Friday, April 30, 2010

Year in Review: 2004

2004 was an excellent year for movies. There were quite a few films that were deserving of high praise – in fact come back to me next week, and I may have a different film at number 10, as there were just too many to decide from.

10. Vera Drake (Mike Leigh)
I think Vera Drake might just be the best film of Mike Leigh’s career. It stars Imelda Staunton is an amazing performance as the title character who in 1950 London “helps girls in trouble” by performing abortions for them. This is done without fanfare or bombast by Leigh, who simply observes Vera as she goes about her life – performing abortions is just one of things she does. Leigh makes the point that the rich were able to get abortions done legally and cleanly – all they had to do is find a doctor who would say that it had to be done for the “woman’s safety”, and pay them enough to get it done. Meanwhile, the poor have no one but people like Vera to turn to. The film is an expertly crafted drama that looks at working class life in this neighborhood of England with open eyes – it doesn’t romanticize or demonize anyone involved, but simply sits back and observes. A wonderful little film.

9. Bad Education (Pedro Almodovar)
Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education is like a Hitchcock thriller with a gay twist. The film is about two boys who in the early 1960s discover cinema, and their own budding sexuality, and are molested by their teacher and Catholic priest. Now 20 years later, the two have lost touch, and one has become a famed director, when someone claiming to be the other (Gael Garcia Bernal in an amazing performance) shows up with a screenplay he wants his old friend to direct – but insists on playing the lead role himself. Thus begins a thriller of a movie, where long buried secrets come out, and sex and death is forever intertwined. Out of all of Almodovar’s films, I think Bad Education maybe my favorite – not the best, but the one I enjoy the most. Bernal is simply amazing in the lead role – requiring him to essentially play different characters who all inhabit the same body. The lush cinematography is an Almodovar trademark is very much on display here. A wonderful thriller, with sexual overtones.

8. Collateral (Michael Mann)
Michael Mann’s Collateral is another one of his relentless action films that starts out strong, and just keeps getting better. Tom Cruise delivers one of his best performances as a professional hit man who hires cab driver Jamie Foxx to drive him around for the night. Foxx doesn’t know what he is getting himself in for. The action takes place over the course of one night – where Cruise forces Foxx to drive him from one location to the next – he needs to kill five people in that time – so they have to keep moving. The movie is essentially about these two very different men – the violent, unremorseful Cruise, and the good guy Foxx just trying to survive. There are excellent cameos littered throughout the movie (the best undoubtedly by Javier Bardem, although Mark Ruffalo is excellent as well). The cinematography by Dion Bebee is excellent – pushing digital photography into new realms of excellence – and the movie doesn’t let up until the final moments. Had the movie had a little bit of a stronger ending, this easily would have placed much higher on this list.

7. Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood)
Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby seemingly came out of nowhere in 2004 to win the best picture Oscar. Much like the film’s release, the film itself sneaks up on you. At first it appears to be a well made film about a grizzled old boxing coach (Eastwood himself, in a great performance) who begrudgingly takes on his first female boxer (Hilary Swank) and helps turn her into a champion. Morgan Freeman offers support as the wild old man who hangs out in the gym. But the first two acts of Eastwood’s film simply serve to make us care about the characters – build up a love and respect for them, so Eastwood can hit us hard in the third act of the film, which makes the movie much more than another boxing movie. Eastwood is not a fancy director – he plays things close to the vest – but he handles the film amazingly well. Even in the final act, he isn’t milking tears from the audience. Any tears the film gets, it earns. One of the triumphs of Eastwood’s career – both in front of and behind the camera.

6. The Incredibles (Brad Bird)
Brad Bird moved to Pixar with this film after making The Iron Giant - one of the best of the traditional animated films in recent memory. The Incredibles is one of those films that are endlessly rewatchable. It is also one of Pixar’s more complex efforts – a fun superhero movie, a great action movie, a touching family drama, a hilarious comedy, and a commentary on our times when we try and make everyone feel special, rewarding people for the most mundane of tasks. The Incredibles is breathlessly exciting entertainment, brilliantly well animated and a great story told with wit and precision. This is the film when we really knew that Bird was a special filmmaker.

5. Dogville (Lars von Trier)
I know that Von Trier enrages as many people with his films as he engages. This decade, he took his films to another level. I could have just have easily included Dancer in the Dark or Antichrist on this list (shamefully, there wasn’t enough room), but I do think that Dogville is his best, most engaging film. Shot on a bare soundstage, the movie tells the story of Grace (Nicole Kidman in a fearless performance), who comes to the small mountain town of Dogville on the run from her past. At first, she finds the people helpful and kind, but soon they start to take advantage of her. Kidman’s performance is brilliant – perhaps the best of her career – but I think it is Paul Bettany who truly makes the film great. He holds himself above the rest of the people morally speaking, but at heart, he is really just another spineless coward. Dogville, at nearly three hours long, is engaging, fascinating and incendiary. Only Von Trier would even attempt to make this film.

4. The Aviator (Martin Scorsese)
Unlike most of his cohorts who came of filmmaking age in the 1970s, Martin Scorsese is still turning out great films. The Aviator is at first glance, just another splashy, big budgeted Hollywood biopic, concentrating on Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the years before he became the crazed, germaphobic recluse who locked himself in his Las Vegas hotel and never came out. DiCaprio perfectly captures Hughes – which is a challenge because physically, I don’t see much resemblance. The movie is essentially about how the same things that destroyed Hughes – his possessiveness – is also what made him great in the first place. Brilliantly filmed by Scorsese and Robert Richardson, the film is almost three hours long but moves at a restless pace throughout. DiCaprio is great, but he is supported by a wonderful cast – most notably Cate Blanchatt in her Oscar winning turn as Katherine Hepburn. The Aviator is one of the many triumph’s of Scorsese’s career.

3. Sideways (Alexander Payne)
Alexander Payne’s Sideways is a sly comedy for grown-ups. Two men go on a wine tasting tour on the weekend before one of them is to become married. Paul Giamatti is the wine connoisseur (which in his case is a fancy way of saying alcoholic) who is still reeling from the fact that his wife has left him, and he cannot get his latest book published. His best friend is Thomas Haden Church, who just wants to let loose and have fun before he gets married. They meet two women – Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh – and that’s where things get really interesting. Sideways is a movie about two middle aged men still stuck in adolescence, who with the help of the women in their lives, start to take real steps towards adulthood. All the critical bashers of the movie – who claimed that most movie critics who celebrated the film looked like Paul Giamatti and wanted to bone someone who looked like Virginia Madsen – were misguided. This is just a lovely, life affirming little gem of a comedy.

2. Kill Bill: Volume II (Quentin Tarantino)
When I first heard Quentin Tarantino was going to make his epic Kill Bill two movies instead of one I thought that it was just his massive ego, combined the Weinsteins greed that prompted the decision. However, although both films are very much a part of a whole, they are two distinct movies. This second chapter is less hyper active then the first film – more dialogue driven than the relentless action of the first installment. Uma Thurman once again anchors the film as the vengeful Bride who wants to get the last two of Bill’s henchmen (Michael Madsen and Daryl Hannah) before moving onto Bill himself (David Carradine). All of these actors are brilliant, and I loved that Tarantino slowed the pace of this movie down a little bit to allow more time to explore his unique world and vision. Every time I think that Tarantino has been driven mad by his ego, he comes up with a masterful film like this one to win me back.

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michael Gondry)
Life is about making mistakes and learning from them. It is our memories, of both the good and bad times in our lives that make up who we are as a person. And if you take away those memories, all that is left is hollow shell – a body without a soul. Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind understands this, and together they have made perhaps not the greatest love story of the decade, but the greatest film about love. Jim Carrey gives easily his best performance as a man who finds out that his ex-girlfriend, Kate Winslet, has undergone a procedure to erase all memory of him from her mind. For spite, he decides to go through the same process – only part way through the procedure, he realizes that he wants to hold onto those memories and starts fighting back, trying hide memories inside different parts of his brain. Like all of the films written by Charlie Kaufman, this one is about the mind, and how it works, and is endlessly imaginative film – visually inventive from start to finish by Gondry, brilliantly bringing to life Kaufman’s ideas. (The films Gondry has made since this one prove that while he remains an inventive filmmaker, he should get someone else to write his movies). Carrey and Winslet are a perfectly matched pair in this film – both diving headlong into their roles, and taking risk and risk, all of which pay off brilliantly. When at the end of the film, they decide to try again, even though they know that last time it didn’t work out (although they have no idea why), they are in a way reclaiming their humanity from technology. A brilliant movie for our times.

Just Missed The Top 10: Mean Creek, Undertow, Infernal Affairs, Infernal Affairs II, Fahrenheit 9/11, Assassination of Richard Nixon, The, Closer, Spiderman 2, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Terminal, The, Baadasssss!, Hero, Friday Night Lights, Dreamers, The, Brothers, Ladykillers, The, Kinsey, Birth, Time of the Wolf, Very Long Engagement, A, Red Lights, Zatoichi, Before Sunset, Spartan, Maria, Full of Grace, Dawn of the Dead, I ♥ Huckabees, The Woodsman.

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood)
Back in 2004 no matter how much I loved Eastwood’s film, I was cheering for Alexander Payne’s minimalist comedy Sideways, with the hopes that Scorsese would finally win Best Director for The Aviator. It didn’t work out that way, but I am okay with how things turned out. True, I still think those two films were better than this one – but this is better than most films that win the award, so I’m okay with this.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Jamie Foxx, Ray
Jamie Foxx does a dynamite impression of Ray Charles Taylor Hackford’s biopic about the famed singer – and his struggles with drugs and fidelity. But to me, that’s what the performance remains – an impression. Hackford’s direction is a little too by the numbers for me, and although the film is entertaining in the extreme, it isn’t great. Very good, but not great. How the hell they didn’t nominate Paul Giamatti or Jim Carrey I’ll never understand.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby
Hilary Swank is very good in Million Dollar Baby, but the truth of the matter is that she has the least challenging role of the three leads. The film is really Eastwood’s – about his journey of self discover more than Swank’s who is really just there to support him. She is really good, don’t get me wrong, but did she really need a second Oscar so soon?

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby
Morgan Freeman finally won his Oscar for his excellent performance in this film. He plays the type of role that has become his speciality since The Shawshank Redemption in 1994 – that of the kind, old black man who helps out the white characters. I know that sounds like an insult, but Freeman brings untold levels of depth, nuance and emotion to those roles that help to transcend that. I still would have voted for Thomas Haden Church or Clive Owen in Closer, but Freeman certainly does deserve an Oscar.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchatt, The Aviator
Much like Jamie Foxx in Ray, Cate Blanchatt is called on to do an impersonation of a famous person in this movie – in this case Katherine Hepburn – and does so brilliantly. But Blanchatt goes a little deeper than Foxx does, getting under Hepburn’s skin a little bit, and making her into a more complete character. I have no idea if the tale told in the film is true - some have insisted that the relationship lasted longer in the movie than in real life - but it hardly matters. It is a dynamic performance by a great actress, so no complaints here, even if I would have given the award to Virginia Madsen's sentimental performance in Sideways.

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