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Best Movies of 2004

By Eric Beltmann

1. Before Sunset. Is it coincidence that the filmmaker who spoke this year with the most passionate and spellbinding voice composed an ode to the magic of good conversation? Nine years after they traded philosophies as young Vienna tourists in Before Sunrise, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) reunite in Paris for a slender, real-time eruption of language and emotion that feels exactly like two old friends rediscovering each other. While his camera gently eavesdrops, director Richard Linklater draws poetic, thorny blossoms of talk from his life-size stars, who surely deserve equal credit for the screenplay's punch-drunk naturalism. At first hesitant and awkward, Jesse and Celine's walking tour of the Latin Quarter eventually eases into flirtatious, soulful banter, but before they've reached the Seine, their sentences have sharpened into a more urgent form of candor: As each tries to make every last word count before Jesse must board a plane for home, their phrases lurch and spasm right along with their hearts.

What's astonishing is how the weight of years -- on their lives, on their emotions, on their faces -- deepens the context of Jesse and Celine's conversation. While their first youthful encounter grooved on the bloodrush of spontaneous idealism, this new, more tantalizing anecdote courses equally with regret, frustration, the fearsome power of memory, the betrayals of dreams -- as these wizened soul mates excavate their own lives, you gasp, cry, and laugh in anticipation of what they are going to confess next, as if the screen has somehow transformed into a mirror. Haven't we all asked that most treacherous of questions, If I had turned different corners, who might I have been? Tender, exquisite, and deceptively modest, Before Sunset is finally a masterpiece for the way it eloquently depicts the perils -- and the bliss -- of such speculation.

2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Although Charlie Kaufman's latest serrated, science-fair adventure is his most cerebral yet -- after all, it takes place within the alcoves of Jim Carrey's subconscious -- the shock is that it's also his sweetest. As his brain is wiped of love wounds, Carrey watches his recollections of Kate Winslet literally vaporize before his eyes, but what's truly being obliterated are the very limits of modern romantic comedy. By turns playful, forlorn, honest, and hopeful, this lollipop mind maze captures how anguish is a valuable piece of growing closer -- in the year's niftiest structural coup, Kaufman peels away a broken affair only to express how our memories, no matter how painful or malleable, are emotional souvenirs that can't be rubbed out without erasing part of ourselves.

3. Head-On. From its opening frames, Fatih Akin's scabrous, grungy, cataclysmic fable about Turkish immigrants in Hamburg feels every inch the work of genius. What begins as a comic tryst with masochistic undercurrents -- it's a love story between two people who don't believe in love -- plunges into a volcanic, schizophrenic melodrama that sees despair as the flipside of romantic yearning. Comparisons to Noé and Wong suggest that Akin's achievements are largely stylistic, but I'd argue that Head-On's tawdry, jagged edge only amplifies the plaintive ache oozing from its core: Spiritual fatigue, and the need for deliverance, have rarely been evoked on-screen with such startling, cleansing power.

4. The Corporation and The Yes Men. If corporations have the legal status of individuals, then what kind of citizens are they? Both of these sharp, kamikaze documentaries crackle with the conviction that, in their dehumanized bottom lines, corporations are psychotic members of society. Watching the first, a dense, spiraling, kaleidoscopic conversation about North American business, primes viewers for the liberal tomfoolery of the second -- as two anti-globalization pranksters merrily impersonate WTO officials, it's impossible to forget that their Swiftian modest proposals, like McCrappers made of human waste as a profitable remedy for Third World hunger, emerge from a persuasive, genuinely sensitive social agenda.

5. The Saddest Music in the World. Is Guy Maddin a crackpot or a visionary? In 2004, he was both at once, brewing the bubbliest weirdness of his weird career. Salvador Dalí would have envied the plot -- which involves a legless beer baroness, a Depression-era musical contest in Winnipeg, and a talking tapeworm -- but he would have savored the way this scratchy spectacle imbibes the antique, decaying, black-and-white grandeur of silent surrealism. Lamenting how showmen cynically repackage true human emotion as product, Maddin's baroque, berserk vision uses war, repression, loss, and romantic gloom as rib-poking metaphors for what it means to exist in the long shadow of American pop culture.

6. Hero and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring. The first is Zhang Yimou's lightning, color-coded wuxia about an emperor and a quartet of assassins, and the second is Kim Ki-Duk's spare, painterly fable about an old Buddhist monk who lives in a floating temple. Both of these fragile, shimmering, melt-in-your-hand epics contemplate the role of the individual -- one observes the glories of sacrifice, the other tackles nothing less than the acquisition of wisdom over a lifetime -- but what's extraordinary is how each communicates philosophical transcendence through color, shape, and movement: These ravishing, enormously voluptuous images will leave scorch marks on your eyes.

7. Death in Gaza. Before James Miller's murder -- the British filmmaker was killed on camera by Israeli troops while shooting this documentary about Palestinian children -- his reporter's eye narrowed upon the Gaza Strip, a place where destitute kids play "Jews-and-Arabs" and yearn for a real-life martyr's end. Most revelatory are the details about how children are systematically tugged into a propaganda machine that churns out an everlasting cycle of death. I can't think of a more penetrating, instructive movie about the conflict, and when Israeli tanks rumble down the street -- prompting kids to plink-plink them with stones -- it generates a sinking suspense that Hollywood's war reveries can only dream about.

8. The Five Obstructions. Danish provocateur Lars von Trier may have been grown in an executioner's petri dish, but it's a measure of his raffish gusto that he consistently bends his calculated bullying into convincing art. This singular battle of creative wills -- von Trier commissions his former mentor Jørgen Leth to remake the same movie five times over, each time according to diabolical rules -- seems like a footnote, but what surfaces, much to von Trier's ornery chagrin, is a puckish, demonically entertaining manifesto about the virtue of adversity. Most exhilarating, though, is the way Leth's cunning solutions speak volumes about his punk tormentor as well as himself.

9. Moolaadé. After agreeing to shield four little girls from the traditional female circumcision ritual, a seditious African villager confounds tribal leaders with her resolve and watertight logic: Genital cutting isn't just a method by which men assert control over women's bodies, it's a practice that betrays the patriarchal opinion that female sexuality is unclean and ultimately threatening. In the way Ousmane Sembene brings to life brave heroes and terrible villains, his empowerment saga often resembles a vibrant children's novel -- and yet his urgent critique of time-honored forms of authority flares up right alongside the eye-popping colors that are woven into the Burkina Fasoan dress, architecture, and geography.

10. Collateral. Just when I thought I never wanted to see another crime blowout, director Michael Mann unleashed this lean, white-hot chess match between a hit man and his taxi driver. Genre trappings never undermine Mann's authority as an artist -- pulp hasn't been this rich, this stylish in ages -- so it's no surprise when his nocturnal odyssey detours into a jazzy, existential study of how people define themselves by their work. Movie star gone shark, the silvery Tom Cruise cuts through Mann's smeary, neon nightscapes as if he were parting waters, but it's Jamie Foxx as the unwilling cabbie who leaves the lasting wake -- his island mind ticks even faster than the movie's suspense clock.

The Next Fifteen: The Aviator; Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary; The Incredibles; Touching the Void; Spider-Man 2; Sideways; Yossi & Jagger; Broken Wings; Osama; Springtime in a Small Town; Shaun of the Dead; Merci!; Tokyo Godfathers; We Don't Live Here Anymore; Kinsey.

Guilty Pleasures: I, Robot; Jersey Girl; The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra; Saved!; Secret Window.

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Special Mentions

Some movies oblige viewers to share their assumptions in advance, which helps explain why controversy eddied around the multiplex all summer. We could elect Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ as the season's most polarizing picture, but I'd vote instead for Fahrenheit 9/11, which touched deeper nerves and divided more families. "The temperature where freedom burns!" is the tagline for Michael Moore's Cannes prizewinner, and it operates almost exclusively at that hysterical pitch. As a polemicist, Moore raises vital issues -- Bush's links to Saudi money, the bin Laden family, Enron, Halliburton, and a culture of fear -- but as an artist he consistently addresses them with infantile mockery, sleazy emotionalism, and shabby inferences so conspiratorial they might redden even Oliver Stone's cheeks. Moore's defenders claim that his reckless voice supplies balance, but "the end justifies the means" is the same thinking that got us into Iraq in the first place, and it doesn't become more palatable when it serves "our" ends.

Moore could learn a thing or two about derision-as-entertainment from Jared Hess, the director and co-writer of the grassroots hit Napoleon Dynamite. The pleasure -- and discomfort -- of this utterly absorbing deadpan comedy lies in its refusal to deny the humanity of its geek characters even as it asks us to mock their idiosyncrasies. That complex contradiction fuels the movie's best gags, which exist in the teeny space in between compassion and condescension. That I never quite knew whether to laugh or cringe is entirely to the movie's credit.

Most Overrated: Control Room; Japón; Since Otar Left; The Story of the Weeping Camel; Tarnation.

The Ten Worst: Anatomy of Hell; Eurotrip; The Girl Next Door; I Heart Huckabees; The Ladykillers; Love Me If You Dare; Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow; Soul Plane; 10 on Ten; Twentynine Palms.

Article published 01.10.2005.

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