Damn, but I had a good time at the movies this year. I sat through a lot of cinematic toxic waste, it’s true, but I also had a tough time winnowing down my best-of list to only ten films: the top 25 or 30 films in my annual ranking delighted me, made me laugh, moved me to tears, kept me up into the wee hours of the night pondering humanity’s place in the universe, or all of the above and more.
For me, “best” increasingly becomes about finding that kind of surprise in a film: the more movies I see — 226 new theatrical releases in 2004 alone — the less likely it is for me to feel like I haven’t seen this all before. But when I think about which films surprised me the most, my “best” list seems less frivolous and arbitrary than it must necessarily be. Dogville and The Life Aquatic… stunned me with their very different uses of a heightened artificiality to create very immediate realities. Hotel Rwanda and Vera Drake astonished me with their direct and intimate groundedness, as if there were no barriers between the viewer and the subject. The Incredibles and Spider-Man 2 made me feel as if I’d never seen a superhero movie… made a well-explored genre feel fresh and new. Ditto Collateral and the hit-man subgenre. Who’d’a thunk it?
My full ranking of those 226 films remains up here. Below are brief explanations of why — beyond their ability to surprise — the tippy top of the list ended up in these privileged positions. And why the rockbottom ended up in such ignominous ones.
The 10 Best Films of 2004
My very worst film of the year [see below] revels in the cruelty that the powerful wield with merry immunity; this shocking, devastatingly cogent film lays bare the true price of human meanness. What’s more, director Lars von Trier dares to flout the conventions of filmmaking, and succeeds nevertheless in creating a very filmic film driven by unforgettable insight and power.
2. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
There’s an eggshell delicacy to the quirky eccentricity of Wes Anderson’s unlikely little world of fish and filmmaking, piracy on the high seas and family treading on that one last nerve, and it’s one that could pop at any inopportune moment and bring the whole endeavor crashing down with a thud. But that never happens — Anderson juggles soap bubbles with giddy aplomb to form the airiest bit of fluff of the year… one that never gets weighed down by the perceptive profundity it just happens to evince at the same time it’s being silly.
3. Hotel Rwanda
Characterized by a straightforward starkness that some may mistake for simplicity, this is an exhausting film, both a heart-rending depiction of human-engineered disaster and a forceful rebuke of those who could have stopped it and did nothing. Don Cheadle turns in one of the strongest performances of the year, and should finally earn the widespread acclaim he has long deserved.
4. House of Flying Daggers
First come the swooning sighs, prompted by the sexiest, most passionate, most romantic triangle of the year. Then come the gasps, inspired by the weightless ballet of swordplay and hand-to-hand combat and — yup — flying daggers. This is the most seductive movie of the year, in all the ways you can imagine, and some you can’t.
5. Spider-Man 2
Sam Raimi may be the only film director who truly understands the metaphysical underpinnings of the superhero saga — that’s Raimi’s superpower, and he uses it here to give us the best comic-book film ever made, as full of heart and soul as it is replete with astonishing action. And it’s funnier than most of the films offered as comedies this year, too.
6. Code 46
So rare a creature that you have to cheer when it comes along, this is real science fiction, exploring the effect of technological, sociological, and cultural change on how we live and love and interact with the world. Director Michael Winterbottom builds an utterly convincing near future, and Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton together create two people who, as a couple and separately, we desperately want to survive the vagaries and injustices of that world.
7. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… And Spring
In his soothing and startling meditation of a film, Ki-duk Kim explores fundamentals of human behavior — the nature of desire, the dangers of pettiness — with a sagacity and a lucidity unlike any I’ve seen before, one that continues to haunt me long months later.
8. Vera Drake
In this powerfully feminist tale, director Mike Leigh and star Imelda Staunton limn the dichotomous world of women: in both halves, the one that men see and the one they don’t, the practicality of women is what keeps the gears greased and everything working smoothly. The film’s down-to-earth matter-of-factness isn’t just intrinsic to its force — it’s the film’s entire point.
Grimly luscious, with wonderfully unexpected performances from both Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise, Michael Mann’s reinvention of the crime film is fresh and wary, hot and cool, cynical and ingenuous all at once.
10. The Incredibles
The funky production design, the marvelous voice performances, the witty story, the characters to fall in love with, the biting social commentary: any of these on their own would have been something to celebrate. In one package, they’re almost too good to be true.
The 10 Worst Films of 2004
10. White Chicks
Spoiled-rotten white skanks and the black filmmakers who think they’re satirizing them when really all they’re doing is wallowing in a cesspool of racism, sexism, and idiocy: on the next Springer.
9. Ella Enchanted
What the frell? This desperately awful collision of Shrek-style medieval hip and retro tween fantasy of being, like, a so totally European royal princess offends both the girl and the geek in me. Someone please stop Anne Hathaway before she appears on camera again.
8. The Chronicles of Riddick
Contempt for the audience is hardly a rare attitude among humongous-budget Hollywood movies, but it reaches an audacious nadir with this bloated, grotesque disaster. It takes a special kind of wrongheaded folly for a film to insult even its own notoriously immoral and inhuman antihero.
7. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera
To make my worse-of list, a movie usually has to be much more unendurable than those of the so-bad-they’re-funny stripe… but this one brings that kind of stupendously camp badness to a level of evil genius that demands to be recognized. Long after all the other bad movies of 2004 are forgotten, people will still be snorting and hooting with derision at this one.
6. Kill Bill: Volume 2
Quentin Tarantino is still laughing: not at Andrew Lloyd Webber — with whom he shares a remote island supervillian lair from which they launch their self-indulgent weapons of mass distraction on unsuspecting moviegoers, and God help us if they ever team up — but at you, for paying $10 to watch him masturbate. Cinematically speaking, of course. But who knows what he’s got in mind for his next film, now that he thinks he can get away with anything?
5. Little Black Book
When the aliens come, and put us on trial to determine whether we’re Good People who get to join the peaceful and beneficent intergalaction confederation, or whether we’re vicious, backstabbing primitives who deserve to watch our sun go nova, someone please hide this movie so it cannot be entered into evidence. Cuz we’ll be toast.
4. SuperBabies: Baby Geniuses 2
This is the kind of movie that makes you glad the human brain can only endure so much terror and abuse before it refuses to accept any more and just shuts off the tape recorder. My memories of this movie are vague and unfocused, like it happened to someone else and I only heard about it, but I do sometimes wake up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat and muttering, almost incoherently, something that sounds suspiciously like, “No, Scott Baio, not the dirty-diaper torture…”
3. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
The worst example of ADHD filmmaking this year, an incoherent and disjointed attempt at comedy that appears to have been created, like a Frankenstein monster, from the cutting-room-floor rejects of the most brutally unfunny Saturday Night Live movie ever. And then all the least-unhumorous bits were removed before the film was released. The mind boggles at the ineptitude.
The ickiest, heeby-jeebiest movie of the year, a “sophisticated” thriller that asks us to find romance in last place in the world anyone approaching a state of sanity and well-adjustedness would find it. Thank goodness the film itself is so nearly catatonic that it can’t even buy into its own premise with any conviction.
1. The Passion of the Christ
When a Terminator Christ arises from the dead after two hours of gleeful torture at the cinematic hands of Mel Gibson — who has, Christlike, been engaging in sadomasochistic self-flagellation himself onscreen for years — it’s with a vengeful determination: Jesus is coming back, the implication is, to take some names and kick some ass. By focusing solely on the brutality and cruelty implicit in both the human and divine sides of the Christ story — the dominant spiritual metaphor in Western civilization — Gibson didn’t merely make a movie: he launched a broadside attack in the escalating culture war between reason and superstition, secularism and religious fundamentalism, one that leaves little doubt how the losers will be treated should his team win.
Looking back at 2004.
Best Writing and Direction
Best Production Design and Other Superlatives of the Year
The Most Memorable Movie Lines
The Funniest Bad Movie Lines
The Year of Activist Documentaries
2004 Films Ranked