The 13 Best Movies of 2004

Charlie Kaufman’s remarriage flick, Metallica’s rock therapy, and a final raspberry for Lars von Trier.

And now for our yearly onanistic ritual, the 10 Best Movies of the Year list. As usual, it was too painful to leave it at 10, and I have chosen instead a baker’s dozen (plus one-half a film). I know; there are few things lamer than an indecisive critic. Maybe an indecisive barber. (Albert Brooks once said in an interview—well, it was an interview with moi, but name-droppers are so pretentious—that a barber who can’t make up his mind—”Hmmm, I don’t know … Should I cut here?”—is not a barber he wants near his head.) That said, 10 is an arbitrary number that suggests a critic has trouble counting beyond his or her fingers. I can factor in my eyes and navel, at the very least.

  1. Bad Education
  2. Moolaadé
  3. Goodbye, Dragon Inn
  4. Collateral (FIRST HALF ONLY)

Spanglish went on the list, then off, then on, then off. Then I thought: What the hell, I did so love its actors and its sundry dramatic tug-of-wars; to hell with its obvious flaws. Ditto Team America, despite some gags that fell well short of the standard set by South Park (which is more inspired than ever this year). As No. 11 and 12, they can be discounted if you’re a … what’s the word? Deciphile? As for Collateral, halfway through my notebook came a frenzied: “THIS IS THE BEST MICHAEL MANN MOVIE EVER! LOS ANGELES SHOULD GET DOWN ON ITS KNEES AND GIVE THANKS!” At the end I wrote, “What a f—ing letdown.” The first response should count for something, though, and Mann’s genius for color, montage, and composition in the service of his pan-urban worldview—plus the very witty half a script—deserve to be celebrated. 

Any year that produces Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a great one for movies. In fact, I’m a little dismayed that not everyone shares my conviction that this is an inexhaustible masterpiece and, by a wide margin, the best film in many years. I don’t rubber-stamp every Charlie Kaufman picture; I thought he boxed himself into a corner at the end of the otherwise marvelous Being John Malkovich, and Adaptation, despite its rollicking wit and invention, struck me as a conceptual dead-end. But in Eternal Sunshine, Kaufman moves the boundary posts of romantic comedy—what Stanley Cavell calls the “genre of remarriage”—by infusing it with the futuristic neuroscience (and paranoia) of Philip K. Dick. In the greatest remarriage comedies, enduring romantic happiness is only possible by falling in and out of love with the same person—your true love often being difficult to live with yet impossible to forget. But by forcing yourself to forget—sometimes just to go on living—you lose a part of your soul. Kaufman made the memory purge literal and the process by which the memories leak back into the psyche literal, too. What a journey: By the time the protagonist has circled in on the moment he found his soul mate, all traces of her have blown away. This is Orpheus and Eurydice in reverse: the one-way ticket to the underworld is not looking back. Michel Gondry brings all his delirious visual imagination to bear on this precarious lover’s mindscape, and the performances are heartbreaking—Jim Carrey the straightjacketed clown, Kate Winslet the rash, unstable, desperately unhappy romantic. If you didn’t get it, see it again. If you didn’t like it, I am so, so sorry—for us both.

Not everyone shares my enthusiasm for Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor’s Sideways, a favorite for obvious reasons of pudgy, morose critics with a lively sense of outrage. True, the radiant Virginia Madsen’s affection for the glum and unradiant Paul Giamatti is the stuff of a nerd’s wet dreams. But Sideways is basically a teen sex comedy—always the genre of a nerd’s wet dreams—in collision with middle age and its attendant discontents, with bodies (and souls) that no longer bounce back. It’s a sympathetic and incisive portrait of addiction—to alcohol and sex and youthful irresponsibility. Lately (for some reason), I’ve consumed a lot of good addiction books, from Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square (thanks, Charley—and Nick Hornby) to Nick Flynn’s brilliant, tortured Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Well, that’s one kind of alcoholism. But none of the characters ever seems to pay attention to just what he or she is drinking; it’s all just hooch. Sideways speaks for the addicted geek who doesn’t just like to get drunk, but to bore the rest of the world by discoursing on the bouquet, the mouth feel, and the finish. It’s not just about intoxication; it can also be a source of real aesthetic pleasure.

Yimou Zhang’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers: one sumptuous, philosophical, and formal; the other florid, romantic, twisty, silly, with one battle topping the next. Why choose? Let’s just call it the decade’s greatest one-two punch (and kick). Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education is his third masterwork in a row, and it’s so controlled that you might not even register its formal audacity. Brad Bird’s The Incredibles is the great crossover point: a computer-animated movie that feels more lifelike than nine-tenths of the computer-enhanced live-action pictures coming out of Hollywood. It’s also among the best superhero movies ever made. (And it’s no fluke: Bird’s The Iron Giant—finally out on DVD in a special edition—is even richer.)

Psychoanalysis takes center stage in Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation and Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, the first a kind of apotheosis of exhibitionism (and one that, alas, could open the floodgates for home-movie assemblages that are not so artful or probing), the second the ultimate demystification of the id-infused rock ’n’ roll demigod.

Moolaadé is Ousmane Sembene’s outraged—yet so measured—attack on female castration in an entrenched patriarchal culture. It’s also a celebration of female power: political, even agit-prop filmmaking at its most humanistic. Another celebration of female power at the other end of the artistic spectrum is Quentin Tarantino’s less action-packed but even more perverse follow-up to his gloriously silly paean to revenge-melodrama schlock, Kill Bill: Vol. 2. Its inspiration is the sort of movie that’s playing in the movie-within-a-movie in Ming-liang Tsai’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn, an exquisite, nearly wordless tone-poem set in a dying grind house that delicately juxtaposes the fantasy of the cinema with the clumsy, unspoken longings of its audience. (Thanks, Armond, for steering me to this one.)

I cannot give up this forum without mentioning some other 2004 faves: Infernal Affairs, The Sea Inside, Kinsey, Supersize Me, The Saddest Music in the World, The Mother, Intermission, Bright Young Things, Osama, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Shaun of the Dead, The Hunting of the President, Outfoxed, The Agronomist, The Yes Men, The Aviator, Shrek 2, Maria Full of Grace, Primer, Son Frere, The Bourne Supremacy, Before Sunset, Anchorman, Hellboy, 50 First Dates, A Very Long Engagement, Mr. 3000, Ray, and, for all its misdirection, Fahrenheit 9/11. On the conflict-of-interest front: a terrific documentary directed by my friend Michael Almereyda, This So-Called Disaster. And please, please stay tuned to Showtime for an extraordinary film by the brother of another close friend: Jacob Kornbluth’s The Best Thief in the World, the rap-infused tale of a young boy who copes with a father’s incapacitating stroke and a mother’s desperate irresolution by breaking into other peoples’ apartments, living in them for a spell, and leaving them angrily defaced. It’s a lovely, moving film set in uncharted psychological territory.

The cinematography of The Motorcycle Diaries is something to see.

Because a critic defines him- or herself by what he or she hates as much as what he or she loves (God, I wish English had a gender-neutral pronoun), here are my choices for the year’s worst movies. As usual, I take my cues from my first professional film editor, the formidable Stephen Schiff, who only besmirched movies if they were philosophically hateful as well as dramatically inept (although ineptitude counts for something). Despite my problems with such films as the universally reviled Alexander and the messy The Life Aquatic, I respect the ambitions of their respective directors too much to razz them here. Artists have the right, if not the obligation, to fail honorably. But not the makers of the following:

  1. Dogville. An antihuman Brechtian anthill. For all its formal elegance, simpleminded.
  2. Van Helsing. A harbinger of things to come, alas: one computerized miracle after another adding up to less than zero. Not to mention an affront to those of us weaned on Hammer horror.
  3. The Phantom of the Opera. Supersaturated swill.
  4. The Day After Tomorrow. Epically inept—makes the very real threat of global warming look ridiculous.
  5. The United States of Leland. More dead-kid exploitation.
  6. Man on Fire. Punishingly stylized vigilante porn.
  7. Young Adam. Tonally bewildering; narcissistic; inept.
  8. Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. Merely unbearable.
  9. The Brown Bunny. A big swinging dick, in all senses.
  10. Vanity Fair. Becky Sharp as feminist victim: bonkers, incoherent.

Sorry, I’m not touching The Passion of the Christ with a 10-foot cross.

Some actors to cherish: Javier Bardem and Lola Dueñas (The Sea Inside), Jeff Bridges ( The Door in the Floor), Don Cheadle ( Hotel Rwanda), Kate Winslet (Eternal Sunshine), Annette Bening ( Being Julia), Jamie Foxx (Ray), Leonardo Di Caprio and Cate Blanchett and Alec Baldwin and Alan Alda and—yes—Josie Maran ( The Aviator), Tea Leoni and Cloris Leachman ( Spanglish), Morgan Freeman ( Million Dollar Baby), Virginia Madsen and Thomas Haden Church (Sideways), Alfred Molina ( Spider-Man 2), Ron Perlman ( Hellboy), Eileen Atkins and Gabriel Byrne (Vanity Fair), Fenella Woolgar ( Bright Young Things), Roderick de la Serna (The Motorcycle Diaries), Zhang Zi Yi (Hero, House of Flying Daggers), Tony Leung and Andy Lau (Infernal Affairs), Angelina Jolie (Alexander), everyone in Goodbye, Dragon Inn and Mooladé and The Woodsman and Vera Drake, and Bill Nighy in everything. Three comics—Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, and Bernie Mac—gave fundamentally serious and superb performances in Eternal Sunshine, 50 First Dates and Spanglish, and Mr. 3000 respectively.

Coming in January, pre-“Movie Club”: Some big themes, topics for discussion, more throat-clearing. See as much as you can, and send me your ideas so that I can appropriate them and pass them off as my own. Have a good California Pinot Noir this New Year’s. Peace.