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Best Movies of 2004

By Rob Vaux

It's not that 2004 was a disappointment for movies; it just lacked any real energy to drive it. In recent years, surprises like The Fellowship of the Ring and Pirates of the Caribbean spiced up the multiplex while groundbreaking indie fare reminded us that someone still cared about art for art's sake. Not so this year. It wasn't bad per se, just depressingly predictable. Summer blockbusters pushed their noisy wares (some strongly, some risibly), a smattering of foreign and art-house pictures made their case, and the end of the year was marked by the usual glut of Oscar hopefuls. Same old, same old; even the unexpected material arrived in predictable fashion. The current confusion in the Oscar race, with no clear front-runners in sight, is indicative of 2004's overall malaise.

And yet, it still had those moments that made you sit up and pay attention. The mainstream embraced surprising champions, such as the story of the Crucifixion told in Aramaic, or Robert Zemeckis' CGI "disaster" which grew legs longer than Tyra Banks'. A documentary aimed at unseating the President grossed over $100 million... and then failed to unseat the President. Arty foreign imports out-spectacled the studios, while Steven Spielberg's latest effort literally never left the building. The two best films of the summer were both sequels (featuring heroes whose names both started with "S"), and though zombie flicks ran amok from one end of the year to the other, the only truly memorable one involved a dim-witted salesman trying to win back his girl. If the year didn't raise the bar, then at least it consistently raised our eyebrows.

From among the detritus, I've found the expected slate of 10 that I feel exemplify filmmaking at its best. They evoke all of the joys that the medium holds while serving as a reminder that even in years far worse than this, there's always a few bright spots to make us smile.

10. The Aviator. Martin Scorsese gets back on track with this absorbing biography of Howard Hughes, boosted by Leonardo DiCaprio's grand performance in the lead. A shared love of Hughes' obsessions -- flying, filmmaking, and too many gorgeous women to count -- lets them place his infamous final years in perspective.

9. Spider-Man 2. The comic-book adaptation hits a new high as Sam Raimi puts his four-color hero through the ringer. Great action, aching romance, a villain as tragic as he is scary... and the seemingly impossible achievement of making that suit look cool.

8. The Twilight Samurai. Taking two years to arrive in the States, Yoji Yamada's poignant drama one-ups The Last Samurai's vision of an era coming to an end. The practical title character -- perfectly underplayed by Hiroyuki Sanada -- embodies the code of bushido in its death throes, humbly struggling for his family's survival rather than lashing out in useless defiance. The touching subtlety of his plight is as affecting as any overproduced battle sequence, and lingers in the mind with indelible strength.

7. Napoleon Dynamite. The long dark sophomore year of the soul, as envisioned by Jared Hess and given life by the beautifully spastic Jon Heder. Its potent humor has the bittersweet edge of those who survived life as the school geek, celebrating individuality without painting it in rose-colored hues. The best film about adolescence since Welcome to the Dollhouse.

6. Sideways. It's not just hype. Alexander Payne has pulled a trump card in adapting Rex Pickett's novel to the big screen, mixing humor and pathos into two men's fumbling search for love amid the vineyards of California. Paul Giamatti once again sinks his teeth into a brilliant role, helped out by equally memorable turns from Thomas Haden Church (as his best-buddy-by-default) and Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh (as their wounded would-be girlfriends).

5. Garden State. Zach Braff delivers the first great comedy of his generation, a feature-length ode to the stunned disbelief we all feel when the universe knocks our sense of logic on its ear.

4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Leave it to Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman to craft a science-fiction fever dream of altered lives and vanishing memories... and then turn it into one of the most truthful movies about relationships ever made.

3. Touching the Void. It was another good year for documentaries, and this one -- a thrilling, horrifying depiction of a mountain climber's worst nightmare -- tops them all. Director Kevin Macdonald blends sit-down interviews with a reenactment of the climb in question to create a definitive sense of what two men went through on the slopes of Peru's Siula Grande -- and how the key to their survival meant surrendering all hope.

2. Hero. Zhang Yimou continues his exemplary work in this, the most visually sumptuous film of the year. Its complex moral themes and playful ambiguity strengthen an already breathtaking action movie, a touching and tragic love story, and a celebration of mythic China that reverberates from opening credits to final reel.

1. A Very Long Engagement. You might say Jean-Pierre Jeunet has grown up, and though that does a disservice to his earlier films, it neatly explains the vibrant maturity with which he infuses his best movie to date. Audrey Tautou is wondrous as our guide on a journey through the horror of war and the power of belief, aided by the sometimes cruel but always astonishing way in which Jeunet conjures them both.

Honorable mentions go to Million Dollar Baby (which missed the top 10 by a hair), Collateral, The Dreamers, Fahrenheit 9/11, Hotel Rwanda, House of Flying Daggers, Kinsey, The Machinist, Shrek 2, and Young Adam.

Finally, I'd like to extend a personal thanks to Michael Dequina of The Movie Report, whose assistance has been invaluable over the past year. You're the man, Mike.

"I am NOT drinking any fucking merlot!"
--Miles (Paul Giamatti), Sideways

Article published 01.03.2005.

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