Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Maria Full of Grace
The uniting thread among my favorite pictures last year seemed to be that almost everyone else seemed to hate them, or at least short-change them, or else flat-out ignore them. Among my picks this year, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the box-office champ at a not-so-whopping $34 million; the NicksFlickPicks Honorees are destined never to be confused with the People's Choice Awards. In contrast to last year, though, I at least have the sense that my favorite movies in 2004 registered strongly and positively with their audiences, however small. Code 46 and The Corporation have many stalwart, passionate advocates within the small demographics of people who actually saw them. Oasis is riding that huge wave of critical praise for Korean cinema, and Maria Full of Grace was a comparatively big hit on the arthouse circuit.
If there's a theme that connects these movies, I'd say it's a poignant ambivalence about the futures of their characters, if not the future of the world altogether. Eternal Sunshine is equal parts plucky and sad, a constant balance that culminates into what feels like a profound emotional maturity, a sense of balance almost wholly missing from most American movies. The fates of the characters in Oasis and Maria are ours to decide, and different viewers are likely to feel very differently about them. The Corporation is an enormously humbling broadside against invidious practices that nonetheless makes room for hopefulness and revivified forms of activism. Code 46 might be the bleakest of these entries, but its vision of the Earth is so in flux that the possibility of progress isn't quite extinguished.
Honorable Mentions: Siddiq Barmak's Osama is properly unable to incorporate any optimism into its scenario, which is a testimony to the film's brave and artful truth-telling. Jean-Luc Godard's Notre musique, meanwhile, perfectly captures a world-weary spirit without relinquishing the idea that something better could still ariseand that art, thought, collaboration, and serious talk might still be the avenues for attaining it. Is Godard, deep down, still a romantic after all this time?
Best Non-English Language Films
Maria Full of Grace
Since Otar Left
One of the most exciting previsions in Code 46 is the decay of traditional cultural and linguistic barriers. The dark side of that prospect is that unseen despots of the future, presumably dismayed by the new miscegenation of languages, ethnicities, and identities, devise all new ways to punish and hierchalize the members of this newly globalized society.
Given how many of my choices here simply duplicate the regular ol' Best Film category, the very idea of a separate "Non-English Language" category seems gratuitous. Most of the best films produced every year are not in English. What strikes me in particular about this assortment, though, is that Oasis is the only nominee that hails almost exclusively from a single country of origin. Maria Full of Grace is a Spanish-language American movie, filmed in Ecuador and New York City, featuring a cast of mostly Colombian actors. Osama, directed by an Afghani filmmaker who attended film school in Moscow, received partial funding from European sources. Funding for Godard's Notre musique was as much an international patchwork as is the literary conference in the film's center, where all kinds of languages are heard in the general dialogue about the fate of the world, and Since Otar Left takes a Georgian family out of the former Soviet republic and into France, the home country of director Julie Bertucelli. (The women who play the matriarch, daughter, and granddaughter in Otar hail respectively from Poland, Georgia, and Russia.) In other words, cinema doesn't just speak in many languagesindividual films speak in many languages, and the polyglossia of these five remarkable movies is part of what gives them such depth and specificity.
Honorable Mentions: Michael Haneke's international coproduction Time of the Wolf explores the imminent replacement of national borders with rough, desperate pockets of isolated pseudo-communities. Andrei Zvyagintsev's The Return is about as Russian as they come, but its somewhat allegorical plot has made it a critical hit around the world.
Best Documentary Feature
Jehane Noujaim, dir.
Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, dirs.
In the Realms of the Unreal
Jessica Yu, dir.
Super Size Me
Morgan Spurlock, dir.
Jonathan Caouette, dir.
The border between fiction and non-fiction is another rhetorical convenience of film culture that doesn't hold up too well when you start examining the movies. This is especially true in movies like Control Room, whose central topic is the manufacturing of "news" and the inevitable partiality of all media outfits, even with regard to such grave, objective tragedies as the ongoing war in Iraq. Noujaim's movie starts as a somewhat detached profile of the al-Jazeera news network but, following the film's unfolding critique of the war itself and of U.S. political and military tactics, it becomes a kind of personal essay on the themes of sincerity, honor, and truth. Of less scope than an epic inquiry like The Corporation, Control Room is nonetheless less subjective than the fast-food picaresque of Morgan Spurlock, whose do-it-yourself blend of self-promotion and social commentary both embodies and condemns our culture of instant gratification. (I think that paradox actually helps the film.) And Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation, a collage of personal memories, home-video footage, and psychadelically embellished visuals, is still more "subjective," either departing entirely from the provenance of documentary filmmaking or reminding us just how flexible and encompassing the field truly is. To that end, a sort of fascinating reverse case to Tarnation's plunge into the filmmaker's headspace is Jessica Yu's In the Realms of the Unreal, a necessarily limited but nontheless fascinating and creative attempt to pay tribute to an almost totally unrecoverable person, the mythically reclusive artist Henry Darger. With its gutsy decision to animate some of Darger's artwork and its nicely managed blend of narrating voices, Realms is a fairly conventional documentary that still feels eccentric, adventurous, and thought-provoking.
Honorable Mentions: I wish the movie didn't come down so hard on the cruelly oppressed sex workers of Calcutta, but as long as it focuses on their children, Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski's Born into Brothels is honorable and illuminating. "Honorable" is an even trickier word to apply to Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, which at least lands enough punches above and below the belts of logic and taste to be worth preserving...even if, as John Kerry might say, "we can do better."
Since Otar Left
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The Bourne Supremacy
Several legendary directors yielded excellent work this year, from Jean-Luc Godard's persuasive and forceful elegy Notre musique to Clint Eastwood's subtle penetration of a bleak social milieu in Million Dollar Baby. Neither of these scripts is the kind that guarantees a successful film; M$B could easily have been a syrupy mess, and obviously Notre Musique is hard to imagine by anyone but Godard, so the direction of both films accounts for a good deal of their power.
Even so, the real story in directing this year was the massive outpouring of masterly work by young and even first-time directors. Julie Bertucelli's Since Otar Left was one of two European movies last year that described a family living a well-intentioned lie; where Wolfgang Becker emphasized the audience-friendly comedy in Good bye, Lenin, Julie Bertucelli found even richer and rarer chords of family and national sentiment in Since Otar Left. Michel Gondry, after the false start of Human Nature, exploded our assumptions that only Spike Jonze knows how to bring a Charlie Kaufman script to sublime life; in fact, Jonze might be smart to crib a few pointers. Paul Greengrass looked like a bristly artist cashing in on arthouse success until he elevated Universal's Bourne franchise into a hot-wired diorama of our volatile globe. Lee Chang-dong kept himself at the forefront of the Korean new wave with Oasis, a massive hit in his own country and an eye-opener in the States, and Michael Winterbottom continued his unpredictable tour of genres and styles with his utterly inimitable sci-fi anti-romance Code 46, a marvel of challenging images, juxtapositions, and sound design.
Honorable Mentions: I nominated Richard Linklater in this category last year for his confident, sweet-tempered handling of School of Rock. If anything, his work on Before Sunset is a greater achievement, distilling the form of the movie and qualifying the occasional over-reaches of the script. And in yet another of this year's exquisite debuts, Joshua Marston drew flawless performances from the ensemble of Maria Full of Grace and molded a beautifully proportioned tale of anger, hope, and desperation around them.
Since Otar Left
Birth & Dogville
Catalina Sandino Moreno
Maria Full of Grace
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Annette Bening, Imelda Staunton, and Hilary Swank will mostly be racing each other to the Oscar podium this year, and for all the detail and quality in their performances, at least five actresses offered even finer performances. Delpy and Sandino Moreno, giving two very different kinds of naturalistic performances, have collected some minor critics' awards and some runner-up citations while Bening, Staunton, and Swank have divvied up the big prizes. Still, Delpy's neurotic effervescence and Sandino Moreno's swallowing of her own suffering are unforgettable spectacles that elicit and earn the constant attention of the camera. Nicole Kidman began the year with the most emotionally direct performance of her career, using her voice more lucidly than ever before and having the guts to anchor a Lars Von Trier picture without any big mannerisms; near the end of the year, she switched gears and nailed a Julianne Moore-style part in Birth, playing a woman with barely a shade of knowledge about her own life and emotions. Even quieter than Kidman's Anna, Esther Gorintin's Eka in Since Otar Left is a nearly silent character who registers all kinds of watchfulness, wry humor, and, in her character's most terrible moment, a reconciliation to life's accidents that is really something to behold.
Standing highest among these performances, though, is Kate Winslet, who channels the robust energy typical of her characters into the most high-strung, quivering, compassionate, defensive, perceptive character in a year of movies. Winslet's Clementine has virtually nothing in common with any female lead in any romantic comedy of the last many years, and miraculously, the actress coaxes the genre into meeting her performance rather than more simply submitting herself to expectations. As perfect in its way as Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve or Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, Winslet's performance is the acting achievement of the year.
Honorable Mentions: Helen Mirren got barely a word to speak in The Clearing, and an actor-unfriendly plotline where she basically sits and waits. She's fascinating, though, and the movie follows suit. Imelda Staunton has a juicier character and premise to work with in Vera Drake, but it doesn't make her tactile, lived-in performance any less of an accomplishment.
P.S.: Since completing this feature, Catherine Breillat's Sex Is Comedy made its local premiere, and Anne Parillaud's clenched, funny, dedicated, and bravely neurotic performance as Breillat's alter ego made quite an impression. She might not crack the top five, but she's a definite Honorable Mention.
The Assassination of Richard Nixon
Kevin Kline and Sean Penn faced two of the most difficult parts of their careers this year in De-Lovely and The Assassination of Richard Nixon, putative biopics that nonetheless embroidered the histories of their characters. Both actors managed to connect with the souls of these men and also keep up with the distinctive and sometimes unstable aesthetics of their films. Kline, forced by Cole Porter's example into a thin, warbly voice unworthy of his songs, seemed friskier and more dapper than he has in years, capturing the famous elegance of the man without cleaning up the nasty edges of self-doubt and self-delusion that De-Lovely sometimes wants to explore and sometimes doesn't. Assassination, meanwhile, is a fascinating character study whose weakest dramatic link is, of all things, the connection to Richard Nixon. There's not much in the screenplay to explain Sam Bicke's climactic course of action, but Penn whips up such a ferrety, well-intentioned, troublingly obtuse, but deeply understandable character that you'd believe Sam Bicke would do almost anything. If only the other actors, save the superb Jack Thompson, didn't look so awestruck in Penn's presence, then he might have something to play against.
The other actors in this field had the benefit of stronger overall movies (though De-Lovely and The Assassination of Richard Nixon are hardly failures). Clive Owen has been consigned to supporting races by his savvy publicists, but Larry is as big a part as the others in Closer, and it's Owen's arrival into the story that makes the whole quandrangle of tortured libidos really click. Ivan Dobronravov was the child find of the year, and maybe of the decade; the rage he uncorks when his mysterious and hard-driving father starts taking their relationship for granted was one of the purest, hottest emotions the screen communicated all year. And Sol Kyung-gu, the wholly untrustworthy and probably demented antihero of Oasis, pushes the camera just as bravely as Dobronravov does, challenging the audience to keep up with his creepy mannerisms and unpredictable temperament until we are somehow, inexplicably sympathetic to his mostly self-imposed plight.
Honorable Mentions: These performances were all too good to budge, though it still feels like an incomplete list without Paul Giamatti, whose work in Sideways was leagues ahead of his cartooning work in American Splendor, and who obviously understands the flaws of this character even when the director is in a rush to pretty them up. Oscar is likely to reward Giamatti with a nod, probably alongside the revelatory Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda, and certainly alongside Jamie Foxx, who gave three shrewd performances of wholly different types in Ray, Breakin' All the Rules, and, by far my favorite (and not in a supporting role), Collateral.
Best Supporting Actress
The Bourne Supremacy
Time of the Wolf
Maria Full of Grace
Can anyone think of a movie that wouldn't improve with Joan Allen or Patricia Clarkson in it? These actresses never put a foot wrong, and even in movies that have been directed to the nines, they authoritatively own their scenes without getting in the way of the film. From the moment Allen strides onscreen in The Bourne Supremacy, her hair blowing behind her and her laser-beam gaze locked on everyone and everything at once, you know that the whole CIA plot that just sort of languished in The Bourne Identity is bound to get kick-started into something really memorable. Clarkson was a last-minute substitution for the late Katrin Cartlidge in Dogville, and as much as I miss that fearless and spirited actress, it's hard to imagine anyone doing a better job with this part. From her handling of Von Trier's purposely artificial dialogue to the blistering anger of her confrontations with Kidman, Clarkson conjures a rare breed of wholly mundane villainy, premised on massive need and loneliness.
Contrasted to these two professional powerhouses, Patricia Rae and the teenaged Anaïs Demoustier were unknowns to me before this year, but they both deserve important careers. Rae plays her part in Maria with such a blend of steeliness and compassion that we're never quite sure how much she suspects and how much she doesn't; she ensures that the movie never boils down to a narcissistic focus on the protagonist. Demoustier has a subtle, tricky role to play in Time of the Wolf, and it may not be until a quiet moment with a Walkman, 90 minutes into the movie, that you realize what an incisively subliminal portrait of adolescent grief she's been putting together throughout. Somewhere between these newcomers and the old(er) pro's is Virginia Madsen, a familiar name who reinvents herself so fully with the bruised wisdom of her Sideways character that she feels like a brand-new actress.
Honorable Mentions: Dinara Drukarova has a similar task in Since Otar Left to the one Demoustier has in Time of the Wolf, playing a teenaged girl who is studying her family members and learning to take care of herself as their weaknesses become more obvious. Yenny Paolo Vega, another youngster, had one of the year's least enviable roles as the petulant, puggish sidekick who won't leave Maria alone in Maria Full of Grace. This actress is brave enough to alienate the whole audience even as we realize we should be feeling sorry for her. In this case, that's a compliment.
P.S.: Another movie I saw too late to consider for this feature was the Thai oddity Blissfully Yours, in which Jenjira Jansuda gives a thorny, uncommonly sensual, deftly layered performance as a bitter pill whose heart is in the right place, or else as a helpful companion who's actually motivated by anger and hostility. The blend of malice, pragmatism, kindness, and longing in her performance runs so deep it's pleasurably impossible to pin down the character.
Best Supporting Actor
Kill Bill, Vol. 2
In Good Company
The Twilight Samurai
I ♥ Huckabees
The pair of aging warriors in this category might be the only characters who'd have anything to say to each other. Actually, Carradine's Bill has something to say to almost anybody, but even when Quentin Tarantino's screenplay gets lethally verbose, as in the endless fireside monologue about the five-point heart trick or whatever it's called, Carradine balances his smartly self-conscious charisma and his weirdly expressive voice to keep the scenes alive. How do you play "Bill" in what is basically a four-hour movie called Kill Bill and make yourself worth all the trouble? Carradine creates such a vivid, involving persona that you constantly sense his danger but still wind up sorry to see him go. Min Tanaka, who plays the decrepit but still deadly warlord whom the hero is contracted to kill at the end of The Twilight Samurai, is confined to only the final act of the picture, but his look and demeanor are so deeply unsettling that he finally awakens this too-dormant movie into something you want to watch.
Closer to home, Mark Wahlberg and Dennis Quaid play out different variations of suburban spiritual crisis, and both actors remind us that comic agility and intense virility are a combination too seldom exploited by American movies. Now that the cats are out of the bag and we know how much more these actors are capable of doing, let's hope they get hired to do more than preen and scowl in routine action pictures and gratuitous remakes. For the time being, they can both take credit for being the linchpins to their films, each a dramedic delight that would nonetheless fall apart if these particular roles weren't so perfectly inhabited. My fifth nominee is Eddie Marsan, a consummate actor like so many in Mike Leigh's movies, but the only person in Vera Drake whom I would happily have followed into his very own film. When he, the only character not related to Vera, tries to find words to praise and reassure her, the wintry pall of the movie suddenly warms a bit, yet without the slightest tinge of emotional manipulation.
Honorable Mentions: After last year's slim pickings, there was a gallery of strong work in this category in 2004, also to include Liev Schreiber's lost soul of an American idol in The Manchurian Candidate, Daniel Giménez Cacho's diseased priest in Bad Education, Daniel Craig's deceptively needy id-monster in The Mother, and Dustin Hoffman and Jude Law rounding out the top-notch supporting cast of Huckabees.
P.S.: And that "gallery of strong work" continues, with the usually laconic Grégoire Colin slithering under his director's skin and under ours, too, in Sex Is Comedy.
Best Original Screenplay
Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy
Brother to Brother
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
David O. Russell & Jeff Baena
I ♥ Huckabees
Maria Full of Grace
Critics and audiences have a huge, halfway understandable temptation to ascribe all of the
splendor and intricacy of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to Charlie Kaufman's script, which perhaps explains
why he has won so many year-end critic's awards while the film itself, its director, its technicians, and its cast have all
been shortchanged. In the face of this mythology, that Kaufman somehow writes scripts that direct themselves, I am often at
pains to point out the perfect, subtle shifts in lighting schemes or the miniature brilliance that is tucked away in the corners
of the production design. All the same, it's a good thing to recall that Eternal Sunshine's glory did begin with this
script, which it's hard to imagine any other screenwriter managing to write. Sunshine lacks any discernible target
demographic and yet encompasses everyone alive within the scope of its character arcs and emotional sympathies. It's a once-in-a-lifetime
Which isn't to say that these other nominees aren't stunning in their own right. Huckabees is so breathlessly directed and so prone to improvisatory flourishes that you can miss what a sturdy foundation the script actually provides to its actors and its audience: we always know what's going on, even when we have no idea what's going on, or something. Before Sunset reprises the conversational rhythms of the earlier film with comparable payoffs, and Maria Full of Grace turns a storyline ripped from the headlines into a genuinely humane drama, rather than just a posterboard for a cause or a character type. The most unsung of these five nominees was Rodney Evans' Brother to Brother, an ambitious paean to both the artistic and romantic rebellions of the Harlem Renaissance as well as the intersections of race, class, and sexuality in one college student's life in modern-day New York City. The reach of this script, from sexual pas-de-deux to pop historiography to interpersonal drama on six or seven fronts, is comparable to the scope of what Kaufman and Russell have written, and if the direction occasionally shows some first-timer strain, the script of this fantastic film is a sign of even brighter things to come.
Honorable Mentions: Pedro Almodóvar's Bad Education was something old and something new; even if certain characters and plot-trajectories feel like retreads for this artist, the serpentine connections between the plotlines and the unmistakable Almodóvarian way with offbeat characterization are nothing to sniff at. I've cited Julie Bertucelli's expertly measured direction of Since Otar Left above, but it's worth remembering that she and Bernard Renucci started out ahead with their sensitive, observant screenplay.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Joel Bakan & Harold Crooks
Million Dollar Baby
Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor
So few plays get turned into movies anymore, and when they do, a lot of the best stuff
gets left out, reduced, or shorn of its uniquely theatrical character. Tony Kushner perpetrated all of these errors in converting
Angels in America into a script for Mike Nichols last year, even though he was lucky to have written such a goddamn
masterpiece in the first place that his work survived these losses. Patrick Marber's Closer isn't anywhere near the
play that Angels is, but its screen adaptation is much gutsier, preserving the implausible dialogue and refusing to
connect the play's tough, episodic structure into anything more forgiving. The result may not be a great movie, but it's a
very, very good one; everyone who worked on it has reckoned with the piece Marber wrote instead of figuring out how to soften
or transform it.|
I don't know the source material for Sideways or Million Dollar Baby, so I can't compare them in the same way, but both screenplays are catnip for their actors and they recast basically formulaic plots into stories that, with the right casts and crews, become really special. Enduring Love is also adapted from a piece of fiction, this time from a novel by Ian McEwan which, as is his wont, throws a lot of formal and thematic obstacles in the way of any screen translation. Joe Penhall's approach maintains the slippery subjectivity of the prose, which is an achievement in itself. Finally, though documentaries are not often honored for their screenplays, The Corporation has a hell of a task condensing the full, dense arguments of Joel Bakan's book and giving us the primer we need on the history of corporations so that we can swiftly understand the particular dilemmas they pose to us in the present.
Honorable Mentions: Not a scintillating category this year, although The Motorcycle Diaries and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban deserve some plaudits.
MOST NICKSFLICKPICKS HONORS
(47 of the 118 films I saw last year
are nominated for something...)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - 8
Code 46 - 5
Maria Full of Grace - 5
Oasis - 5
I ♥ Huckabees - 4
PURPOSEFUL NICKSFLICKPICKS OMISSIONS
(...but not these awards-bait pictures,
which I just can't get excited about)
Finding Neverland - 0
The Phantom of the Opera - 0
Ray - 0
The Sea Inside - 0
Zatôichi: The Blind Swordsman - 0
BEST FILMS WITH NO NOMINATIONS
(Woulda been nice to recognize these,
but there was just no room at the inn.)
Bad Education - 0
(Despite four honorable mentions)
Collateral - 0
Crimson Gold - 0
Father & Son - 0
The Mother - 0
The Motorcycle Diaries - 0
Primer - 0
Proteus - 0
Shrek 2 - 0
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring - 0
Twentynine Palms - 0
Best Theatrical Re-Release
The Battle of Algiers
Best Voice Work
Edna Mode (voiced by Brad Bird) in The Incredibles
The Narrator (John Hurt) in Dogville
Most Complex Performances by Non-Professionals
Aileen Wuornos in Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer
Lt. John Rushing in Control Room
Lila Lipscomb in Fahrenheit 9/11
Best Individual Sound Effect
The hollow, plastic bounce as Paul Giamatti throws what looks
like a terra cotta flowerpot onto the floor in Sideways
Most Hilarious Music Cue
When in Rome's "The Promise," as Napoleon Dynamite
tether-balls with his maybe-girlfriend Deb
Best Neologisms (tie)
"Fetch" and "Fuckabees!"
Most Shattering Scenes of the Year
Nicole Kidman goes to the opera in Birth
Patricia Clarkson smashing Nicole's Hummels in Dogville
Most Unexpected Female Bonding
The perfectly played pregnancy-test scene between
Uma Thurman and Helen Kim in Kill Bill, Vol. 2
Gordon Willis Award for Best Under-Lighting (tie)
Million Dollar Baby and Time of the Wolf
Most Entertaining B-Movie
Most Sadly Missed on Ithaca's Screens
Moolaadé and Los Angeles Plays Itself