This seemed like an off year for cinema. How bad was it? Well, I write a column for a women’s monthly, and some months I couldn’t even find one movie to recommend wholeheartedly. As usual, there were plenty of in-your-face junk flicks to wade through, but things like “Van Helsing” or “Catwoman” were just no fun.
Adding to the woe were numerous misfires from directors we’ve come to love: the Coen brothers’ strained remake of “The Ladykillers”; Wong Karwai’s opaque “2046”; Samira Makhmalbaf’s clumsy symbolism in “At Five In The Afternoon”; Zhang Yimou’s disappointing final act in “House of Flying Daggers.” And then there were the totally disastrous forays into art-minimalist tedium by Gus Van Sant (“Elephant,” “Gerry”) and Vincent Gallo (“The Brown Bunny”).
And yet, my Top 10 list filled up pretty easily. I would suggest, however, that the drop-off between “best” and “eminently missable” is quite precipitous. But let’s not wallow in despair: Half the films listed are debuts, with another four representing strong sophomore efforts, so there is plenty of new talent on the rise.
1) “The Return”
A prime example of less is more. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev takes a genre thriller — about an absent father who suddenly returns after nine years and takes his two boys on a suspicious trip — and by holding his cards close, creates something far more ambiguous. This is subjective filmmaking at its best, putting you in the position of the boys and forcing you to share their doubts about their mysterious dad.
2) “21 Grams”
Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s follow-up to “Amores perros” gained a lot of attention for its intricately intertwined narrative structure, cutting between three separate strands of past and present. But on a more fundamental level, it is three massive performances by Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benecio del Toro that hold this together and make it so cathartic. Shame on the critics who ruined it for audiences with their pithy little plot synopses that gave away the whole elaborate set-up.
Anyone who enjoys transformational acting couldn’t fail to be impressed by Charlize Theron’s Oscar-winning turn as serial-killer Aileen Wuornos. But kudos are also due to debut director Patti Jenkins, for refusing to “prettify” her tale or turn it into a more predictable feminist revenge drama. One of the best films on pure, anti-social rage since “Taxi Driver.”
Films about Adolf Hitler are always going to be a hard sell, but this was a very perceptive film on the birth of politics as performance art. Quite timely really, in light of George W. Bush’s “Top Gun” appearance on an aircraft carrier and John Kerry’s stage-managed hunting trip. Noah Taylor was convincingly off-putting as the young wannabe painter Hitler, while John Cusack had the role of his career as an embittered war veteran adrift in hedonism.
5) “The Incredibles”
There are days when I feel like I’m being too hard on the Hollywood “event” flicks, but really, it’s not expecting too much to want jokes that truly make you laugh, and chase scenes that make you go “wow.” Pixar’s latest is proof positive that it can be done, and left me feeling totally justified in demanding creativity. Particularly sweet was its superhero satire, which proved by comparison how dull films like “Spiderman 2” and “Catwoman” were.
6) “Cold Mountain”
Director Anthony Minghella unabashedly aims for the scope and grandeur of an old-school Hollywood epic, and for the most part succeeds. Jude Law’s quest to escape the Civil War killing fields and return home to his true love Nicole Kidman isn’t far removed from Frodo’s journey in “The Return of the King,” with the difference being you felt something here. Character — establishing it vs. ignoring it — increasingly seems to be the dividing line between good and bad cinema.
7) “American Splendor”
The only comic-book movie that didn’t suck in 2004, this “bio-pic” of underground comic author Harvey Pekar found its laughs in grumpy misanthropy and abject failure. That only made its surprisingly feel-good ending seem that much more hard-won and true.
8) “Lost in Translation”
Every gaijin in town had something to whine about with this one, but I would argue that Sophia Coppola’s beautifully understated film had less to do with Tokyo and more about what happens — or doesn’t — between Scarlett Johansen and Bill Murray. A small, ephemeral film that will look better as it distances itself from all the hype and superlatives.
9) “Behind the Sun”/”The Motorcycle Diaries”
These two films by Brazilian director Walter Salles (“Central Station”) ended up being released simultaneously in Japan, but they do share many of the same strengths: evocative South American landscapes, youthful idealism and eyes-open social realism. Salles is a politically aware filmmaker who isn’t heavy-handed, and that’s a rare combination indeed.
10) “Super Size Me”
Morgan Spurlock’s gleeful slam-dunk of McDonald’s and other fatmongers was a better film than the overly-hyped “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and it’s better positioned to convert nonbelievers to its cause. I suspect the first-person documentary-as-reality-TV approach is going to get old fast, but it’s entirely justified here: Spurlock eats McFood every day for a month and his gut visibly expands while his liver turns to “pate.” Can’t argue with that.
Director to Watch: Jonas Akerlund, “Spun”
Best Soundtrack Song: “You Will Be My Ain True Love,” Alison Krauss for “Cold Mountain”
Best Revival: “Walkabout,” from 1971
Most Creative Casting: Anthony Hopkins as a black man and Nicole Kidman as trailer trash in “The Human Stain”
Best Leather Bikini: Keira Knightley, “King Arthur” (Sorry, Halle.)
Most Overlooked: Kevin Costner’s “Open Range”
Best Art Design: the bordello in “House of Flying Daggers”
Best Screen Kiss: Frodo & Sam, “The Return of the King”
Worst Screen Kiss: the two Columbine killers in the shower together in “Elephant”
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