The Year in Film
The Top Ten of 2004:
How To Deal
10. Birth - An immaculately crafted ghost story without any actual ghosts. Haunting without having much emotional resonance, but that opinion comes from just one viewing. There are narrative elements that fall apart or don't deliver and yet and yet and yet. I can't get it out of my head, be it Alexandre Desplat's score or Kidman's face at the theater or the boy's collapse in the hallway or so many other operatic touches from director Jonathan Glazer. A scene that sticks with me most of all is at the film's opening, where Kidman and Danny Huston are celebrating their engagement. Peter Stormare, a friend from the past, a friend of her dead husband, has been invited and has arrived, without his wife on his arm. There's this incredible mixture of emotions as Stormare, Kidman, and Huston interact. Huston especially pulls off such a great casual jealousy, that is at once obvious and at the same time unclear. He isn't worried about the man standing before him who his wife is so pleased to see, but for the unseen man represented by Stormare's presence. Before the child claiming to be her dead husband shows up, the ghosts of the past have already been ushered in.
9. Team America: World Police - A crude and rude middle finger to (d) all of the above. There are some who that believe that Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ and Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 neatly organized the country's citizens into two boxes this year: red or blue, left or right, Democrat or Republican, closeted gay masochist sons of Nazi sympthathizers or Park Avenue residents with penchants for kite flying, Happy Meals, and compulsive fibbing. For those of us not too keen on being placed in said box, labeled or handed a bumper sticker ("War Is Not The Answer" or "9 out of 10 Terrorists Agree: Anyone But Bush"), it let us laugh a little and not feel so ronery.
Heroes to Zeros
8. The Incredibles - Whip smart, with energy to spare, Brad Bird's entry into the Pixar canon proves not just that he has the goods (and a great talent for voice work to boot), but that the Pixar brand is about as dependable as you may get. It's not Toy Story 2 or the wondrous Kurosawa and Gershwin infused and terribly underrated A Bug's Life, but it's close. And that's plenty.
7. Collateral - Like Paul Thomas Anderson's San Fernando Valley, Mann's city is alive, filled with beauty, pain, excitement, and horror, teeming with music from car stereos, clubs or the internal soundtracks of the characters, and enlivened with the cacophonous accents and languages of the various ethnicities in the most diverse city in the world (a fact frequently forgotten by east coast snobs who like to think everyone here is blonde, surgically enhanced, and white). Like Heat, Collateral mixes a gritty, tough, slightly cynical brand of story and character with an operatic sense for the struggle between obsessives (and for the obsessives themselves), be they cops, criminals, cab drivers, lawyers, or hit men. Anderson gets this place inside and out. David Lynch crawls inside its head, the dreams/nightmares of its denizens, and even those who dream about it from afar. Quentin plays in it. And Michael Mann lives it. Like Jamie Foxx's character Max says, "It's home."
Forget Me Not
6. The Bourne Supremacy - Paul Greengrass picks up where Doug Liman left off and makes the character of Jason Bourne even richer in complexities, a broken toy of CIA bureaucrats, made to come to terms with bits and pieces of the past he can't remember and is unwilling to forget. It's a relentless picture, hurtling forward toward a conclusion less about tidying up a serpentine plot, and more about a man trying to make amends for decisions made for him and actions he bears responsibility for.
5. Bad Education - "The book says, we might be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us." Three stories overlap, each something of a half truth, more or less, all revolving around a blackmail plot, less about money, and much more about revenge. But Almodovar digs deeper and complicates things further, making everything a game of power, sexual dominance, and role reversal and absorption. It is the story of an actor, insecure of self, bent on taking the life, stories, pain, and passions of others for his own benefit. It may wear him out, it may bring him to tears, but it won't stop him. Anything for the sake of his craft. It is often the case, as it is with Kevin Spacey's "ode" to Bobby Darin, where the notion of a film within a film within a film is only there to flash the cleverness of the artist, but here, Almodovar, obsessed with film, as are many of his characters, be it with the craft of filmmaking, the craft of acting, or the reverence for film's stars, uses this technique not as a device to safely distance himself or us from the subject at hand, but to force us, by utilizing familiar elements of genre, to tap directly into it.
4. Sideways - There's an unfortunate thing that happens this time of year. A film is drowned in accolades, critical awards, nominations, etc., we forget that the film itself is not just fodder for "For Your Consideration" ads, and the tide turns against it. Is it really that good? Isn't it just about a bunch of ugly, middle aged guys lusting after the chick from Candyman? I'm a big fan of Taylor/Payne's first two films, wicked satires that find time to point a finger at all sides, and still have empathy for all. About Schmidt, however, seemed to strain under itself, unable to balance the beautifully nuanced performance of Jack Nicholson with a comedy where in his sad sack is an outsider, desperately yearning for affection or connection. There was so much work done with Jack and so little with Hope Davis or Dermot Mulroney or Kathy Bates that one felt the enterprise to be entirely rigged. I think it's interesting that Jack can only find connection with an impoverished child on another continent, perhaps showing him that there is a bigger world than the one he knows, but simply, I felt like Payne and Jim Taylor left Jack out in the rain and locked the door. And that is why Sideways was such a welcome surprise. Payne and Taylor balance their incisive humor with their usual brand of pathos. Two middle aged losers, one a malcontented drunk (the great Paul Giamatti, though, admittedly, in a role he needs to start growing out of or run the risk of falling into routine), the other an insecure actor led around by his cock (Thomas Hayden Church in a wonderfully grating performance), go to wine country and find women they don't deserve, not because of differences in physical beauty, but because they're both pricks. But if Miles cannot express his true self in conversation or only do so in small doses, he can apparently write his heart and touch another lonely soul who he connects with on many levels. As he knocks on the door to Virginia Madsen's apartment, he has finally stopped staggering, at least for a second, and taken a step forward.
3. The Aviator - A bombastic epic of a man bent on being remembered, of changing a world that will eventually swallow him up. People are unwilling to accept it (and by this, I especially mean men my age) that Leonardo Dicaprio, if not a great "actor" (whatever the fuck that means), is a supremely gifted movie star and gives here, maybe, his best performance yet. And then there's Cate. The moment where she is mending Leo in the bathroom and warns him of the danger of celebrity is one of my favorite scenes of the year, and if you weren't already aware, Miss Blanchett might just be the best actress we have. But, of course, the real show here is Marty, who puts together, with an A-grade team of filmmakers, a dazzling piece of entertainment, that never once lags in its three hours. Of course, I'm a great defender of Gangs of New York and think that everyone who has turned on Marty is insane, so, I suppose you should take my thoughts with a grain of salt, that is, if you're crazy too. This is big budget, big canvas, big Hollywood filmmaking at its very best.
2. Before Sunset - Before Sunrise seemed to me a perfect film about being twenty or so. You're passionate and angry and a little too much of both about everything. You not only love the idea of meeting a beautiful girl or boy on a train in a country in which you don't live, but you love talking about meeting a beautiful girl or boy on a train in a country in which you don't live. Your feelings towards that other person may be genuine, but they can also be, slightly, fleeting. It may not be until that girl or boy is gone that you realize just what it was you were feeling or what you could feel if just given another chance or more time. Not to say that any of this improves with age, but, maybe, in one sense, you may think more of yourself or your opportunities as fleeting, forcing you to attempt to grab a hold of that which you perceive to be worth grabbing. And here is a sequel of necessity, asking the question of what might happen, years later, if those same two young people met up again, now with more complications to keep them apart, but a back story that might pull them closer. That question is answered in the most perfect ending of the year. In any other year, it would rank atop my list. But...
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - This spot has been occupied by this film since I saw it, blubbering my way out of the Galleria, hit harder emotionally by a film than I had been in some time. I saw it again, cried some more, and the film had not lost a thing. The unkempt love story of which this film is about is one of the most beautifully rendered in recent cinema history. Yes, I just said that. And in twenty years, this might be the only thing anyone's talking about when they talk of the films of 2004. This one will last. This one won't be forgotten. All the bits and pieces and fragments that are the staple of Charlie Kauffman's storytelling style have an enormous impact here, of all the small things, be they rapturous or petty, good or bad, that make us love another person, make us love love, make us want to try again, or make us afraid to commit to another person. An out and out masterpiece.
Honorable Mention: Spanglish, Criminal, A Home at the End of the World, A Very Long Engagement, Mean Girls, Harold and Kumar go to White Castle, Spiderman 2, Million Dollar Baby, Closer, Touching the Void, Super Size Me, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Hellboy, Kill Bill: Vol. 2, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events
Yeah, Not So Much: The Day After Tomorrow, The Village, Secret Window, Along Came Polly, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Hero, Kinsey, Outfoxed, Van Helsing, Troy, Young Adam, Garden State (Despite Nat's best efforts.), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Ocean's Twelve, The Dreamers, Saved!, The Manchurian Candidate (The most unnecessary remake, convinced that its predecessor needed improving or modernizing. Just plain stupid.), We Don't Live Here Anymore, The Door in the Floor (Oh, Mimi.), I Heart Huckabees, The Terminal, Undertow, Finding Neverland, Chasing Liberty
The Ulee Kunkel Award: Dogville
5. (tie) King Arthur
Dear Uncle Jerry,
I may not be your biggest fan, nor an admirer of the frequent trips to the magical cave that you took me on two summers ago with Johnny, Keira, and that wooden soldier, Orly. But, at the very least, I felt like you took me there with the best of intentions. Sadly, now, I must ask that you stop taking me on trips when drunk or in the company of, one, Mister David Franzoni. That day when you made me watch you flush all that money down the toilet was upsetting. And when you read to me from those books that Mr. Franzoni and Mr. Fuqua claimed were their source material for their historically accurate take on King Arthur and his knights, and I then later found the book to be a ledger of some sort, covered in red ink, with added chapters entitled, "Excuses for Poor Opening Weekend" and "Lies to Tell at Junkets," I honestly felt a little used. So, to sum up: bad Uncle Jerry. Bad. Bad. Bad. I know you won't learn your lesson, but I hope you will at least feel guilty, if just for a second.
5. (tie) In Good Company - Entirely bogus, tone deaf, and out of touch. For all the people who shit on Spanglish, it at least attempts to, if not altogether suceeds at dealing with issues of class. Here, I get an angry or naive teenager's vision of how the world works, how corporate America is, or how the generations clash. Defenders of the film claim that it's about a younger generation learning that they've been lied to, that the dream they're pursuing is false. In reality, it's about a younger generation learning that the dream is true, that success is possible, but only if they listen to the older generation which has figured it out for the most part and knows much more than them and if they do, they can have a job they believe in, a family who loves them, and a three car garage in suburbia. It's great lesson, it seems, is to "find yourself." Gag me with a spoon. But the real problem is no one's convincing here and neither are any of the relationships. It's always sad watching a movie where everyone's supposed to know each other and be close and all they seem to have done is nodded to one another at craft services and found their mark.
4. Open Water - The only logical thing to do is root for the sharks. Sadly, the sharks take their sweet time and the audience is left with two very bad actors bitching and moaning to each other. Maybe they'll just drown? Nope. Will they kill each other? One could hope, but, alas, no. So, we then must wait for the sharks to swoop in and kill. And what sort of sharks are these anyway? In Jaws: The Revenge, the shark: (a) kills with a purpose (see: the title, which is either a reference to the original shark coming back to life and exacting revenge or some sort of child of said shark coming back to make amends) (b) travels from Amity to the warm waters of the Bahamas to further hunt down individuals in his elaborate revenge plot (c) shows no mercy, kills multiple people in the time span of the film, and provides the audience, frightened by Lorraine Gary's Skeletor face and Mario Van Peebeles hair or accent or mere presence, with enough cheap thrills and carnage to get us to ignore all of its many laughable failures. The sharks in Open Water are just lazy. It's the bad actors that should die right away. You wait til the end to kill the people anyone could ever even possibly like or feel for. Instead, we get the stand-ins bobbing in the water, having one grating conversation after another, and all you can do is hope and pray for them to die, so you can just go home. If you're in the market for a "ride or die" shark, you've come to the wrong place. If you wanted these sharks to kill for you, and swim to the warm waters of the Bahamas, they'd probably give you some lame story about how sharks don't swim in warm waters or how they don't have the mental acumen to seek revenge or some other such nonsense. Lazy fucks.
3. The Phantom of the Opera - Joel Schumacher is often lauded for his eye towards casting, his frequent ability to discover up and coming talent. This skill is the frequent defense when Schumacher's lack of skill in all other departments is discussed. The funny thing here is simple. For all his lack of visual invention or subtlety and/or good taste in regards to production design or costumes, it would be thought that, again, Joel could fall back on his one marketable attribute. Instead, he has cast a Phantom who cannot sing. And no amount of mixing will do the trick. When I sing along to music in my car, I like the music to be really loud, because as much as I enjoy the act of singing along, I don't enjoy hearing myself singing. If I just had better cheekbones, I might get to be in a musical. Along with a stunningly beautiful Christine with less than stellar pipes and questionable acting chops, and a lifeless male counterpart, whose brand of singing wouldn't even serve him well with Simon, Randy, and Paula, Joel's got himself a cast to be reckoned with. The film can be criticized on many counts, but when you can't even get out of the starting gate, there isn't much point in dwelling on the obvious.
2. The Brown Bunny - Next time, if he desires to get even closer to the core of it all, Vincent Gallo might try removing a rib or two. I hear that helps.
1. Beyond the Sea - This film is not about Bobby Darin, Bobby Darin's music, Bobby Darin's activism, Bobby Darin's marriage to Sandra Dee, Bobby Darin's illness, Bobby Darin's family life or his relationship to his mother. It's not about anything. It's about a sad little man yelling at us for two hours, preening in front of a mirror and begging us to watch. Look at me. I can sing. I can dance. I can kick mud in the faces of my fellow actors, cover their mouths when they want to speak, nudge them behind the curtain so that I can take another curtain call. A bottomless pit of narcissism, made worse by the ugliness of its craft. Contemptible.