Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Films of 2004

It was a very good year for film. Of course, that's rhetorical. Old auteurs had some sparkling moments and a couple of young newcomers stood up and made me take notice. The following list includes my favorites of the year. These fifteen best may be someone else's fifteen worst, but alas....

1. The Aviator- Martin Scorsese's biopic of entrepreneur Howard Hughes is utterly brilliant, moving, maddening, entertaining.... and any other adjective you can think of. It's not flawless filmmaking, but it soars to unprecedented heights of color, mise-en-scene and movement. It's clear Scorsese is in heaven recreating the rollicking Hollywood era of Hughes' time and it leaks off the screen.

2. House of Flying Daggers- And speaking of leaking off the screen, Zhang Yimou's "House of Flying Daggers" reaches similiar cathartic moments. I'm not sure how many gasps this film elicited from me, but it was alot. It's certainly the prettiest film of the year, but pretty colors do not always impress. Unlike Yimou's freshman martial arts epic this year (Hero) , "House of Flying Daggers" succeeds not on its breathtaking aesthetics, but the human elements of lust, forgiveness and rage painted beneath the surface.

3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind- I've not been a fan of Gondry and Kaufman unil now. I'm not sure if it's the perfectly evoked love story between Carrey and Winslet or the inventive mind fuck narrative that reflects the most stirring commentary on memory and loss since Chris Marker, but "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" fires on all cylinders. Finally, a love story that feels modern.

4. The Life Aquatic- Wes Anderson's zany, infantile outlook on grown up problems (and that's a compliment) comes full circle again. Even though "The Life Aquatic" dwells on the same issues pressing to the surface of previous Anderson films, he never loses the humanity of his characters. This is subtle, side splitting comedy with a heart- the kind that almost doesn't get made anymore. You can't help but love this film the minute you realize what Bill Murray is feeling when he finally comes face to face with the shark that ate his friend. Purely sublime.

5. Garden State- The second best love story of the year. Written and directed by Zach Braff, the echoes to "The Graduate" are obvious, right down to a Simon and Garfunkle B-side attached to the soundtrack. It does take unexpected turns and creates a passionate little love story amongst the flounderings of familial disconnect and compulsive lying. Alongside "Eternal Sunshine", these two films have the courage to place their main characters on the brink of the future, too afraid to admit what may lie ahead and way too passionate (and young) to ignore the past. Join the crowd.

6. Spartan- Pretty much an afterthough when released early this year, David Mamet's spy thriller is compact, economical storytelling. Flavored with the usual Mamet-speak, Val Kilmer plays a CIA agent charged with tracking down the daughter of the president and he's never been better. As expected, it' a caustic look at modern politics with some fantastic dialogue to boot. Please do yourself a favor and seek this one out.

7. I'll Sleep When I'm Dead- Helmed by Mike Hodges, Clive Owen is a man who returns to town to settle the score when his brother is found dead. Hodges handles nothing straight. Time shifts (you have to pay close attention to shaven or unshaven and clothing to fully understand when the image is happening), Clive Owen gets tougher and tougher and the mood is increasingly mordant. Jean-Pierre Melville would be proud.

8. Tarnation- Here it is.... films can now be made for $300. Jonathon Caouette's highly personal documentary is a pop culture masterpiece, cutting as close to the skin as an essay film can. I'll give Michael Moore some credit for staging a personal vendetta for all to see, but Caouette does the same thing with devastating consequences. It hurts to watch this film... it's that personal.

9. Closer- The second Clive Owen film on this list (and hell, Natalie Portman also). Some find this film cold and disasteful. I thought it was a miraculous commentary on four people crawling in their own skin. And it has the best opening moments of any film this year.

10. Million Dollar Baby- While "Mystic River" topped my list last year, director Clint Eastwood doesn't shy away from the darkside here either. Douglas Sirk would be proud, now. This is essentially two films in one, a boxing movie that teaches us alot about boxing as well as a strong example of redemption and forgiveness. I'm not sure if Eastwood (now 74) is reaching out to someone with his last two films, but you can sense the hurt in both.

11. Code 46- Not to sound elitist, but am I the only one who thinks Micheal Winterbottom continues to pump out mini-miracles with every film? "Code 46" is a sci-fi love story that contains another stand out performance from Samantha Morton. Watch her strobe light techno dance with awe.

12. Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman- Takeshi Kitano has slyly crafted the first samurai musical. The cuts to the music, the final dance number- all background to his usual playful, melancholic tone.

13. Crimson Gold- Jafar Panahi's fascinating drama charts the final few hours of a pizza delivery man before he inexplicably holds up a jewelry store. There are no easy answers here, only a critical and compelling look at a man at odds with everything- society, his girlfriend and certainly himself.

14. Collateral- No one does Los Angeles quite like Michael Mann. Electric and dazzling, there's also a pretty suitable moral piece buried in here somewhere.

15. Napolean Dynamite- I predicted it back in June. I'm already seeing "Vote for Pedro" shirts popping up thanks to the film's comeuppance on DVD. Still, it's a wildly humorous and smart teen film that manages to toss in every possible teen film cliche (the dance, the vote) while keeping ties to an older audience.

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