All in all, it was a pretty darned good year, movie-wise. The year 2004 was filled with more than its share of remarkable films, too many to possibly fit on a single critic's Top 10 List. There were so many of them, in fact, that movies that would have been Top 10 shoo-ins in lesser years — wonderful films like The Motorcycle Diaries, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Osama, Vera Drake, My Architect, or even the unexpectedly top-notch sequels to Shrek, Spider-Man and Harry Potter — didn't even wind up making the cut.
It was a year with enough good movies to make us forget, if only for a few blessed moments, that 2004 also contained raging, foaming-at-the-mouth stinkers like Alexander, She Hate Me, Catwoman, Spanglish and Rhinoceros Eyes. You probably missed that last title, by the way, but it's worth noting. This little indie film was among the many bad business decisions that helped bankrupt its producer, Madstone Theaters, further contributing to the sad state of the art house scene in Tampa Bay and elsewhere.
But enough doom and gloom. We're here to celebrate the very best that 2004 had to offer, so let's get to it.
1. The Son (Le Fils). It's not that The Son isn't a great film — it is — but call this one a symbolic vote for all the great foreign films that almost never play in Tampa Bay, or that show up only to wither on the vine from lack of publicity. The Son is tough stuff, a microscopically focused, unflinching examination of a middle-aged carpenter and a troubled young kid linked by a tragedy nobody wants to talk about. It's a work of enormous moral and spiritual depth that uncovers the extraordinary within the everyday, revealing sacrifice and redemption as the natural extensions of the movie's deliberately mundane surface. The Son was the best import to play in the Bay area in 2004, but here's to all the ones that got away.
2. The Saddest Music in the World. Guy Maddin's latest film is as bizarre and macabre as they come, but also incredibly funny in ways that often feel like classic slapstick. Surreal sights abound, from prosthetic glass legs filled with sparkling beer, to a character carrying around his son's heart preserved in tears, while the luminous black-and-white cinematography is a sweet riff on the visual poetry of vintage American silents and German Expressionist films. It's a little bit like what Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle might have been like without the illusions of grandeur or pretentious aftertaste.
3. Sideways. Almost everybody and everything in Alexander Payne's tragi-comic road movie seems to lean at odd and interesting angles that diverge from the straight up-and-down lines we might expect. With no clear objectives but lots of priceless detours, Sideways spends a week in the wine country with two old buddies (offering, in the process, a spot-on dissection of the male psyche as it lurches toward middle age). At key points throughout the film, we find ourselves bowled over by just how beautifully drawn these not-quite-young, not-quite-perfect characters and their trajectories are, by how the movie constantly seems to be taking us by surprise. Don't take it too seriously, though. Payne isn't going for any grand statements on the human condition in this happy-sad, sweet-and-sour and ultimately groovy little movie.
4. Dogville. Dogville takes a distinctly Hobbesian view of life and then pounds it home in ways both nasty and brutish, although not terribly short. Lars von Trier's densely constructed three-hour opus is an audacious act of cinematic subversion, a full-blown, high-concept manifesto about bad hoodoo in America. The film is tough viewing, without a doubt, but it's also further proof that von Trier, who is certainly among the cinema's most provocative and perverse artists, might also be one of its true visionaries.
5. Garden State/Napoleon Dynamite. We'll cheat a little and sneak in two titles here in the form of a tie between a pair of vaguely related films about kids stuck in various dead end environments. Garden State is a fresh, smart, twentysomething's Sideways, Napoleon Dynamite is an almost obscenely funny stopover in time-warped Utah, and both offer renewed hope for the future of American independent filmmaking.
6. The Incredibles. Pixar's latest animated opus is too good for the kids to keep to themselves. A near flawless blend of comedy, family drama, blockbustery action and astonishing animation, The Incredibles is the latest proof that we're in the midst of a new Golden Age of American Animation, with no end in sight.
7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. A wistful tale about the end of a love affair, a wicked black comedy/sci-fi yarn that becomes a snake devouring its own tail, an elaborate meditation on how our memories define who we are. It's a strange trip, to be sure, sort of like what Fantastic Voyage might have been if some acid-gobbling metaphysicians had been at the helm. Former music video whiz-kid director Michel Gondry pulls out all the stops depicting what goes on inside a lovesick human brain, assaulting the viewer with a relentless barrage of audacious effects, ultra-rapid edits and all other manner of edgy, convoluted flourishes. If you gave a particularly precocious student filmmaker a hundred-million bucks or so to make an experimental feature, it might look something like this.
8. Before Sunset. Romantic but unsentimental, unabashedly chatty and resolutely minimalist, the spirit of Eric Rohmer wafts through Richard Linklater's wonderful sequel to his 1995 Before Sunrise. The small scale of Before Sunset only adds to the movie's charm — it's as fragile and fleeting as life itself — and the movie's "wispiness" should in no way be taken as a lack of substance. Like the film that preceded it nine years ago, Before Sunset is basically just two people talking to each other, presented in something very close to real time. But what's said and what happens in the course of that 80-minute conversation should be of interest to almost anyone who is remotely curious about human beings and how they relate to each other, especially in matters of the heart.
9. Million Dollar Baby. Strong critical buzz got Clint Eastwood's new movie moved up to an earlier release date in order to be considered for this year's Oscars. It could happen. Million Dollar Baby is lean, mean (when it wants to be), and emotionally devastating in ways that Eastwood's overrated and self-inflated Mystic River never managed. There's nothing too fancy going on, but it has all the makings of a classic boxing movie, albeit with a love-it-or-hate-it last act twist that transforms everything that's come before.
10. Zatoichi/Hero. We end where we began, with a couple of those pesky foreign films that just don't seem to show up enough around our neck of the woods. Both of these Asian imports were monster hits abroad — which emboldened U.S. distributor Miramax to sink some real dough into publicizing them in this country. That doesn't happen often, but maybe the domestic success of Hero and Zatoichi will help pave the way for a few more of those dozens, maybe hundreds, of equally fine films to find their way into Tampa Bay theaters over the coming year. There's got to be a New Year's resolution in there somewhere.