Friday, December 31, 2004
From "Anchorman" to "Catwoman," from "Hellboy" to "Jersey Girl," from "Before Sunset" to "After the Sunset," from "The Passion of the Christ" to "The Seed of Chucky," 2004 had its cinematic share of ups and downs. But in this article I'm here to honor the highlights -- of which there were plenty.
A film was eligible for inclusion if it screened for Kansas City-area press in 2004. Some of the picks -- such as "Million Dollar Baby" -- screened in time but have yet to be released in the Midwest.
On a related note, Oscar ballots were mailed this week. A whopping 267 movies were deemed eligible for a Best Picture nomination. Hopefully, the academy will include a few of my own choices for the best films of the year among its final five nominees.
If not? Well, that's showbiz.
Writer Charlie Kaufman's ("Adaptation") latest mind-bender displays all the trademark trippiness one has come to expect from the man's work. But "Eternal Sunshine" far surpasses its sci-fi concept of surgical memory erasure. The film offers one of the best depictions of a romantic relationship -- from its charming origin to sour conclusions (then back again) -- that has ever been put on screen. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet give their two strongest performances to date. In fact, it may be the lone picture in which Carrey entirely sheds his comic mannerisms. This is a groundbreaking, thought-provoking opus that can't help but be termed unforgettable.
"They keep creating new ways of celebrating mediocrity, but if someone is GENUINELY exceptional ..." Mr. Incredible rants after he is forced to go into the equivalent of a witness protection agency for superheroes. Thankfully, there is nothing mediocre about Pixar's latest animated flick. In fact, it's the rare type of entertainment that spans any age barrier. It's both a satire of costumed do-gooders and a genuinely inspiring salute to them.
Million Dollar Baby
I sure loathe the title "Million Dollar Baby." It sounds like one that C-list actor Troy McClure would name drop in a spoof on "The Simpsons." But despite fielding one of the worst titles, this drama is one of the best pictures of the year. Director Clint Eastwood takes a cinematic cliche -- old trainer (Eastwood) takes on young boxer (Hilary Swank) -- and guides the story down entirely new avenues. By the film's end, I was knocked out by emotional punches I never saw coming.
Undoubtedly the year's best sequel, "Spider-Man 2" also stands as the most successful comic book adaptation of them all. Returning director Sam Raimi somehow combines the exaggerated quirkiness of his "Evil Dead" trilogy with the emotional impact of his taut morality play, "A Simple Plan." The story has a wicked sense of humor, a compelling romance, a sense of internalized drama and enough brilliant action sequences to keep the fanboys drooling.
One only has to look at the poster of this enthralling drama to appreciate its power. A pretty young Colombian girl (Catalina Sandino Moreno) takes communion from an outstretched hand -- only it's not a wafer she is being offered, but a pellet of cocaine. Maria is offered a way out of her poverty by becoming a drug mule who swallows dozens of these packages as a way to smuggle them into the U.S. -- a chore complicated by her pregnancy. A superior lead performance helps ensure the subtle film's realism.
I've seen plenty of impressive documentaries this year -- "Super Size Me," "Control Room," "Touching the Void" -- but none had the impact of "Fahrenheit 9/11." Hefty rabble-rouser Michael Moore is obviously one of the most divisive cultural figures to attempt filmmaking. I've always appreciated his humor (the underrated "The Big One") more than his reporting (the overrated "Bowling for Columbine"). But Moore's expose on the sitting presidency and the war in Iraq is his most potent, cohesive and persuasive piece yet.
It's hard not to get sucked into this tight little film that shows why Paul Giamatti is one of America's top actors. There is an emotional honesty to this effort (and to Giamatti's middle-aged, sad sack character) that fills every frame, whether the plot veers toward screwball comedy or bittersweet pathos. The use of wine as a metaphor for life is always intoxicating.
Howard Hughes was one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century. Director Martin Scorsese and star Leonardo DiCaprio do him justice with a sweeping, turbulent biopic about the Texas billionaire. Scorsese is especially good at balancing the large and the small moments, from harrowing plane crashes to the swelling internal phobias that led to Hughes' legendary reclusiveness.
Sure, it's probably cheating for two movies to occupy one slot, but this pair is so thematically intertwined that it begs comparison. "Dawn of the Dead" is a riveting remake of the 1979 original that successfully blends action and horror elements better than any flick since "Aliens." The British import "Shaun of the Dead" is a witty parody of the "zombastic" genre that uses the setting as a backdrop for a lively romantic comedy.
Like the best work of David Mamet or Neil Labute, "Closer" is a project that derives all its momentum from words. This nasty tale (both sexually and ethically) centers on two couples who share scenes that highlight only the beginning and endings of their relationships. Although based on the play by Patrick Marber, director Mike Nichols brings a cinematic flair to the proceedings. Expect Oscar nominations for co-stars Clive Owen and Natalie Portman.
Honorable mention: "Team America: World Police," "Super Size Me," "Hero," "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events," "Hotel Rwanda"