…what? I’m sorry — were there movies this year?
Did anything worth caring about come to cineplex screens? Anything anyone will be talking about or revisiting five or ten years from now?
Well, for one thing, there was that little picture Mel Gibson released this spring. Though it split the critics and the country straight down the middle and got only a handful of technical Oscar nods, people will definitely be talking about that one for awhile, and its DVD shelf life for decades to come seems assured.
On the other hand, despite having done much better with the critics, that other little movie, the political film that for awhile in this deeply divided election year seemed always to appear in print within twenty-five words or less of any mention of The Passion of the Christ, seems already to be falling out of favor with its constituency, got no Oscar nods, and will be forgotten forever six months into the next administration if not sooner.
Certainly, the absence in December of a new Lord of the Rings film, which in only three short years had begun to feel like a welcome tradition, was keenly felt. But that absence was amplified by the striking dearth of must-see films right through year-end awards season.
Some 2004 trends worth noting:
- The year of the biopic. In the tradition of prestige pictures like A Beautiful Mind and Shine, this year’s crop of late-breaking Oscar hopefuls included no fewer than five competently crafted, conventional biopics of brilliant but troubled men who left their mark on popular culture (Ray, The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Beyond the Sea, and Kinsey).
- Bloody dramas of the ancient world. In the tradition of Gladiator, 2004 offered a number of violent historical or pseudo-historical costume dramas set in antiquity (Troy, King Arthur, Alexander — and, of course, The Passion of the Christ).
- The culture of death at the movies. Following last year’s trend of anti-Catholic films, in 2004 the culture of life took it on the chin, with two prestigious films about euthanasia (The Sea Inside and one that I won’t name to avoid spoilers), one acclaimed, ambiguous film with a protagonist who provided illegal abortions (Vera Drake), and a tribute to the sex researcher who helped pave the way for social acceptance of homosexuality (Kinsey). In a related note, the theme of sexual infidelity was everywhere, running through such acclaimed films as Sideways, Ray, Closer, Kinsey, and Before Sunset.
- Where were the family films? 2004 was a particularly lame year for families at the movies. With one incredible exception, family entertainment barely registered in the three-star range, though when it did it seemed to come in twos: There was the DreamWorks CGI double-bill Shrek 2 and Shark Tale, the fantasy-novel adaptations Ella Enchanted and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Jean-Jacques Annaud’s twin tiger movie Two Brothers.
The Year’s Best
As always, this list is in principle an open one, and in the months and years to come other films may crowd out titles listed below.
The Decent Films Guide Top 10 Films of 2004
- The Passion of the Christ
Stripped of modern storytelling expectations regarding characterization and plot structure, drenched in medieval and pre-20th-century devotional spirituality, Mel Gibson’s cinematic Via Dolorosa is as dramaturgically unconventional as 2001: A Space Odyssey, and as thematically traditional as the stations of the cross. Rich with iconic imagery, unburdened by dramatic concerns about filling in gaps in character motivation, psychology, or historical detail, The Passion seeks to create an experience rather than relate or explain a sequence of events, triumphing its daring use of Aramaic and Latin, its powerful symbolism, and its visionary evocations of the powers of darkness.
- The Incredibles
Exhilarating entertainment with unexpected depths, The Incredibles is the family film of the year, from the wizards at Pixar and writer-director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant). It’s a bold, bright, funny and furious superhero cartoon that takes sly jabs at the culture of entitlement, from the self-esteem myth to the litigation culture.
- Twilight Samurai
The reluctant warrior is a familiar hero, but petty samurai Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada) may be unique: a harried widower with two motherless daughters and a senile mother, a quiet man with dicey grooming habits who incurs daily ridicule for going straight home after work rather than join his fellows drinking. A deeply felt, warmly human story that’s openly critical of the brutality and corruption of 19th-century Japanese feudalism.
- Hotel Rwanda
Here is the true face of human barbarity, and the true face of human heroism. At once devastating and inspiring, Hotel Rwanda brings home both how an atrocity of this magnitude could happen and how an ordinary man (Don Cheadle in perhaps the year’s best performance) concerned only for his own family could come by imperceptible turns to save thousands of refugees. Sixty years after the end of World War II, but only ten years after the events it depicts, it’s a heartbreaking reminder that genocide and the world community’s failure to prevent it isn’t a mere legacy of the past, but an ongoing reality. A must see.
- The Story of the Weeping Camel
Has any animal inspired more curious fables and proverbs than the camel ("a horse designed by a committee")? With relatively little dialogue and a loosely structured story as uneventful as desert life, this utterly delightful "narrative documentary" of traditional nomadic life in the Gobi Desert is as unique as the title animal: unrushed as a donkey, shaggy as a llama, sturdy as a horse — and, it turns out, with a sensitive soft spot for music. Who’d’a thunk? A quiet joy.
- Spider-Man 2
Rip-roaring, hilarious, heartfelt, over the top, Spider-Man 2 is the wildest, most joyous, comic-bookiest comic-book movie ever. Going beyond the original film’s theme of power and responsibility, this superior sequel focuses on responsibility and sacrifice, and in a breathless tour de force train sequence highlights self-sacrifice as the essence of heroism.
- Touching the Void
Survival stories are inherently life-affirming, often faith-affirming. Yet people generally face death as they face life. The true story of two daredevil mountaineers in Peru, Touching the Void is harrowing, dazzling and haunting - yet it’s also a bleak tale about an unbeliever who faced death and saw nothing. Still, the truth about the human person is seen in small ways. Emphatically not an affirmation of faith, but contemplates spiritual issues in a thoughtful light.
An art-house martial-arts epic in the Crouching Tiger tradition, Hero is pure Hong Kong melodrama, a fabulistic account of the dawn of China’s Imperial Age told with overpowering visual splendor. Viewed as a philosophical statement, Hero is unpersuasive; but as a kind of mythic ethnography, a storybook compendium of Chinese moral sensibilities, it is masterful.
- The Return
A difficult, haunting parable about a prodigal father whose abrupt return after a 12-year absence leads to conflict and crisis, first-time Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev’s debut film invites comparisons to Kieslowski’s Decalogue and the transcendent cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky (Andrei Rublev). The biblical themes and images are overt, but the story adamantly resists easy allegorization, challenging the viewer to dig deeper for meaning.
- Born into Brothels
Photojournalist Zana Briski moved into Calcutta’s red-light district intending to document brothel life before finding herself and the children of the brothels mutually drawn to one another. Instead of merely documenting the children’s milieu, she empowers them to document it for themselves, putting cameras in their hands and teaching them to use them. One of the most constructive and inspiring takes on the relationship of art and responsibility, of the artist and the world, that I’ve ever seen.
America’s Heart and Soul: Louis Schwartzberg offers a pastiche of life in America, from the kooky to the heroic, from the entertaining to the inspiring. There's not much depth, but it's consistently interesting.
The Bourne Supremacy: James Bond is dead. Long live Jason Bourne. Paul Greengrass outdoes the taut Doug Liman Bourne Identity in a gripping tale of a hero with no memory beginning to decide who he is and who he wants to be.
Miracle: Do you believe in miracles? Director Gavin O’Connor helms a satisfying tribute to the 1980 Winter Olympics “Miracle on Ice,” aided by Kurt Russell’s powerhouse performance as the tough-as-nails coach who understood that the Soviets could never be beaten on skill, only on endurance.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: Kerry Conran’s one-of-a-kind CGI pulp fantasy puts live-action actors into a 1930s serial dream world of dirigibles and giant rockets, girl reporters and ace-pilot heroes. If only stars Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow were half as much fun as a cameo by Angelina Jolie.
Two Brothers: The Bear director Jean-Jacques Annaud turns in one of the best family films in years, a lovely parable about twin tiger cubs who grow up very differently and the young boy who bonds with one of them.
The Aviator, Ella Enchanted, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, In Good Company, Napoleon Dynamite, My Architect, Shark Tale, Shrek 2, Thérèse [The Story of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux], Troy
Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius, Bride and Prejudice, Clifford’s Really Big Movie, Finding Neverland, The Forgotten, Hidalgo, I am David, Ladder 49, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, National Treasure, Shall We Dance, Vanity Fair
Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London, Around the World in 80 Days, Benji Off the Leash!, Christmas with the Kranks, Flight of the Phoenix, House of Flying Daggers, King Arthur, Kinsey, Hellboy, Man on Fire, The Village, Million Dollar Baby, The Polar Express, The Village