here’s where we’re supposed to tell you how much we disapprove of the idea of lists, how film should be each individual’s own discovery, how no one should tell you what to watch and why. Well, screw that. Life’s too short to wade through every Man on Fire in the attempt at finding a Before Sunset, so we, the long-suffering critics, are here to provide you a handy little guide. Plus, in compiling our Top Ten list we were objective, hard-nosed and accurate—we even used numbers and everything.

At first glance, 2004 may have been an odd year for movies—our Best Of list features wall-crawling teenagers, sword-wielding blondes with vengeance on their minds, and Jim Carrey taking a day trip through his own id. But there were some common themes that emerged—namely, politics and love (and perhaps politics is a form of love, and love a kind of politics? Ooh, trippy). Between Bush-bashing jeremiads and intimate reunions of former lovers on the streets of Paris, various forms of passion ruled the critical roost (and Passion ruled the box office, which is another story). Pissed-off, yearning, sad, romantic, bizarre—if nothing else, the year in film avoided being stale. And so, we hope, did our list of Top Ten Best Movies of 2004.

[Stylus at the Movies]

With a keen ability to find pummeling existential dread in the most mundane of circumstances, writer-director Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt) takes on the road-trip buddy comedy in Sideways. Two friends set off on a week long tour of California wine country and find themselves face to face with half a life of regret, fear and disappointment. They also get laid. Paul Giamatti is heartbreaking as an effete wine snob and failed novelist, and Thomas Haden Church gives a revelatory performance as his skirt-chasing friend. Comedy and sadness (mostly sadness) ensues. So thanks to Payne’s continuously powerful work, we’ve learned to 1) never become a teacher, 2) never get old and now 3) never drive anywhere in a car.
[Troy Reimink]

If the Passion of the Christ is the most dangerous film for America right now, then we should view Moolaade as a type of cinematic elixir that shall purge us of Gibson’s venom. When one woman, Collé, offers protection to four young girls fleeing a purification ritual requiring them to be circumcised, she challenges the customs of her tribe by invoking another tradition-- that of Moolaade (protection). Fearing her actions are the result of corrupting outside influence; steps are taken to silence the dissenting woman and maintain the male authority in the tribe.

Though the film deals specifically with the sometimes deadly practice of female circumcision as an African tribal custom, one can easily examine it as an indictment against all preposterous traditions that seek to oppress any individual rights, something the more righteous of us here in the States should learn a thing or two about. Moolaade offers a heart-wrenching, inspiring portrait of a woman’s struggle against oppression.
[Dave Micevic]

This has been an uncommonly good years for that most dubious of filmic endeavors: the sequel. Even Hollywood's inevitable offerings mostly didn't suck; Spider-Man-2, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Ocean's Twelve, and Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (not technically a sequel, I realize, but still) are all superior to their predecessor(s). The year's finest sequels– Richard Linklater's Before Sunset and Wong Kar-wai's 2046– accomplished the near-impossible: they completely revitalized the idea of the sequel. Whether or not they're better than the originals is entirely beside the point because they so perfectly compliment– and complete– the earlier films they're following. 2046 is Wong's hyper-romantic aesthetic heightened to its breathless fever pitch. It's all tragic longing, misplaced affections, buried secrets, and broken hearts, a Proustian reverie for lost time. Tony Leung reprises the role of Mr. Chow, here the most ostensibly self-reflexive presence in Wong's filmography, observing over the soundtrack that he “made it as bizarre and erotic as possible”– a boast that sounds straight from the master's mouth. Zhang Ziyi is devastating in what is hands-down the supporting performance of the year, and with a veritable who's-who of Asian cinema (Faye Wong, Gong Li, Carina Lau, very briefly Maggie Cheung) turning up in bit parts, the film plays like the Hong Kong Ocean's Twelve.
[Josh Timmermann]

Whether or not Michael Moore skewed reality a bit in this scorching indictment of the Bush administration's actions surrounding the events of September 11th is practically irrelevant. What stands here is a pleading love letter from the blue state heart urging a once-great nation to take action and save itself. Love him or hate him, Moore has secured his place in history as a cinematic revolutionary with this one, and possibly helped rouse countless lapsed patriots from their indifferent sleepwalk. A hundred years from now, when high schoolers are studying American history at the turn of the millenium and wondering what the hell was wrong with us, I hope this is part of the curriculum. I want proof that not all of us were driven by greed, self-interest, fear or ignorance. I want proof that some of us really, really, really cared.
[Jen Cameron]

From a critical standpoint, both volumes of Kill Bill were either reverent homages to the originators of kung fu films, or exemplary plagiarisms. Whereas Vol. 1 drenched audiences in sensuous black and white bloodbaths with epigrammatic narration, Vol. 2 saw The Bride’s amnesia cured, and her vengeful wishes fulfilled in a strangely Freudian denouement, with nods to Romero, Suzuki, and Fujita throughout. Kill Bill Vol. 2 decanted an epic revenge tale commemorating Tarantino’s diverse tutelage as a video store clerk, and introduced a new generation to familiar faces from kung fu action and yakuza style while reminding us that popcorn fare always prevails.
[J.T. Ramsay]

It should be obvious by now that the Spider-Man movies aren’t just another couple of superhero flicks– this is Marvel’s best shot at a franchise, and if this film is any indication, it’s a franchise we should all look forward to coming back to. Between a smart, incisive screenplay involving Ordinary People scribe Alvin Sargent and Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon, typically self-assured direction from Sam Raimi (who, if the film’s inescapable sense of glee is any indication, is enjoying himself immensely), and one of the better movie villains in recent memory in Alfred Molina’s building-smashing Doc Ock, Spider-Man 2 stakes its claim as the greatest superhero movie of all time. But it’s Tobey Maguire’s superbly understated performance as Spidey alter-ego Peter Parker that turns Spider-Man 2 from a particularly well-made genre flick into a surprisingly powerful meditation on that old superhero trope, the conflict between desire and responsibility. Keep flicking those webs, Tobey, and we’ll keep filling those theaters.
[Jay Millikan]

David Gordon Green’s follow-up to last year’s masterpiece All the Real Girls shows this maverick director at perhaps his most conventional. Yet despite the straightforward narrative detailing the journey of two boys fleeing their murderous uncle across an eerie rural landscape, Green manages to retain all the elements that made his prior films so astonishing: the achingly beautiful cinematography of Tim Orr, the often amusing study of Southern vernacular, and the profoundly meditative and surreal tone that sets him apart from virtually any other film maker working in America today.

Set to a haunting soundtrack courtesy of Phillip Glass and uniting Green with legendary director Terrence Malick (to whom Green earns numerous comparisons) as the film’s producer, he weaves this sometimes brutal tale with a tenderness not seen too often in a thriller. The end result lends credence to the increasingly obvious argument that Green is a director who can accomplish just about anything.
[Dave Micevic]

The two quintessential cinematic visions of post 9/11 America are now and will probably always be Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and Lars von Trier's Dogville. Moore's film provided us with real hope that things would change--that we would change them. It's the ultimate paean to democracy, a deeply patriotic rallying cry to take our country back. Von Trier's, on the other hand, stands as one of the most bleakly pessimistic films ever made, not entirely undeserving of criticism from those who accused it of anti-Americanism and misanthropy. In the still-stunned wake of the nightmare scenario that played out harrowingly last month, however, it's von Trier's cold-blooded vitriol that best represents the expressions of shock and awe with which some of us now stare disbelievingly at our red-state neighbors. Maybe he was right, after all; perhaps his attack was necessarily harsh. It's hopeless: we're all fucked.
[Josh Timmermann]

Before Sunrise, Richard Linklater’s 1995 ode to youthful romantic longing, has to rank as one of the better intelligent romantic comedies of the 90s, even if it at times it becomes a tad too precious for its own good. But the passions and foibles of Jesse and Celine were too interesting not to revisit (and really, was the ending of Before Sunrise not one of the greatest cliffhangers of all time? Rich, you sneaky bastard...), and Linklater finally returns with Before Sunset, the more careworn, complex, and perhaps emotionally honest of the two films. Played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy with the same familiar comfort you get from slipping on a pair of old shoes, Jesse and Celine as life-scarred thirthysomethings prove even more fascinating and, ultimately, lovable than they did as starry-eyed post-graduates. Neurotic, unsure, and slightly more cynical, the couple’s idyllic sojourn along the Left Bank of Paris rekindles the kind of idealistic love both suspected they might no longer be capable of. And when the two inevitably do admit their feelings for each other, the moment is all the more heart-tugging for the hard roads the characters took to get there. And it’s worth nothing, Secretary Rumsfeld, that Sunrise was shot in Vienna and Sunset in Paris. Maybe Old Europe isn’t so bad after all...
[Jay Millikan]

Thematically, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is pretty straightforward, dramatizing the age-old axiom that it’s better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all. That’s where the film’s conventionality ends. To stage real-time memory erasure, music-video whiz Michel Gondry constructs an ornate metaphysical labyrinth in which the introverted Joel has all traces of ex-girlfriend Clementine literally extracted from his subconscious, only to realize in the process that he’d rather hold on to the memories, thorns and all. With a Charlie Kaufman script that is at equal turns hilarious, provocative and devastating, Eternal Sunshine also is notable in that it contains, dare I say it, Jim Carrey’s best performance since “Batman Forever.”

The film’s structure demands repeated viewing and its emotional textures reward it. Sadly, Eternal Sunshine was released probably too early in the year to secure the awards-season attention it so richly deserves. I write this prior to the announcement of the Golden Globe nominations, so prove me wrong, people!
[Troy Reimink]

The Worst Movies of 2004

Oliver Stone has officially descended into hackdom. But with such style! From beginning to end, the film is a flat-out disaster. Angelina Jolie is a Razzie shoo-in (probably Colin Farrell and Val Kilmer, too). Could the mother-son relationship possibly be any more obviously Oedipal? (Why was Angelina Jolie cast as Colin Farrell's mom in the first place? By the end of the film, he looks much older than she does. At least put a fright wig on her or something.) Stone apparently told Kilmer to do Jim Morrison again. Not young Lizard King Jim, mind you -- fat crazy drunkard Jim! The movie just sort of slogged on for three utterly unfocused, supremely campy hours. Every once in a while somebody would fall to their knees and scream, "Noooooooooooo!!!!" as people tend to do in these sorts of movies. The big, rousing let's-kick-some-ass speeches were straight out of Braveheart. I was just waiting for Farrell to bust out a "They can take our lives, but they can never take our FREEDOM!" Except that these folks weren't fighting for "freedom" or independence or anything of the sort. This is a movie celebrating an egotistical proto-imperialist avenging his daddy's name. Come on, Oliver. We know you're on our side. Does the word “timing” mean anything to you? Plus, imagining Dick Cheney in that Jared Leto role only makes matters worse.

Anyway...moral of the story? Don't fuck with elephants!
[Josh Timmermann]

OK, so let’s start talking potential trilogy here: In the final chapter, to avoid capture, Riddick must disguise himself as a young slave girl secretly destined to become queen (as played by Hilary Duff through the miracle of sci-fi technology). During his journey Riddick saves the universe, attends a masked ball and wins the forbidden love of a Necromongian soldier. The working title is The Passion of the Riddick: A Cinderella Story and as bad as that sounds, I guarantee it would be a hell of a lot more fun than The Chronicles of Riddick. This film represents the most banal pop-trash spewed out this year. Featuring incomprehensible action scenes smattered with straight-to-video special effects and a contrived, frustrating ending, Riddick sucks the imagination out of its viewers, leaving them impotent and impressionable until winter rolls around and those same people must now decide between Moolaade and Blade Trinity. The vicious cycle continues...
[Dave Micevic]

It may seem strange, if not a form of cheating, to lump these two films together on the Worst of the Year list, but believe me, I have my reasons. Between Gibson’s pseudo-spiritual torture-fest and Tony Scott’s amoral ode to revenge, here are two movies that have the gall to hide their disturbingly bloodthirsty impulses behind a veneer of moral principle. For The Passion, the two-plus hours of watching Jim Caviezel get stabbed and horse-whipped is justified because, well, it’s religious, doncha know. Man on Fire, meanwhile, dares to pretend it has moral sensibilities superior to those of its kidnapper villains, as Denzel Washington’s ex-solider goes on a kill-crazy rampage when his adorably blond six-year old charge gets snatched and held for ransom in Mexico City. A few severed limbs and quite a few dead Mexicans later, we learn that nothing is more important than reuniting child with mother, a lesson that maybe could have been imparted without Denzel cutting off a man’s fingers in the front seat of his car, as he does to one of the villains.

Despite their apparent similarities, it occurs to me that conflating these two films leaves open the possibility that Christ died to bring us the likes of Tony Scott, a possibility almost too awful to contemplate. Oh, Lord, what have I wrought?
[Jay Millikan]

Individual Staff Top Ten Lists

Jen Cameron
1) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2) 2046
3) Touching the Void
4) Garden State
5) House of Sand and Fog
6) Super Size Me
7) Birth
8) Shrek 2
9) Shaun of the Dead
10) Fahrenheit 911

Dave Micevic
1) Before Sunset
2) Moolaade
3) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
4) The Five Obstructions
5) Undertow
6) Spider-Man 2
7) Intimate Strangers
8) Kill Bill, Vol. 2
9) The Saddest Music in the World
10) The Dreamers

Jay Millikan
1) Before Sunset
2) Undertow
3) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
4) Spider-Man 2
5) Fahrenheit 911
6) Spartan
7) Kill Bill, Vol. 2
8) Ray
9) The Bourne Supremacy
10) The Clearing

J.T. Ramsay
1) Dogville
2) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
3) Fahrenheit 9/11
4) Kill Bill, Vol. 2
5) Spider-Man 2
6) Twilight Samurai
7) I Heart Huckabees
8) Kill Bill, Vol. 2
9) Ramones: End of the Century
10) Maria, Full of Grace

Troy Reimink
1) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2) Sideways
3) Hero
4) Shaun of the Dead
5) The Incredibles
6) Kill Bill, Vol. 2
7) Closer
8) Spider-Man 2
9) Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
10) Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

Josh Timmermann
1) Before Sunset
2) Dogville
3) 2046
4) Goodbye, Dragon Inn
5) Crimson Gold
6) Kill Bill, Vol. 2
7) Fahrenheit 9/11
8) Control Room
9) Collateral
10) Sex Is Comedy

Kevin Worrall
1) Since Otar Left
2) Touching the Void
3) Maria, Full of Grace
4) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
5) Tarnation
6) Bad Education

By: Stylus At The Movies
Published on: 2004-12-13
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