The good, the ghastly and the merely overrated

As movie years go, 2004 was a pretty good one. In fact, it may well have been the best one we’ve had since I started writing this column in 2000. The year was certainly unique, in that it introduced no less than three films I thought merited the year’s number-one slot. That poses a problem, since try as one might, you can’t put three films in one slot.

During the past year, like the one before it, I slogged through some 160 movies. Of those, 15 were pure joy, and another 15 came close to that. That’s not a bad average, even though there were an equal number of movies that can only be described as traumatizingly painful to watch. Those duds, however, were offset by movies that were at least mildly entertaining and sometimes a good bit more than that.

This was the first year I was able to see nearly every possible contender for my “Best of” list more than once. Repeated viewings boosted my opinion of certain titles (Garden State, The Dreamers) and produced the opposite effect in one case (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). So this year, more than most, I’m pretty confident that the passing of time won’t evoke the reaction, “Just what could I have been thinking?”

Ones to watch: The 10 best

1) I Heart Huckabees — After much tussling with myself and repositioning my top three films — each of which I watched three times — David O. Russell’s “existential comedy” emerges as the winner, not in the least because each viewing revealed something new to admire. The first time, I was impressed by the film’s improbable combination of comedy and deeper issues, and the fact that the filmmaker had the good sense to examine those issues from more than one side. The second time, the marvelously tightly structured screenplay stood out. And the third time, these elements were joined by a sense of the movie’s emotional resonance. I’m actually anxious for the film’s Feb. 22 DVD release date, so I can see what a fourth look might reveal.

2) Kinsey — Bill Condon’s (Gods and Monsters) biographical film about sex researcher Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson) is every bit as good as I Heart Huckabees, but it plays in a very different key. This is a bold and beautiful film, and the performances match Kinsey‘s overall quality. There’s not a false note in the casting — from the powerhouse performances of Liam Neeson and Laura Linney to the impish casting-against-type of Tim Curry as uber-prude Thurman Rice to Lynn Redgrave’s heartbreaking cameo appearance near the film’s end. Every aspect of Kinsey contributes to its artistic success — a success that ought to place Bill Condon in the top echelon of American filmmakers working today.

3) The Phantom of the Opera — Essentially, this is my third No. 1 film of 2004 — and it’s as different from the other two as the pair are from each other, proving the diversity of this year’s worthy titles. For once, Joel Schumacher fully deserves to have that recognition — “A Film by Joel Schumacher” — up there on the screen. The movie is old-fashioned filmmaking at its best, and yet still a product of its time. Rich in emotion and beautifully crafted, Phantom is a spectacle in every sense of the word — and a reminder of what films are all about. Don’t wait for the DVD on this one.

4) The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou — Without question, this is the “love it or hate it” movie of the year. There seems to be very little middle ground on Wes Anderson’s (The Royal Tenenbaums) latest film. Life Aquatic takes a little getting used to and doesn’t really gel until the last 15 minutes, but those final scenes bring it all together with a surprising emotional punch. It’s probably Bill Murray’s best performance, and there’s that terrific collection of David Bowie songs on the soundtrack (most of them performed in Portuguese).

5) Bright Young Things — Almost no one saw Stephen Fry’s brilliant adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s 1930 novel, Vile Bodies, and that’s a pity. Bright Young Things somewhat softens the book’s brutally satirical ending, but as literary adaptations go, this is one of the best. What’s more, there’s a great comic turn from the legendary Peter O’Toole. The film will be released on video on Feb. 8. Watch for it.

6) A Very Long Engagement — This re-teaming of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and actress Audrey Tautou is even better than Amelie, though its no-holds-barred depiction of the horrors of World War I is considerably less “viewer-friendly.” The film is clever, moving and visually sumptuous — and it features a surprise supporting performance from a well-known American star. This gem hasn’t hit town yet, but keep an eye out.

7) Garden State — I originally had some problems with writer/director Zach Braff’s debut film (which he also stars in), and I still think the ending is too neat. But after seeing the movie a second time, I’m more than ready to forgive that last false step; the rest of the film, with its comic yet serious examination of what might be called the medicated generation, is good enough to overcome a too pat ending.

8) The Dreamers — This film went on my “tentative” list when I first saw it, but then I dropped it, thinking that maybe its picture of movie geekdom in the late 1960s was just too specialized. But upon second viewing, The Dreamers comes through as brave and brilliant filmmaking, meriting a spot on this “best of” list.

9) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban — Replacing director Chris Columbus with Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien) was an inspired choice for this third — and so far, best — Harry Potter movie. Cuaron’s film doesn’t try to duplicate the book, but instead captures the essence of it.

10) Closer — Mike Nichols’ brutally honest look at the romantic/sexual relations of two couples — played with uncommon brilliance by Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Clive Owen and Natalie Portman — is an uncomfortable film, but the top-notch and very bold filmmaking makes it well worth seeing.

Honorable mentions (and unmentionables).

There were many other worthy titles in 2004. Shrek 2, Kill Bill Vol. 2, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Mean Girls, The Lady Killers, Stage Beauty (which is unlikely to play here, so look for the DVD), The Aviator, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Being Julia, for example. All of these films were on my list at one point or another. And while Eurotrip was never on the list, I freely admit having picked up this movie on DVD the day it was released. The movie’s performance of “Scotty Doesn’t Know” would certainly — were it not for Mick Jagger’s “Old Habits Die Hard” from Alfie — get my vote for this year’s best song from film.

A few other titles that are conspicuously absent were never on my list, most notably those two critical darlings, Sideways and Million Dollar Baby. In sum, I find both films to be absurdly overrated, in much the same manner that I never “got” Lost in Translation and Mystic River last year. Sideways is an OK little movie, but hardly more than that, while Million Dollar Baby strikes me as somewhat less than OK.

Ones to dodge: The 10 worst

1) The Village — There were plenty of contenders for worst movie of the year, but this clunky, stilted, boring would-be thriller from the overrated M. Night Shyamalan takes top honors. With laughable imaginary monsters called “Those we do not speak of” and locations with names like “The shed that must not be used,” this awful concoction gets my vote for “the movie that must not be seen.”

2) Open Water — Produced for what looks like about $1.95, this video-to-film rubbish made an incomprehensible impression on a lot of critics who found its jaw-dropping amateurishness an expression of “realism.” Perhaps, in “reality show” terms, this film about a pair of divers stranded in the ocean rings true. But the only frightening thing about the movie is that people paid to see it.

3) New York Minute — This movie’s probably worse than either of two above, but at least almost no one went to see this absolutely horrible theatrical effort from the Olsen Twins. It’s not just bad — it also exhibits a creepy fascination with presenting the artistically suspect 17-year-old stars in as little clothing as a PG rating would allow.

4) Paparazzi — Hot off his sadomasochistic The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson produced — but let his hairdresser direct — this appalling and hateful (not to mention badly made) film. A revenge opus about the perils of fame and the unfairness of a judicial system that doesn’t allow movie stars to shoot photographers on sight.

5) Raise Your Voice — OK, so there’s yet to be a good Hilary Duff movie, but this latest Duffian vehicle of destruction — a lame Fame rip-off — plumbed new depths in its hopeless efforts to convince the world that La Duff is one of today’s hottest young stars. If Hilary singing Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” won’t drive you out of a theater, nothing will.

6) The Grudge — It was a bad year for horror films, but this latest attempt to make a movie star out of TV’s Sarah Michelle Gellar was one of the worst, edging out even such dogs as The Forgotten, Darkness, Godsend and Resident Evil: Apocalypse. That’s an accomplishment of which Buffy the Feature-film Slayer can be proud.

7) Troy — Lotsa CGI battles and an inflated running time can’t disguise the fact that this lumbering behemoth is little more than one of those 1960s Italian sword-and-sandal affairs dressed up in new clothes. With the exception of Peter O’Toole, Eric Bana and Brian Cox, the acting is laughably bad. And despite his efforts at a stage British accent, I still expected Brad Pitt to call someone “dude” at any moment.

8) Man on Fire — Looking for all the world like it was shot on out-of-date film stock by an orangutan with a bad case of the shakes, this overlong and repulsive movie features a “hero” who thinks nothing of hacking off bad guys’ fingers and shoving explosives up their backsides to get information. After all, they’re the villains; so it doesn’t matter, right?

9) Connie and Carla — The honeymoon is definitely over for Nia Vardolos of Big Fat Greek Wedding fame. This big fat bomb thinks it’s a cross between Some Like It Hot and Victor/Victoria, but in point of fact, it wouldn’t pass muster as a weak episode of Here’s Lucy.

10) White Chicks — Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.

Dishonorable mentions

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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