The anno horribilus known as 2004 turned out to be an interesting one, cinema-wise. The word that keeps cropping up in my mind is “mature.” Even the best kiddy fare this year (The Incredibles, Mean Girls) seemed surprisingly sharp and clever.
Amazingly, American audiences rejected much of the over-budgeted, over-hyped summer “blockbusters.” Van Helsing, Troy, King Arthur, The Chronicles of Riddick, Catwoman and Alexander all made back only a fraction of their $100 million dollar plus budgets. Meanwhile, small-budget documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11, Outfoxed and Super Size Me became pop cultural phenomena.
Minuscule film fest entries like Open Water and Napoleon Dynamite also hit big, netting huge returns on their investments. Napoleon, for example, cost a mere $400,000 to make and earned more than $44 million in theaters. All in all, not a bad year.
So what were the best of the best? Here's my vote for the Top 10 Movies of 2004. What's yours?
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—This film stuck with me like no other this year. I knew, as soon as I saw it, that I was watching one of the most inventive films of the year. Charlie (Being John Malkovich) Kaufman's Chinese puzzle box of a script is nothing short of brilliant. Michel (Human Nature) Gondry's direction delivers visual surprise after visual surprise. Jim Carrey gives one of his most understated performances, and Kate Winslet glows as only she can. Despite the oddball sci-fi trappings, this is hands-down one of the most realistic portraits of love ever committed to celluloid. Love isn't all hearts and flowers, people, and this beautiful mindbender reminds us just how exquisite heartbreaking memories can be.
Sideways—Sideways isn't an immediately likable film ... and that's its greatest strength. The characters, all dealing with their own form of mid-life shellshock, aren't cuddly, lovable creations. They're adults—troubled, flawed, occasionally stupid and eminently real adults. All of which makes Sideways one of the most mature films of this or any year. Director Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt) has made a career out of making us fall in love with thorny human beings, and this delicate little character study is like spending a week with your best friends: There are times that you love them, there are times that you hate them; but, in the end, you don't want them to leave.
The Aviator—After the up-and-down brilliance of Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese is back on steady ground. This lavish, energetic Hollywood history is his best film in ages. Leonardo DiCaprio delivers his most fully realized performance since What's Eating Gilbert Grape? Screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator) has cracked a tough nut with his one, letting us in on the early years of mad millionaire Howard Hughes, who could stand up to any challenge, but didn't have a chance against his own inner demons. The recreations of period Hollywood are worth the price of admission alone.
Kill Bill, Vol. 2—Quentin Tarantino delivered one of the most elegant switcheroos in the history of cinema with this unexpected sequel. After seeing the first kinetic volume, I settled into this one expecting more hip bloodshed. What I got was a full-grown, epic character study that all but flipped Vol. 1 on its head. It wouldn't have worked without the first (nearly misleading) film, and I admire the sneaky maturity Tarantino continues to exhibit. Uma Thurman as a loving mother and a ruthless assassin? David Carradine as a monumentally creepy kingpin and a charming ladies man? Wow!
Finding Neverland—Viewed as a biopic of Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie, this film is somewhat lacking. Facts are conveniently forgotten, big issues simply glossed over. But, on the other hand, if you look at this as a mind-expanding examination of creative inspiration, this is one of the best films about writing ever made. Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet are magnificent, the sets are appropriately fantastical, and director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball) crafts this feel-good tearjerker with just the right sprinkling of magic.
Hero/House of Flying Daggers—Although director Zhang Yimou's Hero was shot in 2001, it took until late this summer for Miramax to allow it into American theaters. It became a huge hit, prompting the quick follow-up release of Zhang's newest film, House of Flying Daggers. They are of a pair—two impossibly gorgeous action films that put the art in martial arts. Fans can haggle over which is the better film, but it's a moot argument: They're both glorious treats to see on the big screen.
A Very Long Engagement—At this point, you either connect with the off-kilter worlds of writer/director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children, Amélie) or you find them entirely too self-conscious. Count me as a longtime fan who continues to be impressed. This is Jeunet's most beautifully grotesque offering, a rumination on impossible, unwavering love and the horrors of war. Jeunet sees the absurdities of both and runs across all of Europe with his twin themes. His Rube Goldberg sense of cause-and-effect is in full force here, resulting in a sepia-toned black comedy that is as much about the unstoppable forces of destiny as his last hit Amélie.
Vera Drake—I wouldn't call this the most cheerful film of the year, but few directors know their way around a kitchen sink drama like Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies, Naked). Imelda Staunton delivers the most devastating female performance of the year as an ordinary British wife and mother who just happens to operate as an illegal abortionist in post-war London. The film deftly avoids becoming an argument for or against abortion, and instead slides from a seamless character study to a powerhouse reflection on the nature of justice.
The Incredibles—Leave it to the folks at Pixar, who haven't let us down yet, to deliver the most purely entertaining popcorn film of the year. Superheroes are on the verge of being done to death in Hollywood, but this warm, clever take on the men-in-tights genre is both the best superhero movie of the year and the best family film of the year. It's Pixar's most “adult” film to date, and a real beacon of hope for the future of animation. For every cold, soulless Polar Express there's an Incredibles to balance it out.
Before Sunset—You have to squint to see it, but this sequel to writer/director Richard Linklater's 1995 film Before Sunrise is this year's tiniest, most flawless gem. Few people were convinced they needed to see a film in which two people just walk and talk, but it ended up being a heartfelt surprise for aging Gen Xers. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy (who improvised much of their dialogue) were exquisite as the two former would-be lovers who tiptoed through a random reunion. After 20 minutes of friendly chitchat, the dam broke open. “Oh God, why weren't you there in Vienna?” he asked, opening the floodgates for a brutally (and amusingly) honest talk about life, love, politics and pets. The film ends with the simplest, most subtle, yet most revealing ending of the year. She: “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane.” He: “Yes, I am.”