My friend Nathaniel, who administrates my favorite website for film-awards junkies and movie obsessives, is pretty adamantly opposed to year-end Top Ten lists that start squeezing in more than ten movies. I understand his beef, and in most cases I share it. After all, which part of "ten" is so hard to understand?

Two important things struck me, however, about this year's best movies. One was just how many of them there are—Million Dollar Baby, Crimson Gold, Dogville, The Incredibles, and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring would all have been easy Top Ten material in 2000 or 2003 but barely make the cut of my Top Twenty this year (and that's with a whole clutch of late-breaking releases and arthouse esoterica still yet to screen in frosted-over Ithaca, NY). What stands out even more about my favorite 2004 films are the uncanny resonances of theme, form, and tone that seem to unite so many of them. I suddenly wound up with a list full of ties because as great as Maria Full of Grace and Osama both are individually, their joint portrait of young women struggling to endure in impossible societies is even more potent. And how about those two luminescent odes to plaintive, nearly sublimated love that culminate, sort of, in the Parisian streets? Or the shot/countershot of global apocalypse that contagiously haunted a studio-funded Hollywood rookie and a leading provoc-auteur of the new European cinema?

Am I persuading you yet, Nathaniel? Others? These ties aren't born out of laziness, but out of my own sense of how, at long last, an annual crop of movies not only provided an abundance of rich artistry but a sustained set of ideas, preoccupations, and anxieties, laying waste to some old myths but also bravely, even optimistically supplying some new ones. Even the films on this list that aren't billed as ties are indelibly well-matched. I ♥ Huckabees could easily have been titled The Corporation. Since Otar Left and The Return showcase new forms of visual poetry arising in the former Soviet Union, despite that long shadow of failed communism which, moving a little eastward, continually fascinates Godard. And of course, the Gondry and Winterbottom movies could spend the rest of human history gleefully erasing each other from their respective memory banks, while Jason Bourne hopscotches all over our quaking world trying to recover his own blurry past. The year in film, like the year in American politics, revolved around the theme of amnesia, and indeed, one is tempted to say that the only things worth remembering, much less cherishing in 2004 were the movies.





This absurdist dirge for an impossible love is also a sweet testimony to the power of trying, an ensemble celebration of eccentricity and pique of all kinds, and a furtive tribute to extreme technical proficiency even in a film that appears to critique technology gone awry. The performances all seem heavily improvisatory and yet keenly well-directed and gorgeously balanced all at the same time. An old-time movie lover will immediately recognize that Eternal Sunshine is the first American romantic comedy in ages to capture the same sophisticated silliness that lay in the heart of such genre classics as His Girl Friday, Ball of Fire, or Holiday, even though Kaufman's script, Jon Brion's music, and the unobtrusively jaw-dropping special effects couldn't feel more contemporary. An egghead cinéaste will be instantly reminded of Stanley Cavell's lovely encomiums to the screwball "comedies of remarriage" in his book Pursuits of Happiness; Sunshine looks every bit as full and textured as It Happened One Night or The Awful Truth, and it'll keep scholars and undergraduates busy for years. Popcorn-munchers, digital video enthusiasts, bleeding-heart romantics, dyed-in-the-wool Eeyores, pot-heads, mad hatters, and the Friends of Alexander Pope finally have a movie they can enjoy together. Maybe the biggest irony afoot in Eternal Sunshine is that the film works in exactly the opposite fashion as the Lacuna procedure that catalyzes the conflict: you actually remember more and more of the movie as time passes, and literally every sequence feels like a perfect, gleaming face on an unimprovable jewel. (Full Review)



South Korean cinema has lately been dazzling festival-goers and attuned movie-lovers the way Iranian films did in the mid- to late-1990s. Kim Ki-duk's Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring emerged this year as Korea's first real hit on the arthouse circuit, and it's a lovely, memorable movie. But Lee Chang-dong's Oasis turned one of the most questionable premises since Boxing Helena into an altogether riskier, nervier, craftier, and more deeply emotional experience. Lead actors Sol Kyung-gu and Moon So-ri stand tall among the year's freshest and most daring performances, but it's a testimony to Lee's consistent brilliance as a director that two such striking characterizations anchor the film without ever overwhelming it. Several key set-pieces burn themselves immediately into your memory: the disruption of a movie crew, the late-night pruning of a tree, and the two scenes of sex, each uniqely uncomfortable in its own way. Just as impressive, though, is the anxious, borderline lurid, yet weirdly romantic tenor of the film in its least story-driven sequences. Exquisite in capturing two polarized versions of outsider existence, as well as the breathless and sometimes self-interested exasperation that families often feel for their neediest member, Oasis is accessible in any number of ways without ever relinquishing the weirdness at its core.



The past two years have comprised an enormous groundswell in the popular regard for documentary filmmaking. Time and again, nonfiction filmmaking of various stripes has been scoring with audiences, and even if Capturing the Friedmans, The Fog of War, and that little film Michael Moore made about George W. Bush could all have benefitted from a little more "there" there, The Corporation (like last year's Love & Diane) is a masterly piece of work that justifies all the documentary hype. It's only too bad more people didn't see it. Flip-flopping liberals who questioned the fine points of Michael Moore's rhetoric but welcomed his accessible style might find the best of both worlds in this Canadian epic. Men and women of nearly every stripe—CEO's, enemies of globalization, industrial spies, marketing cogs, scholars, historians, and Michael Moore himself—all lend their voices to a film that feels both polemical and lucid in its well-earned mistrust of the self-perpetuating corporate beast. Yes, The Corporation is massively entertaining; check out what happens when one of England's toniest white-collar emperors placates a group of anti-globalization radicals with a front-lawn buffet of tea and crumpets. The movie is also enlightening, sad, horrifying, and even practically instructive: if you're concerned by what you see, hear, and read, there are things you can do. Renting the film is a good first step, whenever its much-delayed DVD release finally comes to pass.



Global politics are critiqued just as prominently, though less directly, in these two fascinating films by first-time directors. Siddiq Barmak's Osama, filmed in Afghanistan just after the fall of the Taliban, nonetheless describes a representative life as lived under that soulless regime. Foregoing melodrama in favor of something like pure panic, Barmak's screenplay and his camera follow a young girl who masquerades as a boy in a state-controlled school-cum-training camp. The prospect of her exposure is a horrible risk throughout, but unlike many film characters in analogous predicaments, Osama's "protected" life seems just as dire as the one she is fleeing, a ritual blending of religious zealotry, self-infatuation, and utter listlessness. The lead character in Maria is just as stuck between two intolerable existences, and though we expect her misadventure to go badly, Marston, like Barmak, surprises with how, when, and why it goes badly. These movies humanize and specify the miserable lots of two young women who in different ways defy our assumptions of how they are at risk and what options they have for resisting their fates. Maria was a hit while Osama inexplicably wasn't, but they both merit attention as serious, nuanced, and formally precise films about urgent and heart-rending issues.

FYI: Fans of either film might appreciate Chandra Talpade Mohanty's recent book Feminism Without Borders, which offers both a generous survey of the various obstacles women and girls are still encountering across the modern world as well as a useful set of correctives to the kinds of martyrizing stereotypes that Western liberals sometimes impose on the real, richer lives of the women in question. (Full Review of Maria) (Full Review of Osama)



Code 46 and Notre musique (Our Music) are a less obvious pair than the movies at #4, and yet they strike me as speaking in compatible ways to the blending of cultures, the pains of history (repressed and otherwise), and a dogged optimism about the future even as present conditions don't imply anything good. Movie lovers are often vulnerable to the naïve belief that a world which yields such forceful and fascinating art must surely be redeemable, and it's true that my battered heart warmed a little to see the eternally undervalued Winterbottom and the suddenly rejuvenated Godard express their dismay at perverse, self-annihilating societies in such imaginative, oblique, and sometimes teasing ways. Despite the quasi-star power of Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton, Code 46 was destined not to be the crossover hit that some Winterbottom fans wanted it to be; more happily, and more importantly, its bravely cool presentation of an ostensible "romance" and its rigorous blend of pathos and politics gave low-budget science fiction an even better name than Primer did. Hopefully it's a movie people will come back to, even if it went virtually undiscovered in its commercial release. Godard, for his part, whipped up a three-part essay on the aftermath of human violence that both obeyed and frayed its seemingly schematic structure. The Hell chapter sure looks hellish, but the improbably verdant fantasy of Heaven (an Edenic garden "protected" by camouflaged Marines) was just as worrisome. Still, this isn't just a growly rant. Beyond the predictably potent editing and the defiantly chiastic dialogue, the verbal and facial expressions of grief, curiosity, knowledge, need, and hopefulness compelled you to dig into all the philosophizing. Compared to the inflated lecture it could easily have been, Notre musique is as elliptical as Code 46. Your guess about the world's future is as good as Godard's, though his is probably more impressive to behold.



The lead characters of Before Sunset first met in Vienna and are now reunited, via equal parts destiny and ardent determination, in the bookshops and sidewalks of Paris. As in Before Sunrise, the city is eloquently invoked as something more than backdrop: its mood and character seems to seep into the liaison itself, flavoring Céline and Jesse's relations in ways they may or may not be aware of. If Before Sunset feels both precious and sincere, luminous throughout but with a peripheral tinge of morbidity, it's hard to imagine another city that could so readily provide the dappling of sunlight and so easily sustain the heartfelt debates over emotional life and death. Richard Linklater limns the beauty of Paris but doesn't overdo it; he evinces both the fascination and the mature restraint of a sophisticated outsider. First-time director Julie Bertucelli hails from Paris, but when the final chapters of Since Otar Left leave the unglamorously bucolic Republic of Georgia for a sojourn to the City of Light, she evokes a vision of the city similar to Linklater's: admiring but a little distracted, appreciative in a way that isn't quite intimate. You don't get better, less ostentatious location photography than you find in these two films, but they have even greater virtues, which also invite comparison. Though the love at the center of Before Sunset is romantic and that in Since Otar Left is mostly familial, both movies tease out that peculiar, delicate sadness that infuses an idealized love. Céline and Jesse's dreams and projections of their thwarted romance may or may not be a realistic match for the people they really are and the bond they truly have. The titular but invisible Otar is, respectively, a treasured son, an eclipsing annoyance, and a role model to the three generations of women in Bertucelli's film. Where Before Sunset and Since Otar Left achieve greatness—abetted by the superior performances of their small casts—is in rendering spry, full-bodied, and compassionate portraits of their characters by delving so sensitively into the people they love, the places and ideals they long for, and their mature but panged acceptance of the lives they have built. If you somehow aren't converted over the course of these movies, the pitch-perfect endings of both should seal the deal. (Full Review of Before Sunset)



Its detractors made plenty of fair points. The game ensemble didn't always seem in full control of their script, nor were their styles of performance perfectly syncopated with each other. The oscillations between planned moments of kookiness and face-saving improvisation were more than evident, and a couple of jokes that should have counted for more, like Shania Twain's cameo, almost instantly fall by the wayside. But where were the film's champions? The film is a workout for the audience as well as the actors, uniting us all in the attempt to navigate a wide series of tones, to make something clever and jaunty out of WalMart-era dismay, and to wrestle with some intellectual dilemmas that still feel weighty no matter how much you boil them down. Huckabees essentially does all of this, sometimes with delirious ingenuity, winning laughs for centerpiece sequences (like the priceless meal at Jean Smart and Richard Jenkins' house), sustained gimmicks (the chicken salad story, Albert's barely latent desire for Brad), and even small gestures like Lily Tomlin's obstacle-course sprint through a nest of lawn sprinklers or Dustin Hoffman's sublime reading of the line "there is no such thing as you or me" as though it is some kind of avuncular assurance. The musical score is packed with wonders, and K.K. Barrett, Spike Jonze's regular production designer, combined bland spaces and inspired tchotchkes in the same way the script fuses silliness and Socratic inquiry. Laden with some of the best comic performances of the year (and, in Mark Wahlberg's revelatory turn, one of the best performances, period), Huckabees will deserve every bit of its hopeful future career as a cult-movie cause célèbre.



Big-budget sequels often open with bigger numbers than the movies that inspired them, but as devotés of the original quickly gorge themselves on the leftovers, box-office and word-of-mouth typically begin to fade. But with this powerhouse film, the imminent Bourne franchise feels like it's just gotten going. A deeper, darker, and more expansive take on the core material—in the tradition of such stellar follow-ups as Aliens and The Empire Strikes BackThe Bourne Supremacy takes what felt like conceptual ingredients in the first film, like Jason's amnesia and his longing for personal connection, and it muscles them up into legitimate character points and thematic concerns. As he scuttles around the world and off the grid, his life riven with doubt and new layers of vengeful anger, Bourne gets exactly the antagonists he deserves, an unsolidified alliance of power brokers, snipers, Neros, and bureaucrats who are all as sharp as tacks. Newly hired director Paul Greengrass clenches the movie like a fist, moving his cast and his cameras around the vast chessboard of the script with the same kind of ferocity we see in Joan Allen's whipsmart operative and Brian Cox's ruthless puppeteer. The photography, the locations, the endless cutting, and the music are kept just this side of frenetic abandon, and when the movie finally culminates in the very best in a decade's worth of car chases, the power lodged into every aspect of the movie seems to erupt all at once—yet still without any sacrifice in directorial control. Easily the best cash-cow of the year, which was saying something in a year full of surpassingly good sequels. (Full Review)



Movies about the end of the world, however stark on the surface, are usually subtended by a secret belief that someone will survive, some galactic risk will pay off, and a new day will come. That Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead and Michael Haneke's Time of the Wolf refused these kinds of assurance with every fiber of their being is not in itself a credit; a hopeful movie can be just as good, and often better, than a nihilistic one. In these two cases, however, the lack of tonal compromise was a hint you could trust all the way to the films' conclusions. You may have seen these stories before (and in Dawn's case, we literally had seen this story before), but the rigor of the photography and the disciplined compression of information alchemized what could have been pure redundancies into stunning and wholly disconcerting experiences. The chief plaint filed against both movies was that the characters were not as developed as, say, the trio of holdouts in last year's 28 Days Later, but it's hard to imagine when or where in these scenarios would have been the best time for a full-cast meet 'n' greet. The controversial speediness of Snyder's zombies made sense in a world where everything—even contagion, even death—is swifter than ever, and now that Time of the Wolf is available on DVD, its cauterizing vision of marooned societies and frayed nerves may speak to the desperate, circumstantial communities now being formed among terrorized Iraqi civilians and displaced tsunami victims. Time of the Wolf was rather indifferently received at the Cannes Film Festival in 2003, while Dawn of the Dead was a surprise invitee for a Cannes screening in 2004. In both cases, the Croisette probably isn't the right venue for these proficiently bleak films. Try the Catacombs. (Full Review of Dawn)



The last two movies on this list are curious cases, because both Birth and The Return herald brilliant careers for directors who still have some things to learn. Jonathan Glazer, for whom Birth was a long-in-coming follow-up to 2001's Sexy Beast, has a way of privileging virtuoso editing, stylized photography, and scrupulous performances in a way that defers audience involvement and can seem a little self-congratulatory. Andrei Zvyagintsev, the young Russian helmer behind The Return, betrays his influences just as obviously and has a film student's appetite for portentous montage and attention-grabby tracking shots. But like last year's #10 film on my list, Jane Campion's In the Cut, both of these movies are audaciously impressive technical exercises that everyone should have been seeing, admiring, and debating instead of just ignoring. There isn't any question about the quality of the acting in either picture. Despite being asked to spend an entire movie with an unresolved skepticism about a stranger's identity, Nicole Kidman in Birth and Ivan Dobronravov in The Return are powerhouses in their roles, each prone to massive waves of emotion and each keeping the audience guessing as to what their characters will possibly do next. What works in both movies works in a way that surpasses even some of the higher-ranked members of this list: when Kidman's Anna has an internal epiphany at the symphony, or when The Return's seemingly affected motif of heights and depths leads to unpredictable payoffs, I promise you'll be nailed to your seat. In truth, Clint Eastwood's deceptively anachronistic Million Dollar Baby might deserve this slot on the Best List even more, but based on my experience with Mystic River, I'm uncertain how well the movie will age, even in the coming months. Rather than endorse an old pro's movie about a muscular neophyte, why not champion real-life upstarts who may need some more training but still packed more punch in 2004 than most of their seasoned counterparts? Like the cryptic visitors in their films, I suspect that Glazer and Zvyagintsev will keep us guessing for a long while to come.


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