Closer; Zatoichi; Before Sunset; Crimson Gold; Born Into Brothels; Dogville; and three documentaries that told it like it is: Control Room; Fahrenheit 9/11; Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry
Best Actor: Liam Neeson (Kinsey); Jamie Foxx (Ray); Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby); Paul Giamatti (Sideways); Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda)
Best Actress: Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby); Annette Bening (Being Julia); Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake); Laura Dern (We Dont Live Here Anymore); Rachel McAdams (The Notebook)
Best Supporting Actor: Thomas Haden Church (Sideways); Clive Owen (Closer); Peter OToole (Troy); Morgan Freeman (Million Dollar Baby); John Lithgow (Kinsey)
Best Supporting Actress: Virginia Madsen (Sideways); Natalie Portman (Garden State & Closer); Laura Linney (Kinsey); Cate Blanchett (The Aviator); Shirley Henderson (Intermission & Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself)
Underrated: Alfie; De-Lovely; The Final Cut; Hidalgo; The Ladykillers; Spanglish
Disappointments: Beyond the Sea; The Passion of the Christ; The Polar Express; She Hate Me; The Stepford Wives; The Terminal
The 10 Worst of 2004
1. CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS
This reprehensible motion picture the worst holiday film ever made is a Christmas flick that hypocritically refuses to mention Jesus and whose heroes are obnoxious, intrusive suburbanites who insist that the Kranks (Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis) conform to their narrow-minded way of thinking or else.
2. THE WHOLE TEN YARDS
After a two-year hiatus, Bruce Willis returns to my 10 Worst list with a ghastly sequel to a so-so movie that few even remember.
Its shaping up to be a lousy century for straight genre thrillers, but even two other clunkers from this past spring, Angelina Jolies Taking Lives and Johnny Depps Secret Window, werent quite as abysmal as this howler in which an imbecilic detective (Ashley Judd) becomes the leading suspect in her own murder investigation.
The anti-Troy, and the nadir in Oliver Stones otherwise strong career has any other movie released during the past 12 months been this relentlessly boring?
5. VAN HELSING
As a lifelong lover of Universals classic monster movies, no other picture this year offended my Inner Film Geek as much as this blasphemous bomb in which the title hero (Hugh Jackman) takes on Frankenstein, a werewolf and Dracula.
A schmuck becomes jealous after his best friend invents the Vapoorizer, a spray that magically makes dog doo disappear into thin air. But its impossible to deliver any laughs when the script is complete, uh, dog doo.
7. GARFIELD: THE MOVIE
Theres nothing positive to say about this atrocious comic strip adaptation that will feel like a slow crawl through broken glass for anyone old enough to have mastered the fine art of shoelace-tying.
8. SOUL PLANE
A clever concept that might have worked as an airborne Barbershop is instead squandered for the sake of one desperate gag after another.
Lets see: The clean-cut heroes seem almost Aryan by design, the main villain is a dark-skinned foreigner, his right-hand man is a murderous Anglo-African thug constantly lusting after white women, and their accomplice is a brainy lady whose homeliness is meant to suggest that she deserves neither love nor respect. But maybe Im reading too much into a TV-show knockoff that, by every other indication, contains the depth of a petri dish thats already filled to the rim.
Halle Berry and Sharon Stone scratch and claw their way through the best bad movie of the year insofar as its the only one on this list thats actually fun to watch. It just doesnt understand how rancid it truly is, and therein lies the appeal.
Keanu Reeves is again suitably taciturn as the former assassin who, just when he thought he was out, gets pulled back in, and the criminal world created for the first picture — a landscape in which there exists neutral-zone hotels in which no blood may be spilled – retains its unique appeal.
The major liabilities of the first picture have been neatly carried over into this latest endeavor, beginning with the fact that the general prudishness permeating throughout American society makes it impossible for Hollywood to produce an honest, provocative or explicit film about S-E-X and have it receive an R rating.