Great films from world class directors such as Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Robert Zemeckis, Alexander Payne, Walter Salles, Mike Nichols and Mel Gibson dominated the year’s best films. In a year teeming with biographies and controversy, it seems appropriate that four of the years best films are indeed biographies, and both of the most debated films of the year are on my list. |
Despite a lack of great films for most of the year, by years end there were enough good movies to start a short list at over thirty. What was exciting is that several of the films on the list appeared in theatres long before the fall, something usually unheard of as the studios wait until years end to release their great works.
It is a tradition for film critics to compile a ten best list each and every year and it is a job I look forward to doing each year. This year was easier than most, but the decision of which films made up the top five, and their order was particularly difficult.
THE TEN BEST OF 2004
1 . THE AVIATOR…Martin Scorsese directed this superb exploration of Howard Hughes and his early years in Hollywood and fascination with aviation. As portrayed by Leonardo de Caprio in a great performance Hughes is a visionary as obsessed with movies and flying as he is with germs and lint. The early seeds for his obsessive compulsive disorder are seen in the film, as are his relationships with Katherine Hepburn and Ava Gardner. Superb on every level, and the one that should finally get Scorsese his Oscar. De Caprio is a revelation in a towering performance that confirms as the greatest young actor of his generation. A soaring masterpiece and the years best picture.
.2 .SIDEWAYS…Quite simply the best written film of the year from director Alexander Payne who has made a character study that is also a love story. Two guys head off for a week’s vacation before one of them; a former TV star gets married. What we see are two very dysfunctional men, brilliantly portrayed by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church, who meet two lovely women portrayed by Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh. The early favourite for the bulk of the acting Oscars, Giamatti is a favourite as is Madsen. One of the most beautifully acted films of the last twenty five years. This picture manages to be both hysterically funny, realistic and ultimately deeply moving…one of a kind.
3 . THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST…Mel Gibson searing and savage study of the last twelve hours in the life of Jesus Christ, from his arrest in the Garden of Olives to his resurrection. Gibson spares none of the torture inflicted upon this poor man in some of the most agonizing sequences ever put on film. Jim Cavaziel is extraordinary as Christ, giving a near silent performance as a man doggedly determined to fulfill his destiny despite the pain and agony heaped upon him. A stunning achievement and the most realistic study of Christ on film. Deeply moving, extraordinary in its raw power and imagery, the film will never leave your mind after screening it. I overheard a minister say “why should I see it I know the story?” He should see it to gain a greater understanding of what Christ went through, knowingly, in the hours before his death. He knew the punishment coming and marched steadily towards it embracing it, knowing it would bring salvation. For that reason, this minister should see it.
4 . MILLION DOLLAR BABY…Clint Eastwood’s superb boxing film is so much more in the capable hands of this great director. As a tough old trainer who takes on a hillbilly girl, portrayed by Hilary Swank, Eastwood gives the best performance of his career. Swank is electrifying as a young woman who sees boxing as her only way to any sort of success. The tragedy that befalls them is sudden and startling yet the manner in which they support one another is heartwarming. Both actors are simply astonishing, with able support from the great under appreciated Morgan Freeman. Already Oscar winners, both Eastwood and Swank could very well win again.
5 . ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND…One of the great love stories of all time. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet portray a couple who split up and each undergoes a medical treatment that will erase all memory of the other from their minds. Yet he realizes that in erasing her he erases perhaps the best part of himself and the greatest memories of his life, even the hurtful ones. The manner in which they remain together is heart breaking. Superbly acted by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. Daring and courageous, the film furthers the already glowing reputation of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, perhaps the most original writer in movies today. He takes an idea that is fantasy and somehow grounds it in reality.
6 . CLOSER…Mike Nichols’ caustic and acidic study of dysfunctional relationships depends on the great performances of his cast and that is precisely what he gets. Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Clive Owen and Natalie Portman are savagely good in their roles, particularly Portman and Owen. What is stunning in this film is the manner in which the characters wound one another with such ease. Such is love. Amazing performances. Roberts goes further than she ever has before as an actress. The film details why we do the cruel things we do to people we claim to love. What is so wounding about the film is that we have all been on both sides of the hurt, making the film achingly familiar.
7 . THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES…Based on the autobiography of Che Guevara, covering his trip in the early fifties up the continent of South America, we see in the film what made the young asthmatic, medical student as revolutionary. In his own words, “a revolutionary is borne of love”. Nicely directed by Walter Salles, the great Brazilian director who gave us Central Station (1998), the film is marvelous and eye opening. Interesting to see Guevara as something more than a T-shirt icon. Beautifully acted, we gain great insight into this once idealistic young man with his whole life ahead of him, who after seeing what his continent has become joins sides with Castro.
8 . THE POLAR EXPRESS…An enchanting Christmas story brought to life through the vivid imagination of Oscar winners Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks. Based on the book by Chris Van….., the film used a new technology called performance capture to create the brilliant movements of the characters. Hanks creates five voices, including that of Santa Claus in this miraculous film. Every frame could be hung on a wall as a work of art; every moment seems tinged with Christmas memory. Magical, and wonderful throughout the film is a reminder that movies can be the stuff dreams are made of.
9 . KINSEY…Liam Neeson gives a towering performance as Dr. Alfred Kinsey, the biologist who became the world’s leading sex researcher in the forties and fifties. After a disastrous wedding night he dedicates himself to finding answers for other young couples, which becomes his life obsession. Neeson is extraordinary capturing the good doctors own sexual longings, his experimenting with homosexuality, and finally his realization of his deep love for his long suffering wife Clara (Laura Linney). Directed and written with humour by Bill Condon, the film is superb.
10. KILL BILL VOLUME TWO…Quentin Tarantino’s finale to his saga of the bride tracking the persons responsible for trying to kill her, putting her in a coma for several years and taking her child is an homage to the westerns of John Ford and Sergio Leone. The whiz kid filmmaker breaks from his frenetic style of the first film, which paid homage to the martial arts films from Hong Kong to go deeper, allowing the characters to resonate. Uma Thurman is again a knockout as the bride, giving one of the great recent physical performances. Ably supported by David Carradine, Darryl Hannah and Michael Madsen. Hugely entertaining.
Runners-up…The Manchurian Candidate, Spider Man 2, The Terminal, Hotel Rwanda, Collateral, The Merchant of Venice, The Woodsman, Finding Neverland, Vera Drake, Super Size Me, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Incredibles, Ray and Fahrenheit 9/11