The Colors of 2004: Red, Blue, and Green

December 31, 2004
A thought by James Berardinelli

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.