Top 10 films of 2004
By DAVID N. BUTTERWORTH
In a year resurrected by Mel's "Passion" and the second comings of "Shrek"
and "Spider-Man" it was once again encouraging to see the little indie that
could win out over the overblown biopics and the underwritten action flicks
of 2004. My top picks of the year include five films by first-time directors,
providing a welcome injection of new blood into the catch-as-catch-can proceedings.
British director Duncan Roy's bold experimental "triptych" three adjacent images
presented onscreen simultaneously plays like a cross between "Timecode" and
"The Talented Mr. Ripley," with Matthew Leitch literally left, right, *and*
center as the troubled young opportunist who insinuates himself into upper-crust
society in order to escape his brutish, working-class upbringings. With three
distinct frames of reference, Roy is able to shape his film like no other, crafting
a compelling tale of human frailty and the hunger for power that challenges
us in truly new and exciting ways.
With its entire action constrained to a minimalist set representing a 1930s
Colorado community of chalk outlines, meager furniture, and repressed human
souls, Lars von Trier's "Dogville" is undeniably different. It's also controversial,
challenging, unique, theatrical, allegorical, artificial, anti-American, anti-bourgeois,
anti-Hollywood, striking, stagy, profound, pretentious, daring, unsubtle and,
with a running time of a fraction under three hours, certainly long. Yet it
further cements von Trier's reputation as a producer of edgy, thought-provoking,
and systematically diverse films. With Paul Bettany and Nicole Kidman.
The Door in the Floor
Perhaps the best adaptation yet of a John Irving novel (and that includes the
stellar "The World According to Garp" and "The Cider House Rules"). Rookie director
Tod Williams adapts the first third of Irving's "A Widow for One Year," condensing
it into a remarkable drama that brings out the absolute best in his performers.
These include Kim Basinger as a mother near comatose from the tragic death
of her two teenage sons, Jon Foster as the summer intern who becomes infatuated
with her, and (especially) Jeff Bridges in an Oscar-worthy turn as the grizzled
husband/author/pornographer Ted Cole.
Here, at last, is a film that's as concise and creative as its spectacular trailer
(unlike those that excerpt all of the funny bits, all of the touching bits,
all of the art shots, and all of the eclectic songs on the soundtrack for a
one-minute teaser). Written by, directed by, and starring Zach Braff (from
TV's "Scrubs"), "Garden State" is a consistently inventive blend of sound and
image, a delightful document of an anti-depressed young man's homecoming and
the relationships it (re-)kindles. Co-stars Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard,
Ian Holm, and Jean Smart are all terrific but it's Braff's maturity of vision
that makes this film a winner all the way.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Practically imperfect and forgivably sloppy on occasions, Wes Anderson's long-awaited "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" remains oceans twelve above your
average Hollywood "comedy" by its sheer ingenuity and refusal to take anything
seriously. Bill Murray (of "Lost in Translation" and Anderson's own sophomore effort
"Rushmore") effortlessly delivers another phenomenally deadpan performance as
a Jacques Cousteau-like documentary filmmaker/marine lifer whose eccentric team
of oceanographers and unpaid university interns pursue the man-eating jaguar
shark that has dined on Seymour Cassel. Pardon its incongruously lousy trailer,
for "'Steve Zissou" is a hilarious piece of entertainment.
Forget "Lemony Snicket." The best Daniel Handler this year came in the form
of "Rick" (or "rrrrRick" according to its opening credits), a caustic corporate
satire that's also a spry retelling of Verdi's "Rigoletto" (if you can believe
that). Bill Pullman pulls off another delightful oddball as the eponymous,
"Image"-conscious Rick, a twitchy, volatile mess of a man with a dead wife,
a promiscuous daughter ("Blue Car"'s Agnes Bruckner), and a penchant for callousness
that transcends the boardroom. Director Curtiss Clayton handles Handler with
fiendish flair, keeping Rick off-kilter and immensely entertaining.
Although the sun-dappled Santa Ynez Valley vineyards stretching as far as the
eye can see are lovely to look at, it's not the California countryside that makes
"Sideways" a trip worth taking. It's the company. Paul Giamatti outdoes his
Harvey Pekar with another loveable schlub, a hapless misanthrope who takes his
former college roommate Jack (Thomas Haden Church) on a week's fling in vino
country prior to Jack's upcoming nuptials, with Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh
as the influential women they meet along the way. Writer/director Alexander Payne
("About Schmidt") keeps his essential, observant comedy rich, rewarding, and
very real throughout.
Super Size Me
Much as Errol Morris's "The Thin Blue Line" sprung a falsely accused man from
death row so too did Morgan Spurlock's "Super Size Me" encourage fast-food giant
McDonald's to do away with its Super Size menu option. Such is the innate power
of the documentary film. Inspired by a couple of overweight teens who sued
Mickey D's for contributing to their obesity yet lost due to "insufficient evidence,"
Spurlock undertakes a one-month, McDonald's-only diet to document the devastating
effect fast food has on the body. The result? An impressive first feature
that's as funny as it is frightening.
Touching the Void
Kevin Macdonald's sensational film, part documentary, part dramatic re-enactment,
chronicles the near-tragic 1985 attempt by British mountaineer Joe Simpson and
his climbing companion Simon Yates to scale the perilous west face of Peru's
21,000-foot Siula Grande. Expertly shot and edited, "Touching the Void" is
a breathtaking experience that engages all of our emotions awe, sympathy, fear,
disbelief. It's truly a great film, one that puts a human face on adventure
by starkly dramatizing the power of man's indefatigable resolve.
A Very Long Engagement (France)
The director and star of "AmÄlie" (Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Audrey Tautou) reunite
for this grimmer, grimier, but no less magnificent moviegoing experience. Meticulously
detailed and handsomely crafted, "A Very Long Engagement" pits the breadth and
obscenity of war against a more intimate human drama, that of a crippled young
woman (Tautou) steadfastly refusing to believe her betrothed has died in the
bloody trenches of WWI's Battle of the Somme. Jeunet's eclectic and winning
directorial style voiceover narration, inserts/overlays, and concise personal
histories reminds us that you *can* go home again.
Most overrated/biggest disappointments:
"The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie";
"The Last Shot";
"Dawn of the Dead (2004)."
"The Manchurian Candidate (2004)";
"Beyond the Sea."
Wish I'd seen prior to 2005:
"Maria Full of Grace";
"The Motorcycle Diaries";
"Million Dollar Baby";
"S21: The Khymer Rouge Killing Machine";
"Los Angeles Plays Itself."
Wish I'd Never Seen:
"The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie";
"After the Sunset";
"Resident Evil: Apocalypse";
"The Stepford Wives (2004)";
|DECEMBER 31, 2004|
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