The 10 best films of 2004
This year was more than ‘Passion’ or ‘Fahrenheit’
By John Hartl
Updated: 12:56 p.m. ET Dec. 21, 2004
Some of the most provocative film criticism this year came from the “South Park” creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
Their television special, “The Passion of the Jew,” portrayed Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” as a snuff film created by a sadomasochist. Their big-screen movie, “Team America: World Police,” made mincemeat of Michael Moore, who looked like he’d joined the cast of “Super Size Me.”
Many cited Gibson’s “Passion” as the most popular religious movie of all time, and Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” as the most successful documentary in film history. Yet when box-office sales are adjusted for inflation, Gibson’s film clearly sold far fewer tickets than “Ben-Hur” (1959) or “The Ten Commandments” (1956), both of which placed in the all-time top 15 (according to Box Office Mojo, “The Passion” trails them at No. 51).
It’s a little trickier to establish how well Moore’s film has done. Box-office figures for older documentaries are hard to come by, but the claim that “Fahrenheit” is tops should be tempered by the fact that “Woodstock” landed in the top five for 1970. Moore’s film didn’t make the top 10 box-office attractions of 2004. Unlike “The Passion,” however, it’s been winning awards since it appeared, collecting the top prize at Cannes last spring and the more recent New York Film Critics’ Circle award for best non-fiction feature.
What can be said of both “The Passion” and “Fahrenheit” is that their popularity was something of an illusion. Many who attacked them did not bother to see them, and many who paid to see them attended no other movies during the year. Critics, who actually sat through both films, have a better idea of what’s actually in them. They also recognize that 2004 was a much richer year than the metro/retro war over “Passion” and “Fahrenheit” suggested.
The top ticket-sellers were, predictably, a couple of fantasy franchises: “Shrek 2” and the superior sequel, “Spider-Man 2.” Not far behind was the third and best of the “Harry Potter” movies. Many smaller films made a lasting impression, including such haunting, ultra-low-budget American movies as “Tarnation” and “Mean Creek,” and the superbly acted “Closer” and “We Don’t Live Here Anymore.”
Several actors did their best work to date, including Don Cheadle (“Hotel Rwanda”), Clint Eastwood (“Million Dollar Baby”), Imelda Staunton (“Vera Drake”), Topher Grace (“In Good Company”), Virginia Madsen (“Sideways”) and Jamie Foxx (“Ray”).
Putting together a top 10 list was tougher than usual. In alphabetical order, these are my picks:
(Martin Scorsese). The strange tale of Howard Hughes has provided inspiration for “The Carpetbaggers” and “Melvin and Howard” and TV movies, but this exhilarating epic of 20th century American chutzpah puts it all together for the first time. It’s Scorsese’s best film since “GoodFellas,” showcasing Leonardo DiCaprio’s finest performance to date.
(Richard Linklater). Nearly a decade after they met in Linklater’s “Before Sunrise,” Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) reunite to discover that they should never have split. Using carefully chosen clips from the earlier film, Linklater has created a brilliant, rueful dramatization of the idea that youth is wasted on the young.
(Li Yang). Two vicious coal miners make their real living by murdering co-workers, pretending to be their relatives and blackmailing the mine’s corrupt management. But their intended latest victim, a cheerful teenager with big plans for his future, brings out their long-buried humanity. This gutsy, moving film noir demonstrates that contemporary Chinese cinema can be much more than eye-candy epics like “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.”
(Michael Moore). Political cartoonists have won Pulitzers for more partisan attacks than Moore’s indictment of the Bush administration, yet he’s been pilloried by the right and the left. Yes, the movie is guilty of cheap shots, but in a year crowded with political documentaries (“Bush’s Brain,” “Outfoxed”), “Fahrenheit” gradually emerged as the most entertaining and the most prophetic.
(Brad Bird).The creator of “The Iron Giant” returns in triumph with the wittiest feature cartoon in years: a Pixar/Disney production about a family of superheroes who are obliged to hide their talents. The cast of voices is more recognizable than usual, with Holly Hunter a standout as Elastigirl, who can bend and shape herself into parachutes and other life-savers, and Jason Lee as an embittered one-time fan who provokes a war with the family.
(Bill Condon). In a year filled with impressive biopics, Condon’s account of Alfred Kinsey’s impact on the post-war sexual revolution may be the most balanced and wide-ranging. Liam Neeson’s brave performance as Kinsey never ducks the man’s sometimes manic obsessiveness. Equally uncompromising are Laura Linney as his wife and Peter Sarsgaard as the younger man who beguiles both of them.
“Maria Full of Grace”
(Joshua Marston). The Brooklyn-based Marston made his feature film debut by writing and directing this compelling drama about a young Colombian woman who is so frustrated with her cramped existence that she becomes a drug “mule,” swallowing pellets of heroin and hoping they won’t burst and poison her before she arrives at her New York destination. In the leading role, Catalina Sandino Moreno gives the year’s most impressive debut performance.
(Alexander Payne). The director of “Election” and “About Schmidt” again takes big chances with a road movie about two long-time friends who are, on the surface, pretty despicable. But the darkly comic performances by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church are so accomplished, and their understanding of the friendship so complex, that you can’t help wanting to go along for the ride.
(Andre Techine). Gaspard Ulliel, who is mostly wasted in the over-hyped “A Very Long Engagement,” gives a breakthrough performance in this excellent French drama about a family fleeing Paris for the countryside during World War II. Ulliel brings a commanding sense of mystery to the feral teenager who gradually becomes part of the family as he helps them to survive and escape the Germans.
“Touching the Void”
(Kevin Macdonald). The director of the Oscar-winning Munich Olympics film, “One Day in September,” once more pushes the boundaries of documentary filmmaking, mixing actors with real-life survivors to re-enact a disastrous 1985 journey through the Peruvian Andes. The result may be the most harrowing mountain-climbing movie ever made.
A second 10: “Control Room,” “The Corporation,” “Facing Windows,” “Finding Neverland,” “In Good Company,” “Mean Creek,”“Million Dollar Baby,” “The Return,” “Tarnation,” “Vera Drake.”
© 2004 MSNBC Interactive