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Top Twelve Films of 2004

by dan heaton

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Writer Charlie Kaufmann (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich) finally combines his rampant creativity with a human story that resonates strongly long after its conclusion. Jim Carey plays against type as a mild-mannered, emotionally distraught guy trying to erase memories of past love Kate Winslet. Both stars bring considerable weight to difficult roles and arenít overwhelmed by Michel Gondryís innovative direction. Fascinating from beginning to end, this unique tale easily outshines the other contenders.

2. Before Sunset

Richard Linklater (Waking Life, School of Rock) rejoins Jesse and Celine nine years after the events of Before Sunrise and crafts a superior, mature romantic picture. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy wrote much of the dialogue themselves, and their involvement leads to a more personal project. The story nearly occurs in real time, as the couple strolls through Paris and discusses their past and the changes adulthood brings. This enjoyable film is not for all tastes, but it will engage viewers looking for character over action.

3. Silver City

Many critics will immediately dismiss a John Sayles film before really thinking about it, especially when it involves a political figure obviously modeled after our current president. Unfortunately, this approach caused them to denigrate one of the most intriguing films of the year. The primary story involves a mysterious death during the gubernatorial campaign in Colorado that could lead back to the dim-witted candidate Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper). The plot is generally secondary, however, as the script presents a broader satire of the political process and its elements. Utilizing an excellent lead performance from Danny Huston as an investigator and a talented ensemble cast, Silver City will hopefully gain a larger audience on home video.

4. Hero

This beautiful and emotionally gripping film transcends the martial arts genre and tells a larger story about courage and bravery. Renowned director Zhang Zimou (Raise the Red Lantern, Ju Dou) makes his first venture into the action genre and crafts a timeless movie that includes numerous memorable sequences. Jet Li gives one of his best performances as the nameless title character, and heís joined by the legendary Donnie Yen, Maggie Cheung, and Zhang Ziyi in a sterling cast. The plot flows in Rashomon-like fashion by incorporating different viewpoints about the quest to assassinate the Chinese king. Dazzling colors differentiate each scene, and the fights appear as graceful ballets across the scenic countryside.

5. Collateral

Michael Mann (Heat, The Insider) is another director whose considerable talents are too rarely recognized by film writers. His films are tense, sharply edited thrillers that place us squarely inside every situation. Collateral is not as ambitious as some of his previous films, but it provides a thrilling ride during a rough night in Los Angeles. Prior to his star-making performance as Ray Charles, Jamie Foxx gives a surprising realistic performance as a cab driver facing off with stylish hitman Tom Cruise. He injects humanity into every scene, and stays right with his scene-stealing co-star throughout the picture. This story does take the easy route with a typical genre ending, but it still provides one of the most energetic rides of the year.

6. Kill Bill, Volume 2

This second installment in the Quentin Tarantino epic slows down the pace and reveals some back story that enhances the crazy action of the first segment. Michael Madsen does a great job as the world-weary Bud, who should not be underestimated, and David Carradine is surprisingly understated as the title character. Volume 2 surpasses its energetic predecessor with its increased emotional resonance and is one of the most intriguing pictures of the year.

7. Sideways

Iím surprised at the countless awards and nominations currently being received by this film, which fails to fit within the typical Oscar mold. Paul Giamatti gives another classic performance as Miles, a wine connoisseur trapped within a depressive state. Thomas Haden Church is also excellent as his buddy Jack, an immature bachelor trying to have some last-minute fun during the final week before his wedding. Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh shine as the women who draw the guysí interest. Writer/director Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt) deftly captures the slow pace of this trip through the California countryside, and the story contains plenty of hilarious moments.

8. House of Flying Daggers

Zhang Zimou scores again with this elegant love story set during the Tang Dynasty amidst a conflict between Chinese government and a renegade group known as the Flying Daggers. Takeshi Kaneshiro and Zhang Ziyi shine in the lead roles as a cop and the enemy he's gone undercover to pursue. Complications ensue when they fall in love, with the government constantly in pursuit. This film includes five stunning martial-arts sequences that rank among the classic moments in the history of the genre. The colors spring beautifully from the screen, and the gorgeous outdoor landscape helps to craft a magical experience.

9. Control Room

Although Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 provided an insightful and entertaining look at the Bush administration, it was not the best political documentary of the year. That honor goes to Jehane Noujam's Control Room, which provides a compelling observation of the Middle East's Al-Jazeera satellite television network. It is obviously critical of the American role in Iraq, but also does an effective job in depicting Lt. Josh Rushing, the army press agent who is not simply a mouthpiece for the U.S. government. His fascinating discussions with journalist Hassan Ibrahim offer intelligent thoughts on the conflict, something often missing from our mass media.

10. Spiderman 2

The first Spiderman film did an effective job introducing the character and provided an energetic ride, but its sequel far surpassed these accomplishments. Tobey Maguire does a great job in presenting the conflict between Parker's regular-guy life and his role as Spiderman. Alfred Molina's Dr. Octupus is a nastier (and more understandable) villain, and the story offers plenty of emotional moments to support the action scenes. Plus, it easily stands as one of the most enjoyable films of the past year.

11. Finding Neverland

Johnny Depp continues to reinvent himself with every role, and his latest effort as Peter Pan author James Barrie is one of his strongest performances. Kate Winslet also shines as Sylvia Davies, the widow whose four boys provide the inspiration for the classic play. Director Marc Foster (Monster's Ball) nicely presents the intriguing story and impressively shows the growing bond between Barrie and the Davies boys. Both Depp and Winslet give Oscar-caliber performances and almost certainly will be recognized by the Academy.

12. Napoleon Dynamite

This silly film includes one of the oddest characters in recent film history, Napoleon Dynamite. This tall, socially awkward high schooler lives in a strange setting where elements from the '80s reign supreme. Although criticized by some critics for being depressing, this comedy contains plenty of laughs and brought a smile to my face both times I watched it. Star Jon Heder gives such a deadpan, straightforward performance that it seems impossible not to enjoy this picture. Do those chickens have large talons? Yes, they do, and this genuinely entertaining film was the surprise hit of the summer.

Honorable mention: The Incredibles, Fahrenheit 9/11, Closer, The Manchurian Candidate, Anchorman.

Special Award for Worst Action, Horror, and Science-Fiction Film of the Year: Resident Evil: Apocalypse


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