Thursday, December 30, 2004

The Year in Review: Movies

It used to be hard to draft a best list. Back before the shortened Oscar season, many of the year-end awards contenders wouldn’t be released nationwide until February. Now, MILLION DOLLAR BABY is the only major holdout, and I’ll be able to see it next weekend. I wouldn’t be surprised if it factored into my final tally; I’m a big Clint Eastwood fan and I read the F. X. Toole novella on which the film is based. (Although I have to say I thought Toole laid it on a little thick. I’m curious to see how a filmmaker as spare as Eastwood handles the material.)

I could wait until every county was heard from, but where’s the fun in that? So let’s call this my Slightly-Premature-Still-Haven’t-Caught-The-Latest-From-Clint-And-Marty Best of 2004. For starters, I have a rock-solid top 5:

SPARTAN. Am I the only person to consider this the best movie of the year? I don’t care. I don’t care that it was pilloried last week on Andrew Sullivan’s website when the New Republic named it one of the year’s overlooked movies. (The criticism at Sullivan’s site was off-base anyway. David Mamet is non-partisan. He thinks everybody’s a hustler. The film’s unseen president combines the worst excesses of Bush II and Clinton, just as the unseen president in Mamet’s script for WAG THE DOG was an amalgam of Clinton and Bush I.) Mamet’s gripping thriller draws its power from startling bursts of emotion and preys on everyone’s worst fears of politicization run amok. It knocked me on my heels back in March and I never forgot it. What can I tell you? I’m not like everybody else.

SIDEWAYS. OK, I am like everybody else. I love this movie and every screwed-up character in it.

BEFORE SUNSET. For being the least likely sequel ever. For being every bit as intense as a thriller. But mainly for having the best ending in years.

COLLATERAL. Michael Mann’s triumphant return to genre filmmaking asks what a job takes out of a man and what a man takes out of a job.

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. Funny, I found it easy to follow.

Close behind them is a second tier of movies:

BAD EDUCATION. This film noir meditation on storytelling is proof that Pedro Almodovar is the world’s finest active filmmaker.

BON VOYAGE. Did anyone else even see this? A lush, comic WWII adventure that’s also a celebration of style – in life and in movies.

CELLULAR. Laugh if you must. But this was the most fun I had in a theater this year.

HERO. The more political of Zhang Yimou’s two martial arts epics, and the more interesting because of it.

THE INCREDIBLES. Perhaps Pixar’s crowning achievement, and a watershed movie for animation in America.

INFERNAL AFFAIRS. A near-perfect piece of entertainment.

SPIDER-MAN 2. The comic book elevated to the level of opera. The highest compliment I can pay this movie: it made me feel like I was eight years old again.

THE TERMINAL. I thought I was the only person who picked up the blithe spirit of Chaplin here. But David Thomson spotted it, too.

Other quick thoughts on the year. There were three cinematic flashpoints in 2004 – THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, FAHRENHEIT 9/11, and DOGVILLE – and I’m not sure what it says about me that I didn’t care for any of them. For a purportedly spiritual film, THE PASSION focused exclusively on the physical. Michael Moore couldn’t mount a cogent argument. Lars von Trier stacked the deck so that a cogent argument was impossible. Or, to put it another way: too bloody, too muddy, and too cruddy.

Overlooked Performances: Jeff Bridges in THE DOOR IN THE FLOOR, Helen Mirren in THE CLEARING

Performance I Was Afraid Would Be Overlooked: Clive Owen in CLOSER

Personal Cinematic Accomplishment of Which I Am Most Proud: According to David Poland, the lowest grossing film released by a major studio in 2004 was Disney’s THE LAST SHOT, starring Alec Baldwin and Matthew Broderick. It made $465,000. Ten bucks of that is mine.

Unsung Character Actor of the Year: Anybody can throw prizes at the big names. I want to single out someone lesser known who made my 2004 a little brighter. Rick Hoffman has an uncredited bit in THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW as a grumpy New York lawyer. In CELLULAR, he plays a sleazy Los Angeles lawyer. In a few minutes of screen time, he neatly delineates the differences between the coasts. That’s got to be worth something.

See you next year. Bring your own popcorn. I never touch the stuff.