Critics love lists, and I am no different. I think there is a certain list fatigue that sets in at the end of the year, so I realize that my list may sail over your head if you've been reading lists from other critics (as I have). And admittedly many of my picks are the same as others'. But it's still a yearly ritual I can't resist, and in case any of these films passed you by, they are all more than worth seeking out. I could probably have expanded the list to 15 or 20, and since I saw (at last count) 140 movies released in 2004, those are pretty decent odds. Looking back on the whole list of 2004 releases to compile this list and to fill out my ballot for the Las Vegas Film Critics Society, I came away thinking that this was actually a very good year for film, if not the best year in other respects. So here's my self-indulgent list (links are to my reviews in Las Vegas Weekly, where applicable).
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
This is an exhilarating, adventurous, marvelous film, easily the year’s best. Everything, from Charlie Kaufman’s hyperactive and poignant screenplay, to Michel Gondry’s vibrant and inventive direction, to the stellar and moving lead performances from Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, is perfect, and at Oscar season, when safe, predictable awards-baiting dramas are filling theaters, it’s important to remember what truly inspired filmmaking looks like.
2. Before Sunset
Richard Linklater's sequel to his sweet, heartfelt 1995 drama Before Sunrise is one of the most unlikely successes I can think of, considering how little the original called to be revisited. But it's also superior in many ways to its predecessor, a lovely rumination on aging and regret, with two effortless and affecting performances at its core, from Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. I think it's wonderful that the two best movies of the year are romances, and not romantic comedies that tie their unlikely stories up with a neat little bow, but real, heart-wrenching romantic dramas that show the often fucked up ways that people behave in relationships.
3. The Aviator
Honestly, I'd be happy if Hollywood called a moratorium on biopics, because most of them are the epitome of mediocre, and even good ones tend to be fairly obvious. But then every so often there's one like this, a film that not only tells the story of someone's life but also emerges as a genuine work of art on its own. I know that there are aspects of Howard Hughes's life that Scorsese left out, and I don't care. This is a movie that knows what it wants to do and succeeds at doing that, telling its story and not worrying about what Hughes-philes will say. I can't say enough good things about Leonardo DiCaprio's lead performance, which should win him an Oscar but unfortunately probably won't, losing out to a good but inferior performance in a much inferior film (Jamie Foxx in Ray).
4. Spider-Man 2
Proof positive that blockbuster entertainment can be grand, wonderful art, this is this year's Lord of the Rings. Sam Raimi surpasses his original film by building a richer, more complex story, keeping his focus on his evolving characters, introducing a more nuanced villain, and never forgetting to include the big action and big special effects.
5. The Dreamers
Totally forgotten by nearly every year-end wrap-up, Bernardo Bertolucci's ode to the French New Wave, which came out in February and got mixed reviews, is a challenging and bold drama, another movie about relationships that doesn't offer easy answers. It features a stunning debut performance from Eva Green, who deserves to become a huge star, and manages to be both sexy and dangerous while never becoming prurient, despite its NC-17 rating.
6. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Another overlooked gem of this year, Kerry Conran's visual marvel was a box-office flop that deserves a second chance as a cult classic (and will probably get it). Perfectly capturing not only the look but also the dialogue and plotting of old serials, Conran's film is cornball fun that's also the labor of love of a budding auteur. With as much heart as craft, Conran tells his exciting adventure story so engagingly that you forget about the artifice and just lose yourself in the experience.
7. Garden State
Here's another romantic drama, although this one allows things to resolve a little more simply and positively, which isn't always a bad thing. Zach Braff may be a little too earnest and ambitious in his writing and directing debut, but this is a funny, affecting and wonderfully acted film, with Natalie Portman giving the best performance of her career (too bad it was overshadowed by her slightly less excellent turn in Closer).
8. Vera Drake
Not even out yet in Las Vegas, and I have no idea when or if it will be, but this is a movie that I was sort of dreading seeing and just totally knocked me out. I've always been a little afraid of Mike Leigh movies, which are known for being tough and depressing, and while Vera Drake is both, it's also bold and powerful filmmaking. Imelda Staunton is amazing in the title role, and she should get an Oscar nod even if the rest of the film is unjustly ignored. I'm now a Leigh convert, and I'll definitely be seeking out more of his stuff to see, depressing or not.
I'm almost begrudgingly putting this one on here, because while I like it, I think the hype has gotten a little out of hand. I think Alexander Payne made better movies in the darker Election and About Schmidt, and I think this is an easy pseudo-indie choice for groups to hand out awards to. That said, it really is a good movie, with beautifully drawn characters and a dynamite performance from the always-reliable Paul Giamatti. I just hope Payne doesn't go all California and optimistic after this success; he's best when he's cranky and bitter.
10. The Incredibles
Looking back, I probably should have given this a higher rating, since it really did nearly everything Spider-Man 2 did with making the superhero genre an effective vehicle for an emotionally rich story, and it had those awesome visuals to boot. I can't wait to see what Brad Bird does next; it's been a while since animation has had such a popular visionary. I wonder if Pixar's bubble is about to burst, what with Cars being pushed back to 2006 and Disney making knock-off sequels to all their properties, but for now this is the latest well-deserved feather in their cap.