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Dave’s Top Ten of 2004 – Your Results May Vary

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Let me preface this by saying that this year, as usual, I didn’t see nearly as many movies as I would have liked. In fact, a couple of key ones didn’t make it to Philly before the clock struck twelve. So let me mention a few that, based on buzz, may be better than these ten, but I wouldn’t know, and reserve the right to say “my bad” if they are.

Bad Education
The Sea Inside
The Motorcycle Diaries
Dogville
Million Dollar Baby

There are many, many others…

Let me also stress that this year was relatively weak. That’s not to say that these ten aren’t as strong as last year’s ten, but that these ten are probably more individual. That is to say, while I expect anyone would like two or three of the films I’ve picked, there are several with, shall we say, more selective appeal. Put another way, me and probably five other people would like them. Anyone else, your results may vary.

Finally, let me say that Super Size Me, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Kinsey came damn close. But there are only ten slots. Why? Because we have ten fingers. (Honestly, that’s about as good an answer as any for the appeal of top ten lists.)

10. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle

It’s how comedy is done. Gives “wacky” a good name. Also proves that Neil Patrick Harris is one of the single funniest humans on Earth.

9. Garden State

Believe the hype. This writing/directing debut from Scrubs star Zach Braff finds its own niche of comedy and drama with a unique look and an outstanding soundtrack. Plus it has Method Man asking “who just saw some titties?” You can’t beat that.

8. Friday Night Lights

You have never seen a sports movie that looks like this. Rundown director Peter Berg comes into his own with this feature, which takes all the sports clichés and replaces them with tough family drama. You want the team to win so these players will have one bright spot of hope in their terrible lives, but you also want them to lose since the reason their lives are so terrible in the first place is because of their parents’ obsession with football. Just brilliant.

7. A Very Long Engagement

Amelie director Jean Pierre Jeunet takes the tricks that made that film so unique and charming and applies them equally well here, but to a completely different end. Instead we have a tragic yet hopeful war/love story wrapped in a mystery, which builds to an insightful dénouement similar to one of the other romances on this list. Also, best assassinations of the year. See it and you’ll know what I mean. As the dear departed Rick James might sing, “Cooold-blood-ehd.”

6. The Five Obstructions

Hardly anybody got to see this and that’s too bad, because it’s a great film…if you’re a filmmaker. I don’t know how much appeal this would have, actually, outside of that niche, but inside, it has quite a bit. Crazy Lars Von Trier challenges his mentor Jorgen Leth to remake Jorgen’s film The Perfect Human five times over, each time with a number of restrictions to raise the bar. In one case each shot can only last half a second. In another he must shoot it in a format he despises – the cartoon. Each time he surprises himself, and us, with the results. It ultimately ends up being a film about filmmaking and the responsibility (or avoidance of responsibility) of the director as a storyteller. Bored yet? If not, check it out.

5. The Passion of the Christ

Yes, yes, I know. I’m not supposed to like this film. Or if I do I’m a red state evangelistic wacko. But if you cut beyond the hype you’ll see a film that is masterfully directed (who knew Mel had it in him?) and emotionally wrenching (Christian or not, the film is largely about a mother’s love for her son). Is it violent? Oh, my, yes. Will you get more out of it if you already know or are interested in the minutiae of the gospel? Probably. Will I stop talking like Robert Evans now? Maybe. But the point is that in terms of sheer filmmaking, this is an outstanding achievement. But I will admit to the bias of appreciating that this is one of the few films about the Bible that seems to make an effort to stick to the source material. So my recommendation may come with a pillar of salt. (Sorry. Couldn’t help it.)

4. The Incredibles

Ah, finally. A film everyone can agree on. But don’t scoff at that. It’s no mean feat. Just because a movie is a feel-good flick doesn’t mean it has universal appeal. Plenty of cynics loved this movie, too. And that’s the magic of Pixar (and in this case, Iron Giant & Simpsons alum Brad Bird, who writes and directs here), to make a movie that everybody can love. On top of that, it has fantastic production design (or whatever you call that for an animated film) and an outstanding performance by Bird himself as superhero fashion designer Edna Mode. It’s no coincidence this is already up on the IMDB top 250 (as are Garden State and my top three picks).

3. Hero

It took long enough (Hero was released in China in 2002). I actually saw this film last year on a bootleg DVD. According to Jet Li, so did every Chinese American, making the marketing of this film an uphill battle. But Miramax pulled it off (And lost their deal with director Yimou Zhang in the process. His follow-up House of Flying Daggers was released under the Sony Pictures Classics banner this year – that’s how long it took to release Hero). But all of that doesn’t diminish the greatness of the film. It’s just plain gorgeous. It’s also moving. A fantastic story. Incredible kung fu. And politically relevant. If Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was the martial arts film as romantic melodrama, then this is the martial arts film as political fable. In a lot of ways, it’s a film about terrorism and tyranny. In every way, it’s a watershed moment in the history of martial arts cinema.

2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

I don’t usually like romantic films. And yet, romantic pictures have taken the number seven, number two, and, as you’ll see in a second, number one slots this year. Admittedly, none of these are conventional romantic films. There’s certainly a beautiful tragedy to the predicament the protagonists find themselves in. And a nice little sci-fi mindfuck quandary to go along with it. But that’s the beauty of Kaufman.

Charlie Kaufman has quickly become my favorite living screenwriter. He’s able to take absurd yet intriguing premises and infuse them with humor, creativity, insight about the human condition, and rigorous cinematic structure. Director Michael Gondry’s gone up a notch in my book as well, relying on more than just CG for some of the incredible effects here.

To top it all off Jim Carrey gives one of his strongest (and sure to be most underrated) performances here as the latest in a long line of Kaufman uber-schlub’s – smart, shy, selfish, and insecure – played by the likes of John Cusack, Nick Cage, and Sam Rockwell. And, like A Very Long Engagement, it makes an unconventional, yet spot-on, point about romance. It’d give too much away to tell you now, but if you see them, I think you’ll know what I mean.

1. Before Sunset

Of all the films to come out this year, with all the special effects, and compelling stories, and wacky comedy, and political intrigue, and social unrest, and controversy, it’s a film about two people talking that takes the top spot for me this year. Now the most ubiquitous film review cliché since Star Wars is the triumph of human interaction over special effects summed up usually in a variation of “the only special effect here is human interaction” which usually makes me want to sharpen something. But in this case there is no special effect. It really feels like co-writer/director Richard Linklater just turned on the camera and let the characters do their thing. It feels like what reality TV promises (and virtually never delivers), except that this is all (for the most part) scripted.

It doesn’t hurt that these are interesting characters with interesting things to say. It also doesn’t hurt that if you’ve seen the first film you’re already pretty invested in them. In fact the film kind of hinges on that, and I’d be interested to talk to someone who hadn’t seen the first one to find out if this still grabs them. But regardless, Linklater puts you next to these people and lets you follow them around for an hour and a half and you never want to leave and when you finally have to, it’s at the most frustrating point possible and you’re shaking your fist at the screen yelling “Link-laterrrrrrrr!!!!!!” kind of like the Dean on Futurama yelling “Robot Houuuuusssse!!!!” Or at least I almost did.

What’s more is that this is a sequel. And sequels are supposed to suck. But that rule got broken many times this year (Spider-Man 2, The Bourne Supremacy, Shrek 2, etc.) but most of all by this one. It was hard enough to pull off a walking My Dinner with Andre the first time, but to have the balls to do it again?

Hats off to Linklater, Hawke, Delpy, and co-writer Kim Krizan for pulling off the most elegant cinematic feat of the year.

Now on to 2005. My money’s on The Wallace and Gromit Movie, but I’ll give the other ones a shot, too.

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About David Dylan Thomas

  • http://www.awddaily.com Bill Lamb

    Good list and great commentaries. Thanks for including The Five Obstructions – it really is great and far too few will see it. The intensity of the relationship between these two filmmakers is fascinating.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Well researched and presented list. I’m sad to say I’ve missed many of these (thank Gods for Netflix) and this is good reminder to get going. Eternal Sunshine is one of my favorite films of the ’00s, and Before Sunrise one my favorites from the 90s. Can’t wait to see the new one.

    Eric Berlin
    Dumpster Bust: Miracles from Mind Trash
    http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com

  • Nina

    Great list, although I have to say my biggest gripe with “Five Obstructions” is aimed at the genius who decided to use white subtitles for a movie that has a white background for at least half of its scenes. Probably represents man’s inhumanity to man or something, huh? I’ll send my ophthalmologist bill to Lars Von Trier. :-)