Joe’s Best & Worst Films of 2004
by Joe Steiff
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2004 YEAR IN MOVIES
2004. A year of movies that flirted with or even romanticized pedophilia (Birth, anyone?) and sex with the under-aged (some desperate housewife), though only one tried to deal with the issue head on (The Woodsman). Reality shows hit new lows, and for some reason people still bow at the altar of Mark Bullshit. The producers of The Swan completely missed the point of the fable they named their show for — the ugly duckling realized he was already beautiful just the way he was — he didn’t go and get plastic surgery. Strand Releasing continued to release “gay” films that portray gay men as prostitutes and murderers; wow, if this is an example of gay-friendly movies, just imagine what kinds of gay films the Christian right would be making. Here’s hoping Funny Boy offers us a different view.
2004 was also the year we “gave” people the right to vote in other countries but could have paid more attention to our own election at home. We marvel at why people don’t seem to want democracy even as we make ours more and more questionable. All I can say is look to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — who can really embrace freedom when they’re without electricity, water or food? Bombing cities and providing no infrastructure isn’t really offering them something better.
Speaking of losing battles, one of 2003’s best TV shows, Joan of Arcadia, lost much of its charm in late 2004. But The New People got a great revamp reminiscent of the more subversive ’70s TV movies as the new TV series Lost. The ’70s seemed alive and well in the best film about filmmaking, the period piece Baadasssss!, which was made in 2003 but made it to theaters in 2004. On the other hand we had a near mythic Undertow as a contemporary film with the stylistic flourishes that scream the 1970s.
The most daring films of 2004 came from outsider Michael Moore and the newly outside Mel Gibson. Insider Britney Spears got married twice (trying to out-Lopez Lopez?), swore she was taking a break (again), but just like the last time, has been in the news ad nauseam. Kevin Smith gets kudos for killing off the character portrayed by J-Lo — oh, excuse me, she now wants to be called Jennifer Lopez again, next she’ll be telling us she’s still just Jenny from the block, oh wait, she’s already pulled that crap — in the first 15 minutes of Jersey Girl. If only other directors would follow suit or better yet stop casting her all together.
Best Real World
The best reality shows of 2004 continued to be the documentaries that made it into our multiplexes. Super Size Me took on the McWorld. Some Kind of Monster took on Metallica. Tarnation took on the dysfunctional world of family. Fahrenheit 9/11 took on the Bush world.
Film as Art
House of Flying Daggers may be a more accomplished and polished film (Jet Li’s Hero does go on and on and on), but for sheer choreography of visual elements, Hero is unparalleled — of course, it was actually made several years ago and only now released in the US.
Best Nickel and Dime
The first scene of Enduring Love, with its canted angles and dynamic editing, is one of the most harrowing and memorable beginnings to any film in recent memory. Unfortunately it can’t quite hold on to its initial promise, though it was one of the most ambitious films of the year, and its grounded closing images bring the entire bittersweet film full circle.
I know everyone is raving about Jamie Foxx for his work in Collateral and Ray, and with good reason, but in my eyes, Don Cheadle gave the best male performance of the year in Hotel Rwanda; best supporting was hands down Morgan Freeman for Million Dollar Baby. Imelda Staunton gives the best female performance as Vera Drake, followed closely by Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda). Supporting goes to Natalie Portman, Garden State.
Crumbly Goodness Award
My grandfather had this saying when he’d see a beautiful woman: “I wouldn’t kick her out for eating crackers in my bed.” With that as the standard, the guy who can eat crackers in my bed anytime is Dennis Quaid (Flight of the Phoenix). And hell, we’ll make room for Julianne Moore (The Forgotten). If Thomas Jane (The Punisher) and Tina Fey (Mean Girls) want to crawl in, they’re more than welcome as well.
Rolling Over In His Grave
Isaac Asimov wrote numerous stories reassuring us of the promise of a robotic future only to see his vision reduced to the antithesis of all his beliefs in the film I, Robot.
Or “see the originals and skip the copies” award: The Ladykillers, based on a classic Ealing comedy, and The Stepford Wives (2004), based on a … well, uh … never mind.
Unnecessary … just unnecessary …
Troy. Alexander. King Arthur. Shrek 2. The Village. Ocean’s Twelve. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Phantom of the Opera.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban kind of got lost in the shuffle, though it’s a very respectable chapter in the saga. Collateral. The Polar Express.
The Best Films I Saw in 2004
Of the 550 or so films released in the USA this year, I saw about 80 of them, and here are the ones I considered the best. I’d be hard pressed to say that any of these films are great, and certainly the very best films of last year are better than almost all of these, but on the other hand, you’ll notice that I’m not giving a “worst of” list this year. That’s because most of the films I saw this year were satisfying in one way or another and certainly no worse than the dregs of previous years. Maybe the films (or just me) are hitting more in the middle of quality rather than swinging wildly from the great to the awful.
What strikes me most about these films on my list is that each raises questions of ethics, whether on the larger scale (epic battles of war or religion) or on the smaller scale (one’s own relationships including the internal relationship with one’s memories).
Keeping myself to just 10 films as the official “best” list, there were several “near misses” to my countdown that I’d like to note here: the antithetical high school sports movie Friday Night Lights; the whimsical and sad Finding Neverland. The tragic Mean Creek. Sideways. Open Water. The thrilling I’m Not Scared. And the smart and witty Mean Girls.
With that said, here’s my top ten:
10. The Passion of the Christ — Visually stunning, though Gibson sort of misses the point. The truly powerful moments in this film are the (all too rare) glimpses into humanity and compassion, such as the woman offering Jesus a cup of water. To simply watch brutality and evil becomes meaningless if we can’t see the good in humanity that makes us worth saving.
9. Maria Full of Grace — This film crept up on me, never fully surprising but never quite going where I expected. Very quiet and graceful, one of the best movies about the drug trade that I’ve seen.
8. Garden State — In addition to the best performance Natalie Portman gave this year (forget Closer), this film is a gem. The only misstep is at the very end: sobbing into a pay phone disrupts the understated tone that makes this film so remarkable.
7. Vera Drake — This is the most accomplished film Mike Leigh has made, continuing his trend of finding his most substantial work in period pieces. And it’s always great to see Ruth Sheen (who broke my heart in Leigh’s High Hopes) on the screen.
6. Million Dollar Baby — I left the theater angry. But then I realized that I was angry because Eastwood had done his job so well. In fact, Eastwood has become (or perhaps he always has been) one of our most subversive directors, refusing to offer the easy endings to the lives he presents on the screen. This film is far more satisfying than Mystic River though it mines some of the same questions of justice, ethics and fairness. Eastwood and Freeman give their finest performances, and Swank one of her best.
5. Before Sunset — Okay, I admit it, I never saw Before Sunrise. Why bother? I’d had that kind of night, and I guess at the time I thought that I’d rather sit with my memories than watch someone else go through it. So I approached Before Sunset with some skepticism. Maybe I’ve just become nostalgic in my old age, but I found myself drawn in to the deceptive simplicity of the film’s style, the characters’ conversation and the underlying longing.
4. A Very Long Engagement — The first 15 minutes of this film were brutal. Not gory, just brutal. The mutilation of war seems at odds with a romantic love story, but somehow it all works, and the last few moments were achingly beautiful.
3. Spider-Man 2 — Yeah, I know, it’s a comic book movie, but it’s a damn impressive one. Defying the safe route that would allow each movie to simply be an episode, this film stands alone, expanding and deepening the characters and situations in surprising ways. Its final coda owes a little to The Graduate as we watch Mary Jane’s slow realization of just what she has gotten herself into.
2. Hotel Rwanda — Using the popular hero’s journey structure as drama, this film is ultimately more cohesive and consistent in tone than the film it’s most often compared to, Schindler’s List. Ultimately what evolves is a film about the dignity of doing the right thing even when its not convenient or even safe, counterbalancing the very worst qualities of human nature with the very best and giving us hope that the best can shine far brighter.
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — I’m not a big Charlie Kaufman fan. I usually find that his scripts start with an intriguing premise that rapidly falls apart by the third act. But here he’s found a director and a story that allows for his most satisfying cinematic conclusion and haunting film yet. This movie is near perfect, creating a mix of humor and poetic longing that came as close as we got this year to a truly memorable film for the ages.
Another year comes to an end. And 2005 is upon us. Happy viewing!
Joe Steiff is a writer and filmmaker living in the Midwest who teaches at Columbia College Chicago.
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