Halftime Report: The Top 10

July 09, 2004
A thought by James Berardinelli

Generally speaking, no one talks about Top 10 lists until the November/December timeframe. While that makes sense for annual (January-December) lists, there's no reason not to take a snapshot of an evolving Top 10 list any time during the year, and what better opportunity than at the half-way point? Admittedly, many of these films will not survive for a return engagement on the December 31 Top 10; in fact, some of the titles here won't even make the "Honorable Mention" list. But that doesn't change the fact that every movie listed below is well worth the time and money necessary to see it.

As usual, these are in reverse order...

#10: Love Me If You Dare: Despite receiving a lukewarm embrace from most mainstream critics, Love Me If You Dare had my attention and appreciation from its early scenes. I admit to liking this film enough to almost award it a half-star more than I eventually did. I saw the movie in Toronto, and wanted to catch it again during its local run, but it was gone from theaters before I had the opportunity. I heard that the ending may have been re-arranged to make it more palatable to American audiences. I hope that's not the case. At any rate, I will eagerly anticipate the DVD release of this picture, because it's one of the most edgy romantic comedies I have seen in a long time, and one of three from that genre on this Top 10 list.

#9: Spider-Man 2: One of the year's best action/adventure movies, Spider-Man challenges its predecessor, X-Men 2, and Hulk for the title of "Best Superhero Movie Based on a Marvel Comics Mainstay." The movie gives us a three-dimensional hero (with maybe a tad too much angst), a superior villain, some great action scenes, and a nicely rendered love story. Movie geeks with a penchant for this genre will recognize that significant portions of the film are borrowed from Superman 2, but they are re-assembled with enough skill that it seems more like an homage than a steal.

#8: The Passion of the Christ: Critics and viewers were sharply divided about this movie, seeing it as either an anti-Semetic diatribe or a brutally honest representation. And, although I do not consider myself to be religious, I found Mel Gibson's film to be a profoundly moving study of the inhumanity of human beings. The extreme violence is, in my view, justified because it's needed to italicize the themes. However, one can make a strong case that the movie should have been rated NC-17. Now wouldn't that have been ironic?

#7: The Ladykillers: Dodgeball and Anchorman are both funny films, but I laughed more during The Ladykillers than during either of them. It's hard for me to understand why the Coen Brothers, once critical darlings, have been lambsted for their two most recent films, just because they're a little more mainstream. Believe it or not, "mass appeal" does not have to be a pejorative. (Although, despite a little less quirkiness, neither Intolerable Cruelty nor The Ladykillers did especially well at the box office.) Tom Hanks is very good, but Irma P. Hall inarguably steals the show, and gets about 3/4 of the good laughs.

#6: Japanese Story: Here's one that's already out on video. A powerful character study and examination of grief, Japanese Story does some interesting things with the mismatched couple relationship. It features one of the most surprising moments in any 2004 film and highlights an amazing peformance by Toni Collette. The movie is slow and demands a patient viewer, but it's the kind of picture that is not easily forgotten.

#5: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: A fun and offbeat romantic comedy, this one isn't quite as original as screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's earlier Being John Malkovich, but it's close. The premise - that memories of painful relationships can be erased - is tremendous, and the execution does not disappoint. Funny, touching, and romantic, the movie features top-notch performances by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. Plus, there's a real treat for Kirsten Dunst fans. Its arrival on video is imminent.

#4: Touching the Void: This movie is a strong candidate for the end-of-the-year Top 10, and it just arrived on DVD. Few people saw it in theaters, making it a "can't miss" for home viewing. A white-knuckle documentary (have there been many of those?), Touching the Void uses re-creations and voiceover narration to weave an incredible survival story. The DVD features invaluable additional features, making the experience of watching it in that medium even richer than seeing it in theaters.

#3: Before Sunset: It's not quite as strong as its predecessor, Before Sunrise, but this is still one of the year's best motion pictures. Combined, the two movies offer a compelling series of snapshots into the relationship between potential soul-mates. Talky and dreamy, Before Sunset is a Valentine to everyone who loved the first movie. Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke work as well together in 2004 as in 1995, and, if the diaolgue isn't as crisp and compelling, it's still interesting.

#2: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring: Beautiful, sublime, and emotionally wrenching, this motion picture conveys its entire story with a minimum of words. It's beautiful and heartbreaking. As the passion of "Summer" gives way to the tragedy of "Fall," the movie hits its stride, bringing viewers face-to-face with the ugly realities of the inconstancy of human emotions. Powerful and not easily forgotten.

#1: Maria Full of Grace: This is the only first-half movie to which I have awarded four stars. Placing it on this list is sort of a cheat because it hasn't opened yet (although I saw it in June). The title character is a native of Colombia who acts as a "mule" to bring cocaine into the United States in her stomach, and the story is related in a way that disturbs without becoming relentlessly depressing. For one of the most stirring portrayals of the year, lead actress Catalina Sandino Moreno deserves an Oscar nomination. (One that she'll never get.) For anyone who shares my taste in serious dramas, this goes to the top of the "must see" list.