Best & Worst of 2004
America is list-crazy. (See, for example, the column you are currently reading.) The American Film Institute, Internet Movie Database, The New York Film Critics Circle - they've all got 'em, and they all want to let you know what they think are the best movies of the year, the decade, the millennium, whatever. And, if you'll notice, rarely to the "best ever" lists include anything newer than, say, 1994 (Forrest Gump always makes the list). Why is that? Are modern movies really that much worse than old ones? No. I think "best of" status requires time - distance from the source. That's one of the reasons these year-end lists are so subjective. If I include Collateral is it because I just bought it, or is it really that good? (It gets an honorable mention - because I just bought it.) It's a tricky business.
2004, I realized when looking back over the last twelve month's worth of reviews, was not a bad year for movies. Oh, there were some duds to be sure, but on the whole, even the bad movies were more irritating than odious. On the other hand, I'm not sure if there is anything that came out this year that will be remembered as a defining film - a pivotal moment. I guess it's just hard to say if AFI or IMDB will be mining this year for future inclusion. Will Napoleon Dynamite be considered the penultimate comedy of the decade, or just the indie-flavor of the month? Who knows? With that uncertainty resounding in your head, here are my picks, in no particular order, for the ten best and ten worst films of the year. And remember, take this with a grain of salt. Potential best picture contenders like Million Dollar Baby, Ray, Kinsey, and The Motorcycle Diaries didn't play where I could see them, so I can't really include them. By that same token, I simply didn't take the time to see Anacondas: Hunt for the Blood Orchid or Resident Evil 2: Apocalypse, two films that could be worlds worse than anything you see listed here. So, without further adieu...
Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio have come together to do what they failed to do in Gangs of New York: tell a story whose dramatic weight equalled its incredible production values. The direction is superb, the acting top-notch, and the tale they tell together is haunting and compelling. Howard Hughes' slow descent into madness may be the project that finally brings Scorsese the Oscar.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
This is the Jim Carrey movie for people who hate Jim Carrey (I still haven't convinced my wife to watch it - I'm working on her, though). Smart, funny, sad, and sweet, Eternal Sunshine is Charlie Kaufman's latest mind trip about a heartbroken man who undergoes a procedure to erase the painful memory of lost love, only to realize that it is just those bittersweet experiences that make us who we are.
Johnny Depp is a shoo-in for a nomination with his portrayal of Peter Pan scribe J.M. Barrie. Barrie based his tale of lost boys and eternal youth on an actual family that he befriended in turn-of-the-century London, and it is the depiction of those relationships that elevates this from being little more than a treacly British biopic. At turns funny and heartbreakingly sad, Neverland will make you believe.
Friday Night Lights
When the promos for this movie came out, it looked to be another variation on a theme - tough coach, big hearts, football glory. Instead, we are treated to a stark adaptation of the muckraking best seller of the same name. Lights tell the tale of how young boys often wither under the harsh glare and intense pressure of small-town Texas football. Stirring and sad - look for a breakout performance by a nearly unrecognizable Tim McGraw.
This jaw-dropping import from China marks a creative turn for star Jet Li, who looked to be going down the Van Damme road at a pretty steady clip. Incredible action and choreography is complimented by a mesmerizing color palette in this story of a mysterious warrior who defeats three deadly assassins in order to gain an audience with the emperor responsible for uniting all of China. The cinematography is beyond compare.
Pixar proves once again they are the reigning kings of animation in their follow-up to last year's adorable Finding Nemo. The Incredibles is more adult, though certainly no less fun, and tells the tale of a frustrated super-family in hiding trying to exist in the "real" world. It strikes a perfect balance between excitement and drama, all the while employing a razor-sharp sense of humor. The perfect antidote to the dark and weighty comic book heroes of the day, while avoiding the camp that killed heroes of the past.
Kill Bill 2
Quentin Tarantino's bloody double feature is a technical masterpiece of camera work, story structure, and special effects. The first installment, however, didn't make my list last year because, to be perfectly honest, it just wasn't all that enjoyable. Part 2, on the other hand, is a blast. An homage to everything from Sergio Leone to 1970's Hong Kong, Tarantino's considerably less bloody sequel continues The Bride (Uma Thurman)'s quest for revenge as she fights her way toward the inevitable confrontation with Bill himself.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Wes Anderson movies are kind of an acquired taste, and The Life Aquatic is no different. Touching and sad, it tells the sometimes hilarious tale of famed oceanographer Steve Zissou's quest to find and kill the huge (and possible mythical) Jaguar Shark that killed and ate his closest friend. Jam-packed with stars, Aquatic rides heavy on the amazing talent and understated comedy of Bill Murray. This is one to watch several times.
Shaun of the Dead
What would any best-of-list be without a British romantic comedy zombie movie? Though a few scenes of excessive gore nearly kept this out of my top-ten, there is no denying that it is one of the most thoughtful, heartfelt and surprising films I saw all year. Shaun is a slacker drone, shambling from bed to work to the pub and back again. It comes as a huge shock, then, when his fellow urban zombies suddenly become actual zombies, forcing him to lead a ragtag band of survivors to the relative safety of, where else, the pub.
A film for the wine snob in all of us, Sideways is the story of two old friends on a journey of discovery through the California vineyards. As dull as that sounds, the film is buoyed along by smart writing and even smarter acting, especially in Paul Giamatti's portrayal of recently divorced and seriously depressed wine aficionado Miles. While he may not wrestle the Oscar away from Jamie Foxx's Ray Charles, look for a supporting nod to Thomas Hayden Church (remember Wings?) as Miles' loutish companion.
The Butterfly Effect
This low-rent Ray Bradbury rip-off could have been good had producers decided to make a grown-up sci-fi thriller instead of a teenybopper one. Unfortunately they chose to depend on the boyish good looks and total lack of talent embodied in Punk'd king Ashton Kutcher. He goes back and forth in time, screws things up, does it again, gets a nosebleed, and spends an inordinate amount of time watching his roommate have sex. Weird and lame.
Another Americanized version of a Hong Kong horror hit, The Grudge tries in vain to strike Ring gold and comes up short. It tells the story of a post-Buffy Sarah Michelle Gellar and her pitiful struggle with a pair of vengeful ghosts in modern day Tokyo. Senseless and unscary, the movie was made all the more irritating by the passel of loud teenagers two rows ahead of us. I don't know whether to blame them for their bad behavior, or the filmmakers for failing to make a movie to hold their, or anyone's, attention.
No, this isn't a typo. My relatively low-key dislike for this Da Vinci Code rip-off only increased as week after week it strode atop the charts, making millions and millions of dollars. Not only does it blatantly steal its plot from the popular Dan Brown novel, it then does a poor job of executing it, making ridiculous leaps of logic while slavishly adhering to adventure movie formulas. It even has the gaul to appeal to history-lovers, while containing little or no real "history." And please, can't we get Nicholas Cage to stop working with Jerry Bruckheimer? Please?
What a train-wreck this was. I know, a lot of people enjoyed the action and effects, but the acting was so bad, as was the dialogue and, hell, the effects! Ok, the vampires were ok, but those were the worst werewolves I've ever seen. Hugh Jackman put the claws away to play ecclesiastical bounty hunter Van Helsing who must find Count Dracula and battle him for the secret to... who cares! All I know is that carriage leap over the ravine was like Speed - 18th Century Style.
The Chronicles of Riddick
Vin Diesel and Co. managed to go from a cool sci-fi indie (Pitch Black) to this epic intergalactic mess. Poor acting and especially poor writing wring the life out of the series, leaving only a growling shell. Riddick, forced to escape from some prison world or another, comes face to face with the evil Necromongers, armored morons trying to pull a Borg and assimilate the universe. My favorite part of the movie are the names given to places. The really hot planet is "Crematoria." Get it? Riddick and his ilk are from a planet called "Furia." That's probably why they're so furious. Clever.
Broken Lizard's Club Dread
How disappointing. When the Broken Lizard comedy troupe came out with the surprise hit Super Troopers it looked like we might have a new Monty Python or Cheech and Chong on our hands. Not so. Club Dread is an idiotic amalgam of sex and violence combined with terrible acting, poor production values, and such lame attempts at "comedy" that I felt I was watching a junior high film. The only highlight is watching Bill Paxton ham it up Jimmy Buffet style as resort owner Coconut Pete.
This has got to be the biggest disappointment of the year. Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Christopher Walken, and director Barry Levinson were completely unable to save this pathetically anemic black comedy. Jack Black plays the straight man to Ben Stiller's straight man, leaving only uncomfortable silences and huge gaps between laughs in this rich man/poor man revenge farce. Maybe that's the reason it sat on the shelf for several years, only being revived after the success of School of Rock. Word to the wise: wacky horse death doesn't play in Peoria. Ouch.
This was a joke, right? This was a kinky superhero spoof played for laughs, wasn't it? Looking at the costume, it would have to be. Halle Berry is Patience Phillips, a mild mannered graphic designer who is murdered and then returns to life to wreak vengeance on the evil make-up manufacturer who did her in. This is destined to be a renter for mock-parties, especially for the over the top performance of Sharon Stone, who seems to be the only one in on the joke.
Booooring. I'm not sure who thought it would be a good idea to have Josh Hartnett wisp his way around this weird soap opera about a man who loses his love and then abruptly finds her again. Pure trash with terrible writing and a senseless plot. Another one of those movies whose pivotal scenes depend on such intricate and impossible machinations that the "shocker" twist is rendered harmless and completely unbelievable.
Ok, maybe I'm giving this movie too much credit by expecting it to be good, but the preview looked funny. One of those none too rare examples where all the funny parts of the movie are wholly contained in the trailer. Maybe that's an editing problem, maybe it's a writing problem, but I'm blaming Snoop Dogg. Why? Because he, though his character is little more than a cameo, gets top billing and the center position on the poster. If he wants to be out front, he can take the heat. I was tempted to write "... the hizz-eat." but I think there's been far too much of that already. Wouldn't you agree?a
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