Is there an accurate way to sum up the entire past year in movies? No, there never truly is, but now is the time of the year that movie critics and entertainment reporters try do just that. It certainly was the year of the unexpected blockbusters, as independently released films like “The Passion of the Christ” and “Fahrenheit 9/11″ captured the divisive cultural zeitgeist and re-defined profitability. Mel Gibson’s violent version of Christ’s last days made 12 times its $30 million budget in America alone, while Michael Moore’s Bush-bashing “Fahrenheit 9/11″ made 20 times its modest $6 million dollar budget.
It was also the year of the unexpectedly great sequels. While sequels are usually mindless summer tentpole films designed for easy money opening weekends, the quality of movies like “Spider-Man 2,” “Shrek 2,” “Before Sunset,” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” proved that with the right director and script, sequels can actually be better than their predecessors.
Perhaps it is “Late Night with David Letterman” or “High Fidelity” author Nick Hornby who should be credited with popularizing the obligatory year-end summaries known as Top 10 lists. Since Letterman should be credited with shaping my late-night bedtime habits from my junior high school years, it is only fair to acknowledge that Hornby’s book based on a pop culture-obsessed record store owner captured my 20s so accurately that it hurt. Needless to say, I love Top 10 lists.
So it is with great pleasure and humbleness that I present my own list of the year’s best films. It was a fantastic year, and there were too many great films to fit onto one list. My runners-up include Richard Linklater’s reflective “Before Sunset,” Brad Bird’s surprisingly mature “The Incredibles,” David O. Russell’s adventurous “I Heart Huckabees,” Trey Parker’s hilarious “Team America:World Police,” and Mike Nichols cruel “Closer.”
- “The Aviator”
Picking a number one movie between my Top 3 this year was extremely difficult, because I believe that they are all destined to go down as modern film classics. The one movie that I can’t seem to shake more than any other is Martin Scorsese’s pitch-perfect biopic of Howard Hughes’ early years in Hollywood. At first, it was the sheer magnitude of the production and amazing story that blew me away. But after another viewing, the smaller details of the film’s construction came more into focus. With a quick look from a character or a subtle camera movement, Scorsese conveys deeper meanings that the time constraints of a film don’t allow. Leonardo DiCaprio is so restrained and natural as Hughes that it’s easy to overlook the magnitude of this performance- the actor is in almost every scene in the two and a half plus-hour film. Scorsese is a master craftsman at the top of his game, and his ability to keep a film that covers so much historical ground firmly rooted in Hughes’ personal story is what gives “The Aviator” an emotional whallop that’s quite unexpected.
- “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”
Director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman have managed to put together that rare film that intrigues both the mind and the soul. Already becoming a cult classic on DVD, this film poses many questions about love, fate, and memory while teasing the viewer with a narrative that gives new meaning to the word “fractured.” Don’t let the camera tricks fool you. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is as honest and true an examination as you’ll ever get about the intricacies of romantic companionship, and it is easily the most original film of the year.
- “Million Dollar Baby”
Forget “Mystic River.” This is Clint Eastwood’s best movie since “Unforgiven.” What that movie did to transcend the western genre, “Million Dollar Baby” does for the boxing film. Eastwood’s assured directorial hand is matched by his understated acting as the reluctant trainer of an overeager female boxer, played by Hillary Swank. They develop a deep bond born out of their hard pasts and a heartbreaking emotional dependence that won’t be equaled in any film any time soon. This is a beautiful film.
- “Kill Bill Vol. 2″
Not technically a sequel to “Kill Bill Vol. 1″ since they were filmed at the same time and intended to be one film, Quentin Tarantino’s second half of the Bride’s kung fu revenge tale morphs the whole work into a convincing and sublime whole. David Carradine and Uma Thurman’s scene together at the film’s finale is electric. The quietly devastating conclusion shows that Tarantino is acutely aware of an audience’s expectations and capable of confounding them while satisfying them at the same time.
- “Fahrenheit 9/11″
First there was the hype, then the backlash. What we’re left with is the film itself. To not recognize Michael Moore’s incendiary tirade as a documentary is silly. To not recognize the power of its argument is just plain incompetent. Political pundits and the soundbite media can slowly wear you down day by day, but for the two hours you sit watching this film, it is impossible to not be taken in by Moore’s scary and sometimes funny interpretation of the facts surrounding Bush, Saudi Arabia, the war on terrorism, the culture of fear, and Iraq. Film is not an objective art, but rather a subjective one. “Fahrenheit 9/11″ was a compelling example of how one man’s voice can ignite the entire country on both sides of one issue.
- “Spider-Man 2″
Having gotten the backstory out of the way in “Spider-Man,” director Sam Raimi forged boldly ahead to create a perfectly balanced character drama and action movie. His technical prowess put the audience in the middle of swooping camera shots and amazingly staged fight scenes, never forgetting to keep the entire fable grounded emotionally. Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst have an innate chemistry, and Raimi’s slapstick comedic touches are just the trick when the plot gets too heavy. Is there a more perfect piece of blockbuster entertainment out there? I think not.
Writer/director Alexander Payne continues his streak of irresistible comedies with dark corners and brings four relatively unknown actors along for the ride. Paul Giamatti puts up with college buddy Thomas Haden Church’s sexual proclivities on their road trip across California wine country and comes to the realization that he may need to reconsider his life. It may not sound like much, but there is a lot for everyone to relate to in this flawlessly realized character piece.
- “Garden State”
Zach Braff is one of the breakout talents of 2004, showing a surprising amount of sincerity and a sturdy sense of humor in his directorial debut. He wrote the screenplay and plays the film’s main character, a psychologically stunted young man who learns how to cope with life after re-visiting his childhood home after the death of his mother. Natalie Portman and Peter Sarsgaard are the charismatic supporting players who help Braff out of his funk.
Shot in the wee hours of the evening in Los Angeles, this stylish thriller from director Michael Mann lets the city itself become a main character. Twisted hitman Tom Cruise waxes philosophical about death while cabbie Jamie Foxx confronts his own fears about life, while L.A. pulses unforgivingly through the night. The film blends its higher-minded ideas with well-executed action scenes, giving it a clear edge over its bland contemporaries.
- “In Good Company”
Topher Grace and Dennis Quaid star in this clever little social critique wrapped up in a light, comedic confection. The movie is blessed with solid performances from its two lead actors, and a funny, insightful script from director Paul Weitz. Quaid is perfect as a 50-year old ad exec whose job is taken by a 26-year old corporate climber, played by Grace. Like Weitz’ last film, the Oscar-nominated “About a Boy,” “In Good Company” sparkles with sharp humor and a finely tuned empathetic feel.