December 31, 2004

2004 top ten (and more).

While my own mind clouded with links and general online disorder this year, Craig Phillips, our other editor at GreenCine, kept his clear and focused on the prize: See movies. What's more, he even wrote one and we can all follow its progress on his other new project launched this year, Wandering Out Loud. From all of us at GC to all of you: Parts of 2004 soared, other parts hurt; let's have a better 2005.

Bad Education If nothing else, "best of" lists are a critic's way of organizing their own thoughts while sniffing out any trends that may have otherwise escaped undetected - for 2004, trends may have been "Men Are Pigs" (Sideways, Closer, heck, even Bad Education), "Juicy Leads for Women Remain MIA," "Mindfucks," "Zombies Are Here to Stay," and "Asian Cinema Makes Further Inroads" - and a way to compare one year’s output to another’s (I'd rate 2004 average overall, and yet below average in both Hollywood studio output and American indies). Here’s yet another hat in the ring, mine, in (mostly) alphabetical order because no one film stood out above the rest:

1. Bad Education: Like a lovechild of Hitchcock and Fellini, Pedro Almodóvar is one of the the only directors working today whose name over a film guarantees the viewer a cinematic experience both provocative and rewarding. Bad Education is a twisty, gleeful exercise in gay noir, given added weight with its darkly playful film within a film context and with a story in which the real mystery is not the plot but what darkness and twisted truths are within the hearts of the characters.

2. Before Sunset: I remember initially being disappointed in the first film, Before Sunrise, in one of those "everybody told me how wonderful this film is so my expectations are unreal" viewing experiences, but all that changed somewhere between revisiting it years later and then seeing Richard Linklater's wise, sweet, and even more deeply romantic follow-up. The reactions of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy's characters are played with so much verity that you can't believe they're not actual people and are almost heartbroken to leave them at the (wonderful) end; now that's good writing.

3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Even more of a mindfuck than the Almodóvar film, this moebius strip of a script may be Charlie Kaufmann's most mature yet, complicated and impressive almost beyond belief but grounded with a romantic's heart. And Michael Gondry's direction adds even more layers to it. Top it off with Jim Carrey's most subdued performance yet, in which he lets Kate Winslet and the other actors take center stage, and a feeling rarely felt these days - "I want, I need, to see that again," as one needs to go on a funhouse ride again - and you have a bitterly cheery, or cheerily bitter, masterpiece.

4. The Five Obstructions: An amazing film because it works on several different levels, as a documentation of an unusual collaborative process, as an examination of the limitations artists knowingly or unknowingly put on themselves, and as a collection of five very engaging, reimagined shorts. In keeping with the Dogme 95 doctrine, Lars Von Trier and Jørgen Leth used self-imposed restrictions in film production as a way of, ironically, liberating themselves artistically.

5. House of Flying Daggers: On the one hand, like Zhang Yimou's earlier Hero, this offers up less in the way of depth than one would like; yet I found Daggers to be the much more impressive work. Jaw-dropping action set pieces (including a bamboo tree fight scene that ranks up there as one of the all-time best bamboo tree fight scenes) and plot twists surge towards a rather melodramatic ending, the reaction to which may be a matter of personal taste (I was moved despite myself), there's no denying the cinematic magic at work here.

6. The Incredibles: I have no qualms about putting a 'toon here, especially one with as perfectly realized a script and art design as found in this latest Pixar triumph. Compared to the rousing last two-thirds, the first act may seem a bit slow for some but I found it a treat from start to finish, with inspired voice casting in no small measure responsible: Holly Hunter, meow! NPR commentator Sarah Vowell as a mopey teen, perfect! Now then, how about more Fro-Zone/Samuel L Jackson in the sequel?

7. Maria Full of Grace: A simple story told with grace, detailed perfectly, and first-time director Joshua Marston shows an admirable feel for restraint. What sounded like something painful to watch (and it is undeniably harrowing, putting one's stomach in knots), the film has Catalina Sandino Moreno at the center of its odyssey from Columbia to New York, and she carries the weight of things remarkably well. She's a realistic heroine in a cinematic age tragically thin in that department, in what was the best American indie of the year.

8. Sideways: Just the way it so severely divided people I know almost instantly gives it a place on my list, but despite my fear of further overrating it, Sideways boasts such a sharp screenplay and deeply felt characterizations that I suspect anyone's discomfort with it was due to much it struck a nerve - we have met these characters and he/she is us - and not because of any actual flaw in the storytelling. Funny, literate, disturbing even, but never less than real, and - a rarity these days - not patronizing to the audience for a second. I love Paul Giamatti, even if his sad sack persona was put to even better effect in American Splendor, and Thomas Haden Church's cad actor is disgustingly spot-on that you almost love him even as you want to kill him, but it's a career-reviving Virginia Madsen who really deserves an Oscar. Meanwhile, the excellent use of real locations in my home county's Santa Ynez Valley (the lovely mixed with the warty) didn't hurt my opinion.

9. Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman: Despite, or maybe because of, a truly bizarre (and unforgettable) incongruously musical ending, here the Zatoichi character was given a revisionist take by Takeshi Kitano, whose super-sharp direction and wit lead somehow to an appreciable feeling of redemption by the end. Hilarious, and insightful in alternate measure.

10. (Tie) The Corporation and Fahrenheit 911: I actually preferred the former for having broader scope and a slightly more engaging style, with an ultimately hopeful outlook, but there's no denying the impact and bravado of Michael Moore's film. It's a masterwork of agitprop, muckraking cinema at its finest and, if it's one-sided, so what? It still carries mostly truths. Is it a great film? I'm not convinced. But I bless every day that it exists. Bless the existence of any film in which a young black man from Michigan says this: "I was watching TV one day, and they're showing, like, some of the buildings and areas that had been hit by bombs and things like that, and while I watching I got to thinking, 'There's parts of Flint that look like that, and we ain't been in a war.'"

Goodbye Dragon Inn Just missed the final cut (Honorable Mention):

  • Bourne Supremacy.
  • Brother to Brother.
  • Closer: Patrick Marber's play is brought to vivid, bitter life by Mike Nichols in his finest film in years; the whole ensemble's fine but it's Natalie Portman who really closes the deal. Like Dogville (see below) it often felt more like an exercise about (or a game of) human behavior than something real, but the writing remains as sharp as ever.
  • Control Room: Should be essential viewing for any American who only knows of Al-Jazeera TV what the U.S. government has told them. Important and fascinating.
  • Collateral.
  • Garden State: Really, better than expected, only harmed in my mind by a feeling it's all a little too calculated to push buttons and pull heartstrings and sell more indie rock singles, but ultimately, it's a surprisingly un-naff debut for Braff, and best of all, undeniably funny.
  • Goodbye Dragon Inn: Nearly uncategorizable except as a Tsai Ming-liang film, beautifully composed and nearly static, yet it moves, even infiltrates ones dreams as few other films in recent memory have been capable of doing. I also can't resist a good, slow tribute to cinema; perhaps a bit too languorous for my attention span but a treat nonetheless.
  • Doppelganger (saw it at the SFIFF).
  • Dogville: Impressively brave and possibly even groundbreaking, like a lot of Von Trier’s work, this one ultimately left me a bit cold, though less so than I would have expected. Memorable, creative, but also often unbearably pretentious, and would I see it again? Still, inarguably one of a kind.
  • The Dreamers.
  • Everyday People.
  • I'm Not Scared.
  • Kill Bill Vol. 2.
  • Los Angeles Plays Itself.
  • The Saddest Music in the World.
  • Shaun of the Dead: Hell, this almost made my top ten, for pure bloody good (in both meanings of the word), zombiefied fun, and a terrific ending. And while we're at it, the surprisingly scary and effective Dawn of the Dead remake should go here, too.
  • Spider-Man 2.
  • Super Size Me.
  • Good Bye, Lenin!
  • Vera Drake.

Guilty pleasures:

  • SpongeBob SquarePants Movie: Not nearly as perfect as a SpongeBob short, but it did just fine.
  • Team America: World Police: There are times I seriously want to put the smack down on boys Parker and Stone, and this puppettoon sometimes leaned a little too mean-spirited down on the wrong people, but then again, I was too busy laughing my ass off to care. "MattDamon!"

Sorry I Missed These (Before Making This List):

Not Sorry I Missed This:

Great Directors Go Slumming:

Great director I thought was going slumming and then seriously changed my mind:

  • The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Could someday make my worst titles list but the film itself is creative as hell, whimsical without being cloying, moving in that way that only Wes Anderson can get away with, full of perfectly timed, subtle comedy (and the funniest pair of dolphins in film history), with visuals that only someone who seriously loves making films would attempt. Came very close to making my top 10 and a future "underrated/cult movies" list. And that jaguar shark is something to behold.

Change My Opinion Every Three Days:

Jonesing for Oscars:

Most Welcome Restorations/Revivals:

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Posted by dwhudson at December 31, 2004 11:14 AM


Send your list to to be included in their giant compilation of Top Ten lists.

Posted by: Bev Jones at January 11, 2005 8:32 AM

Thanks for the tip, Bev! I just did so...


Posted by: Craig P at January 12, 2005 10:49 AM