Saturday, January 15, 2005

Top 10 of 2004 

Normally, I would use this space to complain about how lousy this year was and how good choices for this list were ridiculously scarce, but I can't because . . . 2004 was a good year. Really good, actually: I saw more than enough films worthy of the Top Ten, and they weren't hard to find. On with it, then:

1. Kill Bill, Volume 2 (Quentin Tarantino) - I've heard the complaints: talky, rambling, pointless, not as much fun as the first. Needless to say, I don't agree. I will agree that Volume 2 is a very different animal from Volume 1, but I also think this is the point. Faced with the prospect of splitting his film in half for reasons of time, Quentin Tarantino instead split it for reasons of style, crafting a Western-themed changeup to complement his Asian-themed fastball. Tarantino's indulgent style may irritate some, but I love his incessant devotion to the perfect scene: no sequence exists simply to advance the plot or deliver new information; rather, each is a chance to create a new, small world inside the large one already established. The flashback in which Pai Mei trains The Bride didn't need to be in the film, but I'm sure glad it was.

2. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater) - What I love about Richard Linklater is that he fools me into believing his films have been created on the fly, as a lark, throwing form and caution to the wind, even though closer inspection reveals them to be tightly-controlled works of art. Linklater pulls off his best slight-of-hand in Before Sunset, a film -- a sequel -- created on the self-conscious premise that the original film's lead character has written a book about his experiences in said film, raising the possibility of a hopelessly navel-gazing postmodern exercise. What results is instead a laid-back, unpretentious, engaging movie about two people who simply talk about their lives and gradually reconnect with one another. Nothing in Before Sunset happens by accident, but the beautiful thing is that it feels like it could've.

3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry) - I don't know how Charlie Kaufman makes such zany ideas so gosh-darn entertaining and accessible, but it's a good thing he's around to do it. And I must give extra props to Michel Gondry, who may have screwed up Kaufman's Human Nature, but who thoroughly redeems himself by wedding a brainy script to ever-shifting, haunting, impressionist images. The result is a Kaufman script with the heart magnified, and we get the best of both worlds.

4. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson) - I firmly believe that many of those who labeled Wes Anderson's latest effort a "disappointment" will be eating their words after a few more viewings. The Life Aquatic is an Anderson film through and through, but with an opened-up world, one in which his characters' trademark obsession with the past seems all the more ridiculous. I think there is a point to be gleaned from all this, but for now I'd just like to talk about how much I enjoy spending time inside Anderson's obsessive little mind. Who else would make a boat look like a dollhouse? Or would just invent something called a "jaguar shark"? Or wants to sing David Bowie songs in French? We need to nurture this stuff, people.

5. Sideways (Alexander Payne) - This film has gotten its ass kissed by so many critics' groups that it almost seems too obvious to include it here. On the other hand, it would be much harder to leave Sideways off this list, so here we are. Paul Giamatti's performance alone is worth the price of admission; plenty of films about lonely middle-aged men have been made over the years, but few have been so accurate. (Is this what I'll be like when I'm in my forties? Best not to think about it.)

6. The Incredibles (Brad Bird) - Brad Bird's first collaboration with Pixar Studios is just a big, fat pitcher of fun concentrate, marrying the former's affection for bygone eras to the latter's propensity for breathtaking set-pieces, and further smashing the notion that a studio can't maintain a high level of quality filmmaking. Pixar keeps its standards high, and detailed, intelligent entertainment like The Incredibles is the proof.

7. Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood) - We (critic types, mostly) like to talk about the importance of originality in cinema, about how filmmakers need to keep innovating so the medium will keep evolving. But a film like Million Dollar Baby reminds us of why certain genre cliches were created in the first place: when played well, they work. Clint Eastwood's boxing film may not be the most original thing around, but I can't imagine how it could've been done better.

8. The Corporation (Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar) - The Corporation is probably exactly as fascinating as a documentary lecture about the dangers of a corporate world could possibly be. Could I pay a bigger complement to this film? Okay: trust me on this one, the 145 minutes really fly by. Abbott and Achbar never run out of new information, new perspectives, and new stories. Seek this one out; it's great, thought-provoking stuff.

9. I [Heart] Huckabees (David O. Russell) - Some were likely put off by David O. Russell's wordy, philosophical dialogue, but I never saw I [Heart] Huckabees as a lecture. It's a funny, creative, and poignant ensemble piece about the search for connection, and our desperate need to know that we're not alone. That, and: "Fuckabees!"

10. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (Adam McKay) - Surprised? Honestly, I surprised myself a bit with this pick, which will surely be appearing on more Worst 10 than Top 10 lists this year. My justification is thus: I like to reserve my tenth spot for something off-kilter or unexpected, and though there were plenty of other choices that could easily have gone here (Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Dogville), none were as oddball as Will Ferrell's ode to . . . well, I'm not sure what exactly, but nothing made me laugh harder all year. A man explaining the meaning of true love by singing "Afternoon Delight"? You can't buy inspired weirdness like that.

Honorable Mention (not necessarily in order): Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuaron), Dogville (Lars von Trier), Maria Full of Grace (Joshua Marston), Control Room (Jehane Noujaim), Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi), The Spongebob Squarepants Movie (Stephen Hillenburg), The Bourne Supremacy (Paul Greengrass), Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman (Takeshi Kitano)

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