Finally some laughs leaked back into the collective unconscious of American Cinema as some truly funny movies were back on the big screen in 2004. “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” “Shaun of the Dead,” “I Heart Huckabees,” and “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” were all solid laughers. It was also a return to genre films like the appropriately titled “The Forgotten,” Wes Craven’s equally appropriately titled “Cursed,” and surprisingly entertaining brain-fart “Chronicles of Riddick.” It was looking up.
10 BEST FILMS OF 2004
1. ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY – DIR: Adam Mckay This was the zenith of Will Farrell. The utter silliness of this picture makes it just pure amazing. The rumble between the rival news teams, the dog taking a dump in the fridge, and Farrell’s lines like “Knights of Columbus that hurt!” This was also the first introduction into the wonderful world of Paul Rudd. He had been around since “Clueless” and the horrible Jennifer Aniston vehicle “The Object of My Affection,” but he hadn’t really shown up. Here he did, and hasn’t been calling in sick since. Farrell and McKay’s script had been kicking around Hollywood for years, but no one would take a chance on something so absurd until “Old School” turned Farrell into a comic cash cow. It was good to see someone at the top of their career use that influence to take some chances with material that most deemed commercially worthless and breakdown doors with it.
2. CLOSER – DIR: Mike Nichols “Have you ever seen a human heart? It looks like a fist wrapped in blood!” This film is a perfect detail of the destruction relationships can reek on those involved. In Patrick Marber’s script the actions taken by the four leads are like nuclear bombs, incinerating each other’s lives. The performances are flawless especially Clive Owen who originated Jude Law’s role for the stage, but took on the Larry part here to powerful results. Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman are like two generational idealizations of beauty, and their acting chops show that it isn’t just skin deep, even if that is what we are all supposed to be concentrating on.
3. COLLATERAL – DIR: Michael Mann Stuart Beattie’s top-notch script is almost as theatrical as “Closer,” but with more guns. I love the performances of both Tom Cruise as the cold-blooded hitman Vincent, and Jamie Foxx as the impotent cab driver, Max. Also there is little more that I love more than Michael Mann’s direction. Shot entirely in HD this film looks amazing, Mann really being the forerunner with, and main advocate for, the technology, not because of what he says, but what he can do with the image. It isn’t film, and he knows it, and he uses the HD Video as its own medium, respecting the limitations, and utilizing its strengths. He makes the Los Angeles night crisp and dangerous, just like Cruises’ silvery hair in the picture. Xenu would be proud.
4. DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY – DIR: Rawston Marshall Thurber This movie went toe to toe with “Anchorman” for the most quotable of the year, and most of the lines are just as bizarre. Vince Vaughn and Rip Torn are purely hilarious in this picture, but it is really Ben Stiller who brings his funny bone back out of the cold storage he put it in since “Zoolander.” “This is my fitness consigliere Michelle.” “No one makes me bleed my own blood.” “You see that painting? It’s me taking a bull by the horns. It’s a metaphor… but it really happened.” Thurber’s script is amazing, but without Stiller’s delivery the jokes are just ink on paper, and while someone else might have made them work too, they wouldn’t have made me ruin my pants laughing.
5. FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS – DIR: Peter Berg I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – I’m a sucker for sports movies, but Peter Berg takes this one and goes the distance. Sure it is easy to make things seem epic with “Explosions in the Sky” blaring on the soundtrack, but he brings the Michael Mann-like verite style to the West Texas football, and elevates the struggle above that of winey teenagers making it feel universal. All performances are above par including Country star Tim McGraw playing a drunken hillbilly… it was a stretch.
6. THE INCREDIBLES – DIR: Brad Bird Never a more aptly named film. Where Pixar was great with “Toy Story” and “Monsters Inc.” this film was their first truly great work. Not only was the animation flawless so was the storytelling, due in no small part to Brad Bird. He showed his skill as a filmmaker with 1999’s “Iron Giant,” but this picture was a whole different animal. The film is almost not a kid’s movie. Mr. Incredible’s midlife crisis is all too real, made even more poignant by the fact he’s animated. There are some off-color jokes slipped in, one, if I’m reading it right, revolves around anal sex, and was the funniest bit in the film. Go back and watch it, tell me what you think.
7. KILL BILL, VOL. 2 – DIR: Quentin Tarantino Some people classify both “Kill Bills” as one picture, and they are one narrative, but the two halves have distinctly different tones. This second part comes off as almost more sincere than the first, more heartfelt, and by those virtues more effecting. The ending where she achieves the title, followed by the scene of her regret was a real gutsy choice, and pays off big. Tarantino used a similar technique in the final scene of “Jackie Brown” to slightly better results, but it still plays out brilliantly here. Once again, through the fun and goofiness is a true filmmaker at heart who takes chances warping his narratives into strange and wonderful shapes with such a deft hand some mistake his mastery for immature ramblings. Don’t be fooled, there is a definite method to QT’s madness.
8. MILLION DOLLAR BABY – DIR: Clint Eastwood Clint was on a role. No more “Blood Work” or “Absolute Power,” this guy means some serious movie making business. Like Peter Berg Eastwood elevates the sports picture to a new level accomplishing a rather depressing yet moving story of euthanasia. Back in front of the camera Eastwood shines as well with his grizzled all-American decrepitude gruffly spitting his lines through a drawn grimace his evolution in the picture isn’t anything new, but like most of his movies it doesn’t matter. The film is just sad and good and a perfect example why he has been one of the most consistent voices in American Cinema for 40 years.
9. SIDEWAYS – DIR: Alexander Payne This is Alexander Payne’s second appearance this decade, and he brings together a symbiosis of the dismal feelings of the first five years, and an attempt to laugh his way through the tears. Paul Giamatti’s drunken, wobbly character is like watching a master class in acting. If he can make you feel sorry for him for stealing money from his mother that is a true feat. You even feel bad for Thomas Hayden Church for being such a weakling. The funniest moment in the film doesn’t come from Sandra Oh beating Church with a motorcycle helmet, or Giamatti gorging himself on cheap wine expectorated into a bucket by tourists, but by the presence of George W. Bush on a TV while two obese people have sloppy sex. Alexander Payne you are a master of juxtaposition.
10. SPARTAN – DIR: David Mamet I just can’t deny this guy. His movies say something really interesting about mankind. Here he takes on politicians, and their heartless determination toward keeping power. Val Kilmer tries for a comeback, unfortunately most people don’t see Mamet’s movies, which is a shame because he is really good in this picture. His single-minded determination is perfect for a Mamet script, and the lack of emotion is actually a good thing for his character. What I like about Mamet’s movies is the simplicity of the ideas, and the straightforward manner in which he makes the argument, it is just like watching one of his plays only in more than one location.
10 WORST FILMS OF 2004
1. AFTER THE SUNSET – DIR: Brett Ratner Again with the Ratner. This mishandled quasi-noir with Pierce Brosnan facing off against Don Cheadle in de Islands probably was more due to the boring script than Ratner’s hack direction, but it surely didn’t help. Ratner should really stick to the action-comedy genre because it depends more on the actor’s timing than any sort of creativity. Know your strengths is all I’m saying.
2. CATWOMAN – DIR: Pitof Someone had to have been fired for this one. Sure Halle Berry was in tight leather, but not even that fantasy could save this picture. I don’t have enough time to list all the things that this picture is lacking, where it screwed up, or missed the boat. There just aren’t enough words in my lexicon to do the job justice. Sharon Stone tries to do Karate, that say enough?
3. A DIRTY SHAME – DIR: John Waters This movie is crass without wit, vulgarity without humor. Not to say it didn’t try to be funny, but it just doesn’t work. I understand the fact that the MPAA can, and often is, more punitive with its rating system in regards to sex than violence, and the boundaries Waters is trying to push need pushing, but there just aren’t enough laughs here. I want him to succeed, but here he just doesn’t.
4. THE EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING – DIR: Renny Harlin/Paul Schrader I didn’t care which version of this terrible film they released, they both suck. The studio head that wasted all the cash refilming the whole movie to make it scarier and bloodier sure didn’t get their money’s worth because Renny Harlin’s version is just as boring as Paul Schrader’s. This isn’t “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” hell it isn’t even “Cutthroat Island,” and it really doesn’t live up to standard set by the original “The Exorcist .” Never having seen the second movie I can’t say these are the worst of the series, but I can only imagine the Sci-Fi take on this story had to be better than these.
5. KING ARTHUR – DIR: Antoine Fuqua Two years running Fuqua hits a homerun of terrible. Like “Tears of the Sun” this is just a clumsy movie. Pacing, tone, editing, nothing is consistent. Fuqua seems to think he’s some sort of Michael Bay, who seems to think he some sort of Steven Spielberg, but Fuqua feels way more than two degrees of separation from a “Bad Boys,” let alone a “Saving Private Ryan.” I think he should get angry Denzel in every one of his movies because that rage carried “Training Day” into being a decent picture, so if it ain’t broke…
6. NAPOLEAN DYNAMITE – DIR: Jared Hess Another one that could have gone into the over rated section. The story I heard was that an executive at Fox Searchlight showed the screener to her thirteen-year-old son. He loved it so she bought it for 4.5 million, took it back to Peter Rice, and almost got canned. They had to partner with Mtv Films to reshoot and fill with music and then pump ten times the shooting budget into advertising just to turn a prophet. It worked, but I still don’t think anything about this movie is funny. It is just white trash Wes Anderson with an I.Q. less than 90.
7. SAW – DIR: James Wan If anyone argues that this movie made millions, started a franchise, etc. my only question is, “Have you seen this?” It is actually uncomfortable to watch. So jarring, piercing, screeching, so annoying and loud. The super fast cutting, fast motion, and blaring soundtrack are just window dressing to hide the fact that the story is so uninteresting. The twist at the end was surprising only because there were no hints that it was even coming. It came out of nowhere and was just more style without substance. Plus it has ruined the Halloween release slot for five years with its mind numbing, seemingly never ending sequels, and that is unforgivable.
8. SECRET WINDOW – DIR: David Koepp This guy is a great screenwriter when he writes for someone else to direct. “Panic Room,” “Jurassic Park,” and “Spiderman” are all great movies, but “The Trigger Effect,” “Stir of Echoes,” and this just aren’t. It isn’t even due to his direction, the scripts are just bad. Johnny Depp is even laughable in this picture, but never as much as John Turturro as a back woods hillbilly, whose casting alone draws into question Koepp’s sanity. I will say that the final shot, an extreme close up of Depp with braces chomping into an ear of corn, made me question whether the whole endeavor was just a joke in the fist place. Maybe Koepp is a comic genius, and the world has yet to catch up.
9. TAKING LIVES – DIR: D.J. Caruso How much do you have to pay to get Phillip Glass to score your movie? It can’t be that he is in love with the material because both this terrible movie and “Secret Window” were graced with his groovy sounds. Though to the movie’s credit it did get Angelina before she went all United Nations on us so she was still willing to be the sex symbol she really is. Along with “Original Sin” she solidified her place in Dramatically Unnecessary Nudity Hall of Fame. Other than that there isn’t a reason to see this movie, but really, wasn’t the afore mentioned Hall of Fame what the Internet was designed for?
10. THE VILLAGE – DIR: M. Night Shyamalan Or should I say “M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village?” Few filmmakers have the audacity to take possession of their films like he does. He is a master of the twist! His movies are so scary! Nope. This movie is just moronic. Finding out the Village is actually in a modern day Pennsylvanian state park was mind blowing! Just not in the way he hoped. More like, “Really? That’s what you went with?” How does this guy continue to make movies?
MOST OVER RATED MOVIE OF 2004
THE ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF A SPOTLESS MIND – DIR: Michel Gondry It isn’t that I didn’t like this movie, it is just that I feel it is deeply flawed. Visually it is stunning, and the ideas are good enough, but in the middle section it gets bogged down in itself, and it becomes too redundant, scenes repeating themselves with different cool visuals, but not advancing the story or character. Thus the ending doesn’t pack the emotional punch that it should have. Had the middle section been shorter, or with each memory erased from Jim Carrey’s mind he lost part of his personality, or something to push the movie forward the climax on the beach and the reuniting with Kate Winslet would have been heartbreaking. But it wasn’t. My heart stayed intact. Ho-hum.
MOST UNDER RATED MOVIE OF 2004
MIRACLE – DIR: Gavin O’Connor Once again the Disney formula for sports movies moved me. The rag-tag group of B-Team players who beat the Ruskies in the 1980 Olympics is a real feel good movie, unless of course you are a Ruskie. The hockey scenes are filmed with a kinetic energy due to the camera rig they built with skates on it, and it lends itself to a slickness and intimacy with the players and puck that was never present in “The Mighty Ducks.” And then there is Kurt Russell’s hairdo-yes-definitely-do. Best hockey movie since “Slap Shot.”
That’s half way, come back for the next five.
By Paul S. Myers