2004 Best/Worst

2004 In Review, Under Wraps, and Tied to a Chair

As we close the book on the year 2004, it must be said, above all else, that it was certainly a year, all 365 days. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone that would argue otherwise. We had celebrities name their children after fruit, we had not one, but two, count them two Britney Spears marriages (not to be outdone, Jennifer Lopez threw herself into Marriage No. 3), not one, but two, count them, two movies about presidential daughters, and the continued annoyance of a certain hotel heiress that doesn’t mind taking calls while she’s taking it from behind. It seems that the only thing 2004 was short of, besides common sense (see: election results), was a bunch of high-quality movies. Moving on, let’s look back at the year that gave us the highs of gratuitous nudity, the lows of gratuitous violence, and all the majesty in between.

To make it more fun, I’m dividing up this column into three sections. The first will discuss some of the greater movie trends, the second will be my own Best and Worst of 2004 list, and the third and final section shall cover some individual awards, honors, and some more dubious mentions of the year that was 2004.


PART ONE: A YEAR IN FULL

2004 started off like any year. January served as a dumping ground for Hollywood’s leftovers, and if you think comparing films like My Baby’s Daddy, Torque, and Chasing Liberty to cold, ill-prepared, unwanted food is cruel, then apparently you weren’t one of the paying customers to such cinematic masterpieces as My Baby’s Daddy, Torque, and Chasing Liberty. America, at the start of 2004, we got served. We got served hard. And America, for once, we may have deserved it.

But then, lo there was a shining light at the movie theater. A messenger arose, someone that would lead the flocks of ticket buyers to the Promised Land of comfy chairs, large drink holders, and surround sound. This messenger braved personal annihilation, the scorn and ire of peers, and ultimately triumphed three days after a very Good Friday. The messenger’s name? Saint Mel of Gibson.

Passion Fish: Ideology finds a place at the theater

Mel Gibson must have been a little nervous when 2004 began. He had spent $30 million out of his own pocket to direct a movie portraying a graphic recreation of the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ. Not only that, the entire movie was in two dead languages, Aramaic and Latin. No wonder the film was such a hard sell to studios. Plus there were nasty rumors of anti-Semitism haunting the project. After all, who would be interested in over two hours of subtitled Jesus brutality? As it turns out, plenty.

The Passion of the Christ, Gibson’s own passion project, opened with over $80 million and went on to become a national phenomenon, eventually grossing over $350 million and becoming one of the most profitable films of all time. The film has even placed Gibson atop Forbes list of wealthiest celebrities (Oprah is probably somewhere planning her comeback).

While Gibson sleeps on a gigantic pile of money he needs to congratulate the grass roots marketing efforts. When anti-Semitic rumors were bandied about in the press, Gibson and company were reaching out to congregations. They appeared on Christian broadcasts and gave exclusive screenings for religious figures, primarily ministers, priests, and rabbis. There was even a whole catalogue of Passion related merchandize that charitable pastors could purchase (I have a copy from my father). Fortunately, there were no Jesus action figures with real bleeding action. Gibson and company targeted folks who don’t normally go the movies; you know, the kind of folks that don’t have the time or interest to pay 5-10 dollars to see Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. Gibson and company made The Passion a religious experience, and boy was it ever.

Before you could shake a New Year’s hangover, The Passion of the Christ was one of the most hotly anticipated films of the year. Once it was released and breaking box-office records the sentiment out there was you just had to see it so that you could join the water cooler talk. There was so much Passion play. People praised it as a moving account that would make them reevaluate their lives, and people condemned it for its graphic, near-pornographic amount of violence. You had to see the film just to keep up with the state of the culture.

Gibson had become the shepherd for a new flock of conservative ticket buyers. He was preaching to the choir, and people went home in their cars finally ceasing to say, “Why doesn’t Hollywood make more films for people like me?” Gibson had tapped into a population of filmgoers that Hollywood had ignored. In contrast, another filmmaker, himself of considerable girth and bespeckled cap, tapped into a different ideological population of film patrons and became a saint to frustrated, enraged liberals. His name? Sir Michael of Moore.

Moore has always been a fearless political muckraker, going as far back as his first feature, 1989’s Roger and Me. He’s tackled complex issues head on and confronted corporate giants to bring answers to the little guy getting screwed. In March 2003, Moore finally received his first Best Documentary Oscar for Bowling for Columbine, a somber and funny look at America’s zealous gun culture. During his acceptance speech he famously railed against the Bush administration and deemed the war in Iraq to be morally wrong. Moore was greeted by a chorus of boos and left the auditorium. Moore went diligently to work on what would become a landmark scorching indictment of the Bush administration called Fahrenheit 9/11. At the 2004 Cannes film festival, which Fahrenheit 9/11 won the Best Picture award, jury president Quentin Tarantino remarked that Moore’s film had to be the first time someone had fashioned a movie to justify an acceptance speech.

In such divisive, turbulent times, it was no surprise that Fahrenheit 9/11 would find an audience with left-leaning, blue state folks. What was a surprise is that the same people that went to church every Sunday, talked about “moral values” as utmost importance in the presidential election, and had gone to see The Passion of the Christ, went to see Fahrenheit 9/11. The film ignited controversy over its subject and Moore’s documentary tactics, notably assembling two images and creating meaning where there was none before. Conservative pundits compared Moore to Goebbels, and Bush senior called Moore a “slimebag.” How soon we had forgotten a certain movie’s title figure and his message of loving thy neighbor as thyself (but not as one loves thyself when no one is around and there’s a porno in the VCR).

But just like The Passion of the Christ, Moore’s controversial documentary was such the talk of the town that you had to see it just to keep up with the culture. It opened at number one at the box-office, and its first weekend haul surpassed the previous highest grossing documentary’s total (Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, natch). Fahrenheit 9/11 went on to gross over $115 million, a remarkable record for a documentary. Moore would have been assured of a second Oscar in three years, except that he withheld Fahrenheit 9/11 from documentary contention to concentrate on a Best Picture prize. Time will tell if he made the right decision. My guess is . . . hell no (Morgan Spurlock, start writing your “Thank You” note to Moore’s offices now).

In 2004 you got both sides of the ideological aisle. Both were monumental hits feeding red meat to eager audiences, and both had enough controversial heat around them to melt the icy heart of Mira Sorvino. You’ve always been told never to discuss religion and politics but they were the biggest sources of discussion at the multiplex in the 2004. Since anything successful always breeds a sequel, we can only be so far from The Passion of the Christ 2: Christ’s Revenge where Jesus busts some caps in a few choice derrieres. Moore actually is planning a Fahrenheit 9/11 sequel (Electric Boogaloo?) especially after the Bush presidential reelection. At least Moore’s film has made some positive impact: many people now know how to properly spell “fahrenheit,” myself included.

Another thing each film had in common was that they were political hot potatoes that only independent studios felt confident to handle. In 2004, Hollywood and America became smitten with independent sensibilities. It may seem like your grandfather doing the Tootsie Roll, in a ghastly wool sweater no less, but movies got a tad more hip by loosening up.

The Indie 500: America gets hip to Indie

The merging of Hollywood and the independent film scene has been a long courtship, covering many dates and shared milkshakes. Since the early 90s, the big studios have assimilated indie companies so that most major film studios have a smaller, indie outlet (New Line beget Fine Line, Paramount beget Paramount Classics, Sony beget Sony Pictures Classics, and so it was written). For awhile, Movie Land was divided into two camps, where the Hollywood blockbusters would play hopscotch during the summer and the quieter, smaller indie films came out just before the New Year to build snowmen. The seasons were divided, lines drawn in sand, milkshakes fully drank, and it looked like Hollywood was keeping indies around just to yank them out of the closet for a three month period, much like a scary twin brother your family is ashamed of.

But beginning in the twenty-first century, the marriage between Hollywood and indie was finally copulated, with full, hot hard-core penetration. Hollywood and indies were touching each other in special places and making babies that audiences would eat up (okay, so maybe an inadvertent analogy involving baby eating is not the best explanation).

The first place this trend is evident is in the summer blockbusters. In the past, summer has been a time where the average moviegoer shuts their brain off until the leaves change color. Hollywood paid more attention to who was on the poster than who was in the tiny type under “Directed by.” (And generally still does; Spielberg being an exception) But now Hollywood is giving the reins of franchises to indie directors and letting them have more control than ever. It’s no longer a shell game of John McTeirnan or, God help us all, Renny Harlin directing many Hollywood blockbusters.

The summer’s most anticipated film was clearly Spider-Man 2, unless you were one of the sad sad few that camped out for White Chicks, and if so, perhaps it is best you remove yourself from normal human contact. Sam Raimi’s background resides in inventive, manic splatterhouse horror flicks, and yet he has brought admirable passion, substance, and his indie sensibilities to Spider-Man. The same can be said about 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy and its director Paul Greengrass. The film was a welcome and jangly thrill ride, but Greengrass had mostly been known for 2002’s gripping docu-drama Bloody Sunday, which didn’t exactly scream “jangly thrill ride” unless your head was filled with ulterior voices. Greengrass took his handheld, quick edit style with him to The Bourne Supremacy and fashioned a visual style perfectly indicative to the jumpy, ever-roaming eye of a spy. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was inspired by Kerry Conran’s home movie with robots and zeppelins. In old Hollywood, Conran would get a congratulatory letter on his technical skills. In today’s Hollywood, Conran gets the opportunity to make a whole dang movie. The Harry Potter producers chose Alfonso Cuaron as the new director for the third film in the franchise; an intriguing selection since Cuaron was coming off 2002’s steamy and unrated Y Tu Mama Tambien. The results are the first Harry Potter movie that looks and feels like an actual, wait for it, movie and not a book on tape. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban benefited from Cuaron being less slavishly loyal to every word of J.K. Rowling’s prose.

Michael Mann took a break from helming enormously long biopics and created a wonderful neo-noir potboiler in Collateral. Though Mann has directed costly dramas before, at his core he is one of the most independent filmmakers alive and kicking. Jonathon Demme remade The Manchurian Candidate surprisingly well, Alex Proyas (Dark City) gave an impressive visual sheen to the ordinary but satisfying I, Robot, and you could successfully argue that Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 12 was one big, aimless indie film thumbing its nose at studio structure and expectation.

As well as independent-minded directors behind large Hollywood fare, indies themselves had more hits than a fraternity hazing (and less homoerotic subtext). Chief among them was the quirky Napoleon Dynamite. The lanky, llama-feeding, liger-drawing, red afro’d geek has become a cultural phenomenon. The film, made for only half a million, has grossed well over $50 and has bred a loyal cult following and oodles of merchandise. Garden State marked the film directing/writing/acting debut of Zack Braff, mostly known as the lead on NBC’s sublime Scrubs. The film was also made on a small budget but has since become a hit and sold hundreds of thousands of copies of its hip, indie soundtrack (that Frou Frou song was more addicting than crack). The minimalist shark infested scare-fest Open Water was made for a paltry sum but has since grossed over $40 million. Saw, a grisly horror film with the oh-so-clever serial killer, was made for a mere million dollars and has grossed $50 million since its Halloween release. It is being fashioned into a franchise.

The exposure and success of independent film was everywhere in 2004. The strapping success of Fahrenheit 9/11 also trickled down in the documentary field. If 2003 was a wind-up year for documentary success (Spellbound, Winged Migration, Capturing the Friedmans, The Fog of War), then 2004 was the follow-through (I don’t think I need to conclude where this obvious sports analogy is going). Moore’s spotlight allowed other non-fiction films to flourish, like politically-charged films like Control Room, The Corporation, The Hunting of the President, Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, and secular docs like Metallica: Some Kind of Monster by the team that made the excellent and haunting West Memphis Three docs, Tarnation, DIG!, and Spurlock’s dietary diary, Super Size Me. Moore also spawned a slew of Fahrenheit 9/11 reaction films, including the unimaginatively titled Fahrenhype 9/11, Michael Moore Hates America (reportedly not as hateful or subjective as the title may lead on), and Celsius 41.11. The camera lens became a political point of revolution. 2004 may go down as the biggest year in documentary history, with Moore’s weathered baseball cap and permanent five o’clock shadow serving as a beacon of possibility. It’s the first time I can remember my independent theater having three out of its four films be documentaries.

There was also a Spanish film Renaissance in 2004. Earlier films like Amores Perros and Y Tu Mama Tambien ignited a fire, and in 2004 it became an inferno. Maria Full of Grace introduced the world to the stunning Catalina Sandino Moreno as a Colombian woman carrying 60 latex pellets of drugs in her stomach. The film got rave reviews (for what it’s worth, Stephen King called it the best film of the year) and will garner serious Oscar notice for Moreno’s realistic performance. Famed director and controversy magnate Pedro Almodovar released his drag noir Bad Education, Oscar-nominated actor Javier Bardem plays a quadriplegic fighting for his right to die in The Sea Inside by Alejandro Amenabar (The Others), and Gael Garcia Bernal portrays pre-revolutionary Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries. There’s a good chance that the majority of the films in this year’s Best Foreign Film category could be Spanish speaking, unless, according to Academy rules, they all came from one country.

Moviegoers got new films from long established independent directors including, take a deep breath, Alexander Payne’s Sideways, which is sweeping awards, David O. Russell’s existential I Heart Huckabees, Tarantino’s concluding half Kill Bill vol. 2, Kevin Smith’s father/daughter parable Jersey Girl, Bill Condon’s biopic of sex researcher Kinsey, a Coen brother remake of The Ladykillers, Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, David Gordon Green’s Undertow, Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair, Mario Van Peeble’s Baadassss!, the account of his father’s revolutionary breakthrough for black cinema, Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, Oliver Stone’s bloated Alexander, James Toback’s When Will I Be Loved (a rhetorical question), Bernardo Bertolucci’s NC-17 The Dreamers, Nick Broomfield’s second documentary on Alieen Wuernos, John Waters’ NC-17 A Dirty Shame, Jonathon Glazer’s Birth, Lars von Trier’s Dogville, Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, David Mamet’s Spartan, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s reteaming with Audrey Tautou in A Very Long Engagement, and even a new Godard movie. Phew.

It’ll be entirely understandable if you want to get up for a bit, take a break, and maybe make a sandwich for yourself, because that list was really long. But from here on it’s list-o-mania. There’s your typical Top/Bottom Ten list, but then there’s also a batch of awards and honors to dish out (not all of them good). Grab your sandwhich (no mayo?) and let’s get underway, crumb-face.

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PART TWO: BEST/WORST OF 2004

NATE’S BEST MOVIES OF 2004

10) Before Sunset

Richard Linklater knows a thing or two about the poetry of language. Few can write conversations better than him, and with Before Sunset, the sequel to 1995’s Before Sunrise, we witness an entire film built around one couple’s conversation. Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke return as older, wiser versions of their Sunrise characters. They stroll around the avenues of Paris chatting away so casually, so beautifully that it’s like birds chirping. Linklater and his actors have forged a romance through a romance of language, and an audience can’t help but be smitten. Before Sunset will not be for everyone because it is as advertised: 80 minutes of people talking uninterrupted (it put a friend of mine to sleep when we watched it), but for those people that enjoy sumptuous conversation, Before Sunset will cast a spell on you.

9) Spider-Man 2

No other movie had higher expectations than Spider-Man 2 and no other movie met and trounced those expectations than director Sam Raimi’s high-flying webslinging sequel. Spider-Man 2 was that rare sequel that excelled in near every way. The action sequences were lively and highly exciting, but what made Spider-Man 2 so thrilling was its success in building strong emotional characters. After all, how many superhero films are written by the writer of Ordinary People? (One wonders what he would have done with Catwoman) Alfred Molina, as Doc Ock, made for a great formidable foe and brought surprising humanity to the dastardly part. Spider-Man 2 was a momentous crowd-pleaser that also dazzled the hardest critics. It reaffirmed exactly what a summer popcorn film can make us feel.

8) Open Water

Many horror films are like junk food because they can be disposed of rather quickly and leave little lasting impact (though junk food tends to leave lasting impact toward the size of your belly). Open Water was made for what could amount to the change found in Mel Gibson’s couch, but the filmmakers behind it could teach Hollywood a thing or two about ratcheting tension. It starts off simply enough, a couple left behind to bob in the ocean, but what sets Open Water apart is the reality of its terror. The Blair Witch Project tried to hit the same minimalist spook button, but sharks are far scarier than twigs and rocks. Open Water creates such a realistic scenario that an audience can’t help but throw themselves into the danger. Everything feels right about this film, from the gallows humor and blame shifting to the slow eventuality of the situation. Open Water gets under your skin and lingers long after you’ve walked from the theater and back to your land-locked home.

7) Shaun of the Dead

This British import was described as a “rom-zom-com” (something tells me that genre is rather spare). Director Edgar Wright and star/co-writer Simon Pegg plunk down an assortment of typical British sitcom characters and then throw zombies into the mix. Shaun of the Dead is hilarious from start to finish. Pegg and his batch of survivors go through the strange scenario with wit, grit, and a genial sense of irrelevance. It’s as if even flesh-eating zombies can’t ruin their day (Shaun devises a plan that involves killing his zombie step-dad and drinking a cup of tea). Shaun of the Dead gives a knowing wink to the Romero films but also tweaks the zombie genre’s rules and clichés. Wright has a clever sense of visuals and the film does provide some sticky, gory goods for horror fans. If more films were this much fun I’d probably never see natural light again.

6) Kinsey

Bill Condon’s probing, fascinating biopic of Indiana University sex pioneer Kinsey (Liam Neeson) could not come out at a more important time. Kinsey lived in the Dark Ages of sexuality and fought against what he saw as “morality disguised as fact.” Kinsey broke barriers studying the science of sexuality and gathered nationwide statements to amass the first thorough book on what’s under the sun and what’s going on under the sheets. Today, we live in a splintered world where people listen to information that affirms their beliefs, and tune out contradictory evidence even if it’s fact (look at the latest report on abstinence-only programs dishing out highly erroneous information). Kinsey railed against this dangerous line of thinking. The man was no saint and had issue comprehending some of the more complicated human emotions. Kinsey is exceptionally well acted and Neeson gives a career best performance. Kinsey is fearlessly graphic in its frank discussion but also enormously intelligent. The fact that conservative groups are actually protesting it shows that Kinsey’s work is far from over.

5) Maria Full of Grace

No other actress stood out to me this year as 23-year-old beauty Catalina Sandino Moreno. She plays the movie’s Maria, a Colombian woman who agrees to carry 60-something condoms filled with heroin in her gut to the United States. The first half of the film is unjudegmental and nerve-racking, especially when Maria gets snagged by U.S. customs. The second half revolves around Maria trying to land on her feet in an unfamiliar land. The greatness of Maria Full of Grace relies on debut writer/director Joshua Marston framing his story like camera is an invisible voyeur. The film suggests that Maria is only one of thousands that have turned into drug mules to make ends meet or seek better lives. Maria Full of Grace is startling, immersive, delicate and quietly touching as Maria rediscovers the promise of the American dream.

4) The Incredibles

Pixar has such a sturdy and robust track record for imaginative and visually stunning animated films suitable for kids and adults. Writer/Director Brad Bird crafted a heartwarming family drama, hilarious comedy and an action film that torches its competition. Bird takes the idea of a family of superheroes and fully realized them as flesh and blood characters that are achingly realistic. Pixar isn’t just reinventing what animated films can do; they’re reinventing what film itself can do. After The Iron Giant (the best animated film ever, period) and now The Incredibles, I will follow Bird to the ends of the earth. This is the most complex Pixar film and in many ways the most rewarding. Given Pixar’s illustrious track record, that statement should be all that is needed to convey the genius and the thrills of The Incredibles.

3) A Very Long Engagement

Amelie is one of the most charming, delightful, magical, feel-good films of all time. Three years later, its Oscar-winning writer/director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and star, Audrey Tautou, reteam with the visually sumptuous, deeply moving A Very Long Engagement. The film revolves around one woman’s plight against all odds to discover what happened to her fiancé in a World War I trench. A Very Long Engagement is a great tapestry where the smallest details work together to enrich the experience. This is another grand romance that brought tears to my eyes. Jeunet’s film is also the best looking movie of all 2004. You could take any second of any moment and make it a glossy post card. A Very Long Engagement is a beautiful, affecting, intelligent, stylish, gratifying story about the unraveling of truth and the function of faith.

2) Kill Bill vol. 2

Quentin Tarantino’s first volume was a head-spinning orgy of blood and stylized carnage. Did a longer, talkier, slower paced concluding half spoil the fun? Absolutely not. Kill Bill vol. 2 fleshed out the warriors and filled out all unanswered questions. Tarantino is a melting pot of influences and his style and dialogue are like none other. It’s an homage to spaghetti westerns with their languid pacing and intense showdowns. When The Bride does finally come face-to-face with her former lover and current nemesis, Bill, Tarantino doesn’t jump to battle. Instead, he slows things down and we get a protracted climax involving . . . talking. It’s a move that could reshape thoughts on how to make solid action films. Kill Bill vol. 2 is exciting, engrossing top-notch entertainment from a master filmmaker.

And the best film of the year is…………..

1) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

No other movie this year captured the possibility of film like Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s enigmatic collaboration. Eternal Sunshine was a mind-bending philosophical excursion that also ended up being one of the most nakedly realistic romances of all time. Joel (Jim Carrey restrained) embarks on having his memories erased involving the painful breakup of Clemintine (Kate Winslet, wonderful), an impulsive woman whose vibrant hair changes as much as her moods. As Joel revisits his memories, they fade and die. He starts to fall in love with her all over again and tries to have the process stop. This labyrinth of a movie gets so many details right, from the weird physics of dreams to the small, tender moments of love and relationships. I see something new and marvelous every time I watch Eternal Sunshine, and the fact that it’s caught on with audiences (it was nominated for Favorite Movie by the People’s friggin’ Choice Awards) reaffirms its insights into memory and love. I never would have thought we’d get the perfect romance for the new millennium from Kaufman. This is a beautiful, dizzingly complex, elegant romance caked in visual grandeur, and it will be just as special in 5 years as it will be in 50, that is if monkeys don’t evolve and take over by then (it will happen).

Honorable mention: Hero, Anchorman, Collateral, Garden State, Hotel Rwanda.

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NATE’S WORST FILMS OF 2004

10) Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen

There was a glut of teen-oriented princess fantasy films in 2004, but none seemed as artificial, as simplistic, as transparent, and as dull as Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen. Lindsey Lohan (pre-growth spurt) played Lola, a flamboyant new girl at school trying to fit in and find her way. This Disney confection aggressively spoon feeds its life lessons. You can successfully guess the entire plot of this trifle from the first second on. Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen has a prolonged musical climax that’s a shameless ploy to set up Lohan as a pop singer and ensnare preteens into buying the soundtrack. When you get down to it and count the life lessons, simplicity, costume changes, and musical numbers, Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen isn’t a movie, it’s an awards show patting itself on the back.

9) Man on Fire

Director Tony Scott has flat-out lost any interest in telling stories. Man on Fire was another ugly revenge movie in a year filled with them. This time, the filmmakers believed an audience would cheer a stone-faced Denzel Washington killing unarmed people and threatening children and pregnant women. Scott compounds the badness by shooting Man on Fire like a kid fiddling with his dad’s camcorder. He gets so caught up in different camera tricks that the story feels directionless and smothered by visual artifice. Man on Fire is offensive, excessive, and when it comes to its creative use of subtitles, just plain annoying. When Christopher Walken is the voice of reason in a revenge film, you have serious issues.

8) Alexander

In a season rife with biopics, Oliver Stone’s grandiose three-hour Alexander was likely the loopiest one of all. It was curiously remote, lavishly operatic, and laughably terrible. Colin Farrell wears a hideous blonde mop top as the titular Macedonian king. For a biopic about one of the greatest military men of all time, there’s a shocking lack of action. Instead, Stone doles out countless speeches and family melodrama. Alexander goes dead whenever a character drags out a soapbox. Perhaps Stone is slyly trying to show that Alexander talked his enemy to death. Angelina Jolie, as Alexander’s duplicitous stage mother, would have been more effective and sexier had she been a mute. This is off-the-rails batty with moments that have to be seen to be believed.

7) Torque

You want to know how bad Torque was? Until I began typing this article, I had completely forgotten I had even seen it. I suppose the film was an attempt to grab the attention and dollars of young, car-obsessed males who made The Fast and the Furious a hit. Somebody should have told that to director Joseph Kahn. A veteran of music videos, Kahn was more interested in making a collage of visually alluring shots than telling a story; not that Torque’s story would have excelled in other hands. This was a fast-forwarded video game populated with bland actors, bright colors and shiny bikes, which mean it’s only suited for moviegoers post-lobotomy.

6) Elephant

When Gus van Sant gets drunk on experimental film, it’s time to lock your doors. He follows 2002’s Gerry, a film about walking and . . . that’s it, with Elephant. van Sant explores high school violence in the most frustrating, pretentious way possible. You see, most of the film occurs in real time and that means we have to watch, among other moments, a kid practice his entire piano lesson. We see meaningless moments several times, and the classical music and agonizingly slow camera movements will lull you to sleep. This was the slowest 80 minutes of my life. Elephant fails to challenge and move us when we only get to know characters for upwards of seconds. This is artistic overindulgence masquerading as meditation. By the time the shootings do occur, you may feel guilty about being glad that at least something finally is happening.

5) Catwoman

Halle Berry hasn’t made many good choices after winning a Best Actress Oscar in 2001, so it comes as no surprise that she would find herself in something as odious as Catwoman. It’s a pretty foolish idea to make a Catwoman movie and completely sever all ties to the comic character, and it’s an even more foolish idea to have your heroine dress up as a dominatrix with open-toed shoes. Any feminist message the film was going for is tempered by making your crusader of feminine justice dress like a bondage call girl. Catwoman misfired on nearly every level, including special effects, direction, acting, story, editing, logic, and especially the costumes. This was a high-budget train wreck on a shocking level of incompetence not regularly seen. It’s a sad day in the neighborhood when the best thing about your movie is Sharon Stone’s performance.

4) Van Helsing

No one will confuse the films of Stephen Sommers with Shakespeare, especially since that old bard has never made one movie (slacker!). It seemed like a good idea at the time, combining the classic monsters of film lore, but Van Helsing was one giant stupid, boring, exasperated action sequence. Hugh Jackman tries his best in a giant floppy hat, but Van Helsing feels like a $150 million dollar improv film. You could switch the reels of this movie and do no damage to its story. Sommers gorged on a trough of CGI and vomited the results onto the screen. This is one monster mash that’s a real monster mess.

3) The Punisher

It’s probably a bad omen when the co-writer of Armageddon makes his directorial debut (J.J. Abrams is a fluke). The Punisher is one of the ugliest movies I have ever seen. The action isn’t exciting; it’s pat, poorly shot and grotesque. The story isn’t interesting; it’s as subtle as Kirstie Alley looking for the last Cheet-O. It’s not enough that The Punisher has his family killed; he has to have his ENTIRE family killed during a reunion. When he does exact his vengeance, the film stops an audience from engaging with the characters and pushes them away by callous misstep after callous misstep. This is just sadistic, ugly, and over-the-top while simultaneously being entirely, sadly predictable. By the time John Travolta gets dragged by a slow-moving car through a field of explosions, you may have thrown up in your mouth, swallowed it, and thrown up again.

2) Hellboy

I really didn’t imagine something overtaking Hellboy as worst film of the year. I was wrong. That’s the kind of year 2004 shaped up to be. This superhero movie about an interdimensional demon was stuffed with bizarre inanities, flat one-liners, heavy Catholic imagery, conflicting logic and contradictions, half-baked romance, and frustratingly ever-changing plot devices. The movie arbitrarily changes the rules of its established universe. Hellboy had to have the most ridiculous villains of the year, which were Nazis trying to let giant space squids conquer the world. How do giant squids conquer the industrialized world? This is one the dumbest, craziest movies to ever come along since they stopped putting cocaine in everything. It’s like college kids took bong hits and wrote it. Or maybe that would be an improvement over Hellboy. It would certainly make more sense.

And the worst film of the year is………

1) The Forgotten

Without a doubt, the most awful, horrible, frustrating, boring, and painful film of this year is The Forgotten. I’m sure this film will not appear on many worst of the year lists, as it has already been forgotten just as its title promises, but when I watched this movie I wanted to walk out. It’s been six years since I wanted to walk out of a movie, so by this notion alone it would have to be number one with a bullet. What also dooms the film is its insanely inept plot structure that blows all its secrets with far too much time to spare. The Forgotten is also a clumsy, homely rip-off of the visionary Dark City. Don’t even get me started on how it’s possible to have a happy ending when little green men control our entire lives and can alter time and space. Julianne Moore, you’re better than this. Gary Sinise? No, that’s about right.

Overrated Films

Closer

Mike Nichols returned to his earlier film roots with the dark, sexually graphic Closer, an examination of two couples and their casual betrayals. The movie had a mega-watt cast with Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman, and Clive Owen. Too bad the material wasn’t up to the challenge. Closer felt like a cargo-train of scenes that doesn’t add up to much. The dialogue was intelligent, and the acting was generally good to great, but Closer has knee-deep characterization in a story that doesn’t go far enough.

Finding Neverland

This film was so proud to walk down the easy road and didn’t care who noticed. Finding Neverland boasted two of the most talented actors of today (Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet), but wasted them with a sugarcoated sentimental take on the facts. It’s yet another film teaching us about the importance of belief, imagination, and children. Maybe I needed a parade of orphans to sit around in my theater to make this movie work for me.

Underrated Films

Euro Trip; Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle

In 2004, there was a gold mine of smart but crude comedies. I cannot fathom why people have ignored both Euro Trip and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. Not only are both movies extremely funny, they serve as perfect examples of a great teen comedy. And both had characters that weren’t idiots or stoners. A trio of former Seinfeld writers penned Euro Trip and the fast-paced wit and love of the absurd is evident. The leads of Harold and Kumar are Asian-American and Indian-American, which gave and smart intriguing ethnic point of view to teen comedies. Harold and Kumar were studying to respectively become a doctor and an accountant. These characters aren’t dumb, just in over their heads as they hunt all night for those tiny White Castle burgers. Harold and Kumar has many laugh-out-loud moments that won’t make you ashamed for doing do. Neil Patrick Harris’ lurid cameo is a highpoint. Euro Trip and Harold and Kumar are intelligent, crude, and blisteringly funny. Rent them if you can.

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PART THREE: VARIOUS AWARDS AND NOTATIONS OF 2004

Best Titles: Bad Education, House of Flying Daggers, A Day Without a Mexican, Shaun of the Dead.

Worst Titles: The Story of Weeping Camel, De-Lovely, Woman Thou Art Loosed, The United States of Leland, Welcome to Mooseport.

Movie Titles That Could be Confused with Porn Titles: Along Came Polly, Super Size Me, The Girl Next Door, The Big Bounce, 13 Going on 30, New York Minute, and Touch of Pink.

Longest Title: Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance After the Holocaust (50 letters). Runner-up: The Downfall: Hitler and the End of the Third Reich (41 letters) (Is there some minimum word requirement for WWII documentary titles?).

Oddly Fitting Titles: What the #$*! Do We Know?, The Incredibles, The Punisher.

Biggest Disappointment of 2004: Ocean’s 12. This was an easy one. Ocean’s 11 was a slick, smart, breezy blast, so my expectations were that Soderbergh’s sequel would be more of the same. Instead, I got a smug, self-satisfied film that coasts on star power. What’s even more maddening is that you don’t understand what’s going on at all until a character stands up and does the Exposition Monologue to Clear the Story Up. Even worse, a late plot revelation nullifies half of the film. Ocean’s 12 wilts in comparison to its predecessor and actually seems closer to the Rat Pack original, which was about a bunch of celebs having fun. Why bother with pesky things like story or entertainment? Runners-up: The Village; The Passion of the Christ.

Biggest Breakthrough: (tie) Jamie Foxx and Zack Braff. Foxx showcased acting skills people never knew he had. Braff established himself as more than just a great comedic actor. Foxx’s uncanny performance as Ray Charles has already made him the pony to beat for Best Actor. Who knew this kind of performance could come from the star of Booty Call? Foxx is the Charlize Theron discovery of this year. Braff wrote, directed, and starred in Garden State, a charming valentine to his boyhood state. Braff shows remarkable command for dialogue and building quirky but loveable characters. He also has a sharp eye for direction and a nimble ear for punctuating a scene with the perfect song. Braff has proven that he has far more talent than most could have imagined. Runner-up: Bryce Dallas Howard as the blind but spunky heroine in The Village.

Most Bizarre Film Trend of 2004: sadism. In a peculiar turn, 2004 was filled to the brim with movies reeking of sadism. We began the year with ugly revenge movies like Man on Fire and The Punisher. Tarantino’s Kill Bill vol. 2 also came around the same time, but we actually cared about its characters. Later in the year came Saw. In fine horror tradition the film put people through hell for our enjoyment. There was also the sleazy revenge flick Paparazzi, which Mel Gibson produced. Good ol’ Mel knows a thing or two about sadism as the director of The Passion of the Christ. Gibson’s film lacked a message except to convey that the son of God sure knew how to take a licking. The Passion ended up being little more than a Sunday school snuff film. In 2004, moviegoers were angry and wanted someone to pay. It just happened to be moviegoers that paid the price. Maybe the trend for 2005 will be forgiveness.

Second Most Bizarre Film Trend: 1970s becomes a movie. It’s getting to the point where damn near anything that was ever on TV in the 1970s will eventually be made into a feature film. This year we got Starsky and Hutch, the film version of the popular 70s cop show. Trouble is that the show was terrible. Then to close out 2004 we got Fat Albert, a live-action version of Bill Cosby’s classic junkyard band. Neither was necessary, but were The Brady Bunch and Charlie’s Angels movies needed? I can’t wait for this trend to spawn Three’s Company: The Movie (John Ritter could dance with a vacuum), Mannix Goes Hawaiian, All in the Family in da Hood, and whatever nightmares H.R. Puffinstuff may hold. It won’t be long before we start seeing commercials from the 1970s made into movies.

Most Fun I Had at the Movies in 2004: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I don’t pretend to call this a flawless film, but this sprawling homage to sci-fi serials, Max Fleischer cartoons, Ray Harryhausen, and gee-whiz childhood whimsy. I was literally hopping in my seat while seeing all of the flying robots, classic cinema references, and visual magic. This is a film for classic movie lovers, and it’s also the most unashamedly joyful moviegoing experience I’ve had since the original Back to the Future.

Most Gratuitous Moment of 2004: Angelina Jolie’s nude scene in Taking Lives. The film is bad, sure. It makes little sense that a serial killer can take other people’s identities in our super computer, DNA, CSI world by simply removing hands and faces. Taking Lives is so by-the-book that it even dares to have a scene where the serial killer calls Jolie and claims that he and her are exactly alike. However, the worst part is Jolie’s love scene. Ethan Hawke props her up against an end table, they make out, and then her boob falls out. It’s as if Tara Reid designed the moment herself in her usual drug-induced coma. This single boob flop is so gratuitous, and done in such an awkward manner, it feels like its appearance should be accompanied by a long wailing trombone note. Sadly, the only reason to even poke your head in a theater to see this is for the gratuitous nude scene involving Jolie, and even that you’ve seen done before in better movies. Runner-up: all of Elephant.

Best Movie I Saw in 2004 (That Wasn’t Released in 2004): 2003’s Bad Santa.

Worst Movie Premise: National Treasure. Hey, guess what? There’s a treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. Seems that in their spare time, the United States founding fathers devised a hilariously complicated system of codes and clues regarding some long-lost booty. It’s not like they had a nation to build or anything. Can you even think of a funnier, dumber place to have a treasure map? Maybe the Magna Carter or Gorbichev’s splotchy head, and that’s only a maybe. Jerry Bruckheimer never ceases to amaze and confound.

Best 10 Minutes of 2004: The end car chase in The Bourne Supremacy. Runners-up: The opening of Dawn of the Dead; Rosario Dawson’s nude scene in Alexander.

Worst Product Placement: The Ipod in Blade: Trinity. I’m normally pretty permissible when it comes to product placement in movies. I didn’t even mind the ongoing audience–bludgeoning joke in Josie and the Pussycats. Nevertheless, product placement was brought to a new low in Blade: Trinity, the third film with Wesley Snipes vanquishing Euro trash vampires. Snipes is aided by two budding young vamp killers, the staggeringly beefed up Ryan Reynolds and teensy-weensy Jessica Biel. When they get into scuffles with the undead, Biel takes out her headphones and cranks up some derivative dance music on her Ipod. In any other movie I’d have little issue with this, especially because them Ipods are so damn popular, but what warrior removes one of their senses while fighting? I mean, next to sight, hearing is the most imperative sense for effective combat. Does Biel prefer to deprive her ability to hear vampires behind her so she can listen to some tunes?

Best Fight Scene: The Bride vs. Elle in Kill Bill vol. 2. This is the most brutal fight I’ve ever seen between two women. Every punch connects, every kick sounds like a crack of thunder, and every fall breaks something in the confines of Michael Madsen’s cramped trailer. It’s the action highpoint of Kill Bill vol. 2 and both actresses work themselves through the wringer. It’s weird to think what might have been because their confrontation was supposed to take place in the desert. Tarantino scrapped the whole thing on the spot and rewrote the fight on the fly. The only shame is that it doesn’t last longer, but then there would be no more trailer to destroy. Runners-up: Hector vs. Achilles in Troy; the women of Hero.

Best Onscreen Death: the deadliness of capes in The Incredibles. Runners-up: the exploding ass in Man on Fire; Patches gets crushed by “Luck of the Irish” sign in Dodgeball: A True Underdog’s Story.

Best Villain: Tom Cruise in Collateral. It was new territory for a man who became famous for dancing in his underwear, and boy oh boy did a trip to the dark side do Tommy Cruise well. In Collateral he played Vincent, a hitman commandeering a cab driver for one long night of hired killing. Cruise was so nonchalant and (what’s cooler than being cool? (I know, way tired of this already)) ice-cold that it was as chilling as it was riveting. Vincent was a great character, espousing pragmatic social philosophy in between shooting people in the face, but it was Cruise’s calculating performance that cemented him as deeply memorable. Runners-up: Tea Leoni’s hellish bitch monster in Spanglish; Mandy Moore in Saved!; the great Brian Cox in Troy.

Funniest 2004 Moment: man versus bear in Anchorman. There are certain truisms to comedy. Pants are always funny. Richard Nixon’s appearance or reference in any context makes anything funny. Pirates are always funny, hence the three commercials I saw this afternoon featuring them. Then there are bears, and bears are always funny. They were brought to dizzying surreal highs in Anchorman. I had tears in my eyes from laughing so hard when Will Ferrell’s team of anchorman jump into a bear pit and poorly fight the big grizzlies. I even giggle about it today simply thinking about the scene again. What sells the moment is that the team of anchormen all strike a pose and say in unison, “Bear fight!” like this kind of thing is a regular occurrence. Comedic gold. Runners-up: Neil Patrick Harris in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle; Robot fight in Euro Trip; “I’m so Ronry” in Team America: World Police.

Thora Birch Award for Hottest Female Actress of the Year: Lindsey Lohan in Mean Girls. Now that she’s of legal age, I can confess that Lohan certainly . . . blossomed into a very, uh, capable actress just . . . spilling out with potential. In Mean Girls she showed off her . . . talents. Yes, in 2004, but clearly after her eighteenth birthday, Lohan . . . matured into a . . . well-rounded actress of . . . sizeable proportions. Runners-up: Rosario Dawson, Alexander; Catalina Sandino Moreno, Maria Full of Grace.

And so ends the year 2004 and this exhaustive look back. I don’t know about you, but I think I need a cigarette after that saucy workout with 2004, and I don’t even smoke. The place in the bed still feels warm where 2004 use to lay, and now we already got 2005 trying to call it home. Sure 2005 looks like a pretty face, and perhaps Racing Stripes and Alone in the Dark are arguably no worse than Torque and My Baby’s Daddy, but we’ll have to let 2005 fumble around for a while before it hits the spot, especially with releases like the final Star Wars, fourth Harry Potter, Frank Miller’s star-studded Sin City, a long awaited film of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. I’ll put up with a thousand talking zebra movies (well, maybe only one) for another Eternal Sunshine or Kill Bill or The Incredibles. You’re on the clock 2005, so don’t disappoint.

Now where’s a cigarette?

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