The 10 Best Films of 2004

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Article by Mark Dujsik

Sometimes it's hard to find a theme to a list assembled of the best films of the year, but as I skim down my list this year, the common thread seems to be people. The best films this year focused on how people interact, how they seclude themselves from others, and how what they ultimately choose to do with their lives says about them and, by turns, us. I find a pair of biopics (the film flavor of the year, it seemed), a thriller, a sports movie, two epics out of myth, a teen sex comedy, a political drama, and a duo of romances, but they all go beyond such misleading genre labels and find lives of their own. Now, my list of the ten best films of 2004:

10. The Girl Next Door
In my mind, this is the little movie that could, even if it didn't. Bombing at the box office and just about getting a universal lambasting by critics (some of whom I think watched an entirely different movie), Luke Greenfield's The Girl Next Door is a nostalgic yarn about finding your identity—with a little help from the former porno actress next door. Wrongly labeled as vulgar and hypocritical, the film is in reality quite sweet, sincere, and just a bit wise beyond its years. Without falling into the trap of the usual scatological jokes involving bodily functions and fluids, screenwriters Stuart Blumberg, David T. Wagner, and Brent Goldberg depend more on the characters and the insinuation of ribald material instead of overly gross stereotypes and graphic crudeness. Emile Hirsch is likeable as the good kid on the fast track who wants to be more than a GPA statistic, and Elisha Cuthbert, um, fits the mold as the neighboring knockout. Timothy Olyphant, though, takes the material and runs as her former producer, going from role model to sociopath and back, so that we never know where his character actually stands. By the way, the film also contains possibly the best soundtrack of the year.

9. Spartan
It's no well-kept secret that David Mamet is my favorite playwright, and when he's penned and helmed a thriller as intense, twisty, and ambiguous as Spartan, you can most likely be sure I'll have something good to say about it. The beauty of Mamet's film is how he keeps us in the dark from the beginning, giving us no title cards saying where we are or who we're watching; he just expects that we'll be involved enough in the material to trust him. How Val Kilmer's mysterious special operative Scott fits into the rescue of the President's daughter, how the gritty underworld of child prostitution fits into her disappearance, and how a sideways smiley face could lead Scott to find it all out are only small pieces of the puzzle, and what lies underneath is an unsettling revelation. Mamet shows a bit of a social conscience here by tackling such a disturbing global issue, but that's only part of the reason we go along. The rest of it is in the strangely right casting of Derek Luke, Ed O'Neill, and Mamet veteran William H. Macy in smaller character roles, and of course, Mamet's exceptional ear for dialogue and ability to weave a complicated plot.

8. Hotel Rwanda
Led by a powerful performance by Don Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda is the story of one man's decency and how it saved the lives of over a thousand people when the world they knew went to hell. Director Terry George's film is a harrowing tale of widespread hatred gone unchecked and an angry diatribe against the Western world that ignored the literal butchering of 800,000 people in the course of a hundred days. With little violence, George manages to portray the horror of the events in aftermath scenes—one in particular on a road in the fog is especially haunting—and through the helplessness of everyone who wants to do something. Without the aid of the outside world, Cheadle's Paul Rusesabagina must use his own contacts to protect his own family and those to whom he has given shelter at the hotel he manages, putting himself in peril simply because it's the right thing to do. The simplicity of the sentiment serves as a reminder of the duty of humanity to come to aid those in need, just as the film serves as a reminder of a time when people where murdered en masse while others went on "eating their dinners."

7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Heartbreak at the hands of a loved one is a wound time will eventually heal, but that time in between is a bitch. If one erased the memories of the person, though, would that hasten the healing process? Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, the only screenwriter working today who could be perceived as an auteur, tackles this quandary and develops the dilemmas that accompany it in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Taking place almost entirely within the head of a heartbroken loner, director Michel Gondry creates and tears down the terrain of human memory using innovative visual effects, slick editing tricks, and good, old-fashioned lighting and camera work. At the heart of all this is the story of a relationship whose moments of love and conflict are sincere and identifiable. Jim Carrey continues a string of dramatic successes in a performance of sympathetic angst as a man who could easily make someone happy if only he were happy himself, and Kate Winslet is his perfect mismatch, a carefree spirit whose moments of vulnerability are touching and, in retrospect, tragic. As memories are expunged and secrets revealed, Kaufman clearly understands that there's something inexplicable beyond memories and that love does actually take work to flourish.

6. Million Dollar Baby
Clint Eastwood has crafted a sports movie that can break your heart. Million Dollar Baby is about boxing, determination, regret, and much more that the characters experience as they make an unexpected journey through the ranks of female boxing to a startling event that changes their lives. Eastwood and screenwriter Paul Haggis are more interested in following these characters than to simply let them become pawns of the situations surrounding them, and each new development simultaneously defines and is defined by them. These are people whom Eastwood lets breathe in their own world. Personal histories are expressed, and there are parallels and aspects of their lives that unite them—mainly in suffering but also in hope that voids will be filled. Almost all of this is left unspoken—left for us to decipher—but Eastwood and Hilary Swank, as trainer/manager and protégé respectively, embody their roles so fittingly that they form a pure, beautiful bond. When that bond is finally tested in the last act, the unabashed compassion for the humanity of these characters pays off, and the film achieves an immense pathos. Everything that might have seemed trivial becomes vital, and what once seemed crucial becomes inconsequential.

5. Ray
The story of the life of Ray Charles is a great one, and Ray is a film that trusts that fact. Taylor Hackford gives his subject due justice by simply servicing the story and presenting the life, times, and music of a genuine musical legend. From his roots as a child in Florida, witnessing his brother drown before his eyes and suffering blindness as a result of Glaucoma, to his triumphant, genre-breaking career, the film juxtaposes Charles' personal struggles with his professional achievements, and screenwriter James L. White doesn't gloss over the less attractive aspects. The film shows his battle with heroin addiction, his tendency for womanizing, and his pride, although that last one is understandable and makes him as smooth a businessman as a pianist. White takes the time to explore the business end of the music without the typical cliché of callous record producers, but it's in the scenes of portraying the creation of the music that the film best showcases its admiration for its subject. Jamie Foxx plays Charles in the performance of the year, a virtuoso turn that moves far beyond impersonation or caricature into the realm of displaying the internal workings of one of the few, true legends of modern music.

4. Sideways
Two polar opposites take a trip through California Wine Country and discover themselves. It sounds like the basis of a generic road movie, but Alexander Payne's Sideways is anything but. The reason is Payne's dedication to his characters and his appreciation of all the absurdities and foibles of people that make up the comedy of life. These are full-blooded people who talk to each other about worthwhile matters (even if they don't know it) and take adventures that display their souls. They grow and evolve, find love, drink wine, and get chased by a big, naked guy. In other words, they simply exist in the world and act on their own experiences. In its hero and actor Paul Giamatti, Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor have found the middle-aged Everyman, a sad-sack, depressed-but-medicated middle-school English teacher who has written a huge novel about his life and awaits its acceptance or rejection by a publisher. Thankfully, he meets a woman who might understand him and has his buddy to show him how not to live. Virginia Madsen is the woman, who sympathizes for who he is, and Thomas Haden Church is the egotistical but simple foil. This is a splendidly funny, surprisingly enlightening, and thoroughly insightful film.

3. Hero
Zhang Yimou shows us just how beautiful movies can be. Hero takes its story from Chinese history and lure and molds it into the most visually stunning film in a very, very long time. Jet Li plays a nameless assassin who tells the story of how he defeated three other assassins who were threats to the king of the Northern Province. The monochromatic backdrop of the king's palace serves as a blank canvas for the ethereally painted flashbacks that ensue. Each segment reveals a new spin on the assassin's story and uses a primary color to emphasize that section's emotional tenor. As the story unfolds, each subsequent development grows in emotional potency and complexity, and the big picture is a multifaceted look at the lives of these warriors and how they fit into the eventual unification of China. Zhang, fight choreographer Wei Tung, and cinematographer Christopher Doyle construct and execute a series of breathtaking fight sequences set amidst a rainy pavilion, a manmade island, and, most impressive, an autumn forest, to name a few. These are indelible images, and the film itself is an unforgettable experience—epic, bold, and full of a kind of life that we wish all movies could possess.

2. The Aviator
Few directors would have the gall to make an almost three-hour character study, but Martin Scorsese does just that and turns his biography of Howard Hughes into a great American tragedy. The Aviator is a grand Hollywood production about a man who inherited a fortune, worked his way into Hollywood, gambled with his money on government-sanctioned pet projects, and became the famous recluse of caricature. Far from caricature, screenwriter John Logan gives us a personal look at the man, whose need for perfection both made him riches beyond imagine and drove him further and further down the road of madness. Scorsese puts us into that mindset as he tries to persuade the head of MGM to loan him two cameras for his production of Hell's Angels and later becomes a prisoner of his own obsessive-compulsive disorder, locked away in his private screening room. Cinematographer Robert Richardson gives us a world bursting with color to serve as a romanticized version of old Hollywood, a world Hughes saw for the taking. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hughes as an energetic but vulnerable man, lending a devastating edge to his downfall. This is Scorsese's show, though, and he achieves an incredible depth in portraying a man whose own ambition ultimately got the best of him.

1. The Passion of the Christ
Today's political arena has become so black and white that in the craze of religious zealots and the fury of secular critics The Passion of the Christ has become some kind of poster-child for the religious right. Lost in and separated from all this is Mel Gibson's powerful statement of faith, the potential cruelty of man, and the human drive to survive physical and psychological torture in the name of a greater good. Two things that still strike me about Gibson's interpretation are his insistence on depicting the human side of Jesus and how open to secular analysis the film is. Jesus here is a man, and in our first glimpse of him, he is begging, pleading that what is about to happen to him will pass. In conveying the final hours of Jesus' life, Gibson draws from iconic imagery and pulls no punches in depicting the brutality of the torture or execution. Juxtaposed with his trials are scenes of Jesus with his mother and teaching his followers, and the images of compassion make for a tragic antithesis, reaffirming the humanity of the film's subject and giving weight to his torturous death. Gibson has taken what is arguably the most famous story of all time and gives it a universal and modern relevance that far overshadows whatever equally hollow positive or negative attention the film has received.

Honorable Mention:

Closer, The Incredibles, The Ladykillers, Secret Window, Shrek 2

Copyright © 2005 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.