Films did more than entertain in 2004
By STEVE PERSALL
Published December 24, 2004
2004 is the year when movies began to matter again. They were never insignificant; nothing that so many people around the world care about could be.
But this year the cinema wasn't as much of a passive experience as it has been since blockbusters ruled the Earth. Moviegoers reacted to films dealing with touchy subjects in ways we've never seen before.
Like it or not, Michael Moore shoved more Americans into the political process than any filmmaker ever. Like it or not, Mel Gibson was the catalyst for a worldwide revival of theological debate. Like it or not, McDonald's dropped its super-size menu and added comparatively healthy alternatives after Morgan Spurlock called its nutritional bluff.
Through movies, controversial figures such as sex researcher Alfred Kinsey and Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara became topical again. Filmmakers stretched the boundaries - and sometimes patience - of audiences with reality-bending, internalized narratives that make Being John Malkovich seem positively linear. Or else they pushed the envelope with calculated shocks (The Brown Bunny, anyone?) that may have identified our tolerance limits rather than opening the gates to more.
Oh, there was still a lot of junk: Sequels that shouldn't exist, mindless action, pandering sadism, hack comedies, self-indulgent melodrama and I Heart Huckabees, hands down my worst theater experience of 2004. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou is almost as exasperating, but I watched it at home on a screener DVD.
However, this is an occasion to toast the best films of 2004, or at least one critic's opinion of such. These are the films that made me forget I was watching a movie, or else did the Hollywood thing so exquisitely that I didn't care. It's appropriate to raise a glass to my favorite movie this year, preferably a 1961 Cheval Blanc:
1. Sideways - Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor composed the year's loveliest screenplay, inspiring wonderful performances by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church as buddies popping their corks in California wine country. Sideways plays like a 1970s-vintage character study, revealing its characters and themes with cockeyed economy and fatalist humor. The most special effects in movies are still people like these.
2. Million Dollar Baby - A lousy title but a deeply affecting film, the best example of mainstream filmmaking in 2004. No surprise, since Clint Eastwood, a terse storyteller, is behind the camera. He also plays an aging boxing gym owner reluctantly training a woman (Hilary Swank). The boxing material is richer than Rocky, and then the story takes a turn that makes it much more than a sports movie. And if Morgan Freeman doesn't finally win an Oscar, the academy should close its doors.
3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - The persistence of memory means nothing to screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who devised a way to make two lovers (Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet) forget each other. Then they change their altered minds, desperately clutching to fragments of the past. Director Michel Gondry turns Kaufman's imagination into a haunting head trip.
4. Kinsey - In a movie year dotted with biographies, none is such a complete package as Bill Condon's film. The story of Dr. Alfred Kinsey's 1940s research into human sexuality is as relevant as ever, the nostalgic production design is superb, Condon's screenplay covers most of the bases and the cast is a true ensemble rather than a one-man tour de force.
5. Hero - The best foreign import of 2004, although it was an Academy Award nominee last year under the academy's rules. Director Zhang Yimou presents a gorgeously photographed Chinese historical myth, with imaginative martial arts and a memorable rain of arrows upon a calligraphy school. I haven't seen his Golden Globe-nominated film House of Flying Daggers, but Hero is tough to top.
6. The Motorcycle Diaries - Walter Salles' film perfectly captures the dawn of a man's social conscience that would shake the world. Gael Garcia Bernal plays future revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara during a youthful road trip along the Pan American highway. It's episodic, as road movies are, but each stop reveals something of his personality that headlines would drown out.
7. The Passion of the Christ - Almost forgotten with all the religious controversy is the fact that Mel Gibson has constructed a masterpiece of biblical cinema. The use of dead languages and subtitles is a brilliant risk, the satanic temptations are eerie and the violence, although extreme, is the most visceral ever seen onscreen. A classic, and that's the gospel truth.
8. Fahrenheit 9/11 - Here come the e-mails again. There's no doubt that Michael Moore's hatchet job on President Bush is hopelessly slanted by contextual pranks and convenient editing. But he's also a fascinating conspiracy theorist who knows how to make audiences respond, pro or con, to what he's doing. And how many movies become genuine footnotes to history?
9. Maria Full of Grace - A young Colombian (Catalina Sandino Moreno) becomes a narcotics "mule" to escape her poor village and suffocating family. American filmmaker Joshua Marston's awareness of a foreign culture, his attention to details in Maria's jobs - bundling roses and swallowing pellets filled with heroin - are astounding.
10. The Polar Express and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow - Okay, I'm fudging a bit. But these two films set new standards in cinema technology and the creative inspiration that should be applied in using them. The Polar Express uses motion-capture technology to make us consider acting performances differently, and Sky Captain digitally "paints" everything on the screen except humans. Both are difficult to imagine ever becoming obsolete.
And, just for the fun of it, here are another 10 films from 2004 - honorable mentions, if you will - that I'll fondly recall: Garden State, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, The Terminal, Shaun of the Dead, The Woodsman, Finding Neverland, Before Sunset, Dogville, Super Size Me and Kill Bill, Vol. 2.
-- Steve Persall can be reached at 727 893-8365 or email@example.com
[Last modified December 23, 2004, 07:24:16]
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