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The best of films, the worst of films 

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 doesn’t feel like it was an especially robust year for cinema. Yet when I start reflecting on particular titles, I’m 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, you’re 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 Swank’s scrappy fighter tells Clint Eastwood’s time-ravaged trainer, “I got nobody but you, Frankie,” to which he responds with a faint, reassuring smile, “Well, you’ve 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 they’re heading together.

Peter O’Toole’s 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, it’s hard to beat Natalie Portman’s 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, you’re 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 season’s biggest underdog — an apt position for a movie about a female boxer (Hilary Swank) who’s 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 what’s 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.



2. SIDEWAYS

(Alexander Payne, director).

Adapting Rex Pickett’s 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 California’s 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 mother’s funeral; while there, he reconnects with old acquaintances and strikes up a romance with a vibrant life force (sensational Natalie Portman).



4. KINSEY

(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).

It’s 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 McDonald’s for a whole month.



6. THE INCREDIBLES

(Brad Bird, director).

Pixar’s latest blockbuster about a superhero family borrows heavily from the Marvel Comics playbook — it’s 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 that’s as much about the head as the heart.



8. TROY

(Wolfgang Petersen, director). The year’s most underrated film displeased critics who were looking for complete fidelity to Homer’s The Iliad. They should have focused on this picture’s 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 Schindler’s 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 1994’s 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 Don’t Live Here Anymore); Rachel McAdams (The Notebook)



Best Supporting Actor: Thomas Haden Church (Sideways); Clive Owen (Closer); Peter O’Toole (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.



3. TWISTED

It’s shaping up to be a lousy century for straight genre thrillers, but even two other clunkers from this past spring, Angelina Jolie’s Taking Lives and Johnny Depp’s Secret Window, weren’t quite as abysmal as this howler in which an imbecilic detective (Ashley Judd) becomes the leading suspect in her own murder investigation.



4. ALEXANDER

The anti-Troy, and the nadir in Oliver Stone’s 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 Universal’s 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.



6. ENVY

A schmuck becomes jealous after his best friend invents the Vapoorizer, a spray that magically makes dog doo disappear into thin air. But it’s impossible to deliver any laughs when the script is complete, uh, dog doo.



7. GARFIELD: THE MOVIE

There’s 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.



9. THUNDERBIRDS

Let’s 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 I’m reading too much into a TV-show knockoff that, by every other indication, contains the depth of a petri dish that’s already filled to the rim.



10. CATWOMAN

Halle Berry and Sharon Stone scratch and claw their way through the “best” bad movie of the year — insofar as it’s the only one on this list that’s actually fun to watch. It just doesn’t understand how rancid it truly is, and therein lies the appeal.





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