Rewinding 2004 - The Year in Film

Commentary by James Berardinelli
January 1, 2005 (all excerpts from December 2004 "ReelThoughts" columns)

Go Directly to the Top 10

The Colors of 2004: Red, Blue, and Green

From my perspective, 2004 was the most lackluster movie year since I started reviewing. There were plenty of good, entertaining films out there on both the blockbuster end and the indie end of things, but instances of greatness were rare. For the first time in 12 years, I handed out one lonely four-star citation - a new low (two was the previous nadir, achived in 2000 and 2002). And it wasn't just quality - the year in movies lacked "juice." There wasn't a lot to get excited about. Buzz on high-profile movies was either muffled or non-existent. I didn't know anything about one of the year's best films, Million Dollar Baby, until I received the first screening notification.

Typically, December is the best month of the year for movies. To an extent, that was true in 2004, with three of my Top 10 choices opening during the month. But that didn't stop things from feeling flat. Maybe it was the absence of a Peter Jackson movie (The Lord of the Rings had become a familiar December pleasure over the previous three years). More likely, it was the dearth of great, Hollywood big-budget films. The best four films to arrive on the scene in December were a Spanish drama (The Sea Inside), Clint Eastwood's low-budget ($25M) Oscar contender (Million Dollar Baby), a depressing film with great acting and no multiplex staying power (Closer), and a small film about genocide (Hotel Rwanda). All of the expensive movies were mediocre at best.

At least things are looking up for 2005...

In some ways, this was a remarkable year, however. With his The Passion of the Christ, which was much beloved by funadamentalist Christians (and a few others), Mel Gibson smashed every existing assumption about independent filmmaking and transformed his image from that of blockbuster idol to maverick producer. Some thought The Passion of the Christ would represent Gibson's Waterloo; instead, it gave him more power than anyone could have imagined. The Passion of the Christ was great boon for February. It enlivened an otherwise dead month. And, in a strange way, it may have been the first warning signal that the religious right was more of a force than anyone had previously considered. Apparently, the Democrats weren't paying close attention. The places where the film was hailed the most vigorously would turn red on most maps in November.

Then there was that supreme example of pompous self-aggrandizement called Fahrenheit 9/11. Michael Moore somehow was of the opinion that people cared so much about his skewed world-view that he would be able to single-handedly impact the U.S. Presidential election. Plainly, it didn't work. But that's not the surprising thing. The surprising thing is that Moore and his cohorts actually believed that it might. Regardless of the merits of the film (which are dubious), it was foolish to assume that it would change more than a handful of voters' minds. The film's box-office success is attributable almost exclusively to Democrats - who were already pre-disposed to vote against Bush - flooding theaters. Republicans and Independents stayed away - possibly scared off more by Moore and his reputation than by than his message.

Of course, it's now possible to argue who is the more polarizing force in movies: Moore or Gibson? (My vote goes to Gibson, because he, unlike Moore, is a credible force, and has not turned himself into a buffoon via self-promotion.)

Everywhere in Hollywood, greed is more apparent than ever before. (Profits have always been a driving force in the film industry, but never has it been as cutthroat as this year, with creativity coming in a distant second.) The ugly, high profile trial involving Walt Disney execs is all about money. The MPAA's hypocritical and short-sighted attacks on "pirates" (those who download an illegal copy of a movie from a file sharer) are about money. The stream of re-makes and big-screen treatments of TV shows continues to flood multiplexes unabated. That's all about money, too (built-in audience = safe dollars). And the inability of studios to agree on one high-def DVD format (HD-DVD vs. Blu Ray) is about money. That last example is especially galling, because it will lead to a format war in which the consumer loses.

Weekend box office numbers have become the barometer by which a film's success is determined. Good, bad, or mediocre, if it comes in #1, that means it's a must-see. How long, I wonder, before studios begin to cook the estimates, inflating them so they can claim the top position? Or has that started already? If word got out of such a thing happening, it would be a scandal - but why? What do I care if Movie X makes $30M or $28M? How does it impact my life? How did movie grosses become a news story? Why do we buy into such hype, when everyone with a scintilla of intelligence understand there's no relationship between box office gross and motion picture quality?

The 2004 movie year doesn't officially end for two more months, when the Oscars are doled out. A few things I would like to see at February's ceremony... Michael Moore walking away empty-handed. Miramax walking away empty-handed. A few deserving actors actually winning. Someone doing something spontaneous and unrehearsed, even if it's humiliating or degrading. (The Oscars have become too canned and predictable.) Martin Scorsese not winning a "lifetime achievement" award for the tepid The Aviator. Give that award to Clint Eastwood, whose two most recent film put anything done by Scorsese in the last 10 years to shame. And, most of all, a broadcast that ends before midnight.

Performances Worth Mentioning

In the Leading Actor category, a few names spring easily to mind. It would be impossible to ignore Jamie Foxx's almost eerie portrayal of Ray Charles in Ray. (He's a mortal lock to win the Oscar.) Other worthy contenders are Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby), Kevin Bacon (The Woodsman), Paul Giamatti (Sideways), and Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda). But the best of the best is Javier Bardem in The Sea Inside.

In the Leading Actress category, the field is less robust. Scarlett Johansson gets notice for single-handedly lifting A Love Song for Bobby Long out of mediocrity. Annette Bening was by far the best thing about Being Julia. Fatoumata Coulibaly was a portrait of strength and courage in Moolaadé. Imelda Staunton wrenched our hearts as the befuddled, good-natured Vera Drake. Catalina Sandino Moreno embodied passion and determination as the title character from my choice for #1 film of the year, Maria Full of Grace. The hands-down winner, however, is Hilary Swank, whose multi-dimensional turn in Million Dollar Baby is impossible to forget.

In the Supporting Actor category, there were a lot of solid offerings, but few standouts. It's hard to overlook Morgan Freeman's quiet contribution to Million Dollar Baby. Thomas Hayden Church deserves consideration for his work in Sideways. Jamie Foxx is as worthy of note in this category for Collateral as he was in the Leading Actor category for Ray. But a notch above all of these names is Clive Owen, whose volcanic portrayal in Closer should make him the hands-down Oscar favorite, not to mention everyone's choice for the next James Bond.

Finally, in the Supporting Actress category, there were some shining stars. Natalie Portman should earn her first nomination for Closer, in which she put away childish things. Viewers can argue forever about the merits of cutting her topless scene, but, nude or not, this is a performance to be reckoned with. Sophie Okonedo's work as Don Cheadle's wife in Hotel Rwanda touched me as deeply as anything in the film. It's an unsung performance, but worth mentioning. Virginia Madsen edges out Sandra Oh for the citation from Sideways (both were good, but Madsen was better). The winner here goes to Katharine Hepburn... I mean, Cate Blanchett... from The Aviator. So at least there's one category in which Scorsese's film trumps all others.

The Lowest Level of Critics' Hell (The Bottom Ten)

#1 represents the "worst of the worst."

#1: Without a Paddle: Also known as Grizzly Adams Strikes Back, with an Oscar-worthy performance by Bart the Bear.
#2: Van Helsing: As if Bram Stoker didn't already have enough reasons to turn in his grave...
#3: Catwoman: Felines did not fare well in movies this year (see #8, as well). Even the vision of Halle Berry in the dominatrix suit doesn't make this one worthwhile.
#4: Eurotrip: Eurotrash.
#5: The Whole Ten Yards: Offical burial for the careers of Bruce Willis and Matthew Perry.
#6: A Dirty Shame: It's nice when a title functions as its own best review.
#7: Envy: It sat on the shelf for two years before being released. It should have sat there longer.
#8: Garfield: Aside from not being funny and arriving in theaters fifteen years too late, what's not to like about this movie?
#9: The Perfect Score: Proof that even an actress of Scarlett Johansson's charisma and talent cannot save every movie in which she appears.
#10: Walking Tall: The most ill-advised remake of the year, and, considering some of the contenders, that's saying something.

The Elite (The Top Ten)

Honorable mention (alphabetical): Hotel Rwanda, Japanese Story, Red Lights, Touching the Void, Vera Drake.

#10: [TIE] The Incredibles and The Polar Express: Two very different animated films that have one major characteristic in common - the material in each is actually more adult-oriented than child-focused. With its mid-life crisis theme, The Incredibles confronts the issue of the human need to live a meaningful life. The Polar Express is a pleasant fairy tale that relies on a powerful sense of nostalgia for its impact. Both films also have strong appeal for younger viewers, making them perfect family features. The Incredibles mixes comedy and adventure; The Polar Express contains as much action, less comedy, and comes wrapped in the gauzy veil of a fable. Although both films are the result of digital animation techniques, their looks are different. The Incredibles has a cartoonish appearance that is perfectly matched to the story and characters. In The Polar Express, the characters look "almost real" (a stylistic choice that has caused some viewers a sense of discomfort), although the settings are fantastical and imaginative. Usually, I try to avoid ties in the Top 10 (it's a cheap way to stuff in an additional movie), but I adore both of these movies, and couldn't bring myself to include one and leave the other off. So, despite my avowed dislike of all things animated, I have ranked two such films amongst the best of 2004.

#9: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind : An early-year release that will probably not get much (if any) Oscar consideration becuase of its opening date, Eternal Sunshine is already available on DVD for the enjoyment of those who missed its March theatrical run. A deliciously offbeat romantic comedy, Eternal Sunshine combines the talents of Kate Winslet, Jim Carrey, writer Charlie Kauffman (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich), and director Michel Gondry to create a story that not only tantilizes the mind and tickles the funny bone, but offers its own warped perspective on that crazy little thing called "love." The film asks a lot of questions about memories and their importance to personality, and, while it doesn't answer all of them, it displays an intelligence in making the queries that most films lack. Note to Jim Carrey fans: this is your hero in "mature" mode; if you want to see him mugging for the camera, check out the Lemony Snicket movie.

#8: Sideways : Sideways represents the most mature film to-date from director Alexander Payne, whose impressive resume already includes Election and About Schmidt. By turns poignant and hilarious, Sideways follows the misadventures of two mismatched buddies as they embark on a Bachelor's Party trip through California's wine country. It's a tough thing to effectively mix drama and comedy, yet Payne makes it seem effortless. He is also blessed with an amazing cast: Paul Giamatti (in a performance that should earn him an Oscar nomination), Thomas Hayden Church, Virginia Madsen, and Payne's wife, Sandra Oh. Sideways was one of the best films I saw at 2004's Toronto International Film Festival, and I was no less impressed and entertained when I subsequently saw it twice around the time of its opening. It's currently playing in theaters in many markets, so, if you haven't seen it, rush out and give yourself a treat.

#7: Closer : Closer is an anti-romance film. At first, it appears to be about longing and love, but it quickly becomes apparent that the forging and breaking of relationships in this movie are conduits for gaining power and causing pain. Sex is more of a tool and a means of one-upsmanship than it is an expression of passion. The subject matter is compelling, disturbing, and potent, and is no further from "reality" than any of the great screen romances. (Although we would prefer to believe in happily-ever-after scenarios instead of the one proposed by Closer). Director Mike Nichols places the focus squarely on the actors, and it's worth noting that Natalie Portman and Clive Owen steal scenes from Oscar-winner Julia Roberts and two-time Oscar-nominee Jude Law. It's not that Roberts and Law aren't effective, but they are, at least in this production, outclassed. Portman and Owen will almost certainly be mentioned in a month when the 2005 nominees roster is read. Admittedly, if you enjoy only sunny, optimistic movies, Closer is not for you. But if you appreciate films that delve into the darker side of humankind's psyche, this picture offers a tough-to-shake snapshot.

#6: Million Dollar Baby : One could make a strong argument that this is the best movie Clint Eastwood has ever been involved in, either in front of or behind the camera. Although Million Dollar Baby will be classified as a "sports movie" by many, such a pat label diminishes the power and scope of this emotionally wrenching production. If you're one of those who doesn't cry at movies, this may test the dryness of your tear ducts. Million Dollar Baby is about three characters (played by Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, and Hilary Swank) who happen to be in the business of sports. The heart and soul of the film has little to do with what goes on in the ring (the boxing sequences tend to be perfunctory). Instead, Eastwood concentrates on how the members of this trio interact, and, ultimately, the agonizing decision that one must make out of friendship and love. With the exception of an irritating and over-the-top performance by a secondary character who gets more screen time than is warranted, this is a nearly perfect movie. I wish more English-language dramas were like this one. Of all the Hollywood-financed motion pictures to arrive in theaters this year, Million Dollar Baby is the best.

#5: Sea Inside, The : The most mature and emotionally wrenching film to-date from Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar (Open Your Eyes, The Others), The Sea Inside represents a cathartic and satisfying experience. Based on a true story, this film chronicles the last years in the life of Ramon Sampedro, a Spaniard who has been a quadraplegic for nearly three decades and is seeking court permission to end his "life without dignity." The Sea Inside does not ask you to take Ramon's position, but to understand it, and the circumstances that have brought him to this point. It poses two key questions: (1) Does a person have the right to control his own body where death is concerned? and (2) Does it require greater love to help someone like Ramon take his own life, or to give him unconditional support for as long as he lives? For a movie about euthenasia, The Sea Inside has moments that are surprisingly uplifting. While watching this film, it is possible to laugh one moment and cry the next. Someone I know called The Sea Inside one of the best pictures he has seen in the last five years. That may be hyperbole, but I understand where he's coming from. The Sea Inside is certainly one of the best of 2004.

#4: Moolaadé : For me, one of the great disappointments of 2004 was the anemic performance of this compelling feature at the art-house box office. If one of the purposes of movies is to take us to places we have never previously visited, most people would find such an objective to be served by Moolaadé, which transpires in a remote African settlement where the most advanced technology is a radio. Progress is coming, but slowly. The subject matter - female genital mutilation (euphemistically called "female circumcision") - may be foreign to North American viewers, but the themes - those of empowerment and a battle for change - are not. These are gripping and persuasive issues, and veteran director Ousmane Sembene gives us a story and characters worthy of them. Moolaadé is as much a thriller as it is a drama. There are moments of great tension and power. Unfortunately, the film did not find an audience, perhaps because those who frequent art-house theaters were turned off by the central plot device, or perhaps because films from Africa are not "hot" draws. New Yorker films circulated a limited number of prints across the country; rarely did the film play well enough for its run to last longer than a week. Hopefully, the eventual arrival of Moolaadé on video/DVD will make it available to a wider audience. This is a motion picture that deserves to be seen by a greater number of people than those who paid for theatrical admission.

#3: Before Sunset : For an early summer Valentine to all of us romantic movie-goers, Richard Linklater not only formulated a worthy sequel to his early-'90s love story, Before Sunrise, but he crafted 2004's best English-language motion picture. Before Sunset picks up nearly a decade after the first film ended, and answers all the necessary "what happened to..." questions. We re-connect with the characters as they re-connect with each other. And, as the chemistry begins to emerge from beneath the rust, we realize along with the protagonists that there may be such a thing as a soul-mate. Before Sunset is talky (it takes place in real time), but, for those who loved the first movie, that will not be a drawback. It's possible to argue the merits of the original picture against those of its sequel, but they work best when viewed as two chapters of a single story. Although the tone of Before Sunset is a little darker than that of Before Sunrise (youthful exuberance has been replaced with a kind of world-weary pessimism), the ending of the second film is less ambiguous and just as optimistic. Before Sunset is a chance to once again fall in love with these characters. One can only hope that Linklater and actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy will give us another opportunity to meet them in the near future.

#2: Spring Summer Fall Winter...and Spring : Sublime, stunning, and emotionally powerful, Spring Summer Fall Winter...and Spring spent a number of months at the top of my "favorites" list for 2004 (until it was supplanted by my end-of-the-year #1). As long-time readers are aware, I tend to prize plot and characterization over visual splendor, but this is a rare occasion when both the story-related aspects and the appearance of the film are perfectly wedded. Spring... offers both visual and thematic poetry. The film follows the progress through life of a man who begins life as the youthful apprentice to an aging teacher. In the first chapter, he learns the value of all life. In the second, he discovers lust and love. In the third, jealousy and guilt. And, in the fourth, things have come full circle and the man who was once the student is now the teacher. By seeing an entire life unfold in less than two hours, we gain a greater appreciation for the changeableness of human nature, and how things we might once have thought to be unthinkable turn out to be true. The journey is sometimes sad, sometimes funny, often touching, and always magical. Kim Ki-duk's feature is currently available on DVD, and even the subtitle-phobic might consider giving it an opportunity. Although the movie is in Korean, there aren't many words, so the need to read should not often interfere.

#1: Maria Full of Grace : For those who are regular vistors to this site, the selection of Maria Full of Grace as #1 will not come as a surprise. It is, after all, the only 2004 theatrical release to which I assigned four stars. That's not an objective assessment of its quality; however, this is the film I most appreciated this year. It is engaging from start to close, features wonderful characters, operates from a fresh perspective with a premise that is not overused, and offers moments of astoundingly "real" tension and emotion. The lead performance, by Catalina Sandino Moreno, is as worthy as any this year of Oscar consideration (however, the film's low profile will rule out a nomination). Moreno makes Maria believable and sympathetic. Amazingly, this is the feature debut of director Joshua Marston, but his approach is so assured that one would never guess at his lack of experience from the available evidence. There is much in this film to recommend it, from the insider's view of drug trafficking to the inherent terror of being set adrift in a country where you don't understand the customs or the language. But the biggest reason to see Maria Full of Grace is Maria, one of 2004's most compelling screen protagonists. The film has just recently been released on DVD, so it should be readily available. And, at least this year, I cannot recommend any movie more highly or with greater enthusiasm.

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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