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Ten Best Films of 2004
by Peter Sobczynski

These were the 10 finest films that I saw in 2004-some of them you may have seen, some of them may be a complete mystery. Nevertheless, these were the ones that challenged, moved, amused and entertained me the most during the year.

1. GREENDALE (directed by Neil Young): On CD, Young’s extended song cycle (think “Our Town” with feedback) was an intriguing, if muddled, exploration of family unity, corporate greed, environmental responsibility and the world political scene. On film, however, this aggressively low-tech adaptation (shot entirely on 8mm film for the warm immediacy of a home movie) pulled together into an angry, thoughtful and extraordinarily moving epic that, unlike too many American films, actually grappled with important issues instead of merely paying them lip service. Who would have thought that a 60’s musician would have come up with the year’s most relevant non-documentary film?

2. KILL BILL: VOL. 2 (directed by Quentin Tarantino): I thought the first half of Tarantino’s revenge epic was last year’s best film-this second half was simply a better film. While the first part was dominated by action, this one relied more on the elements that make Tarantino’s work so exciting-a gift for getting great performances from his actors (as the vengeful Bride, Uma Thurman has never been better and David Carradine’s Superman speech deserves an Oscar nod all by itself), a story structure that is clever without being contrived and the kind of dialogue that is a joy to listen to.

3. ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (directed by Michel Gondry): Heads are still spinning over this unclassifiable film about a man (Jim Carrey in his finest performance) entering his own memories to prevent thoughts of a lost love (Kate Winslet, equally great) from being erased in by a strange medical procedure. More audaciously strange than anything you have ever in your life and yet, it was more authentically romantic and deeply felt than any other film in recent memory.

4. BEFORE SUNSET (directed by Richard Linklater): The other great romance of the year, this continuation of the wonderful “Before Sunrise” not only lived up to the expectations of fans of the original, it exceeded them. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy were fascinating to watch and hear as they walked through Paris discussing live and love, culminating in the year’s best finale.

5. MILLION DOLLAR BABY (directed by Clint Eastwood): To explain what makes Eastwood’s drama about two old-timers (played by himself and Morgan Freeman) training an ambitious female boxer (Hilary Swank) so unforgettable would ruin the considerable surprises it has to offer. What I can say is that it contains three extraordinary performances, a script that only gradually reveals what it is really about and the kind of direction that reminds us once again that Clint Eastwood is one of the best American filmmakers working today.

6. FAHRENHEIT 9/11 (directed by Michael Moore): If this had been a bad film simply in cinematic terms-a jumble of names, dates and figures without any cohesion-it would have come and gone without a thought, much like many of the other instant-documentaries to appear in its wake. However, Moore is a born filmmaker whose work here demonstrates that he knows how to tell a complex tale in a clear and easy manner that is fascinating and entertaining to watch. A great work of humor and anger and one that won’t lose its relevance anytime soon.

7. A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT (directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet): Combining the whimsy of his “Amelie” (not to mention beguiling star Audrey Tautou) with the grim horrors of war may sound like a bad idea, but Jeunet’s film, involving a determined young woman searching for proof that her fiancée didn’t perish during the waning days of WWI, brought them together in a sweeping romantic epic that was equal parts heartbreaking and delightful. The film that “Cold Mountain” might have been like if it had been competently adapted and cast.

8. COLLATERAL (directed by Michael Mann): This battle of wills between two skilled professionals-a cabbie (Jamie Foxx) and a hit-man (Tom Cruise) thrown together one long L.A. night overcame what might have been a one-note premise with a couple of great performances, smart dialogue, killer action sequences and photography so stunning that it was as if it were the first time Los Angeles had ever appeared in a film.

9. CLOSER (directed by Mike Nichols): Perhaps the least cheerful film of the years was one of the most unforgettable, a lacerating look at two couples who are seemingly hell-bent on destroying themselves and each other in the name of “honesty”. Four great performances (from Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Clive Owen and a heartbreaking Natalie Portman), bruisingly brutal dialogue (from Patrick Marber, adapting his play) and the best feature-film direction of Nichols’s entire career combined in a work of unsettling power.

10. THE AVIATOR (directed by Martin Scorsese): Scorsese’s epic-sized film of the life of Howard Hughes (a great Leonardon DiCaprio performance) worked as both a love letter to old Hollywood (especially in the sequences depicting Hughes’s filmmaking adventures) and as a psychological study of a man who single-minded psyche made him one of the richest men and the world as well as led to his emotional downfall as a result of his obsessive-compulsive behavior. As bold and troubling as the man it celebrates, this was one of the best biopics in a long time.

The ten runners-up were Alexander Payne’s “Sideways”, Brad Bird’s “The Incredibles”, Bill Condon’s “Kinsey”, Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny”, Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead”, Ousmane Sembene’s “Moolaade”, Kerry Conran’s “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”, James Toback’s “When Will I Be Loved”, David Mamet’s “Spartan” and Alexander Witt’s “Resident Evil: Apocalypse”.

I also got a kick out of (roughly in the order in which I saw them): “Tokyo Godfathers”, “Teacher’s Pet”, “The Butterfly Effect”, “The Big Bounce”, “Miracle”, “The Dreamers”, “Broken Lizard’s Club Dread”, “The Passion of the Christ”, “Jersey Girl”, “Broken Wings”, “Bon Voyage”, “I’m Not Scared”, “Kitchen Stories”, “The Ladykillers”, “Home on the Range”, “Dawn of the Dead”, “This Old Cub”, “Twentynine Palms”, “Ella Enchanted”, “Crimson Gold”, “The Mayor of Sunset Strip”, “Shaolin Soccer”, “Baadassss!”, “Secret Lives”, “The Saddest Music in the World”, “Shrek 2”, “Coffee and Cigarettes”, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azakaban”, “Strayed”, “Control Room”, “Garden State”, “Tamala 2010”, “The Mother”, “Spider-Man 2”, “Dodgeball”, “The Corporation”, “Maria Full of Grace”, “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle”, “Anchorman”, “Facing Windows”, “The Manchurian Candidate”, “The Bourne Identity”, “Open Water”, “Festival Express”, “Code 46”, “Stander”, “The Princess Diaries 2”, “Red Lights”, “Mean Creek”, “The Yes Men”, “The Last Shot”, “Undertow”, “Cellular”, “I Heart Huckabees”, “End of the Century”, “Friday Night Lights”, “Tarnation”, “Finding Neverland”, “Primer”, “Vera Drake”, “Being Julia”, “Los Angeles Plays Itself”, “Ray”, “Dig”, “Anatomy of Hell”, “Overnight”, “Bright Leaves”, “Sex is Comedy”, “In Good Company”, “The Assassination of Richard Nixon”, “House of Flying Daggers”, “La Petite Lili”, “The Merchant of Venice”, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”, “Ocean’s 12”, “Infernal Affairs”, “Spanglish”, “Meet the Fockers” and “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events”.

For those interested in looking up the original reviews of the films that currently do not appear on this site, they can be found for now at their original home at

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originally posted: 12/30/04 01:27:05
last updated: 01/17/05 05:23:15
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