by Jason Whyte
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind - The Best Film of 2004
The year of 2004 has been a pretty interesting one in the realms of the cinema. A lot of bad product has certainly been released in the forms of black men playing white teenage girls, Vapoo-rizer, Nicolas Cage finding treasure and Brittany Murphy being…well, Brittany Murphy, but if you knew where to look, there has been a generous supply of great film to be found in the form of independents, foreign and even the occasional Hollywood blockbuster. It has also been a year where some of the major studios have made smaller, more light-budgeted films that have turned out wonderfully – and performed well at the box office to boot, proving that perhaps being smart isn’t such a dumb idea after all?
Anyway. Another year, another couple of hundred of films. I pretty much lived in the cinema this year, seeing over 300 movies through various film festivals, public releases, screeners and so forth. I’ve been busy, but I loved every moment of it, even when I accidentally walked into a screening of a pro-Bush documentary. I am happy to report that when you look at the following group of films, you’ll most likely agree that it’s been a pretty good year. Without further ado…
The Ten Best Films of 2004
#1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (USA, Dir. Michel Gondry)
Memory is a blessing and a curse, especially to those who wish to rid themselves of a horrific event or person that they feel could be better without. The genius to Michel Gondry’s masterpiece, an endlessly fascinating piece of cinema that is challenging AND funny, is that it argues that no matter how bad our memories may be, it is important to keep them. Jim Carrey’s Joel Parish is one of the year’s most interesting characters, as a man who wishes to rid his memories of his former flame Clementine (a great turn by Kate Winslet), and he is supported with work by Elijah Wood, Kirsten Dunst and Tom Wilkinson where all of the characters are interesting and lend great importance to the overall story, as well as Gondry’s amazingly “kooky” direction where nothing is ever predictable. The way it should be.
#2. Sideways (USA, dir. Alexander Payne)
Alexander Payne impressed me with “About Schmidt” and wowed me with “Election”, but “Sideways” is his best film, a gem about a stubborn, middle-aged man named Miles (Paul Giamatti) who finally tries to get a grip on reality when he takes his best friend on a bachelor trip through the Wine Country in California. Payne’s simple flow of sharp, observant dialogue with hilarious, sudden bursts of sex and violence keeps this movie fresh and alive, and it features a scene between Miles and a possible love interest named Maya (Virginia Madsen) discussing fine wine that is so winning that we wish it would just all go on forever.
#3. Before Sunset (USA/France, dir. Richard Linklater)
In 2003, Richard Linklater appeared to be on a roll with his fine “School of Rock”, which was not only a hit but a great kid’s film. Suddenly, it was decided to question the very question I’ve been thinking about since I saw “Before Sunrise” in 1995: what if Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), two strangers who met on a train in Europe and spent only one night together in Vienna, ever met again? Nine years have passed as “Sunset” begins on a hot Parisian evening where Jesse does indeed meet Celine again, and the next 80 minutes follow them through the city as they reminisce about the past as well as the future. The film has the best finale of the year, as it ends on a note of complete ambiguity, since we’re watching a story about ambiguous people who don’t know what’s going to happen in the next moment.
#4. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (USA, dir. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky) and Dig! (USA, dir. Ondi Timoner) (tie)
There were many, many documentaries this year, but the two that shone the brightest had to do with music. “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” and “Dig” I must refer to as “thrilling”. One of the best documents of two musicians I’ve ever seen, “Metallica” is thrilling because of the overall emotional experience I had while watching the complete process, thick and thin, of making an album under extreme circumstances. It features verbal sparring matches between drummer Lars Ulrich and frontman James Hetfield (as they prepare their 2003 album St. Anger which took nearly two years) where they must have forgotten the camera was rolling. It’s a great document of a band at each other’s throats, but if you take away the band, the struggle is like anything else.
“Dig” follows two bands – the Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols – throughout seven years, as the Warhols slowly move up to major stardom while the mass stubbornness and power tripping of Anton Newcombe in Brian Jonestown Massacre pretty much kept him out of the major spotlight. Director Ondi Timoner flawlessly paces the struggle of the two bands, and it all comes out alternately heartbreaking, powerful and a great entertainment with relentless energy, and I’m forever a fan of BJM’s music from watching it.
#5. Dogville (Denmark, dir. Lars von Trier)
Here is a film that was released to festivals in 2003 and then found its way to a nervous release this year. I have seen “Dogville” a few times now (and also Trier’s fine “The Five Obstructions”, a runner-up selection on my list, where he challenges director Jorgen Leth to remake a short film in several “Trier” forms) and have been repeatedly awestruck at his amazing use of minimalism, so much so that this film could be used as a dictionary example. He paints a simple story of an escaping woman (played by Nicole Kidman) and her quest to live amongst a town of strangers that has a very painful, very horrific quality to it. The use of chalk outlining instead of actual sets and props brings everyone close-up and gives us a unique look at a simple story, told Lars von Trier’s way.
#6. The Aviator (USA, dir. Martin Scorcese)
One of the most prolific figures in the film industry, let alone the 20th century, was Texas tycoon/movie conglomerate Howard Hughes, an obsessive-compulsive who threw millions of dollars into every film production to make it as accurate as possible. The film opens on Hughes creating “Hell’s Angels” using 26 cameras at an unheard of $4 million budget and follows Hughes right through to his airline fiasco with TWA. Martin Scorsese has made one of his best films in years about a troubled soul who gets a great idea, throws lots of money at it, then finds another great idea, throws more money at that, and so forth, and it helps that Leonardo DiCaprio gives his best performance as the stubborn, OCD-affected Hughes. That it’s also funny, entertaining and beautifully directed is just a bonus.
#7. Distant (Turkey, dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
I haven’t seen this film in over a year since a viewing at the Vancouver Film Festival (in 2003!), and its eventual American release was spotty at best, but Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film from Turkey has not left me. It’s a tale of a struggle between father and son is completely heartbreaking, and it’s set against the backdrop of Istanbul, with it’s lingering shots of a sunken ship and dark, dank weather make everything and everyone look lost and forgotten. Some have reviewed the film as “slow”, but I didn’t think it was intentionally so; Russian-god Andrei Tarkovsky’s work was also slow and Ceylan is certainly a fan of the Russian master, even going so far to include scenes from “Solaris” and “The Mirror” to show eternity slowly panning outwards.
#8. Undertow (USA, dir. David Gordon Green)
Last year, David Gordon Green’s “All The Real Girls” was on my Top 10 list, and here he is again with a quasi-Brothers Grimm, Hansel and Gretel story of two brothers who run away from a crazy uncle who has killed their father. It seems like a simple story, but Green throws traditional storytelling right out the window and focuses on the kids and the forgotten world around them. Every scene flows effortlessly with new, interesting characters and life that is engrossing and unpredictable. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
#9. Closer (USA/UK, dir. Mike Nichols)
A great film on how truth, not lies, can destroy relationships. Mike Nichols’ film is so rife with caustic wordplay and double-crossings that it works like a quiet thriller. Jude Law, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen and Natalie Portman are all featured in a love story where all the paths cross in unpredictable ways. The film is carefully edited but the process of time is left out, because not only does it give us a little work to do, these characters matter more in their struggle than how long they have been with each other. Features one of the best scenes of the year where Clive Owen completely disarms Jude Law in a doctor’s office.
#10. The Corporation (Canada, dir. Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott)
“The Corporation” angered me, but in a way that made me stand up and further question our existence in this world and the changes that we have the power to make. It balances hard truth by fusing well researched information and fascinating interviews by different people from all over the world as to how corporations have shape-shifted our entire planet, and that many of them have more power than governments. This is an important film that should have had as many viewers as Michael Moore’s inferior “Fahrenheit 9/11”, but will hopefully find a larger audience on video in 2005.
Special Jury Award: Runner-Ups
11. Tarnation (USA, dir. Jonathan Caouette)
In Jonathan Caouette’s $218 dollar-budgeted “Tarnation”, Caouette is his own subject as he tells his story about his troubled upbringing, his cancer-ridden mother and his own struggles with his sexuality. What is brutally unique about this movie is Caouette’s decision to tell much of the story through old movie clips, video footage and titles instead of narration. It gives us a weird, quasi-realistic look into his troubled existence. This was the best film I saw at this year’s Vancouver Film Festival, and I certainly wish it a well future.
12. I [Heart] Huckabee’s (USA, dir. David O. Russell)
David O. Russell’s quirky comedy has been given kind of a bum rap since its release in October, but to me, this is a weirdly fascinating look on philosophy and existentialism that creates comedy out of deep thought in a much better way than the clunky, cultist “What The Bleep Do We Know?” also released around the same time this year. Everything just made perfect sense to me; from the wacky existential detectives played by Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin to Jason Schwartman’s character questioning coincidence because of a doorman that he keeps seeing in strange situations. While it may not be at the “think tank” level of something like “Magnolia”, Russell’s themes and direction are standouts in a year of traditional Hollywood crap-cake.
Baadassss! (USA, dir. Mario Van Peebles)
A terrific film about the making of Melvin Van Peebles’ “Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song” that is actually BETTER than its subject. The original “Sweetback” is an important film in the history of independent cinema, even if it’s very rough around the edges with a wandering story and furious editing. But hey, indie-cinema had to start somewhere. This quasi “Making-of” by Melvin’s son Mario is brilliant in the way it fearlessly juggles Mario playing Melvin, while also having a younger actor (Khleo Thomas) play the young Mario, as well as all of the financial struggles the film faced, right from Bill Cosby’s assistance through to the Black Panthers saving the first screenings.
The Brown Bunny (USA, dir. Vincent Gallo)
One of the most talked about films this year that no one saw, Vincent Gallo has made an edgy piece of work about the troubled sexual history of Bud Clay (Gallo) on his way to Los Angeles to see his girlfriend. The use of long takes, drawn-out dialogue and off-kilter performances keep an intentionally dreamy mood as Bud wanders his way from one moment to the next. The film, among other things, is about those long, drawn-out silences that one experiences while on the open road.
The Five Obstructions (Denmark, dir. Lars von Trier & Jorgen Leth)
One of the funniest documentaries I’ve seen in a long time, here is what happens when Lars von Trier wants to get under your skin (besides making another movie, of course). He challenges director Jorgen Leth to remake his short film “The Perfect Human” five times, each utilizing particular laws by Trier that Leth must work around. The funniest “re-cuts” include the version of the film where no take can last more than twelve frames (one-half of a second, and the result is nothing short of hilarious) and another where the story is set in the worst part of the world.
Hero and House of Flying Daggers (Hong Kong, dir. Zhang Yimou, both) (tie)
Zhang Yimou’s two films are beautiful landscapes of classic storytelling mixed with startling cinematography (Christopher Doyle, the best DP working in the industry today, lensed “Hero” and should be up for an Oscar next year) and have certainly found an audience stateside.
Kill Bill Vol. 2 (USA, dir. Quentin Tarantino)
Tarantino’s second-part, concluding chapter to his Bride-revenge tale is a completely different tale than the first. The first film was a gory, action-filled masterpiece that combined Eastern/Western philosophies and was a homage to, well, everything that Tarantino loved. The second film is a morality play in which the Bride (Uma Thurman) faces off her next nemesis and finds her way to Bill (David Carradine). The film looks and feels like an old noir-ish western that finalizes on a scene with Bill that we certainly don’t see coming.
Mean Creek (USA, dir. Jacob Aaron Estes)
“Mean Creek” is an utterly realistic horror story where a group of kids simply try to tease a local bully but wind up in a situation far over their heads. Not only is it a telling story of teen angst (the bully turns out to be from a broken home and is really just lashing out his anger in the wrong way), the film features some of the most natural performances I’ve ever seen from young actors; Rory Culkin, Carly Schroeder, Scott Melchowitz and Trevor Morgan are all outstanding as kids who finally get a dose of reality.
Mooladde (Senegal, dir. Ousmane Sembene)
This story about female liberation in Senegal is as unique and fascinating as any movie I saw this year; a brutal tale of a society that still has complete control over its female populace and dictating how they should act. The central story is a group of women who are standing up against forced female circumcision, but is also about the old and outdated laws of the land where the women are looked down upon rather than being the backbone to their society. It also contains images of beautiful tradition; one of the film’s lasting shots is a piece of cloth that is suspended over a door frame, and curses anyone who should cross it.
The Motorcycle Diaries (Brazil, dir. Walter Salles)
Here is a simple story about a great revolutionary – Che Guvara (played in the film by Gael Garcia Bernal) who spearheaded the Cuban Revolution in the 1960’s – but is rather about how he finds himself while on a motorcycle journey across South America in the 1950’s and finds a land rife with poverty and forces himself to make change. Whether you agree or not with Guevara’s life during the revolution, this is not a movie about that particular subject but rather about a man who becomes.
Nothing (Canada, dir. Vincenzo Natali)
Vincenzo Natali, who directed “Cube”, strikes again with a peculiar tale of two best friends named Dave and Andrew (played, naturally, by David Hewlett and Andrew Miller) who get in over their heads and wish the world away…and their wish is granted. The remainder of this film has Dave and Andrew trying to deal with all of their surroundings completely vanished while their house – and turtle – still remain. Another Canadian film that was never really noticed in theatres, it now has the chance to find an audience on video.
Primer (USA, dir. Shane Carruth)
Here’s a movie that left me reeling, confused, scratching my head…and wanting more. Director/Writer/Lead Actor/Caterer Shane Carruth has made a dirt-cheap ($7,000 budget and old 16mm cameras) first feature about four scientists who have stumbled across an invention that may or may not be world-changing…you know what? The explanation of the plot is pointless because the use of dialogue, editing and timing in “Primer” is near-flawless, and while the film may have confounded me, I’d rather be confused and fascinated than have everything explained and left bored.
Spartan (USA, dir. David Mamet)
A film that seemed to come and go theatrically (that seems to have happened with a lot of films on this list!) was David Mamet’s terrific thriller about secret government agent Scott (Val Kilmer in a great performance) who is asked to find a kidnapped daughter of a government official, and as the film un-spools we slowly are shown the identity of the daughter and why she was kidnapped. Mamet’s dialogue is top-notch; the people in the film (CIA agents, FBI officers, Secret Service) talk without exposition and the plot twists in a way that is surprising and edgy in an era where we didn’t think that happened anymore.
Touching The Void (UK, dir. Kevin MacDonald)
Although I’m never going to climb a mountain in my lifetime, I was still blown away by “Touching The Void”, which is a quasi-documentary about the physical and emotional torture of a lost climber who has nearly his entire body broken after a fall in a mountain climb in the Andes. The film is intercut with interviews with the real climbers as well as outstanding re-created footage of the climb that is downright scary.
A Very Long Engagement (France, dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
While it may not have the long-lasting effects of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amelie”, this World War One drama has a bit of the melodramatic storytelling that partially sunk “Cold Mountain” last year, but not in this tale. This WWI drama focuses on a woman (Audrey Tautou) whose fiancée has disappeared from action and becomes obsessed with her quest, believing that he is still alive despite evidence going both ways. Jeunet’s caffeinated storytelling is another character in the film, using unlikely visuals and haunting music score (by Angelo Badalamenti) to give us one fascinating moment after another.
The Ten Worst Films of 2004:
01. George W. Bush: Faith in the White House
This “film” never really did get a theatrical release, rather a curious screening at this year’s Vancouver Film Festival that was booed, laughed at and widely discussed afterwards as one of the most inaccurate and biased documentaries ever made. It is also one of the worst things I have ever witnessed since the Spice Girls made a movie, hence this film making a much-needed appearance on my Worst of the year list. At number one. This “documentary”, which paints a positive light over George Dubya’s Christian ethics is not only laughable in its ignorance to what’s really going on in this world, but is also just piss-poor filmmaking, right from the self-promoting “host” to read quotes hilariously out of context (“No one has spent more time on his knees than George W. Bush”, one narrator says while talking about ‘ol Georgie’s religious devotion) to quite possibly the most laughable sequence in the history of the medium, where an obviously coached child reading from a teleprompter recounts his experiences with meeting Bush right before the start of the Iraq war. The kid didn’t realize that Bush only met the child as a publicity stunt to help himself in the polls.
02. White Chicks
Wow, what a gob-smackingly bad movie. A nearly TWO HOUR comedy (that somehow made money) about two FBI agents who go undercover, unconvincingly, as partying socialite girls (not too far a cry from Paris and Nicky Hilton) and the hundreds of people that they MAKE BELIEVE that they are female. Even in a comedy situation, I wasn’t buying it for a second, but what’s worse is that Keenan Ivory Wayans, the film’s director, still thinks that a multitude of fart gags and toilet humour is funny in this day and age.
“Envy, the shit disturber” I taglined in my original review. Since then, the film has faded into obscurity and lays unseen, unrented on video store shelves. As someone who SAW the movie, however, I’m still in pain over Ben Stiller and Jack Black’s whining, Christopher Walken’s embarrassing performance as “The Jay Man” who spends a twenty minute segment in burying a dead horse, and an invention called “Vapoorize” that is beat to death like that very horse.
04. Connie and Carla
I like Toni Collette and have enjoyed her work in the past, but why oh why did she sign on for this crappy Nia Vardalos vehicle in her first film since that “Greek Wedding”? This is an embarrassing ripoff of “Some Like it Hot” that features Collette and Vardalos as women who go undercover as drag queen FEMALE broadway singers hoping that they can elude the bad guys after them for witnessing a murder. David Duchovny plays a straight man who becomes gay with lust for Vardalos’ male-persona, not the real woman beneath. I wish I was making that up.
05. Little Black Book
This film made me angry. It asks us to have sympathy to fall for an un-likable shrew (played by Brittany Murphy of all un-likable people) who schemes, lies and gets her way despite hurting a lot of characters, and gets away with it at the end. One character in particular is played by the wonderful Julianne Nicholson, who you may remember from the indie favourite “Tully”, who is such a nice character here that they should have just made the film about how a good person was duped and shamed by somebody like Brittany Murphy.
06. National Treasure
Somehow, this cookie-cutter, mass-produced piece of garbage was a hit with audiences in late November. This is nothing more than swill put together by the Bruckheimer empire that would rather give you the McDonalds style of filmmaking (the standardized recipe, if you will) rather than trying something new. Nicolas Cage, looking half-asleep, plays an explorer who is looking for a treasure where its map is located on the back of the declaration of independence. Sounds like a nifty idea “borrowed” from “The Da Vinci Code” but is replete with brain-dead action sequences, insipid exposition and Diane Kruger’s adorable features surprisingly unappealing.
07. My Baby’s Daddy
Thankfully, I don’t recall much of this crap after viewing a DVD copy back in the summer. What I DO remember, however, is an endless array of baby poop jokes and whining adults (Anthony Anderson in full scream mode) and awful, CG-enhanced sequences where the babies talk jive to each other. And another film where someone from Kids in the Hall gets embarrassed.
08. Christmas With The Kranks
A married couple, whose daughter goes away during the holidays, decides to skip Christmas altogether (no presents, no decorating the house, and so forth) and wind up with some pretty awful neighbors who object to that idea. This is an awful comedy that teaches you that it’s okay to bully others to conform to your conformist needs.
The worst teen-oriented film of the year. Annoying actors, horrendous dialogue and one silly plot contrivance after another pretty much sum up this poorly-planned mess. It asks us to believe that four “nerdy” looking girls, who look like lovely young actors, are up against a “bet” between four snotty “hot” girls (two of which didn’t utter a line of dialogue) and the loser gets the “hot eating spot” at lunch. Whatever happened to lunch car trips to McDonalds?
10. The Chronicles of Riddick
Works not as a sequel to “Pitch Black”, a cult hit, but rather to the famous mega-bomb “Battlefield Earth” with some of the same garish sets and ugly costumes. Vin Diesel looks embarrassed and shot in dark tones, hiding him from the silly story of evil forces that Vin must face. That also includes Dame Judi Dench in a career-low as one of the evils. Did she lose a bet?
Other Notables This Year:
The Best Guilty Pleasure of 2004: Cellular
“Cellular” is simultaneously dumb as well as very smart about the knick-knacks of a thriller, and is a B-movie all the way. On the one hand, you have a gimmick involving a kidnapping of a woman (Kim Basinger) who pieces together a broken phone and calls a teenager (Chris Evans) which is silly, but then is very smart about the little phone that the teenager has with him, and it becomes strangely watchable. The gimmick suddenly becomes a unique idea that is a lot of fun to watch.
The Biggest Disappointment of 2004 Award: The Phantom of the Opera
Aye-yay-yah! Joel Schumacher’s rendition of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s play is not one of those musical-movies where only fans of the play will appreciate it. This is just a simply bad movie with lifeless music and Schumacher’s complete lack of framing a shot properly. Newcomer Emmy Rossum is beautiful and fiercely talented in an otherwise drab and forgettable opera. Stick to the live musical.
Best Improvement in 2004: Spider-Man 2
To me, “Spider-Man” was a disappointment (it made a mention on my Best/Worst of 2002 list for that very reason) for being too flashy, too theme-park and not enough spirit and thoughtfulness of the source material. “Spider-Man 2” transcends the first film and stands on its own as a living, breathing epic with interesting characters, storyline as well as great pyrotechnics and action.
Best Dance in 2004: Napoleon Dynamite’s “Pedro’s Pep-Rally Dance”
A movie that gets funnier and funnier on repeat viewings, “Napoleon Dynamite” a hit at Sundance, a smash in theatres and the hottest DVD rental out right now, is a surprisingly likable comedy despite the lead character being totally un-likeable. But that’s okay. When Napoleon decides to help his friend Pedro at his pep rally by using his recently-honed dancing skills, the resulting dance is like nothing I’ve seen before; that a curly-haired, rail-thin whiner can bring down the house (both in the school auditorium in the film AND the advance screening I attended) is really something. Sweet!
Best New Filmmaker Award: Gavin Heffernan for “Expiration”
While Zach Braff may be getting all of the attention for breaking out of his “Scrubs” show and making a hit first feature, and I congratulate him for it for sure, it’s Gavin Heffernan, who made such an impression with his first feature “Expiration” at this year’s Victoria Film Festival that I absolutely can’t wait to see where he heads next. “Expiration” is somewhat like a serious take on Scorsese’s “After Hours” where two people (Heffernan and Janet Lane, who is an amazing, natural talent) who embark on an odd adventure through the strange underbelly of Montreal. In a day and age where most student films are either Tarantino rip-offs or bad comedies, Heffernan shows amazing promise with his first feature. A native of Toronto, Heffernan is now directing short films through the AFI in Los Angeles, and I wish him the best of luck.
Best DVD release: Freaks and Geeks
2004 was a great year for DVD releases, and I went through it all: Criterion box sets, old movies, special editions of blockbusters and TV series. The best out of all of them, however, is Shout Factory’s amazing release of “Freaks and Geeks” which depicts teenage life at a suburban high school in Detroit. All 18 episodes from the series are housed in either the 6-disc collectors edition, or the 8-disc Yearbook edition which is only available online. Whatever route you go, please just take the path and watch this series. It really is something special.
For a more in-depth look at the show and the set, please read my in-depth DVD review HERE. (Clicky on the link, please!).
So, my campers, I lay to rest another great year of cinema that will not soon be forgotten. A lot of bad films this year, but a lot of good ones as well, and here’s hoping that 2005 will be as unpredictable! – Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com, HBS.com
For a complete list of all films that I’ve seen and rated this year, please visit the 2004 Film List on Home Theater Forum Located Here.
Special thanks to everyone this year, including Chris Parry of eFilmCritic.com and all of the great staff.
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=1277
originally posted: 12/31/04 20:25:27
last updated: 01/01/05 10:50:05