best writing and direction of 2004: cut and print…

Lars von Trier, Dogville
Ever a risktaker, Lars von Trier took one of the biggest risks onscreen in 2004 with a determinedly uncinematic film that was also unabashedly political — a breathtaking and refreshingly daring combination in an era of play-it-safe “entertainment.” Setting his cast and his scene on a bare, black-box stage, he asks us, in essence, to look beyond the details to see a bigger picture, one that paradoxically reduces humanity to our basest instincts while also asking us to rise above them. This is the most audacious film of the year, and, in its own way, the most entertaining one, in that it offers genuine challenges to our preconceived ideas about ourselves that linger long after the film ends.

almost as great
Wes Anderson, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
(deploying retro design and postmodern humor, he tickles the brain and the heart with his gang of oddballs)
Sam Raimi, Spider-Man 2
(with wit and humanity reaching heights rare in the comic-book genre, he brings a high-flying superhero down to earth)
Michael Winterbottom, Code 46
(using tantalizing visual shorthand, he gives us a near future just different enough to be exotic, and real enough to be frightening)

worth a look
Michael Mann, Collateral
Yimou Zhang, House of Flying Daggers
Mike Leigh, Vera Drake

Jared Hess, Napoleon Dynamite
He gave us perhaps the most unique new character of 2004… and “character” is right. Napoleon’s relentlessly clueless outlook on life, the universe, and everything is downright inspirational — don’t worry, be happy! — and Hess’s look at Napoleon’s world is nonjudgmental while also being outrageously, artfully funny — that philosophy just won’t work for most of us. But we like Napoleon anyway, or maybe just are glad we aren’t him. Either way, Hess’s off-kilter sense of unreality is an intellectual riot.

almost as great
Zach Braff, Garden State
(his keen eye gives us some of the most startling and most perceptive imagery of the year, pictures that convey worlds of emotion)
Joshua Marston, Maria Full of Grace
(forthright and candid, he stuns us with an unvarnished, unapologetic look at one small reality of the “war on drugs”)
Michael Clancy, Eulogy
(the ensemble family drama gets a blackly comic do-over, but the love behind the mean-spirited humor is warmly genuine)

worth a look
Larry Blamire, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra

Lars von Trier, Dogville
Von Trier dared on the script side, too, frontloading his screenplay with one of the screenwriter’s no-nos — narration — and making it work so brilliantly that when, in the end, you suddenly realize how vital the narrator’s viewpoint is, you’re tempted to rewatch the film again immediately for the new appreciation of the story this knowledge will give you. His dialogue, on the other hand, is barebones, trusting that his actors will find the emotion and the irony. (They do.)

almost as great
Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
(with a sweet appreciation for the apparent non sequitur that speaks volumes, they show an unusual understanding of human character)
Frank Cottrell Boyce, Code 46
(extrapolating trends not only in genetics but in linguistics and sociology too, he gives us the widest ranging kind of science fiction)
Brad Bird, The Incredibles
(from the satire of the “no capes” speech to the sensitive family dynamics, he launches into the superscreenwriter realm)

worth a look
Charlie Kaufman, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke, Before Sunset
Jared Hess and Jerusha Hess, Napoleon Dynamite

Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, Sideways
Quips and jokes hide pain and confusion, and running away only brings two emotionally dazed men face to face with their problems. Contradictions and unspoken traumas haunt Payne and Taylor’s script, as funny as it is insightful, with characters as hard to love as they are impossible not to like. They gave us one of the best scenes of the year, via Rex Pickett’s novel, in which their messed-up antihero tells us all about his favorite wine… and all about himself.

almost as great
David Magee, Finding Neverland
(seeking the roots of the creative urge, he finds it in the desire to make a simple connection with another person)
Alvin Sargent, Spider-Man 2
(sly and clever, he pokes fun at superhero clichés while indulging an obvious love of them, redeeming them for us all)
Paul Haggis, Million Dollar Baby
(offering one of the most remarkably deceptive voiceovers ever, he explores depths of hope and despair with a clear grasp on the human capacities for both)

worth a look
Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant, A Very Long Engagement
Joe Simpson, Touching the Void
Dylan Kidd, p.s.

Looking back at 2004.
The Best and Worst Films of the Year
Best Performances
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

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