10 Best Movies of 2004

 

1.               Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Directed by Michel Gondry; Rated R

It’s a bit ironic that the subject of the year’s most unforgettable film was memory loss.  It’s also a bit ironic that the year’s best film stars Jim Carrey, an actor who rose to the top by talking out of his rear end in Ace Ventura.  Needless to say, Carrey has come a long way.  In Eternal Sunshine he plays Joel, a brokenhearted loner who decides to get his ex-girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), off his mind by having her clinically erased.  Clementine has already had Joel erased from her memoryJoel is having it done out of revenge.  Michel Gondry directs Eternal Sunshine with an abundance of style, as Joel’s memories are erased in reverse order.  Each revealed memory leads to a lovely and heartbreaking scene that could only be dreamed up by the remarkably original Charlie Kaufman; he is the most innovative and entertaining screenwriter working today.  Sunshine bends our mind, fills our brain and breaks our heart while saying a great deal about memories and love without being preachy or illogical.

 

2. Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood; PG-13)

Good filmmaking takes passion, skill, experience andabove allheart, which are many of the same qualities that are necessary in the sport of boxing.  In Million Dollar Baby, Clint Eastwood’s equally powerful follow-up to last year’s Mystic River, Hilary Swank plays 32-year-old boxing wannabe Maggie Fitzgerald.  Maggie is considered too old, too inexperienced and too “girly” to be a great boxer, but she also has more heart and passion than anyone in the gym.  With that said, Eastwood is much like the Maggie Fitzgerald of filmmaking: he’s smart, passionate and at the top of his game in his old age.  Million Dollar Baby throws all the right punches and hits you like a left hook; it’s easily the best boxing film since 1980’s Raging Bull.

 

3. House of Flying Daggers (Zhang Yimou; PG-13)

Since its release in 2000, numerous filmmakers have tried to bring back the muted stealth and beauty of Ang Lee’s modern-day masterpiece Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, only to achieve moderate success.  That is until now.  Zhang Yimou, who also directed the visually stunning Hero earlier in the year, not only captures the visual beauty of Crouching Tiger, but often surpasses it.  The beautiful Ziyi Zhang (who was first seen in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) steals the show as Mei, a gifted blind dancer who is rumored to be a member of the House of Flying Daggers, an anti-government group that steals from the rich and gives to the poor.  A wealthy playboy, Jin, is hired to follow her back to the House of Flying Daggers in hopes of finding and repressing the revolutionary group but instead finds himself falling in love with her.  House of Flying Daggers is breathtaking, dazzling, romantic, and easily the most beautiful film of the year.  Hero was simply a warm-up for Yimou; House of Flying Daggers is the real thing.

 

4. Sideways (Alexander Payne; R)

Great movies are like a fine wine in the sense that they get better with time.  Alexander Payne’s funny and touching new comedy, Sideways, is that rare type of film that is likely to get better with each passing year.  Paul Giamatti gives a superb performance as Miles, a divorced author who, along with his college roommate Jack, goes on a wine-tasting road trip through California’s wine country.  Sideways is superbly written, refreshingly original and remarkably true.  And in a generation of worn out clichés, that’s something worth drinking to.

 

5. Garden State (Zach Braff; R)

Garden State is Sideways for the younger generation, a smartly written film that truly connects with its intended audience.  Scrubs’s star Zach Braff makes a smooth jump from TV to the movies by playing Andrew Largeman, a twenty something loner who returns to his childhood hometown after the surprise death of his mother.  But it’s Natalie Portman (who was also great in Closer) who stands out as the talkative but loveable Sam.  Garden State is touching, entertaining, truthful and funny.  And atop of all that, it boasts the best soundtrack I heard all year.

 

6. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater; R)

This year’s best sequel didn’t star a giant green ogre or a superhero with spider-like skills but rather two thirty-somethings with hearts full of regret.  Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy star in Richard Linklater’s heartbreaking Before Sunrise follow-up as a couple who passed up there one chance at love nine years ago.  Before Sunrise, which was one of the best films of 1995, was a modern day Casablanca; Sunset is the sequel that we always hoped for but never received, until now.

 

7. Collateral (Michael Mann; R)

Years ago, the thrill was taken out of the word thriller.  This year, director Michael Mann put it back in with his suspenseful L.A. drama, Collateral.  Jamie Foxx nearly steals the show from costar Tom Cruise by playing the fearful yet brave taxi driver who is held hostage by a ruthless hitman (Cruise).  Collateral, even more so than Heat or The Insider (which are also directed by Mann), creates suspense by building strong characters and casting strong leads.  The strategy pays off; Collateral is the most exciting thriller of the year.

 

8. Vera Drake (Mike Leigh; R)

The film is about morals, the right to live and the right to choose death, and it’s one of the best films of the year.  No, I’m not talking about Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, but rather Mike Leigh’s equally important masterpiece, Vera Drake.  The similarities between Eastwood and Leigh’s films go on and on: both cover touchy subjects, both boast unforgettable lead actress performances and both are brilliant and challenging.  Imelda Staunton gives a standout performance in the title role as an elderly woman who “helps out” pregnant ladies who do not wish to have their babies born.  Anyone who was impressed with The Cider House Rules should be blown away by Leigh’s film, which makes Cider House look like cheap propaganda.

 

9. Kill Bill Vol. 2 (Quentin Tarantino; R)

If you had asked me a year ago if Kill Bill, Vol. 2 would make my top 10 list, I would have probably chuckled and quickly replied with a certain “no.”  I felt that Vol. 1 lacked story and was too over-the-top.  Fortunately, with Vol. 2, Quentin Tarantino offers us a film that is completely unlike its predecessor.  That’s the brilliance of Tarantino.  Few modern day directors could even get a film made like the Kill Bill series: a basically pointless four hour bloodbath revenge flick with little star power and no big finale.  But not only did Tarantino get Kill Bill made, he turned it into one of the most unique, artful and purely entertaining films of his masterful career.

 

10. The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson; R)

The Passion of the Christ isn’t a flawless picture, but it was powerful enough to transform crowds of people into believers and even convinced one Texas man to confess to a murder committed years before.  How many films have the power to do that?  The answer, I’m sure you’d agree, is very few. That’s because no film has ever portrayed the death of Jesus with such painful realism.  The Passion of the Christ is passionate, powerful, brave and even flawed – very much like the film’s uncompromising director.

 

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