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  • Top 10 films of 2004
    (Andrea, David, Joshua, Leslie)
  • Top 10 films of 2003
    (Andrea, David, Joshua, Leslie)
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  •  TOP10: TOP 10 FILMS OF 2004

    Top 10 films of 2004


    It was a dreamy year at the movies.

    Most years, I look at my running list and see I've been partial to hard-hitting, realistic, socially conscious, sometimes satirical dramas (such as this year's "Blind Shaft" and "Osama"), but at the end of 2004 I have a long list of movie-movies. Director-y movies where somebody paid attention to the lighting and the colors and the music and making sure the stars had fresh flowers every morning. And in different ways, they tricked their way past consciousness into hazier, more primal parts of the mind. Through darkness, confusion, fragmentary realities, sometimes there was light and clarity. Sometimes there was only mystery behind the mystery.


    It was such a good year that I'd have no argument with any of half a dozen films in the No. 1 spot. But if I have to choose just one to put at the top of the list, I think I'd make it ...

    1. Garden State

    I first saw "Garden State" in a packed theater full of uproarious twenty-somethings and it felt like the year's best comedy. I went back and saw it in a theater half-full of more mature moviegoers and it felt like the year's best drama. I suspect if I went back and saw it again in a dance club on a Saturday night it would be the year's best ecstasy trip. Beautiful to look at, dreamy to listen to, continually funny, inventive and full of soul.

    2. Blind Shaft (China)

    You can keep your "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers." While Zhang Yimou shamelessly glorified the repressive state, the year's best film from his country — or pretty much any country — was this brutal, non-state-sanctioned satire aimed at the new China. "China has a shortage of everything but people," one mine boss sneers at desperate job-seekers, which explains how a pair of grifters get away with scams which — like the wildcat mines they haunt — litter the countryside with the bodies of their victims. Director Li Yang's iconoclastic film is not only savagely smart but courageous.

    3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

    These days, anybody can make a movie about mind tricks and memory loss, chop it up and re-edit it out of order — it takes Charlie Kaufman to make one that's not about its own cleverness. "Eternal Sunshine" keeps the audience perpetually off-balance in order to do to us what it does to its main characters — get behind their vanishing memories of love to burrow into the dark interiors of the mind where some of our most unarticulable feelings live. It's funny, sad and human — while once again kaleidoscopically reinventing what movies can do.

    4. A Very Long Engagement (France)

    Jean-Pierre Jeunet goes once more down the rabbit hole that previously yielded "Delicatessen" and "AmÄlie" and pulls out another work of darkly inventive brilliance. "A Very Long Engagement" is no zany black comedy, however; Jeunet's distinctive sense of humor, his love for the odd detail and the eye-popping camera angle, infuse this grim film much more subtly. It's a passionate descendant of "Paths of Glory" that's set in the brutal trenches of World War I but de-glorifies our mythology of war for all time.

    5. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring (Korea)

    Korea's Kim Ki-duk (of "The Isle" infamy) returns with another hauntingly picturesque — and much less gruesome — cinematic poem about the nature of life. Gorgeous, wistful, spiritual and sly.

    6. Undertow

    There's something simple, yet stunning, about David Gordon Green's films. He often starts and stops his scenes in the middle of the dialogue — some scenes are just one or two lines long — giving his films the almost-dreamlike quality of a partially overheard, half-understood conversation. That's the secret that gave a sense of strange immediacy to "George Washington," the romance "All the Real Girls," and now the suspense flick "Undertow." Classic thriller elements are sprinkled with harsh surprises, and everything feels a little bit new and different. I don't remember whether I, or anybody in the theater, exhaled before the ending credits rolled.

    7. The Tracker (Australia)

    Four men plod through the Australian outback on the slow, methodical trail of a criminal fugitive. Dull? Absolutely not. Beneath this placid-sounding plot rages a psychological and sometimes quite real war. Leading the expedition — in terms of command, at least — is a ruthless Army captain who brooks no disobedience from his subordinates. Leading the expidition — literally, by walking ahead with a chain around his neck — is the tracker, who proves a more formidable mental foe, even with a rifle trained on the back of his neck, than his overseer ever imagined. For the alert viewer, the film's unexpected reversals of power and flat-out life-and-death tension make "The Tracker" one of the most hard-hitting movies of the year.

    8. The Return (Russia)

    This is the year's hardest film to write about. The events of "The Return" are plain to see on the screen; what they mean — what's really happening beneath the surface — is a sheer enigma. Two young brothers and the father they've never known go on a camping trip whose purpose is never known and in which lives may very well be at stake. The scenery is lush and dark, the fear is palpable, the story is electric with mystery, and the truth is just beyond the mind's grasp.

    9. Osama (Afghanistan)

    This story of a girl forced to pass as a boy in Taliban-era Afghanistan is heart-rending by itself. The story behind it is almost as good. Moscow film grad Siddiq Barmak had to almost reinvent the film industry in his home country, where film had been banned for a decade. The result is a beautifully filmed, passionate story with a number of eye-opening surprises. The repression of women under the Taliban has become well known, but what I'd never considered was the specifics of how widows survive in a country where they're not even allowed out on the street without their husbands — and a lot of their husbands have been killed in the wars. "Osama" gives an amazing street-level glimpse of their reality.

    10. Mean Girls

    To all my friends who doubted I would really put "Mean Girls" in my top 10, here it is. Standing head and voluptuous shoulders above either your average dumb high-school comedy or almost any "SNL"-alumni vehicle, Tina Fey's satire of high school stuck-upness is bright, very funny, and gives a pretty good cinematic accounting of the question of why can't we all get along. Totally enjoyable. It's like "American Pie" for young people who aren't utter morons.

    Like Nigel Tufnel, my list goes to 11, allowing for the inclusion of:

    11. September Tapes

    The critics HATED "September Tapes." I think it was because of the "Blair Witch"-style uncertainty about what was real and what was staged. If you could just get past that whole issue, this was a powerful challenge to our ignorance about a place we are still, at this very moment, at war in. There may be a certain kick-some-Islamic-ass mentality at work, but the point of this reality/faux-reality picture is mainly to bring a camera to Afghanistan's badlands, look for Osama bin Laden out there, and see how far you get. The results are eye-opening and heart-pounding.

    The Captive
    Goodbye Lenin
    Maria Full of Grace
    Million Dollar Baby
    Motorcycle Diaries

    Worst films:
    1. Hero.
    2. Twentynine Palms
    3. The Punisher
    4. What the Bleep Do We Know
    5. The Ladykillers
    6. Napoleon Dynamite
    7. Raja
    8. George W. Bush: Faith in the White House
    9. Kill Bill, vol. 2
    10. Anchorman

    Most overrated:
    Before Sunset, The Trilogy.

    Not as bad as people said:
    50 First Dates
    The Day After Tomorrow
    The Passion of the Christ
    September Tapes.

    Most deserving of theatrical release:
    Memories of Murder.


    If 2003 was the year of the documentary, 2004 was surely the year of the political documentary. The newly energized left, never too welcome in the mainstream media, opened huge new vistas in three less controlled areas — books, the Internet, and documentary films. But that doesn't mean all the films were works of genius. Although they may well have been on the trail of the truth, many were built on suppositions instead of facts, talking heads instead of evidence. They may not have been wrong, but they were too often unconvincing.

    On the other hand, it was still a great year for documentaries that aimed not to ram down the gates of the enemy but to sneak through a side door. It was a year for unexpected subjects, from the brothels of Calcutta to the drive-throughs of McDonald's. The best documentaries offered less obvious, more profound enlightenments.

    Honorary member:
    S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine

    (Already listed as No. 1 documentary of 2003.) "S21" was already my No. 1 documentary last year when it played in the New Directors New Films festival. It merits mentioning again, after its 2004 release at the Film Forum — and not only because of its jaw-dropping unearthing of conditions at a genocidal Khmer Rouge political prison. Watching it again in the light of this year's news gives it a new illuminative power. The horrors described in "S21" dwarf those of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and other Bush-operated torture chambers, but when the former guards describe — almost with pride in their efficiency — bolting prisoners to the floor, beatings, burnings, desperate confessions, and worse, identical stories from the present day spring involuntarily to mind. Torture is torture; its practitioners are not born monsters but ordinary men liberated from moral strictures by an infallible state. "S21" didn't need fresh scandal to make it a fascinating piece of work, but those who now justify torture do need a reminder to recognize its lessons anew.

    1. Super Size Me

    Morgan Spurlock put himself on the line by living on nothing but McDonald's for a month. He also made a movie that's more than a one-person gimmick — it's a funny and ultimately disturbing look at who we are if we are what we eat. Like Michael Moore's early work, it's a personal, original and wryly funny kind of documentary, and it's a film with the power to revolutionize the way a lot of people think and live. Years from now, we may look back at "Super Size Me" as the cinematic equivalent of "Unsafe at Any Speed" — a warning shot that changed minds and saved lives.

    2. Fahrenheit 9/11

    One of the two most talked-about films of the year, Michael Moore's broadside against the Bush administration was the best of the political documentaries. What Moore succeeded in doing was putting uncomfortable facts — in particular, highly visual facts in this visual medium — right in the face of the American public. The film may be a bit scattershot in its organization, but any segment of it stands up on its own.

    Just to name one: The scenes of maimed and brain-damaged soldiers talking about their slow recovery were a bitter revelation. Until this spring, the administration had successfully stage-managed perceptions of the Iraq war, and scenes like these had not been seen. Since the movie's release, the mass media have suddenly discovered the problems of the thousands of wounded, among the other issues that Moore brought to light. So who is the real patriot here — the jokester in the White House who sent these men to chase apparitions in the desert, or the jester with the camera who refused to let them rot in obscurity? The decision to send young Americans into a life-ending, soul-destroying, body-mutilating war, so erroneously made and so glibly defended by its partisans, has had real, devastating consequences for real Americans and Iraqis. Moore was the first person able to make those consequences real, unignorable, in the mass media.

    3. Los Angeles Plays Itself

    Thom Andersen's affectionate three-hour history of his city is written entirely in the local vernacular — scenes from movies. It tickles your film-buff bone, for sure, but it's also an erudite meditation on real-life politics, society and aesthetics in the world capital of artifice. Why do the movies love to blow up New York and not L.A.? What were the truths underlying the faux history of "Chinatown"? What was the hidden message of "Dragnet"? These questions and many more are answered in this thoughtful, heartfelt, funny and thoroughly unexpected piece of underground history.

    4. One Shot (Israel)

    Israeli military snipers talk with deceptive openness about their elite job — killing Palestinian terrorists. Did I say terrorists? Actually, the list of state enemies marked for death grows increasingly ambiguous as the conversations go on, and the sniper/assassins progressively lose their moral conviction about what they do. Footage shot by the men themselves shows both the tedium and the intensity of their job, while the interviews are sometimes shocking in their clinically detached straightforwardness — if not exactly honesty. Fascinating and disturbing.

    5. Born Into Brothels

    Photographer Zana Briski starts out with a modest little project — trying to teach a little photography to the children of prostitutes in Calcutta — and ends up with two things she probably never expected. First, a close relationship with the bright, enthusiastic, sometimes exceptionally talented kids, whom she tries to help climb out of their grim circumstances in spite of uncooperative bureaucracy and uncaring parents. Second, one of the most moving films of the year, one that puts a tear in the eye and a smile on the face for a solid hour and a half.

    Honorable mention:
    Mother's Crossing
    Number 17

    Most deserving of theatrical release:
    Number 17
    One Shot

    Most overrated:
    Control Room
    The Corporation.

    DECEMBER 31, 2004

    Reader comments on Top 10 films of 2004:

  • i ABSOLUTELY agree   from myka, Feb 23, 2005
  • what about old boy ?   from sam, Apr 20, 2005
  • Perfect!   from Jed, Nov 21, 2006
  • 2002 list   from meet the feebles, Apr 24, 2008
  • Rick Steeves Documentaries as a model   from Pat, Nov 10, 2009

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