Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Top Ten of 2004.

I used to do this list with more panache than I have in the past couple years. It's just that, as I've gotten the opportunity to see more films before their release dates and read other lists, I've always held out before releasing my own personal list. But I don't want it to be February before my list comes out. I have not seen all the Oscar-eligible movies for 2004 yet, most notably the well-reviewed MILLION DOLLAR BABY and HERO, but I shouldn't wait. So, without further explanation, here are my favorite films of the ones I've seen.

10. SPIDER-MAN 2. I love well-written, well-made movies with strong stories, complicated heroes, complicated villains and an exploration of the role that choice can play in our lives. Through understanding his characters and their comic-book origins and histories, director Sam Raimi vastly improves upon his original film, creates a really fun, popcorn-movie ride and turns SPIDER-MAN 2 into a thorough, damn interesting film with a great, great ending.

9. THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. This is a jarring, violent, uncomfortable film, depicting the last, horrible hours in the life of Jesus as a deluge of suffering and sacrifice. I am not religious, and I don't agree with several of director Mel Gibson's political stances. But THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is a brave, risky, harsh film that knows exactly what it's trying to do and does it well. It doesn't look away from the harsher aspects of its violence, for it's trying so desperately to communicate the feelings of pain and grief to its audience and move them. In the midst of Jesus's long walk to the cross, at one point, Mary is shown weeping for her son, thinking of him as a boy. That moment in the film, where Jesus is shown at his most human, is, for me, when it's most touching. Like SCHINDLER'S LIST before it, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is not at all fun and may be too difficult to watch more than once, but it's a tremendously effective, smart piece of cinema.

8. COLLATERAL. Though this Michael Mann thriller never really answers the question Lupo asked of it (i.e., "Why does the killer need a taxi when he could just rent a car?") and has holes in the logic of its story, COLLATERAL is a solid, fun movie that just keeps moving, getting more and more twisted and interesting. Tom Cruise gets the showy role of contract killer Vincent and proves himself more than worthy, but the great Jamie Foxx, in many ways, steals the movie out from under him as Max, the hostage cab driver. It's a gritty film. The digital camerawork, which can weaken the impact of some films for me, is one of COLLATERAL's strengths, adding to its mood and keeping things uneasy and weird.

7. THE AVIATOR. Martin Scorsese's biopic of Howard Hughes, featuring the pilot-film director-playboy-tycoon in his golden years while only hinting at his eventual decline into complete madness, is a well-written, well-acted, great-looking and entertaining film, and it features a career-best performance from Leonardo DiCaprio. Cate Blanchett's take on Katharine Hepburn is startlingly good, as well. It's an ambitious epic of a movie, and it succeeds.

6. BEFORE SUNSET. For two hours, I sat and watched two characters I adored once get reacquainted, rekindling what was left of a brief childhood romance. Though I was in the theater and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) were wandering through Paris onscreen, the intimate way director Richard Linklater made BEFORE SUNSET made me feel like I was there with them. And the chemistry and conversation came just as naturally for them as it did nine years ago in BEFORE SUNRISE, my favorite modern romance. Of course, since Jesse and Celine are older and more complicated and guarded now than they were, their two-hour conversation, which encompasses the entire film, is fraught with moments of occasional anger, tension and madness. Their memories of that single night of young love have affected who they are and how they view all their relationships, and their reconnection isn't always great for them. But BEFORE SUNSET is divine to watch, realistic in how it compares the risks and dangers of mature romance to the idealized notions of young love.

5. RAY. This movie is completely awesome. The music, of course, is great, and the story is inspiring. The look of it is authentic. And the acting, my word, is glorious. Jamie Foxx, even more brilliant than he was in COLLATERAL, embodies Ray Charles in a way that transcends imitation. Foxx is compelling, and he maintains his character's charm even when the film delves, without abandon, into the story's darker aspects of drug abuse and childhood trauma. I never expected RAY to be this good. But, catching it in a sneak preview, I realized this was the best music biopic I'd seen since WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT, and I immediately told everyone to catch this in the theater.

4. KILL BILL, VOL. 2. The first film exploded with style and innovation, and more of the same occurs in Quentin Tarantino's action-packed, dizzying sequel, which adds layers of depth to the characters and their backstory while continuing to innovate as The Bride gets her final revenge. Months after seeing it, I still recall the fantastic Elle Driver trailer fight scene, the horrifying buried-alive sequence and that final, surprisingly calm conversation between Bill and The Bride. The movie has a great cast, a great look, a good story and fantastic visuals. It's smart about its craft, and it's very entertaining.

3. SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW. This was, easily, the most fun I had in a cinema all year. SKY CAPTAIN is a beautiful-looking film, a technological marvel, a grand adventure and a funny throwback to old-time movie serials. Jude Law fills the typical hero role with fervor, and Gwyneth Paltrow has loads of fun with her role as Polly Perkins, a damsel-in-distress almost as annoying as she is delicious. There are neat twists to the tried-and-true formula, and the script is filled with lots of genuine wit. This film reminded me of what I liked about movies when I was a kid. I liked a good story. I liked the marvel. I liked the cliffhangers. I liked big, stunning visuals. SKY CAPTAIN has all that, and, most importantly, it has a heart.

2. SIDEWAYS. Alexander Payne's films are really funny. But they can also tap into moments that are so true, painful and real. As Paul Giamatti's Miles faces defeat after defeat and sinks further into depression and alcoholism, we see him both as the loser he's become, and we see him sympathetically as someone talented who's still capable of goodness and deserving of some kind of joy. I identified more clearly with his character than with any other that I've seen this year. When he's doing things wrong or doing things against his will, we're there with him, understanding his reasons while cursing his flaws. SIDEWAYS is a great, human story, funny, sad and deep.

1. ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. The most original, daring, dizzying movie I saw this year came out in February. And, upon seeing it, I was certain I'd seen a great movie, but I didn't realize that I'd seen the best movie of the year. But, thus far, nothing beats ETERNAL SUNSHINE. The performances in it are among the best of the year. Kate Winslet's wacky character of Clementine, with her ever-changing moods and her ever-changing hair color, manages to be both off-the-wall and identifiable. It's the best work Winslet's done since HEAVENLY CREATURES. Jim Carrey, in contrast, underplays Joel as depressed, subdued and calm, losing himself and all his usual mannerisms in the role. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry jump into the story quickly and play with the timeline of their wacky narrative so much that you're, frankly, amazed when they succeed in creating a story of depth, understanding, truth and romance. The central memory-erasing story is told backward. The film also jumps around, occasionally focusing upon dozens of characters in a subplot that doesn't seem to fit in and even delving, at one point, into a visual depiction of a character's subconscious. But when you're done letting ETERNAL SUNSHINE make sense of itself, it leaves you with a key understanding of how our memories make up who we are - and how love, even at its ugliest, may still be worth the risk.

Since a number of people have pointed out to me films that they'd want mentioned or included, I thought I would expand my list, as I have in years past, to include honorable mentions - good movies I liked which could've made the list but didn't - and one outside-of-the-box film that works as a guilty pleasure. In previous years, the guilty pleasure films have included Britney Spears' CROSSROADS, Jason Statham's THE TRANSPORTER and Angelina Jolie's ORIGINAL SIN.


GUILTY PLEASURE PRIZE: CELLULAR. No other film this year had such an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink feel as CELLULAR. No other film featured a showdown fight scene between, of all people, Jason Statham and William H. Macy. No other film featured Kim Basinger, who was brilliant in THE DOOR IN THE FLOOR, at such a level of frenzied histrionics. And no other film had such crackerjack plotting so that it ended up a satisfying, fun little gimmick movie. Cute people go on the run from bad villains in a movie that tries to use every plausible cell phone contrivance or complication it can find, essentially, and the movie just works.

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