Posted: 01/27/2005

 

Ben’s Best & Worst Films of 2004

by Ben Beard




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TEN BEST AMERICAN FILMS OF 2004
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—This science fiction fable offers a bizarre and challenging structure straight out of a Philip K. Dick novel. But the humor and big ideas take a second seat to the emotional turmoil of Carrey as he strives to hold onto a memory of his ex-girlfriend while techs eliminate them. Unbelievable.

2. Dogville—Lars Von Trier’s scaled down masterpiece starts as an experiment in form (no special effects, hardly any props) but evolves into a philosophical treatise on violence and capitalism and human interaction. A young runaway takes refuge in a town, and they decide to let her stay, in exchange for services. Great acting aside, it’s a tremendous story.

3. Spiderman 2—Superior in every way to the first, this apotheosis of the comic book movie offers interesting characters, humor and pathos in equal measure. Exciting and touching, Spiderman 2 is epic stuff.

4. The Aviator—Martin Scorsese’s epic character study follows three decades in the life of eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes, breaking new aeronautical history while battling a crippling obsessive compulsive condition. Compelling, exuberant filmmaking on a grand scale. And Di Caprio, the driving force behind the project, acts his skinny little heart out, near the end looking like the late great Orson Welles. Breathtaking.

5. Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself—This small, laconic film follows two brothers, one married but melancholic, the other single and suicidal. Lacerating humor and a deep beating sadness define this tiny little gem about despair.

6. Supersize Me—Everyman Morgan Spurlock’s pioneer study of fast food and its effects on his body and the body politic follows in the great footsteps of the muckraking journalists of the early part of the 20th century. But it is Spurlock’s common man approach and winning personality that makes the disturbing film a delight.

7. Collateral—The crime movie of the year, Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise travel the underbelly of Los Angeles on a one night killing spree. Beautiful camerawork and a strong narrative deliver the goods.

8. Battle for Algiers—This remastered reissue of the seminal revolutionary film follows Algerian terrorists/freedom fighters and the French colonials fighting them. Stark black and white cinematography highlight this blood-soaked drama. But the insight into the terrorist mindset and their organizing principles offers a relevant and somber warning.

9. The Incredibles—This fast-paced but very funny cartoon follows a super-powered family living in the suburbs. The compositions are spectacular, each frame a work of art, and the otherworldly locale and the over the top excitement barely contain an interesting philosophical message about mediocrity and excellence.

10. Dawn of the Dead/Shaun of the Dead—It’s been a zombie year. The remake of Romero’s cult gem offers a high octane interpretation of the zombie ideal, focusing on intense instant terror instead of the slow inevitable decay of the original. But with style and grace and best of all humor, this pitch-perfect horror movie risks all through breakneck storytelling and pace. The better of the two, Shaun of the Dead follows a good-hearted slacker through the worst day of his life: his girlfriend has dumped him, his roommate’s angry with him, he hates his job, and London is overrun by flesh-eating zombies. Hilarious and touching.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

1. Fahrenheit 9/11—Michael Moore’s intriguing study of Bush and his handling of Iraq offer some great moments and heart-breaking visuals, but his heavy-handed ambitions turns the film into a sloppy polemic. Thought-provoking, yes, but how much of it is true?

2. Sideways—Alexander Payne’s ode to mid-life crisis follows two men on a week-long wine-tasting journey. Intentionally a throw-back to the seventies, this well-written comedy reveals a desperate self-destruction in the male psyche.

3. The Village—Perhaps Shyamalian’s best film, The Village details the lives of a small farming community shut off from the world, replete with odd customs and unseen predators that move in the dark. Not really a thriller as much as a character study of the lost and the abused, the sad tormented victims of the world.

4. Hellboy—The surreal saga of the first-born of hell, Hellboy combines Indiana Jones-style pataphysics with the humor and wit of Ghostbusters, with mixed results. But the overall weirdness and Orgone antics make up for the film’s shortcomings.

5. Team America—Those pesky South Park guys outdo themselves with this lean, mean parody of action movies and the great land of excess itself. Beautiful puppetry and over the top satire.

6. Kill Bill 2—Tarantino’s second installment of the Bride offers less cinematic flair opting instead for the cool headiness of the Spaghetti Western. A few garish moments prevent Kill Bill 2 from being a success, but it’s close.

7. Bad Education—Almodovar’s latest film utilizes a complex, thought-provoking structure while mimicking the tropes of the Noir genre. But the lack of any sympathetic character makes for hard watching, and in the end is more of an intellectual puzzler than anything else.

8. The Life Aquatic—Wes Anderson’s uneven exploration of a dead-beat undersea explorer. Interesting characters, great visuals, and the to be expected perfect musical score cannot save this oddball movie suffering from tonal issues. There are moments though, that will stick in the guts for a long time afterwards.

9. I’m not Scared—This tiny little Italian film follows a young boy in the countryside who discovers something buried in a well. Evidence of a horrific crime leads him to suspect his own parents.

Garden State—This very strong debut from Zach Braff almost made it into the top ten. A young troubled actor returns home for his mother’s funeral and tries to reinvent himself. Sad and ponderous with great music and style to spare.

10. Friday Night Lights—Peter Berg’s ode to Texas football mines the sports movie conventions with style and grace to good effect. Excellent stuff.

WORST TEN:

1. Alexander—Number one with a bullet, here’s a study in how not to make a film: bad acting, a terrible script, cheesy score, and bad directing. Oliver Stone should get some credit for accomplishing the almost impossible task of making the great young conqueror’s life boring. Left-wing Stone might be delivering a grand statement of irony on the present state of affairs in the Middle East, or maybe he’s blinded by his personal attachment to the project. Regardless, Alexander just might be the worst film ever.

2. Van Helsing—You know it’s been a rough year when a stinking pile of dung like this turkey isn’t the worst film of the year. It looks like someone gave a lot of money to a little child to make a movie. Tis a pity; there’s a decent adventure story in here somewhere but it’s lost in a soggy morass of horse manure. And, it’s over two hours long. People who liked this film should not be allowed to drive at night.

3. Starsky and Hutch—Ben Stiller tries but this puerile, asinine, lazy wink wink tongue in cheek disaster decided before shooting began that it didn’t have to work, resting instead on the laurels of the marquis names involved. Worst of all, it simply is not funny. Shame on everyone involved.

4. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow—This throwback to the adventure serials suffers a major problem: there isn’t a script. That, and the acting is laughable, the story is mundane, and the visuals looks airbrushed. Wretched.

5. Big Bounce—An unfunny tongue in cheek thriller follows slacker Owen Wilson running afoul of the law and organized crime in Hawaii. And co-star Sara Foster proves that sometimes good looking people really, really can’t act. A cynical slimy joke played at the public’s expense. Utter drudge that leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

6. Troy—Somewhere in Hades, Homer’s ghost is crying out in pain.

7. Twisted—Philip Kaufman, how could you?

8. Bourne Supremacy—This sequel to the smash hit the Bourne Identity is a study in decay; everything that was interesting about the first regresses. There is absolutely no story. The acting is bad. The shoddy, misguided camerawork—all handheld—results in visual chaos. One hundred percent pure dross.

9. The Terminal—On the surface, there is something endearing about this saccharine fairy tale of a man trapped in an airport. But the missing elements, good acting and an interesting plot, result in a banal movie that ultimately wastes your time. Like bubble gum, The Terminal tastes okay at first but if you chew too long it leaves you with a sore jaw.

10. Spartan—The fine line between a great and terrible gets run over roughshod by David Mamet’s latest which follows an agent trying to recover the kidnapped daughter of the president. Not without it’s merits, this bleak, angry film loses the narrative line. Who are these fast-talking people? Why are they so tough? Who cares. Mamet has made some great films, but this one’s a stinker.

On another year, they’d be up there:

The Grind—Godawful.
Taking Lives—Insipid.
Ladykillers—I vomit.
Connie and Carla—Stinks on ice.
White Chicks—Miserable.
Home on the Range—Just plain bad.
Club Dread—It’s been done before, and better.
Anchorman—Not funny enough.
Napoleon Dynamite—Tries way too hard.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban—Flimsy.

Ben Beard is a film and music critic living in Chicago.



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