Saturday, January 22, 2005

The Top Ten Films of 2004

Okay, I'm finally done...even though no top ten list is really ever complete (you're always seeing new ones from a certain year that seem to end up making there way onto it sooner or later), here my list is, complete with ramblings and explainations galore. It was a "B" movie year in my opinion, and with that, it allowed for so many "movies that could make my number ten spot" that this proved to be the most difficult part of compiling a list this year (and choosing the my number one pick). So I'll start off with a list of ones (in a specific, carefully chosen order) that were in the running for that number 10 spot but got cut and then proceed to "the list."

The “#10” Runner-Ups (in order of how they would’ve gone on my list): Saved!, Dogville, Shaun of the Dead, The Incredibles, Before Sunset, The Aviator, Closer, Ray, Maria Full of Grace, In Good Company, Collateral, Friday Night Lights, Super Size Me, The Bourne Supremacy, and Sideways.

Neville's Top Ten List of 2004:

10. "Hotel Rwanda"--Don Cheadle is fantastic. The story is almost fail-safe and the movie couldn’t come at a more perfect time. I’m guessing “Hotel Rwanda” will make it into the Best Picture Oscar race and I’m betting it has great chances to win in a year so split on what was good and what is essentially ‘the best.’ This intense, and harrowing dramatic reinterpretation of the 1994 events in Rwanda is no picnic and writer/director Terry George likes to keep it this way. Although he could’ve gone overboard, using God-awful images to grab its audience and pull them deeper into the story, that would’ve been almost a cop-out. The real feat here is telling a story about a country on the brink of committing genocide, and watching as the world looks on and switches the channel. And George does this very well. While “Hotel Rwanda” is like “Schindler’s List” in that it is about one man who goes to many lengths to save a small number of people amidst a massive epidemic of homicides being committed, it is unlike it in how Cheadle plays his character moment-to-moment, scene-to-scene, as if he’s right there in 1994, making the decision in the heat of bodies being slashed open with machetes in the street. A stirring, unsettling and movie just about every American should have to see.

9. "The Passion of the Christ"--Speaking of God-awful images....:)?!? No but seriously...obviously, it may seem like a cop-out to include “The Passion of the Christ” as one of the year’s 10 best because I’m a Christian but after carefully looking through the pile, this one makes it for a number of reasons. First, this is a piece of religious art that will be long remembered for its visceral look and feel. It stylizes the Crucifixion, sure, but it also gets under you skin by way of bloodshed and torture, which is not pleasant but daring, uncomfortable and almost irritating. In a way, the film is a myriad of bold, unnerving and semi-queasy canvas paintings of Christ’s road to Calvary. And like every good Catholic filmmaker should, Mel Gibson has mastered the “show don’t tell” principle in making movies. Second, there’s something to be said for the film’s attempt in ‘neo-realism’ movie making. From hearing the words as they might have originally sounded to portraying Roman ceremonial crucifixions probably more accurately than many of us would like to think, it’s certainly fascinating the way the movie unfolds like a giant metaphor: we, the audience, are begging for those moments when we don’t have to see or experience or vicariously live through Jesus’ pain. And finally, Jim Caviezel as the unrecognizable and transformed Christ, Maia Morgenstern in her painful and heartbreaking under-the-skin-and-into-the-heart performance as Mary mother of Jesus, and Caleb Deschaniel’s breathtaking cinematography all give me more reasons to call this one of the year’s 10 best. It’s a great film even though it’s not always a pleasant one (see “Requiem for a Dream” for another example of great filmmaking executed in a disturbing yet powerful way). But hey, can you expect any less from Gibson doing a movie about the death of Christ? I don’t think so.

8. "Garden State" and "Napoleon Dynamite"--I can’t separate the two, I’m sorry. It’s just practically impossible and so I bracket these two movies as my number eight pick because for me they were the best and most surprisingly great films to come out of the 2004 summer (okay so this is kind of cheating b/c it's actually a 'top 11 list' but hey, it's my blog so who the heck cares). Sure big studio hits like “Collateral” and “The Bourne Supremacy” were exceptional movies but I doubt that I’ll remember the summer of 2004 years later as the return of Jason Bourne or my first encounter with Tom Cruise as a gray-haired villain. No, I’ll remember it as that ‘Garden State Dynamite summer’, where I was reminded of two things so true and universal to the human experience: finding yourself and being yourself. “Napoleon Dynamite” was an obvious homage to my generation with its caboodles crowding the porch, Glamour Shots scattered throughout, trapper keepers in every classroom and fashionable styles ranging from mid-80s to late 90s, but it was also the hero that my generation desires: someone not too cool, not too self-righteous and someone who thrives in his/her own originality. Older folks may see Tobey in “Spider-Man 2” as the hero of the summer but for me (and so many other college and high school-aged kids) the real hero is Napoleon. After all, here’s a guy consumed with how others view himself (aren't we all) and self-worth (i.e.,“here’s my girlfriend—she’s a model,” or “I was hunting wolverines in Alaska for the summer, what did you do?”) yet paradoxically, his character is redeemed by the end through a selfless dance act (one of the most glorious and exhilarating scenes of the year) for his newfound friend Pedro. Sure he cares about whether or not people think he’s cool, or has great skills, and constantly talks with his eyes closed (don’t we all sometimes—even if we aren’t physically doing it we’re wishing we could?) but like every one of us, his own true self reaches its full potential the moment he becomes a living, selfless human testament to the world (or rather, every one in the auditorium at the time). And then there is Zach Braff’s character who also ends up finding himself thanks to the help of his newfound friend Sam (this time, the wonderful and crazy and undeniably likable Natalie Portman--who should get Oscar recognition for her work here). In both “Garden State” and “Napoleon Dynamite,” the idea was about uncovering something hidden, great, and very much alive in the two main characters. I wish all movies could make us scream and dance with such humble affirmation.

7. "The Motorcycle Diaries"--Like a beautiful photograph of early 1950s Argentina, with its mountain landscape draping up, over and into the sky, director Walter Salles' film "The Motorcycle Diaries" plays out like a dream with its ode to natural beauty and creation serving as its compass. It is the story of Che Guavara (a leader of the Cuban revolution) and his pre-revolutionary days and a story of two friends on the road with a rusty motorcycle and it's about people changing you and you changing the world. Obviously, the movie has a lot on its plate. Rather than watching an ordinary cross-country road movie, the audience gets to take a journey that changes directions, goes where you least expect and ends up in the most unlikely place. Gael Garcia Bernal (from "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and "Bad Education") plays Ernesto (Che) and does so with conviction and much grace. The movie is about confronting social injustice, and about the poorest of poor that so many of us never encounter, but it is also about so much more. Near the end of the film, so many passages of Scripture came to mind I felt as though my heart was overwhelmed, my mind heavy and yes, my conscience was feeling very guilty. So perhaps the movie's tag line does hold some truth in it (as cliché and trite as it may sound): let the world change you and you can change the world. Pretty good starting point for any kind of social injustice movie, don't you think?

6. "Bad Education"--Sure, director Pedro Almodovar is one of this generation’s most daring and provocative and shockingly versatile directors. And although his past films “All About My Mother” (which I liked until halfway through) and “Talk to Her” (which I loved) have also dealt with similar themes, they’ve never been this audaciously entertaining, which is why “Bad Education” is such a sleazy, gorgeous, and guilty pleasure. On one level, the movie is a homage to film noir films like “Double Indemnity” and “Dead Ringer,” carefully assembling characters who are related by dirty deeds and connected through dirty money. On another level, the movie is about Almodovar himself and his own grey area experiences and encounters with the Catholic church. And on another level (the levels are limitless), the movie is an exercise in telling a story within a story of a story within a story that’s about a movie being made about this story. It gets a little loopy but it’s never tired, and always intriguing. With its opening credits so intensified and spine-tinglingly-stringy, “Bad Education” makes you feel as if you’re watching “Psycho” again for the very first time, thanks to the fantastic Alberto Iglesias, who wrote the film’s trippy and creepy score. Of course, many will hate “Bad Education” and despise it for its opaque and pervasive look at homosexuals, drag queens, and Catholic priests, but for those of us who are obsessive, dorky film buffs, it will be a thin slice of movie heaven baked together with a sexually charged cast, a provocatively controversial story texture and a visually mesmerizing feast for the eyes and ears in its bold and colorful frosting. Beautiful, entertaining, and like always, pure Almodovar—from beginning to end. (Warning: I know because of the NC-17 rating I'll get a lot of flack for putting this one on my list but I couldn't pass it up--it was too good)

5. "Million Dollar Baby"--Okay, everyone in the world is talking about how great this movie is so no matter what, if you choose to see it you’ll probably be disappointed (like I thought I would be). After all, “Million Dollar Baby” is a boxing movie that’s not really about boxing but about the pains and joys of relationships whatever form they may take. Hilary Swank is wonderful again (she won the Oscar in 1999 for “Boys Don’t Cry”) as a small town hick girl who’s always dreamed of making it big in the boxing world. And she constantly wants to give, give, give, while so many people in her life are only about taking, taking, and taking. Clint Eastwood is solid as her hesitant and reserved coach but the real male gem here is Morgan Freeman who arguably gives the best performance of his career (yes, possibly even topping his work in “The Shawshank Redemption”). The three are an odd combination but the movie works great and it’s amazing how each of them slowly slip into your heads and then inevitably, into your hearts. Even when you can predict where “Million Dollar Baby” is going it’s still compelling and intriguing and touching, to say the least. At one point, I was so involved that my heart literally was beating way faster than it should’ve been, yet ten minutes later it seemed to be breaking and falling apart altogether (a very different feeling to experience within the same two hours of the same movie). While the boxing action cuts right through to the cheekbone, the quieter moments in between are the ones that stand out as truly unforgettable and personally thought provoking. It’s no wonder over 200 critics have hailed it one of the year’s best, and for once this year I happen to gladly agree.

4. "Mean Girls"--Finally, a teen comedy to rival its dark, wicked, would-never-be-able-to-be-made-today predecessor “Heathers.” Although “Mean Girls” isn’t as black comedy-ish, it’s definitely just as scathingly funny and even more so enjoyable and witty and oh-so very smart and chic. Adapted from the book “Queen Bees and Wannabes,” Tina Fey brings us a film that is not only a great teen comedy (no that’s not an oxymoron) but it’s a great movie. Aside from “Saved!” it’s the one teen comedy of recent years that seemed to be smarter than its premise may lead you to think. And it was hilarious, as a second viewing of it I’m sure will bring you just as many guilty chuckles as an initial first viewing does so spontaneously. But what I found most surprising about “Mean Girls” was its moral conscience. Never in all my years of watching crappy teen movies have I seen one that contains a moral message that could possibly be livable and gasp!, actually helpful advice. But is this movie really worthy of the title “one of the year’s 10 best?” Absolutely. I would’ve never guessed that back in June I’d be putting this movie on my list but I can’t help it. This is one movie I was not looking forward to see, was never planning on seeing and so, it only fits perfectly that when I was dragged to it (okay not dragged but coerced) that when the movie ended, I shook my head smiling and knew that I had just viewed one of my new favorite films of the year. After all, what more can you ask for when teenagers are compared to wild African animals of the jungle? Gather at the watering hole everyone, Regina’s on the prowl.

3. "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"--In 2002, “Punch-Drunk Love” gave the love story film genre a run for its money. Instead of being formulaic and celebrity-dazed in its appraisal of love, “Punch-Drunk Love” gave audiences a new perspective on love: it’s not always perfect, it includes bad times as well as good, and it’s centered around honesty and forgiveness. “Eternal Sunshine” does the same but the way it stands a part from its older brother “Punch-Drunk” is the way it begins its story with the ending of a romantic relationship. And by the way it shows how pain is necessary in our lives. And the way it shows how much people affect us and change us. And also, the way it encourages ripping up the ideal image or ideal expectation you wish your lover to fulfill, and accept them as they are: broken, human, and far from perfect. I wish every love story was this mature before it attempted to capture and lure its audience in. You just can't trust some romantic movies nowadays, can you?

2. "Kill Bill: Volume 2"--What more could you ask for than this poetic, lyrical and visually entertaining and tour-de-force-ode-to-Western-flicks Quentin film? As a sequel, of course Volume 2 is better than the original but that’s not really the point. It’s a movie that affirms a person’s basic love in the power of cinema: movies often transport us away from reality, and at times they depict reality more honestly than we would ever choose to see it. This Uma epic manages to do both: it dazzles us with realism and lets us escape to a trailer in the desert where Black Mamba snakes lurk, girls with eye patches kill, and that bittersweet side dish called revenge is served up as cold and as cool as ever. Plus, who could ever forget the mythological dialogue on Superman between Bill and The Bride, Billy Budd sitting in his trailer listening to Johnny Cash’s wonderful “A Satisfied Mind” (how ironic), and that good ole’ hyperactive storytelling motif that Quentin has just about mastered? This movie proved that with a really good story, great film entertainment can be both exciting and enlightening.

1. "Finding Neverland"--Maybe I'm a sucker for movies that carry-on the theme of the wonder and beauty of child-like belief and faith and hope (see my last year obsession with "In America") or maybe there's something that touches on the eternal when films capture so subtly what people spend their whole lives trying to understand. Whatever the reason, "Finding Neverland" does just this. The movie deals with that pivotal moment in every person's life where their childhood is no more and they are, in reality, an adult. Call it growing up, growing older, or merely 'the loss of innocence,' but however way you put it, everyone eventually experiences it. Director Marc Forster (director of the brutal yet brilliant "Monster's Ball") does something truly groundbreaking here: he makes adults care about hope and wonder and belief, in a world where adults are taught to care about everything and anything else BUT these things. It might take an hour or so for the movie to hook you but once it does, you'll be in a bittersweet daze of wonder and awe. And even though it’s weird to call it my favorite or the best film of 2004 (because I’m still not convinced it totally is), it makes sense considering the feeling it left me with: cognitively and emotionally moved.

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Hope nothing here made you too upset. I welcome any criticism and comments you feel just screaming to get out. Happy weekend.

9 comments:

Magicfingers said...

absolutely Yea You!! I so enjoyed all the movie comments. Even more so because I haven't seen some of them and now have an idea what i should see. I loved the way you wrote about The Passion of the Christ. One of the best movies ever as far as I am concerned.

Chalupa said...

another great top 10 with reasons. i spent so long finding a list of last year's movies and figuring out what i had seen and then which ones i liked....i was too lazy to write much after that.

Jamin said...

i liked the list. i agree with most, disagree with a few, but thats how it goes, i guess. im working on my list, and if you care to see it on my blog ever, you can check back every now-and-again at

http://www.xanga.com/home.aspx?user=iamyourzero

im excited for this years Oscars, because i feel like this is the first year in quite some time where this isnt one stand-out film thats going to take it all.

Anonymous said...

Do you ever feel like the movies that make the list are the movies that everyone talks about, the ones that make it? Bad question. More specifically, I heard a lot about Hotel Rwanda and figured that it would probably make the list. But what about the movies that didn't get the big media exposure? The Napoleon Dynomites and Supersize Me's that didn't make it. More along the lines of Dark Days, but even less known. What if there were ten really great movies out there that no one, not even Neville, saw? Could they still be considered list worthy? Are we missing out.

--Andy

Neville said...

Magicfingers, glad you liked the passion one (although, i felt like i "still" wasn't explaining why i really liked it). Chalupa, your list is good as I said and when you have time, I'd love to hear more reasons behind it. Jamin, glad you agree (but wondering what ones you disagree on and whY? obviously our lists won't be the same, but there is one you're thinking that you totally disagree with? let me know). AND Andy, I think i get what you're saying and yes that's totally possible. I have a feeling I missed some that were not "big" and that few people heard about, that might have made it on my list (however, i'd disagree about 'napolean' and 'super size me'...those two are on many critics' lists...especially online critics). However, for example....a russian film called "The Return" was recommended by a friend as a missed gem, and so i saw it...but wasn't really feeling the same (i try to be honest with myself--i hope i don't decide purely on what's out and what everybody's heard of). And so, to conclude, yes...even my list is very imperfect. Last year, there are two films I later saw that would've easily made it on my top ten of 2003 ("pieces of april" and "goodbye, lenin!") and those were underground, indie-types that weren't popular, so there you go. You're right. I'm wrong. Let's do coffee sometime.

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Will said...

Neville, happened to drop back by here and thought I might pass along a couple 2004 films that you may not have seen. I'm interested by Andy's comment about films that get talked about being the films that we put on lists.
True...true. I struggle with that myself. Other people's expectations.
Mm-keh, so anyway:
Do Geese See God? (an amazon short film, but good)
The Five Obstructions
Les Choristes
Love Song for Bobby Long
Spanglish
Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War
We Don't Live Here Anymore

Otherwise, some great choices on your list here. Hope all is well in your part of the world.