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Movie Review
The Best Films of 2004

The Best Films of 2004

By Anthony Kuzminski

I have had a challenging time choosing my favorite film of 2004. While I love everything about Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator”, watching it did not transform my life. Now, a film does not have to change my life in order for it to be the best, but usually every year, there’s a film I believe everyone should see, no matter what their tastes in film may be, because they will be profoundly moved by it. My answer came to me this winter during a week where I was in bed sick watching DVD’s. I was watching Metallica’s documentary, “Some Kind of Monster”, a film I had not seen since a preview screening in May of 2004. I slowly realized I wanted to know everything about this movie which meant watching forty deleted scenes and listening to both commentary tracks. While Scorsese’s film is about the rise and fall of a virtuoso human being, the Metallica movie is about the deconstruction of a band and their struggle to survive not as a band but as humans in complex and long term relationships. Call me sentimental, but no other film moved me or showed me a greater study of the existence of human beings than this movie. “Some Kind of Monster”, along with “Hotel Rwanda” are the two films on my list below that every human being should see no matter what. These are more than pieces of art but more importantly life changing events.

1. “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” 2004’s best documentary is also its paramount film. No other film in recent memory better exhibits the human condition better than Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s (the directors behind “Paradise Lost” and “Brother’s Keeper”) document of the metal band Metallica falling apart over a two-and-a-half year period, while recording the album ‘St. Anger”. The struggle of a band coming to terms with each other, and their inner demons, was the ultimate fly on the wall experience. It also showcases a hero who comes out of darkness into the light and completely transforming himself in the process. Movies make us want to believe that people can change, when in reality, they don’t. We always root for the character that has fallen from grace hoping they can pick the pieces back up and start again. This is a fascinating study of a band coming to terms with each other as friends and collaborators. What occurs in this film is one of the most profound and beautiful things one can ever witness; the resurrection and rebirth of a human who was lost but now is found. Therein lays the beauty and magic of this film. Metallica has yet to brake even on the money they put into this film, however, none of that should matter as they have a document that will last for generations of people to watch, make them look inward and hopefully make them better people. No other film, in the last decade, has made me reevaluate my life more as this one did.

Academy Award Winner2. The Aviator (Art Direction, Cinematography, Film Editing, Costume Design, Cate Blanchett - Actress in a Supporting Role)
Martin Scorsese’s epic masterpiece, filmed in the vein of “Citizen Kane”, may not have the expressive punch of “Raging Bull” or “Taxi Driver” but it’s still tour de force filmmaking demonstrating the fragility of the human condition and how all of the money in the world can not overcome inner obstacles. Leonardo DiCaprio gives the performance of a lifetime playing the eccentric Howard Hughes, a powerful man whose rise to the top is as famous as his fall from grace. Cate Blanchett also delivers a dead on impersonation of Katherine Hepburn in a film in which every frame is perfect; from the story to the acting to the masterful direction of our greatest living director, Martin Scorsese.

Academy Award Winner3. “Sideways” (Writing - Adapted Sceenplay by Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor)
Is this film overrated? No way, from the moment it ended right up until this very moment, these characters and their journey have stayed with me. Director/ writer Alexander Payne does not write in a black and white world, but one where real people deal with genuine issues. The metaphor of a great wine and how it affects your life is driven home beautifully in the film with breakout performances from Virginia Madsen and the always underrated Paul Giamatti. Madsen’s haunting eyes say so much in this performance. She is deserving of the Oscar.

Academy Award Winner4. “Finding Neverland” (Score - Jan A.p. Kaczmarek)
The film follows the back-story of the creation of Peter Pan. This film is triumphant in the level of sentiment given by Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet. Their performances are flawless. This is a fragile story which could have been perceived as disturbing, but their performances elevate it to a deep level of empathy. This film is miraculous in its triumph of character development as we laugh, cry, dream, feel loss and imagine a better world with them and through them.

5. “Garden State” Who would have thought the star of the NBC sitcom “Scrubs” would be able to write, direct and star in this wonderfully eccentric film of a late twenty-something looking for significance and purpose in his life? The film delivers uproarious and compassionate scenes along with performances that make you feel like you are experiencing it right there with them. Zach Braff’s direction is just right and he takes us on an inner journey through the swamps of New Jersey, while romanticizing it with its celebrated soundtrack. This film has so many superb qualities, not even a 5,000 word essay could do it justice. Look for this film to become a cult classic, “The Graduate” of my generation.

6. “Hotel Rwanda” Every person living on God’s green Earth should see this film. Is it easy to watch? No. However, it is easily the years most important and profound film. Like Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List”, this film documents the truly horrific events that occurred in Rwanda in 1994. Don Cheadle’s performance is the best by any actor on celluloid in 2004. There is a moment in the third act where he simply breaks down and does not utter a word. Nothing needed to be uttered as his face and body have already told us everything.

7. “Twilight Samurai” This is 2004’s greatest love story of a widow samurai (Hiroyuki Sanada) in the 19th Century who struggles with everyday life as he tries to raise his family. He is an honorable man thrown into turbulent situations. The fight scenes in the film are intense, not for their over the top choreography, but for the truthfulness behind how each fight is fought. If Akira Kurosawa were alive he was be envious of this film, it’s every bit as compelling as any of Kurosawa’s samurai films. Brewing beneath the surface is a secret love that slowly inches into the samurai’s life and heart and influences it in ways he never thought imaginable. The end of the film is so profoundly moving that it had my girlfriend near tears. Sometimes love can conquer all. 8. “Kill Bill, Vol. 2” Quentin Tarantino’s sequel fleshes out the major characters from his 2003 modern day kung fu masterpiece. David Carradine gives the performance of a lifetime in this underrated masterpiece. Tarantino may have taken six years between “Jackie Brown” and “Kill Bill”, but it was worth it for this gory, yet fixating masterpiece which will be adored and studied in film schools for decades to come.

9. “A Very Long Engagement” Jean-Pierre Jeunet reunites with his “Amilee” star, Audrey Tautou in a tormenting romance during World War I. While her lover is pronounced dead on the battle field, she searches for clues and hints in the hope her life long love…is still alive. The wonderful charm of “Amilee” remains while Jeunet paints on a larger landscape encompassing extraordinary battle scenes.

Academy Award Winner10. “Million Dollar Baby” (2004 Best Picture - Clint Eastwood, Albert S. Ruddy & Tom Rosenberg, Morgan Freeman - Actor in a Supporting Role, Hilary Swank - Actress in a Leading Role, Clint Eastwood - Director)
This is Clint Eastwood’s best film since “A Perfect World”, eleven years ago. “Mystic River” had more holes in its plot than Sonny Corleone had after his demise in “The Godfather”. Eastwood’s characters, while not flashy, are real and we live with them in their own worlds. Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman give performances which will bring them Oscar gold. Even side stories and subplots, while not essential to the storyline, somehow feel crucial while watching the film. The third act demonstrates subtlety and restraint in what could have easily become another “Rocky”, instead Eastwood turns the other cheek and brings us into their anguish, grief and sorrow, which viewers will most likely never forget.

11. Before Sunset Richard Linklater may be the most effective filmmaker working today as he balances Hollywood films like “School of Rock” with his independent films like this one and “Tape”. “Before Sunrise” and its sequel, “Before Sunset” are two of the great romances of the past quarter century. It’s all dialogue, but we inhabit these characters from the second the film starts until it ends. The sequel is a decade down the line with new issues and challenges in front of them in their now complicated lives. It’s rare in life you find someone you can connect so deeply with and talk about anything with. Films about these subjects are even rarer.

12. “Kinsey” Liam Neeson delivers a tender, yet complex performance, of a man who changed American society simply by studying them. Liam Neeson brings great humanity to an intricate and faulted man, but one whose heart was sincere and one who forever changed American culture with his studies of sexuality. The film balances the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of love better than anything I have seen put on film.

13. “Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle” This is the most utterly insane and idiotic film from 2004 with a number of moments that go beyond reasonability, but it’s also one of the funniest films I have seen since “There’s Something About Mary”. A classic comedy that I guarantee will have more than a cult following within a few years. The writing, pacing and performances by John Cho and Kal Penn are better than anything Jim Carrey has ever done in the comedy arena. The cheetah scene is a classic, as is Neil Patrick Harris’ cameo as himself. Two words come to mind; “Love stains”. I’ll let you discover the rest.

14. “House of Flying Daggers” Move over “Crouching Tiger & Hidden Dragon”, this film is so exquisitely gorgeous and dazzling that the story does not matter; the art direction, cinematography and choreography of the fight scenes are unlike anything you have ever laid eyes on before. Director Timou Zhang (who also directed “Hero” with Jet Li) has crafted a martial arts film that will enthrall your visual senses.

Academy Award Winner15. “Spider-Man 2” (Visual Effects - John Dykstra, Scott Stokdyk, Anthony LaMolinara & John Frazier)
2004 was the year of the sequels. Not just movies in it for the quick buck but films that were as good as or even better than their predecessors. On this list alone, I have four sequels in the top twenty and another two in the runners up category. No film exceeded its predecessor like “Spider Man 2”. Sam Rami is a master storyteller. With this sequel he peeled off extra layers to the complexity of Peter Parker and those closest to him. While I enjoyed the original, the sequel will one day be looked upon in he same light as “The Empire Strikes Back”, as a sequel that almost eclipses the original from your memory.

16. “Maria Full of Grace” Every American should see this film to remind them of what a great country we live in. It follows the journey of a girl from Mexico with no opportunities, so she becomes a mule carrying drugs with her into America. Her journey to New York is both triumphant, gloomy and in the end, uplifting. While many people find issues with America and consistently criticize it’s work ethic and morale’s, this film is a reminder of what an extraordinary country we live in and how fortune we truly are.

17. “Baadasssss!” Mario Van Peebles film about the making of his father’s film, "Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song" is unlike any other ‘making of’ movie ever produced. This film is an eye-catching document and tribute to his father. What makes this film so interesting is that Van Peebles himself was there on the set to witness all of this and now he has taken it and made it into a docudrama to show the struggles and triumphs of the making of the first independent black film.

18. “Closer” The four main characters of “Closer” induce so much pain on one another, if you walk out of the theater happy; you need to see a psychologist. Many have complained about the downbeat and dark nature of this film, but its harrowing storytelling fits these four characters. They are so utterly confused by lust and love that in the end, we realize none of them will ever be truly happy or content, by choice. Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman and Jude Law all give exquisite performances which will pulverize your mind and heart. None of them are likeable, yet in some odd way, we can identify with their insecurities. Mike Nichols directs the film with grace and gave his actors room to breathe and bring these unlikable characters to life.

Academy Award Winner19. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (Original Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman; Story by Charlie Kaufman & Michel Gondry & Pierre Bismuth)
This is a film to be seen more than once to fully appreciate it. Jim Carrey goes out on a limb and takes on a challenging role and Kate Winslet shines in an over the top role as his off the wall girlfriend. Michel Gondry’s direction is subtle but the man of the hour is writer Charlie Kaufman. I would give anything to spend a day in this man’s brain. The genius behind “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” gives us a scenario where two people break up and to ease the pain, they have a medical procedure where the memory of the person will be erased from their minds. Only Charlie Kaufman could come up with something as maniacal and twisted as this, and make it work.

20. “Bourne Supremacy” Matt Damon’s spy thriller, like “Spiderman 2”, surpassed the original with complex action scenes and an engaging plot. However, besides innovative direction and a smart script, it is Matt Damon who wins us over as he inhabits this character completely. In a film like this, casting is as important as the script. While watching the film, we are always aware that we are watching Jason Bourne, never do we think we’re watching Matt Damon. I for one can’t wait for further adventures with Jason Bourne.

Honorable Mention “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” Every Wes Anderson (“Rushmore”) film relies on the quirkiness of Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson. Their scripts are rich on character and the subtle pacing, directing and editing of all of his films have made them classics. I left “The Life Aquatic” admiring it more than loving it. This was the first Anderson film to not be co-written by Owen and he is sorely missed. I feel that the heart found intensely in both “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” is absent here. However, Bill Murray’s performance and the cleverness of the situations these characters find themselves in will warrant repeat viewings, once it comes out on DVD. Come see me in a year or two and I bet this film, in retrospect, will be near the top ten of this list.

Runners up: “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”, “My Architect: A Son's Journey”, “Super Size Me”, “The Terminal”, “Spanglish”, “Open Water”, “Schrek 2”, “Harry Potter 3”, “The Polar Express”, “The Passion of the Christ”, “Fahrenheit 9/11”, “The Door in the Floor”, “The Clearing”, “Collateral”, “Saved”, “Spartan” and The Incredibles.

Worse Film of the Year: “The Stepford Wives” Nothing else from 2004 came close to the catastrophe this film is; abysmal direction (from Frank Oz no less), pathetic acting and a script that lacks vision. I came out of the film with more questions than answers. To make matters even worse, this film could not decide if it wanted to be a comedy or a horror film. Not once did I laugh and there was not one frame of film that had me scared, not even remotely. This does not even warrant a free viewing on cable, avoid at all costs.