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My Favorite Films of 2004

by dave heaton

An erratic year for me in terms of film-watching - living in a small city the first seven months of the year meant that I missed a lot of the smaller or more unusual films, while living in a larger East Coast city the last few months meant that I got to NYC once to see a movie that was barely released in the US at all, which turned out to be my favorite of the year. Some of my other favorites were films that people in other parts of the country would think of as 2003 films, but that's what happens when you don't live in one of the two or three hubs for movies in the country. I also feel more disconnected than usual from the upcoming awards race, as I haven't yet seen several of the most-mentioned films. So take this for what you will; here's a quick run-through of the movies that I saw in 2004 which impressed me the most.

1. Blissfully Yours

A gorgeous afternoon in the countryside, depicted in such a vivid way that you feel like you were there. This film would be remarkable just for that feeling of transportation, yet there's more going on here...by the end, a moving story has been told, and we get a genuine sense of what the main characters are escaping from.

2. Dogville

Aesthetically this film strilkes me as close to revolutionary - its stripped-down "play"-like setting is amazing to watch, for what it adds as much as what it eliminates. Some viewers saw the story as hateful or preachy, but it's actually quite complex and thought-provoking, much more complicated in terms of feelings and ideas than most people expect when they go to the movies.

3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Michel Gondry's music videos are uniquely transporting and filled with gleeful, child-like imagination. What's so remarkable about Eternal Sunshine is not only how that sensibility has been brought into a moving romantic comedy, but the ways in which that creative personality is so integral to the film's plot and content. This movie could have been a mess but instead everything about it seems to work so perfectly, which is amazing considering how the wild and loose of a feeling is given off by the film's intricate plot and free-wheeling visuals.

4. Elephant

Gus Van Sant's Columbine-esque Elephant is involving on so many levels. On a purely aesthetic level it's a remarkable feat of sound-and-vision, gorgeous to take in, yet it's also a compelling relative to teen horror comedies, an antidote to 24-hour-news-channel blather, a contemplation of time and perspective, a haunting look at the fleetingness of life and, ultimately, a graceful question mark.

5. Lilya 4-Ever

The most heart-wrenching film I saw all year, one that doesn't feel manipulative even though it necesarily is. We're taken through the days of a young Russian girl whose life is going in an increasingly horrible direction, despite her hopes and dreams, and there's nothing we can do to help her, even as the film makes us want to reach through the screen and do so...

6. Undertow

An adventure tale that starts out pulse-pounding but eventually eases into a daydream-like jaunt through a distinct corner of the South, from the point of view of an eccentric child. A remarkably involving film that's filled with much pain and beauty.

7. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Another sort of adventure tale, this one filled with bright colors, imaginative sea creatures, stylish costumes, otherworldly music and much humor, but also real hurt, both physical and emotional.

8. Before Sunset

Before Sunrise was a film filled with possibility; in the main characters' flirtations and conversations there was real hopefulness, about life and love. Its 9-years-later sequel realistically finds it protaganists more cynical and bruised, but remains in its own way just as romantic. Its tone is sweet, yet nowhere near as much so as the original. The two films stand together as an intimate but grand story that perfectly balances idealism with genuine sadness.

9. I Heart Huckabees

Screwball comedy and philosophical ponderings of the meaning of existence might seem unrelated, but here they are one. A very funny, wild ride that's also filled with ideas.

10. Spartan

The critical tide has turned against David Mamet, yet he continues to work within genre in compelling ways. In Spartan, tonally the genre isn't "political thriller" as much as it is hard-boiled detective stories. The plot is suitably complicated (and "unreal"), the atmosphere is perfectly suspenseful, and everything's more painful than the tough guy lead character wants to admit.


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