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The Good, the Bad and the...actually, just the Good. The top 20 Films of 2004.
by Matt Bartley

And here are we are for this years top 20 by yours truly. No doubt many people will sigh at the thought of reading another predictable top 20, but hopefully mine will touch on films forgotten by others. And, as ever, it has remembered that some films like 'Sideways' and 'The Aviator' didn't reach this side of the Atlantic until 2005 and some 2004 releases may have been 2003 releases in the US of A. All peachy clear? Let's roll...

20) House of Sand and Fog
Who'd have thought that moving house would be this stressful? A doom-ridden morality play about a clash between an Iranian immigrant and an alcoholic housewive over the ownership of a house it showed the devastating effects that pride and stubborness can have. Backed up by powerful performances from Ben Kingsley, Shoreh Agdashaloo and Jennifer Connelly, it see-sawed your sympathies between the protagonists like every great drama should.

19) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Was 'Eternal Sunshine' just a teeny-tiny bit over-rated? I dare say yes, but it still has enough intelligence, style and daring to earn a spot here. As a morose Jim Carrey decides to erase all memories of his relationship with a spunky Kate Winslet from his brain as she does the same, it emerged as a very rare case of a film accurately depicting the pain and misery of a relationship breaking down. Carrey and Winslet were both exceptional and surrounded by an oddball cast including a surprisingly sleazy Elijah Wood, whilst Michel Gondry produced every directorial trick out of his bag that he could find. A mind bender, I suspect a few more viewings would propel it further up the list.

18) Saw
Perhaps no film caused more controversy this year, than this horror of two men chained to a wall by a mad serial killer. Yes, the acting was generally bad (say hello Cary Elwes!) but the script twisted and turned, losing everyone along the way, until a belter of a final twist turned everything on its head. But the gore was genuinely gruesome and several scares were cleverly rendered out of nowhere. If 'Se7en' was seven, then this would be six.

17) Bad Santa
When Santa came down the chimney...he brought anal sex and a lot of fucking bad language. Yes, it was a one joke film, but what a joke it was. As the spectacularly bad tempered con man posing as a department store Santa, Billy Bob Thornton was a joy, with his salty language and his habit of screwing women so hard that they "wouldn't shit right for a week". But the cleverest thing about Terry Zwigoff's film, was that he even sprinkled a touch of humanity in as Thornton reluctantly looks after an abandoned fat kid, without ever diluting the adult air or resorting to sentimentality. A new Christmas classic was born.

16) Fahrenheit 9/11
The fact that despite this becoming the biggest documentary ever, 51% of Americans were still dumb enough to go out and vote for Bush was more a damning indictment on American culture and media, than Moore's success as a film-maker. This was furious and passionate film-making ocassionally hamstrung by Moore's lack of subtlety. Nevertheless, his argument was persuasive and as his facts formed an ever tightening noose around Bush's neck, the fact that the stool still wasn't pulled away doesn't diminish its impact one bit. Years from now, it'll be as relevant as ever as a warning that was sadly ignored.

15) The Day After Tomorrow
Yep, that's right. A Roland Emmerich film made my top 20. There is an argument that for all the audacity of, 'Eternal Sunshine' say, 'The Day After Tomorrow' was cinema at its purest. After all, wasn't film conceived as a purely visual medium to begin with? And 'The Day After Tomorrow' with its tale of weather going really bad was the most visually stunning movie of the year, and a tale of survival that brought back memories of 'The Poseidon Adventure' and 'The Towering Inferno' with its hardy band of survivors stuggling to stay alive in a frozen New York. Popcorn at its best, recent events have given it a tragic relevance.

14) Dawn of the Dead
And how many people were surprised at how good this was? A remake that was purposeful, muscular and roaring with confidence it was the best movie of 'trapped humans besieged by monsters' since 'Aliens'. Zack Snyder knows how to shoot action and the apocalyptic opening sequence is probably the best first 20 minutes of any film this year. Arguably not as good as Romero's original, it was still faster, gorier and the fact that it's only 'arguably' not as good, speaks volumes as to its quality.

13) 21 Grams
Along with 'House of Sand and Fog' the downer of the year. A dour, grief-ridden tale of death, loss and revenge it hinged on three superb performances: Naomi Watts as a housewife whose family is tragically ripped away from her, Benicio Del Toro as the bible bashing loon to blame and Sean Penn as the unwitting beneficiary of the tragedy, who tries to help Watts to exact her revenge. The jumbled up timeline and narrative was perhaps just a parlour trick, but its the feeling of pain and bereavement that will stay with you longest.

12) Collateral
Tom Cruise was in two quality flicks this year but the Michael Mann thriller beat out his Samurai romp by a mile. With Cruise as a chillingly cold and robotic hitman hitching a ride with Jamie Foxx's unwitting cab driver, the scene was set for the most unusual buddy movie of the year. This being a Mann thriller, there was pretentiousness galore with musings on chance and co-incidence but the real power lay in Foxx's rising fear and chances of getting out of the situation alive and Cruises trademark grin more being like the rictus smile of a corpse. If it fell into generic tics by the end, that would be to forgot the haunting cinematography and the uneasy thrills generated beforehand.

11) Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
It was a great year for comedies for colons and for balls being whacked into genitals. The story of a poor bunch of losers at gym taking on a multiplex for the Dodgeball championship was a story as old as the hills, but it was the journey there that was the pleasure. Silly cameos everywhere and the repeated joke of dodgeball/genital interface that just never got old. Add to that ridiculously funny performances from Ben Stiller as the preening gym-junkie White Goodman from Globo-gym ("Remember: we're better than you!") and Rip Torn, as perhaps the greatest coach any sports film has ever seen, Patches O'Houlihan and you had a comic gem that probably packed in more laughs per minute than any else.

10) Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
But that still didn't hold a candle to the legend that truly was...Ron Burgundy. A spoof of sexist 70's news readers, 'Anchorman' existed in its own universe that just swallowed you up entirely before spitting you out with a mile-wide grin and aching sides. Will Ferrell was absolutely insane in the role and the street rumble of the anchors may well be the comic highlight of the year, while Brick Tambaland was THE supporting character of 2004. It's official: Austin Powers is no longer the movie to quote down the pub.

9) The Motorcycle Diaries
Walter Salles' tale of a young Che Guevera travelling through South America , had by far the best location shooting of the year. A stunning treat for the eyes, it looked exotic and alluring. But this was no travelogue. Instead it had real heart and real charm, by wisely avoiding the politics of the young man it instead featured on his lust for life and his genuine concern for the poor, ill and needy without ever becoming 'worthy'. Anchored by fine performances from Gael Bernicia Bernal and Rodrigo De La Lerna as his horny best friend, 'The Motorcycle Diaries' was an unappreciated treasure.

8) Open Range
Welcome back Kevin. Kevin Costner receives perhaps more bad press than any other actor, yet people seem surprisingly quick to overlook superb flicks like this, presumably because it's always fashionable to bash him. Yet Costner has an intimate intuitive understanding of the Western. His yarn of free rangers battling a corrupt land baron had everything a great Western needed: tough, gritty heroes (superbly played with real feeling and real chemistry by Costner and Duvall) and stunning visual sense of the period. Nothing was cliched or false, instead you could practically smell the sawdust. Oh yes, and the final shootout was as good as anything ever seen in any other Western with its thunderous realism.

7)Lost In Translation
That fuzzy jet-lagged feeling you get after a long journey? That's 'Lost In Translation'. The melancholic glow you get when you're by yourself on that long journey? That's 'Lost In Translation'. The aching emptiness of drinking by yourself in a bar? That's 'Lost In Translation'. The leap of joy you have when you find the one person that understands all this? That's 'Lost In Translation'. Scarlett Johannson giving another notice of her rapidly blooming talent? That's 'Lost In Translation'. A miraculous, deep boned melancholic performance by Bill Murray, criminally ignored on Oscar night? That's 'Lost In Translation'.

6)The Incredibles
Otherwise known as the most self-explanatory film of the year. Pixar have outdone themselves again, with a film just a little bit more darker than anything else before, a little bit more adult and a little bit more 'Simpsons'. The astonishing animation is a given so how about Samuel L Jackson's best performance in years (Frozone deserves his own spin-off)? Then there was the terrific performances of Holly Hunter and Craig T Nelson, the achingly funny script, the child characters and performances a thouand times better than the childish Nemo, and their most ambitious climax yet. A dazzling last half-hour that goes from a Bond-esque battle on the villian's secret lair to a city-wide battle with a building-sized robot. Pixar continue to move that bar just that little bit higher.

5) Shaun of the Dead
By far and away the best British film of the year, and it manages the neat trick of being the funniest film of the year and (almost) the scariest. As a twenty-something nobody struggles to outgrow his loser of a best friend, repair his relationship with his girlfriend and generally get a life, his plans are thrown into chaos by azombie invasion of London. 'Shaun of the Dead' succeded on so many levels: a perfect skewering of the lack of drive in twenty-something males who can't decide what vinyl LP's to throw at an approaching zombie let alone clean their flat, an affectionate and respectful nod to Romero (this was not a cheap, piss-taking exercise by any means), and a romance between characters you actually cared about. The scary bits were really scary, the funny bits hilarious and Simon Pegg and Nick Frost created the best (and most touching) duo of the year. An instant classic was born.

4) A Tale of Two Sisters
But it wasn't quite the scariest film of the year. That honour went to this Korean shocker. A tale of two daughters struggling to accept and get on with their new step-mother it brought to mind 'The Others', 'The Innocents' and with its weirdly alive house, 'The Shining'. The really clever trick that ramped up the tension was that the film never made it obvious who our protagonists were. Is the step-mother trying to drive the daughters mad or vice-versa? It doesn't matter when the film is driving you up the wall with fear. A very rare case of a horror film that doesn't resort to cheap shocks, but one where you can hear the rest of the theatre holding their breath along with you. The appearance of a bedroom ghost was the scariest thing since Sadako crawled out a tv in 'Ringu' and it dared you not to look at its developing horrors. Expect a crap American remake soon.

3) The Bourne Supremacy
Ben Affleck must cry sometimes. As he stumbles from one turkey to another, there goes his best friend Matt Damon quietly establishing himself as one of the action stars of the last few years. Building effortlessly on the first film (which was essentially a trailer for this in retrospect) this was manna from heaven for Bond freaks like me, wishfully hoping for a return to the gritty old days. Because the return of Jason Bourne saw the return of a spy with real character and real danger to him. This wasn't someone who has a watch with a handy 'get out of every possible situation attatchment' but someone who had nothing and no-one to rely on but himself. And while Damon was quietly and powerfully convincing in the role as someone who could break your neck before you could blink, the true star was director Paul Greengrass. Winding a complex tale around Bourne was one thing (and one that doesn't rely on missiles or lasers), but giving the character and film real emotional depth was another, while creating some truly outstanding action sequences was another. True, his camera never stayed still, but the juddering bone-crunching car chase at the climax was worth it. A new icon is born.

2) Spider-Man 2
There were some who complained that there was too much 'Dawson's Creek' melodrama in 'Spider-Man 2'. To those I say: you know what you get when you take all the talky, character stuff out of a heavily CGI based film? 'Van Helsing', so shut up. Leaner, meaner and so much greater than the first, this improved on EVERYTHING. Maguire was much more convincing, there was more action from a fight starting in a bank and ending up at the top of a skyscraper, and best of all, a scrap on a train that dropped your jaw, picked it up and then dropped it again. Raimi really let loose here creating probably the best comic book film ever, and could we really mention 'Spider-Man 2' without mentioning Alfred Molina? His Doc Ock was what the first 'Spider-Man' lacked: a great villain. More mobile, wittier and tougher than Dafoe's Green Goblin, he helped elevate 'Spider-Man 2' to greatness. The operation scene where Doc Ock first lets fly was magnificent indeed. It almost makes you wish 'Spider-Man 3' wasn't going to happen, because it surely won't be anywhere as good as this.

1) Finding Neverland
Lat years number film was 'Return of the King' a majestic, three-hour epic with the finest battle scene ever commited to film. The year before was 'Bowling for Columbine' a scathing commentary on American gun culture, both hilarious and harrowing. This years number one? A film about where JM Barrie got the inspiration for 'Peter Pan'. But whereas 'Spider-Man 2' had the flair, 'The Bourne Supremacy' had the brawn and 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' had the brain, here is what 'Finding Neverland' had: heart. A great big, loving, tearful one too. No other film this year made you care this deeply for its characters, and no other film earned its emotions more honestly. You'll cry as a young, shy boy, grieving for his dead father manages to fly a kite for the first time. You'll cry as orphans attend the premiere of 'Peter Pan' and Barrie shuts all his critics up. And you'll cry at the final few heart-felt words said to a young boy on a park bench. Director Marc Forster has matured and come on leaps and bounds since 'Monster's Ball'. Kate Winslet added her second great performance of the year as the widowed Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies struggling to look after her four young boys whilst fighting off their icy grandmother, Julie Christie. But the heart of the film is the tender and beautiful relationship between Johnny Depp's Barrie and Freddie Highmore's wounded Peter. It was a beautifully portrayed relationship, avoiding potential dubious accusations. And it was wonderfully pitched by an astonishing child performance from Freddie Highmore and yet another terrific turn from Johnny Depp. Depp softened up and quietened down in a performance surely bound to rattle around in Academy voters minds in a months time.

'Finding Neverland' was a simple, pure delight from start to finish, that will go down as favourite for years to come. Sometimes it is the simple things that are best.

So that was the cinematic year of 2004. Stay classy 2005...


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=1292
originally posted: 01/12/05 06:12:02
last updated: 01/13/05 03:05:51
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