Okay, so here goes nuttin’. I am unprepared to do this, as always. So I’ll include a list of films that I haven’t yet seen that I most likely would have considered, based on what I’ve heard from reputable sources. Other viewing suggestions are welcome. I see an awful lot, but I am limiting my selection to 2004 theatrical releases. Otherwise, I would have included 1) the brilliantly cynical Korean serial killer film Memories of Murder, which I saw at the excellent NY Korean Film Festival this year 2) the gruesomely funny, sad, weird Save the Green Planet! which I saw at the same festival, and which Film Forum is showing soon 3) Jia Zhang Ke’s gorgeous best film to date, The World, which I saw at the New York Film Festival, and which I’m sure will make its way to theaters at some point (if not one near you), and 4) Johnny To’s goofy and spooky Running on Karma, which mostly just continually surprised and entertained me. I’m not posting a bottom ten, but The Passion, Beyond the Sea, and Van Helsing would have made the cut. On a purely aesthetic level, putting aside (for one moment and with no small difficulty) its ugly offensive content, The Passion is cheesy and overblown, from the apparent werewolf and the demon children that attack Judas, to the scene where Satan gets his/her wig blown off. But on that level Beyond the Sea is an even worse film. Spacey should have called it Beyond My Talents (rimshot!) as neither his Bobby Darin nor his Orson Welles impression is at all convincing. Nominate him for all the Golden Globes you want, but smart people recognize this for what it is, and I think even fewer good scripts are going to be finding their way to him. (Forget American Beauty and The Usual Suspects; dude was in The Ref, Glengarry Glen Ross, and L.A. Confidential before he lost control of his ego. Right now, I’m more interested in what Robin Williams is going to do next. Oof!) Fans of me, and there aren’t any, will wonder at the omission of Before Sunset from my list, because if they existed, they would know how much I liked Before Sunrise. I’ve grown and changed a lot since then, and before I could be enchanted by Jesse and Celine’s wistful, happy reunion, I needed to see some evidence that they had, too. I tried watching it a couple more times. The thrill is gone. Anyway, here’s my top ten, etc:
1) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
This was by far the best film of the year, and as I read other top ten lists, and found myself getting extremely disappointed and even annoyed that other critics, some good ones, were listing it at 3 or 6, or even giving it an honorable mention, for crying out loud, I began to realize that it is one of my favorite films ever. I am a great equivocator, but in this case, the film hits me in such a unique and deeply personal way that it strains my ability to communicate how I feel about it with mere words (see my AMG review). By the time Joel tells Clementine he’s going to Rockville Centre (my hometown), I’m already completely sold on the movie’s deeply gloomy, wounded, gloriously washed out, achingly romantic (without a hint of sentimentality), and intrinsically cinematic spell. And don’t think that in 2004, a movie about the dangers of willful amnesia doesn’t have a trenchant political subtext. I know what this is. This is what we talk about when we talk about love.
2) Blissfully Yours
Sweet, gentle, understated, but very connected to the real world and its woes. Weerasethakul structures his narrative inventively, but he doesn’t go off the deep end and completely lose me, as he disappointingly did with his follow-up, Tropical Malady.
3) Crimson Gold
4) I Heart Huckabees
I go back and forth about how much I like this movie, but at this point, I’m thinking it’s funny and clever enough to make up for the fact that it may not be as smart as it thinks it is. Mark Wahlberg is a damn good actor, if you hadn’t learned that by now.
5) Time of the Wolf
After Funny Games and The Piano Teacher, I never thought I would like a Michael Haneke film, so I’m glad I gave this a chance. It bears repeating: “You really don’t know what’s going on? Or are you just stupid?”
The order of the last five (and my honorable mentions, for that matter) changes daily. But for now, this is it:
6) Springtime in a Small Town
7) Million Dollar Baby
Corny, old-fashioned tearjerker, and well done all around. Beautiful performances from Eastwood, Freeman, and especially Hilary Swank. A thoughtful, entertaining script that condensed a bunch of anecdotes into a flowing narrative. Tom Stern’s daringly dark palette makes this Eastwood’s most visually interesting film yet. Despite its cardboard villains, I think it’s easily his best work since Unforgiven. Er, make that A Perfect World.
8) The Clay Bird
This is a film about the Muslim world that Westerners need to see.
9) The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Don’t really understand what all the grousing about. This is funny, genuinely quirky, and sad in every way a Wes Anderson film should be. I guess it would have gotten better reviews if it took place at a prep school or on the Upper West Side, but I think he should be allowed to expand his horizons a little.
10) Fahrenheit 9/11
Sure, it cost the Democrats the election in the minds of gloating conservative columnists and DLC nitwits. In real life, there was enough truth telling, righteous indignation, and wit on display to compensate for Michael Moore’s usual flaws. I vacillated between this and The Corporation for the last spot on my list, so I guess this is just frontlash, or whatever you call backlash against the backlash.
Honorable: The Corporation, The Manchurian Candidate, Distant, Blind Shaft, Maria Full of Grace, Sideways, Primer, Infernal Affairs, Raja, A Tale of Two Sisters, Main Hoon Na, Red Lights, and Kinsey. I almost forgot that one, but I thought it was great. It may be a conventional (if well executed) biopic, but this year, its subject matter hit home with tremendous power.
Sorry I Missed: The Return, Zatoichi, Secret Things, The Dreamers, Osama, Broken Wings, Lost Boys of Sudan, Noi Albino, The Agronomist, The Saddest Music in the World, The Brown Bunny, We Don’t Live Here Anymore^, Mr. 3000^, Tae Guk Gi, Birth, Tarnation, A Fond Kiss, Born Into Brothels, Deserted Station, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Code 46*, Ghost in the Shell 2
^=finally seen and downgraded
*=finally seen and upgraded