A second opinion

2004 was a year of many wonderful and unforgettable films, including a goodly number aimed at audiences who can appreciate mature themes and subtlety. There were also some unhappy misfires that should have been left on the cutting-room floor. Here are my takes on the best and worst of the lot.

The best

1) Phantom of the Opera — The most haunting and visually extravagant movie in recent memory, Phantom is mind-bogglingly gorgeous. The music is terrific, too, but you could trip out on the imagery even if you turned the sound off.

2) Touching the Void — This re-enactment of the true story of British mountain climbers in Peru is viscerally thrilling throughout. One of the most exhilarating and truly terrifying movies I’ve ever seen.

3) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban — In the third entry of the Harry Potter series, goodhearted, courageous kids prove that friendship can conquer anything, including the threatening forces of the “dark arts.” But even with their magical powers, the young wizards have the same challenges as normal “muggle” teenagers: homework, peer pressure, budding romances and the universal quest for independence. What I wouldn’t have given to see movies like this when I was growing up!

4) A Love Song for Bobby Long — This tense, moving and original film (director Shainee Gabel’s first effort) explores the meaning of family; John Travolta has never been better, and Scarlett Johansson shines again. (The film will open in Asheville soon.)

5) The Aviator — Classic Hollywood: big, bold, brash and better than you expected. You’ll never look at an airplane again without marveling at the sheer miracle of flight.

6) Finding Neverland — An enchanting tribute to Peter Pan writer James M. Barrie and the eternal longing to relive a childhood that never was. Victorian England has never looked so beautiful or so far, far away. Another Oscar nod for the incredible Johnny Depp.

7) Kinsey — A complex, powerful and sophisticated evocation of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey and his times.

8) Sideways — The touching story of two average guys on a wine bender in southern California vineyards and the women they encounter. A film so genuine you really want to pretend you don’t see parts of yourself on the screen.

9) Ray — Actor Jamie Foxx has turned the story of legendary musician Ray Charles into a legendary biopic. His portrayal is so realistic you forget you’re watching a movie.

10) My 10th-place listing is a tie between two real-life sports dramas: Miracle, which recounts the astonishing U.S. hockey win at the 1980 Olympics, and Friday Night Lights, which is based on Texas high school football stories. Even though I don’t like sports, these movies made me a fan.

The worst

1)Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story — This sometimes funny movie is utterly ruined by an obscene, mean-spirited insult inserted amid the end credits.

2) Surviving Christmas — Pornography and crassness infect the holidays.

3) Never Die Alone — Rapper DMX starred in this violent, senseless and sleazy exercise in repulsiveness.

4) SuperBabies: Baby Geniuses 2 — Keep the little ones away from this puerile junk.

5) Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason — A shallow woman with terrible hair and worse manners is supposed to be the role model for today’s everywoman? Goddess help us, I hope not!

6) Agent Cody Banks: Destination London — Wimpiness that insults preteens.

7) The Village — Great intentions and stunning imagery, but an underlying premise of deceit, rather than mystery, ruined this film. What a shame.

8) First Daughter — Let’s hope this embarrassing sappiness about an American president, his silly daughter and invisible wife never appears on foreign screens.

9) Shark Tale — A sickening premise posits gangsters as heroes for children. Ugh.

10) The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou — Bill Murray plays a pseudo-intellectual who pretends he’s in a midlife crisis. Soooo boring.

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