2004 was actually a pretty fine year, overall, for films.  I saw more good to great films this year than truly bad ones, and that is saying something to be sure.  Was I too easy on the offering of films that the year had to offer us?  I dunno, maybe.  However, I feel that 2004 had its fair share of of genuine surprises and heartfelt disappointments.  

I have seen such a rich diversity of films this year, which subsequently has made compiling a list of my ten best ones rather troublesome.  Some were uplifting, some downbeat, some silly and inane, some quietly powerful and challenging, and even some that were, well, just plain gawd awful!  However, since my resume of reviews has definitely grown larger as the year has progressed and drawn to a close, I feel confident and willing to break down this year's work into a somewhat unofficial TOP TEN LIST.  Clearly, it would be enormously unfair of me to justify this list as my final top ten of the year (there are a few very lucrative films to be released yet in 2004), but I nevertheless offer it up to you, the reader, so you can make some sort of sense of what I feel are the best that cinema has provided thus far.  

So...here we go...

 

1.    THE AVIATOR

 
 

The finest American director of the last thirty years has made one of the finest biopics of one of America's greatest figures of the last century.  Martin Scorsese's THE AVIATOR details the life of the legendary Howard Hughes and focuses, wisely, on his glory years during the 1920's, 30's, and 40's.  Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Hughes, in one of the year's best performances, and he captures every essence of the man so distinctively well.  Hughes was a man of many faces:  he was a film director and producer, a businessman, an owner of several airplanes, an expert pilot that broke many modern aviation records, and a visionary (he saw the future of international air travel when it was considered a joke), but he was also a man with many hidden demons.  He was a womanizer and philanderer, and suffered greatly from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which cemented itself so painfully later in his life that it reduced him to a man that feared contact with the outside world.  Scorsese shows all of this, in a beautifully mounted epic drama that has great sights to behold (he uses costumes, set pieces, and visual effects to create an absolutely convincing look at the Hollywood of yesteryear).  THE AVIATOR is the year's most confident, complete, and absorbing of films.

 
 

2.    THE POLAR EXPRESS

 
 

To say that Robert Zemeckis' THE POLAR EXPRESS is magical is a broad understatement.  It's kind of one of those wonderfully transcending entertainments,  a fantasy that's engraved in the tradition of other classics like STAR WARS and THE WIZARD OF OZ.  The film is a watershed one in terms of the advancement and development of new computer generated animation and just may be one of the most beautiful CG films ever made.  Yes, the film is exquisite to look at.   Yes, the sights to be seen are bold and have the scope and astonishing level of detail not paralleled by many other CG animated films.  Yet, I think that the key to this film is that it, like other classic films, it tells a good fable, one of a boy that has become an atheist of sorts for Santa Clause and at the height of  his cynicism is whisked away in the Polar Express and takes a trip to the North Pole to regain his lost faith.  Based on the children's book by Chris Van Allsburg, THE POLAR EXPRESS was the most enchanting and pleasant amalgamation of strong and daring technology and simple and straightforward storytelling I saw all year, and it deserves a place on the short list of all-time great Christmas films.  It's a great family entertainment that I won't soon forget.  Escapism at its finest.

 
 

3.    CLOSER

 
 

At 73 years old, director Mike Nichols proved in 2004 that he still has it in him to tell adult stories that are challenging, fascinating, invigorating, while simultaneously being crude, vile, and reprehensible with its subject matter and characters.  CLOSER,  a film about adultery among two sets of lovers, was one of the more engrossing entertainments of the year in the way it presents to us the story of the lovers, their infidelities, and spares us no harsh details.  Nichols' film is brutally honest, frank and explicit with its dialogue, and unflinching in the way that it takes great pains to investigate the type of deep wounds that other human beings inflict on one another.  It's very difficult to watch at times, but is nevertheless one of the most engrossing and oddly intriguing films of 2004, with Oscar worthy performances by Clive Owen and Natalie Portman.

 
 

4.   GARDEN STATE

 
 

This was just a glorious find from 2004, and a major triumph for writer/director/star Zach Braff, as he spins a wonderfully dense and inquisitive look at a twenty-something trying to deal with tragedy in his life while simultaneously looking for inner meaning.  It's power lurks kind of deep within how quietly bold the writing and the performances are.  Braff's genius lies in making characters resonate with real emotional weight and by being bitterly honest with their dilemmas, all while providing for some quirky, and bizarrely offbeat comedy.  Natalie Portman's work in this (my favourite performance from 2004) reveals, much like her work in CLOSER, that she is developing into a major talent.  GARDEN STATE is enriching, funny, sad, and moving, and it deserves its rightful comparisons with THE GRADUATE.

 
 

5.    SIDEWAYS

 
 

From writer/director Alexander Payne comes one of the most instantly likeable films of the year, a SWINGERS for middle-aged men looking for ways to escape their own depression and foibles.  Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church highlight this film in two of the funniest performances of the year as Miles and Jack.  Miles is addicted to wine and wants to help celebrate Jack's bachelor party through the vineyards of California.  Jack is addicted to women and hopes to get the hapless Miles "laid" as a best man's gift.  The setup feels obvious, but Payne's film manages to become more than a conventional road or bachelor party flick.  It raises above its hilarity (the funny moments are several) and manages to invest emotionally into all of its characters and deal with the sort of mid-life dilemmas that many go through.  As touching, intelligent, and thoughtful as it was side-splittingly funny.    

 
 

6.    FAHRENHEIT 9/11

 
 

Like his 2003 film BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE (my pick for the best film of 2003), Michael Moore's new documentary FAHRENHEIT 9/11 is a masterpiece of nail-biting and no-holds-barred social commentary as it examines the troubled and convoluted presidency of George W. Bush.  The power of Moore's work here is not so much that it's controversial and really goes for the jugular at revealing the murky and troubled depths of Bush's life both pre and post 9/11.   It's power lies in how hypnotically watchable it is.  It's a film that exists on distinct levels of vilification for our modern US political state, and does reveal some surprising (and shocking) truths about the nature of the relationship between the Bush and Bin Ladden families.  Moore's strength lies in how effortlessly and relentlessly he hammers home his argument.  You can argue with whether you agree with his stance or not, but there's no denying the fact that Moore has crafted one of 2004's most powerful films.

 
 

7.    ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND

 

 

Only from the unique and warped mind of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman could such a daring and maddening work that is ETERNAL SUNSHINE originate.  The film is one of the more complex and intricately plotted films of the year, as it details the exploits of two lovers who have the memories of their respective selves erased from their minds.  The only problem with this is the fact that the man (Jim Carrey, who has rarely been better) begins to realize, mid-way through the procedure, that he is having second thoughts.  The film tantalizes us with its sheer ludicrousness, but emerges as something that is, despite is labrynthian structure, a touching romantic drama.  It's one of 2004 most inventive, unconventional, and challenging films.

 

 

8.   PRIMER

 
 

PRIMER is an ingenious and thought-provoking sci-fi thriller that was done on a shoestring budget of only $7000.  Yes folks...that's $7000!  Steve Carruth's debut film deserves worthy comparisons with the sci-fi work of Kubrick.  It's a strange, ethereal, and cerebral work that pleasantly dispatches with many of the substandard elements that makes up a lot of mediocre sci-fi films as of late that are done with 100 times the financial funding.  Instead, Carruth engages in a remarkable outpouring of minimalistic and creative inventiveness to tell a parable about the nature of human obsession and the inherent dangers of time travel.  This is a grand return of a genre that used to be about ideas and themes first and special effects and mayhem second.  This film stays with you and its purposely convoluted story demands repeated viewings.  PRIMER says so much despite the fact that it was made for so little.

 
 

9.    BAADASSSSS!

 
 

If there was a special prize for the best film about making films, then Mario Van Peeples' BAADASSSSS! would be high on the list of contenders.  Peeples's film details the real-life story of how his father, Melvin, made his low budget cult hit SWEET SWEETBACK’S  BAADASSSSS SONG, a film whose influences run deep in the hearts on many African American filmmakers to this day.  I loved the way that BAADASSSSS! worked on so many levels.  One one hand, its the story of the difficulties one man had in making a film.  On the other hand, and much more personally, it's a father and son story and about how the son has both deeply vented resent and respect for his father.  Peebles, in his film, perfectly captures the period details just right and manages to successfully encapsulate the very trying times his father had in making his revolutionary film.  One of 2004's best-least seen gems.

 
 

10.    COLLATERAL

 
 

COLLATERAL represents career high work for director Michael Mann and star Tom Cruise.  Not only is the film a masterpiece of kinetic style and gritty, urban cinematography, but it slowly reveals itself to be an expert character study as well.  It's a thriller that exists on a plane of allowing its characters to be the stars of the film and puts off the explosions and gun play as tertiary elements of the film.  Not only is the film action-packed and tense (one scene in particular works in the same visceral way that REAR WINDOW did),  but COLLATERAL is great because of its patience; it does not feel slavish to the conventions of the modern, bloated Hollywood thriller and instead takes its time developing characters and allows them to speak and interact with one another.  This is Mann's very best film.

 
 

Well, there you have it, and I know that there were so many other great films that 2004 offered that did not make my list.  So, before you cry foul and flood me with criticism, I will also celebrate the other fine achievements of 2004 by making brief mention of the other films that were bold achievements, but could not make my list (call them runner's up, if you will).

 
 

TOUCHING THE VOID tells one of the most stirring and memorable stories of human endurance, willpower, and overall courage that I have ever seen.

HOTEL RWANDA contained a magnificent performance by Don Cheedle about one of our worst genocides of recent memory.

OPEN WATER was director Chris Kentis' film masterpiece of sparse, film making economy, and one that was tense, thrilling, and managed to generate real scares that deserves comparisons with the original JAWS.  

SPARTAN was one of the most effectively written films of 2004 - a brilliantly conceived police procedural that slowly and patiently draws you into its seedy world and tough-as-nails characters.  It's a real hidden treasure of a thriller.

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS was a superior football film that focuses on the overwhelming stature of the small-town fanbase.  

SPIDER-MAN 2 was one of the most effective superhero films since the original SUPERMAN.  

Both THE INCREDIBLES and SHREK 2 were fun, exciting, and entertaining computer animated films, sparkled with wit and style.  

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, amazingly, was a very engrossing and tense remake of the original Frank Sinatra classic.  

THE NOTEBOOK, for all its shameless and manipulative theatrics, works as one of the better melodramas of recent years.   

Kevin Smith returned to very fine form with his family drama/comedy JERSEY GIRL, featuring smart writing and great performances (Ben Affleck gets no respect, folks).   

ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY was, without a doubt, the best achievement in comedy all year.  

KINSEY featured Liam Neeson in the title role of the world famous sex researcher of the 1950's in a film that was frank and revealing about North America's sexual awakening.

THE ALAMO was criminally underrated, and a well told recreation of the infamous siege.  

THE CLEARING was a very sparse, yet eerie, thriller with Robert Redford and Willem Dafoe.  

THE DREAMERS was a great character piece by Bernado Bertolucci.  

MILLION DOLLAR BABY represents the continuation of Clint Eastwood's growing assured eye as a director and actor, filled with great performances and simple and masterful direction.

And finally, KILL BILL: VOLUME TWO was a hip, funny, action-packed, and wonderfully stylized follow-up to Quentin Tarantino's first entry.

 
 

 

 

 
     
 

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