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Sex, Time Travel, Wine and Wizards
The Best Films of 2004

by Jeremy Mathews
 
 

his year in cinema turned out to be a solid one, with more very good films than can fit on a top 10 list and enough great ones for me to rave about.

  The Top 10
   
 

   The Dreamers
   
 

Bernardo Bertolucci returned to form in a big way with his stunning, nostalgic look at the passion of Paris in 1967, when movies, sex and politics exploded and—before the violent riots escalated—anything seemed possible. Michael Pitt plays Matthew, a student from the United States studying in Paris and watching as many films as he can at the legendary Cinematheque Francais. When protesting the government closing the Cinematheque, he meets a brother and sister, Isabelle (Eva Green) and Theo (Louis Garrel), and moves into their apartment when their parents go away on vacation.

While the world around them is imploding, the three dreamers form a unique friendship that’s sometimes exhilarating, sometimes sexual, sometimes awkward and sometimes a combination of the three as Matthew feels his way into the twins’ already unique bond. Bertolucci captures the cinematic spark of the time both by inserting clips from classic films like “A Band of Outsiders” and “Scarface” and visually referencing great moments from past films. But Bertolucci creates completely new moments as well—a shot of a race up the stairs through the bars of an old elevator, the introduction of Isabelle chained to the doors of the Cinematheque as she reveals that she has always been free—to communicate the excitement of the time, before young Matthew has to wake up to the real world.

   
 

   Before Sunset
   
 

Richard Linklater made one of the best—and most unexpected—sequels of all time when he followed up his 1995 romance “Before Sunrise” with “Before Sunset.” The film revisits the characters nine years after Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) met by chance on a train in Amsterdam and decided to spend the evening together before he went back to the United States and she to Paris. Linklater follows Hawk and Delpy through the streets of Paris with a subtle, observational style that looks simple but could have turned disastrous in the hands of a less capable director. This time around, the characters are older, wiser and less idealistic, but still feel the spark of communication and passion that made the first film so magical.

   
 

    The Aviator
   
 

Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator” takes on one of the most curious figures in American history with an energetic spark that captures both the spirit of a forward-looking genius and his tragic flaws. Concentrating on the earlier years of Howard Hughes’s life,before he became a complete recluse but when his obsessive-compulsive behavior and fear of germs was still a problem, Scorsese depicts the remarkable life of a man whose obsessions led both to glory and self-confinement. While other directors might have turned Hughes’s behavior into a freak show, Scorsese—aided by the best performance of Leonardo DiCaprio’s career—conveys the emotional impact of Hughes’s crippling fear. Here is a man that could take on the biggest airline while it had help from the U.S. government and challenge the Motion Picture Board’s prudery, but couldn’t open a door because it was covered in germs.

   
 

         Primer
   
 

In an age when most films don’t make any sense when you actually think about them, Shane Carruth’s “Primer” demands that all its implications be considered. With a miniscule budget of about $7,000, Carruth redefined the science-fiction genre with a story that starts out in a boring suburban landscape and turns into the most accurately twisted and incomprehensible time travel film ever made. After three viewings, I understand most—albeit not all—of the film, but the emotional arc of a strained friendship comes through even in the first viewing. While there have been other puzzling films that require multiple viewings, there has never been anything quite like “Primer.”

   
 

      Moolaadé
   
 

The great Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene’s “Moolaadé” is about female circumcision, more accurately referred to as genital mutilation. And while this subject matter alone will make some people believe that this is not a film they want to watch, Sembene’s film is a layered, lively drama that deals with both cultural change and the bravery it takes to enact it. Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly) is a strong woman who was unnecessarily injured and scarred due to genital mutilation, and takes several young girls who don’t want to be circumcised into her home, where a spiritual spell denies the townspeople the right to enter and take the children. Radios and other couriers of knowledge and information are shunned as the elders attempt to force their tradition upon women who are no longer convinced that it’s the only way to live. Sembene examines how the protest affects the different parts of the community, while reminding us that knowledge is the ultimate weapon against cultural oppression.

   
 

   Kill Bill, Volume 2
   
 

While I admired the style and energy of 2003’s “Kill Bill, Volume 1,” it didn’t all come together until the second half of the movie came out in 2004. Quentin Tarantino’s homage to grind-house films began with an overwhelming pastiche of action eye candy, and concludes by deconstructing the revenge genre. The second installment includes considerably more of the writer/director’s brilliant dialogue, and while nothing matches the stunning volume of the first half’s climax, the more intimate fights are even more engaging because of the personalities behind them. Tarantino gives Uma Thurman’s determined performance as The Bride the payoff she and his brilliant scenes so richly deserve.

   
 

      Sideways
   
 

The funniest film of the year, Alexander Payne’s “Sideways” is both painfully and hilariously observant of the human condition. Paul Giamatti stars as Miles, a struggling writer, junior high school English teacher, wine enthusiast and only mildly reliable friend from San Diego who takes his old friend Jack, played by Thomas Haden Church, to wine country as a celebratory trip before Jack’s wedding in a week. They’re there to taste, golf and, Jack makes clear, to have sex with some women other than his fiancé. Giamatti grounds the comedy with his character’s overly serious outlook. Unable to get over his two-year-old divorce or communicate the ideas of his novel to anyone, Miles fumbles through despair, drunkenness and moments of clarity in his attempt to reclaim a satisfying life. The screenplay by Payne and Jim Taylor, based on Rex Pickett’s novel, is a clear choice for adapted screenplay awards.

   
 

     Vera Drake
   
 

The great British director MIke Leigh’s “Vera Drake” is heartbreaking in its simple storytelling of a loving mother and kindhearted woman who—without pay—performs illegal abortions to help lower-class women who have no other options in life. Imelda Staunton gives a brave performance as an older woman who skillfully manages her household and looks after her neighbors while performing secret operations and harboring a secret past. Leigh’s tragedy examines the differences in classes in 1950s England while depicting a woman who has nothing but the best intentions, and is an ignorant innocent in a world of corruption and hypocrisy.

   
 

  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
   
 

Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is a dizzying study of romance that falls into none of the traps of the standard romantic comedy. While less scientific than “Primer,” the fictional technology in the film is also more about ideas than eye candy. Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay plays on the history of a relationship after it has ended and the main characters, played by JIm Carrey and Kate Winslet, decide to erase each other from their minds as a form of retaliation. Gondry creates the feelings of a perfect moment that lingers even after a relationship has gone sour, while creating the bizarre interior of a memory being erased. Kaufman’s screenplay uses elements of science-fiction and romance to create a completely original examination of the joy and turmoil of relationships.

   
 

   Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
   
 

Alfonso Cuaron brought the third episode in the Harry Potter series to new levels of cinema and performance with “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” The third film in the series opens up the setting of Hogwart’s School with visually amazing locations that weren’t in J.K. Rowling’s book, and expands the emotional depth of the first two films. Daniel Radcliffe as Potter, alongside the charming Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, has aged with the series and under Cuaron’s direction has achieved a new level of maturity. Luckily, Cuaron keeps the wonder and discovery in heavy supply as well.

   
 

   Twelve Tied for Eleventh Place

OK, OK. So this section usually contains 11 films, but I miscounted and don’t want to cut any of them out. If there were room, I would have been proud to have any of these on my top ten list.

Mario Van Peeble’s “Baadasssss!” is a loving and honest look at the mad production of his father Melvin’s (whom he plays) black cinema landmark “Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song.” Anchored by Don Cheadle’s brilliant performance as a politically uninvolved hotel manager who helps protect his family and many other people from the Rwandan genocide of 1994, Terry George’s “Hotel Rwanda” skillfully captures the horror and humanity of the tragedy.

Gabriele Salvatores’s “I’m Not Scared” beautifully explores the surreal loss of innocence of a small Italian town through the eyes of a young boy who discovers friendship and betrayal in unexpected places. “The Iron Giant” writer/director Brad Bird’s “The Incredibles” combined the director’s creativity and emotion with the magic of Pixar’s 3-D computer animation.

With its impressive cast, Bill Condon’s “Kinsey” makes a powerful film about standing up to societal restrictions and finds a cohesive narrative in a complex life. Brad Anderson’s atmospheric “The Machinist” features an amazing performance by Christian Bale as a skeleton-thin insomniac. Joshua Marston’s “Maria Full of Grace” offers an honest look at the life of a Colombian drug mule. Jean-Luc Godard again tinkers with cinematic form with “Notre Musique.”

The oppressive life in Afghanistan under the Taliban is mercilessly depicted in Siddiq Bramak’s “Osama.” Sam Raimi improved on his original film and freshened up the super-hero genre with “Spider-Man 2.” Kevin Macdonald’s reenactment documentary “Touching the Void” recreates a harrowing near-death mountain climbing experience. And Jean-Pierre Jeunet reunites with his “Amélie” star Audrey Tautou to examine a wartime mystery of love and intrigue in “A Very Long Engagement.”

   
 

Special mention should also go to these 30 films, all of which deserve a look: “The Agronomist,” “Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer,” “Bad Education,” “Closer,” “Collateral,” “De-Lovely,” “Dig!,” “Enduring Love,” “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Finding Neverland,” “The Five Obstructions,” “Garden State,” “Good Bye, Lenin!,” “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” “Hellboy,” “Intimate Strangers,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” “The Mother,” “Ray,” “The Return,” “The Saddest Music in the World,” “The Seagull’s Laughter,” “Silver City,” “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and…Spring,” “Super-Size Me,” “Tarnation,” “The Terminal,” “Twilight Samurai” and “Undertow.”

And no one should have missed the restored prints of classics by Italian filmmakers: Gillo Pontecorvo’s “The Battle of Algiers” and Frederico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.”

Special mention, with rights reserved to include them on a future list if and when they receive U.S. release, goes to Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Consequences of Love,” Shona Auerbach’s “Dear Frankie” (due in March), Nimrod Antal’s “Kontroll” and Kore-eda Hirokazu’s “Nobody Knows” (due out in New York City in January).

jeremy@red-mag.com

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