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Critic: Ann Morrow

Best of 2004

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Blazingly original and bizarrely poignant, this sci-fi meditation on memory reverses standard narration to move backward from the end of a relationship to the beginning. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet are at the height of their powers as the unlikely couple who undergo mind erasure only to find each other all over again.

2. The Aviator

Scorsese’s best film since GoodFellas, this quintessentially American biography follows the glory days of Howard Hughes, from his smash Hollywood debut with Hell’s Angels to his first mental breakdown. Bursting with pizzazz and hubris, with beautiful aeronautic scenes and bravura recreations of bygone glamour, The Aviator is kept aloft by Leonardo DiCaprio’s evocation of Hughes as a tortured but charismatic genius.

The critics agree: Jet Li kicked ass in Hero.

3. Hero

The first martial-arts film from China’s master filmmaker, Zhang Yimou, Hero is a staggeringly gorgeous fable that works on several levels, including philosophical, cultural, historical, and artistic. A career high for the all-star Asian cast (especially Jet Li as an enigmatic assassin), Hero also astonishes with the operatic intensity of its wu xui choreography.

4. The Corporation

Although it’s not funny or folksy like Fahrenheit 9/11, this cerebral documentary centers on an even more frightening topic than George W. Bush: The escalation of global corporate dominance. Within an amusing framework that diagnoses the corporate business model as pathological, the film does an incisive job of exposing the insidious dangers of its topic—making The Corporation the year’s scariest movie.

5. Maria Full of Grace

This low-key and pitch-perfect drama exposes the hidden destruction of the drug trade while creating one of the most believable and admirable characters in recent memory. Catalina Sandino Moreno as a drug mule who rises above her circumstances is the year’s most promising newcomer.

6. The Village

Badly marketed as a horror film, The Village disappointed fans of frightmeister M. Night Shyamalan. And that’s a shame, because this atmospheric costume drama needs to be seen for what it is: a superbly crafted parable about fear and the price of escaping it.

7. Kill Bill Vol. 2

Gory, cartoonish, misanthropic, deliberately cheesy and studiously derivative. . . . It’s all that and more! Tarantino’s chop-socky opus was the most entertaining two hours to be had in a movie theater since Vol. 1.

8. Japanese Story

Sue Brooks’ near-perfect direction and a tour-de-force performance by Toni Collette transform an unexceptional love story into a haunting travelogue on the mysteries of the human heart. The film is also memorable for its beguiling cinematography, set in the treacherous terrain of the Australian outback.

9. Sideways

The most overrated film of the year (two dirtbags drink wine, hook up with two women who deserve better, and get their lives somewhat together) makes the grade for the realism and wit of its writing, especially the dialogue. Giving the film a crucial boost is how that dialogue is delivered by the quartet of leads: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen are equally exceptional.

10. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The third screen chapter in the Potter franchise breaks out of the uninspired mechanics of the first two to conjure a potent sense of wonder, some enchanting settings, and a more dexterous grasp of the interactions of older children. And the clever, time-bending plot is substantial enough for grown ups.

worst of 2004

1. Chronicles of Riddick

Don’t call it a sequel—Pitch Black deserves better than to be associated with this numbingly overblown and pretentious vanity vehicle. The vanity belongs to Vin Diesel, who reprises his role as Riddick, now an intergalactic savior whose bulging deltoids (at least in close-up) are apparently the most powerful force in the universe. ZZZZzzzzzz.

2. The Terminal

Terminally boring fairy tale about an immigrant (Tom Hanks) who is stuck in an airport shopping center for weeks on end and makes good with the help of his fellow menial laborers. Steven Spielberg’s trademark uplift is about as heartwarming as warmed-over Velveeta.

3. Catwoman

Halle Barry looks fantastic in her high- fashion feline getup, but a fashion spread does not a movie make, especially with a script the cat wouldn’t have dragged in.

4. Van Helsing

Expensive-looking schlock without a single crumb of horror, suspense, or interest. And whoever designed Hugh Jackman’s hat should be impaled on a spike.

5. Head in the Clouds

A lumbering exercise in soft-focus gloss, stagy melodrama, and leering art-house erotica by the ever-more-vapid John Duigan, starring Charlize Theron and Stuart Townsend as two bohemians whose off-and-on love affair is interrupted by World War II.

Critic: Laura Leon

Best of 2004

1. I’m Not Scared

This visually stunning coming-of-age movie delivers on so many levels. At once nostalgic, for childhood pastimes long buried, and thrilling, this was truly the most gripping, honest movie of the year.

2. The Incredibles

Stretching the boundaries of even Pixar’s best films, this paean to individuality is disguised in the latex unitards of superheroes. Funny, subversive, visually sharp.

3. Hero

Tantalizing in its crazy visuals, from flying martial arts experts to tsunamis of golden autumn leaves, Hero is storytelling and filmmaking at their best. Shifting perspectives are noted via changing color themes, made plausible as well as exhilarating by an excellent production team. Inevitable comparisons to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon cannot dilute the fact that Hero is in a league of its own.

4. Open Water

A simple story, shot with a digital camera, of a couple whose tropical vacation turns disastrous when their tour boat fails to pick them up from a scuba dive. Based on a true story, this is the kind of “little” story that Hollywood usually doesn’t know what to do with, but here works extremely well. Even when you know the conclusion, you can’t help but be on the edge of your seat.

5. Vera Drake

Mike Leigh’s subtle movie somehow avoids proselytizing about the controversial subject of abortion, in favor of studying the personality and actions of its title character. Imelda Staunton delivers a devastatingly good performance, which somehow doesn’t grandstand attention away from the entire story, which is both understated and overwhelming.

6. I Heart Huckabees

At times inconsistent, at times bizarre, I Heart Huckabees still merits kudos for daring an audience to think beyond girl-meets-boy, and for blending elements of existentialism, romance and slapstick into a satisfying, if messy, whole.

7. Spider-Man 2

The movie people are probably embarrassed to admit loving it as much as they did. A marked improvement over its predecessor, Spider-Man 2 focuses on the lonely interior life and warring impulses of its title character. Along the way, it delves into themes of responsibility, and enhances the relationship between Peter and the lovely Mary Jane, all with portents of big things to come in a third installment.

8. We Don’t Live Here Anymore

This is on my list partially because the acting, particularly by Laura Dern, is magnificent, but mostly because it wallows in the kind of real-life messy stuff that we don’t often see on the big screen these days. Love and longing, infidelity, child rearing, all within the painfully real context of small-town academia, with nary a glamour puss or special effect in sight.

9. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

As with Spider-Man 2, this movie really nails the series by focusing not so much on special effects, but on the personalities and inner conflicts of its main character. Good guy Harry has to deal with issues like grief, hatred, envy and longing. To emphasize these points, the movie sets look edgier, more gothic and potentially deadly. In the process, apart from its two predecessors, it feels like a full-fledged movie, and not a respectable, reverential rereading of the Rowling book.

10. Collateral

Surprisingly effective—that is, if you’ve tended to pass over Tom Cruise as anything other than aging beefcake. Maybe it’s the gray hair, but he’s chilling as an assassin whose night work is interrupted by a conscience-stricken cabbie played by Jamie Foxx. Director Michael Mann turns L.A. into a third character in a deadly, mesmerizing cat-and-mouse thriller.

worst of 2004

1. Surviving Christmas

Presumably we all have enough Scrooges in our lives to suffice—why must Hollywood continue to subject us to terribly unfunny movies about how stressed out and mean-spirited people get around the holidays? Embarrassingly bad.

2. The Stepford Wives

Despite Matthew Broderick’s dead-on-the-money performance as a retro-thinking hubby, this well-appointed film misses as both comedy and thriller. Yet another unneeded remake that failed to break new ground, or even engage the audience.

3. Ocean’s Twelve

Reread the second sentence from The Stepford Wives blurb.

4. The Clearing

Robert Redford and Willem Dafoe give embarrassing turns as, respectively, a doomed millionaire and the poor schmuck who stalks him. Arty and contrived, albeit featuring a solid turn by Helen Mirren.

5. Against the Ropes

Meg Ryan is, too, serious! Here she pretends to be a boxing promoter, simply by donning red leather and chewing wads of gum. Painful.

Critic: Shawn Stone

Best of 2004

1. Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence

The most visually gorgeous film of the year was animated. Ghost in The Shell 2 presented a decadent, bleak future in which the most humane characters aren’t always human. Haunting, creepy and oddly touching.

2. Dogville

A classic provocation from troublemaker Lars von Trier, who once again went out of his way to argue that people are no damn good. Who would have believed casting James Caan as a vengeful God figure and Nicole Kidman as His daughter?

3. Good Bye, Lenin!

When a sincere, ailing Communist wakes from a coma in a newly reunited Germany, her teenage son does whatever it takes to keep East Germany alive for her. Absurd, sweet and sad.

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Sunset.

4. Before Sunset

This sequel to 1995’s Before Sunrise found the lovers (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) facing middle age’s diminished options and intimations of mortality. Nonetheless, the film was no downer—Before Sunset’s couple weren’t going gently into that good night.

5. Control Room

In the year of the documentary, this look at Al-Jazeera stood out. When a Marine observed that Al-Jazeera was the Arab world’s Fox News Channel, it was a lucid moment of hope. When the U.S. Air Force killed an Al-Jazeera reporter, it was back to reality.

6. Kill Bill Vol. 2

The second half of Tarantino’s shoot-’em-and-slice-’em-up feminist epic delivered a satisfying conclusion. Can we now get the two parts joined together again? Please?

7. Hero

Zhang Yimou matched absurdly formal compositions with extreme action and the power of myth. For once, it was hard to tell which was more beautiful—the set design or Maggie Cheung.

8. Team America: World Police

Every year at least one great movie proves, again, that us folks here in the home of the brave can’t laugh at ourselves. The South Park posse’s puppet film nailed American jingoism and celebrity lefties. That this was a flop means the terrorists have won.

9. The Manchurian Candidate

Jonathan Demme’s political thriller delivered the requisite shocks. More interestingly, it was a meditation on the death of democracy—the murderers being corporations, the media and citizen indifference.

10. Shaun of the Dead

This kind of parody works best when the filmmakers love the subject being parodied. And it was exactly what it said it was: a romantic comedy with zombies. Who can forget the scene in which the hapless heroes mistake a zombie girl for a drunk?

worst of 2004

1. The Dreamers

This one featured pretty naked teenagers in 1960s Paris—and made them unsexy. More than the works of any other major director, the films of Bernardo Bertolucci can be divided into two categories: brilliant and crap. Guess which one this is.

2. Garden State

Zach Braff’s wildly overpraised first feature proved, if nothing else, that the writer-director-star finds himself absolutely fascinating.

3. Dawn of the Dead

The precredits sequence in this remake of George A. Romero’s classic is brilliant. But the filmmakers are then faced with filling the rest of the 90 minute running time with absurdly fast-moving zombies. Fast zombies? What’s next—a slow Road Runner?

4. De-Lovely

This film wasted a wonderful performance by Kevin Kline as Cole Porter. There’s no way to get around those production numbers featuring dreadfully bland singers, however.

5. Silver City

Sometimes, John Sayles’ ensemble movies are great (Lone Star, Sunshine State). This one ain’t.

Critic: Ralph Hammann

Best of 2004

1. Fahrenheit 9/11

Satire or fractured documentary, Michael Moore’s film is heroic, hilarious, touching and an invaluable service to America. The work of a true patriot who knows the temperature at which Republicans broil best.

2. The Aviator

What a return to form for Martin Scorsese with this epic biopic that soars on a literate script, exacting direction, an intense Leonardo DiCaprio and the ever-luminous Cate Blanchett, the best actress of our time (uncanny here as Katherine Hepburn).

3. Intimate Strangers

Starting with a sublime concept concerning a patient and her ersatz therapist, director Patrice Leconte made a film that was equal parts whimsy, suspense and romance. Like all of this director’s works, a total original.

4. De-Lovely

My love of Cole Porter, even in his lesser moments, is unconditional; so too, my enjoyment of this tribute with its spot-on performance of Porter by Kevin Kline and the abundance of delightfully mounted musical numbers.

5. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

A visual masterpiece with every frame a stunner and a loving homage to classic sci-fi films (especially Metropolis) and Art Deco. The presence of the equally scenic Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Angelina Jolie and Bai Ling didn’t hurt either.

6. Hero

A worthy successor to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, this dazzled with innovative colors, martial arts and artful storytelling.

7. Team America: World Police

The marionette film to end all such films. The creators of South Park found the appropriate means to string up Bush-league nationalism and everything else associated with it, including its critics. Also a canny satire of celebrity and filmmaking (with its nauseating trend in vomit to show emotion).

8. Maria Full of Grace

Disturbing, honest and containing a poetic realism few American independent films achieve of late, it featured a splendid title performance by Catalina Sandino Moreno as a Columbian drug mule making a wrenching trip to America.

9. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

A unique disquisition on the relationship between romance and memory, this is Charlie Kaufman’s most accomplished screenplay.

worst of 2004

1. Open Water

This year’s most overrated and pretentious bore; dreck on a par with The Blair Witch Project.

2. I Heart Huckabees

For its stupid title alone do I despise this relentless hucksterism.

3. The Village

Perhaps it was intended to be entirely predictable, but the blind girl’s trek through the forest was just plain stupid.

4. Van Helsing

Bearing no similarity to the movies it supposedly was honoring, one just yearned for the real Van Helsing of Peter Cushing who created more excitement in his taut facial muscles than all of the flaccid special effects of this freak event.

5. The Passion of the Christ

A bit of characterization might have helped; as it was we just watched a nonentity get lovingly and self-consciously tortured. The only martyr here was the intelligent viewer crucified on Mel Gibson’s dull passion.

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