by Tony Dayoub
Continuing my series of posts assessing the best films of the decade, today I spotlight my favorite films of 2004. Following last year's particularly weak showing, this year proved to be quite a boon for American cinema, so much so that I didn't leave room for any foreign pics—for which I'll be properly chastised, no doubt. A reminder: I cannot judge movies I haven't seen, so if you feel a film you like was unjustly left out, it might be that I never saw it. At the end of the month, I'll post my ten best for 2009. I will then follow up with my 10 best films of the 2000s.
And now, in alphabetical order, the ten best films of 2004...
The Aviator, director Martin Scorsese - Leonardo DiCaprio and Scorsese's most fruitful collaboration thus far. This Howard Hughes biopic focuses on some of his most productive years as an aero-design innovator (moonlighting as a lingerie engineer to maximize his new starlet Jane Russell's natural assets in one funny sequence), before sanity starts to slip away. A sequel could prove interesting (only with both director and star's participation). Casting here is a bit uneven. Cate Blanchett as another famous Kate and Alec Baldwin as Pan Am exec Juan Trippe: perfect. Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner and Jude Law as Errol Flynn: not so much. But this gleaming bauble of a film is beautifully shot by Robert Richardson (Inglourious Basterds), and scored memorably by Howard Shore.
Birth, dir. Jonathan Glazer - Glazer's adult approach to the fairy tale idea of eternal love between a wife (Nicole Kidman) and her late husband—who may be reincarnated in a boy (Cameron Bright) with the same name, Sean—often goes right up to the edge of disturbing. But it never crosses the line despite the director's Kubrickian eye for the events unfolding onscreen. A large part of the credit goes to composer Alexandre Desplat (The Twilight Saga: New Moon) for orchestrating one of the most lushly romantic scores ever committed to celluloid, and definitely the best score of the 2000s. Desplat keeps Glazer's tale tethered to a dreamy, fanciful plane at counterpoint with the grimness of Harris Savides' wonderfully dark cinematography. And Glazer and his editors, Sam Sneade and Claus Wehlisch, cut the movie so well to the music, that it's almost as if the score existed before the film was even shot. The first shot, a long take of the older Sean running through a snowy Central Park is the most absorbing and powerful opening to an American film in years.
Closer, dir. Mike Nichols - A sadder companion piece to Nichols' earlier exploration into sexual politics, Carnal Knowledge (1971). Here, the women (Natalie Portman and Julia Roberts) get a greater opportunity to have their say than in the original film which was purely told from the perspective of Nicholson and Garfunkel's two cads. And what they say is as rough and shocking as any bitter recrimination tossed at you during a relationship-finisher with a significant other. Patrick Marber contributes the expletive-laced screenplay based on his own play.
Collateral, dir. Michael Mann - This cat-and-mouse exercise left me cold when I first saw it theatrically. I just wasn't hip yet to how delicate Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron's digital video photography really is. Optimum screens are required, and at that point most exhibitors were out of the loop. Only on an HD home screen did the beauty of the low-light photography (which to my unskilled eye, looks mostly like ambient lighting) reveal itself, and the film came to life. Night clouds pregnant with the glow of L.A.'s sodium lights have never looked more vivid. Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx have great chemistry in this, a rare outing as a nihilistic baddie for Cruise.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, dir. Michel Gondry - A paradoxical documentary-like look into the human soul is the best way to describe Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's vision. Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) again treats a well-worn subject—the difficult break-up—with imaginative whimsy, poetic reverence, and melancholy reality. Jim Carrey—an often polarizing presence when allowed free rein—plays it remarkably straight here, even when he regresses to his memory's version of the child he once was. Kate Winslet nails the sprightly fuck-up Clementine, who incites the events in the film when she goes to Lacuna Inc. to have the memory of her relationship with Carrey's Joel erased.
I ♥ Huckabees, dir. David O. Russell - A thought-provoking madcap existential detective comedy may sound inherently contradictory, but somehow Russell (Three Kings) pulls it off. And his cast—actors (like Dustin Hoffman, Isabelle Huppert, Jude Law, Jason Schwartzman, Lily Tomlin, Mark Wahlberg, and Naomi Watts) with distinctly different approaches to their craft—are always on the same page (or blanket). You'll know you understand the film if you not just laugh at, but appreciate Watt's admonishment, "I'm in my tree talking to the Dixie Chicks, and they're making me feel better."
The Incredibles, dir. Brad Bird - Equal parts James Bond and Fantastic Four filtered through Jim Steranko's dynamic aesthetic is the basis for Pixar's best movie. Director Bird also infuses the film with a personal touch, addressing the way starting a family can change one's life overnight. A wonderful John Barry/007-inspired score by Michael Giacchino (Lost) seals the deal.
Kill Bill: Vol. 2, dir. Quentin Tarantino - The promise Tarantino displayed in volume 1 of his epic is fulfilled in this vastly superior followup that's a cross between a spaghetti western and a chopsocky flick. Perhaps it is because here he graduates to a deeper concern with the emotional underpinnings of the Bride's quest than the physical histrionics of the first film suggested (the Bride finally gets a name, for one thing). Uma Thurman is given a chance to exercise her acting chops in ways she hasn't since her last alliance with the director in Pulp Fiction. And she holds her own quite well opposite David Carradine as Bill, despite Tarantino's overreliance on hip dialogue in the third act when a visceral catharsis is what's really called for.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, dir. Wes Anderson - A transitional film for Anderson, I think. Aquatic seems to open up the canvas somewhat, and his collaboration with animator Henry Selick (who brings the sea fauna to life) predates their partnership in Fantastic Mr. Fox (Selick ultimately quit). The best sequences in the movie—a tour of Zissou's ship, the Belafonte, in cutaway; the Belafonte's hijacking by pirates; Team Zissou's rescue of Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum)—evoke the feeling of children playing pretend war games while running around with dad's minicam, or at the very least, one of Max Fischer's plays come to life. Forget about the absurdity of hearing Bowie songs reinterpreted in Portuguese by Zissou's Brazilian crewman, Pelé (Seu Jorge). Any film that cuts a montage to Devo's "Gut Feeling" gets points with me.
Napoleon Dynamite, dir. Jared Hess - I rarely get into comedies. They've either got to be extremely witty or so absurd as to feel like they were shot in some alternate universe. This film falls into the latter category. Not only is Napoleon (Jon Heder) incredibly inane, he seems postively insightful next to the rest of the denizens of his small town. This is perhaps my most controversial pick of the decade, and I'll surely hear so from someone in the comments. I can't even tell you why this makes me shake with paroxysms of laughter every time I see it. The fact that it defies analysis is one of the reasons it appears here.
For more of this ongoing series, click here.