OF 2004

For a long time during 2004, I was wondering if I'd even be able to come up with a ten best list by year's end, as the year had gone by with a lot of forgettable films and huge disappointments. But thankfully, the end of the year brought out a slew of wonderful film achievements, and 2004 as a film year was saved. Still not ranking as one of the best years for film, the ones that did make my top ten were all marvelous examples of filmmaking. For the longest time, it looked like a documentary would for the first time in my own year-chronicling history become my choice for the year's best film. But when I finally saw Clint Eastwood's 25th film as a director, it was clear that I had just experienced a pure classic of cinema by a master director, and it deserved the title as the best film of the year. In looking at my ten best list this year, it's tough to find some common themes as I usually try to do. On one hand, three of the films on my list were powerful biopics and looks back at history. Ranging from a biography of controversial sex rearcher Alfred Kinsey, to an epic biography of Howard Hughes, to the biography of Paul Rusesabagina and his heroic efforts that saved lives during mass genocide in Rwanda. On the other hand, there were some unique and masterful fictional films which took up almost all the other slots on my top ten, and just look at the range in subject matter. From two men on a self-discovering trip to wine country, to a hitman forcing a cabbie to make his rounds with him one dark Los Angeles night, to the imaginative story of a man wanting to erase memories from his mind of a failed love, to the biting drama of four people in and out of love, to the conclusion of a richly detailed revenge saga, and finally to the powerful testament to humanity that Clint Eastwood delivered in the story of an ambitious female boxer who only wants a chance, and finds it from a man who ends up finding his own self. Which finally leaves me with one of the most powerful and controversial documentaries ever made, a film which was almost my number one film for the year ... a film which redefined the genre of documentary films, and played an important role in one of the most divisive presidential elections in history. These were the best of what 2004 offered.


Who would have ever imagined many years ago that Clint Eastwood would become one of our most respected film directors? And not only that, but he'd also be able to give us some of his best film performances as well much later in his career. Eastwood is a director of abundant vision, who makes his films as lean as they can be, not relying on gimmicks and special effects, but instead allowing real human drama to just play out on the screen. And to go from a powerful drama like Mystic River just a year ago, and then to deliver this, an even better film and for me, the best film of the year. Million Dollar Baby is the type of film in which surprises sneak up on you, and then finally overwhelm you to take you in entirely different directions than you had anticipated. And by film's end, you realize what you've really experienced is a pure taste of humanity, a pure classical story, plain and simple, delivered by actors working at the top of their craft, and delivered by a director who knows exactly how to shape the story to deliver something that avoids cliche and becomes much more than its basic story might suggest. Even a film narration, which usually is way too overused, finds its purpose which makes sense by film's end. Film critic Roger Ebert was right ... this film does not make a single wrong step.

The film tells the story of Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), the owner of a worn out gym, who finds himself near the end of his life having lost out on a chance to go all the way to a championship title fight with a boxer he helped groom. Into this story very quickly arrives Maggie (played by Hilary Swank in the best performance by an actress this year), who is eager for Frankie to train her and give her the shot she so desperately wants. Frankie has a problem with training "girls", but eventually sees her potential and perhaps sees something more since his own relationship with his daughter has been destroyed long ago. Morgan Freeman delivers another powerful supporting performance as Scrap, Frankie's long time friend and one-time boxer himself. Their dialogue scenes together are amazing to behold, even when it's simply Frankie criticizing Scrap for having holes in his socks. I can't describe more of the story without giving too much away, but safe to say, this film surprised me on so many levels, and moved me so very deeply, especially by its final act. I didn't know that Eastwood had a performance like this within him, but he surprised me as well. And as a director, I admire this man so greatly, and any student of film will do his or herself a great service in studying how this brilliant man works, and how his knowledge of telling a story is something that a lot of directors should study and embrace.


Michael Moore had always been a valiant fighter for the liberal left, starting with his wonderful documentary Roger & Me, which was a moving examination of the contrast between the corporate elite and the poor who suffer when jobs are cut while the elite continue to get richer. He became a lightning rod of controversy for the first real time though when he won his Oscar for Bowling for Columbine a couple of years ago, when he famously gave that speech attacking George W. Bush. But that was just the introduction to what became one of the big stories of 2004, as Moore delivered a documentary which was a stunning indictment of the Bush administration and its policies which have led to the war in Iraq in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It ended up becoming the first documentary in history to make over $100 million at the boxoffice, and emboldened both sides of the debate to turn out in droves for the 2004 presidential election, either to make sure W was voted out of office, or to refute Moore and those who attacked President Bush by turning out to make sure W got a second term. Well, we all know the outcome ... W's supporters turned out more than those supporting John Kerry, and W got a second term. Some people tried to suggest that that automatically made Moore's documentary inconsequential, when the exact opposite is true. The points that this documentary make are still very valid, and the administration should be made to answer for them, particularly when American deaths in Iraq continue to escalate day by day with no clear plan for winning the peace and getting our soldiers out. As of this writing in January 2005, we have lost 1356 American soldiers in Iraq, and over 10,000 have been wounded.

Fahrenheit 9/11 begins by recounting the circus of the 2000 election, and shows how the Supreme Court of the United States delivered the presidency to George W. Bush. Then, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 occur, and Moore offers a ton of intriguing and suspicious information about the administration, and their response to 9/11. And even if you ignore Moore's own opinions, there are facts in this film and strange connections and events which deserve to be examined in more detail. Most intriguing are the administration's and in particular the Bush family's relationships with Saudi Arabia, the reasons why Bush pushed us so hard to accept that the war on terrorism meant we had to go into Iraq, the list goes on and on. Moore does this with some very compelling and heart-breaking footage, showing some of the true atrocities of war in Iraq, which Bush supporters should be forced to watch. War should not be left off our airwaves because it might be upsetting during our dinner hour ... those who support a man who sent a country to war for the wrong reasons with no plan for ever winning the peace should have to see the consequences of those actions. Moore leaves himself out of the film more than in his past films, except by narration and towards the end to attempt to persuade Congressmen to send their own kids over to the war in Iraq, and of course none of them do. I know a lot of people hate Michael Moore and what he stands for, but one must realize that what we have in Moore is a gifted filmmaker who is passionate about his country, and is passionate about speaking for the people who often do not get a voice, those people who tend to suffer the most and take on the most burdens to sacrifice so others may live. This film was a testament to those men and women who sacrifice their lives for our very freedoms, and all they ever ask of us is that they are not sent into harm's way unless it's absolutely necessary. No one knows what the next four years of the George W. Bush administration will bring, but I'm quite sure Michael Moore will be there to bring this administration to task, as he should, and as more people should, and do his duty as a citizen to expose one of the most secretive and corrupt presidential administrations in U.S. history ... if for nothing else, than for the sakes of those Americans who have lost their own lives because of this administration. We all owe them that, and we owe it to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice to at least listen to what the dissenters have to say, and perhaps not accept everything we read in the paper and see on the news at face value. Moore is a true patriot for being so bold to show us that.


Alexander Payne is a brilliant screenwriter and director ... plain and simple. His film remind me of the 1970's, when filmmakers with something to say were able to make powerful and risky films which explored humanity on a level not before seen. Following on the heels of his brilliant About Schmidt, Payne continues exploring the sadness that men encounter in mid or late life, this time delivering an even stronger comedy/drama that manages to make us laugh hysterically and be so deeply moved at the same time. This time, Payne tells the story of two men and two women, keeping it to a small ensemble, who all deliver incredible performances. Paul Giamatti, who has yet to deliver a bad performance, plays Miles, an author at a clear mid-life crisis, who has lost in love and now finds himself heading off to wine country with his friend Jack, played by Thomas Hayden Church. Jack is about to get married, and as the best man, Miles is taking him for a week of male bonding before his friend gets married. Jack has other ideas though, as he views the trip as his last chance to sleep with as many women as possible before he gets married. Both of these men are richly drawn and performed, as are the two women they ultimately meet who affect the course of their week long bachelor party. Miles is an alcoholic and a clear wine expert, who finds a woman who shares his same passion for wine in Maya, played by Virginia Madsen. The quiet scene where they talk about what wine means to each of them is so incredibly moving as we discover they are talking about much more than just wine. Payne reminds us that movies can be much more than mindless explosions and special effects and event pictures, and he is a voice of cinema that should be around for a very long time. Just like the experience of watching Million Dollar Baby, watching this movie is just like spending time with four real people, and we've experienced more than a movie, we've experienced life.


It's been interesting to watch the next stage in Martin Scorsese's film career. Having been long regarded as contemporary cinema's greatest film director (and you'll find no argument from me on that fact), known for dark human dramas like Taxi Driver and Goodfellas, the last few years has seen Scorsese move into less personal epic dramas. Some worried that Scorsese's personal vision would be lost, but instead he has taken his vast knowledge of cinema and applied it to the epic drama with the same native moviemaking ability that he's delivered so well time in and time out. And this year, he delivered another remarkable achievement, and one which may indeed finally deliver him the Oscar that he's amazingly never won. The Aviator tells the epic human drama of one of the most amazing men who ever lived, Howard Hughes. Amazing in the sense that he was a man who clearly had everything and could conceivably conquer anything, but yet suffered from demons which ultimately took him down. Leonardo DiCaprio gives his best performance ever as Hughes, as the film tells his story beginning with the epic effort to make the film Hell's Angels, through his exploits in Hollywood, and through his personal love for flying and his innovations in the aerospace industry. I think the film's greatest moments are in the glorious recreations of the golden age of Hollywood, particularly in the relationship between Hughes and Katharine Hepburn, played by Cate Blanchett in an astonishing performance. She captures not only that unique voice of Kate Hepburn and that feisty spirit, but a deeper and richer portrayal of who Kate Hepburn was, and what her relationship to Howard meant to both of them. The scene where Kate first meets Spencer Tracy and moves on from Howard made me instantly wish for a movie about Kate Hepburn with Blanchett playing her. Scorsese and his cinematographer Robert Richardson also make the film itself look unique, making the lush images and colors look like the films that came out from the time periods he represents in the film. It's an even better film than Scorsese's last historical epic, Gangs of New York, and a continuing affirmation of a true film genius.


American films very rarely take on the true difficulties of sex and relationships as much as the foreign cinema does, but every so often, we do get a brutal and rich take on those very subjects, but it usually takes some of the world's best film directors to do it successfully. And this past year, that incredibly talented director Mike Nichols took it on full steam by adapting Patrick Marber's biting play. Closer tells the story of four rather unlikable individuals ... Alice, Dan, Anna, and Larry, played by Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Julia Roberts, and Clive Owen in performances of searing and sometimes painful truthfulness. Marber, who also wrote the screenplay, has captured a story about these four and how they fall in and out of love with each other at various times in some set pieces which are truly amazing for how well they are performed and written. In particular, is the sequence where Clive Owen's Larry breaks up with Anna after learning she is in love with Dan. He yells at her, demanding she tell him about the truth about sex with Dan, in a dialogue we don't often see in movies. Another is when Larry plays a game of sexual one-upsmanship by asking Anna to have sex with him one last time before signing divorce papers, and his discussion with Dan about it is funny and biting. And who can forget the online sex chat that Larry thinks he's having with a woman when it's actually Jude Law? It's refreshing when American cinema is bold enough to present sex and relationships this brutally and this honestly.


Ok, it's clear ... Charlie Kaufman is an absolutely genius of screenwriting. How he manages to come up with these imaginative stories like he does is baffling and envious. This film should finally bring him an Oscar for his writing. Jim Carrey delivers one of his best performances in this film, as he always delivers better performances when they're quiet and require more from him than goofy grinning. Carrey plays Joel, a man who has just suffered through the end of a romantic relationship with Clementine, played by Kate Winslet. He hears about a new radical procedure that can be done by a new organization which will actually go in and erase memories of a past love to ease the hurt of the breakup. What Kaufman and director Michel Gondry have managed to achieve is almost a first in the cinema ... they have actually managed to portray visually the workings of a human being's mind. As the process begins to erase Joel's memories, he realizes he doesn't want to lose the memories of being with Clementine, and desperately tries to find ways to hide memories in his mind, and it is brilliant how this is portrayed in a film structured so flawlessly.


Joaquin Phoenix, playing a reporter from the United States, describes the world reaction to the genocide in Rwanda in the early 90's, saying they watch it on the evening news, say "oh, that's horrible", and go about eating their dinner. It's a sad but true fact about the tragedies that occur around the globe to this very day. In the early 90's, the Hutu militia in Rwanda began to systematically kill the Tutsis on a mass scale, creating a human tragedy of epic proportions. The brilliance of the movies is the ability to portray these tragedies on an up close and personal scale so we can't just ignore them and go about our dinner. The tragedy of nearly a million Tutsis being killed is too broad to portray in abstract terms, so like Schindler's List before it, director Terry George centers his story on a true hero, this time it's Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu who was married to a Tutsi woman, and who ended up saving the lives of over a thousand Tutsis who he sheltered in his hotel during the genocide, which we get glimpses of when Paul is able to see them. Paul used whatever means necessary to try to survive, and save the people he could from such mindless tragedy. A movie like this is uplifting just by its very subject matter ... to know that great humanity can come out of examples of our worst humanity is always a story which resonates, and thankfully George gives us a lean film of powerful scenes, anchored by a career-making performance by the always great Don Cheadle.


What a year for Jamie Foxx ... this was the year he arrived big time with not only the lead performance playing Ray Charles which may bring him the Oscar, but also this turn which proved what a great dramatic actor he could be. Michael Mann is such a gifted visual director, who is able to make the city of Los Angeles itself seem like another character. The city breathes and lives in his films, and does so again here. Tom Cruise is a revelation playing a true villain, who wanders into Jamie Foxx's cab one night after Foxx has had an engaging cab ride with a beautiful woman who he may be interested in dating, played by Jada Pinkett Smith. Once Vincent arrives in the cab, he informs Foxx's Max that he is going to drive him around for the rest of the evening, as he "visits" the people that he ultimately has on a list to kill. Vincent is a hit man, and it's fascinating to watch the interplay unfold between Foxx and Cruise as the evening goes on, all concluding with a thrilling ending which for once is truly thrilling. Mann also shot a lot of this film on digital video, which marks another step forward by a major director into the new digital world.


One of the best biopics of the year was the story of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, who was incredibly controversial in his time, as he assaulted the late 1940's and early 1950's world with the first real public discussions about sexuality. Writer and director Bill Condon manages to evoke that time period very well in a film that resonates today as we seem to find ourselves sinking back to a time where the topics that Kinsey finally brought up are attempting to be hushed again. (Just look at the furor over Janet Jackson's naked breast to see how ridiculous the times have become). Kinsey was a brave man, but not an altogether perfect one either. Not ever truly grasping the ramifications of some of what he was doing, he still managed to force people to face sexual truths, and in some cases, saved people, as evident in one scene where a reader of one his books thanks him so much for making it okay to talk about sex and those with "alternative" lifestyles. Condon is graced with some truly great actors here ... Liam Neeson gives his best performance since Schindler's List as Kinsey, and Laura Linney is even more of a revelation as Kinsey's wife, particularly in the scene when Kinsey admits to having an extramarital affair, but not with someone she expected it to happen with. Condon captures some fascinating history here, and no matter which way you might decide to view Kinsey, either as a liberator who led us down the road to better self-revelation and greater openness, or a man who led us down a road of moral decay, you can't deny that he was a landmark revolutionary who made a difference.


Most know the story of the making and eventual distribution of this film ... Quentin Tarantino made a three hour plus epic about revenge and martial arts, Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein thought it was too long and should instead be divided into two movies. So last year, we had Vol. 1, which didn't quite make my top ten list, but this year, we got Vol. 2, and it's a much better film than Vol. 1 was. Where Vol. 1 contained more violence and perhaps better fighting set pieces, Vol. 2 has much more emotional resonance ... there's not as much focus on the violence but instead the emotion of this character, The Bride, played by Uma Thurman, as she finally winds her down through the path of people she's needing to kill until she finally reaches Bill. Their final scene together is a triumph of Thurman and David Carradine's performances, but also the writing by Tarantino, and these two films combined create what is for me Tarantino's masterpiece work. Tarantino has revived a genre and given it a whole new spin, with stunning visuals and amazing musical choices. And Uma Thurman's performance as this character is simply put ... a revelation.


There were a couple of independent films this past year that presented some original portraits of lost young people trying to find their way. Zach Braff's Garden State was perhaps the more recognized of the two, but for me, Mark Milgard's Dandelion was the better of the two. Vincent Kartheiser is the sixteen year old Mason, whose family seems to simply be subsisting together instead of truly living together as a loving family. Arliss Howard and Mare Winningham are both stunning in their performances as Mason's parents, but the real strength of this story is in the relationship that develops between Mason and Danny, a young girl he meets in the neighborhood, played by Taryn Manning. Their new relationship is tested when something happens that takes Mason away, only to be rekindled upon his return. It's original, it's moving, and honest ... everything a film like this needs to be to succeed.


This short film, written and directed by Matthew Mebane, was a joyful discovery. It's a film completely void of dialogue, but it still manages to tell an incredibly funny and even touching story through its absolutely gorgeous visuals and beautiful original music score. The story begins very simply, with an elderly couple going out fishing, which is something the wife has loved to do for so long. It's a beautiful opening scene ... then, she suddenly dies, and the man is left with a tackle box and his wife's ashes. He lovingly pours her ashes into the tackle box. One day, thieves break into their house, and steal a bunch of stuff, including the remains of his wife. They mistake the ashes for cocaine, and we follow this strange journey as the people who buy the cocaine end up finding new meaning to their lives, and it's just stunning, humorous, and touching to watch it all unfold. It is simply one of the best short films in recent years, and definitely worth tracking down.

Honorable Mentions
(In no particular order)

RAY: This one almost made my top ten, it would have been number 11 ... another extremely successful biopic, Jamie Foxx completely channels Ray Charles into his very soul, delivering a performance well worthy of an Oscar, and one which makes truly believe we are watching that incredible singer

THE POLAR EXPRESS: A landmark film in the history of animation (as Robert Zemeckis utilized motion capture to capture actors movements and convert them to computer animation), and what should become a new Christmas classic, it's a joyous ride as one child learns to believe, granted a trip to the North Pole ... seeing a film like this with my 5 year old daughter was an absolute joy (this would have been 12th on my list by the way)

THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST: Mel Gibson's personal "passion" to make this film is evident in every frame, and although it may be the most violent film I've ever seen, one cannot deny the moving power of its images to convey perhaps the most realistic portrait of Jesus's suffering on the Cross more than any other film has ever done

THE TERMINAL: Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks together again, this time in the hilariously engaging story of a man from a foreign country who must live in an airport when his country's government collapses ... Hanks again shows us another great performance, and Spielberg proves once again how he is perhaps our best storyteller

SPIDERMAN 2: Roger Ebert called it the best superhero movie ever made ... it's certainly one of the best. An amazingly good follow-up to the original, and I'm sure we'll see more Spidermans very soon

A HOME AT THE END OF THE WORLD: Colin Farrell is a revelation in this small independent drama, about a man and his relationships as he grows up with one friend he grew up with and a woman he lives with, played brilliantly by Robin Wright-Penn

GARDEN STATE: A Graduate-like tale of a young man finding his place in the world, and was an amazing achievement for the young Zach Braff to write, direct, and star in ... Natalie Portman showed us what kind of depth she could deliver in this film, followed up by her even deeper work in Closer

LADDER 49: Long after the memory of Backdraft, Ladder 49 was a much more realistic and deeply moving portrayal of the lives of firefighters ... Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta both give stunning performances, one of Phoenix's best

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS: Many movies have been made about football, but none quite as in-depth and well written as this one, starring Billy Bob Thornton as the coach of a high school football team

THE INCREDIBLES: Pixar again shows why they are the new kings of animated feature films, delivering a colorful and energetic story of superheroes who must now try to fit in with normal civilian life

SPANGLISH: While not quite the success we usually expect from James L. Brooks, this was still a well written film, especially saved by the performance of Paz Vega, and the eventual sparks that develop between her and Adam Sandler are played out very well, particularly during their final scenes together in the restaurant

SUPER SIZE ME: It was a great year for documentaries, and this was another one. And also a much needed examination of nutrition and fast food, even as we watch Morgan Spurlock almost eat himself to death as he eats nothing but McDonald's food for a solid month

SHREK 2: A worthy follow up to the original animated classic, this one was much more broad but still funny with wonderful vocal talent throughout

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE: A worthy remake of the 1960's classic, this one from director Jonathan Demme, with great performances by Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep particularly